‘Fringe’ Season Three Premiere

Third seasons generally shake series up, and Fringe is no exception to that rule. Having established strong characters in Season One and explored their origins in Season Two, J.J. Abrams’ popular drama throws identities into flux with Season Three.

The two-part season premiere begins on 23 September with “Olivia,” which finds Agent Dunham (Anna Torv) stranded in the alternate universe, subject to psychotherapy and drug treatments, but determined to return home. Airing on 30 September, “The Box” takes place back on our side, where alt-Olivia has gone blond and taken her place on the Fringe team, and in Peter’s (Joshua Jackson) heart — without raising any suspicion in the people who think they know her.

As Olivia plots to escape her captors and their world, she makes good use of her photographic memory, physical endurance, and strong will. But if her single-mindedness and almost superhuman prowess recall Jason Bourne, Olivia’s desperate longing to return home, the fantastic quality of much of the alternate world, and the presence of alternate versions of friends and colleagues from her side allude to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.

L. Frank Baum’s tale was also referenced in last season’s “Jacksonville” episode, in which Olivia returned to the site where Walter (John Noble) subjected her to experiments during her childhood, and where a wall mural depicted the Yellow Brick Road. “Olivia” establishes that her sojourn in the alternate world, like Dorothy’s travels through Oz, involves not only a quest to return home, but also an introspective voyage.

Just as Dorothy despairs of ever getting home when the wizard leaves in his hot-air balloon without her, so Olivia, her hopes for a quick escape dwindling, fears she’s stuck on the other side as she watches one of the alternate world’s signature zeppelins pass overhead. Will Olivia eventually return by means of an old-fashioned airship, or will she, like Dorothy, discover that she’s had the power to come back all along?

Get used to wondering. Leaving each Olivia in the other’s world opens up a season’s worth of plots. “The Box” shows the permutations available for storylines on our side. The episode works as a stand-alone mystery (can Walter discover the source of the lethal power contained in an unearthed box in time to disarm it?), provides more clues about the weapon for which Walternate needs Peter’s assistance to make operational, and showcases the wily ruthlessness of alt-Olivia.

Dragging out our Olivia’s return also enables the show to stage a romance between Peter and Olivia without really short-circuiting the familiar romance arc that typically delays the resolution of sexual tension until a show’s decline. It’s not the real Olivia, people, just her friskier double from the other side. Has the show set up a cruel double standard, or will our Olivia take up with alt-Olivia’s boyfriend?

Parallel plots invite closer scrutiny of the two worlds, and in “Olivia,” the alternate world comes into better focus, displaying interesting contrasts fro the non-alternate world, as well as contradictions within it. Totalitarian elements — citizens are constantly monitored through surveillance and tracking — characterize a society that is nevertheless open enough so New Yorkers can protest the government’s quarantine policy. Zeppelins fill the sky, yet Glatterflug (Fringe’s fictional airline) offers trips to the moon.

The two worlds complement each other as well. While the alt-world has the strongest father figures — Walternate and William Bell (Leonard Nimoy) — it’s also more “maternal,” since Peter and Olivia’s mothers are both still alive there. Our world offers only Massive Dynamic head Nina Sharp (Blair Brown), an enigmatic and distant mother figure to Olivia. Our world is the world of children: Peter, but also Olivia’s sister and niece, as well as Olivia and her fellow child experimental subjects, sometimes seen in visions and flashbacks.

The mythic dimension hinted at by the whiff of Oz encourages us to view both realms as dream versions of the other, places where subconscious fears and desires are acted out. The first two episodes already suggest that as each Olivia assumes the other’s identity, role-playing may give way to transformation. After the inevitable resolution of this series arc, will we wind up with two hybrid Olivias, each forever changed by spending time in the other’s skin?

While the Olivias are becoming more like each other, the two Walters couldn’t differ more wildly. Defense chief Walternate is coldly efficient, driven by hate, dedicated to avenging the destruction of his world by Walter’s meddling. Our Walter struggles with debilitating guilt — for the damage he caused when he crossed over to rescue Peter and for his estrangement from his son. And, if it’s possible, he’s become even more childlike than in Season Two. “Walter, use your words,” Peter tells his father in “The Box.”

Watching the cast play doubled characters promises to be one of the great pleasures of Fringe‘s coming season. Certainly Torv and Noble face the biggest challenges, she depicting two characters in flux, he portraying polar opposites. But the alt-world also offers alternatives for all the players. I especially like alt-world’s bereted, camo-clad, odds-making Astrid (Jasika Nicole), the analyst. She’s a nice foil to our softer Astrid — usually relegated to gofer duties and seeing to Walter’s bizarre requests — and points up the alt-Fringe group’s more militaristic character.

I suppose flying monkeys are too much to hope for.

RATING 7 / 10