Fringe, Ep. 5.03, “The Recordist”: Strong character beats don’t make up for lack of action

Fringe Review, Season 5, Episode 3: “The Recordist”
Written by Graham Roland
Directed by Jeff T. Thomas
Airs Fridays at 9pm (ET) on FOX

This week, on Fringe: The team follows the first, well, third, Betamax and find what is hopefully some red Observer kryptonite

The Great Betamax Hunt is on and this week, it takes our heroes to the forest, which apparently still exists in this overly mechanized future. As in the past two episodes, “The Recordist” favors character moments over action, making it at this point perhaps the most talky sci-fi series since Star Trek: the Next Generation. That’s not to discount the story we get this week, but while the notion of a community of people documenting the human perspective of this new world is interesting, and the father-son story is compelling, it’s hard not to argue that the show is beginning to feel stagnant.

Once again, Astrid is relegated to the lab, barely seen at all. Etta also gets very little to do, though it is nice to see some payoff for Captain Windmark’s (Creepy Head Observer Guy’s) discovery of Etta’s true allegiance in the premiere. We do get a couple nice scenes between Peter and Olivia however, continuing their growth and the series-long exploration of Olivia and the effects child abuse can have. It’s great the way these characters’ pasts are never forgotten, but brought right back into the forefront when appropriate remind the audience of how they inform our leads’ journeys.

Walter is here mostly to move the story and allow the guest stars to share their situation and stories. Paul McGillion is good as Edwin Massey, the titular recordist. Genre fans will remember him as one of the standouts on Stargate: Atlantis, but here, though his reserved take makes sense for the character, there’s an overabundance of stoic reserve, making him blend a bit too much into the background of the episode. It’s indicative of a larger issue thus far with Fringe season five. “In Absentia” had the undercover op scenes to help up the tension and provide contrast from the quieter moments, but here there are no big scenes. In its best episodes, this series contrasts epic storytelling and stakes with small, intense or at least incredibly truthful character beats. But when you don’t have any faster-paced scenes, the slower ones no longer feel like a welcome respite, but instead a bit of a slog.

That’s not to say that the show should abandon its personal take on the genre or morph into an action-packed explosion-fest. With the fate of humanity and the Earth on the line, the stakes will certainly be raised by the end of the season. The PtB at Fringe have shown time and again that they know how to juggle apocalyptic storylines with just as intense personal drama. This reviewer just hopes we won’t have to wait ’til the last batch of episodes to get back to that type of storytelling. Perhaps it’s greedy, but with so few episodes left, it’s hard not to see a mediocre, though solid, episode like this as a disappointment.

As ever, this episode looks and sounds great. The effects for the computer database are appropriately futuristic, though user-friendly, and the bark-like makeup is utterly effective and manages to be something new for the series. It’s a pleasant surprise that the end of the episode does not see Walter coming up with some kind of cure for the people in the camp. The world has been seriously damaged and there are no easy solutions.

Despite the above gripes, this is still a strong series and one refreshingly different from most recent genre fare. The performances are uniformly strong and it’s great that, for at least the rest of this truncated final season, we continue to have intelligent sci-fi on network TV. Next week promises more action, along with perhaps the first of what one assumes may be a series of casualties before the finale. Can’t wait!

What did you think of this episode? Anyone else think the fix to Walter and Olivia’s early radiation burns is a bit easy? Think we’ll get any more flashbacks to Peter and Olivia’s search for Etta? What does Astrid do with all her down time? Post your thoughts below!

Kate Kulzick

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