Fringe: “Bad Dreams”

Fringe: “Bad Dreams”

The last thing you want to see in a Fringe opening sequence is a toddler in a stroller—especially if a mother is pushing that stroller onto a mostly empty subway platform, while the toddler plays with balloons bearing creepy-looking circus designs. Nothing good can come of this.

Sure enough, in the opening moments of tonight's Fringe, the mother in question reaches up to retrieve one of those balloons as a train pulls up, and just then a stranger emerges out of the shadows and pushes the mother to her death. The bad news? The stranger is Olivia Dunham. The good news? It was all just a dream, which Olivia quickly awakes from. The bad news again? The next moring, Olivia learns that the mother from her dream actually exists, and that she did in fact die by jumping in front of a subway train the night before.

This episode was written and directed by Akiva Goldsman, best-known for his Academy Award-winning screenplay for A Beautiful Mind, though fanboys and movie buffs will never forget that Goldsman’s also the man behind the scripts for Lost In Space and both of Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies. So his record ain’t spotless. But the man’s clearly a pro, and I thought he did a fine job with “Bad Dreams,” both at the typewriter and behind the camera. Sometimes the humor felt a little forced, but by and large Goldsman finessed that tricky Fringe tone—super-creepy with a soupçon of camp—and came up with several unsettling set pieces.

And Goldsman's work was all the more impressive given that he was entrusted with an episode that wasn’t really a stand-alone, but instead had deep and abiding ramifications for Fringe’s master-plot. I knew early one that Goldsman had figured out what this show’s about when he had Olivia’s adorable niece talking about her upcoming vaccinations. “They put something dead … into your blood,” Ella says, and in that one funny line, the little girl revives Fringe’s key themes: the collision of the biological and the technological, for the purposes of converting human bodies into delivery systems for something nefarious.

The nefariousness in “Bad Dreams” was carried by one Nick Lane, an emotionally and physically scarred young man who has the power to influence people with his moods. It was his suicidal thoughts that caused the mother in Olivia’s dream to kill herself, and later in the episode we see him prompt a woman in a restaurant to stab her husband, and—in a scene that surely made every heterosexual male Fringe fan want to forgive Akiva Goldsman for any past cinematic sins—we see him convince a stripper to have sex with him.

Why is the stripper scene so exciting (despite a minor continuity error that had the lady go from being topless to wearing a bra in the space of one cut)? It's because Nick's transmitting his firsthand experience straight into Olivia’s unconscious mind, such that she feels she’s doing whatever he does—and even whatever he influences others to do. She pushes the woman in front of the train, and she stabs the husband, and she has sex with the stripper. Granted, during that last bit she’s strapped to a table in Walter's lab, being monitored. But Olivia’s moans of pleasure seem pretty real regardless. (“Is he hurting her?” Astrid asks, before realizing what’s actually happening.)

Before discovering Nick/s connection to Olivia, Walter wonders if there might be an even odder explanation for all these deaths she’s witnessing. (“I thought you might’ve teleported to New York and killed her. Wouldn’t that have been wondrous?”) He even speculates on whether Olivia has achieved what he believes to be mankind’s oldest dream: to have the power to wish people dead. But then Olivia’s investigation of the actual crimes leads to the discovery that Nick was present for all of them, and a search through Nick's apartment uncovers some disturbing research into Massive Dynamic’s underground drug tests, and a some familiar philosophizing about what it might be like to make a better world just by dreaming it.

Yes, Nick Lane is an unwitting soldier in Walter’s covert ZFT Army, injected with a latent strain of kick-ass when he was a youngster, in the same Cortexifan study that Olivia took part in as a little girl in Florida. Only while Olivia remembers nothing about what happened to her, Nick has spent his whole life waiting to be activated, and feeling increasingly purposeless for not being called upon. He even recalls being paired up with Olivia—though he calls her “Olive.”

The big meeting between Nick and Olivia at the climax of "Bad Dreams" was extraordinarily well-shot and performed. It takes place on the top of a tall building, as Nick and a random group mood-infectees stand at the edge of the roof, preparing to jump off en masse. (Or perhaps they’re all just depressed by the giant poster for 17 Again that hangs on a nearby skyscraper.) Nick begs Olivia to kill him, and seems genuinely lost and distraught. Instead, she merely shoots him in the leg—causing all his followers to crumple safely—and gets him to hospital, where he’s put into a pharmacological coma.

The rooftop scene, the subway scene, the stripper scene, and even the restaurant scene—where it looks briefly like Olivia is going to prevent the wife from stabbing her husband, before she grabs the woman’s hand and helps her thrust—were all sublimely unnerving, as was the big final scene, where Walter sits alone and watches a tape of his old Cortexifan experiments, witnessing the disturbing side effects the drug had on “Olive.” Fringe has had its ups and downs in its first season, but I think it’s pretty impressive that the show has developed such a distinctive voice that a stranger like Goldsman can come in and get up to speed so quickly, infected by its peculiar kind of madness.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

-I noticed in the opening credits that Brad Anderson is now apparently a producer on the show as well an occasional director. This is a good thing.

-Check out Peter, rockin’ the giant pretzel in the NYC.

-Maybe I’ve been playing Wii Fit too much, but when Olivia was doing her sit-ups I was hearing the voice of an electronic trainer in my head. “You’ve got amazing ab strength. … You’re doing great. Keep it up!”

-It also says something about how pop-addled my brain is that when Walter was giving his little speech about the groundbreaking work done by the likes of Castaneda and Heisenberg, the first things I thought of were Lost and Breaking Bad.

-“‘Where’s the fire?’ I always loved that expression, which is curious, since my lab assistant was killed in a fire.”

-I assume we all recognized the voice of William Bell, yes?

-It looks like there’s a very good chance that Fringe will be renewed. The ratings are strong enough and the show has clearly found a voice. Now here’s my advice to Abrams/Orci/Kurtzman/etc.: Start prepping for the endgame. Even with the freak-of-the-week format, I don’t see Fringe as the kind of show that runs for a long time. Peter’s line tonight about how Walter’s babbling is “like listening to a broken record but the lyrics keep changing” reflects my standing criticism of Fringe’s first season. I think the show has found interesting ways to keep spinning its recurring motifs—its pattern, if you will—but I don’t think there’s unlimited potential here, and Fox isn’t exactly the kind of network that sticks with tricky genre series once the numbers start to go down. And they will go down, once Fringe loses its Idol lead-in next fall. The show’s too weird to be wildly popular. I hope it gets to go out on its own terms, and the best way to do that is to plan out a finite number of “mythology” stories and keep them at the ready. The producers can always commission more monster stories, but the tale of Walter and William and Peter and Olive has to have an arc and an end. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed that the people in charge know what they’re doing. It's been an enjoyable ride so far.

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