Last night's Fringe, called "Jacksonville," was a frustrating blend of hair-raising freakery, revelatory moments, and repetitive emotional woo-woo. Regardless of whether you liked the woo-woo, you had to love all that solid information about the alternate timeline on Earth-1.
Quick summary: Frozen head baddie Newton, whose noggin is currently attached to a body, has been experimenting with moving whole buildings between our Earth Prime and Earth-1. We begin with an amazing scene (see clip) where an Earth-1 building merges with an Earth Prime one, with horrific results. Olivia and the team investigate, and Walter realizes that to "balance" things out, a building of equal mass will have to get sucked into Earth-1. To find it, he Walter has to awaken Olivia's dormant power to see the fuzzy glow around objects from Earth-1. But he can only do that by dosing her with cortexiphan back in Jacksonville, where he first experimented on her as a child. Much running around and drugging ensue, and eventually Olivia figures out how to channel her power and identify the building. Unfortunately that means she has to almost kiss Peter, and then subsequently sees him glowing. So Olivia knows Peter is from Earth-1, but Peter doesn't. Walter says, "Please don't tell him," and then Peter and Olivia go out on a date.
Now to the meat of our discussion.
What did we learn about Earth-1?
As you can see in the clip above, we got quite a bit of interesting information about the alternate political timeline in Earth-1. Obama is president, but presumably Ford never was - I'm guessing that based on the fact that Astrid finds a coin with Nixon's face on it in a box of items rescued from the Earth-1 building. So Nixon was never disgraced in Earth-1. We also learn, when Walter questions the mangled multiverse guy, that the 9/11 attacks occurred, but that they also included destruction of the White House.
In the absolutely amazing first ten minutes of the episode, we also glimpse the everyday lives of people in "Manhatan." Global warming is apparently much more advanced, and coffee is extremely rare. So there is resource scarcity.
Walter also explains that in early experiments with opening the door between universes, that he and William Bell brought an Earth-1 car though into Earth Prime. And it had a CD player, back in the mid-1980s. So their consumer technology is slightly more advanced. (This is something we've heard before.)
To sum up: Earth-1 is slightly more technologically-advanced, but also suffering more from environmental degradation. In addition, America has a slightly different political history: Nixon is a national hero (hence his face on the coin), and the White House was destroyed in terrorist attacks. So it might be a more corrupt country (unless Nixon was a really nice guy on Earth-1), and it's certainly a more violent and impoverished one.
Why did Olivia have to go back to Jacksonville?
For me, the entire segment in Jacksonville was incredibly wasteful and frustrating. We're in the middle of a major crisis with the two dimensions colliding, and so everybody zooms down to Jacksonville? OK, fine - Walter thinks he can bring out Olivia's latent powers by bringing her back to the place she was when those powers first manifested. Fine, I'll go with that.
But when we get to her old preschool, she remembers nothing and Walter just doses her. He says she needs to feel "strong emotions" to set off the power of the cortexiphan. Again, fine. This standard Fringe weirdness and I'm down for it. However, we are treated to Olivia's strangely boring visions intended to arouse her "emotions" - basically she's trapped in a scary forest with her child self, Olive. Once again, we are reminded that Walter and William Bell basically tortured kids to get them to manifest these powers. Once again, we are told that Olivia had amazing powers as a child, including the ability to light fires with her mind.
Apparently, however, Olivia isn't able to get in touch with her powers until she can get back in touch with her childlike Olive state - as Walter says, she has to feel fear. Unfortunately, she's a badass federal agent now, and doesn't feel fear. There's another long and meandering scene where Walter explains this and Olivia sits in the abandoned daycare center room she once lit on fire with her mind.
Just as the episode should have been switching into high gear, we get this series of blobby scenes about how Olivia needs to get in touch with her inner child and be less badass? I'm not buying it. I want to know what Broyles and Nina Sharp are up to, and what everybody is doing to figure out the inter-dimensional building switcheroo. The wrong turn this episode took in these scenes reminds me of what happened last week when we suddenly heard all about Grampa Bishop maybe sort of being a Nazi. Too much useless backstory emoting.
Which brings me to . . .
Why do Olivia and Peter have to make out?
Just as everybody back in New York is losing all hope that they'll find the building that's about to be sucked into Earth-1, Olivia's power kicks in. She's whinging about something when Peter gives her the Pacey look and starts to kiss her. She's so scared that she gets the glowy sight power. Running away from the kiss, she looks out the windows and sees a building that's flickering with proto-interdimensionality. Everybody is evacuated in time, thanks to the dysfunctional Olivia/Peter woo-woo.
I watch Fringe to see guys with four legs, four arms, and two heads screaming about alternate history. Scenes like those make this show a cut above your usual paranormal fare. So why do we need a paranormal romance too? Those of you who read spoilers know this O/P ship has been in the dock for a while, and has been one of the writers' long term plans. But I was hoping it would be an X-Files kind of thing, hinted at and flirted with, but never consummated satisfactorily during the series. Seriously, you can't let your superagents have a romance.
Plus I don't like the idea that Peter puts Olivia in touch with her fear and her inner Olive. It's just . . . gross. If I wanted to watch a show about people being vulnerable and having ill-advised work romances, I'd watch Gray's Anatomy. Fringe is where I want my freaky science and heroes with weird mutant, interdimensional powers. Interdimensional romance is not an issue I care to explore - at least in this show.
Which isn't to say that the episode wasn't riveting enough to have me jumping up and down waiting for more. I just hope that we can pull back from the emotional backstory (and hell, the main story) and refocus on the William Bell/Massive Dynamic plot. Remember renegade science networks and frozen head guys and alternate timelines? How cool they are? More of that please.