Season Premiere — Fringe, “Olivia”

Much has been made about Fringe‘s elevation from middling mythology series that leaned too heavily on the procedural to an impressive series full of innovative ideas and great, real characters. And for good reason, as the second half of season two was freaking fantastic and the two-part finale was the most confident I have ever seen the series.

Well, until tonight’s premiere episode, “Olivia.” Even in season three, it takes some balls to set 95 percent of a premiere episode in the alternate universe when only one real lead character is there. But it doesn’t matter. Olivia spends most of the episode sitting in the backseat of a cab with a character we have never met (played wonderfully by Andre Royo) and yet, it’s one of the most compelling hours of Fringe ever produced. Though any episode set in the alternate universe feels more epic or interesting (and thus exists as almost a small, but awesome cheat on the series’ part), even without that, “Olivia” would be fantastic.

Instead of focusing on why Olivia’s been kept over there by Walternate, the episode is more interested in exploring Olivia’s state of mind as she battles not only with being in a strange place totally alone, but also slowly experiencing her true identity slip away from her thanks to a blood serum that replaces her memories with those of Fauxlivia. She’s trying to figure out how to get back to her real life, but as the serum kicks in, what’s actually her life becomes a blurry mess of emotions and memories. Olivia has been given the tattoo of Fauxlivia, she already has the hair and when driving around a city that’s foreign to her, it’s easier to get lost in the abyss between who she is and who she could have been. Things aren’t as they should be and that realization of terror slowly sets in, almost as if her mind stops fighting and gives in because it’s easier to be someone else when they’re no one around to acknowledge your previous existence.

And so, Olivia knows she’s supposed to go certain places, but can’t remember how or why she knows them and by the time Olivia ends up at the home of her alive-in-this-universe mother, it’s all over. She remembers picking out the paint for the walls and is absolutely ready for Charlie (now with a full head of hair) to take her back to the Statue of Liberty so she can feel better and rejoin the people who she thinks are her team. For a second I thought Olivia was just playing it up as a way to somehow truly infiltrate the alt-Fringe Division, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Obviously her condition will be reversed at some point, but it’s going to be compelling not only to see why Walternate wants Olivia around, but also watch how Fauxlivia lives. It’s odd enough to have two versions of the same person that are slightly different, but now we have two versions of the same person that are slightly different, but don’t appear to be different anymore.

In the quick few minutes we spend in the “real” world, Fauxlivia is alive and well, bleached hair and all, smiling with Walter and kissing Peter, who has just testified in some sort of deposition about what happened over there. Neither Bishop seems to have a clue about who they’re actually spending so much time with and Fauxliva seems to be living it up in the real world. That’s surely going to all come crashing down very, very soon, however.

Let me just say, because I have been vocally critical of both her performance and the writing for the character in the past: Anna Torv is fantastic throughout this episode. Fantastic. In the past, even when Olivia’s supposedly been in trouble, there’s always a shield or veneer of toughness that the character puts forth. But not here. She’s completely lost, scared and eventually hopeless before she succumbs to the serum and Torv plays it all beautifully. There’s a softness to her performance that hasn’t been there before and a generally terrified look in her eyes that’s somewhat hard to pull off. Really, Torv is playing four characters in this episode: Scared Olivia on the run, Half-Olivia/Half-Fauxlivia, the full transformation from Olivia to Fauxlivia and finally, Fauxlivia pretending to be Olivia in the real world. That’s a lot of work to do, and she makes all versions distinctive enough that it’s not gimmicky or unrealistic. And for a lead character that use to drag its series down (not all her fault as an actress) and was basically pushed aside last year so Peter could be the main anchor, this is a big step for Olivia and for Fringe. This is something of a confirmation that Fringe isn’t pulling any punches this year, not just with its mythology, but with its characters. If it follows through with what is set up here, the series will fully step into the pantheon of GREAT television.

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