Fringe: “Bad Dreams”

Sleepless in Boston

NBC, Tuesdays, 9/10 E/C

“Bad Dreams”

Written by Akiva Goldsman

Directed by Akiva Goldsman

Walter: When we were experimenting on children—
Peter: Whoa! Let’s analyze that sentence for a second.

From the Oscar-winning screenwriter of A Beautiful Mind comes a well-crafted Fringe episode that turns Olivia Dunham’s head inside out. This show has always delighted in taking us there, from the pilot onward; this episode took it a step further and took Olivia out of her own head, so to speak. Although the story took off slowly, it built to a heady (heh) climax that revealed something about Walter that, frankly, I had always suspected: he experimented on children. If I worked in that lab with that man I would go to work armed every day. Walter Bishop is dangerous as hell.

Olivia is plagued by dreams that seem to forecast deaths that are about to happen. They’re only disturbing until she discovers that one nightmare actually came true the night before, when a young mother supposedly jumped in front of a subway train in New York. Peter argues that she and Walter are making too big a deal out of bad dreams. This raises all kinds of interesting trust issues: Walter believes Olivia because she’s a friend and he trusts her (also, he knows something they don’t). Peter is Olivia’s friend but can’t trust her judgment. But when they visit the actual crime scene and Olivia tells him, in advance, details that she could not have otherwise known, Peter resigns himself to another weird case. Olivia sweet-talks Broyles into letting her have FBI resources (translation: Charlie) to look into this death, and winds up watching a security camera tape of the event. It looks like the woman jumped, but Olivia is not convinced.

More dreams, more attacks. Olivia is increasingly afraid that she herself is responsible, that somehow she is traveling in her sleep and murdering people. Olivia’s anxiety leads her to question several witnesses inappropriately. Peter, despite his reservations, comforts her with a hug and reassuring words. One witness reveals a clue that leads Olivia to a man who was present at more than one dream-heralded event: Nick Lane (David Call, Law & Order: Criminal Intent), recently released from a mental hospital. His doctor remembers Nick’s “delusional” belief that he had been dosed with Cortexaphan as a child.

Alarm bells go off in everyone’s heads. In February’s episode, “Ability”, we learned about the secret trials Walter’s old partner William Bell once oversaw of the drug Cortexaphan, developed by Massive Dynamics in the ’80s. It was used experimentally on children in the Jacksonville area; Olivia once lived there. Coincidence? Of course not. There are no coincidences in prime time. Walter theorizes that she is only picking up the thoughts of the killer. And bingo! We’re back in Conspiracyland. In short order, Astrid is dusting off the ZFT manifesto, Olivia is walking around in Nick’s head, having sex in his head, watching him help a woman kill herself in his head. Walter takes voyeurism to new depths.

I felt a bit disappointed by this story. It is perhaps not surprising that the creator of Lost would also drag Fringe down the murky conspiracy road, but I was sort of hoping it would be less obtrusive. I know people love conspiracy shows—at first. God knows I lovedThe X-Files, and it’s clear the same DNA runs through both shows. But conspiracy episodes are inherently unsatisfying. No question can be answered unless it raises more questions. No issue can truly be resolved. No monsters can ever really die. Making sense out of conspiracy theories is like eating soap bubbles: amusing at first, frustrating in a short while. A story that cannot reach closure is doomed to be unsatisfying.

With that said, there were some truly breathtaking moments in this episode. I will pass by the girl-on-girl kissing scenes; legions of fanboys have probably overloaded the internet about that. What I loved was the scene of Nick walking down a street, inadvertently (?) drawing bystanders after him like a trawler dragging a net. His showdown with Olivia put her in a classic dilemma—accede to his request for suicide-by-cop, or let forty people die? There were some really lovely, tender moments between Peter and Olivia—his hug in the hallway, his holding her hand during the dream session. Those moments had more impact than any number of hot-n-heavy sessions between John Scott and Olivia. At this stage of their story, understated is the way to go with Olivia and Peter. Even Walter was somewhat reined in; his obsession with a new coffee flavor managed to be funny without overwhelming the scene.

I’m still not sure exactly what the whole argument about Nick Lane’s ability to “reshape” reality was all about. Was Walter seriously trying to suggest that Nick was given a drug that allows him to do that? No wonder they locked Dr. Bishop up. On the other hand, this is a universe where the FBI gets a search warrant for Nick’s apartment apparently based on the fact that Olivia dreamed about him. This is stretching even the PATRIOT Act out of all recognition!

We end on an ominous note, as Walter searches through a box of old videotapes. The one he finds shows a young Olivia cowering in a corner as the voices of William Bell (I think that is Leonard Nimoy!) and Walter talk about some incident that happened with her. Clearly, something terrible was done to Olivia when she was a child, something she does not remember. This sort of plot twist calls into question every interaction she and Walter have had to date. Did Walter know from Day One that Olivia was a former test subject? If so, can we trust one single thing he has said to her since? My head hurts. We have to have someone in this scene we can trust. Scully had Mulder—I guess Olivia has Peter. Peter has depths we have not seen, I’m sure, but even so, the confluence of his and Walter’s early life with Olivia’s is too neat, too pat, too… Hollywood. I wish the producers had not taken this road.

Having done so, however, they do it right. Writer/director Goldsman gave us an episode built like a slow fuse: tightly wound, coiling out of sight, and finishing big. What could have been a rehash of the “The Ghost Network” turned out to have some scary new twists and disquieting revelations. This was Anna Torv’s episode to shine in, and she did. It was easy enough to tell when she was playing Olivia, and when she was playing Olivia-seeing-through-Nick. Her whole manner and walk were different, although nothing else changed; subtle and well done.

Cortexaphan or no, Fringe drew in 10.5 million viewers on Tuesday night and a 4.4 share among the 18-to-49 year olds, helping to put Fox in the top slot. The numbers have been consistently good this year, and I predict that Fringe will be coming back in the fall; it would take a pretty significant fall-off in numbers between now and the end of the season to erase my optimism. It looks like we won’t get to the end of this conspiracy anytime soon.