Such an apt image to kick off this week’s Fringe: Olivia behind glass, unheard to us as she sits in a restaurant, sipping coffee and waiting for Nina. We began this season with Peter fighting his way back from the beyond to be seen and heard by his people; and now here’s Olivia, seemingly fully restored as the Olivia that Peter has been seeking, complete with the proper memories and the proper affections, and yet because Peter refuses to believe it’s actually her, now she’s the stranger, stranded in a world full of people she knows but whose lives she hasn’t exactly shared.
As the title implies, “A Short Story About Love” isn’t about any specific romantic coupling, but about “love” as a concept. What attracts us? What binds us? What rips our hearts out when we feel its lack? Those are all questions that haunt our freak of the week: Anson Carr (played by Michael Massee), a withered serial killer whose M.O. is to kill the male half of loving couples through intense dehydration. Anson then extracts their pheromones, which he combines with castoreum so that he can get smoochy with their better halves before smothering them to death with Saran Wrap. The reason for all this abject freakery? He wants to distill the essence of whatever it is that makes people fall in love with each other, so that the whole world can share the kind of in-it-until-the-end-of-time romance that Anson himself has never known.
I confess that I had a bit of difficulty with “A Short Story About Love,” because I tend to get a little squirmy when TV series start reducing “love” to an abstraction, for the sake of making it into a plot-driver. (I have the same problem when writers use “trust,” “honesty” or “faith” that same way.) It rubbed me the wrong way on Lost, and it’s rubbed me wrong before on Fringe. It’s preferable when a drama shows love than when it just tells us about it.
But at least “A Short Story About Love” confines those wince-inducing reductions to a couple of short scenes, and in service of propelling this season’s “displaced Peter” arc to a place that it needs to be. Plus, while the Anson Carr story lacks a strong ending, it’s gripping and poignant all the way up to its somewhat premature conclusion. As with the best Fringe villains, there’s something sympathetic as well as creepy about Anson, especially when he’s wiping down his dehydration machine after another successful pheremone-ectomy, or when he’s ruling out potential victims once he sees they have a kid. And I appreciated that the episode acknowledges that Anson’s idealized understanding of romantic love doesn’t tell the whole story—as when he targets a husband whose deep, soulful attraction is to someone other than his wife. (There’s a “difference between loving someone and being in love with them,” the wife helpfully tells Olivia, while the Fringe team is mistakenly staking out her house.)
While all this is going on, Peter’s on his own videogame-like quest, thanks to some nanny-cam footage that Walter captured via a teddy bear he ordered “on the interweb.” Walter has footage of The Observer disappearing from the lab, and when he slows it down, Walter sees that The Observer slipped something into Peter’s eye before he was pulled away. Peter had planned to split to New York, away from Olivia, to see if that would restore her to her normal Amberlivia self; but he returns at Walter’s insistence, and lets his father pluck from his pupil a tiny disc that contains the address 228½ Morrow Street. When Peter finds that location, he also finds a a briefcase containing a futuristic viewfinder and a beepy locator device, the latter of which leads him to woods outside of Foxboro, where a drilly eggy thing emerges from the soil. Peter takes the drilly eggy thing back to his house, where he activates it, and discovers that it’s a beacon, which brings The Observer back to this plane of existence. And so, finally, The Observer gets to tell Peter what he failed to finish telling him an episode ago: That Peter is already home, and that he was restored to this universe because the attachment between him and his family and friends was too strong. “I believe you call it… love,” The Observer says, while I gag a little.
That Observer speech was a little painful (and nowhere near as cool as the trip inside The Observer’s head in “The End Of All Things”), but like I said, it gets us where we need to be, in that Peter is now going to give up on his “find my way home” plan, and in the process will stop torturing his Olivia. And in a rare case of simpatico thinking between the two lovers, Olivia abandons her own plan to get Walter to restore her old self, deciding to let the process unfold in which she loses all of Amberlivia’s memories. Olivia doesn’t want to lose something even more precious than her recollection of her past: and that’s her intense attachment to Peter. So the episode ends with a well-earned, long-overdue embrace between Peter and Olivia.
Now… What will tear these two apart this time?
- Olivia tells Nina that she wishes time would move a little quicker. Nina jokes, “That’s a coincidence, because we just filed a patent on that this morning.”
- Speaking of Nina, one of the reasons why this episode survives it’s high corn quotient is because it contains scenes like the one where Olivia apologizes for choosing her memories of Peter over her memories of Nina, but asks her to “try and build something with me again.” Very sweet.
- Poor Lincoln. He’d just started to win Olivia’s heart and then she gets another Olivia’s feelings and memories downloaded into her. Now he has to watch her moping around the lab, pining for Peter. So, so cruel. I think I would’ve liked “A Short Story About Love” a bit more if it had focused more on the subtle emotions of the spurned Lincoln and Nina than the big emotions of Troo Luv.
- I liked how Peter idly munches on snacks while tinkering with the drilly eggy thing, just as Walter does while cutting up dead bodies in the lab.
- Walter used to go beaver-hunting in the ‘70s, back when that term mean something different than it does today. (Except that it didn’t. I was alive in the ‘70s. I remember.)
- As iffy as I feel about the fantasy version of true love, it was pretty nice to see those two corpse-hands, lightly pressed against each other in their eternal sleep.
- Walter tells Peter, “You’re a better man than I.” A familiar Fringe concept, as Peter notes.
- On this week’s Fringe jukebox: “White Rabbit,” by Jefferson Airplane (an apt one for this show), and the truly deep album-rock cut “The Friends Of Mr. Cairo,” by Jon & Vangelis.