Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Fringe: The Curious Case of Olivia Dunham


"Many warriors of the inevitable confrontation are among us now - but before they can be considered soldiers, they must be regarded as recruits. And the expectation must be that they shall be unwilling…"

These are the words written by Walter Bishop within the "Zerstorung durch Fortschritte der Technologie" (ZFT), or "Destruction by Advancement of Technology" in English – a manuscript compounding Walter's scientific findings to the conclusion that our technological advancements are leading us towards an apocalypse in which our dimension and one that exists parallel to our own will literally or figuratively merge, forcing a confrontation between the peoples of both dimensions, and only one will remain.

Around the world there exist cells of ZFT followers who consider themselves recruits to this cause and while they adhere themselves to the teachings of an obscure manuscript, the intended warriors may end up being a group of specially selected children in Boston, and a smaller group of children from Jacksonville that were experimented upon some twenty five plus years ago - a group that included Olivia Dunham.

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Since the beginning of the show, the idea that one of our protagonists has suffered at the hands of Walter Bishop wasn't uncommon with most of fandom agreeing that Walter had experimented on his own son, Peter. While this turned out to be true for smaller experiments, there were theories of greater goals, of genetic manipulation that would cause Walter to be concerned for Peter's health. It was revealed that Peter had possibly drowned as a result of a car accident, but was saved by The Observer and later he developed an illness that no one had ever recovered from… yet he did.

There's still room for Peter to be 'altered' (more on that later), but with the episode 'Ability' Fringe tossed out a fairly large bone – that Olivia might have been given a drug called Cortexiphan, as part of a smaller cell in Jacksonville of a larger study in Boston that set out to prove that children with certain traits might have their perceptions – and, in essence, their minds – expanded to the point of having special telekinetic-type powers.

Of course Olivia denied it, the lights she managed to 'turn off' with her mind weren't the result of actual mind powers; it was merely a game played upon her by someone wishing to gain an ally in his imaginary upcoming war. But by the end of last night's 'Bad Dreams' there was no denying that not only was Olivia part of a satellite cell of the study, she might have been both the proof of its success, and the reason for its demise at the time.

The episode starts with a woman ushering her young daughter home from the circus only to be pushed into an oncoming subway train… seemingly by Olivia, who wakes from this nightmare to discover that it has actually happened, but is being deemed a suicide, and launches her own private investigation into the cause. Before seeing the news, we see her morning rituals: she wakes far too early from this dream, does sit-ups to keep herself in good physical shape, and chooses her wardrobe from a choice of similarly colored drab attire.

She also gets a peculiar bit of information from her niece (who is, along with her mother, living with Olivia temporarily). The child, who is receiving a vaccination that day, laments that they are going to shoot something that is 'dead' inside of her and that it is gruesome. Of course, it's all to make you better, right?

Her short investigation into the suicide yields little information except that she was not actually at the platform (as seen in video surveillance) but she had witnessed the event in real time (a red balloon she'd seen float away was still on the ceiling). Olivia attempts to go sleepless, but it only results in another dream in which she is seen physically 'helping' someone stab the victim and her investigation leads to the identity of a man who had been at both crime scenes.

Nick Lane is a 29 year old man who is presented to us as waking far too early from a nightmare (presumably seeing Olivia's actions... whether in the past or the present is left to our imaginations in the end) to do push-ups to keep in good physical condition before picking his clothing from an array of similarly colored drab attire. Under a hypnotic state induced by Walter, Olivia travels with Nick where he picks up a stripper and later assists in her suicide. Nick, you see, is a reverse-empath. Rather than feel the emotions of others, he projects his emotions onto others and poor Nick is suicidal, understanding that his abilities have helped kill others.

His guilt leads him to the top of a building where he intends to kill himself, but he's brought with him several people he's been passing along the way – his powers growing – and he understands Olivia is the only person who can stop him and Olivia knows it as well… because Walter confirms that yes, he was part of the experiments on children with Cortexiphan, and that yes, Olivia was one of the children. These experiments went beyond just issuing a pill and waiting for results. When Walter likens the experience to 'camp', it seems these children were kept ("unwilling") in a facility for some time and they were paired up, possibly to amplify their abilities… possibly to travel between dimensions.

On the rooftop, unaffected by Nick's empathetic field, Olivia approaches the man who greets her as an old friend, "Olive, you heard me!" He exclaims his disillusionment at the promises given to him as a child that "what was written would come to pass". He "wore the grey and blacks", "tried to fit in", "stayed fit, stayed focused, stayed ready" and waited, but he didn't want to hurt anyone else. He challenges Olivia to kill him because "you always were the stronger one" and when she doesn't, he forces a woman to leap from the ledge.

Olivia apologizes and shoots Nick in both legs, effectively lifting Nick's spell from the others on the rooftop and he is taken to a facility where he is being kept in an induced coma to prevent his powers from endangering others. And in the closing moments, Walter rummages through one of his boxes and pops in a tape that shows a very young Olivia Dunham huddled in the corner of a darkened room while Bishop and his old partner William Bell discuss what triggered "the incident".

It would seem shortly after the experiments were stopped, possibly by this incident and the implications of whatever happened, the children had their memories of the events removed. Before he's shot, Nick answers Olivia's lack of recollection with a vague, "I think they meant for us to forget." And it's possible Walter and William knew of a way to 'deactivate' the effects of the Cortexiphan in the children, allowing them to go back into the world and grow up 'dormant' – subconsciously waiting to be 'called' into action, or rather, 'woken up'.

Olivia's character has faced criticism for being emotionless and drab, but maybe this is the consequence of these actions. Since her abduction by Jones men, during which something was injected into her spinal fluid, she's seemed different, more emotionally active somehow. It could easily be attributed to better writing (as the change came coincidentally after a hiatus), or the introduction of her sister and niece (reminding her of the humanity she's trying to protect), but it would be far more interesting to say that whatever they injected into her, awakened her from a hypnotically induced slumber of sorts.

As her niece tells her at the end of the episode, what they put inside of her isn't really dead. A vaccination is just a weaker strand of a virus, intended to help your body build immunities against the strands that would cause you to be sick. Cortexiphan may just be the strand that helps an already advanced mind grow stronger, enabling and amplifying latent psychic powers.

In Olivia's case it could mean something quite explosive that is attributed to her emotions… something that could lead to the apocalyptic scenario Walter envisioned in his manuscript. And maybe Walter created the antidote in the form of another human, the son that the audience was so keen to have been experimented on in the first place.

Throughout the episode, there were at least four occurrences of Olivia becoming emotionally disturbed and each of those times she was calmed – or kept in check, rather – by Peter Bishop, once at the instruction of his own father and it's that time where it seemed the most odd. Peter didn't say a word, simply clasped his hands around Olivia's and she instantly relaxed.

It may be a stretch to say that Peter is her true partner in this experiment, not Nick Lane, and that somehow while it was originally intended for Olivia to be used as a weapon against those in this alternate dimension in the event of a "literal" merging of dimensions, she and Peter will eventually become ambassadors in a "figurative" merging with the world of the Observers to avoid an apocalyptic end. Only time, and second season from Fox, can bring us closer to those answers.


4 Responses to “Fringe: The Curious Case of Olivia Dunham”

Hannah said...

Last night's episode was pure awesome. It's like Alias, only it's allowed to focus on the sci-fi.

Great recap and analysis! That scene with Walter, Peter and Olivia when Peter figures out that his fathered experimented on Olivia as a young child... oh wow... if I wasn't a shipper before, I sure was now!

Caroline Carter said...

I was simultaneously sooo entertained and sooo terrified by last night's episode. That last image of little Olive in the corner--that's gonna be with me for a while. Eeeeek.

Ash said...


Throughout the episode, there were at least four occurrences of Olivia becoming emotionally disturbed and each of those times she was calmed – or kept in check, rather – by Peter Bishop, once at the instruction of his own father and it's that time where it seemed the most odd. Peter didn't say a word, simply clasped his hands around Olivia's and she instantly relaxed.Wow. I hadn't even thought of that. Great observation! Awesome review.

Excellent review, Mystic. Really thought-provoking. I absolutely loved last night's ep, and I'm hoping that the fact that they kept Nick alive means he'll be back. What an intriguing character. But... should I be worried that, when the psychiatrist was describing Nick, my mom exclaimed, "He's like Heather!"???