Imagined Futures

a Fringe fan reflects


Imagine the impossibilities, it begins. Then, depicting assured annihilation, it urges, Fight for the future. Welcome to Fringe, the TV show that I was once mildly obsessed with. (You know it’s mild when you’re still relatively coherent about it. For a counterexample, see past history re: Affleck, Ben.) Over its five seasons, Fringe explores the lives of Olivia Dunham, Peter Bishop, and Walter Bishop, who work for the fictional Fringe unit of the FBI. Each episode loosely features a combination of fringe science (basically, very unstudied and theoretical science) and traditional TV serial drama tropes (FBI agents with Ray-Ban aviators, villain-of-the-week, romantic love triangles, etc.). In this respect, it’s as much a show about narrative expectations as it is about fervent belief: We know you’ve seen most of this before, but did you also know that the universe might be expanding beyond our ability to imagine it?  

In the finale of the show’s first season, Olivia is in the elevator when a flash of blue light splits the screen. The elevator doors open to an empty, bone-white corridor. A secretary greets her and leads her to an office, where, on a desk cluttered with objects, lies a copy of the New York News. “Former Pres. Kennedy to Address UN,” reads the front page. OBAMAS SET TO MOVE INTO NEW WHITE HOUSE. As the camera pulls away from Olivia, we see a shadow emerge—William Bell, the man who, along with Walter, discovered a way to bridge the two universes. Olivia is not in hers; she’s on “the other side,” or in the alternate universe (alt-verse, in fan-speak). The camera pulls away even further, panning out from the office window, out of the office building, until it’s pulled away entirely. What we’re looking at, years after 9/11, is the Twin Towers, still standing. In this universe, the White House was hit instead—hence, the Obamas needing to move into a new, glass-domed White House.  

Ken Tucker, in his review of the series finale for Entertainment Weekly, discussed the show’s legacy as one of fundamental, albeit flawed, optimism. “What the film critic Manny Farber once wrote about Val Lewton’s The Leopard Man (1943)—‘a nerve-twitching whodunit giving the creepy impression that human beings and “things” are interchangeable and almost synonymous and that both are pawns of a bizarre and terrible destiny’—might serve as an apt summation of much of dramatic friction sparked in Fringe, except for the remarkable achievement of the series: The idea, as September/Donald [a character on the show] put it this night, that “destiny can be changed.” That, indeed, the “bizarre and terrible” can through willpower and brain power be turned into the idyllic and the wondrous.”

Among the many, drastic differences between alt-verse and “our universe” (i.e. rationed avocados and coffee, daily trips to the moon, Andrew Jackson never being president), the one that I couldn’t stop thinking about was how differently people moved. In blue-verse, where the Towers did fall, the characters are closed off, their bodies unasked questions: Everything is tense and tight and wound up waiting for the next war. But in red-verse, they’re warm, funny, a little rough-and-tumble but fundamentally more at ease than they ever were in blue-verse. It was a distinction made all the more apparent through Anna Torv’s phenomenal performance as both Olivia and Alt-Olivia: Whenever these two women share the screen (thanks to magic of CGI), it is hauntingly obvious how different their lives are, how differently they view themselves and move through the world as a result.

I wasn’t and still am not a sci-fi person. Although I know the genre has many redeeming qualities, I don’t like it. But something about Fringe grabbed hold of me, and I would show up every week in front of the TV to watch the different universes unfold as I balanced a giant mug of tea against my knees. This was a few years before I was diagnosed, in what amounts to time that feels neither blissful nor stolen when I try to recall it; for, like so many things I wish I could remember, I simply can’t.

Only now, years later, do I realize why I was drawn to the show. I wanted to see, even only in fiction, the end of the question that I’d never dared ask, and still don’t: What if things had gone differently? And although I did not know then what I know now—that I was, at the time, chronically and dangerously depressed, with suicidal thoughts that I didn’t know were suicidal—that doesn’t change the fact that the pain was there, the pain had always been there. When I was 13, I told my sister I thought I might have depression and PTSD. You don’t have that, you can’t have that, she said, and that was all. She does not remember that moment, but I do. It is one of the few things in my life that I can recall with perfect clarity.
Olivia walks differently because in one universe, our universe, she was abandoned and abused and raised to believe she was worthless, while in the other she was not. It’s a quiet point of biography, her walk, but I was obsessed with it. Thinking about the show now (it went off the air in 2013, months before I graduated high school), I wonder how much of my fascination was driven by the desire to think, only if for the duration of a single episode—so, 43 minutes, plus commercials—that such a change could be possible for me, too. That somewhere, a version of myself without mental illness was walking around like that, shoulders squared back and grinning because she was in on the joke. Imagine the impossibilities: there, there, and maybe there, too.