Aired: April 15th, 2010
[Cultural Learnings’ Top 10 Episodes of 2010 are in no particular order, and are purely subjective – for more information, and the complete list as it goes up, click here.]
Fringe did not end up making my series list, a fact which I attribute to two things.
One is that the list was made while Fringe was still amidst its third season experimentation (deadlines and all that), and I think I was concerned (without cause, really) that it couldn’t stick the landing – I knew the show had been much improved this year versus last, but without knowing how they intended to strike that balance it made selecting the show as one of the top 15 (in what has been an overall strong year for television) more challenging than choosing already complete seasons.
The other, however, is that “White Tulip” has been stuck in my head since it aired in April, an episode emblematic of the series’ improvements to the point that I knew it would end up on this list (and thus recognize the show for its improvements). Amidst growing complexities relating to Peter’s true origins, and Walter’s growing sense of grief over the truth he’s held from his quasi-son for over twenty years. “White Tulip” by all appearances prepares to tell a normal story at a time when the “other side” is growing more prominent within the narrative. And yet the resulting “stand alone” episode is evocative, powerful, and resonant in ways that – going back to yesterday’s focus on The Good Wife’s “Heart” – most praise of the show glosses over in favor of its more serialized elements (which have been in fine form this year as well).
Admittedly, “White Tulip” is not your regular procedural story: a sort of science fiction homage to Run Lola Run, with Peter Weller (Robocop) delivering a compelling performance as a man desperately trying to reverse his wife’s death years earlier, the episode is structurally complex and visually arresting (the first glimpses of Weller turning himself into a clockwork man are still ingrained in my mind). However, what truly sets it apart is that it is emotional: this is a character we just met and yet the weight of his struggle seems poignant and real, which I can’t say for just about any other standalone episode of the series.
The difference is that this is Walter’s story without being Walter’s story, offering a mirror which force him to reflect on his own struggles. I love “Peter” for the MIDI theme song and the world-building, but “White Tulip” forces Walter and the audience to keep on keeping on with this new knowledge. The parallel between the characters is not subtle, but the way Walter observes it himself and uses Weller’s character as a sounding board is just a brilliant way to get inside the character’s head without allowing him to truly exorcise this secret. The scene between Noble and Weller is one of the show’s finest, and the poetry of the conclusion is a moment that the show may never match.
What made the start of the show’s third season so strong is that every episode seemed to be driven by this example: the stories seemed more personal, driving character development and world-building simultaneously, and the show’s commitment to its bifurcated storytelling reflects a confidence in its procedural elements as much as a confidence in its serialized narrative.
Fringe’s run in 2010 culminated with “Marionette,” where Olivia must confront the dark realities of what her absence meant to her life back in her world, and there the “case of the week” was a sort of twisted reanimation twist on the central themes of “White Tulip.” It was not nearly as poignant, but it nonetheless resulted in some of Anna Torv’s finest work to date, and shows that Fringe isn’t just learning that they need to go bigger; rather, they’re learning that they need to find meaning, and “White Tulip” remains an apex of storytelling for the year (and likely the series) to date.