Fringe Thinking:
Across the Universe

Promo shot © 2010 Fox Broadcasting and/or Warner Bros. Entertainment.

I'd been planning to write up the last three Fringe episodes of this season, which reportedly form one continued story, both to quell persistent requests from friends and as practice for potentially weekly reviews come autumn now that Fox has seen fit to renew the show. A few things (LSD not being one them) conspired to convince me that it was a good idea to start early with last night's episode. The usual roadblocks worked mightily to disabuse me of that notion, but too late, so here's some background to save us all from recap fatigue in future chapter-specific editions.

My initial essay on Fringe — an earlier post on its glyphs notwithstanding — came midway through Season Two. While I'll be recapping some of the salient plot points that have taken center stage since then, it provides a good overview of my thoughts on the first half of the series to date. To folks reading this who are unfamiliar with the show: You're going to be confused; you're awfully kind to think enough of my writing that you figured this dispatch was worth a look anyhow; you're missing an excellent television experience. As I did at the end of that earlier essay, I highly recommend catching up via downloads or DVD; both Fringe and Supernatural (which is nearing the conclusion of a welcome albeit weak-by-comparison season a year after many expected the series to end) are worthy successors to the very best of The X-Files and essential viewing for not just "genre" fans but anyone who enjoys great character work played out through superbly inventive storytelling.

Even before Lost went off the air, I was seriously considering a regular run of Fringe reviews — and I knew that there were plenty of song titles left in the Beatles catalog to mine. Just as Fringe and Lost are different shows, however, despite a common co-creator in J.J. Abrams and common production company in his Bad Robot, unlike my "Lost in Thought" musings I'll be limiting myself to naming "Fringe Thinking" posts after Beatles tunes partly or wholly penned by John Lennon and — see the coming review of Episode 3.19 — drawing from non-Beatles Lennon titles as well. I suspect that Walter Bishop appreciates Paul, George, and Ringo considerably, but also that if he does have a favorite it's John.

The title of this post is one that I long thought I'd be using towards the end of Lost — but the so-called Sideways Timeline turned out to be no such thing, leaving Fringe (and Abrams' Star Trek reboot, depending on your perspective) the only Bad Robot production truly dealing in parallel universes. In fact, Fringe is now virtually defined by what I like to call its Two-Worlds War, but I still came close to naming this post, as I did that initial Fringe essay, specifically after Olivia Dunham. Since the other members of the show's pivotal triangle, Walter and his son Peter Bishop, have proven themselves ever more crucial to Fringe's mythology, it's easy to forget just how important Olivia is in the scheme of the series — until another twist is taken with her character or until the actor who portrays her, Anna Torv, is called upon to do something else subtly fantastic.

At first we might have seen Dunham as merely the FBI agent whom fortune called upon to bring Walter in as a consultant. It became increasingly apparent that her cross-agency task force's investigation of a series of devastating events called the Pattern was related to experiments performed decades ago by Dr. Bishop and William Bell, Bishop's former research partner and founder of Massive Dynamic. Then we discovered, as suggested in Episode 1.14, that Bishop and Bell had known Olivia as a child, during clinical trials in the 1980s using the drug Cortexiphan to stimulate latent psychokinetic abilities.

Olivia was described by Bell as the strongest of all the children they had prepared, the likely guardian of the gate between the two worlds we've seen on Fringe. The more familiar world, referred to as "Over Here", is nearly identical to ours but for the presence of weird phenomena, the existence of the show's characters, and the substitution of Vancouver for various locations in Boston, New York, etc. The other world, still not entirely unlike our own but with some considerable differences in its development that range from the big and serious to the small and pop-culturally quirky, is a parallel Earth within a parallel universe known as "the Other Side" or "Over There"; it's populated by doppelgangers of the primary Fringe characters (and indeed of everyone on the show's standard Earth, give or take).

Yet when it was revealed a year ago that Walter traveled to that alternate universe in 1985 after the death of his son Peter and brought its Peter home with him — initially to save the other Peter from the same fate, but eventually to raise that Peter himself — both the Bishops' emotional turmoil and Peter's role in the Two-Worlds War that Bell had sensed coming took center stage. Then Olivia was replaced, in Episode 2.23 (the Season Two finale), by her alternate-universe counterpart, who infiltrated the familiar universe's Fringe Division and ended up pregnant with Peter's child; Olivia had only begun to deal with Peter's unknowing betrayal when she was suddenly inhabited by the soul energy of the presumed-dead William Bell in Episode 3.16.

And that brings us to last night's installment, but I want to backtrack before moving forward because — with the (admittedly rather significant) exception of one climactic breakthrough and one cliffhanger bombshell — the recent detour into Bell's return didn't contribute any obvious forward movement in the three main narrative strands that I've figured would come into play as Season Three drew to a close, each of them related to the other. Both the breakthrough and the bombshell concern Olivia, but both also feel more like avenues to explore in Season Four, when there's still a lot of ground to cover in the next few weeks.

The first of these strands is the conflict between the parallel Earths. Walter's abduction of the Peter from the Other Side not only embittered Over There's Dr. Bishop against his opposite number once he realized where Peter had gone, it actually began to break down the fundamental physical properties of the two universes — Over There more quickly and consequentially than Over Here. Damage to the familiar universe has seemed to spread more swiftly in the wake of the rapid succession of interdimensional trips taken when Over There's Walter shepherded Peter home again and Over Here's Walter followed with a strike team to reclaim him.

Walter cleverly dubbed his alternate-universe counterpart Walternate back in Episode 2.16, which first brought us the awesome retro version of the opening montage and confirmed Peter's origins. I love the simple genius of the name Walternate. And hearing my mother use it puts a huge smile on my face; she introduced me to Star Trek as a kid and is totally into Fringe — heck, if only Fringe hadn't been so frequently gruesome in Season One or airing opposite Grey's Anatomy during Season Two and the first half of Season Three, we might have been able to get my grandmother hooked on it too, because she followed Lost about as well as anyone can well into her ninth decade and dealing with macular degeneration.

The second strand is the accelerated pregnancy of the Other Side's Olivia Dunham, which in Episode 3.18 resulted in the birth of a boy named Henry whose father is the one and only (pending further excursions into the multiverse) dual-dimensional Peter Bishop. After the Olivia of Over Here, who possesses the nearly singular power to travel between universes, was trapped Over There at the conclusion of the attempt to retrieve Peter — and replaced by her duplicate under Walternate's orders — Over Here Olivia was studied Over There to mine the secret of her interdimensional travel while Over There Olivia kicked her counterpart's budding romance with Peter into high gear Over Here, fooling everyone in Fringe Division. Walternate is now a grandfather.

Olivia's duplicate wasn't given a catchy name like Walternate right away, so fans and critics took the task upon themselves. I get the reasoning behind Bolivia; in contrast to Olivia-A, she's Olivia-B, and of course there's the whole pun on the South American country. Yet it just feels inelegant. Some writers opted for Altivia, which to me sounds like a combination 
antidepressant/probiotic yogurt. My clear choice is the creative Fauxlivia, which was finally used in Episode 3.11 by Walter; any objection to the use of "faux" on the grounds that the Over There versions of the show's characters are no less real within Fringe's fictional cosmology than the familiar ones from Over Here is mitigated by the fact that Olivia-B did in fact pretend to be Olivia-A, whom all the familiar Fringe characters simply think of as Olivia. I've read speculation that instead of one of the two universes being destroyed so that the other can live, which has been discussed as a potential result of our next subject, both universes could merge into one; if that happens, with each character becoming a hybrid of his or her Over Here and Over There incarnations, we might end up with a Colivia. And to complete the Dr. Jack Badofsky impression, I'll tell you that once Fauxlivia started getting it on with Peter I took to calling her Holivia.

The third of these narrative strands is the supposed doomsday machine. Walternate and Fauxlivia have manipulated Peter's access to and curiosity over the device, first seen in blueprints, then found in small pieces, now assembled by Massive Dynamic — responding not just to his touch or even his simple presence but apparently to his emotions or state of mind. Various intimations of the device's potential origins as the creation of an ancient race have appeared over the past season, and it's been described as having the power to destroy at least one of the two universes. A viewer has to wonder whether its connection to Peter is based in some biological component also present in his newborn son on the Other Side.

I'll save my specific comments on last night's episode for the imminent review post, but since I shared my opinions about the coinages of Fringe's alternate-universe characters above I'll chime in now with mild approval of Bellivia for the temporary mash-up of William Bell's spirit and Olivia Dunham's body. The part of me that generally hates such nicknames as Bennifer and Brangelina is less than thrilled with it, but I recognize that, as evidenced by Walternate and Fauxlivia, having a way to refer to variations on a character can be handy. What's really frustrating is how poorly executed Bell's second swan song on the series was handled, wasting a potentially great gimmick and Anna Torv's masterfully modulated mimicry of Leonard Nimoy, but more on that next.

Next in 'Fringe Thinking': Mind Games (Episode 3.19)

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