..or better put, the title of this post could be expanded to “And Why We Don’t.
I thought this most recent episode of Fringe, “In Absentia” to be most exemplary. Not only did it succeed on so many levels it may stand out as the best episode of the season and I’m including those we have yet to see. In it, we were exposed to the family dynamic that is so important to Fringe especially how important Olivia is to it. We also got our weekly dose of pop culture and Easter Eggs and more importantly we got insight on how the season is to proceed in the hunt for Walter’s tapes.
But what I found most fascinating was the examination into human nature. Specifically, our instinct for self-preservation versus our will to live in freedom. You’d think the two would work hand in hand but that is not necessarily so as we witnessed in the case of loyalist Gael Manfretti. Manfretti was a self professed “coward” and not only that but an accomplished liar. As Henietta pointed out to Olivia he lied to her because, “He only wanted to live as long as possible. Its a natural human instinct. Its what they used to turn us into slaves.” That’s a pretty damning indictment of human nature. Henrietta is saying we’d rather sacrifice our freedom rather than our lives.
So what drives us to be so innately selfish and what separates the rest of us to be so self sacrificing? The will to live is a strong one. But if faced with an overwhelming foe the urge for capitulation can be irresistible. But on the other hand, what price freedom? Henrietta was nonplussed when her torture of Manfretti was interrupted by Olivia. She sensed Olivia’s disapproval and responded by saying, “Can’t you see what the Observers have brought, this is war and we’re losing”. The irony of that statement is Henrietta has taken on the role of her oppressors and that of their methods.
Fringe is to be given credit for taking on such a deep subject and to accomplish it within the confines of an hour long episode while all the while wrapping it into the plot line of this season was exceptional. The breadth of which was filled out by our remarkable cast of actors and the expert direction of Jeannot Szwarc.
Olivia had the role of the compassionate leader. Someone who could see the better side of us no matter what the circumstance. A true believer in the good side of humanity. Henrietta was the embittered freedom fighter. Damaged by years of fighting and as ruthless as the enemy she wishes to defeat. Peter, the chameleon, as comfortable in his nascent fatherly role as he is in adorning the trappings of the fascist Observers. And of course, Gael Manfretti, the craven turncoat representing the shameful side of humanity.
I think it is revealing that we see the Loyalists portrayed in the uniform of the “Brown Shirts”. The Brown Shirts in history were the paramilitary unit of the Nazi party. They were tasked with keeping order at rallies and party meetings and stifling those of the opposition. It no wonder the Observers have dressed their underlings in the trappings of their fascists forebears in order to instill fear kept in our collective consciousness. Its notably ironic again that these Brown shirt thugs are tattooed with glyphs by the Observers to mark their servitude and identity. Tattoos were also used by the Nazis to mark the proud Jewish people that they sought to exterminate. Do you think the Loyalists of 2036 are aware of this juxtaposition?
I’d like to to take the time to mention Directors Jeannot Szwarc’s role in all of this. I don’t pretend to know the man and I know very little of his background. But I do know he was born in Paris, France in 1937. Too young perhaps to witness the Nazi invasion of France in 1940 and the lightning victory of the Germans but old enough by 1945 when the war ended to see the pain and agony in the eyes of his family and countrymen. I feel Szwarc was in a unique position to comment on this era in human history and Fringe is extremely fortunate to have him on board for his direction and his important perspective. Who better to reveal to us this terrible moment in our history and in some small respect help exorcize his own memories of that time.
In 1994 I visited France on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Normandy invasion also known as D-Day. I took the above picture in Le-Havre France. Its a sculpture to honor the Resistance fighters that fought and died to liberate France during the Second World War. I was curious why we hadn’t seen any other monuments in our tour of northern France as you’d think these monuments would be sprinkled virtually everywhere do to their historical nature. I asked our tour guide “where are all the other monuments celebrating the heroic resistance?” She looked at me and my naivete and responded, ” The French have a difficult time reconciling their history. Yes, there was a part of them that resisted the invasion and occupation but there were many more that were complicit in it or just simply stood by and let it happen. It’s something they struggle with to this day.”
I was stunned. All I knew of that time period was the romantic notion of the Resistance as portrayed in such movies as Casablanca (which serves as some of the inspiration for this season and “Letters of Transit.) I had know idea that many of the French people may have given themselves over to the invasion out of weariness and and overall sense of defeat. This was noted by the character of Gael Manfretti when he remarked to Olivia why he became a Loyalist when he said, “I don’t understand you people, the world would be a safer place if you stop trying to fight them.”
So there you have it in a nutshell, the shame for turning yourself over to the enemy because it is easier to survive that way than it is to fight. Fortunately, Gael followed this lament with the question directed at Olivia, when he said, “Do you really think you can win?” She responded by saying, “We have to win for the people that died, including your son, so they didn’t die for nothing.” This was a transcendent moment for Manfretti. He told Henrietta upon his release that he saw a certainty in Olivia’s eyes that, “We were supposed to win.”
So what does this say of humanity and how superb was it of Fringe to encapsulate all of this in one episode? Is it leadership? Does the moral compass and strength of one person like Olivia Dunham make such a difference? Are we all so easily cowed? I don’t mean this as an indictment of the French people. I ‘m fortunate to live in a country that has been by and large been spared the atrocity of war and the stain of servitude. But I now have new perspective what its like to live in fear where every moment may be your last.
Manfretti was given his freedom by Henrietta and vowed to fight with the Resistance. We don’t know if he actually will but the same spark that he caught in Olivia’s eyes was reflected in Henrietta’s when she let him go. The spark of humanity was nearly extinguished in her especially after witnessing Simon’s fate. But it was rekindled by the words and actions of her mother and hopefully that flame of humanity will spread amongst the rest of the world. All it took was the compassion of a single person and with it the courage to act not for your self but for someone else.