Fringe has beamed some pretty ooky science onto your retinas over the past couple of years — but last night's season premiere was likeliest to make your skin crawl. Turns out that both Walter Bishops like to experiment on Olivia.
There's something so horrifying about the idea of someone losing their identity, which is probably why it's such a popular theme in science fiction. Having your very personhood stripped away from you, and becoming someone (or something) else is automatically really disturbing stuff — and you have to give it to Anna Torv, she played the fragility of Olivia Dunham struggling to hold onto herself really really well.
Olivia, of course, has already been through a lot in the past, and the walls of her selfhood have taken a lot of nasty knocks, courtesy of "our" Walter Bishop and his Cortexiphan trials, among other things. Her earlier visit to the other universe also left her with a bit of long-term psychic nastiness. So this latest attempt to knock down her sense of identity is especially insidious.
That opening scene, where we see a helpful therapist trying to "cure" Olivia of the delusion that she's not from this universe, is a really disturbing bit, in addition to providing a dollop of helpful exposition for people who forgot stuff over the weekend. (It's paired with a similar scene between Peter and an interrogator towards the end of the episode.) We quickly learn that the therapist isn't alone in trying to convince Olivia that she's really Fauxlivia — the other Walter, Walternate, is spearheading a whole program to inject Olivia with lymphocytes from her other self, in the hope of rewriting her memories. (Yes, it doesn't really make any sense. Just run with it.)
Creepy needles! And even though she might die if they give her another treatment, they do it anyway.
Olivia, being Olivia, manages to escape with an awesome display of derring-do — memorizing the keypad sequence that opens the door, stealing a gun, jumping off the cliff of Liberty Island and swimming to Manhatan, then jacking a cab by completely over-awing the cab driver (The Wire's Andre Royo) who has the amusing name Henry Higgins and becomes a bit of a Magical Negro later in the episode.
Eventually, as the episode goes on, Olivia realizes that escaping back to her home universe isn't going to be as easy as she'd thought — and that's when other half of the episode's horror kicks in. Walternate's treatments start working, and she starts remembering things from Fauxlivia's life — as well as being an expert markswoman, which was Fauxlivia's trait, not hers. Finally, Olivia meets up with Fauxlivia's mom (her own mom died when she was 14) who "gets through to" her at last, making her accept that she's really who everybody says she is.
This is a clever setup for a few reasons — this could just as easily be an episode about someone who's forgotten who they really are, and is having to be reminded, by the people who care about her. And it's also a neat way to set up the new status quo, in which apparently Olivia will be a fully integrated agent with the "other" Fringe Division, while Fauxlivia is "embedded" with our team. It sounds like it could be horribly contrived, on paper, but it works somehow.
The new supporting cast, including Fauxlivia's teammates Lincoln Lee and the not-dead Charlie Francis, manage to be sympathetic pretty much right away, starting with the scene where Charlie and Lincoln trade incredibly nasty barbs about each others' disfiguring illnesses and parasitic worms — I guess this is what passes for humor when you work for the Fringe Division in the other universe.
And we start to get some answers as to why Walternate wants Olivia to think she's Fauxlivia — he needs to know how she was able to cross between universes without the help of a machine, and exactly what his other self did to give her all these super-powers. It's actually pretty plausible, especially since Olivia might die before she told him anything otherwise. (Although, now that she thinks she's Fauxlivia, will she even remember this stuff?)
(Oh and by the way — I think I was one of the first people to start saying "Fauxlivia." I almost got seduced over to the official term, Bolivia, for "Bad Olivia," but now I'm back to Fauxlivia. I want some credit, dammit!)
So yeah, a big part of the awesomeness of this new setup is going to be discovering all of the little weird differences in the other universe. In this episode, among other things: The hit musical DOGS. President Kennedy talking about stepping down soon. Eldridge Cleaver and Martin Luther King Park: "We Have A Dream." GlatterFlug — Daily Flights to the Moon. Liberty Island. SheXXon. But apparently, they still have Star Wars in the other universe, judging by the "Jedi mind trick" reference.
And there's no Massive Dynamic, something we might already have known, from William Bell's comments — but now it's official.
The anti-ambering protest was also fascinating, with its awesomely radical signs like "AMBERING = DEATH." It makes me wonder just how much dissent is tolerated in this universe, and whether there's a lot of debate about the practice of trapping tons of innocent people inside these weird bubbles — and whether the people really are alive or dead inside them. I'm getting Vernor Vinge flashbacks, and wondering if eventually all these people will be un-bobbled.
And then there's the kicker at the end of the episode — with Fauxlivia cozying up to Walter and smooching Peter. Peter walks away with her, saying that he's sure there'll be more of the usual insanity coming tomorrow — and really, he has no idea whom he's saying that to, and how right he is.
All in all, this episode shows that Fringe isn't finished freaking us out with excesses of scientific abuse (and making us love it). And that the universe-hopping theme of the show has a lot more potential for weirdness, and very personal storytelling, than we've already seen.
What did you think?