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Author's Note: Having grown tired of what's currently available on TV I've decided to rewatch some of my all time favorite shows. I'm limiting myself to one episode per week in order to experience the storytelling as it was originally intended, which hopefully will preserve the thrill of having to wait a week to see what happens next. This article covers the Fringe episode “Bad Dreams", which originally aired on April 21st, 2009.
The sins of our past are difficult to escape, no matter how fast or far we run they have a way of adhering to our soul with a tether of guilt. The more heinous the crime the harder it will snap back when it comes to light, and unfortunately for Walter Bishop he participated in some rather nasty business in his early years as a scientist. Each week seems to connect Walter to a new fringe science event, and while his childlike manner makes him endearing it’s impossible to ignore that something sinister exists beneath the surface.
Fringe reconnects with The Pattern narrative this week as the Cortexiphan plot resurfaces, with Olivia’s past exposure to the drug driving the narrative. “Bad Dreams” is a rather on-the-nose title given that she’s forced to witness the death of a young mother while dreaming, with the most-troubling aspect being that Olivia sees herself push the woman in front of a speeding subway train. She initially brushes the experience off as a nightmare, but the following morning the woman’s death is reported on the news, leading Olivia to believe that she is somehow responsible for the tragedy. Peter tries to convince her that it was nothing but a dream, but Walter is less willing to dismiss the possibility that she was somehow present for the woman’s death. They travel to New York City to investigate, where Olivia is able to correctly predict that there would be a red balloon stuck to the ceiling of the subway tunnel, which diminishes Peter’s skepticism.
Olivia takes a page out of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies and takes some caffeine pills, but after they fail to prevent her from dozing off she once again finds herself at the scene of violence. This time she’s sitting in a fancy restaurant where a woman suddenly becomes agitated towards her husband, the argument escalating to the point where she guts him with a steak knife. This dream again turns out to be true, inspiring Olivia to return to New York City to question the woman who appears to have no explanation of why she stabbed her husband. At this point Olivia is convinced that she is somehow responsible for the two deaths she’s witnessed in her sleep, but when she questions the restaurant owner he reveals that a strange man was sitting in the exact seat where she had been in her dream. Walter hypothesizes that since this man has been absent from her dreams that it must be him causing these deaths.
Using the restaurant owner’s information along with security footage from the subway incident the team identifies the mystery man as Nick Lane, who until-recently was a voluntary patient at St. Jude’s Mental Hospital. Lane’s doctor informs them that he had a knack for letting his moods rub off on other people, if he was happy then everyone felt up and when he brooded he brought those around him down. This leads Walter to believe that Lane possesses powerful empathic abilities, and nobody is surprised when it’s revealed that as a child Lane participated in the Jacksonville Cortexiphan trials, the same study that Olivia was part of.
Last week’s episode gave us a taste of the negative aspects of Walter’s past, but here he’s able to use his questionable history for good. He elaborates on the Cortexiphan experiments, explaining that the children were paired off and that Olivia’s connection to Lane is likely a direct result of the scientific partnership the two children shared in the trials. Anna Torv is outstanding in this scene, conveying both Olivia’s strength and her vulnerability to the audience. When we speak of strong female characters we often focus on the likes of Ellen Ripley or Black Widow, with rarely a mention of Olivia Dunham. This is a foul side effect of the fact that Fringe is a somewhat-forgotten storytelling treasure, a shame given how complex the character is written and how effective Torv is at interpreting the material.
Lane manages to take another life, this time luring a stripper to his hotel room where his guilt inspires her to slit her throat. By this point the Fringe team has learned the location of Lane’s home, but when they come knocking they find the place empty. This is because Lane is back on the streets, where his dark thoughts have rubbed off on a dozen citizens who follow him to the roof of a skyscraper. Walter correctly guesses that Olivia’s connection to Lane will make her immune to his emotional influence, allowing her to approach him without being infected by his now-suicidal thoughts. She confronts Lane on the rooftop and is able to incapacitate him, which breaks the psychic spell he has over his potential victims. Lane is then placed in a medically-induced coma, where it’s hoped that he won’t be able to hurt anyone else.
Fringe does many things well, and the ability to consistently deliver captivating antagonists is one of the show’s strengths. There’s no denying the horrible fallout of Nick Lane’s ability, in a single episode he robs a baby of her mother and inspires a wife to murder her beloved husband (wonder if she will serve time for that), but the morality of his actions are far from black and white. Lane doesn’t want his ability, in fact it disgusts him and nearly drives him to suicide, and therefore his actions are morally ambiguous. While the fallout of his powers are horrible, he’s not making a conscious choice to hurt anyone. So who ultimately bears responsibility for the deaths in “Bad Dreams”? Walter? The mysterious William Bell, who we still haven’t seen on screen? Nick’s parents for allowing him to be experimented on? Blame ultimately proves to be irrelevant as its Lane who finds himself punished, doomed to sleep forever because he is unlucky enough to be cursed with a power he never asked for.
The episode’s coda is an interesting one, as Walter finds a box of old VHS tapes (oh the nostalgia) that chronicle the Cortexiphan experiments. We seen a little blonde girl cowering in the corner of a room ruined by fire, while Walter and Bell attempt to comfort her with fear clearly in their voices. Younger Walter calls her Olive, Nick Lane’s nickname for Olivia, confirming that this is indeed the childhood version of Fringe’s protagonist. While we’ve already seen Olivia’s psychic abilities we’re now left to question the extent of her power, which now appears to included pyrokinesis. If Olivia was able to showcase such mental strength as a child, what might she be capable of as an adult?
Observer Sighting: Walking on the street.