Olivia is kind of a doormat, on Fringe

Fringe has played the "will they or won't they" game with Peter and Olivia a dozen times now, so it's hard to get excited about the latest iteration. But at least last night's "A Short Story About Love" found a new wrinkle on the theme of universe-crossed lovers... and it was actually much more creepy and disturbing than the episode's mad scientist of the week.


In particular, Olivia turns out to have a lot less self-respect than we ever realized. Spoilers ahead...

The central conceit of this episode seemed to be the notion of losing your identity in order to gain love — which is a sacrifice that many people have made over the ages, especially women. To lose everything about yourself, and everything that makes you who you are as a person, in order to be subsumed in someone else's personhood, is a kind of death. And choosing to be erased as a person is a kind of suicide.

And this is the question that Olivia struggles with, throughout this episode — and at first, it kind of freaks her out, as it should. Now that Peter has rejected her (at the end of the previous episode), she's realizing that losing all of her memories of her real life — the life that everybody else around her remembers — just so she can be Peter's ideal lover, is kind of a horrible fate. She talks to Nina about her fear that the false memories will subsume the real ones, and then she goes to see Walter, confessing that she's terrified of being wiped out as a person.

But then, later in the episode, Olivia meets a newly widowed woman who didn't really love her husband — and Olivia decides that living without the possibility of love is a dreadful fate, and it's actually better to be completely annihilated if she can have love into the bargain. (Presumably, if Olivia had instead met a woman who'd dreamed of running away to the circus but never got the courage, Olivia would have been inspired to join the circus instead. Because Olivia makes all her major life decisions based on whomever she's happened to meet that day.)

The clip above, where Olivia explains to Nina that she's okay with being scrubbed like one of the Actives in Dollhouse, so she can be filled up with memories that are totally at variance with those of everybody else around her, is ultra-disturbing. Nina is like, "So you're willing to throw away everything in your life for this dude you just met?" and Olivia is like, "Yup. Pretty much." WTF Olivia? The Olivia Dunham I know would have fought to be herself, no matter what the cost.

Let's just be clear here — giving up everything that makes you you, just so somebody will love and accept you, is not okay, and I'm a bit weirded out by a narrative that suggests that it is.


The other theme that pops out of this episode is the notion of parental love versus romantic love — Peter chooses to get away from Olivia, at least partly because Walter thinks it's the right thing to do, and he's rewarded for his self-abnegation with a moment of supreme tenderness, in which Walter admits that he might not have had the strength to follow his own advice, and Peter is a better man than he is. Meanwhile, a huge part of the creepiness, and sadness, of the "Olivia chooses to be erased" storyline is seeing Nina realizing that her years of raising Olivia, and being her surrogate mother, and caring for her, are going to be wiped out entirely. Poor Nina.

So why exactly is romantic love worth throwing away the love of your parents for? I guess that's the choice that people make all the time, in real life, and it's part of growing up. But still, Nina is right when she says that Olivia has a lot of other stuff in her life besides just the love of a good man. (And then there's always Lincoln, who's making crazy mournful puppy faces throughout the episode because he thought he had a shot at being done by Dunham.)


The notion of losing your personality, and your memories, for love, are underscored by the "creep of the week" plot, in which a Phantom-of-the-Opera-faced perfume-maker is killing pairs of lovers, in an attempt to distill their love down to an essence that he can dab on himself like cologne. As if the perfect scent would make you love a horrifically ugly stranger in exactly the same way you would your husband or boyfriend. He has to kill the wives and girlfriends, because the dead-boyfriend perfume never quite works the way he wants it to. Can you separate love entirely from the identity of the loved one? It's sort of the flipside of the dilemma that Olivia meets.

Anyway, in the end, Peter and Olivia finally get together — and maybe this time, it'll stick. Peter comes around to accepting Olivia as his One True Love out of all possible universes, because he's hooked up with September again and September has told him what everybody else figured out 12 episodes ago — this is Peter's universe, and it's just that he was erased. (Oh, and speaking of which, whatever happened to the notion that Peter's presence was breaking the space/time continuum and causing time farts and stuff? Did that just fix itself?)


All told, this was a reasonably solid but not stellar episode, in which Olivia appears to make an appalling choice — although we, the viewers, know that the past that Olivia is re-remembering is her "real" past from our perspective. It's only the entire world she lives in that is going to be at variance with her memories from here on out. But I guess no sacrifice is too great for love... right?


Dr Emilio Lizardo

Oh, I disagree with your analysis, Charlie Jane.

Olivia has now been exposed to Peter for long enough that she must be wondering if this version of herself is real or not. I think she decided that she feels happier around Peter and she is willing to risk her current self on the possibility that she may be happier as the Olivia that is in love with Peter, even if she forgets this timeline/universe/dimension/whatever you want to call it. Based on September's speech, this is probably the right decision. The life she thought she was living is the fake one and the one with Peter is the real one. So not only will she be happier, but her decision may even help to set the whole world right. I thought her decision was very brave - to give up everything she has known because she might be happier in a different universe. Who says sacrifice can only be noble if it benefits other people?

Also, I think I have to point out that in the past you have argued in favor of drugs that can potentially wipe out traumatic memories and I have disagreed with you then, saying that we are our memories, good and bad, and messing with them makes us different people. We seem to have swapped sides in this argument. Forgive me if I mis-remembered your stance on this topic or confused you with another commenter.

PS: what I love most about io9 is our ability to disagree with each other, but still respect each other.