April 1st, 2010
In its promotions for the show, FOX sells Fringe based on the tagline “New Cases. Endless Possibilities.” But what’s interesting, and ultimately enormously compelling, about “Peter” is that the possibilities aren’t endless at all: we know what happened to Peter at the age of 7, and we know the key parties involved, so the show isn’t interested in endless possibilities so much as it is interested in interpreting what we already know.
There’s a challenge in this type of episode, especially for a show that has created such a strong dichotomy between its standalone episodes and its mythology-driven stories; fans may go in expecting answers to big questions, and while “Peter” offers a couple of interesting tidbits and some neat connections it is first and foremost a story about the limits of humanity as opposed to the potential of technology. It is a starkly human story, largely taking for granted its science fiction premise in favour of a fantastic depiction of a man struggling against the inevitable and risking everything to save a life that wasn’t his to save, to right a wrong that was not his fault.
In the process he changed the course of time and space, and this show became both possible and extremely compelling, but for this hour none of that mattered compared to the love shared between parents and their children. “Peter” is a stellar negotiation of Walter Bishop and his dances with the dark side of morality, and in the hands of John Noble and with some nice stylistic flourishes, it is certainly one of the show’s strongest hours, if one that they’ll never be able to duplicate again.
One of the problems with Walter Bishop as a character is that science has more or less been his only defence: “Jacksonville,” the last episode before the break, was a fine example of the limitations of that particular line of argumentation, as Olivia witnesses what he subjected her to as a child. Yes, Walter could make the argument those trials gave Olivia an important ability, and you could even argue that that ability saved those people’s lives in the hotel that disappeared into the alternate universe, but Walter and William Bell performed too many experiments with too many consequences for him to be able to live down the carnage he created.
What’s always made his most dangerous mistake, opening the door between the two worlds, so intriguing was that it was driven by something more than scientific progress. He didn’t cross over to prove he could do so, as it seemed as if both he and William Bell had long before figured out how to accomplish the feat. Rather, he needed to have a reason to do it despite knowing the potential consequences, and for a while we presumed it was grief that drove him to the alternate universe, that he in some way kidnapped the other Peter in order to replace his own. It was an easy narrative for us to write, as we can understand how Walter’s lack of morals and ethics as it relates to other experiments would be multiplied tenfold when it concerns his own family and the loss of his son.
The story “Peter” tells does not, just to be clear, get Walter Bishop off the hook for what happened back in 1985, but I think it does an admirable job at forcing Walter to retain responsibility while providing justifiable reasons for why things turned out as they did. Walter still makes a conscious decision to keep the alternate Peter as his own, but that he did not go over to the other universe with that intention makes the story a broader tragedy rather than a desperate act of a grieving father. Rather than actions, Walter makes choices; he chooses to go over to the alternate universe despite Nina’s attempts to stop him, and he chooses to take the child back with him. With Noble in clear control of the character, you see the process by which he makes those decisions, and there is no sense that he is being impulsive or ignoring the gravity of the situation. His goal is to save a child’s life, and while he eventually makes the decision to keep that child as his own and trade one mother’s grief for another mother’s miracle it is not without consideration, and it is driven less by selfish desire and more by an emotional plea.
Noble was fantastic throughout the episode, especially when it came to those moments where he was effectively the voice of reason: you can tell that William Bell was in the process of doing far more dangerous things with this technology, and you can tell that Walter would have been perfectly content to watch Peter grow up from afar had his alternate colleague not been distracted by the Observer at the key moment when his cure was proven successful. While it’s a bit too easy for the show to simply write Bell as the real villain, and portray Walter as the innocent victim of his desire, it can’t be forgotten that Walter is punished for committing a human sin, for indulging his wife’s love for her son as opposed to the rift it creates between universes, as opposed to some sort of corrupt scientific endeavour. If we’re dividing Bell and Bishop in terms of who is “good” or “evil,” we have been given no indications that William has any sense of emotional connection to his work or those around him, and so we are inevitably going to empathize with Walter so long as the character remains both culpable and vulnerable; in Noble’s hands, the character is all that and a hell of a lot more, and any chance to spend more time with the character in any form (whether it’s the lucid and motivated Walter we saw here or the broken Walter we see most weeks) is more than welcome.
In some ways, watching the episode wasn’t that dissimilar to watching the recent series of flash-sideways or the old flashbacks on Lost, at least if you’re watching looking for “answers” beyond the details of Peter’s origin. There was no mystery about the end result of this story, and while there were some interesting twists and turns along the way they were largely minor: it doesn’t yet mean anything that Peter, like Olivia, is going to be important in the future, and learning that this is how Nina Sharp lost her arm is neat but meaningless. There was some fun stuff with the alternate universe, like the Observers coming out of a Back to the Future screening talking about theories and the marquee reading “starring Eric Stoltz” (see Wikipedia for why), but it was all pretty circumstantial, and more a sign of the show’s stylistic flair than its mythological future. When the show did draw some distinct differences between the two universes, it was often driven by character rather than story. The rift between Peter and Walter in his adolescence becomes more interesting when we learn that alternate Peter was always closer to his mother, giving her his silver dollar while Peter 1.0 chose to give that dollar to his father instead. Those kinds of things are subtle and meaningful, but to a long-term development of character that to my eyes does the show far more good than any sort of reveal about the “war” or anything of the sort.
There is a tragedy to this story that is undeniable, and that has been utilized as a sort of shorthand form of character and plot development ever since it was revealed at the end of the first season. But now that Olivia learned the truth, and she remains our basic avatar for these events even if Anna Torv occasionally plays it a bit too blank for my tastes, it was necessary for us to hear the whole story, or us to know every detail so that both Olivia as a character and the audience as viewers can head into the rest of the season. We know that she’s going to struggle with telling Peter, and that it’s going to create tension for their quasi-romantic situation, but in order for Olivia to make an informed choice, and in order for us to judge that choice, we needed to know the whole story.
And through a great performance by Noble and some shrewd plotting, I think the story lives up to its earlier use: it’s tragic without seeming out of Walter’s control, and ethically questionable without condemning the character. While we could have presumed that Walter was not acting maliciously, the tight rope approach works wonders at making Walter’s most controversial action seem definitively human, and Fringe’s science fiction premise would not work without compelling human characters caught up in the midst of it all.
And I’ll take an episode that slavishly devotes itself to that cause over something more revelatory any day.
- I geeked out pretty huge at the retro opening credits: the retro text for the floating chyrons was clever enough, but the credits were the icing on the cake, and I really wish that Michael Giacchino had a blog like Bear McCreary’s so we could learn all about converting the theme song into 8-Bit like that (although Abrams, not Giacchino, wrote the theme). I just loved the way the credits looked, sure, but the changes in the scientific terms (things we now see as mundane, but at the time were pure science fiction) were just really clever, and I loved the hell out of it.
- They did a pretty job of de-aging John Noble, but they had a tougher time with Blair Brown – it’s not that she looks that much older, there just isn’t as much difference in terms of mannerisms or character between the two periods, so the show couldn’t lean on those qualities. The same problem would be had with Leonard Nimoy, really, which is why they didn’t even try to pull that one off (plus his mysterious time spent in Europe raises questions about his own actions).
- Loved the scene with Walter showing Elizabeth the window into the alternate universe – the shots between Peter’s empty bed and Peter sitting up playing with a truck were really evocative, and nicely sold how practical Walter was being at that point in time and how that would become corrupted by Elizabeth’s reaction to alternate Peter in the lab.
- In the past, I’ve found Michael Giacchino’s music for the show to be pretty reductive of his previous work, but this episode reminded us that he knows how to write some fantastic emotional cues – maybe it’s the Oscar magic?
- Alan Sepinwall points out that the episode was similar to Lost’s “Ab Aeterno,” in that it focuses on character while sort of hinting at mythology – this is, as per usual, a shrewd observation, and I’ll avoid going too far into the similarities and differences between the two episodes as to avoid spoilers for those who might not watch both shows. In short, I think they’re similar, but “Ab Aeterno” was built more on “endless potential” whereas “Peter” was solving a particular mystery that had been clearly laid out.
- In case you missed it, I caught up on Season Two over the past few days, and you can check out my thoughts on that process here.