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Fringe: Subject 13

“Your imagination can take you anywhere you want to go.”

Episodes like “Subject 13” have a particular fragile beauty, like an original poem inserted into a novel. They create a sense of pause—which always makes us wonder what is coming, and how bad it is that we have to catch our breath first—and add emotional resonance even though they might not contribute too much to the overall plot or mythology.

But these pauses tend to come at odd times: specifically, just when I want to find out more, more, more, they give me a beautiful less, less, less. This episode will play phenomenally to all the lucky people watching a Season 3 marathon on DVD, but with a two-week break, I feel antsy for more of our grown-up heroes. And, when it comes down to it, this episode—while lovely—was forgettable enough that I forgot I had to write a review until I got stuck in traffic on Monday. Oops!

So much can change in six months, or in an instant. Walter and Elizabeth now want to return him—Elizabeth because she sees Peter’s pain, and Walter because he feels the weight of guilt and the fear of retribution. Peter, of course, just wants to go home. (I can’t imagine how awful it must be to look at your parents and see familiar faces hiding strange identities. There is a medical condition that can cause this delusion, which has always struck me as one of the worst possible brain misfires.)

As young Peter works through his issues with a little help from his new friend Olivia, we got a glimpse into how a young boy gets turned into a charming con-man. The final Peter/Elizabeth scene, in which he agrees to participate in the lie that he, later, comes to believe, mirrors both Peter’s facility with lying and his relationship with Fauxlivia. It also makes Fauxlivia’s betrayal especially cruel. If, that is, Peter remembers the events we saw this week.

We’ve known for years about Olivia’s abusive stepfather, and knowing that young Olivia has yet to shoot him puts many of the events in this episode in perspective. After Walter warns Olivia’s stepfather, does he pull her out of the program? By attempting to help, does Walter just make things worse? Either way, Olivia’s trust issues may be rooted not just in her difficult family life, but also that key moment in which she confesses everything to a man who isn’t there: Walternate, who then acquires the knowledge he needs to understand what is happening to his world and whom to blame. If, that is, Olivia remembers the events we saw this week.

Walter himself is a tricky guy to pin down. Our grown-up Walter is caring but sometimes doesn’t seem fully cognizant of the reality of other people’s pain. Young Walter, on the other hand, seems to ascribe to a vaguely sinister view of anyone and everything as fodder for experiments. It takes a special sort of detachment to look at a young, bruised girl and think, “I should run experiments on her!” It takes a particular sort of cruelty to have those experiments take the turn they did. All in the service of family, of course, but sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.

Much has been made within our collective consciousness—by which I mean the internet—of the weird temporal discontinuities of this episode. Olivia and Peter looked older than they should, which I understand as a casting necessity rather than an important mythological point. But the dated BSG game, the Betamax, Jaws on actual film reels, even the clothing and interior design, made this episode feel much earlier (circa 1980) than it should be. Just a mistake or miscommunication? Or something meaningful? Do we know, for sure, that the modern Fringe plot is taking place in 2011, or even 2010? Will there be a big leap forward into the “future” (that is, now) in the show’s present? Does that sentence even make sense?

The Unique Combination of Love and Terror:

• I’ll never stop loving the retro titles sequence.

• Neat Alias nod with the thingamabob Olivia was trying to build.

• The white tulip field was lovely and symbolic.

• Walter: “The beguiling Olivia Dunham beguiles.”

• Walter: “I crept over in the night, and I stole their child. If we don’t return him, they’ll figure it out. And they’ll come after him, after us. I know, because it is what I would do.”

• One last question: my DVR tells me that this episode was called “6 Months Later,” but everyone else seems to be calling it “Subject 13.” Did I miss something?

For any other show, this would easily be a four-star episode. It was visually stunning and packed an emotional wallop. For me, though, it was not as fascinating as “White Tulip” or “Peter. In fact, if it weren’t for the 405 traffic jam, I might have forgotten this review entirely. So, in honor of my Monday evening, I award this episode three out of four road rages.

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

12 comments:

  1. I. Loved. This episode. I want to marry it and have its children. I’m surprised you and Zob both feel it didn’t contribute to The Mythology, given how many key points were fleshed out in this episode, especially in terms of what once seemed like the most unlikely Over Here/Over There coincidences:

    --How could Walternate have known Peter was in an alternate universe? I don’t care how much of a genius you are. When someone kidnaps your son, you don’t go, “Oh, he must be in an alternate dimension, a fringe science concept I have not even begun exploring or considering at this time.” Now we have a reasonable explanation as to what set him on this path.

    --How could both Olivia and Fauxlivia end up prominent figures at Fringe Division when, unlike, say, Broyles, their point of divergence occurred so early in Olivia’s life? Now we know Walternate probably tracked her down.

    --How could young Peter not recognize all the differences between the world of his childhood and his new environment? He did, and while we could always have assumed his new parents brainwashed him, actually seeing the difficult process makes it a lot more believable (to me at least).

    --What was the significance of the toy airplane? Oh, wait. That one’s from Lost.

    --What is the significance of the white tulips, which have been cropping up here and there since the series began? Actually, the revelation to that one feels very Lost, doesn’t it?

    --This one, I suppose, only matters if you think the characters’ pathos are crucial to The Mythology, which admittedly is something we don’t feel the same about, but we also learnt why Olivia can access her powers better than the other cortexophan kids. It’s equal parts her “fear and love” background and her eagerness to please and drive herself beyond reasonable limits to do so, which is typical of some abused children.

    I also interpreted Walter’s actions with Olivia’s stepfather differently. I don’t think his attempt to help was sincere. If he truly wanted to help Olivia, he would have removed her from her abusive environment. Instead, he sort of split the difference and gave an obviously ineffective warning, which would allow him to continue his experiments while pretending his conscience can be clear. I suspect this will play into future episodes as last week’s episode showed that crazy Walter lost the ability to lie to himself about the cruelty of his decisions even as he makes them, whereas Walternate is still large with the rationalizations. It is, in a way, the point of divergence for the two.

    More importantly, though, I was just really carried by the plight of these two children. Peter’s anguish at being stuck with parents who robbed him of his true family and his final surrender, which felt like a death of sorts, were heartbreaking, as was Olivia getting used and abused by everyone around her but being too desperate for hope to acknowledge what she knew deep down. It was so sad and cruel, in a poetic sort of way, to see both of them settle for a lie.

    As I’ve mentioned before, I very much enjoy reading your reviews, Josie, not least because while we both love the show, it’s obvious we do for completely different reasons. It’s like you’re from Over Here and I’m from Over There, and it’s kind of neat, I think.

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  2. I agree with Dimitri on this one. It might not have match ‘Peter’ for sheer brain melting goodness but I still loved this episode, although mine’s more a platonic kind of love.

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  3. "6 Months Later" was the preliminary title as of the first press release a few weeks ago. It looks like the guide-makers for some cable systems didn't change it when the updated title was announced.

    This was a reminder of the terrible powerlessness of childhood. Peter knows he's in the wrong place, but stops complaining when he realizes there's no other choice, and that others have it worse. Olivia is victim to her mother's bad choice, and is happy with even ineffectual help.

    It was, however, disconnected from the season as a whole, and so missed the power of "Peter". I suppose the events here may echo through the upcoming episodes.

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  4. I did not like the subject 13 episode.

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  5. I loved this episode, but wouldn't marry it, like Dimitri. I'd definitely go on a date with it, though. More 1985 episodes, please!

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  6. The comparison with "Peter" is inevitable and that episode was much better, but I still liked this one.

    Although the first half didn't have much answers or revelations (except for the fact that the giant flying letters changed their font in the six months after Peter's abduction, which must be a very important clue) the story culminated in several important revelations as Dimitri pointed out.

    What bothers me is the general amnesia on the cast. I understand Peter and Olivia were young, but it seems to me good part of this episode's events should be remembered by at least one of them.

    Btw, I believe I spotted the Observer (or a Observer) when Walternate is entering Bishop Dynamic. Not very surprising, but I believe it's the first time we see Observers over there.

    That's an interesting idea about when modern Fringe is occurring, and now that you mentioned it the cultural references were older than they probably should (according to wikipedia, "By 1980, JVC's VHS format controlled 70% of the North American market. (...) In the UK, Betamax held a 25% market share in 1981, but by 1986, it was down to 7.5% and continued to decline further) but all non-fringe technology seems to indicate the series is happening in the present (plus, it's at least some years since 9/11) and we were told several times "Peter" (which certainly happened before this) happened in 1985, so I don't see how this can be explained.

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  7. I got confused. I thought it was Walternate who threatened Olivia's stepfather. And even though it was a very good episode, the amnesia of the older-than-I thought kids doesn't work. Kids as smart as Peter and Olivia would have remembered something as striking as what happened to them. It felt like reconning.

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  8. Interesting follow-up to 'Peter.' The final moments really broke my heart. When young Peter hugged Elizabeth and called her mom, I felt utterly crushed and somewhat queasy. To see him cave and accept the lie felt so wrong, and so I completely understood Elizabeth's quick turn to the bottle after reaping what she had sown. It had to be rather soul-crushing to know she was responsible for him sadly resigning himself to his fate.

    I don't believe our Peter does remember these events. I wonder if he convinced himself they weren't real and truly came to believe the lie, or if Walter later did something to wipe his mind. I was under the impression that's what happened to Olivia, too. She didn't remember anything about the center in Jacksonville when they went there in S2, so I wasn't surprised that she wouldn't remember anything we saw this week.

    I rather like the idea that both Walter and Olivia are responsible for the current state of war between universes. Kind of a fascinating twist on the already established history.

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  9. Maybe they'll adress how Olivia forgot everything in flashback episode #3 which is bound to happend around episode 15-16 in season 4. :)

    Peter probably doublethought everything away when he started believing the lie.

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  10. Like Billie, I felt this episode was a lot of ret-con. Throughout, all I could think about was how absurd the whole thing was. It took me out of the story completely.

    We are now meant to believe that Olivia had this very strong connection to "Dr. Walter" that she completely forgot about when she met him in episode one? That when she meets Peter, she doesn't remember him either? I thought Olivia was meant to have a photographic memory -- in fact, it was one of the things that Fauxlivia worried about trying to emulate.

    And, Peter has an IQ of 190, which means he's an off the charts genius. Yes, this story would explain some of the antipathy he felt for Walter at the beginning and how he was able to figure out he's from the other side so easily last season. Yet, somehow, I struggle with accepting that he had completely bought into the lie. Especially when, as I was re-watching season one, I was struck by how many times Walter refers to an event and Peter tells him he doesn't remember it happening. Wouldn't something have struck a chord with him?

    Finally, I truly struggle with finding somehow who abets in the harm of a child at all sympathetic. It's going to take Walter a very long time to get back in my good graces. We have seen him kidnap a child (regardless of the reasons), agree to perform experiments of children, allow a child to return to a home where he knows she is being beaten and, the most unforgivable thing of all, actually considers encouraging the fear so that she can more easily cross over. There is absolutely nothing redeeming about this man right now.

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  11. Chris, don't forget what we learned in the S2 finale: Walter purposely had William Bell remove those parts of his brain. And it changed him. Not completely, of course. But it had a profound impact on his personality/mental state.

    I'm not saying he's off the hook for the things he's done, but in wondering whether there is anything "redeeming" about him, it is worth remembering that he made the choice to have those pieces of his brain removed.

    (Hopefully, I'm not misremembering something here.)

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  12. Jess -- that's a very good point. There are, obviously, things that are very sweet (now) about Walter and he appears to be redeemable in the eyes of the two people he, arguably, hurt the most -- Olivia and Peter.

    I'm sure it's more of a personal, visceral reaction. I really, really get upset when children are harmed and watching Olivia walk away with her stepfather while Walter just watched set off my dark side.

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