Fringe: “Amber 31422”

Schrödinger’s People

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Stegall

Thursdays on Fox at 9/8 E/C
“Amber 31422”

Written by Josh Singer & Ethan Gross
Directed by David Straiton

“Just because we look alike doesn’t mean we have anything in common.” —Joshua Rose (as Matthew Rose)

In Manhatan, in the Red universe, two men work frantically to free a third, who is trapped in quarantine amber. He is cut out and revives; the man reviving looks exactly like him. A doppelganger from the other side? A clone? No, something far simpler: a twin brother. More to the point, the guy who just woke up has been in stasis for four years. We can be excused for assuming all the trapped people in the Red universe were dead, since the first time we saw this phenomenon was in Season One. In “The Ghost Network”, a bus full of people were instantly entombed by a man wearing a gas mask. And that material was made by Massive Dynamic. When released from the amber, the victims were as dead as Monty Python’s parrot. Now, in a conversation with AltBroyles, Walternate says he invented the compound he calls Amber 31422 in order to stop the disintegration of the space-time continuum. Is one compound a mirror of the other?

From the opening scene onward, this episode of Fringe feels like it was filmed in a hall of mirrors. By now I am used to “doubles” everywhere—two Walters, two Broyles, two Olivias. Now we get actual, physical doubles: twin brothers. Shawn Ashmore (X-Men) and Aaron Ashmore (Smallville) are actual twins, just enough alike to be clearly “identical”, but just different enough for us to tell them apart (if one looks really, really hard). In a way, this is even more subtle than having one actor play two parts: Shawn and Aaron look different enough to be disconcerting. What’s worse, during the story one twin is “doubling” for another. When we are supposed to confuse one character with another, the producers cast the same actor in two roles. When we are supposed to tell them apart, the producers cast identical twins. This show has more layers than phyllo dough.

“You tried to stop me from robbing a bank, and I ended up stealing your life.” —Joshua

As in classic twin lore, the brothers do not resemble one another beneath the skin. Like Jacob and Esau, they are cool and hot, brash and timid, criminal and honest man. Joshua is a bank robber who steals other people’s money; Matthew is an accountant who counts other people’s money. Joshua used to rob banks with a “negative energy device” (doncha love TV science-speak?) which causes tiny wormholes to erupt. The Fringe division was forced to quarantine dozens of people in a desperate attempt to plug the wormholes. During Joshua’s last bank job four years ago, Matthew got wind and hurried to stop his brother. Too late, he was caught in the amber. Since then, brother Joshua has been pretending to be Matthew, raising his brother’s sons, and working tirelessly to release him. Which is where we opened the episode, and now billy hell breaks loose.

AltBroyles: Quarantine victims are alive?

Walternate: Theoretically. But to remove them would threaten the structural integrity of the Amber.

“Theoretically”? Oh, boy. Talk about your quantum entanglement. Apparently, the people trapped in Amber are something like the Dutch boy who saved a dike by sticking his finger in the leak—now what? Walter knows that if the people are extracted—like pulling a finger out of a leak—the leak will start up again. Worse, when people learn that their loved ones are not, as the courts of the Red universe have ruled, actually dead, revolution will ensue. Later, Matthew’s wife tells Joshua that during his incarceration in Amber 31422, he was aware but trapped with his last thought spinning round and round in his head. Imagine four years of terror. I was reminded of the Bronzed victims of Warehouse 13, similarly paralyzed but aware. In some respects this does resemble Schrödinger’s paradoxical cat, who until its release from entrapment is neither alive nor dead. This terror of being immobilized yet aware finds expression as far back as the Victorian era, where the fear of being buried alive led to such entertaining customs as tying a ribbon to the wrist of someone buried in a coffin, with the ribbon leading to a bell on the surface to ring if the “deceased” should wake up. How wonderful and human, then, that Matthew’s first waking action is to first kiss his wife and then inquire after their sons (who appear to be twins as well). As the episode progresses, the physical similarities of the twins gives way to the moral differences between them, as Matthew struggles with his loyalty to the brother who was responsible for trapping and then freeing him, and Joshua struggles with the guilt of “ambering” his brother and so many others.

“Does that feel familiar? Two people who look exactly the same?” —Peter. Sort of.

Under the pressure of the investigation, as well as experiments Walternate has talked her into, Olivia is coming apart at the seams. Her true personality is still there, under the superimposed personality of AltLivia. Now her true self is expressing itself through talking hallucinations. But instead of appearing as an image of herself (which would give us, what, a third version of Anna Torv onscreen? Ow. My head.), her true self speaks to her as Peter Bishop. He pops in and out of scenes, chatting in a friendly way, continually reminding Olivia that things are not what they seem to be. Walternate has her in and out of isolation tanks faster than you can say “dipping chocolate”. (Nothing says Fringe like Olivia in a sensory deprivation tank.) Walternate dresses her in a white choir robe (no more lingerie modeling) and a nifty headdress made of wires. He shoots her up with drugs while she’s in the tank. And it works. In a bewildering moment, Olivia finds herself standing, dripping wet, in a souvenir shop, where she has just dropped the very snow globe Nina Sharpe handed her on our side a few weeks ago.

Sometimes it feels like these stories are written by M.C. Escher.

Olivia resists the devil, er, Peter on her shoulder, until he drops the E-bomb: her niece, Ella, is having her seventh birthday today, on the other side. This breaks through the conditioning. Olivia demands that AltBrandon put her back in the tank. When she arrives on our side again, in the souvenir shop, she makes a phone call to her sister’s. When Ella—the niece who was never born in the Red universe—answers, Olivia knows that everything Walternate told her was a lie. So when she returns, she lies to him: “I saw nothing.” More than anything else she could have done, that lie to the man AltLivia looks up to signals that she is back to her old allegiances. And once again, as in the first episode this season, Olivia is alone. But now she knows what she is up against, and that she can, in time, go home.

I love it that the underlying motivation behind Olivia’s breakthrough and Joshua’s redemption is love of family. The one thing that turns Olivia back into herself is not even her love (if it is love) for Peter Bishop, not her identity as her self, not a case. It’s the love of a blood relative, someone who shares DNA. Likewise Joshua, who reformed his evil ways not through fear or threat, but because he did not want to cause his brother—an image literally of himself—any more pain. For Joshua, it’s about becoming a better man; for Olivia, it’s about becoming herself.

“Nature doesn’t recognize good and evil; Nature only recognizes balance and imbalance. I intend to restore balance to our world.” —Walternate

The hairs on the back of my neck stand up when people start talking about restoring balances, and invoking Nature, as if Nature were a guide to human behavior. “Nature” gives us a life which is nasty, brutish, and short; it’s only in defying Nature that humans have built anything resembling a society of order, peace, and freedom. And what’s so great about “balance”? Nothing, if that word is really a code word for stasis and the status quo. Nature is, in fact, constantly in flux, so to imagine it as a serene oasis of safety and stability is naïve. History tells us that those who seek to prevent change are just as likely to use violence as those who promote it, so Walter’s grim determination to save his world by waging war on a natural phenomenon looks to repeat every tragic mistake of human history. He thinks he is preventing further destruction, but then, he’s made damn sure there is no one around to say him nay. He could be wrong, but he would never admit it. Say what you will of Walter Bishop, he’s a humbler man than Walternate.

“Only those who risk going too far find out how far they can go.” —Walternate

Walter Bishop (our Walter) invented Cortexiphan as a biological means to open the doors between universes; Walternate developed Amber 31422 to close those doors. Olivia came over to the Red universe to save Peter Bishop; now an avatar of him in her mind may be her salvation. Joshua Rose spent four years trying to get his innocent brother out of amber; at the end of this story, he allows himself to be imprisoned in amber to assure his brother’s freedom. I love the depth and sophistication of this kind of character development, which works itself so seamlessly into the plot and the underlying arc. A plot device from the first season now emerges as a major player in the Red universe stories; a passing moment of trivia between Nina and Olivia now takes on enormous significance in the snow globe. This level of characterization, attention to detail over three seasons, and depth of plotting makes Fringe a classic, a show which is hitting its stride the way Edgar Renteria hit a fastball into the bleachers last Monday.

Something like a universe-shaking transformation may be needed to keep Fringe alive. This episode garnered a measly 5 million viewers, with a disastrous 1.8 share in the crucial 18-to-49 demographic. Some pundits are already muttering about cancellation. Like Schrödinger’s cat, until the network makes the decision, we don’t know whether it will die, or survive. Where is an Observer when you need one?