While by no means a feminist utopia, seasons 1 and 2 of Fringe establish Olivia as a pivotal actor. Take season 1's “Ability,” where she must come to terms with her own superhuman mental abilities in order to stop a bomb, or season 2's “Jacksonville,” where she must do the same in order to save a building full of people. As William Bell (Leonard Nimoy), the head of Massive Dynamic, states, Olivia is the “guardian” of our universe, a gatekeeper and protector. While this position is in many ways established by her history as the test subject of two powerful men, Bell and Walter, she nevertheless holds a key position wherein she must act, and she does so over and over. In season 2, Olivia is the only one to have heard William Bell's warnings and is thus the only one capable of acting on them. When it comes down to a a choice between catching the season's Big Bad or saving Walter, Olivia is the one who decides.
Olivia's characterization further establishes her as a multifaceted person who acts, rather than a female object merely acted upon. Yes, the show brings in a sister and a niece to feminize her. Yes, her story starts off revolving around a man. But that is not where her story remains. Olivia spends much of the first half of the second season coming to terms with injuries from a car accident and a trip across universes, a condition based not in her gender but in her humanity. Later, when a building in New York is about to be pulled to another universe, Olivia is the only one who can find it, and in order to do so, she has to confront not her past as a little girl but her past as a test subject. This is not to say that Olivia's portrayal is absent of gender essentialism. As “Brown Betty,” an episode near the end of season 2, demonstrates, the writers conceive of Olivia as someone who fights for this universe because she cares for others, with true love as one of her primary motivations. Granted, this episode is essentially a fairy tale told by a very under-the-influence Walter, but the key themes echo the character interactions in the rest of the show. Olivia starts as a girlfriend first, using her professional skills in support of that role, and at the end of season 2, she partners with other child test subjects to bring them to the parallel universe—to get Peter back to be with him. This motivator, however, while stereotypically female, remains merely a facet of Olivia's character rather than the key aspect.
For the first third of season 3, Olivia is a prisoner in the parallel universe with the alternate Olivia having taken her place in ours. Gender-wise, this season unfolds much like the previous one in that both Olivias do their jobs and do them efficiently, with family and love as aspects of their characters but not the aspects. Olivia has visions of Peter but these are to tell her that she's in the wrong universe; the alternate Olivia develops a relationship with Peter, but she does so as part of her infiltration into our universe.
And then both Olivias return home.
I titled my first blog entry here, “Lovers, mothers, and... Oh” to draw attention to the fact that, no matter what else women in television may have going for them, they are almost always eventually reduced to someone's girlfriend and/or mother.
Apparently, Olivia Dunham is no exception.
After being kidnapped, tortured, and convinced by powerful drugs that she's the other Olivia Dunham, Olivia returns to our world and has a difficult homecoming—not because of the various traumas she's endured, not because she just left a mother dead in our world, but because Peter undertook a relationship with the other Olivia. With the exception of a single episode that at least acknowledges the disconnect she feels from her own life, Olivia spends a good five episodes pining after Peter and wondering how he feels about her. Of course it's possible, even probable, that she continues to have trouble readjusting, but we never see this. We never even see her sister or niece. Remember “Ability” and “Jacksonville”? Contrast that with season 3's “6B,” where she and Peter avert a similar disaster by appealing to romantic love and loss. Now that Olivia has a vibrant romantic interest, that is all her character becomes.
Things are no better for the other Olivia. After spending two months on a stressful undercover mission in a completely different world, she comes home in love with Peter and pregnant with his child. Although this pregnancy is potentially lethal for her and she almost aborts, a kidnapping and accelerated pregnancy come together to take that choice away from her. In a climactic birthing scene, she begs another male figure in her life to do anything to save this child, including sacrifice her, and it is pure luck that both child and loving mother survive.
Even Olivia's role as protector of our universe is undercut. It doesn't actually matter what Olivia does, we learn. Rather, Peter is destined to step into a doomsday device, and the Olivia he chooses will be the one whose universe survives. From this point forward, Olivia is no longer an actor in the narrative. She is an object for Peter to take or reject, and the idea that one or both might not even want to be with him becomes unthinkable. That Olivia, after all, would destroy her universe. And with so much of the story devoted to this love triangle, it seems unlikely that the show would suddenly swerve in another direction.
There is no will here for these two women, not on a narrative level. There is a woman, lover and mother, but an independent and fully developed character? She got lost somewhere around the episode where, ironically enough, a young woman's dead body became a literal marionette for her male admirer.
There is nothing wrong with a woman who loves her partner or a woman who has a child, and there's nothing wrong with such a storyline. When it becomes a problem is when these plotlines are taken for granted. Women want love, women want babies—the thinking goes—and so women do these things, without any attention to how this particular character might react to that situation while, simultaneously, to the other situations in her life. Such a reduction not only makes for offensive television, it makes for boring and recycled television. I've seen this plot, I know how it goes, and so have the millions of other viewers slowly trickling away from Fringe's plummeting ratings.
Over the course of the first two seasons, Olivia Dunham developed into a complex character with a life, with family, with a history, with her own personality. I miss that Olivia, rather than the one who smiles at Peter over corpses. I miss that Olivia, rather than the one who wonders not how to reconnect with her entire universe but, rather, only whether Peter loves someone else.