Fringe has now reached a certain level of awesomeness (cross a plateau of awesomeness, perhaps?) that every episode this season feels like it’s on another plane of quality in comparison to the first two seasons. This week’s effort is, in theory, just a Freak of the Week episode in Earth-2. In practice, it’s one of the most gripping, confident and well-executed hours of Fringe ever.
The writers have completely figured out how to take the intensity from the mythology episodes and apply them to the Fringe event/Pattern cases, and so though “The Plateau” features a fairly straight-forward (but hotly interesting) villain who is so intelligent he can predict human action hours in advance and thus can create situations where people he wants killed end up dead, the episode grabs hold you from the very first minute and never, ever lets go.
Part of that general cool factor is the writers’ ability to just be as weird and kooky as they want to with this Earth-2 stuff. The primary device used in one of murderer Milo’s events? A ballpoint pen. And that’s a clue, because you know, ballpoint pens are totally rare in a world that is much more so technologically advanced. Fauxlivia’s boyfriend has to leave town to treat…a smallpox outbreak in North Texas. It totally feels like a normal thing. And when the air quality gets bad, make sure you’re carrying your handheld oxygen device, or you know, you’ll die. Oh, and it is totally a party when avocados are available for dinner.
These are just little things that don’t have much importance and perhaps are even part of the cheap ways to get us as audience to think that the Earth-2 episodes are just so much more interesting, but I don’t care. If that’s the case, it’s working. I look at the avocado thing as subtler versions of all the random clues in Lost, except the Fringe writers aren’t intended them to really be clues, but just fun nuggets on intrigue that more fully satisfying the attentive viewer.
Moreover, what makes this episode so great is that again, despite the fairly basic set-up, there are some intriguing moral issues presented within. Milo lived most of his life in a mentally handicapped state, but great smart drugs allowed his intellect to improve exponentially. By the end of the episode, he’s obviously a murderer and the doctors try to reverse the process like they originally intended to. They can’t, but should they? If you’ve improved someone’s standard of living so much is it really right to take it away, murderer or not? And really, is Milo even a murderer at all? He only took out the people who were trying to destroy his life. Perhaps he is a murderer, but the murders are justified? Interesting questions for a procedural effort.
And of course, Olivia’s journey results in a number of great, emotionally moving moments. This is Olivia’s first case back and she’s fully convinced by the chemicals that she is Fauxlivia, but before too long, her real identity and memories start to seep through. She sees Peter across the street, a smiling Walter in the hospital and Peter again at the end of the episode. As expected, the identity swapping process isn’t exactly full-proof, so it’s as if the real Olivia is fighting Fauxlivia inside this one body and as long as Olivia hangs on to the things that are really important — like Peter and Walter — she has a chance.
As usual, each of these sequences is played to near perfection by both the actors and director Brad Anderson. The episode could have easily made a bigger deal out of Peter’s first appearance or Walter’s appearance, but instead, they simply pop up, things slow down a little bit for Olivia and then we move on. There’s no overly swelling music or melodramatic posturing.
The final scene in which Peter appears again to tell Olivia that the only reason she survived Milo’s trap is because he didn’t expect her to, well not be her, is powered by some of Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson’s best work together to-date. It reminded me of how well the series has built up the relationship between these two people so that even though we knew from 10 minutes into the pilot that they would eventually get together, it’s completely satisfying and realistic that they care about one another in this way. It also reminded me of how Peter’s appearance is much like John Scott’s in the first season, which then made me realize how poorly that whole storyline went because Torv and Mark Valley had.
Finally, this episode makes great use of Charlie by making him a true friend to Olivia, whether if she’s his Olivia or not. He is noticeably suspicious of Olivia and her supposed condition, but not in a “We should totally kill her” way. Because he’s met both versions of Olivia he’s a little shaken, but I’m hoping that he becomes an ally for Olivia on the other side because she definitely needs one.
With this episode, Fringe stepped up to another level of quality. I think it’s confirmed that the series is the best network hour-long.