From the 1980s-style graphics and Moog-synthesizer music replacing the usual ones, to the squishy-hair wig on John Noble as a 1985 Walter Bishop, last night’s Fringe return was not just full of revelations — it was a total gas, a trip, and cheerfully dark mind-blower. The episode entitled “Peter,” which didn’t include Joshua Jackson but rather a child playing the young Peter, was both a pivotal entry in the show’s mythology and a moving, emotional hour.
It was easy to quickly get past being distracted by Walter’s ’80s shag because John Noble had done such a superb job of showing us what a pre-brain-snipped Walter was like: Confident, sure of himself, verging on hubristic arrogance as he pursued his experiments into space and time. Noble did away with the halting hesitations in Walter’s voice — this Walter spoke with deep, bold resonance about “no limitations, no boundaries” to his research.
The hour was cast as a flashback, as the explanation Walter felt he owed Olivia as a way of justifying and apologizing for the experiments he did on her and other children years ago with Cortexiphan, the drug he and his partner William Bell created to expand human consciousness and make contact with an alternate universe.
In our world, a young Peter is dying from a “genetic” disease to which Walter can find no cure. It’s distracting him from the work he’s doing with William Bell on the alternate universe — that is, until Walter realizes that his opposite number over there (“Walternate” is our clever Walter’s name for his doppelganger) is very close to a serum that would cure his ailing son. In our world, Peter dies. If Walter doesn’t go to the alt-universe with his version of the serum the Walternate was close to completing and give it to the boy, that Peter “will die all over again.”
Once there, however, Walter could not stop himself from bringing the alt-Peter back with him, because he’d broken his vial of the serum on the alt-trip but also to atone for his sins as a neglectful father and to heal the grief felt by his wife (yes, we met Walter’s wife, played with lovely gentleness by Orla Brady).
On the surface, Fringe was telling a simple story for anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of the sci-fi or fantasy genres: Traveling to another world to do something that will help or hurt someone in our world.
But just beneath that, Fringe was furiously busy unloading a sizable amount of info about characters and plot that’s built up around the show since its beginning. Such as:
• There is no doubt that William Bell is a brilliant but dangerous megalomaniac. Where Bishop and Bell parted ways back in the ’80s was when Walter chose to remain in the lab working, while Bell began promoting, marketing, and exploiting their research breakthroughs to further “the power and wealth” (Walter’s words) of William Bell. Bell makes deals with the military in our government, seeking funding to “expedite our espionage program.” (While there’s a sizable body of right-wing, pro-military, “hard” sci-fi, Fringe comes down squarely on the side of not just liberal but radical sci-fi, speculative fiction born of the counterculture during which Bishop and Bell came of age. Walter dosed himself frequently with LSD, we know; do we know that Belly did, too? My guess is that he experimented briefly but rejected it as a distraction from his ambition.)
• We saw how Nina Sharpe damaged her right arm — reaching into the soft-spot trying to prevent Walter from crossing universes.
• The Observers have occasionally been more than observers. One of them saved Walter and young Peter when they fell into icy water because “the boy is important; he has to live.” In doing so, that Observer altered the universe. His fellow Observers told him, “You must take action to restore balance… you will have an opportunity to fix this.” Man, it’s tough being an Observer: Look, don’t touch; talk, but do it like a zombie.
• All of the Fringe technology last night was in keeping with the series’ “analog, not digital” aesthetic, and all more more visually compelling — this is one element that distinguishes Fringe from other shows in this genre.
• The hour ended on the most muted sort of cliffhanger: Will Olivia, having heard Walter’s tale, forgive him? What will Olivia now do with this information moving forward?
Some final bullet-questions:
• In the alt-universe, Back to the Future starred Eric Stoltz instead of Michael J. Fox; does this mean Fox starred in Mask?
• Who is Dr. Warren? Is she the alt-Astrid? (Dr. Warren may seem more experienced and qualified than Astrid, but then, there’s a lot about Astrid we don’t know… ) I’m sure it’s significant that Warren utters one of the most crucial lines of the hour, a warning to Walter — “There has to be a line we cannot cross” — and quotes J. Robert Oppenheimer quoting the Bhagavad Gita. Apocalyptic language is not alien to Fringe.
• We met Walter’s wife, but is she Peter’s mother? There seemed a strong suggestion in the way Nina Sharp said so feelingly, “You know how much Peter meant to me,” that I think we must consider the idea that Walter had an affair with Nina that resulted in a baby Peter.
This was the start of eight weeks of new episodes. I eagerly await them. How about you?