I miss Olivia Dunham.
I think about her all the time. As workplace assault cycles through the news, week after week. As women in positions of power are publicly tried for not doing enough, saying enough, being enough. As the world slips like sheets of ice into an endless void of destruction: the hurricanes, the fires, the threat of nuclear destruction. I think of her most of all when I consider our president, and the annihilation of truth, the fabric of our perceived reality folding into itself at warp speed.
Fringe is about all of these things, and it’s alarming how even the genre dressing doesn’t distance it from the actuality of our present.
I thought of Fringe and Olivia a lot this weekend as I watched Netflix’s Mindhunter. It’s hard not to: Both star Anna Torv as a slick, smart, FBI-affiliated badass. Both involve underfunded, top-secret government side projects overseen by an unconvinced official. Both dig into the psychology of psychopaths, probing at universal questions that have no answers but court them anyway. And though they diverge wildly in tone and circumstance, there was a familiarity in the whiskey-sipping, retro-drenched aesthetics of long, flickering hallways and noir-ish winks and nods. I love both shows, but the dreariness of Mindhunter made me crave the vibrant optimism of Fringe, a series that – as the world spins madly off the wheels – I suddenly, voraciously crave.
For the uninitiated, Fringe – Fox’s little-seen but much-loved sci-fi drama – follows FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Torv) and the Fringe Division, a ragtag team of investigators who use fringe science and other unorthodox methods to study a series of unexplained, seemingly natural occurrences tied to the existence of a parallel universe. The division is comprised of Dunham, junior FBI agent Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole), the formerly institutionalized mad scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble), and his ex-con son Peter (Josh Jackson), whose mysterious origins anchor the show’s central mystery. Lance Reddick, Seth Gabel, Michael Cerveris, Kirk Acevedo, Altered States’ Blair Brown, and Leonard Nimoy all play notable supporting roles.
The through-the-roof excellent cast is just part of the alchemy that makes Fringe so special. It’s the beautiful, zany way the actors are characterized that makes all the horrific shit they investigate – from fused inter-dimensional corpses to shape-shifting government soldiers to time-traveling train riders – understandable, almost quaint. Noble’s Walter is a standout, a man so ravaged by the demons of his diabolical past that he’s turned grandfatherly by the trauma, his love of pastries and recreational drugs as pronounced as his knowledge of quantum physics. Who can forget the image of Walter, elbow-deep in autopsy blood, chomping away at Red Vines while he marvels at human anatomy? It’s hard to reconcile that Walter with the destroyer of worlds he once was. But it’s that exact moral dichotomy – one that mines the good and evil that exist in a single person – that keeps Fringe from feeling like other run-of-the-mill genre fare. In Fringe, the heroes are the villains are the heroes.
That notion is pushed even further as the show moves into parallel universe and time travel territory, and we’re introduced to the many alternate versions of the Fringe Division team. It’s a literal confrontation of id, with characters encountering the visage of what they might have been, or what they could still be with a little twist of fate. The once-bad, now-good Walter of our side meets the once-good, now-bad Walter of Over There. Similarly, the hardened Olivia of our side meets her sprightly other universe döppleganger, a woman who looks the same but suffered less – no abuse at the hands of men, no divorce, no treacherous lovers.
Walter may be the show’s lovable brute, and Peter the de-facto “chosen one” – or as close as Fringe gets to that sort of archetype – but Olivia is its gravitational force, the character I connected with immediately and still, all these years later, can’t seem to shake. Torv was initially criticized for her “wooden” performance, cited in the first season as the show’s weak link. But, as we learned with each shed layer, with each prying storyline, with each other-Olivia reveal, those hollow eyes were merely an affectation. Torv’s Olivia is, actually, magnificent and complex, a field agent battered but not broken by child abuse and experimentation, the psycho-sexual duplicity of a former partner, and all the battering that comes with being a woman in a field occupied largely, and boastfully, by men. In Season 1, she is begrudgingly hired by Reddick’s Broyles, who spends much of the season downplaying her achievements, rolling his eyes in her general direction. That same season, she is taunted by a male colleague who she’d formerly reported for sexual assault, a man protected by her department and boss, who grows more dangerous in their ignorance.
Olivia’s body is also a tool for the show to examine matters of female autonomy, sexuality, and reproductivity. She floats in deprivation tanks, is probed with needles and experimental drugs, is possessed by a male scientist, nearly ployed into with a brain saw while her other-world alternate fucks her boyfriend in her own bed. Science fiction loves using heroines as springboards for horrific ideas of grandeur, and Fringe is as guilty as this of anything. When I say I miss Olivia, I don’t miss bearing witness to her various tortures. What I miss is her perseverance, and absolute refusal to sink as her body is stripped from her, figment by figment. In the final season – a gloriously whacky and experimental coda that I love as much as I hate – she is punted 20-something years into the future, an incident that, after a few heavy breaths and eye flicks, she blinks away like it’s nothing. Years of being a woman in this world makes reorientation a casual affair for Olivia Dunham.
Another thing I love about Olivia: She absolutely refuses to accept the apocalypse. Not in any universe. In Season 3’s “Entrada,” as she’s trapped in the depths of a government facility in the parallel universe, she vows to find a cure for the anomalies plaguing that world. “Both universes can survive. There must be another way, and I promise you I will find it,” she says, her face covered in Sharpie markings that point to where scientists will soon cut into her brain. Minutes from her own death, and she’s plotting for global survival. I am woman, hear me roar.
Olivia’s spirit seeps into the soul and fabric of Fringe, and that’s exactly what makes it such a rewarding, comforting series to revisit right now. As our own world inches closer to what feels like total chaos, Fringe is a happy reminder that perseverance, optimism, family, friends, and Red Vines are a remedy for those larger, darker, all-consuming thoughts. I breathed a sigh of relief as I cued up my Blu-rays, floating back into a world where a father’s love for his son breaks and mends a universal divide, where a woman’s unbreakable spirit leads to the manifestation of literal super powers, and where a strain of marijuana called Brown Betty causes a mad scientist to hallucinate a retro-noir scenario where corpses sing like Willy Wonka. Fringe, you soon discover, is attuned that great, cosmic joke: That there’s no real difference between reality and surreality, that everything is absurd, so let’s hang on tight, fight for what’s right, and enjoy the ride.