Tonight’s near-excellent episode of Fringe opens with a scene that reminded me of my favorite Lost openings, where for a moment or two we think we know where we are, until we learn we’re actually somewhere else. “Subject 13” begins at Reiden Lake, with Elizabeth Bishop searching her house, looking for her son Peter. I initially assumed we were on Earth-2, from the time immediately after Walter crossed over and stole his alternate’s son. But then Elizabeth finds a note on Peter’s bed that reads, “I am going home,” and she chases him out to the frozen lake, where he’s trying to smash through the ice with a cinder-block and slip back to his universe. We’re actually on Earth-1. And Peter’s not fitting in so well with his new family.
The opening scene is shot and staged beautifully, with a nice mix of overhead shots, taking in the wintry landscape and the people who are dwarfed by it. It sets the tone for a Fringe episode that—by and large—deals with emotions and motivations in ways much more nuanced and moving than some of the recent big “emo” eps. When I was done watching, my first thought was, “That was beautiful,” though I did have a couple of qualms along the way.
As is my wont, I’m going to blow through the qualms first, so I can get to the good. First off, “Subject 13” takes place largely in Jacksonville in 1985, at the daycare center where Walter Bishop experimented with Cortexiphan on children—including Olivia Dunham. According to my math (aided by Fringepedia), Olivia should be 6 or 7 years old at this time, but in “Subject 13,” she looks closer to 11. Which wouldn’t be a problem, except that everything about the daycare—from the decor to the games the children play—seems geared more towards preschoolers, and it’s odd to have a girl who looks like a sixth-grader in these surroundings.
Plus, a big part of the plot hinges on Olivia’s abusive stepfather, whom she sketches in her notebook as a big scary face, something that again seems like a more appropriate activity for a younger child—in addition to being something of a dramatic cliché. Lastly, I can’t help but feel a little squeamish about the retcon-y elements that have snuck into Fringe over the past couple of seasons. Olivia’s ignorance of her connection to the Bishops has been explained away as repressed memories of her youth, but the more we see of the interactions they all had when they were younger, the harder it is to go back to the first episode of Fringe and buy that everyone’s a stranger.
But honestly? All of the above bothered me only in passing, because I was bewitched by the tone of this episode, which is all bruise-blue and haunted by fearful symmetry. That a boy from Earth-2 would walk into a toy shop and be drawn to a toy airplane, while a girl from Earth-1 would cross over and come back sketching blimps? Beautiful. That these two lost children would rebel against their respective home lives but end the episode stuck back with parents they distrust? Again, beautiful. That they’d meet in a field of white tulips (!), planted by a scientist who “used his brain and his imagination to make the world the way he wanted it to be”… well, do I even have to say it? Whether you find the recent “Peter + Olivia 4Ever” overkill in Fringe disheartening or not, I hope you could appreciate the way this episode explicated the ways in which the connection between them runs deep.
I also felt that “Subject 13” did a masterful job of putting us behind Peter’s eyes, showing Earth-1 as an alien place, the way we see Earth-2 whenever we visit there. Why aren’t the Dodgers in Brooklyn? Why is Red Lantern green? It helps that this is episode is set in the past, where the Joust videogame and Battlestar Galactica toys make everything seem more exotic. It also helps that despite his certainty that he’s in the wrong place, Peter’s still just a kid, capable of being enticed by a bag of peanut M&Ms or a replica of a strange flying machine. (It just about broke my damn heart when Peter picked up his toy airplane, waved it slowly through the air, and said, “Approaching the building, requesting clearance to dock.”)
Meanwhile, the episode’s credited writers Jeff Pinkner, J.H. Wyman, and Akiva Goldsman (all Fringe heavy-hitters) use the Olivia storyline to do some heavy-lifting on the series’ backstory and do so quite nimbly. To some extent, “Subject 13” covers territory that’s already been covered in roundabout ways: how Olivia was an abused kid who showed an unusual ability to connect with her classmates and to cross over, partly because of her stressful home-life and how Walter was so driven to protect our world that he used Olivia, compromising her safety in the name of saving thousands (or millions). But we also see how Walter’s intransigence begins the process by which his lovely, vibrant Elizabeth’s spirit is broken.
And most importantly, we see a moment when Olivia crosses over inadvertently and thinks she’s talking to Walter about her horrible stepdad when she’s actually talking to Walternate. It’s a great reveal, and one that in one quick moment—showing, not telling—explains how Walternate learned about our world, and figured out where Peter went. And there are some even slyer moments of explanation in “Subject 13,” too. There’s a long sequence “over there” where we see Walternate descending into a drunken funk over the loss of Peter—a loss which is a national embarrassment for the “safety czar” who invented the Star Wars defense system—while Elizabeth tries to bear up, so that she’ll be ready when and if Peter returns. But while Walternate is blue, he contemplates the ways that Peter could’ve been taken. A kidnapper who had extensive plastic surgery? Aliens? You can almost see the seeds for his shapeshifting army being planted, based on what Walternate imagined his enemies would be capable of. (Just as Walter tries to think of ways to defend our world against what his Earth-2 counterpart will do to exact revenge.)
Still, as much as I appreciated the mythology elements in “Subject 13,” I responded mainly to the mood. How unnerving is it to know in your bones that the woman who says she’s your mom is not your mom? How soul-crushing is it to look into the eyes of the boy who looks just like your dead son and lie to him? So yes, it’s a bit over the top when Elizabeth goes to the cupboard and starts drinking, dismayed that Walter hasn’t kept his promise to send Peter back. But that’s not an episode-killer, not when we have Elizabeth carefully picking her words—and making a larger, more profound point—when she tells Peter, “Sometimes the world we have is not the world we want.”
- This episode was directed by Frederick Toye, who’s a Fringe vet, though this is his first episode since season one. (Yes, he directed “Unearthed,” which aired in season two, but that was a holdover.) Here’s hoping he draws some more assignments in the future. Loved the hazy look and muted vibe of this one, mirroring Peter’s disconnection.
- Return of the retro-credits!
- Can I go shopping in the 1985 toy store?
- Loved that Peter’s room on Earth-2 had the same comic book covers on the wall that Walternate hung in his apartment in the season two finale.
- On Earth-2, there’s no Massive Dynamic, but there is a Bishop Dynamic, which is apparently located in Jacksonville, where space-shuttles get launched.
- Is it me, or did this episode put the commercial breaks in some strange places?
- Olivia’s reading Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, which I’ve always meant to read. Any thematic connections?
- The beguiling Olivia Dunham beguiles.
- Looks like we’re off next week; back at you in two.