Season Premiere: Fringe – “Olivia”


September 23rd, 2010

Earlier this year, I wrote about what I called “procedural pacing,” wherein FX’s Justified gradually became more serialized throughout its first season: by starting with a more procedural format, and then having that format be interrupted and taken over by a serialized story line as the season wore on, the show established and then shattered its status quo. As a result, when the story eventually turned over in its entirety to Raylon Givens’ battle against the Crowder family, it felt “earned”: instead of seeming like an attempt to create false stakes, we had seen every step in this process, allowing the storyline to feel wholly organic and, more importantly, wholly satisfying.

I don’t think I entirely realized this before, but Fringe very much follows the same principle. It could have, at any point in its first two seasons, indulged in its science fiction premise to the degree we see in “Olivia”: we’ve known about the alternate universe since the first season finale, after all, so what was stopping them from introducing Fauxlivia at that point in the story? Fringe has had the potential for a serialized science fiction series since its pilot, and many have often criticized the series for not doing episodes like “Olivia,” a rollicking yet thought-provoking premiere, more often.

And yet, “Olivia” works as well as it does precisely because it is disrupting a status quo the series has established quite well over the past few seasons; much as Justified’s serialized elements had greater meaning due to the nuanced buildup, the slow development of the alternate universe and its role within this larger story has allowed the various dualities and conflicts the series is creating to have meaning which would have been lost had it been introduced at an earlier date.

What struck me about “Olivia” is how it sold me on things that I felt were underdeveloped last season: Olivia trapped in the alternate universe, with the government trying to convince her that she is the Olivia from “over here,” is an exciting story in and of itself, but I found that it elevated numerous other parts of the series. This is especially true of Olivia’s relationship with Peter, which felt like an afterthought last year but seemed more resonant than I would have imagined when Olivia began discussing her life back in the other world with Henry (played by the always welcome Andre Royo). I still don’t know if the two characters have legitimate chemistry, but there was a vulnerability to Olivia which placed her connection with her friends in a new light. The episode never got particularly sappy about it, but it allowed that brief moment in the car to have the same sense of displacement as the episode itself.

This was all made possible from really a series-best performance from Anna Torv, who has often gotten a lot of flack for her emotionless delivery in the role of Olivia. Personally, I thought this complaint was worn out by the start of the second season, where she was doing much better with some more challenging material, but there is no question that this represents an elevation of sorts. It works because the character is forced to adapt to her surroundings, and because Torv gets to play roughly five different characters in the span of the episode: you’ve got “Olivia in denial” in the hospital, “Olivia the Taxi Hijacker” when she escapes, “Olivia the Lost Girl” when she realizes she is all alone, “Olivia the Fauxlivia” when the treatments kick in, and then “Fauxlivia as Olivia” in the brief epilogue. Olivia has always had these elements to her personality, outside of the whole identity switch element to things, but the switches between them have never seemed transformative; here, Torv really captured the nuance in Olivia’s ordeal, managing to show us just enough of the old Olivia that we understand what is being eroded in light of the treatments.

I’d say that it was ballsy to set an entire episode in the alternate universe with only Olivia as our point of reference, but I think that this is comfortably in the series’ wheelhouse: you still get the element of seeing alternate versions of the regular characters, and there is still mileage in brief observations about the alternate universe (like the “Dogs” musical on the top of Henry’s taxi). It’s also not particularly ballsy because a Prisoner homage featuring Andre Royo seems like a pretty safe bet to me. Yes, I am aware that I am not necessarily representative of every viewer in this respect, but Royo’s obnoxiously expressive eyes sold his fear without becoming hysterical, and his gradual turn to Olivia’s side was really beautifully done. That scene as Charlie and Olivia drive away is just a perfect bit of storytelling: we want Henry to follow her, to realize that something is wrong with that decision, but instead he veers off to spend time with his own family. It’s a final reminder that Olivia truly is alone in this world, and at least to Henry she is simply a lost soul rather than a visitor from another universe.

I just really enjoyed the balance they struck here between some compelling action (the shootout at the gas station, for example), some intriguing interpersonal dynamics, and the very intriguing idea that Olivia is being turned into her alternate universe counterpart. It raises some really fascinating questions about identity while also allowing the series to continue on with a new sense of dynamism: with Olivia now integrated into the Alt-Fringe, and with Fauxlivia integrated into our Fringe, the show could technically utilize two entirely separate procedural structures to tell future stories. They could have both Fringe divisions dealing with versions of the same threat (perhaps the same person) in the same episode, or you could spend an entire episode in one universe or another.

What gradual serialization makes possible, in my eyes, is for serialized storytelling to support and bolster procedural structures instead of distracting or “making up” for them. Where police procedurals or legal dramas have glimpses into the complicated personal lives of their protagonists in an effort to dress up procedural structures, Fringe has a way between alternate universes. While the show used to use Walter’s historical engagement with these issues as a way to cheaply personalize cases-of-the-week, the serialized elements have developed to the point where they now heavily influence the case in numerous ways. The show is now clearly defined, and perhaps forever changed, by its serialized elements, but instead of making its procedural cases irrelevant it has instilled in them a purpose and complexity which could allow the series to elevate itself to a much higher level.

“Olivia” is great as a standalone unit, but it works best as a promise for the future: while I presume that things will eventually return to some sort of normalcy, the trip there is going to fundamentally change these characters and their interactions with one another. What will make this story work, though, is that we’re connected enough with our Walter and his dynamic with Peter and Olivia that we want to protect the status quo. If the show had done this early on, especially with the limited development of Torv’s character and the lack of insight into Walter’s previous experiments, we would have had nothing to protect, and the change instituted here would have seemed like a false attempt to add complexity to a series which seemed to be struggling to find itself.

Instead, by waiting until we had gotten somewhat hooked, the series’ expansion into more substantial serialization feels entirely natural, or as natural as alternate universes and memory transplants can be. As a result, Fringe quite easily keeps its season pass on the DVR, and I look forward to seeing where things go from here.

Cultural Observations

  • Some fun makeup work on Seth Gabel’s Lincoln Lee – not only is it visually fascinating, but it also worked as a nice shortcut in terms of demonstrating how much further along this universe is technologically speaking.
  • No Wire reunion for Andre Royo and Lance Reddick, but I’m fine with this – it would have seemed a bit strange, first of all, and the show gets a second change with Royo returns later this season.
  • Considering how complicated the scene was, with two sets of memories swirling around, I thought the show did a really effective job with the scenes involving Olivia’s mother (played by Amy Madigan, who I recognize most readily as the Grey’s Anatomy psychologist).


Filed under Fringe

5 responses to “Season Premiere: Fringe – “Olivia”

  1. Eldritch

    I thought it was odd that Olivia seemed to believe she had become fauxOlivia when the implanted memories took hold, rather than merely have both sets of memories.

  2. Mel

    I agree with everything you’ve said about Torv (although I think the way she was written is at least partly to blame for the emotionless deliveries early on) the only thing I didn’t like about this ep is that when Henry called her out on calling Peter “Rick” I thought for sure she’d realize the new memories were taking hold, which would add a further tragic element, a sort of Flowers for Algernon syndrome where she knew it was happening but couldn’t stop it (and gradually became less aware of it BECAUSE it was happening) but I guess it would have undermined that moment at the end when Henry doesn’t follow them. But Olivia is usually so quick noticing those sorts of things.

    • mck

      Best review I’ve read yet. I completely agree with all of the above.

      Mel – I like your Flowers for Algernon idea and I was left wondering after the episode if Olivia had in fact realized what was happening and decided to roll with it. There’s about 10-15 second moment with her mother where she just stands frozen. Yes, this could simply be the moment where the drugs took a complete hold on her, but I wondered if her Cortexiphan trials may have aided her in this situation and she’s able to function with both sets of memories. I’d bet on this, but I could also see Henry’s return later in the season sparking some sort of realization. Time will tell.

  3. KimberJets

    I enjoyed reading your review. I was skeptical about not getting to see my favorite two characters (Peter & Walter) for the majority of the 1st episode, but found myself not minding after the tour de force that was “Olivia”. If anything, it just made me more excited to tune in next week. Extremely ballsy choice by the showrunners. And one that paid off, in my opinion.

  4. lala

    Thanks for the review. This show just pushes
    its own envelope more and more each season – but never in a confusing way. Which will probably ensure it always has a smallish audience for however long it survives ratings hell.

    Definitely the change to the status quo is rather unnerving, but feels dramatically necessary to tell a grander story.

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