Fringe: “Olivia”

Olivia’s Odyssey

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Stegall

Thursdays on Fox at 9/8 E/C

Written by J.H. Wyman & Jeff Pinkner
Directed by Joe Chappelle

I’m stuck here. —Olivia

One of the oldest stories in Western literature, and still a compelling tale, is The Odyssey. The sequel to Homer’s best-selling Trojan War epic The Iliad, it’s all about a man who just wants to go home. His way is blocked by a series of mysterious forces, supernatural beings, powers he cannot understand. But no matter what marvels and wonders he encounters, he persists. The producers of Fringe have brilliantly incorporated this simple and universal theme as the foundation for their third season, and I think it’s a stroke of genius. Olivia Dunham, like Odysseus, is going to encounter a host of strange and disturbing obstacles, but what will keep her focused and moving forward, anchored and grounded against all odds, will be her drive to find a way home.

At the end of the brilliant conclusion of the second season, Olivia Dunham was taken prisoner in the alternate universe just as she was on the point of returning home. Instead, her Earth 2 doppelganger, whom I will call Altlivia, took her place under orders from her boss, the Alt version of Philip Broyles. Anna Torv showed amazing range and depth in portraying two versions of the same character, a range and depth she once again displayed in this episode. As “our” Olivia, she went from terror to vulnerability to confusion to a wary acceptance of her situation. Most of this season opener was devoted to bringing viewers up to date on the situation, re-introducing important characters, and making it clear that Olivia was not going to be going home any time soon. Following Olivia around is a great way to introduce us, the audience, to the differences between this world and the other one. Little things are cute—in the other universe, the big Broadway hit is Dogs, not Cats. Flights to the moon are advertised. Other elements hint at a darker side—everyone is required to carry extensive (and intrusive) identity cards, paramilitary police are everywhere, there is rationing and privation. We learn, as she does, that John F. Kennedy is now an elderly diplomat, that Martin Luther King not only was not assassinated, but joined forces with Eldridge Cleaver in the campaign for civil rights. Massive Dynamics was never founded. And apparently Cortexiphan was never discovered.

They are trying to convince me that I’m someone that I’m not. —Olivia

I think the Cortexiphan may be the key to Olivia’s ultimate success. We quickly learn that Walternate, as imperious and arrogant as ever, is having Olivia “treated” with B-lymphocytes drawn from Altlivia, in an attempt to transfer Altlivia’s memories and personality to Olivia. This is a modern form of demonic possession, enabled by technology as mysterious as any alchemical laboratory. Olivia fights it, escapes custody, and flees in a commandeered taxicab. As she forces the driver, Henry (Andre Royo, The Wire) to drive her around, they talk. He’s skeptical, until Fringe agents Charlie Francis (Kirk Acevedo, White Collar) and Lincoln Lee (Seth Gabel, Jonah Hex) catch up to her; she fights them off with a few extraordinary shots, and flees. Alas, Olivia gets to the theatre she originally came over from—and it’s being encased in quarantine amber. She visits the address of Massive Dynamics—and finds a park instead. Finally, she has Henry drive her to a “safe house”—which turns out to be her own mother’s home. In her own universe, Olivia lost her mother at age fourteen. Here, her mother (Amy Madigan, Grey’s Anatomy) is alive, well, and highly concerned about her daughter’s “psychotic break”.

If you’ve never been here, how did you know to come here? —Olivia’s Other Mother

By this time, Olivia’s behavior is becoming erratic. From her suddenly acquired shooting skills (Altlivia is an Olympic gold medalist target shooter) to her calling her boyfriend “Frank” instead of “Peter”, we’ve had hints that all is not well in Olivia’s head. But when her mother calls on memories our Olivia could never have had, and Olivia remembers them, it becomes clear that the B-lymphocyte injections are starting to work. By the time Charlie Francis shows up at Other Mother’s door, she has become Altlivia.

Or has she?

Part of me wants to think this is all an elaborate con, that Olivia has figured out that it’s better to become a mole or spy in the Fringe Division than to continually run from and fight them. I like that idea, and there’s some support for it. However, Olivia started showing signs of the influence of the memory drug even before she realized she could not go home. Her terrified reaction to her mother’s invocation of false memories looked very real. I think that, for now, Olivia may well have been taken over by the memory drug. Walternate makes it clear that he wants to find out how Olivia was able to travel across the universes with no consequences; clearly Earth 2 knows nothing of Cortexiphan. That means Walternate and his lab rats do not know to compensate for its effects, don’t know if it will help Olivia fight off the B-lymphocytes. I think Cortexiphan may be what brings her back to herself. If that’s the case, ultimately Olivia Dunham may have to thank Walter Bishop for experimenting on her when she was a child. It would be a delicious, full-circle irony if that were to be the case.

We are at war, at war with another universe, populated by creatures who have damaged the very fabric of reality. —Walternate

Written, that’s about the most pompous line I’ve seen all year. Spoken by John Noble, however, that line rang with menace, determination, bitterness. Noble’s brilliant performance of last year continues, giving us two such distinct onscreen characters that it’s almost as if there really were two actors in these roles. As Walternate, he’s cold, calculating, implacable. Yet I found myself in sympathy with him—his world was invaded, his son was stolen, and the universe is collapsing around him. People from our universe (Walter and Belly) are to blame for this. Our Walter was never able to move beyond his personal tragedy, except to lose himself in arcane research that hurt many children. Walternate had to lay aside his grief to fight a war to save millions of people, the very fabric of the universe. He may not look like a hero from our side, but I’ll bet everyone on Earth 2 who knows the score thinks Walternate is a combination of hero and god. From our side, he’s understandable. As he tells Alt Brandon, if they don’t figure out how Olivia crosses, they won’t just lose the war, they will lose the world. Big stakes.

His name is Peter. He’s sort of the reason I’m here. —Olivia

Olivia wants to go home to Peter. Peter thinks he’s already home with her. If my heart ached for this poor man all last season, knowing he was going to be shocked to learn that Walter is not his father, then it really breaks for him this year. Inevitably, Altlivia will use him, hurt him, break his heart. It’s a given. Sooner or later, Peter will realize that “his” Olivia does not love him, and his confusion and betrayal are going to be epic. How long will it take him to figure out that “his” Olivia never made it back home? How long will it take him and Walter to figure out that Altlivia is not who they think she is? Good stuff. I can’t wait.

Universal themes, good characterizations, mind-bending concepts and cool graphics. This is a great season opener to what looks to be a great third season. I hope this is the season audiences discover this show; it’s going to be an amazing year. Unfortunately, this season’s premiere dropped over 25% of the audience for last season’s opener. Has the show proven too complex for most viewers? It’s hard to blame it entirely on the show, when its competitors Grey’s Anatomy and CSI both lost audience in this time slot. Fringe came in with 5.7 million viewers and a 2.1 rating among adults; I strongly suspect those numbers will rise when the first round of ratings adjusted for delayed viewing come out. I hope so, because I hope audiences will find this show as compelling as I do. I think this season is shaping up to rock.