Contains spoilers through “Olivia,” originally broadcast 9/23/10.
At this point, I’ve got to feel a little gratified, because show I like has managed to make it to a third season. Granted, I know that a lot of shows like that have lasted as long, a little longer, and I still feel a little cheated, for one reason or another, but with ‘Fringe,’ something strange and wonderful has happened. All the potential I saw in the beginning, gradually, critics and audiences have come to embrace as well. The world is beginning to understand that this thing is fascinating. The third season looks like it’s only going to grow more fascinating still.
When we left off last season, we had finally made the momentous trip “over there,” the alternate reality Walter Bishop (John Noble) once visited when he realized he could have a second chance at saving the life of his son, Peter (Joshua Jackson). Much of this backstory is reiterated via clips to open the season premiere, so if you were a little fuzzy on that, it’s okay. But the real problem, and what occupies most of the episode, is that when our characters made that that trip, Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) was kidnapped and replaced by her double. When Peter went back home, he inadvertently celebrated with the wrong Dunham.
There’s a few scenes with Peter and Bolivia (as the alternate Olivia is apparently being referred to, off-camera, just as alternate Walter, on-camera, is distinguished as Walternate, which Peter himself references during a debriefing), but mostly, “Olivia” is all about Olivia, stuck in the alternate reality, setting up the working points of the season, or at least the starting points.
What’s immediately fascinating about the setup is that until now, I hadn’t realized how closely it resembles how the third seasons of ‘Alias’ and ‘Lost,’ two other shows begun by J.J. Abrams (which I often reference in these reviews, as counterpoint) started out so similarly. You’ll recall that in ‘Alias,’ Sydney Bristow had woken up in Hong Kong, her memory and a significant period missing from her life. It was the first unpopular move the series made, and in a sense, it never fully recovered from it. In ‘Lost,’ Jack, Sawyer, and Kate all became hostages of the Others, a situation that contributed in making that season the most consistently uncomfortable and unpopular year of the show, which like the same season in ‘Alias’ almost torpedoed all interest in it.
I don’t mention these facts to suggest ‘Fringe’ has done something similar and will suffer a similar fate (though it’s certainly possible), but again, for contrast. Unlike the other shows, Olivia seems to gain a certain measure of power within the first episode, a sense of control, which even if undermined by the end of it, still gives a measure of satisfaction to the viewer. She is not completely powerless; her undoing is deliberate and adequately explained, and helps set up more and perhaps more interesting developments for later episodes. That Walternate has her conditioned to believe that she is actually the Olivia that is indigenous to the alternate reality is pretty fascinating, like the Mirror Universe episodes from Star Trek, when we could follow two different versions of the same character simultaneously, but with the added complication that even the constant, the personality we’re supposed to know, won’t be acting that way. It’s all about sympathy. As long as audiences can keep it straight, they’re be rooting for the “right” Olivia, right from the start. They’ll be looking for the moment that she breaks free from the control she’s been put under, because in essence, they’ve seen her do it once already, no matter what the facts may suggest to Walternate and his cronies.
While she’s fighting it here, we already get some extraordinary moments. Olivia has a knack for making the right connections at the right times (as she did last season with Sam Weiss, played by Kevin Corrigan, who will be returning this season), and she does that again during this episode. While she’s briefly on the run and in full command of her faculties, she runs into a cabbie who ends up being the audience surrogate, the character who will make it easy for new viewers to understand what’s going on, and old ones to build the needed sympathy that will sustain her in later episodes. Olivia uses some strong tactics on him early on, but gradually builds some real trust, so that eventually, the cabbie realizes that he knows exactly what she’s going through. She ends up not needing the leverage she’s been holding against him to earn his continued cooperation. As a one-off character, the cabbie, played by a familiar genre veteran, Andre Royo, last seen in ‘Heroes’ (the “villain” who could create miniature black holes), and lends a lot of his backstory from vague illusions to that past performance, is spot-on.
The alternate Charlie Francis (the one that’s still alive), is given a lot more sympathy during this episode than his appearance at the end of last season as well, another clear as to how navigating this season is going to work. We also meet Olivia’s mother, Marilyn (Amy Madigan), who in our reality is dead, but in the alternate reality is alive and kicking, and inadvertently helps put Olivia back into the hands of Walternate. But there are signs that she may hold the key to Olivia’s salvation.
Speaking of salvation, viewers from last season really should have guessed it all along, but those who had been hoping for some swift and handy resolution to Olivia’s situation probably spent the whole episode expecting that she’s made a quick trip back home, only to discover that, for all intents and purposes, she’s stuck there. We’ve known it isn’t a simple matter to cross between realities, but basic instinctual hope, and a need for the status quo (which both ‘Alias’ and ‘Lost,’ as I’ve suggested, both unsuccessfully exploited) made some viewers hope against the facts. But ‘Fringe’ has a chance of making this familiar gambit succeed, because in essence, it’s got two versions of more or less the same reality going on, the same characters, the same actors. To create some differences that don’t have to do with temperament and visuals, some new characters have been introduced, including Marilyn Dunham. But Charlie has a new partner, Lincoln Lee, who happens to be portrayed by one of two brothers cast for the season, Shawn and Aaron Ashmore, who introduce a whole new level of duplication to matters. Lincoln has been badly scarred, leaving him pretty distinctive, so rather than a nice set of twins, right there in the alternate reality, there’s a problem of fractured facades, complications that need to be worked out.
“Olivia,” to my mind, is a terrific way to start out the third season, clearly echoing history while also making history work for it, in a strong and confident way, much as the series has been progressing from the start, always keenly aware of what it’s trying to do, and attempting to make it as interesting as possible. ‘Fringe’ is not a show like ‘Alias’ or ‘Lost,’ where there’s a single story that weaves through the back- and foreground, moving in an obvious direction. It’s been working twists and turns, gradual and deliberate revelations all along, combining what worked well for both its immediate predecessors, and potentially creating something that could exceed them. A lot of that potential became more obvious in the second half of last season, and it appears that the third season hasn’t slacked off from the increased momentum. We’re up for a pretty interesting ride.