The frequently heart-breaking, beautifully romantic yet action-packed season of Fringe continues, with the series moving along on great swells of emotion, as though trying to reach the peaks of the Mozart that Walter was listening to in “One Night in October.” This week, the hour titled “Subject 9” returned to the series’ most potent, everlasting element of its mythology: the Cortexiphan experiments conducted more than two decades ago on “37 innocent children,” including Olivia (“Olive”) Dunham. Oh, and in part because we saw the writing credits – showrunners Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman plus Akiva Goldsman – we knew we probably were in for some fundamental shifts in the season’s main plot line, the search for Peter Bishop, and we sure got ‘em.
I’m going to leave the close reading of “Subject 9” to Jeff Jensen and his recap. (Have fun, comrade, with double-gloved Nina!) Here, I’d like to write more broadly about this episode and the season thus far. The apparitions of Peter that both Walter and Olivia had been experiencing this week manifested themselves as a blue charge of amorphous energy. Walter has a theory that it relates to astral projection, which reminds him of experiments he did with William Bell 25 years ago during the Cortexiphan trials. In this Fringe universe, Olivia recalls having set fire to the Florida building but seems less psychically damaged by what she went through – unlike Cameron James, subject number nine in the trials, whose life has been cursed. When anxious, he “sends metal flying,” he tells Olivia and Walter when they visit him, and he’s bitter and depressed about the lonely life he’s led.
That’s just one level of the story-telling. An equally important one is the follow-up on last week’s psychiatric evaluation of Walter. Discovering that St. Claire’s Hospital is seeking Olivia’s opinion as to whether Walter should be re-admitted for further evaluation, Walter is moved to leave his lab for the first time in three years. This placed him in the midst of the action and face-to-face with Cameron James, and the old guilt stole over the older man. He’s still not without guile – he tries to mollify Olivia’s questions about her youth by assuring her, “You were always the strongest; you were always the favorite.” But we are also told that Olivia ran away from Bishop and Bell’s house of pharmaceutical horrors. This is an Olivia who’s suppressed a great deal. With immense yet discreet skill, “Subject 9” returned us to Fringe’s richest subjects: Children lost (both literally and psychologically), children loved too little and too much.
One of the reasons I like Fringe so much is that it is fearless, in a time when cutting-edge television is supposed to be dark/edgy/pessimistic, about asserting the notion that life is a never-ending wonder capable of healing souls and bringing people together in inexplicable ways. Fringe works in the sci-fi, speculative-fiction genre to work out themes of unity and duality, the spirit and the soul, love and the agony of love’s absence.
In the second episode of this season, Broyles said to Olivia, “At the risk of sounding sentimental, I’ve always felt there are people who can leave an indelible mark on your soul, an imprint that can never be erased.” He was talking about the case at hand – the one about the serial-killer-researching professor who meets his alt-world serial-killer double and knows that what saved the former (the love of a woman who helped this man-boy past his violence-filled upbringing – but we know this was dialogue foreshadowing the overarching plot: The way Peter has affected Walter and Olivia without their knowing it.
The absence of Peter, even as Peter haunts Walter, Olivia, and us in the ghostly use of Josh Jackson’s visage and voice, has actually made Peter more central to the show – he’s its heart. Last week, the episode’s musical cues served as metaphors for the signals Peter is sending out. The use of Billy Swan’s “I Can Help” (Peter has helped the universes by connecting them, and can continue to help, if he can only be freed) and the Manfred Mann version of Bob Dylan’s “Mighty Quinn,” with the emphasized refrain, “Come all without, come all within, you’ll not see nothing like the Mighty Quinn” – well, this is Peter, moving (to switch to Beatle-speak Walter would key into) within you and without you.
The Fringe division cases continue the series’ practice of working as stand-alone puzzles and as enhancements of Fringe recurring motifs. Two weeks ago, “One Night in October” brought us the tragic consequences of a boy who’d been raised with violent impulses in the alt-universe, contrasted with his equivalent in the re-booted universe – a professor who’d been emotionally rescued early on by a woman who showed him unconditional love. Last week’s “Alone in the World” was another of Fringe’s tales of children scared, frightened, terrorized by the world, who either become victims or who lash out supernaturally – or both. (Fringe would never exploit the stop-the-bullying campaign that’s a-crackle in our pop culture these days, but the opening scenes, of bullies being overtaken by a fungus, was a pretty damn effective anti-bully message.) These Fringe cases work like the voice of Peter in our heads, reminding us of Olivia’s miserable upbringing, Walter’s loss of a son (and in the amber universe, Olivia killed that awful stepfather, and both Walters lost a son).
In the worlds created by Fringe, a hero (Olivia) can admit to “a hole in my life for as long as I can remember”; Walter can muse over a corpse about “two people meant to be together and then something intervenes.” We get the references in the context of the show, but many of us also recognize those holes, that thwarted romantic destiny, in our own lives.
SPOILER: Do not read further until you’ve seen “Subject 9.”
To circle back to this week: Yes, Peter is back – risen from, baptized in, Reiden Lake, Observed. Yes, he recalls everything. No, the other characters do not. Olivia’s question – “Who are you?” – is far-reaching. I’m thrilled that we’ll spend time now with Peter helping the woman he loves and the father he’s learned to love connect all the Fringe-y dots. Aren’t you?