Trigger Warning: This post contains references to sexual assault and rape.
Shapeshifters, inter-dimensional travel, alternate universes, oh my! This May marks an entire decade since the season three finale of Fringe aired. A season that tied up some of the most high-octane, thrilling plot elements in the five-year run of the series. Once Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) learns in season two that his father Walter (John Noble) kidnapped him from the Alternate Universe—or “Redverse”—as a child, he faces internal quandary and travels to the universe where he was born. The two-part finale, “Over There,” provides a set-up that ultimately unwinds into the core arcs of season three. Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) leaves the Prime Universe—or “Blueverse”—with Dr. Walter Bishop to bring Peter back.
The 42-episode slow-burn romance comes to a head as Olivia delivers one of the most resonantly heartfelt lines of the series. “You belong with me,” she tells Peter, standing against the backdrop of a version of New York City where zeppelins fly in place of airplanes, and the Twin Towers are still standing. Their first kiss is enough to promptly quell Peter’s identity crisis, placing his love for Olivia over any floating internal debacle. He crosses back over to the Prime Universe with Walter, but Olivia herself does not. In the final moments of season two, we learn that, amid the open fire of the Redverse’s Fringe Division, Fauxlivia switched identities with Olivia under Walternate’s classified orders as the Secretary of Defense. The “real” Olivia is now in government custody in the Alt-verse.
The third season propels itself head-first into the dichotomy of the two universes, complexifying the relationship dynamics with the integration of the dopplegängers. Fulfilling her mission to acquire intel from within the Fringe Division of the Blueverse, Fauxlivia fully assumes the identity of Olivia, conducting thorough research on the pop culture of this world and internalizing her alternate’s idiosyncrasies from FBI video archives. The job is not airtight, but it’s enough to convince Peter and the rest of Fringe that she is the Olivia that they’ve known for the past two years. Peter enters a relationship with Fauxlivia under the pretense that she is his Olivia. This is where perhaps the most heated discussion of Fringe’s legacy stakes itself.
Fauxlivia plays the part, going on dates with Peter and partaking in flirtatious banter. She eventually initiates the sexual aspect of their relationship when she starts to have doubts of whether she will be able to complete her mission without the truth of her identity bleeding through. She effectively uses sex as a distracting mechanism, and her alibi to reconcile the differences works. Over drinks, she explains, “I guess being Over There and meeting another Olivia Dunham has made me think about the way I look at the world, the choices I’ve made,” and Peter accepts that. After all, why wouldn’t he trust the word of the woman he has been pining over for the better part of two years?
In “Marionette,” the episode following the unmasking of Fauxlivia and the return of both women to their original universes, Peter confesses to Olivia immediately, disclosing the truth of his relationship with Fauxlivia, “I thought she was you.” Both the series and viewers sympathized with Olivia. Her pain felt tangible thanks to one of the only scenes throughout Fringe’s run where Olivia cries, doubling over in front of her laundry machine after she finds Peter’s notorious MIT shirt in her wash. Implying he left it in her home when he was sleeping with her double.
The reality of the heartbreak in season three is that there is no aspect of the plot that warrants either the adjacent characters or the viewers to choose between Peter and Olivia. Because both of them are victims here. The grief Olivia experiences is incontestable, but the same viewers who wax sympathetic of Olivia are often blatantly negligent of Peter’s experience. As a child, when Walter brought him into an entirely different universe, Peter had to disregard small differences between the two realities in response to his parents’ gaslighting, with the excuse that his illness obfuscated his perception of the world. (This is all revealed in the season three flashback episode, “Peter.”)
As some consolation, Olivia sees the nuance where many viewers do not. Just a few episodes before they finally get together, Olivia confesses to Peter, “I’ve been so focused on what the other Olivia did to me that I haven’t thought about what she did to you […] I want you to know that I’m sorry.”
Beyond basic interpretation of the conflict, the most egregious misfire regarding the continued defamation of Peter is how he never actually consents in the sexual relationship he has with Fauxlivia. For 99% of Fauxlivia’s mission, Peter is not aware of her identity. And from the moment their sexual relationship begins, he is definitively a victim of sexual assault. He never consents to sexual relations with the alternate Olivia Dunham, as he believes he’s performing these acts with his Olivia.
It is understandable that a pre-#MeToo audience in 2011 would not experience the same nuanced viewership that an audience in 2021 would. However, there has been little evolution in the way viewers have responded over the course of the past decade. If you reversed the genders, and Olivia was the one baited into a sexual relationship with an alternate Peter (who canonically does not exist), this would never have been a discussion. We can’t blame the viewers for this perception, though, as a bulk of the problem lies in the representation of sexual assault onscreen. It is rarely depicted outside the canon “male-perpetrator, female-victim,” and in the most traditionally violent and overt of situations.
Identifying sexual assault or rape in stories where the offense is more subtle is not always readily transparent. Therefore, as active viewers in a time of rapidly metamorphosing critical dialogue, we should use the legacy of Fringe as a lesson in viewership, acknowledging that the audience is as important in onscreen story canon as the onscreen content itself.