For a while now, we’ve known — from clues dropped; from flickers of behavior; from good guessing — that both Walter and Walternate are not mere good vs. bad opposites. This week’s Fringe let us know how close the two universes’ Walters are, in one of the most moving and revelatory episodes in the series’ short history. Set in 1985, the episode titled “Subject 13” portrayed Peter and Olivia as children (and very well-played, too, by Chandler Canterbury and Karley Scott Collins). Pre-credits, we saw a young Peter standing on the ice-covered Reiden Lake, a rope around his waist, a block of stone tied to the other end, trying to smash his way into the cold water. This was the same site, of course, where the Observer saved Peter from drowning, and the same area from which Walter pierced the universes to steal the “other” Peter back to our side. What was also immediately established in these opening moments was the idea of extreme emotion (another key theme of “Subject 13”) — little Peter was so upset, so maddeningly confused at having been brought to our world without explanation from these alternative versions of his parents, Walter and Elizabeth, that he was willing to brave icy depths in a mistaken attempt to, as he put it in a note, “go home,” to reach, as he said later, heartbreakingly, “the other world at the bottom of the lake.”
“Going home” had another meaning entirely to young Olivia — for her, it meant returning to a house ruled by an abusive stepfather. Unlike Peter, she never wants to go home. She dreaded leaving the Jacksonville, Florida, school where she and others were being subjected to various tests by Walter Bishop, experiments intended to define and harness the powers granted these children of the Cortexiphan experiments, of which Olivia was a most prized pupil. Episode director Frederick E. O. Toye executed one of the most effective smash-cuts I’ve seen on TV when, just before the commercial break, an Olivia terrified by her father leapt across universes to escape her father’s rage only to be transported immediately back to her horrible reality and then an abrupt commercial. It was at once shocking and witty, this use of network-TV breaks as part of the structure of the episode, to make a dramatic point.
That point, sussed out by Walter over the course of the hour, was that “love and terror stimulates cortical action” — i.e., allows Olivia’s powers to kick in, in the ways we’ve seen adult-Olivia’s do. Up until now, Walter’s experiments and their effects on the children have been cast as cavalierly cruel, as though Walter was the distracted genius for whom the theory to be proven was more important than the feelings of the children he tested his theories on. But “Subject 13” — Olivia’s number, its bad-luck implication the only on-the-nose detail in this marvelously rich script by Jeff Pinkner, J.H. Wyman, and Akiva Goldsman — revealed that Walter wanted the kids to cross over and take Peter with them, to return him to his rightful parents. (We were left to assume that this will come as some comfort to Josh Jackson’s Peter once he learns this.)
And the man we know as Walternate lived his own hell, his son gone and his marriage strained to a breaking point. This is the origin of Walternate-as-one-cold-dude — instead, he stood revealed as a Walternate numbing himself to feeling with grief and guilt and alcohol, the driven founder of “Bishop Dynamic” (and inventor of the Star Wars defense system!), wearing sunglasses to keep the world out, forever searching for his kidnapped son.
Thus did both Walters become, for this period in time, equals. And, at bottom, good men. It was only later, at the end of the hour, as Walternate said to Elizabeth with a grim determination, “I know where Peter was taken,” that we saw the beginnings of what would eventually make the men seem opposites, and enemies.
The hour also gave us a huge chunk of motivation for Olivia’s adult character. Is it any wonder, given her cruel step-father and a kinder surrogate father who nonetheless subjected her to frightening experiments, that she has so often been such buttoned-up, tightly wound, cold woman? Of course she’d have been attracted to that strong, protective slab o’ man, Mark Valley’s Agent Scott as a first love. It’s why Olivia has said she’s “not good” with intimacy. Olivia is still trying to escape this history of Olive, just as Peter has been trying to learn the history of young Peter.
The Fringe call-back (among many) that carried the greatest weight was when Elizabeth Bishop explained the origin of the white tulips Peter saw from their car window, telling her son a brief version of the plot of last season’s “White Tulip,” which featured Peter Weller as the tragic-romantic scientist. The tulips would reappear in Olive’s drawings, and provided the idyllic setting for the gravely lovely night-time scene between Peter and Olivia.
Here are a few questions to ponder:
• Why does Olivia not remember what we now see as a significant history with Walter?
• Perhaps you’ll tell me whether Olivia reading Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale (which would seem awfully tough sledding for a child) has any significance beyond its snowy title?
• What is William Bell’s role in all this? What did he make of all those Betamax tapes Walter made of his tests on Olivia?
Special praise to Orla Brady as Elizabeth Bishop — her performance was exceptionally fine, as she played anguish, frustration, and despair with a fine dignity and grace. Her infinitely sad delivery of the great line, “Sometimes what we have is not the world we want, but we have our hearts and our imaginations to make the best of it” can stand as a defining moment for the entire Fringe enterprise.
Or as the “other” Elizabeth Bishop has written:
“I live only here, between your eyes and you,
But I live in your world, what do I do?”
What did you think of “Subject 13”?
UPDATE: For good-ish news about Fringe ratings, see James Hibberd’s reporting: ‘Blue Bloods’ rises, ‘Fringe’ steady in Friday ratings