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Fringe: Anomaly XB-6783746

Epistemology is the study of how we know. It’s a fascinating field, and one that has preoccupied philosophers for years, as they’ve asked how the mind works, how sensory input is processed, how we learn, how we recall, how we categorize what we know. In recent years, psychologists have entered into the debate, which gave rise to a new way of understanding epistemology: EQ vs IQ, related to the “empathizing/systematizing” paradigm.

The theory of “EQ” explains the “Emotional Quotient,” which is opposed to the Intelligence Quotient measured by an IQ test. One of many varieties of intelligence, emotional intelligence is the ability to know others, and to understand oneself, without recourse to specifically analytical means. It may not get you a perfect score on the SATs, but it might lead to successful job interviews and happier marriages, since interpersonal and intrapersonal interactions form such a huge component of everyone’s life. The more recent theory of the “empathizing/systematizing” paradigm contrasts emotional knowing with a systematic intelligence—the sort of mind that likes to puzzle out problems rather than intuit a solution.

This episode is about that contrast: the Observers are systematizers, and their anomalous un-child Michael doesn’t fit in, because he is empathetic. Windmark’s interrogations of the Ministry of Science employees emphasize the difference: he “reads” them and understands them. “I believe you,” he says, but what he really means is, “I’ve analyzed you and found the data valid.” Michael, on the other hand, “reads” something else: emotional honesty, the kernel of truth that explains not just what happens, but why.

We’ve known the Observers were analytical; their ability to read timelines gives them the data they need to understand what people will do with such accuracy that the “why” isn’t important. But as Nina implies in her beautiful final speech, there’s a terrible price for that sort of analytical brain: the loss of emotion, compassion, empathy. Peter refused to give those up and took out the tech that made him Observerish; the regular Observers don’t have that choice, as their evolution (which is to say, our evolution) has replaced empathetic knowledge with systematizing knowledge.

Windmark asked Nina, “What is it about the fugitives that inspires such misguided loyalty?” If he had emotional intelligence instead of a lizard brain, he would know: hope. But he doesn’t know, because although he can read minds he can’t read hearts.

Michael, on the other hand, can—and I suspect September could, too. Empathy, it seems, will be the answers to the problem of this miserable future. It will be the key to the revolution, and—I suspect—the key to the plan, which I’m pretty sure will involve someone’s (likely Walter’s) dramatic self-sacrifice in a triumph of empathetic goodwill over the nihilism of analytical intelligence. If I’m right, Nina’s suicide in this episode is foreshadowing. If I’m wrong, we can just add this paragraph to the long list of erroneous predictions I’ve made about this show. :-)

What great poetic justice, by the way. Michael, an anomaly meant to be destroyed, might be the key to the Observer’s downfall. Human empathy isn’t enough; the revolution requires the distilled empathetic power of an anomalous Observer to counteract Windmark and all the others. Take that, Baldies!

This episode, of course, was incredible: although it was mostly just dialogue, I was riveted. It passed by in a flash, even on re-watch. Michael crying made me cry (there’s that darn empathy at work). Walter’s flashback-mindmeld moment made me cry and not just for the perfect score. Nina’s sacrifice made me cry. But I have to agree with Walter: we do have a world to save, you know. Perhaps the last three hours, set to air on January 11th and 18th, will be an epic blockbuster revolution and all the waiting will be worth it.

That’s one prediction I’m pretty sure is going to come true.

Recommended Reading for the Winter Hiatus:

• I’ve simplified the above theories with wild abandon. If you want to learn more, I recommend Howard Gardner’s book on multiple intelligences for more about intra- and interpersonal intelligence and “EQ.”

• I also recommend Simon Baron-Cohen’s website, which includes tests where you can figure out whether you’re empathetic or a psychopath. He’s the one who came up with the empathizing/systematizing paradigm, which he links to male/female “hardwired” neurological difference.

• For the record, I think a lot of Simon Baron-Cohen’s work is horrifically sexist, and his experiments horribly planned. For more on that, see Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, an incisive takedown of the pseudo-science behind neurological justifications of socially-constructed behaviors.

• And, obviously, all of these ideas are related to the much earlier Myers-Briggs test, which is a lot of fun to take.

• There’s a casting spoiler making the rounds of the internet. Please do not, do not, do not post it in the comments.

Four out of four Ninas

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


  1. Wow

    Frankly Josie, you amaze me. I wasn't expecting to have such a good, simple explanation of the EQ this morning ! Just like the writers of Fringe, you are full of surprises !!! (1)

    Quite paradoxical, being the owner of a Psychology degree, and that I've learned about it AFTER my degree.

    I now have a pretty good idea how it will all end now (after seeing the preview of Jan. 11th), although I might be wrong. But I have a feeling a few will indeed sacrifice theirs lives but we'll have a satisfying happy ending. We'll see.

    (1) and YES, a good EQ is WAY important than a good IQ to have a fulfilling Life....

  2. Your notes on suggested reading and theoretical male/female neurological differences could explain why the Observers are all male. If females are more empathetic and the males more systematizing, then the push towards more intellectual knowledge at the cost of emotional knowledge could have "naturally" led to more males.

    Very engaging review, Josie. Lots of food for thought. I love that while this whole EQ v. IQ battle wages on in the world as a whole, it also wages on within Walter as an individual. I look forward to how the parallels continue to play out on the road to victory.

    Blair Brown had some truly amazing moments in this hour, and I was simultaneously proud of defiant Nina and heartbroken over her sacrifice. And Walter and Olivia's reactions just crushed me further. (See! I'm not an emotionless robot!)

    The previews at the end of the episode have me rather concerned. They hint at something that I've suspected was a possibility, but which I don't know if I'll ultimately find satisfying. Especially after the emotional impact of this episode.

  3. This one got to me, too. Very early on, as soon as Nina answered the phone and her assistant noticed, I could just feel that this was the end for Nina. But her sacrifice was just beautiful, and a fitting end for her character. Walter's reaction in particular made me cry. Terrific work by Blair Brown.

    Not really important, but I've particularly liked how Nina has *looked* this season -- her silver hair and pale make-up with bright lipstick, those gorgeous glasses. It was so in character for Nina to be so striking as an elderly woman in a wheelchair.

  4. For me the flash at the end where Michael touched Walter was the best moment of the episode. The second best by a hair was Nina's speech, and the third was Michale crying. Just a really excellent episode.

    One thing that I've been puzzling over. A lot of those scenes that Michale showed Walter were from the prime universe, our pre season four universe. Does Walter remember now? That would be so perfect.

  5. I think Walter does "remember" now, and that means that possibly Nina did too. This show continues to amaze me. For me, rather than looking for a "Lost replacement", I'll now be looking for a "Fringe replacement".

  6. Jess, that could explain why the producers made the Observers all male, although I hope they didn't consciously make that choice, since I dislike the male/female "hardwired" difference hypothesis so much. I prefer to think that the Observers are like the dwarves in Lord of the Rings: there are dwarf women, but it's often hard to tell them from the men, on account of their beards.

  7. I love this ep, too.
    Everything was so in place.
    The acting was excellent.
    I also kinda felt that Nina will go as soon as she appeared on screen.
    She will never betray her "family" especially Olivia.


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