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.
- 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.