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Fringe: Bad Dreams


Cortexiphan, an experimental drug, heightens perception and can possibly allow transportation to a parallel universe. A hyperemotive part-time psychotic with suicidal ideations who is given the drug as a child can therefore cause his emotions to become contagious. A person with whom this Typhoid Mary of the mind had formed a childhood bond could then become part of the moment in which these emotions reach the crisis point, resulting in images of the crisis (murder, suicide, whatever) to be experienced by the bondee. Said person, coincidentally, is our heroine Olivia Dunham.

Well, at least we didn’t get the tank again.

Olivia’s childhood trauma seems a bit hackneyed to me. Sure, it allows us to see Olivia without her game face on, but it feels false in the context of the larger narrative. Why has this never come up before? Has she never had an unexplained “flash” (to steal a term from Chuck) before? And sure, it ups her personal stake in the crimes that she’s called in to solve, but isn’t her personal stake just to do good? Why isn’t that enough?

The chess board in Nick’s apartment symbolized his relationship to Olivia: black and white, two equal sides forced to contend for dominance. The parallels were played up in the symmetry between their morning routines, too. But what determined which side went evil and which side went good? Maybe this is why the ZFT/Olivia/experimentation thing isn’t doing it for me: one childhood trauma does not an adult personality make, but we’re not getting any of the in-between stuff. Point in fact: how does all this hullabaloo related to Olivia’s crime against her stepfather?

And what’s up with the ZFT text? It’s almost more than a manifesto: it seems to have contagion properties of its own, causing a zealotry that transcends even religious fervor, because it’s against a mysterious and intangible force. Yes, I’m assuming that religious craziness that isn’t self-directed (like Jim Jones) requires a specific enemy, like the Albigensians.

Peter said that he’d always thought that Walter’s craziness was something that Walter had done to Peter and his mother. Olivia’s trauma made Peter reconsider this, in light of the pain of losing one’s mind. But the scene at the end shows that Walter, with his partner Bell, did inflict his loony ideas on people, specifically on Olivia and Nick.

And to sum up (and if I get something wrong, please help me out in the comments or via email!):

We’ve got Walter and his old partner Bell. Both were responsible for past atrocities. Nowadays, Walter’s pretty much persona non grata on the big stage of crazy, but Bell is still doing something. What he’s doing, though, is ambiguous—are all those clues that the Massive Dynamics lady helped Olivia with just deflection from the real story? Is she the Holland Manners of this universe?

We’ve got people who were experimented on in their youth (and this seems to exclude Peter, at least for now). They could be playing on either side, depending on . . . something.

We’ve got the Observer and the little boy from Inner Child. They don’t seem evil, just wacky.

We’ve got denizens of a parallel universe. Are these the time-traveling aliens mentioned in "Ability"? Are they the bad guys? Why? What makes them bad?

A war seems to imply that there are two sides, but maybe not. Surely each group is looking out for their own and maybe allying with other groups. But I can’t keep the groups straight, and I’m unclear on what a war would even constitute. What are they fighting for? The Fringe Science Nobel Prize?

On the artistic side, the stroller in the subway station was a great example of a well-done allusion: it evoked the Untouchables just enough to make me nervous but not enough to be overwhelming—and that evocation is what make it unnerving. The reference had a purpose. The red balloon thing, though, might have been a reference to the 1956 Limorisse short film about, you guessed it, a red balloon. Is there a point to that homage?

The Good:

• Walter should sing and/or dance in every episode.

• Walter: “What is mankind’s oldest dream?”
Astrid: “World peace.”
Walter: “Oh, hardly. It’s a social construct imposed by an awareness of our own mortality.”
The first time through, I though Walter said “Soviet construct,” which would have been much funnier.

• Walter: “You see, often, when we experimented on children . . .”
Peter: “Okay, can we just stop right there, and analyze that sentence?”

• Astrid: “What’s happening? Is he hurting her?”
Olivia: “Oh, oh!”
Peter: “Oh.”
Walter: “Oh. I see.”

The Bad:

• Was the secondary Theme of the Week, coffee? Maybe that's a subset of the primary Theme: mind-alteration.

• Denizens of a parallel universe? Groan. Although it looks like we’ll find out more about all that next week.

• Castenada? Double groan.

C’mon, That’s Ridiculous (as Peter says):

• “I thought you might have teleported to New York in your sleep and killed her. Wouldn’t that have been wondrous?”

• “To murder. With the mind.”

• See my above summary of the Cortexiphan thing.

I’ve got no idea how to rate this episode. So many tiny bits of information. So little payoff (although I’m sure that’s coming).

Three out of four Holland Manners.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


  1. I really liked this episode, a major step up from last weeks monster blunder. Fringe can be too hit and miss for its own good sometimes but when it’s on form it can be exceptional. What’s even more amazing is that this episode was written and directed by Akiva Goldsman. Never thought I’d ever enjoy anything from that man’s typewriter (this doesn’t let you off for Batman & Robin, mind).

    Also, this was the first episode where I actually liked Olivia and not just because of the lipstick lesbianism. Granted, I agree with you that this whole special ability/destiny plot line is a bit clich├ęd (and reminiscent of Sydney Bristow) but I’m willing to go with it for the time being and see how it plays out. Would be cool if she went all firestarter, though.

  2. "Olivia’s childhood trauma seems a bit hackneyed to me. Sure, it allows us to see Olivia without her game face on, but it feels false in the context of the larger narrative. Why has this never come up before?"Actually it has, I can't remember which episode, but Cortexiphan was discussed before and she seemed aware that she had been experimented on when she was younger. Although as Nick said, they all had their memories removed.

    I also liked the line that went something like "I see your wearing the blacks and greys, to blend in", maybe that is an in-universe explanation for why Olivia is such a 'bland' personality, I certainly have seen from her other work that Anna Torv is capable of fine acting (and it shows occasionally in Fringe when she loses it too).

    "(and this seems to exclude Peter, at least for now)"Again, I think there was a reference to something happening with Walter experimenting on Peter when he was a child, I think it might have been in the Observer episode.

  3. Firestarter would be awesome, Mark.

    Thank you, Matthew--I remembered that we'd learned a bit about Olivia's trauma before, but I'd forgotten all about the possibility of Peter being experimented on. I wonder if the writers are keeping that plot waiting in the wings to see if they need it or not.


  4. I read somewhere that they are going to start shifting the focus to whatever happened to Peter. There was a reference to it early on, when Walter was asking about Peter's health.

    I actually liked this episode. Yes, maybe the whole idea is a little Sydney Bristow, but as we've discussed in the Dollhouse comments, there just aren't that many original ideas out there anymore. Chuck uses those themes and riffs on them. (C'mon, dad = orion?) Its a matter of how they execute on it. It'll also be interesting to see how Fringe deals with the idea of fate and destiny.

    I personally think a good show ties together seemingly unconnected details in a surprising and subtle manner. The clues are being left, and I think with patience, we'll get a payoff soon.

  5. Good catch, Serena. That would explain why Peter kept coughing unnecessarily in this episode. Cutie pie that he is, I hope he's OK.

    There really aren't many original ideas out there. But think of shows like Buffy or Lost that never make us think, "oh, I've seen this before." Even if there's nothing new under the sun, I like to think that there are still ways to amaze us. But maybe the unwritten rules of television allow for only one truly incredible show at a time.

  6. Josie - you are totally right. Even if the plot's been done, it shouldn't have felt done. I think Fringe can still pull something original off of the "trained as a child" theme, given the supernatural aspects of it. The use of coincidence, meetings in a past life, etc etc is also clearly a JJ Abrams theme... hmmm, wonder what happened in *his* childhood? ;-)

    The unfortunate problem with watching shows by geniuses is that we're always comparing them to what made them recognized as a genius. To be honest, I had much lower expectations (and still do watching it) for Fringe, mostly because I don't think about JJ, whereas with Dollhouse, all I can think about is Joss.

    I'm just glad that Fringe is probably safe for another season, considering two of my favorite shows - Dollhouse and Chuck - are still on the bubble.

  7. I actually liked this episode. It finally got me liking Olivia and I absolutely do think that "blacks and grays" comment was about her. There have been several references now to the parallel universe and to fighting. And did you notice the number 47 smack in the middle of the Wall of Weird?

  8. I spotted the 47! Two Star Trek references in one episode makes me a happy person.

    (It's weird watching this after starting with season 2. Tiny lines I'd never have noticed as a first-time viewer stand out a mile, in this and the previous week's. The first two season really were brilliantly structured).

  9. Pretty cool. Reverse empath guy telling her she's gonna regret sparing him without making it seem like a threat. More unsettling than all the people standing on the rooftop was Walter stroking Olivia's face. And Peter saying "You're both freaking me out" because I too found Olivia's haunted reaction as strange as Walter's expression lol. She's a good actor. Peter's still vaguely annoying to me though. Boy needs to be more appreciative of his father's quirks (that doesn't involve his very questionable history of experimenting, ofc). And I know it's mostly just for the humor from quipping but the guy's playing like a less graceful skeptic than Scully. Too much like Xander from Buffy's indirect way of commenting on the situation. I don't know how to describe this nit I'm picking.

    I liked Peter being the main object of curiosity with his dad's hints so it was a little weird for me to see Olivia seemingly just as involved with Walter in her youth. Not sure I like that, I want at least one person completely untouched but I guess that can be Astral- er, Astrid.

    I want a two-headed goat too!


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