Tuesday, 1 March 2011

'FRINGE' 3.15 - "Subject 13"

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

One of the most unforgettable episodes of Fringe was "Peter", set entirely in 1985, that explained exactly why and how Walter (John Noble) crossed over to the alternate-Earth and kidnapped the other dimension's version of his dead son. It was a brilliant, poignant, pivotal episode that left an indelible mark on the series. In many ways it marked the moment Fringe really found its heart and, since then, hasn't looked back. "Subject 13" is an attempt to catch lightning in the same bottle, twice. The fact it mostly succeeds just goes to show how far this show's writing has improved in the past few seasons.

The entire episode again took place in 1985 (meaning a reprise of those joyously retro opening titles), a few months after Walter stole the sickly Peter (Chandler Canterbury) from "Walternate" to cure him, but has clearly decided it's best to keep Peter in this universe. His excuse is that it's too dangerous to risk another crossing, which is certainly true, but you sense that the bigger reason is Walter refuses to lose his son a second time. Unexpectedly, "Subject 13" reveals that Peter wasn't oblivious to everything that has happened to him, as he senses Walter and his mother Elizabeth (Orla Brady) aren't his real parents, and has an obsession with finding his way home -- which he believes is at the bottom of the frozen ice lake he almost drowned in shortly after arriving in this universe with Walter.

A large part of this episode was spent watching the struggle Elizabeth faces every day, trying to convince Peter he's really her son; tormented because she knows success will ultimately mean their relationship is based on a lie, while also aware she's an accomplice in a kidnapping. Walter is similarly conflicted, if slightly more determined to keep Peter around for longer than planned, despite telling his wife that his experiments on children in Jacksonville with the mind-altering drug "cortexiphan" holds the key to safe inter-dimensional crossings. One young girl who's particularly responsive to the treatment is precocious Olivia (Karley Scott Collins), the eponymous Subject 13, whom Walter comes to realize can jump to the other dimension when she's in a heightened state of love and fear. This mental state is hard to reproduce in the lab, as the only time Olivia's successfully crossed was when she was being chased by her abusive stepdad.

This was a great hour of television and another highlight of Fringe that successfully developed the show's back-story in several ways. It never really crossed my mind that Peter would realize he's been taken from his real home, but that was rich territory to explore. And while we may have heard about Walter's experimentation on kids, it's quite another thing to actually see it. There was a brilliant extended sequence shot on Betamax, with Walter forcing Olivia to undertake various physical and mental challenges to provoke a dimension-jump. It perhaps could have been tougher to watch, but it still made its point.

The performances were really good, too -- especially from Orla Brady, who occasionally drops into the show to play Walter's wife. She was the real standout here; acing the role of a conflicted mother who just wants her son to love her. Both child actors were also strong, which was such a relief. Chandler Canterbury and Karley Scott Collins resemble Joshua Jackson and Anna Torv well enough, but more importantly they really feel like Peter and Olivia as children and have a nice chemistry together.

"Subject 13" does throw up some potential issues with the continuity of the series, but I trust the writers enough to predict another flashback episode will explain things. For instance: it seems ridiculous that Peter and Olivia, as adults, don't recall the fact they met each other once, or that Peter's memories of ever doubting his parents' identities have vanished. My guess is that their memories will be removed at some point (maybe once Walter realizes Peter's never going to stop questioning his whereabouts), as otherwise this is quite a serious problem for the show. That said, some of the original setup of Fringe now looks very coincidental -- such as the extreme improbability that Olivia lost her memories of being experimented on, grew up to become an FBI agent, and found herself tracking down Peter to help get his father released from a mental asylum, who just happens to be the "Dr Walter" she knew as a kid. Oh, and Walter's insanity conveniently means he forgot Olivia Dunham was ever his cherished Subject 13.

Suspension of disbelief is clearly required, as Fringe currently has to bend itself into a shape that fits the beginnings of the show in eason 1, but I'm okay with that. It helps that sci-fi is robust enough to have audiences accept things like convenient memory loss, and what ultimately matters is the here-and-now. I'm sure the writers would make changes to Fringe's pilot, if they had planned these three seasons out in such detail, but that's obviously too much to ask. And I prefer a show that can adapt, evolve and improve if it means episodes like "Subject 13" get made.

It was also very interesting to see the aftermath of Peter's kidnapping from the perspective of Walternate. As the alt-Earth's safety czar, it's big news that he couldn't even keep his own son safe, and we find him a deep state of depression -- mainly because he has absolutely no idea where Peter's gone, or who took him. "Subject 13" answered a key question about Fringe's back-story very well: how did Walternate come to realize his son was taken by his duplicate from a neighbouring dimension? In a spine-tingling scene, Olivia was shown to be the reason, after she unwittingly crossed to the other side and left her sketchbook of drawings with Walternate, believing he was the other Walter. A drawing of Olivia standing in a field of white tulips with Peter, handed over by a little girl who vanished into thin air is more than enough for Walternate to hypothesize the truth and start plotting a rescue.

Some say Fringe is in a bind with Walter's character during this period of time, as it wants to present him as something of a cruel man (he experiments on kids), but it all takes place during a time when he's a grieving father who has our sympathy over his kidnapping of Peter. And in this episode, there was a great moment when Olivia trusted Walter enough to reveal she gets beaten at home, leading Walter to threaten Olivia's stepdad with serious repercussions if he dare touch her again. But I rather like the fact Walter's a character with contradictions. Nobody's 100% hero or villain in real-life, so Walter's one of the most faceted characters on TV in many ways. You can feel disappointed by some of his behaviour and decisions, but also elated by his obvious affection for those closest to him.

A fantastic episode of a brilliant season. What say you?


  • Always nice to see Sarah-Jane Redmond, formerly demonic villainess Lucy Butler in Millennium, as Walter's lab assistant Ashley.
written by Jeff Pinkner, J.H Wyman & Akiva Goldsman / directed by Frederick E.O Toye / 25 February 2011 / Fox