When, on tonight’s episode of Fringe, Special Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) opens her door to Walter (John Noble), desperate to explain “what happened,” viewers might worry. Such phrasing usually sets up the Flashback Episode, adorned with anachronistic hairstyles and clothes, improbable coincidences, and psychobabble.
Olivia’s encounter might seem especially disconcerting, because the series’ preceding episode, which aired way back on 4 February, revealed that Peter (Joshua Jackson) belonged not to our universe, but to that parallel world from which Olivia had returned at the beginning of Series Two. So subtle was the build-up to this reality shift, and so seemingly accidental its trigger, that Walter’s desire to unburden himself now seems about as nuanced as a sledge hammer, and just as dangerous.
However, as the focus zooms in on the tension between Walter’s paternal and ethical obligations, the episode, titled “Peter,” skirts the nostalgic fluff that usually consumes the flashback. In so doing, it plants tiny, provocative slivers of meta-story, the sort that Robert Moore calls the series’ “mythology”, fundamentally tilting viewers’ projections of the future.
Walter’s empathy for a fellow researcher attempting to save a dying child soon mutates into a willingness to use his own scientific prowess to impose on another family the tragedy that has devastated his own — the loss of a child. Yet even as the script positions Walter as quasi-helpless victim of a series of accidents, Noble’s subtle performance suggests a more complicated trajectory. Though Walter knows he might easily create a sympathetic, if not legal, justification for his actions, his grappling begins to raise questions about the very concept of “free will”.
As events nudge Walter further and further away from his own ideals, Noble gathers his whole body into the telling of each subsequent lie. We know that Walter knows he is committing not a merely human crime, but also a cosmic folly that might devastate all those around him.
While neither Olivia nor the adult Peter appears in the main storyline, the ongoing flickers of attraction between them add further tension to Walter’s story. The “Will they, won’t they?” plot is certainly familiar, and particularly suited to episodic TV. From Mulder and Scully to Meredith and McDreamy, romantic sparks have propelled series over long stretches of ho-hum plotting. Peter’s newly revealed otherworldly origins hint at one further twist to this hoary plotline through which Fringe might expand its questions concerning the human cost of scientific prowess.
Finally, the episode also hints at a coming radical change in the role of the Observer (Michael Serveris). His actions suggest an accumulating urgency around Peter, but they also, troublingly, hint at the kind of religious thread for which lazy plotters reach when science provides unsatisfactory answers. The great science fiction writer Samuel Delaney has noted that many readers want a story in which science acts as God, able to explain away all abnormality. They are unprepared, he says, for stories in which “The anxiety quotient… came from the fact that the scientific institutions which could have afforded explanations… were what had eroded from the landscape.”
Through almost two series, Fringe has enacted this high-anxiety landscape, as it counterpoints the proliferation of secret government agencies, of which the Fringe Division is just one, and equally secretive, too powerful corporations like Massive Dynamics. Walter’s lost career, his incarceration in a mental hospital, and the ruins of his laboratory, have all led viewers to such questions.
This new episode ups the stakes, suggesting that science itself, through the actions of adherents like Walter, may be contributing to its own marginalization. His moral struggle not only prompts some serious self-examination in viewers, but also reminds us that the capacities of science are outstripping human capacity for moral judgment, and the results are far from clear.