“When the threat is unimaginable, that is when we are at the door”
– Phillip Broyles
Imagine a reality where the very laws of nature no longer seem to hold sway. A reality where words like “alternate universe” and “shape-shifters” are part of the everyday vernacular on the job. A reality where anything seems possible. This is the reality which the United States FBI Fringe Division faces. What is the FBI Fringe Division, you ask? It is an FBI branch of the United States Department of Homeland Security which was created to deal with odd and inexplicable events in “this” reality (i.e. the reality of our characters).
I started watching Fringe about half-way through the first season, and I was hooked after one episode. There are times when I am nearly at a loss as to what it is about the show that draws me in to the series so strongly. The only explanation I have yet to come up with is that the combination of a stellar cast with no small amount of chemistry, the intriguing and twisty storylines, the skillful writing, the “fringe” science (which is often rather out-there yet scarily plausible at the same time), the surprising moments of humour, poignant and emotional scenes, and any number of other aspects and nuances to which I shall endeavor to do justice, have come together in the production of a show which I never hesitate to recommend.
I have noticed that people tend to dislike “stand alone” episodes: that is, episodes which do not further develop the larger storyline of a series. For example, in season 1 of Fringe, a stand-alone episode might be one which did not focus on the terrorist cells which Fringe Division is pursuing. However, one thing that continually impresses me with Fringe is that the stand-alone episodes are often used to tell important stories about the characters. The episodes often expand upon character backstory, and allow us to see even more interesting stories. The stand-alone episodes in some ways actually do contribute to the story-line as a whole because they often serve as a demonstration of the levels of science in “this” reality which serve as an interesting juxtaposition against the levels of technology in the “other” world – as we have seen in season 2.
I am continually impressed by the dynamics between the characters on-screen, which can really be attributed to the interactions between the actors themselves. High-stress environments tend to hasten connections between people: be it heightening a dislike which may have developed slowly over time, or cementing a strong bond of friendship with someone you have not known for very long. Fringe Division is the definition of “high stress”, and so you would expect to see those relationships developing between the characters. The writing of the characters is superb, and the dialogue and discussions are always memorable. However, in the case of Fringe, the writing is accompanied by a wonderfully talented cast who seemed to gel together extremely quickly, which makes Fringe even more enjoyable to watch.
I should like to hope that reading this far might persuade you to watch a few episodes of Fringe, but in case you require more convincing, this is intended to serve as an introduction to the characters and backstory of Fringe, as well as to bring you up to speed on season two so far.
Special Agent Olivia Dunham
Fringe features an incredible ensemble cast, but the core characters are Olivia Dunham, Peter Bishop, and Walter Bishop (played by Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, and John Noble, respectively). Season 1 focused largely on fleshing out these 3 characters and their relationships with one another, and they have become something of a family – albeit a rather dysfunctional one.
Walter and Peter Bishop
Before progressing any farther, be aware that there are copious amounts of spoilers present, both for season one and the first half of season two.
Characters and Backstory (Season 1)
Olivia was an unwilling recruit, at least in the beginning, to Fringe Division. Her purpose at the onset of the series was much more mundane than investigating events that border on the paranormal: she was striving to save the life of someone she loved a great deal. As an FBI agent, Olivia and her team, including her partner (and lover) John Scott (played by Mark Valley), were part of a task force investigating the deaths of hundreds of people aboard an international flight which landed in the States. During the course of the investigation, John Scott came in contact with a substance which would lead to his death, if Olivia couldn’t find a cure.
It was this need for answers which led her research to Dr. Walter Bishop – a brilliant scientist, and the last hope for John Scott. The problem was, that Walter Bishop had been committed to an asylum 17 years prior after a fire in his lab (located in the basement of a building at Harvard University in Boston, where the series is set) resulted in the death of a lab assistant. As per the conditions of his incarceration, the only person who could visit Bishop was a family member; enter Peter Bishop.
As you may have deduced by the shared last name, Peter Bishop is Walter’s son. Peter is arguably as brilliant as his father, yet never pursued further education; he was always on the move, never staying in one place, until Olivia found him in Iraq and persuaded (actually, at first she blackmailed) him to help her. Together they retrieved Walter from the St. Claire’s (the asylum) and got his abandoned lab back into working order. Walter is the epitome of a mad scientist, and is fighting his way back from insanity with Peter’s help.
While the trio did manage to save John Scott, he was killed while attempting to escape after it was revealed that he was a traitor – at least, it appeared as though he was at first. Olivia later discovered that he had been part of a group which was working to save lives just as Fringe Division does, and that their relationship had not been a cover. However, his betrayal ultimately drove Olivia to join Fringe Division as she was intent on investigating the series of inexplicable events known as “The Pattern”.
We are first introduced to “The Pattern” by Special Agent Phillip Broyles (played by Lance Reddick) – the man who would become Olivia’s boss. Olivia and Broyles got off to a rather rocky start because, years before, Olivia – then a military prosecutor – had investigated and charged a good friend of Broyles’ (a man named Sanford Harris) with sexual assault against several young women. To his credit (and my surprise, at least initially), Broyles quickly moved past his issues with Dunham once he discovered how intent she was on discovering the truth – even if it exposed the man she loved as a traitor. Throughout season 1, Broyles has shown his willingness to do anything to protect his agents, Olivia in particular, even going so far as to challenge his old friend Harris and put his own job on the line. Broyles also has some sort of history – the extent of which us viewers don’t know yet – with Nina Sharp.
Nina Sharp (played by Blair Brown) is the de facto head of the (fictional) multinational corporation “Massive Dynamic” which has a great deal of influence around the world. Massive Dynamic was founded by William Bell (played by Leonard Nimoy) who is still a bit of a mystery to us, but is well known for being the “richest man in the world”. He also once shared a lab with Walter Bishop and they were close friends until Walter’s confinement in St. Claire’s. Bell is notably absent throughout season 1, but it is assumed that Nina is in contact with him as she is heading the company in his absence. Also of interest, Nina is extremely loyal to Bell as she has a very long history with him; also, he saved her life from cancer, which ultimately cost her right hand and forearm, leaving her with a “Terminator” hand. Nina is also the one who informed Olivia of the drug trials William Bell (and Walter Bishop) ran from 1981 to 1983 with a drug called Cortexiphan. Bell’s goal was to minimize the effects of aging on children, when the brain is still in its most malleable stage.
When we are born, there are an infinite number of possible connections which can be made between the neurons in our brains, and as we age, neurons die off and connections are lost, much like pruning a tree of dead branches. Bell called this “limitation”, and wanted to minimize it, thus the drug trials – which he eventually determined to be a loss and ended.
In season 1 we meet several people who were children in the trial and have manifested “abilities” – in particular, Olivia. However, it seems that the adults must first be “activated”, a task which the terrorist cell ZFT (in German their name means “destruction by the advancement of technology”) has taken upon themselves. Also, ZFT is believed to be behind the events of the Pattern, and we learn that their ultimate goal appears to be finding, and (if Nina is to be believed) killing, William Bell.
Most of season 1 focuses on Fringe Division’s reactions to events for which ZFT is responsible. It is not until the end of the season that we discover that the reason Bell has been so hard to find is that he is not in this world, but in another – another world just like our own, but in an alternate reality.
Yes, you read that correctly, Bell is in an alternate reality. However, it is a gets a great deal more complicated because not only is Bell in this alternate reality, but Peter Bishop himself is from a different reality than our own. This is because our Walter Bishop’s Peter died when he was 7 years old, and Walter could not live without his son. He figured out a way to open a doorway between realities, and, to put it bluntly, stole another Peter. Peter has no idea that he is not from “this” reality. In many ways this appears to have been the catalyst for the coming clash between the realities.
Two other integral characters are Junior Agent Astrid Farnsworth (played by Jasika Nicole) and Special Agent Charlie Francis (played by Kirk Acevedo). Astrid has become Walter’s lab assistant and helps Peter look after Walter, who is still adjusting to being out of a mental institution. Charlie is Olivia’s best friend and a staunch supporter.
Special Agents Charlie Francis and Olivia Dunham
I would also be remiss if I neglected to mention Olivia’s sister Rachel (played by Ari Graynor), and her daughter, Olivia’s niece, Ella (played by Lily Pilblad). Rachel and Ella come to stay with Olivia for a while, due to the fact that Rachel and her husband are on the verge of a divorce. These two characters shine light on an interesting facet of Olivia: with them, she is not the “hard-ass FBI agent”, but just “Aunt ‘Liv”. Rachel knows what Olivia does, but not the specifics of the job. Mostly due to the fact that the work of Fringe Division is classified, I expect, but also due to the fact that Olivia always seems to be taking care of, and protecting, her baby sister. I think this likely started when they were children and their mother was in an abusive relationship.
Ella and Olivia
There is also a man known as “The Observer” (played by Michael Cerveris) who tends to show up in the periphery at Pattern-related events and has some sort of past with Walter. He saved Peter and Walter’s lives after a car crash when Peter was very young, which appears to be the only time that he has ever interfered directly – he usually just watches, hence his title. Throughout season 1 it became something of a challenge to try and spot him in every episode. He also knows that Peter Bishop is not from our reality.
In the season 1 finale, Olivia finally manages to stop the faction of ZFT which they have been pursuing from crossing into the reality which Bell is in, which prompts Nina to agree to set up a meeting between her and Bell. The episode, and season, ends with Olivia standing in what is clearly not our reality, as she is looking out upon New York from the World Trade Centre.
First Glimpse at an alternate universe
Check back soon for the Season 2 recap!
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