In which Olivia Dunham suffers (and then enjoys) a mental break while investigating an allegedly schizoid kid and a brood of bee-brained, hive-mind killers 

By Jeff Jensen
February 18, 2012 at 06:32 PM EST
Liane Hentscher/Fox
S4 E13
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“A Better Human Being” told the story of two people with a lot on their minds. And by “a lot,” I mean the memories and thoughts of other people. Sean was a troubled young boy who believed he was schizophrenic, but whose brain was actually crowded with the voices of his genetically tweaked half-brothers, a hive-minded brood that would do anything, even kill, for the sake of their mutual survival. (A metaphor for Fringe fandom?) And then there was new timeline Olivia Dunham, who began recollecting more and more and ultimately all of original timeline Olivia Dunham’s life experience. As the memories settled and soaked, Rebootlandia Olivia began to change into a richer, more dynamic version of herself. A better Olivia. Among the benefits: Realizing that she wasn’t alone in the universe; recognizing Peter Bishop as her soulmate. And that smile! It would great to see Olivia beam like that again. Peter – who until now has thought of himself as Dorothy in Oz, trapped in a trippy variant edition rendering of his world and desperate to get back to his heartland home — spent most of the story trying to resist the implications of Olivia’s mental reformatting. But by the end, Master Bishop had buckled. When he looked into her eyes and saw his Olivia. But is she really?

“A Better Human Being” was a significant, clever, and on the whole compelling hour of season 4 Fringe. My big quibble: As the episode progressed, I felt the case-of-the-week was no longer complimenting the Olivia storyline but distracting from it. More, it just didn’t seem plausible that Olivia would continue/would be permitted to continue working after being diagnosed with what a psychologist would call “a psychotic episode.” The same woman who had the good sense to surrender her gun when she started brain farting in last week’s outstanding outing should have had the wisdom to step back and cede the case to her second, Lincoln Lee. (Boss man Broyles would have surely forced her to take leave, but he was oddly/conveniently MIA this week.) Yet again: I was entertained and engaged. I thought Allegedly Crazy Sean was a clever twist on the magical nutjob archetype, and I was intellectually and emotionally activated by Olivia’s life changing internal event, which begged various meaningful questions about the nature of identity and whatnot. And I thought the performances by Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson were just great. After a slow, slightly frustrating install, Fringe 4.0’s reboot-oriented operating system is beginning to yield stories that are stimulating for being unique products of that premise. If that makes sense.

We met Sean while he was psychically live streaming a home invasion executed by three grim-faced young men wearing blue rubber gloves. At first, it seemed as if the remote viewing kook was actually directing the crime – which resulted in the murder of a man named Daniel Greene – but the truth was far stranger. Enter Fringe Division, which took an interest after Sean’s doctor realized in retrospect that his real-time play-by-play of a homicide that actually occurred couldn’t be chalked up to mere crazytalk and decided to contact the authorities. I loved the bit where we saw Walter – no stranger to mental institutions – empathetically conversing with a patient who believed he was orbiting the planet Venus. After interviewing Sean, Walter theorized that they were dealing with a mutant telepath, not a lad gone loony. Back at the lab, Dr. Bishop refined his diagnosis even further: Sean and the killers were akin to bees in that they shared a hive mind. Call them: The Drones. (Quibble: For the rest of the episode, Astrid became Sean’s primary contact with Fringe Division. Being a sensible boy, he developed an instant crush on her. Still, I found myself thinking a more interesting story would have had Sean bonding with Walter, given the shared connection of afflicted psychology.)

NEXT: Meet Dr. Owen Frank(enstein), a fallen Dr. Moreau.

Olivia and Lincoln Lee – back from his goddaughter’s birthday and still good for a quip or two about how gosh darn bizarre this Fringe work can be – pushed the investigation further. Sean’s mom revealed that her son wasn’t made the old fashioned way, and gave the agents the name of the physician who had facilitated the artificial insemination. Olivia and Peter tracked the now-retired Dr. Owen Frank(enstein) to an assisted living facility and discovered a frail old man humbled by hubris and guilt. He hadn’t been just helping women get pregnant back in the day. He was trying to build “better human beings” via genetic material that had been modified to reactivate dormant traits and add abilities found in other species. Chief among the enhancements: Telepathy, heightened survival instinct. Even more unethical: Dr. Frank was using his own swimmers to conceive these next gen X-men. He had been trying to atone by working with investigative reporters – including Daniel Greene — to locate his progeny and confess his mad scientist sins to the world. Why did The Drones kill the journos? Because exposure could/would have negatively impacted their livelihood. How did The Drones even know the journos were hunting them? See: “heightened survival instinct.” Apparently, their ability to sniff out threats to their existence borders on the omniscient. Or was it that The Drones – genetically linked to Dr. Frank —  were also telepathically wired to their proverbial Queen Bee and what he was doing?

Regardless, the killer bees realized that simply eliminating Dr. Frank’s redemption proxies wasn’t enough. They had to kill the Fringe agents chasing them (fail) and their daddy, too. There, they succeeded. Dr. Frank – snuffed with a pillow. In the aftermath, Sean reported that he could no longer hear the voices of his half-siblings in his head, suggesting either: 1. The death of the father had neutralized the special abilities (or at least just the telepathic faculty); or 2. The rest of The Drones – older, stronger than young Sean – had decided to sever the boy’s connection to the hive mind, perhaps as punishment for cooperating with Fringe Division. (Implication of this possibility: The older drones remain deadly special and at-large in the Fringe world; might we see them again down the road?) Sean was effectively rehabilitated of his mental illness, but he also felt his cure had come at a cost. A loss of identity. A loss of community. Without The Drones, Sean felt disconnected from the frame of reference that gave his life meaning. Which is to say: He found himself feeling a little bit like a certain Bishop boy we know. Sean’s story began as a mirror to Olivia’s intensifying disorientation, but became a reflection of the plight that has plagued Peter all season… that is, until now.

Olivia’s makeover took hold by degrees. We picked up right where we left off last week, when Peter dropped by Agent Dunham’s apartment and was surprised by a kiss on the lips. Rebootlandia Olivia was clearly under the influence of original timeline Olivia. It was just a short burst – but the first of many. Peter was troubled by Olivia’s expression of affection. He worried there was something mentally wrong with her, although I like to think he was savvy enough to instantly recognize alternative possibilities but was resisting giving them credence – out of admirable respect for Olivia; out of his persistent belief that his “home” still existed; out of fear of mistaking yet again another Olivia for his Olivia. They parted company resolved to pretend the kiss had never happened, though Peter did get Olivia to agree that she’d allow Walter to examine her if the bursts of original timeline (“OT” ) Olivia continued.

NEXT: Olivia restored? Or shapeshifter shenanigans?

And they did. Immediately. The second Peter exited the apartment, Olivia flashed on the moment when OT Olivia first saw Peter’s “over there” electromagnetic shimmer. At Sean’s mental institution, Olivia flashed on the moment when OT Olivia first retrieved Walter from St. Claire’s. The more the memories came, the more thrilling the experience of discovery/rediscovery. After visiting Peter at his Harvard house (and recalling the home that the Bishop boys had made of it in the original timeline), Olivia agreed to that Walter check-up, more out of respect for freaking Peter than concern for her own sanity. The memories, the feelings for Peter – they all felt so right, so correct. (RIP: That crush on Lincoln Lee. Poor Lincoln Lee!) I loved the sequence in Walter’s lab, with Olivia submitting to a scan (via wires and something that resembled a high tech beauty salon hair dryer-chair thingie) and flashing nervous-excited shiny eyes at (pouting) Peter in the corner. It was like she was recognizing him all over again – and hoping he could/would recognize her. Walter’s preliminary diagnosis was that Olivia – accessing her dormant Cortexiphan-coaxed super-powers — had developed a empathic rapport with Peter and was leaching memories from him. In other words: Peter was literally a bad influence on Olivia, and Walter – surging with paternal protectiveness – did not approve. He warned Peter to stay away from her.

But Olivia could not stay away from Peter. And she refused to accept that what she was experiencing was some kind of incidental/inauthentic psychological fluke or mistake. The turning point came when Olivia and Peter went searching for Dr. Frank’s old files at a storage facility – shades of the Fringe pilot, when OT Olivia’s partner/lover/fiancé John Scott got blown up while searching a similar establishment. Olivia recalled the moment, tossing in a detail that she couldn’t have possibly leached from Peter’s memory, because Peter had never been told that Scott got blasted with Semtex. Walter’s theory of negative influence: Incorrect.

On their way back to HQ, Peter and Olivia stopped at a service station. The car needed gas, Olivia needed to take a whiz… but not before offering another (flirty) reminiscence, about how the OT Peter and Olivia would celebrate the successful close of a case by retiring to one of their homes and knocking boots. Peter finally caved. His fear of a Fauxlivia redux had been nullified with the realization that he had nothing to do with Olivia’s transformation. When he looked into her eyes, he saw the Olivia he loved. And with that, they smooched anew. More love connecting loomed, but first: Olivia really needed to pee. Giggles! Olivia scooted out of the car and disappeared into the gas station…

And then literally disappeared. Peter went looking for her; couldn’t find her. He asked the attendant where she went; he said he never saw her enter. Huh? My initial thought was that Olivia had ‘ported into the “over there” world. But in the last scene, we saw her knocked out and bound to a chair in a dark room. She wasn’t alone. Nina Sharp was there, too. Also bound. And looking like she had been there awhile. Was this the same Nina Sharp we’ve been seeing all season? The Nina who’s been dosing Olivia with Cortexiphan (most likely the catalyst for Olivia’s OT memory flood, yes?) and conspiring with David Robert Jones? The Nina who, in this episode, brought Walter and Lincoln Lee into the Cortexiphan freezer unit within Massive Dynamic to prove that the world’s only supply of the chemical was still intact, yet found herself with some serious explaining to do after Walter took a swig from a vial and declared the liquid to be potassium iodide with food coloring, not the super-soldier serum he had developed with William Bell? Or do we have a shapeshifter situation on our hands? If so, which Nina is legit and which Nina fake? But wait: Don’t shapeshifters have to kill people in order to claim new identities?

And then there is this thought: Could this version of Olivia — the one that’s been recalling OT Olivia memories — be a shapeshifter, as well? Or am I confused in the head? It’s possible. I confess, dear readers, that I watched this episode under the influence of an alien invader more destabilizing than an alternate reality consciousness or telepathic half-brother: The Flu. For example: Nina’s hands. Help me out with the hands, people! I missed something there, yes? I hope you’ll forgive my mistakes and shaky reasoning — and correct my errors (in addition to sharing your opinions and theories about the episode) in the message boards below.

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

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Joshua Jackson, Anna Torv, and John Noble star in J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi drama
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