Fringe – “Subject 13″

“Subject 13″

February 25th, 2011

Why do we watch Fringe?

This is an honest question, and one that I think Fringe has been forcing viewers to ask for a few episodes now. This is not a question of quality: I think we’ve long ago established that Fringe is a quality television program, and although I think there have been some weak spots as of late the show has been unquestionably solid all season.

Rather, this is a question of connection: when we watch the show, what is it which most draws us in? On some level, this is tested in episodes like “Immortality,” as our interest in the other side is tested by an episode which takes place almost exclusively in that environment. Personally, I quite enjoy the alternate universe, and while I have my concerns about how the show will stick the landing in regards to the pregnancy I thought the time spent with Fauxlivia and friends was well spent.

More generally, though, the central relationship between Peter and Olivia has been front and center, driving the storylines in both universes and, in “Subject 13,” in multiple time periods. And while I think that Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson have done some tremendous work, and I would say that the relationship has been a dramatically compelling addition to the series, I will admit that I am not all that emotionally connected to it. And so when episodes like “6B” draw some pretty heavy-handed parallels between their relationship and the story of the week, it’s a test: is the somewhat tired plot structure overcome if we’re attached to the fate of Peter and Olivia’s relationship?

Ultimately, I thought “6B” was fine, but “Subject 13″ raises a whole host of other questions. There is some tremendous acting in this episode, but I have to ask: what was the point, exactly? What we learn about the past is hardly news, mostly filling in blanks which we had already filled in ourselves, and so it raises the question of why this (extremely compelling) flashback was interjected into the narrative at this point in time.

And it offers an answer that, frankly, tests my patience with whatever portmanteau the internet has given Peter and Olivia.

“Subject 13″ is a retcon. While one could argue that it is a logical retcon, given that Peter and Olivia have both repressed much of their childhoods, the fact remains that this is a blatant effort to more closely tie their relationship into the series’ mythos by introducing a previous engagement between the two characters.

And while I’m willing to keep an open mind in regards to their relationship, I found this to be a bit obnoxious. It’s not so much an issue of not believing in the value of the relationship: it just seems unnecessary, and borderline hokey, to make them into universe-crossed lovers who had a moment of peace and tranquility in a field of tulips as pre-teens. It is not as if Peter and Olivia’s relationship isn’t already complicated, given that he is sleeping with our Olivia after impregnating their Olivia, so I don’t know if I understand the logic here.

The show has always, to some degree, dealt with an unnatural degree of fate. It was fate that Olivia would happen to get looped into the Fringe program given that she had been one of Walter’s subjects, and the Observer who pulled Peter and Walter from the icy water contended with fate in a way which threatened the stability of time itself. These storylines deal with questions of prophecy, something that J.J. Abrams knows all too well from his time on Alias, and I think that there is some value to playing around with those questions.

This is a matter of taste more than a matter of critical decree, but I find this less tenable when merged with romantic relationships. It’s one thing for Peter to be destined to control the machine which could destroy an entire universe, or for Olivia to be the one whose ability to cross between those universes gives her a unique ability to potentially stop that destruction; when merged with their interpersonal relationship, this becomes both prophetic and poetic. Is it necessary, though, to add in a flashback meet cute where the two characters preview their eventual emotional connection? Part of what was so compelling about the episodes following Olivia’s return was that their relationship was too complicated to be reduced to romanticized notions, but both “6B” and “Subject 13″…well, that’s sort of what they did, at least in my view.

As noted above, this is not a fundamental concern: “6B” was a solid episode, and the non-romantic elements of “Subject 13″ were really quite terrific. John Noble was strong, as usual, but this was really all about Orla Brady as Elizabeth Bishop. We know how her story ends, in both universes: in one she’s the devoted wife who finally saw her son returned to her (before he ran back to his own universe, of course), and in the other she was a broken woman who killed herself out of a combination of grief and guilt. I loved the parallel between the two universes: in one, Elizabeth is left alone with a child who believes he comes from another universe, and in the other Elizabeth is left alone with the shadow of a child whose disappearance has shattered her marriage. In both cases, Walter is absent, either throwing himself into trying to find a way to send Peter back (and, in the process, avoiding the reality of the other Peter’s presence) or burying himself in work and drinking himself into oblivion to numb the pain.

This is all beautifully rendered, with Brady in particular stepping up to the plate. The opening scene is haunting, but it’s the closing scene that sticks with me: the parallel with Walter’s whiskey should be clever, but instead it’s devastating. This was the first step towards her eventual suicide, the first moment where the secret she keeps will begin to tear her apart, and it has enormous weight coming after that moment where she could have told the truth. Peter seems to have come to terms with the situation, having realized that this woman cares about him enough to worry about his safety, and he gives her the chance to admit that he has a different home he might never return to. Her commitment to the lie is heartbreaking and yet honest, as living with a son from another universe might have been just as difficult as pretending he was the son she lost months before.

However, why are we stopping at this point in the series to tell this story? Seeing the moment that Walternate first witnessed evidence of another universe as Olivia crosses over is a neat little parlor trick, but does it tells us anything new? The Walter/Elizabeth side of this story lacked any clear connection to the season’s overall narrative, unlike “Peter” where the flashback was positioned as a confession of sorts for Walter. “Peter” was an important pivot in the second season, but is “Subject 13″ similarly meaningful to the ongoing storylines?

Or, to ask the question in a different way, is it meaningful for any reason other than the connection between Olivia and Peter? The reason I responded to the relationship retcon in the way I did is because that seems to be the most functional element of the flashback: that’s the connection they seem to want to emphasize, the new piece of information which was added to the series’ mythos. The value of “Subject 13″ as an episode of television is the way it brings what we already knew to life, showing us the details of Elizabeth’s struggle without really revealing anything that we could not have surmised on our own. However, I worry that its value to the narrative will be reduced to Olivia and Peter’s relationship, and that the episode’s resonance will be unfairly limited as a result.

For those who are more attached to that pairing, I imagine that “Subject 13″ was pretty fantastic – not only was it an extremely well-executed addition to the series’ history, but it also added some new depth to their relationship. As someone who enjoyed the episode for other reasons, and to some degree in spite of the retcon, all I want to emphasize is that I want this episode to be about something more than Peter and Olivia.

Even if that’s all that gets carried into the remainder of the season.

Cultural Observations

  • As is natural when dealing with episodic television reviews, I don’t know that none of the Walternate material here won’t resonant in future episodes. However, I’m not really seeing how that would play out, as that part of the episode really felt more like the past being given greater meaning by the present, rather than vice versa.
  • Some great work by Chandler Canterbury and Karley Scott Collins as young Peter and Olivia, respectively – both were asked to handle some pretty weighty material while also having a few moments where they simply get to be normal children (the origami, the toy store), and they really stepped up to the plate.
  • Retro credits are still, as one would expect, tremendous. Love that they’re getting more use out of them, and hope the show lasts long enough for this to become a tradition.
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27 Comments

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27 responses to “Fringe – “Subject 13″

  1. I don’t think that Walternate did cross over to our universe; I think that Olivia, faced with the looming presence of her stepfather, crossed over again briefly, from the office in the Jacksonville play center to the identically-placed office in Bishop Dynamic. So Walternate was minding his own business at his desk when suddenly a girl appears in front of him, calling him by name and babbling about alternate universes before disappearing again.

    • Yeah, you’re right – realized that read really weird, so edited to better reflect the moment.

      • And, in fact, the point and import of that moment (and therefore in some sense of the episode) for the mythos is to further complicate (read “render realistic) the question of who’s at fault for the war between universes?

        Over the course of the series, we’ve been shown ways in which it can be blamed on Walter, William Bell, Walternate. Now it turns out that without Olivia ever having crossed over at that moment, Walternate might never have realized there was a parallel world at all.

        Granted the only reason Olivia can cross over is because of Walter, and the only reason for that is because Walter was trying to fix what he did when *he* crossed over, but still, it’s the sort of thing that if Olivia ever realized/remembered, it would throw a whole new emotional wrench into the mix.

        This season in many ways has been about who’s at fault for the conflict, and whether or not each of them having their respective responsibilities for it in any way makes them culpable in a moral sense, or just in a tragic and understandable one.

        Olivia is now culpable, even if excused by Walter’s experiments upon her and her step-father’s abuse of her. That’s something we didn’t know before, making this not just an episode about things we’d already figured out.

        • Eldritch

          I don’t see Olivia’s culpability. Her ability to cross over developed due to Walter’s training. He urged the children to focus on transporting to a different place, because of his kidnapping of Peter2. That makes Walter1 the cause and Olivia1 the effect.

          Olivia was little more than one of a series of dominoes Walter knocked over.

          • My point is the potential emotional impact. Most people, at some point in their life, feel guilty for things that they might have been involved with only because of other people. As I said, she doesn’t have to be culpable from a moral standpoint for her to feel, should she ever remember that moment, responsible for Walternate learning of her universe.

            It’s never as simple as a straightforward guilt/no guilt.

          • Scully9

            Just a quickie — remember in the episode, I believe, Over There Pt. 2, when upon being asked by the ‘other’ Olivia “what am I like . . . I mean her?” Peter replied: “it’s like she’s trying to right some imaginary wrong . . . ” Well, maybe it’s the fact that she told Walternet where Peter was taken. Even if she doesn’t remember, the subconsious plays such an important role in life.

            Just a thought . . . I love reading these reviews and reflections. I never comment, but this just dawned on me because of the comments above.

    • Tausif Khan

      @Ray Thanks for clearing this up! I was thinking something of the sort but you were able to articulate it neatly.

  2. …and speaking of the young actors, I was tremendously impressed with Young Olivia’s rasping Oliviaesque speech patterns, and Young Peter’s guarded, unsmiling Peteresque poker face.

    • Tausif Khan

      The actor who played young Peter looked like he was Jodie Foster’s child and every once in a while like a young Elijah Wood. Young Peter was a little blank when he needed to emote more (in the scene where he is supposed to show us that he is in love with a Olivia most particularly).

  3. Andy

    Excellent review. It more or less eloquently stated all of the thoughts I had rattling around in my brain about this episode. You should consider writing about Fringe regularly.

  4. Drew

    While the meeting of the young couple may have been the most hyped part of the episode, frankly I don’t think it was the most important, nor was it the part that affected me the most.

    I think the biggest part was in contrasting the relationships between Peter and Elizabeth, and then Walter and Olivia. A large part of this episode was in showing that Walter and Olivia had established a caring relationship, with the dramatic tension coming from Walter knowing that logically she should be expendable, and us knowing that he can be truly ruthless at times. In the scene of Olivia’s confession to Walter(nate) , we are watching the expression on his face, wondering if he is going to sacrifice her despite her heartbreaking plea, building up a huge amount of suspense in we observers, then flipping the whole meaning of the scene ninety degrees but showing us it was Walternate she was confessing to. It was this dramatic tension of wondering how their relationship would end up that made this more than the parlor trick that you named it. And then Walter finally makes his choice, and protects her from her stepfather, in turn becoming something of a surrogate father to her himself, as it’s clear that Olivia considers the daycare center more of a home then her true home.

    And then there’s the other relationship in the episode, between Peter and Elizabeth, culminated in the complimentary scene with them, when Peter finally accepts her assertion that he’s imagining things. It is again a study of the expressions on both their faces: Peter’s, as his will to resist finally crumbles with one last lie from Elizabeth, and then her face, as it spirals from relief, to guilt at that relief, to horrifying guilt at finally “breaking” him, which in turn ultimately breaks her.

    These are the relationships that are important in this episode, with the true tragedy being that both Peter and Olivia supress much or all of it.

  5. ck

    Olivia sure wasn’t cut any slack by Walternate (in end of S2/start of s3) for inadvertently alerting him to the existence of the parallel universe, huh?

  6. Katie

    As someone who was never all too attached to Peter and Olivia as a couple, I think the choice to have this retcon was almost a necessity. While I enjoyed seeing the last few episode that explore Olivia’s and Peter’s feelings at Faulivia, the supposed depth of connection between Peter and Olivia was something I never quite understood (maybe due to me having been a irregular viewer and missed about a season’s worth of episodes early-mid S1-2 that might have explored their relationship more ). So in this regard, this episode helped me bridge that gap a good amount, which seems necessary if the upcoming war is heavily dependent on Peter’s choice.

  7. Hecate

    I tend to impose my own mythos of the Walters and their redemption or hero’s story. So to me the episode was about Olivia’s fall from grace with Walter. NOW I can see why Walter would want to make her forget. And there is more understanding of the morality around children. Walternate scored great points for resisting experimenting on children. The whole notion of a self-fulfilling prophecy is fascinating too (Walter fears the retribution of the other world, and in “preparing” for this he clues in Walternate by creating Olivia’s ability). To me this show is about Walter, much more than about anybody else. Walter has watched Walternate for months (or years) through the special window–when will Walter trust himself and his alternate enough to try to mend worlds?

  8. Not a fan of retcons either by and large but when they are done this skillfully all that is left is our response to it which, as you stated, is a matter of taste.

    Why show this episode at this point? Olivia’s ‘Butterfly Effect’ of inadvertently giving Walternate the answer to Peter’s disappearance is a very compelling reason why.

    That large scale events can be triggered from something very small add another layer of complexity and tragedy to the already established tapestry of the Fringe mythos. That makes this episode more than just being about Peter and Olivia.

    The intertwining of the small; that inadvertent slip up by Olivia, born from an act of kindness from Peter to Olivia, to the large; the potential war and destruction of two universes, makes the skill and ingenuity of this episode something even more to marvel at before the end game of this season arc starts to unfold. In giving us the small, emotional ties are provided that help us grapple with the large, which often remains a nebulous concept.

    Very good reasons why to show this episode now.

    Pretty damn cool too.

  9. While the relationship between Peter and Olivia is made simpler (and I for one see no problem with cute romanticization), the question of culpability (as The One True b!X put it) is made much more complicated.

    The season has obviously been building up to a war between the two sides. So the question is who we’re rooting for. The decision to set many episodes on the other side was a brilliant one, because when they’re not juxtaposed with the “good guys” we can’t just call them “bad guys” and hope they get beaten. As viewers, we are attached to both sides of the conflict.

    Walternate wears a suit, scowls a lot, and has a big government job where he dictates what will happen to others, so of course our first instinct was to call him a villain and wait for him to be beaten. But our view of him is changing. In Immortality, there was a wonderful little moment where Walternate recoils from the idea of testing Cortexiphan in children, which of course reminded us of his personal story but also made us question which of the two Walters is truly the better person. And in 6B, Walter finds himself logically drawn to the same methods Walternate used, which makes the distinctions even fuzzier.

    So now we have an episode where we see both versions of Walter in their formative moments. And we like them both! On one side, we empathize with the man who has lost his son and will do anything to get him back. And on the other side, we empathize with the man who works tirelessly to return Peter, but can’t do it because it would involve letting a little girl be beaten.

    From the perspective of both Peter and Olivia, our world is the cruel one. Their world is the one that makes sense. Our Walter gets softer over time, their Walter gets harder, but both are fundamentally good people who are just a bit messed up. Our Walter fails to let his logic override his emotions when he should, and their Walter will take harsh measures against a cruel world invading his home. But this isn’t good vs. evil, just Walter vs. Walter.

    And the simple relationship retcon really doesn’t make anything simpler at all. If you say it’s just a complicated relationship like any other, then Peter has to react to the news of Olivia’s pregnancy by going home. (There’s no way he’d let a boy grow up without both his real parents.) But if he’s really in love with our Olivia because they’ve both always been fish out of water, that balances it out. Peter’s right in between the two, and now that we’re seeing the relationship as this long-running story so are we.

    So which side do we root for? That’s what this episode is all about, and it was the best piece of TV I’ve seen in months.

  10. While the relationship between Peter and Olivia is made more straightforward (and I see no problem at all with a romance this cute), the question of culpability (as The One True b!X put it) is made much more complicated.

    The season has obviously been building up to a war between the two sides. So the question is who we’re rooting for. The decision to set many episodes on the other side was a brilliant one, because when they’re not juxtaposed with the “good guys” we can’t just call them “bad guys” and hope they get beaten. As viewers, we are attached to both sides of the conflict.

    Walternate wears a suit, scowls a lot, and has a big government job where he dictates what will happen to others, so of course our first instinct was to call him a villain and wait for him to be beaten. But our view of him is changing. In Immortality, there was a wonderful little moment where Walternate recoils from the idea of testing Cortexiphan in children, which of course reminded us of his personal story but also made us question which of the two Walters is truly the better person. And in 6B, Walter finds himself logically drawn to the same methods Walternate used, which makes the distinctions even fuzzier.

    So now we have an episode where we see both versions of Walter in their formative moments. And we like them both! On one side, we empathize with the man who has lost his son and will do anything to get him back. And on the other side, we empathize with the man who works tirelessly to return Peter, but can’t do it because it would involve letting a little girl be beaten.

    From the perspective of both Peter and Olivia, our world is the cruel one. Their world is the one that makes sense. Our Walter gets softer over time, their Walter gets harder, but both are fundamentally good people who are just a bit messed up. Our Walter fails to let his logic override his emotions when he should, and their Walter will take harsh measures against a cruel world invading his home. But this isn’t good vs. evil, just Walter vs. Walter.

    And the simple relationship retcon really doesn’t make anything simpler at all. If you say it’s just a complicated relationship like any other, then Peter has to react to the news of Olivia’s pregnancy by going home. (There’s no way he’d let a boy grow up without both his real parents.) But if he’s really in love with our Olivia because they’ve both always been fish out of water, that balances it out. Peter’s right in between the two, and now that we’re seeing the relationship as this long-running story so are we.

    So which side do we root for? In the larger scheme of things that’s what this episode is all about, and it was the best piece of TV I’ve seen in months.

  11. Sean Sweeney

    Your observation about the connection to “Alias” and prophecy is interesting- did anyone else notice that the puzzle that Olivia struggled with as Walter shouted at her was the same one that Sydney was able to easily assemble as an adult, triggering her memory of being programmed to be a spy as a child? Nice allusion there…

    Nice recap and analysis.

  12. Donna

    This episode was not a retcon in any sense at all. I think the term is being misused here.

    It could only be a retcon if it were definitively established that Peter and Olivia never met as children. Since Olivia already mentioned she never remembered being in Jacksonville (“Jacksonville”) and Peter has said he doesn’t remember being ill (numerous episodes), it is reasonable to assume they both do not remember this whole period. Their gaping memory lapses have already been long established on the show as fact. Which is a convenient loophole for the writers to insert a meeting… but NOT a retcon.

    Also, I don’t see how you could have had them meet as children any more organically to the plot. Peter needed to go home, Olivia possibly had the ability to get him home. It’s not a stretch to imagine that they would have had an encounter. Peter was brought to Jacksonville because his “mother” was worried about him, so that got him to Jacksonville.

    • Personally, I consider retroactive continuity to apply to any changing of previously established facts for the purposes of furthering current storylines.

      My concern is not that the series is contradicting a previously-established narrative – instead, my concern is that they are clearly adding to their previously establish narrative in ways which seem blatantly “designed” to service Olivia and Peter’s relationship. There may be loopholes within the story which keep this from a “rewriting,” but it still feels like the continuity is being redefined based on this particular moment in the series’ development, which I’d argue is still an example of retroactive continuity (which I would argue does not always denoted “rewriting”).

      • Donna

        That’s a personal taste/judgment call, though, and shouldn’t be labeled with the misleading and charged term “retcon.” I don’t agree that continuity is being redefined or shaped in this direction (and I am not what they call a “shipper” either), which is a personal taste/judgment call on my part.

        This is an extremely complex narrative, I think you would agree – encompassing numerous relationships, universes, and (apparently?) eons. It has a lot of moving parts. (Literally and figuratively) Peter and Olivia’s relationship being one of them, but the episode certainly struck me as being about Peter himself, Walter himself, Walternate, etc. in equal measure. You mean “retroactive emphasis” maybe – but that doesn’t really make sense either as a term, to my mind. In any case, there is something about the big picture here that keeps us all coming back.

        • Donna

          Also, if I can add, if the show is renewed, then next year at this time some may find themselves growing uncomfortable at the idea that the story is really about a war between factions of ancient beings, in which the family relations, errors, love affairs, and alternate universes are subsumed. We’re still in the expository stage of this narrative, I feel, which is why new developments and emphases seem disorienting (but being disoriented doesn’t mean you’re being conned).

          • Just to be clear, I don’t feel “conned” by this. Perhaps this is where our different understandings of the term come into play – personally, I don’t view retcon as an inherently negative thing. While I felt that this was a particularly inelegant example, I am fine with Fringe using newly introduced elements of continuity to more carefully frame its narrative. I just felt this particular example risked essentializing a complex episode towards a specific – and, to me, a bit problematic – purpose (as was seen in the promos for the episode).

            It doesn’t invalidate the narrative, or ruin the series – just in this instance it seemed too on-the-nose.

            Also, check out TV Tropes for a larger discussion of retcon (which emphasizes the multiplicity of meaning found in the term): http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/RetCon.

  13. Donna

    Also, it was never stated by anyone credible that Olivia wasn’t undergoing trials until she was 9. The only people who ever intimated such a thing were Nina Sharp – not exactly prone to telling the truth – and Walter Bishop – with his missing brain pieces, not exactly credible either.

    So… where’s the retcon?

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