Recap: 'Fringe' - 'Subject 13'
The Friday night run of “Fringe” has polarized fans of the show, if comments around these parts are any indication. I know it’s polarized me, as I have winced as often as I have marveled at the steps the show is taking. I’ve tried to couch my reservations with the caveat that the proof will be in the multiverse pudding, but that hasn’t allayed fears that the idea of Peter’s choice of which Olivia to love will determine the fate of an entire universe seems a bit…well, hokey. It’s not that I need emotional resonance removed from my sci-fi. But I don’t want the entire endeavor to boil down to well-produced fanfic, either.
Full recap of Friday’s (Feb. 25) “Fringe” after the break…
“Subject 13” returned “Fringe” to the type of emotional bedrock that marks the show at its best, the type threaded throughout the end of Season 1 through the first arc of Season 3. I’ve had issues with the recent series of episodes in which Peter has to essentially go through the most dramatic rose ceremony ever in order to determine the fate of millions. “Subject 13” returns to the show’s primary emotional hook, which is that the things people will do for those they care about can have unintended consequences for those far beyond the small unit of friendship or family in question. Those actions can be widespread enough without cracks in the universe, but turn downright deadly when they do.
Mileage may vary on the fact that tonight’s episode showed the first meeting between Peter and Olivia, a meeting never before hinted at by any character in the show. Luckily, “Fringe” has a retcon built right into the faulty memories of Walter, Peter, and Olivia, so this didn’t really bother me in the slightest. It helps that the child actors who played Peter and Olivia did so competently, and at times quite effectively. But it also repositioned the pair back to a place that was more recognizable, and much more subtle, than the recent on-the-nose dialogue in which the two rotely exchanged sentences declaring their feelings for each other.
If I had to sum it up, Peter and Olivia recognize in each other, almost instinctually, that neither has a place to truly call home. The tulip field, a place that shouldn’t exist at all, represents the type of unreal world that somehow feels real when the two both inhabit it. In the “Fringe” universe, white tulips represent forgiveness, dating back to Walter’s wish in Season 2 to receive one as a sign from God in the wake of Peter’s kidnapping. It was also a nice, subtle shout out to the climatic scene in Season 1’s “Ability,” in which Peter’s presence aided Olivia in mentally disarming the bomb left by Mr. Jones. (Crikey, that feels like 10 years ago, doesn’t it?) The notion that these two find peace when around each other has always been a strong aspect of the show. And while those feelings might develop into something romantic might have been inevitable, that doesn’t mean the actual execution of that inevitability has been done to the show’s usually high standard.
But the white tulip doesn’t simply represent forgiveness, but also of a type of futility, one exhibited in the actions of Alistair Peck in the episode also entitled “White Tulip.” Just as Peck sought in vain to return to the past and save his fiancée, so too has Walter run into a problem of being unable to return Peter back to the other side. Trying to return him to the universal shelf, as it were, and restore balance has proven difficult, and so the facility in Jacksonville has turned into a place where Peter might catch an interdimensional ride that won’t do any more harm in the fabric between realities. All along, we’ve been led to believe that Olivia and Company were trained as soldiers in the upcoming war, but the idea that they were subjected to tests in order to return Peter is both more emotionally resonant and infinitely more tragic.
After all, a great deal of the episode dealt with the moral implications of weighing one life against that of another. Walter refuses to intervene in Olivia’s domestic issues, instead hoping to exploit them in order to stave off Walternate’s apocalyptic search for his son. (Walter knows this will happen because…well, he’d do the same if the shoe were on the other foot.) He tries to justify her potential demise by contextualizing it in terms of saving an entire world of people, but again, the show demonstrated how empathy can get in the way of a moral conundrum. He’s willing to run Olivia through a gamut of emotional strains in order to produce the results he wants (a FANTASTIC montage, told through Dharma Initiative-esque Beta Max tapes), but when confronted with the literal face of Olivia’s fears, he chooses the life of the one he knows over the millions that he doesn’t.
These actions are emotionally rich yet fuel the tragedy of the show. This is a show about science in which the heart almost always overrules the head. That cortexiphan needs an emotional response to kick it into gear tells you everything you need to know about what rules in the world of “Fringe.” While seeing Olivia’s Firestarter moment (engaged through a horrific prank designed to send Olivia to the other side) was great, realizing just how the show fooled us into thinking she confessed her abuse to Walternate, not Walter, was nothing less than spectacular. It’s going to be interesting to look back on all of Walternate’s interactions with Fauxlivia in this new context, and will give new color to those concerning Fauxlivia’s unborn child henceforth. (Walternate as matchmaker in addition to world saver? It’s not like Over There has eHarmony or anything.)
And so the circle turns, or the gyre spins, if you’re into Yeats. What started with Walternate turning around at the wrong time led to Walter crossing over, and in trying to fix the damage he caused before his counterpart could realize what happened, he armed Olivia to literally hand over the answer to his doppelganger. It’s all heady stuff, grounded in emotional truth. In other words, it’s prime, Grade A “Fringe”. And it was awesome to finally see that return to my television after a brief run in which I worried I’d seen the end of it.
And now a hail of snowflakes, produced by Olivia and Peter…
*** News from Over There: The Dodgers are still in Brooklyn, the Green Lantern is The Red Lantern, and NASA apparently doesn’t exist, replaced by Bishop Dynamic in Jacksonville instead of Cape Canaveral.
*** I didn’t mention it above, but a powerhouse performance by Orla Brady as both iterations of Elizabeth Bishop. From being the rock of the family Over There, to showing how much lying to Peter contributed to the start of her mental decline Over Here, she was truly fantastic.
*** Is it wrong to want the 1980’s edition of the opening credit every single week? If so, I don’t wanna be right.
*** Not feeling the need to bookend this episode with scenes from the present was a strong choice. Often times, those types of bookends feel contrived. By this point, “Fringe” fans know enough of what’s going on and don’t need such handholding. So kudos to the show for avoiding that.
What did you make of tonight’s episode? Did seeing the Peter/Olivia meeting jar you out of the show’s mythology, or feel like the right choice? Did that meeting change your opinion about their current relationship status for better or worse? And how are we truly supposed to root for either of these universes now, with so much to love and appreciate about both? Leave your thoughts below!
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