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Fringe: “Olivia”

“She looks like her, but it isn’t her.”
-Some woman claiming to be “Olivia”

With Dollhouse off the air, you might think that Fox would be in the market for another sci-fi adventure show about the fluidity of identity and the exploitation of human bodies as vessels for maleficence. (Every network needs at least one of those shows, right?) But why go shopping when there’s something perfectly good in the pantry? The third season of Fringe opened tonight with one of the strongest, boldest episodes in the whole run of the series (and this is a series that has taken some chances, mind you). But what was most exciting to me about the aptly named “Olivia” is that it while it continues in the exciting new directions that the Fringe creative team began exploring at the end of Season Two, it also brings the show back to its roots. Way back in the fall of 2008, when we first learned about “The Pattern” of strange events weaving across the planet, it seemed like every week we were meeting another freak who’d been implanted with something awful: a bomb, a madness, a communicable disease. And now here’s our Agent Olivia Dunham, trapped in a world she never made, being told by everyone around her that she’s not the Olivia she thinks she is, and oh, by the way, being injected with liquid memories. So we’ll soon find out: What makes Olivia Olivia? 

When I mention the “boldness” of this episode, I’m mainly referring to the choice to spend nearly the entire hour—save a brief epilogue—in an alternate universe, populated by characters we barely know. (Even the opening credits are in the tell-tale red hues of Earth-2; and the cinematography is lens-flare-riffic, as is the norm on Fringe when the alt-universe bleeds through.) Oddly though, I think “Olivia” would be a pretty easy episode for a new Fringe viewer to watch and enjoy, precisely because we longtime fans aren’t that much more familiar with where our heroine is and what’s happening to her than a newcomer would be. The opening scene—in which Olivia tells her Earth-2 Fringe Division therapist that she’s been abandoned in this askew universe by her Earth-1friends—explains all anyone would need to know to follow what happens next. Because what happens next is mostly a whole lot of runnin’.

And when I mention the “strength” of this episode, I’m primarily talking about the way it so neatly reduces to what old Hollywood hands would call a “chase picture.” After Olivia fakes a convulsion so that she can escape the Fringe Division facility on Liberty Island, she makes her way to Earth-2’s Manhattan, where she jumps into a taxi driven by a man named Henry (played, superbly, by The Wire’s Andre Royo). Because Olivia doesn’t have a “show-me”—what they call an ID card in the other world—she has to frighten Henry into driving her around, which isn’t hard to do, since she’s already come off to him as impressively crazy. And she presses that advantage when she grabs Henry’s show-me and memorizes his address, threatening to hurt his wife and daughter

The scenes in Henry’s cab are so well-written, acted and photographed that it’s almost like they’re from another show. I don’t mean that as a knock on Fringe, but even at its best over the first two seasons, it hasn’t been as good at “down-time” conversations as it’s been at high-weirdness and Walter eccentricity. (The writers clearly tried to correct this some in Season Two, by turning “Olivia and Peter drive to the crime scene” into opportunities for the two of them to open up a little.) But here the way that Royo does most of his acting with his eyes in the rearview mirror, and the way that Olivia leans her head against the cab’s glass partition so that there are two of her in the frame, and the way Henry explains that his wife’s name is, “Jasmine, unless I’m in the doghouse, then it’s Honey. Most of the time it’s Honey.”… all of this would be compelling and entertaining to watch even if the heroine weren’t trying to flee an all-powerful government agency out to capture her and replace her memory and personality with that of her Earth-2 doppelgänger. 

In between their conversations, Henry drives Olivia to the theater where Walter, Peter and Faux-livia jumped back to Earth-1 at the end of last season’s finale, but she’s too late: the authorities are in the process of sealing the site up in amber when she pulls up. Next, Henry takes her to the address of Earth-1’s Massive Dynamic headquarters, but no such entity exists in Earth-2; instead, that’s the address for Martin Luther King/Eldridge Cleaver Park (where citizens ride their old-timey big-wheeled bicycles). So Olivia asks Henry to take her to address that’s lodged in her brain, which she believes to be a safe house of some kind. But first they stop at a gas station so Henry can tank up and Olivia can have a good cry (photographed in a slow dolly through flickering light… just lovely). And there, she’s cornered by the mutilated-but-still-standing Lincoln Lee, Earth-2’s Fringe Division stud agent, as well as by Alt-Charlie, whom I guess we can just call “Charlie,” since our Charlie is no more. They engage in her in a shootout, which Olivia eludes easily because she’s such a crack shot. Except that she’s really not. The Earth-1 Olivia doesn’t shoot well at all.

It turns out that those liquid memory injections (supervised by Earth-2’s version of Massive Dynamic’s goody scientist Brandon, here more sinister and employed by Fringe Division) are latching on to the adrenaline surges that Olivia’s been having during her great escape, such that when Olivia arrives at the “safe house” in Tarrytown, she’s initially alarmed to see her dead mother there (played by Amy Madigan), until the implanted memories kick in and she not only remembers her mom and the house, she remembers painting the living room. When last we see Olivia in this episode, she’s happily driving off with Charlie, eager to get back to work.

My one major complaint about “Olivia” is that I don’t fully understand what Walternate hopes to achieve by turning Olivia into Faux-livia. He claims he needs to know what Olivia knows about Earth-1, but then he replaces those memories. It doesn’t make immediate sense to me—or to Alt-Broyles who voices the same objection. Walternate replies that he does have a plan, and that it’s not Alt-Broyles’ place to question it. Which may just mean that the writers of this TV show aren’t entirely sure where they’re going with this. (I hope that’s not the case, but the wide, weak tide of mid-‘00s serialized genre shows has left me cynical.)

Still, whatever the ultimate goal, I’m intrigued by the notion of Olivia being overcome by the thoughts of Faux-livia. (What does she become then? No-livia?) And I’m intrigued by the little teaser at the end of “Olivia,” in which we’re back on Earth-1, and we see Peter kissing the newly blonde Faux-livia, obviously comfortable both with her and with their business as Fringe Division. “I’m sure tomorrow will bring the usual insanity,” he says, as cheerfully as Olivia is with Charlie on Earth-2. I haven’t seen next week’s episode yet—though it’s available on Fox’s screener-site for critics, so I’ll watch it soon—but I wouldn’t be surprised if it inverts this season premiere, taking place mostly on Earth-1, through the eyes of Faux-livia. That would be neat.

If so though, I’ll miss the almost random strangeness of Earth-2, where you can catch daily flights to the Moon, and where the longest-running show on Broadway is called Dogs. (But where people still quote Star Wars and enjoy the movies of Tom Cruise.) “Olivia” uses that strangeness so well, even summing up the circumstances of its main characters via the appearance and disappearance of Earth-2’s most striking feature: a sky filled with enormous airships. The transition to the epilogue is marked with a cut in which an Earth-2 dirigible fades away, leaving Peter, Walter and Faux-livia beneath a clear Earth-1 sky. Back in Earth-2 though, when Olivia realizes she’s stuck there, she looks up and sees one of those big blimps, trapping her in its long shadow.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

-Peter knows a trick to save a dying pen. We don’t get to see it, though. A cheat.

-Even though it’s pretty obvious, it’s never stated directly that Henry’s daughter is dead, and that he’s still recovering from his grief. But since Henry follows Charlie and Olivia’s car as it pulls out of Tarrytown, it looks like we’ll see him again soon, and find out more about his surely tragic past.

-I was going to make fun of the conveniently ajar window at Olivia’s mother’s house in Tarrytown, except that I’m 50% sure that it was left ajar on purpose, to coax her inside. Plus, the atmosphere inside the house was so wonderfully haunted: the low-lighting, the old-timey French music, the knocking noise… and did I hear a baby coo?

-Speaking of me not hearing stuff right, you’ll have to excuse my confusion because I watched this episode on a digital screener (which I couldn’t rewind), but did Lincoln ask his assistant to get his “nanite wraps?” And did anyone catch Charlie’s full joke about the worm in Lincoln’s body?

-How long before Faux-livia goes looking for the Earth-1 Lincoln Lee?

-The citizens of Earth-2 don’t care for the amber solution to Fringe Events. “Put a hold on the gold!” protestors demand.

-Either Earth-2 people call bathrooms “washrooms” or Earth-2 TV shows are shot in Canada, just like ours.

Addendum for new viewers:

With Lost over and the new slate of fall shows leaning more episodic than serialized (with the exception of The Event, which is its own kind of crazy), I’ve been hearing from people curious about whether they should start watching Fringe. Some used to watch and then bailed; some have never seen a minute. But a lot of folks have heard that Fringe took a turn from the hit-and-miss to the pretty consistently awesome toward the end of its second season, and they want to know whether it’s worth watching all 40-plus existing episodes in order to hop on the bandwagon. Luckily for them, the very thing that makes Fringe problematic for some—the sometimes awkward blend of overarching mythology and MOTWs—also makes it easy to catch up. If you want to start watching Fringe, I’d suggest watching these 20 episodes, in this order. From Season One: “The Arrival,” “In Which We Meet Mr. Jones,” “The Equation,” “Safe,” “Bound,” “Ability,” “Bad Dreams,” “The Road Not Taken” and “There’s More Than One Of Everything.” From Season Two: “A New Day In The Old Town,” “Momentum Deferred,” “August,” “Snakehead,” “Grey Matters,” “Jacksonville,” “Peter,” “Olivia. In The Lab. With The Revolver,” “White Tulip,” “The Man From The Other Side” and “Over There.” Some of the mythology might be a little confusing at first, but it’s not that hard to pick up. And with a few exceptions (like “White Tulip,” included because of its overall excellence), these episodes aren’t Fringe stand-alones. They do advance the story, and will prepare you for the start of Season Three.

Or if you don’t have time for all that, just watch “Ability,” “The Road Not Taken,” “There’s More Than One Of Everything,” “Peter,” “The Man From The Other Side” and “Over There.” That should get you up and running.

Or just start here, with “Olivia.” You can piece together the backstory later.

Filed Under: TV, Fringe

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