The Long Haul Behind FRINGE’s ‘Short Story About Love’

Here’s a joke: An FBI special agent and an international con man walk into a bar…

At first glance, the conceit of Fringe sounds little more than an attempted facsimile of The X-Files. This is evident in the commonalities of a plot. Both feature a secret subdivision of the FBI dealing with the abnormal. Also, it’s from the same television network. Maybe, originally, that is in fact what Fox was trying to do: recreate one of its most popular series under the guise of science fiction rather than paranormal. However, the genre of Fringe functions most closely as an apparatus to deliver an unparalleled human story. And at the center of this narrative is a love story for the ages.

Olivia and Peter look at each other in Fringe

The beating heart of Fringe takes root at the ill-fated meeting of Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) and Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson). Their paths cross when Olivia’s hope to save her partner and lover becomes dependent on the help of Walter Bishop (John Noble). From Olivia’s empty, yet convincing threats in a hotel lobby in Iraq where Peter ran a scheme, all the way to his father’s lab in Boston, their rapport is electric. Sarcasm, cheeky banter, lingering stares, and a dogged dedication to one another marks their interactions. All within the confines of the pilot, Peter goes from condescendingly calling Olivia “sweetheart” to falling hook, line, and sinker. That happens once he finds out that Olivia’s threats were—at their most deleterious—totally fabricated. She beat him at his own game of deceit.

Over time, the pair embodies many different roles for each other: work partners, a waystation between catastrophes, a shoulder to cry on, an extended hand, best friends. And then, so much more. Once the two finally breach new territory in exploring those feelings, a labyrinthine series of events work together to keep them apart. Events including interdimensional warfare, an unbeknownst (read: accidental!) affair, subsequent trust issues, the colonization of a consciousness, a machine threatening the continued existence of the two universes, a future timeline, a death, a rewritten timeline, and ultimately, the erasure of Peter Bishop from existence. Through all of these trials and tribulations, neither of their characters get sullied. Nor does the gravitational pull between them attenuate. The show underlines the soulmate trope about a million times.

When season four begins, Olivia has lost all of the memories she has of Peter. She doesn’t remember meeting or falling for him, crossing universes for him, deciding to be with him over a few fingers of whiskey late one night after a case, or watching him disintegrate into nothingness right in front of her. Without explicitly detailing it, Fringe emphasizes the effects of Peter’s absence on Olivia: “I know what it’s like to have a whole in my life… it’s been there as long as I can remember,” she confesses in the season four premiere.

Peter and Olivia looking at each other in Fringe

But despite the space-time paradox, Peter somehow re-materializes. This after over three seasons of narrative build up in their romance gets effectively wiped away. For the first time in Fringe’s history, Olivia looks at Peter without any feelings. It feels like a sucker punch to invested viewers, present company (me) included.

As the season progresses, Peter becomes more involved with Fringe Division. He reclaims the position he had held from the moment Olivia handed him his badge in season one. Over time, the two grow closer, falling into the same rhythm they had already established once. It’s almost as if it were some kind of muscle memory unique to the space-time continuum.

And Fringe hammers it in, too. The writers are adamant in every bit of their writing that Olivia and Peter are meant to be. But they don’t even cut corners by making it cheesy. This endpoint is so inevitable that slowly but surely, by way of Cortexiphan, Olivia’s memories from the first timeline bleed through into this one. Olivia has to choose between which sets of memories she wants to keep. A beautiful flurry of flashbacks overwhelms her senses (some intimate, flustering her). It becomes clear to everyone that there never really was a decision she had to make. Olivia chose Peter so many times before, so why would now be any different? But all the while, Peter finds himself doubting whether or not this Olivia is his. How could she be?

A gif of Olivia and Peter kissing in Fringe

That leads us to the 80th episode of the series, “A Short Story About Love.” The episode premiered on March 23, 2012. At this point in the series, the writers had put enough work into the story’s mythology that they could allow an episode’s Fringe case to emulate some aspect of the characters’ plotlines, and viewers would instantly understand the message. A man, desperate for love, is stealing pheromones by egregiously dehydrating married couples of their bodily chemicals (gross). Olivia feels lovesick, thinking that Peter is still trying to get back to a timeline that no longer exists. And despite the possibility that he may never come back to her, she doesn’t opt for her other memories. To Olivia, a version of her that once knew a love like that is far more important than the inverse. Even if the corollary of that is a shattered heart.  

The irony of the episode playing on the idea of a love story is that the two about whom the case reflects spend most of the time apart. Olivia’s working the case, and Peter’s getting the answers he needs: “She is your Olivia.” This episode terminates in the most cinematic, but deserved moment in the entire series. A downcast Olivia arrives at her apartment building only for Peter to finally be waiting for her again. Olivia runs into Peter’s arms and he kisses her. From that point forward, the question mark around their love story transforms into a permanent ellipse. 

The episode’s title, “A Short Story About Love,” is ironic in a way. It provides the mortar and stone to solidify an 80-episode long story of the lovers fighting to be together. The sheer length of the build attests to the unique fortitudes that Fringe boasts. The show gives its plotlines the space and time to flourish into truly prodigious narratives without undercutting them by rushing. It is, in that way, then, a love story for all the viewers who appreciate the pay-offs of outstanding storytelling.

You can stream Fringe on HBO Max.

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