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Fringe: The Plateau

“Well, that wasn’t supposed to happen.”

I was not initially impressed by this episode. Don’t get me wrong—it was quite strong, and I still enjoy learning about Over There, about the Fringe Division, about the relationships between Faux/Olivia, Alterna-Francis, and Lincoln Lee. But at first blush this felt like a stand-alone, and Fringe can be so much better than that when it wants to be. So I let it simmer for a while, and then I realized that this isn’t a stand-alone at all: it is a compelling thematic and psychological step in the progression towards…whatever it is we’re progressing towards.

Olivia and Ethan Hawke’s Asymmetrical Twin (aka Milo) are both subjects of neural intrusion: Olivia has the memories, but not the instincts, of Fauxlivia, and Milo was Flowers-for-Algernoned into inhuman savantism. And Milo’s predictive capabilities, in turn, parallel Walternate’s vision for what will happen as Olivia becomes fully Faux.

Milo’s ability to predict a long chain of causative elements was flawed in two ways. He was unable to predict the impossible—the fact of an otherworldly instinct (or lack thereof) intruding into his ultimately highly ordered view of the universe. Olivia has all the memories of Fauxlivia, but she hasn’t put them into practice yet: it’s sort of like she’s memorized the handbook on how to ride a bike, but hasn’t even tried out a tricycle yet. Milo’s ability to fully understand Olivia’s actions was dependent on the rules of his universe, which is not yet fully hers.

Walternate, in turn, is hoping/predicting that Olivia will permit herself to be experimented on. But how accurate can that prediction be, when Olivia has the knowledge, but not the experience, of life as Fauxlivia? Both Walternate and Milo attempt to take the God’s eye view of the world, but they’re not Observers. (And even Observers can be surprised.) I said that Milo’s ability had two flaws, and this is the second one: can Milo (or Walternate) predict his own future? Did Milo know where his path was leading? Can Walternate see himself from the perspective of our heroes, as a threat and not a protector? Because until he realizes that Walter, Peter, et. al. see him as a threat…well, who can predict how all this will end?

Milo’s motivation for starting his Rube Goldberg Death Traps was self-preservation: an offensive defense. Walternate, in turn, has some rather muddy motivations. He said to Broyles, “If we can learn what she already knows…” Broyles finished the thought: “We can begin to defend ourselves.” But is that what Walternate wants? Or does he want to go on the offensive? I find it telling that he let Broyles finish the sentence for him. I find it even more telling that he considers the whole world his laboratory. Does he include himself in that assessment?

One last parallel: Milo’s brain powers are beyond human understanding. Olivia’s reaction to the memory-overwriting, in turn, is rather beyond the pale: her subconscious is manifesting as Peter, and giving her directions as well as smoochies. Can Walternate have predicted that? Unlike Milo, who became completely unattached to his sister and the symbolism of the toy horse, Olivia still has her humanity, and that’s part of what’s keeping her from fauxing out. So far.

The parallels here are fascinating, especially when seen in the context of the Over There/Over Here binary that haunts each of these world-specific episodes: it’s an “infinite spiral” of interlocking themes, plots, motives, and reactions. It’s hard for me to boil this down to a Theme of the Week, but it might be the instinctive defense vs. the intentional offense, and how those two are in constant conflict.

We See Impossible Every Day:

• Olivia: “Continuous IV drip of government-issue anti-psychotics—it’s like instant R&R.”

• Bus Driver: “I never hit a person before. I mean, once I hit a pigeon.”

• Francis: “As hospitals go, not bad.”
Olivia: “Unless it’s run by an evil genius to kill people.”

• Astrid: “And then he predicts what you predict that he predicted too. It’s an infinite spiral.”

You See Improbable:

• An avocado shortage, on top of the coffee shortage we learned about in Season Two? What a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad world.

• I loved, loved, loved the opening sequence. It was so easy to figure out what was going on, in terms of Milo predicting events, and it was all done with camera angles and telling facial gestures. I also really liked the broken-up screen to portray his thought processes, especially when the pictures got too small to see on my TV. It reminded me of Stieg Larsson’s portrayal of Lisbeth Salander’s thought processes: click, click, click.

• I also really like that, Over There, Fringe division is outfitted like a paramilitary organization. It’s a nice contrast to Olivia’s suits Over Here.

• Smallpox in North Texas. I strongly recommend that everyone read Richard Preston’s book The Demon in the Freezer. Smallpox is scary.

• It looks like we have the god-forsaken tank to look forward to. I hope I like it more now that Fringe is awesome. Because I really hated it every time it was used in Season One.

Three and a half out of four Rube Goldbergs.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

16 comments:

Mark Greig said...

I really enjoyed this episode. Initially it did feel like a case of the week episode but given the neat twist of being an Over There case of the week episode which re-imagined Charlie Gordon as a serial killer.

I like that Charlie is having doubts that his partner might not be who she thinks she is, a fun reversal of the early part of season two when it was Charlie wasn’t who he said he was.

And since they have Star Trek in the alternative universe I have to know if it stars William Shatner or Jeffery Hunter? The alternative pop culture is one of the things I love most about these episodes.

Dimitri A.C. Ly said...

I liked this one too, but I don't get why stand-alone cases of the week have such a bad rep among genre fans. Fringe's more episodic approach is exactly what I like about it the same way I found the anthology aspect of X-Files immensely more satisfying than all that alien nonsense we all secretly knew would never lead anywhere (and in fairness wasn't meant to at first).

Besides, haven't shows like FlashForward and Heroes all but proved heavy serialisation leads to serious problems down the line? It's all about strong characters, I think. "The Plateau" had that regardless of its stand-alone nature. That doesn't make it less of a case of the week. It just makes it good.

Josie Kafka said...

Hi Dimitri,

I'm not against stand-alones per se. I consider Glee to be almost complete composed of stand-alones, and I watch it.

But in a show that is starting to build dense season-long arcs, a real stand-alone sometimes put everything on pause, and starts to feel like filler instead of development of any kind. This episode was a case-of-the-week, but not a stand-alone, because it had character and theme development.

Some other cases-of-the-week lacked even that, and always make me think of the writing dictum "omit unnecessary words." Only for TV, it should be "omit unnecessary episodes."

Dimitri A.C. Ly said...

I'm not sure I agree that stand-alone and character/theme development are mutually exclusive as concepts, which is the conceit I was arguing against, but I suppose that's just semantics.

Regarding the "omit unnecessary words" dictum, it's funny. My colleagues and I have that argument wherever we work: though crucial in grammar and style, is brevity really better when it comes to storytelling, especially in a serialized medium? I'm one of those who argue it isn't. An Odyssey, for example, is all about taking the long way out, shoving as many digressions as humanly possible between points A and B.

By the same token, fairytales follow the rule of three because the rule of one, the briefest, would be terribly boring: Goldilocks went into the bear house. She ate soup that was just right, sat on a perfect chair, went to bed. She leaves.

It's also worth noting TV doesn't technically have a target point B since they don't know beforehand how many seasons they might get, so I don't think there's such a thing as a "filler" episode (another popular term among genre fans). As long as the characters live it, it's part of their journey, and you either enjoy that particular chapter or you don't.

My pro-streamlining friends would then bring up really interesting counter-arguments, which I won't copy here for fear I might paraphrase them wrong (they hate that), but I'd be interested to know more of your take, Josie, as well as anyone else's. It's one of my favourite work debates.

Josie Kafka said...

The divide between the plot-centric and character-centric episodes, shows, and even fan desire can be really interesting. That was the problem with Lost, right? We'd spent so long thinking of it as all about the plot, and it turned out that, for the writers, it was all about the characters, which left many people unsettled.

For Fringe, I think I'm more interested in the plot than in the characters. For VD, it's all about the characters reacting to one another, so in that case it is hard to distinguish character development from plot development, which is a much more naturalistic or realistic form of storytelling. (By which I mean it's a fairly recent addition to the bags of narrative tricks.)

The question of what to omit is a tricky one, definitely--and especially in storytelling. But I wasn't quite thinking of brevity in this case.

In this episode, for instance, when Olivia is talking to her Over There boyfriend, it becomes pretty clear that he works for the CDC and is a doctor when she says "Has Atlanta called?" in regards to the smallpox outbreak. That would have worked for me, but then Olivia was forced to explain to the boyfriend exactly what his job was and why he'd be called by the CDC to go to Texas. Omitting that would have been better.

That's a tiny example, though, compared to the stand-alone debate. In this review, I was using "stand-alone" to mean that you could not watch the episode and still be a-okay on plot, character, and thematic developments. That's why this isn't a stand-alone: although it might not progress the larger plot, it does develop character and theme. Not all episodes do, though.

The Odyssey is a good example of a series of linked stand-alones. Take that famous scene of Odysseus's scar, for instance, that only matters for a moment but never matters again. That's a very specific, ancient style of storytelling that works in the context of Greek epic, but I would find it very unsatisfying in the context of modern stories, whether on page or screen.

Gustavo Brunetti said...

Wow, what an articulate discussion.

While I understand Dimitri's point, I agree with Josie. If you can just remove the episode and no harm will be done, I feel it was pointless.

On the other hand, some series are so serialized that I feel I can pause after any scene. I used to watch True Blood until 10 minutes to the end and go on only the following week to avoid the nasty cliffhangers in Season 2.

I found myself enjoying a lot the middle way, something that Burn Notice achieved and all USA shows followed suite: cases of the week and season arc in all episodes.

But if I have to choose, I prefer serialized format. My favorite season of my favorite show is season 4 of LOST; my favorite Buffy season was S7; Breaking Bad has gotten increasingly better; and it's mostly because there were no episode that can be removed.

Serials, go!

E said...

Personally, shows that tend to become Serialized in nature (like fringe is becomming) only pose a problem when the writers show evidence that they dont know where they're going or theres no "ending" planned for the big mythological story arcs! Heroes mainly failed for this reason...Kring didnt wanna admit to the heavily serialised nature of the show and got cocky with the storylines not realising the ginormous holes and stupid stories he created throughout its run!

If there was an endate announced for this i'd be soo happy cause im enjoying the parrallel universe arc...i have theories on where its going but its soo good to just sit back and let it unfold!

Josie Kafka said...

One of the most serialized shows I can think of is Angel Season Four, which is one of my favorite seasons of television of All Time. Every six months or so, I watch it all over again.

Heroes, though. It's best I don't even start.

Dimitri A.C. Ly said...

All great points, to be sure. A few counters and semantic digressions worth raising:

What is the generally accepted definition of a stand-alone episode? Is it, as Josie defines it, an episode that does not advance the larger story and can be removed from the season without affecting its overall arc, or is it an episode that can be watched on its own without needing any further developments before or after (save for a summary understanding of the status quo) to be enjoyed?

And is a filler episode really filler if its presence helps cement the series' temporary status quo as a believable reality by slowing down the pace? For example, killing off a character and bringing him back as a villain the next episode isn't nearly as exciting as killing off the character, having the protagonists mourn him for a couple of weeks with stand-alones, and then bringing him back as the villain. Also consider seasons 2 and 3 of Heroes, which were filler-free but had so much random running around none of the twists and turns felt like they had any real weight or consequence. A filler episode might have helped give the illusion that events actually matter in that universe.

Also, I find the Odyssey structure is still alive and well and has worked successfully outside of Greek literature. "Raiders of the lost Ark", for example, has Indiana Jones go through a series of nearly unconnected challenges until he reaches the Ark and the problem resolves itself.

It's also worth noting most television series just 10 to 15 years ago and still all sitcoms and procedurals consist of a series of stand-alone adventures that end with either a premature cancellation or a single episode that resolves the big quest set up in the pilot with complete disregard as to all that happened in the middle.

On the page, the best example (outside of children's lit obviously) would be Dan Brown's writing, which I'll admit I don't like even a little bit. The Da Vinci Code is essentially a glorified scavenger hunt with characters running to get to a certain point, dumping a whole bunch of exposition that doesn't really matter all that much, and then discovering a new destination, rinse and repeat. Take out any cycle, and the story stays exactly the same.

As for the end date, you may be right, E, that it would help heavy serials pace their story correctly, but I don't know how feasible that is in television. Lost was the exception, not the norm. I mean, even Babylon 5 got saddled with an extra season or two when TNT imposed extra episodes as a condition for US broadcast. (Viewers in Canada were all rolling their eyes at that one).

I don't blame the networks for the uncertainty, by the way. I think it's a lot to ask them to invest millions of dollars and several years of prime scheduling real estate to a show that may stop generating substantial revenue just a season or two down the line. Big shots like Lost can get that sort of deal because the initial audience is so big, but struggling shows like my beloved Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles, for example, would have put a lot of families out on the street.

As Gustavo points out, the middle ground might be the most satisfying option, not just in terms of serial versus episodic, but also in terms of balancing "the big plan" with making a lot of it up as you go along... As long as the producers don't pretend they're doing otherwise. Hate that.

On a personal note, there's a limit to how much buildup I'm willing to put up with, which is why I like the approach taken by Fringe and Chuck. The fact the characters and situations are constantly evolving makes the universe more believable and engrossing, but I'm mostly happy that I get a small sense of resolution every week.

I'm all about instant gratification.

newpinot said...

Hi, pals. I just finished viewing the episode (i know .. i'm late ... ) and I junped right on to the blog to the read review and the very interesting comments of you all folks. Many thanks.
On the "who does him remind you" side.. Milo and the machine .. communicating together .... very quickly .. apparently unrelated sentences ... Bingo ... the hybrids on BSG !!!!
"end of line"

cheers

Anonymous said...

I've just caught up with Fringe, I saw season one on DVD last year when it came out and was deeply surprised by how good it became. Season Two surpassed that with a constant climb of quality, reaching a pinnacle that I didn't think could be carried into this season.

Now three episodes in(I'll watch Episode 4 tomorrow) and I'm finding to my absolute pleasure that the quality hasn't regressed, in some ways it only getting better. For me over-serialized stories run the risk of sabotaging their own mythology by staying too true to it.

Lost is a wonderful case in point, they had so much mythology built up, that there was just no way to resolve it all. Supernatural, on the other hand, figured out where they wanted to go and just went there. That kind of focused storytelling, is something I hope is adopted by other shows.

But the inherent problems with serialized television, is that there is no way to guarantee continuation. This can lead to all sorts of horrible cliff-hangers and unfinished narratives that leave you with an unsatisfied lump in your soul.

As for the idea of filler episodes, I get what Demetri is saying. That the journey is just as important as the end. But independent episodes, or filler episodes, that could be removed from continuity without any measurable ill effects, are simply pointless.

The reason why I think this, is because they have no allegiance to the story as a whole. They contribute nothing to mythology, and take up space that could be occupied by something that, with a little more creativity, could address the problems of pacing and dynamic plotting.

But that's just my humble opinion, so there :p

Cesar said...

I'm a fan of serialized series, but my main problem with Fringe stand-alones is not that they don't relate to the bigger plot. I just don't find them very good. So far, at least to me, there has been an impressive relation between the quality of an episode and the amount of series mythology/character development in it. (In Doctor Who for instance, some of my favorite episodes are stand-alones while I didn't care - or actually hated - a lot of "important" ones)

Although Fringe started mostly standalone, it only became really good to me (and apparently, to a lot of other people) when it started investing on the characters and on the relations between the universes, so that's where the complaints are coming through. (A great deal of Buffy's episodes are technically stand-alones, but they don't seem filler like the Fringe ones)

Also, I'm not sure it's the case here, but in a lot of series, "filler" episodes are there because of network pressure to attract new viewers or the need to fill the 22 episodes demand, not because the writers find it necessary for pacing. I think that's where the bad rep comes from (BSG Season 3 is an example).

The Wire (which Fringe keeps reminding me of with its guest stars) is the complete opposite of standalone, and yet took "slowing down the pace" and "showing consequences unfold" to a whole new level while maintaining its premise of "All the pieces matter".

As E said, the problem with serialized shows is when writers show there is no plan for the big arcs. I'm not saying they should have all planned beforehand, which is not viable, but the moment a new mystery is introduced, they should know how to solve it.

Anyway, going back to the episode, it was good and I'm liking the Olivia swap, although I wish Olivia to fully remember who she is soon. So far we are having Fauxlivia personality in both universes.

And what's the relation between freak accidents, OtherFringe investigations and the tears in the fabric of reality?
From the end of season 2, it seemed the OtherFringe division was created to investigate the cracks caused by Walter's visit in 1985, but so far it seems they do basically the same cases as the nonOther Fringe, which are the work of (usually non-Walter) mad scientists experiments, not really of things passing through realities.

Billie Doux said...

So it was stand-alone. There was still so much to talk about. Comments-a-palooza! Avocado shortage. And the tank is coming. :)

Patryk said...

This episode was a stand-alone supernturral style where the monster of the week plays into whatever the characters are experiencing currently. That's how all stand-alones should look.

That or be wildly different from the entire show like turning your main character into a puppet or having a musical episode.

Good that Olivia is fighting because having two Fauxlivias is a bit too much, she just needs to pretend to be Fauxlivia, agree to the expiriments and crossover alone. They won't be able to follow her.

Jess Lynde said...

This episode made me even more irritated with Peter. Fauxlivia's comrades are allowing themselves to harbor suspicions that she may not be their Olivia. And even while drugged into believing she's someone else, Olivia is still holding tight to her love for Peter. And yet, he's off on the other side, allowing himself to be roped in by an Olivia who's behavior is "off." Argh!

I'll chime in on the stand-alone v. mythology discussion and say that I tend to prefer heavily serialized dramas (Breaking Bad, The Wire), but this episode was a good example of the kind of balance I like in my less-serialized dramas. It wasn't a full-on stand-alone, but was still a solid case-of-the-week that paralleled the character drama with overall mytharc advancement sprinkled throughout.

ChrisB said...

Extremely interesting debate. I watched the episode, read the review and debate, then watched it again. Much better the second time around.

I find that I view television in two different ways. Shows that are fundamentally episodic, I will watch as they are broadcast. Shows that are are not ('The Wire' and '24' especially) I will watch only when they come out on DVD. I find that too much time elapses and I have lost some of the threads and foreshadowing by watching one episode a week.

I believe that a lot of the pressure to make standalone episodes comes from the studios. They make a lot of money from syndication, and syndicated shows are rarely shown in order. If you look at the successful crossovers to syndication (especially the NBC comedies we all love), it couldn't matter less which order they are shown in.