Unlike her TV predecessors, Olivia is not moved by transcendent belief or duty. Uncertainty hurts her.
The bar was high for the second season premiere of Fringe. Not only did it have to tantalize aficionados with new angles on characters and provocative twists on long-running plot lines. It also had to tempt first-time drop-ins to enmesh themselves in the ongoing personal relationships, philosophical debates, and existential challenges. Fringe met the needs of fans and newbies alike with plotting aplomb, allied to its trademark mix of sharply directed action and self-deprecating wit.
As the premiere opened last week, the FBI's Fringe Division, charged with investigating "a mysterious sequence of unexplained phenomena suggestive of someone or something performing experiments in the world," was again under threat. At the same time, Olivia (Anna Torv) had just visited an alternate universe that Walter (John Noble) had long claimed existed. The episode began with familiar elements: a car accident, a missing person, a mad scientist, and an amnesiac's warning regarding the fate of the human race. But then the missing person catapulted out of an empty car through its windscreen, and the scientist turned out to be high on hallucinogenic cocktails. Suddenly the clichés blossomed into people whose fates one might like to know.
For fans, the alchemy deepened. Instead of the ice-cold protagonist of the first series, Olivia returned traumatized from her visit to the universe where the Twin Towers still stand. Confined to a hospital bed, she was more vulnerable both to external threats and emotional intimacy, particularly with Peter (Joshua Jackson). Unlike her TV predecessors, Olivia is not moved by transcendent belief or duty. Uncertainty hurts her. In this, she and Walter are very alike, although her passion has driven her to federal investigative work and his ultimately condemned him to a mental hospital. As her backstory as a child subject of Walter's much earlier experiments at Harvard emerged in the first series, the trust they shared seemed both more explicable and more mysterious. Unfortunately, the season premiere sidelined of this relationship, with Olivia confined to hospital and Walter immersed in his laboratory.
On the plus side, Peter demonstrated some of the action-man skills he culled during his previous life as a dodgy dealer in the world's trouble spots -- without losing his wry humor. When a new FBI agent asked if his father was crazy, he answered, "Of course." By the same token, as soon as he repeated out loud Walter's latest theory (that a shape-shifting soldier who travelled from a parallel universe committed a series of murders), Peter admitted that he couldn't believe what he just said. Serving as the slightly skeptical viewer's surrogate, Peter's is a voice of reason compelled by a sense of responsibility, affection, and the lack of alternatives, to protect his father and Olivia, the woman who recruited him to the Fringe Division by blackmail and has since become his friend.
When Olivia unknowingly repeated the last words Peter's mother whispered to him every night (in Greek, naturally), it became clear that there is no limit to how weird things can get. This edge-walking has ever been both Fringe's delight and its potential downfall. As the latter stages of J.J. Abrams' Lost wound itself into ever more byzantine tangles of history, conspiracy, love, sex, and the paranormal, watching an episode turned into the equivalent of banging one's head against the wall -- it felt so good when one stopped. But if Fringe's writers -- Abrams, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman -- sustain the sharp wit and swift plotting they managed in this summer's Star Trek prequel, they might maintain the series' high-speed, oddball unpredictability.