While re-watching Fringe, a TV show that follows FBI agent Olivia Dunham and her team as they solve supernatural mysteries, I noticed a character I could relate to because of his chronic pain.
In Season Three, Episode Twelve, “Concentrate and Ask Again,” Olivia, Walter, and Peter are investigating a biological attack on a scientist. A patient in a coma holds the answers, but he can’t exactly share them. Or can he?
Walter recalls a participant from the Cortexiphan drug trials he conducted years ago, trials that Olivia was a part of when she was a girl. These experiments developed supernatural abilities in children. While Olivia developed the ability to travel between universes, the boy Walter remembers, Simon Phillips, could read minds.
The team travels to Simon’s house, which is out in the middle of nowhere, to try to convince him to come to Boston and read the coma patient’s mind.
When Simon appears on screen for the first time, he is shaky, pale, has dark circles under his eyes, and is obviously distressed. This appears to be his normal state of being. When he realizes he can’t read Olivia’s thoughts, he’s shocked and relieved, letting her into his house to talk with him.
Simon: “Why can’t I read you?”
Walter: “She’s another Cortexiphan subject. Sometimes you children are immune to each other’s abilities.”
Reading others’ thoughts is incredibly painful, and it becomes apparent why he lives in solitude. The more people around, the worse it gets.
Walter: “Every new thought he reads is an added stressor. To cope, his brain pumps adrenaline and cortisol into his system. Naturally, he experiences headaches, nausea, accelerated heart rate. That’s why he gets sick.”
Olivia convinces Simon to come to Boston with them with the argument that he will be saving lives, and she appears to be full of empathy. Someone who hasn’t experienced chronic pain themselves might not realize that Olivia is not actually empathizing with Simon.
Simon: “You know how it feels to be burdened with something that makes it impossible for you to relate to another person? That makes you feel completely alone in the world?
Olivia: Simon, I know dealing with our capabilities can sometimes be difficult… but they can also help people.
Olivia has experienced a lot of trauma throughout her life, from abuse as a child to being held captive in another universe and replaced with a doppleganger. She understands pain. She’s withstood terrible circumstances. But she doesn’t understand chronic pain. She hasn’t lived with headaches every day, 24/7, for years on end. She can’t comprehend the toll it takes on your mind and body, the feelings of being a burden, the loneliness. Comparing her own abilities from the Cortexiphan trials—which don’t involve physical pain—shows that she doesn’t get it. “Dealing with our capabilities can sometimes be difficult,” she says. For Simon, they are always difficult. The only reprieve he gets is from utter isolation and loneliness. She doesn’t understand what she is asking of Simon—that after the terrible hand he’s been dealt, with everything he has to deal with, she wants him to give more.
Simon knows that she doesn’t get it, that she doesn’t understand what she is asking, but he still says yes. When he gets to Boston and everyone sees just how sick he gets around so many people, one of the other characters refers to him as “broken,” and perhaps he is, but of all the characters in this episode—including the agents wielding guns who are risking their lives and using their wits to investigate a mystery—he is the most heroic.
At the end of the episode, Olivia still doesn’t get it. She’s noticed that Simon has drawn a woman’s portrait several times and asks him who she is. Turns out, she’s from a coffee shop Simon visits and he has a crush on her, but he’s never even spoken to her before.
Olivia: “Is it because you think it would be too painful?”
Simon: “Like, even if she pretended to be nice, or to be my friend, or even flirted with me out of some kind of pity… I would know how she really feels. That I’m too much of a freak for her to even consider being with.”
Olivia: “But you don’t know that. That’s what you’re afraid is gonna happen. And so what if you find out that she’s not interested… or that there’s somebody else on her mind… or that she doesn’t love you. I mean, isn’t it… isn’t it better to know?”
Simon: “No one should know exactly what someone else is thinking.”
Olivia thinks she is right—that acting out of fear is no way to live. But is Simon acting out of fear, or is he being realistic? Even ignoring the fact that no one should know what someone else is thinking—if this woman did fall in love with him, it would be incredibly difficult to know her mere presence was causing the person she loved to be in pain all the time. What a strain on the relationship that would be!
This is definitely not to say that people with chronic pain can’t find love, but it’s often difficult, and it’s our choice whether we want to take that step. Olivia’s attitude is representative of how healthy people treat sick people all the time in our society—thinking they know best when they really don’t understand at all.
Olivia is a caring, thoughtful, awesome person. She’s not a villain. She’s trying her best, she just doesn’t understand. I really appreciated this episode for exploring the realities of chronic pain and how healthy people react to it, but it’s so subtle (and audiences are so familiar with Olivia being right) that you may have missed it if you didn’t know what you were looking for.