The Pit of Olivia Dunham

By the end of June, some of my favorite female characters on TV will have wandered into the sunset of cancellation. Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope–whose Parks & Recreation is unlikely to be renewed after this year–have been a rallying point for feminists who want to see someone like themselves when they turn on the television. The one I’m going to miss most, though, is going away tonight, and you may have never had a chance to meet her.

Fringe, a show that has hung on for five years in spite of low ratings and a miserable timeslot, is airing its final episodes January 18, and it features the most underappreciated female hero on television.

Anna Torv plays Olivia Dunham, an agent in the FBI’s “Fringe” division, a special branch that investigates a pattern of unnatural events. She’s assisted by Walter Bishop—an LSD-loving mad-scientist who put “the pattern” into motion by traveling to a parallel universe to kidnap the parallel version of his dead son—and Peter Bishop, the son from a parallel universe. Oh, and when Olivia was a child—nicknamed Olive—Walter did experiments on her that give her occasional superpowers.

It can be hard to be a lady who likes sci-fi/action. You can be accused of fake geekery, and there aren’t a wealth of female characters to can relate to. When I was two or three, before I knew what the male gaze was, I decided I didn’t want to be Princess Leia. I didn’t want end up in a metal bikini, chained to a grotesque looking predator who licks his lips at me. I would rather wind up frozen in carbonite—in all of my clothes.

As I grew up watching the Sci-Fi/Action classics that dominated the 80s, all the men on my television seemed to have more fun than their female counterparts: Luke, Han, Superman, Kirk, Marty McFly, Indiana Jones.

As a six-year-old, seeing myself in only the male roles caused its own problems, it became especially more complicated as I got a little older. I wanted to make out with and be Luke Skywalker. How does that work?

There are a lot of reasons to love Fringe. Its charming character affectations, its retro tech, its new tech, its pulpy-ness, its fudgy science, its attention to the tiny details between universes, its homages to classic sci-fi, and the bravado of a show that’s not afraid to take narrative risks.

When it started, Fringe was somewhere between an X-Files rip-off and a case-of-the-week CSI with Pacey Whitter. But I knew when I happened upon Fringe at the end of its first season that Olivia Dunham was going to be something to watch.

For some, Fringe is the story of a mad scientist who broke two universes to save his son. But alongside that, Fringe concerns itself exploring the idea of identity and relationships. What does it mean to be a person in a different universe, or in a different time or timeline. What is at the core of ourselves? And, for me, it’s especially at its best when it explores the core of woman who is trying to hold her world together within those shifting structures of time and realities.

There are a lot of reasons to love Olivia, and there are a lot of Olivias to love.

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Season One Olivia is slow to develop, like most characters in a first season. Several critics complained that Olivia was “too wooden,” “too cold and distant.” That old male adage that if a woman is reserved, she’s not feminine. And paradoxically, within the season she’s chided by her male boss Agent Broyles (Hello, Cedric Daniels from The Wire!) for being too emotional in her work. Olivia responds with a speech that started my long-lasting lady crush:

“I understand that you think I acted too emotionally. And putting aside the fact that men always say that about women they work with, I’ll get straight to the point. I am emotional. I do bring it into my work. It’s what motivates me. It helps me to get into the headspace of our victims. See what they’ve seen. Even if I don’t want to, even if it horrifies me. I think it makes me a better agent. If you have a problem with that, sorry. You can fire me. But I hope you don’t.”

Olivia eventually learns that it’s precisely her “feminine” fear that fuels her super power. Her physic abilities enable her to switch between universes and control objects around her—including controlling Peter like marionette in Season Four. Her power is especially heightened when she’s afraid.

It’s rare in action genre films for a female character to openly show her fear—a feminine trait usually associated with weakness—and to use it to fight or do her job better. With apologies to Buffy, Agent Scully, and Ripley, usually female protagonists are outfitted with “male” emotions to make them seem tough. I love that Olivia subverts feminine signifiers and uses them for strength.

Season Three Olivia is my favorite Olivia. She spends the first half of the season trapped in the parallel universe, while her Earth-2 counterpart—Fauxlivia—impersonates her back in our world. Torv’s performance casually draws the contrasts between the two. Fauxlivia is THE SEXY ONE. She wears her ginger hair down with bangs, and she dresses like a more stereotypical post-apocalyptic lady solider style: Leather jacket, combat boots, a pithy quick swagger. When Earth 1 Olivia—Ourlivia—has to live in Fauxlivia’s life, she has to lose the boxy FBI suits and her no nonsense ponytail to impersonate her. In a lot of ways Fauxlivia is Olivia’s better-adjusted self. She was never experimented on as a child, she has friends who care about her, a boyfriend, her mother is still alive.

When Fringe started, the show seemed to struggle between keeping Olivia in her sensible boxy suits and exploiting Torv’s odd beauty. The show invented reasons for her to go into a sensory deprivation tank—forcing her to strip into a bra that’s just as utilitarian as her pants suit. Involving Fauxlivia in the main plot resolved this dissonance, allowing the producers to make Olivia’s steely demeanor an asset they could contrast with her freer counterpart.

Even when impersonating the more solemn Olivia, Fauxlivia tries to spruce up Olivia’s life. She begins the romantic relationship with Peter that the two of them could never quite get going, she keeps her bangs, talks about music, goes to a bar without being on an assignment.

When Olivia saves herself and goes back Earth-1, though, she goes back to her old clothes, her old hair color and style. She blames Peter because he couldn’t tell who she wasn’t, and ends the romance. Olivia is Olivia. She rejects the sexy–she may deal with fringe on a daily basis, but she doesn’t want it on her head [1]. As her hair grows back to it’s normal state, you can actually see where her bangs stop and the rest of her hair keeps going in her ponytail. It’s such an important, careful detail of her sense of self, and her pain.

And, though some critics found it too much, at the end of Season Three Anna Torv gets to do a truly creepy impression of Leonard Nimoy when he inhabits Olivia’s body because a bell and something call soul magnets. This wayward plot line exemplifies that Anna Torv deserves most of the credit that Olivia’s character is so lovable. Even when a Fringe scene is at its most absurd—and Fringe can push the boundaries of absurd, I mean, LOLOLOLOL SOUL MAGNETS—Torv brings Olivia’s warm and humanistic side to it.

Plenty of critics have voiced problems with Fringe’s insistence on making the show’s “science” so dependent on love. Sometimes, they say, the show forgets that it’s a show about a scientist who loved his son enough to invent a way to move through universes, and instead features cases of the week where love itself causes the paranormal disturbances. But I don’t have a problem with that, because the impetus of Fringe is based on an act of love, and emotion is what separates the humans from The Observers, a race of hyper-rational humans from the future who take over Earth 1 in the final season. [2]

But, I’m a huge Fringe apologist. It’s hard for the show to really, truly, deeply do me wrong as long as in the hour has Walter mis-pronounce Astrid’s name, make an absurd culinary request, and get a little too excited when he dissects someone.

While Fringe is leaving on its own terms tonight, Olivia doesn’t have that privilege. Amy Pohler and Tina Fey have some say in how their characters make an exit, Anna Torv doesn’t. And it shows in this final compressed season. Her character has been sidelined for much of the 13 episodes as it tries to wrap up the ends and the themes that it started when it was just a lowly X-Files ripoff with a former heartthrob from Dawson’s Creek.

Season Five has taken away a lot of her agency, or at least her visible agency. She spends a lot of the season waiting. The whole gang is in a dystopian 2036, after The Observers have enslaved the planet. Walter and Peter are freed first, but Olivia spends much of the first episode frozen in amber in a creeper’s living room—albeit in all of her clothes. She has to wait for someone else to free her. She then spends the next several episodes waiting for Peter, who has implanted himself with tech that gives him super-powers, making her super powers practically irrelevant.

Olivia doesn’t sit around and play with her hair while others fix things. She doesn’t back down when she has a hunch. She’s the one who has real honest-to-god super powers (as far as this TV world goes). Season Five mostly forgets all this, and takes her from a protagonist to a supporting character.

The only glimpse of what Olivia Dunham used to be like is in Episode 5.6. While inside a pocket universe, she grabs the collar of an observer and pulls him through a portal back to the real universe while simultaneously shooting him. It’s just an annoying reminder of how much fun she used to have.

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Over these past five seasons, Olivia’s been kidnapped in a parallel universe, hooked up to numerous mind-reading machines, inhabited by Leonard Nimoy, tortured, shot and killed in two different timelines, and turned into a coffee table. I hope that in the last two hours they can give her a send off worthy of all that fun.

That doesn’t mean a happy ending. I don’t especially want Olivia to live happily ever after—one of the lessons that the characters of Fringe learn over (and over) is that happiness (or love) sometimes has to be sacrificed for the greater good. I want Olivia to be the one who saves the world, and not a piece of furniture.

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[1] Bangs joke!

[2] Some critics might argue, “But the impetus of Fringe is based on an act of love that’s executed through Science, and now it’s just supernatural!”

But I would say, “But even in the early years of Fringe, the science really needed scare quotes, it really pushes the definition of science!”

And they might say, “But! Fringe doesn’t even abide by the rules they set up for their own world of science!”

And to that I would say, “Yes.”

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