Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

08 Feb 2013

(TV Series) Fringe

(Reaction) The Man Who Stole a Child and Saved the World by: Antonio Conejos

In the natural order of things grief is an emotion we are taught to exorcise by following its stages, culminating in acceptance. These stages are reflective of the notion that grief's antidote is the acceptance that things will never be the same - that we cannot go back to the way we were.

In a way we combat grief by being masochistic, by constantly reminding ourselves that we have lost something or someone and at the end we become numb to the initial shock, forget the almost pervasive sadness.

But before the final stage of acceptance are all sorts of nasty emotions, denial, anger, bargaining, depression. Fringe focuses on getting mired in the swamp of these pre-acceptance emotions. Walter Bishop cannot, will not, accept the loss of his son.

At its core Fringe is about letting go as explored through the story of a prideful man who refuses to accept fate. A gifted, tragic figure who is bowed low but who redeems himself in the end.

Hubris

Fueling this refusal to accept loss is hubris, in the show featured as the overwhelming rejection that fate would have been so audacious as to attempt to humble the great Walter Bishop.

Walter is a smart man and he thinks he can conquer the big questions of death and faith, hope and despair. His attempt to get Peter back, to resurrect him, is the natural reaction of a father who can't let go of his son. But it is also the natural reaction of a gifted man who thinks that he can fix any problem, that there is nothing he cannot do.

Walter's lab assistant, Dr. Warren, tries to dissuade him from his course, pleading that there are lines we are not meant to cross, that somethings belong to God. Disdainfully Walter replies, self-assured, bold and self-referring, There's only room for one god in this lab and it's not yours.

Selfishness

It is these twin emotions, the inability to let go and hubris, which fuel the early character of Walter Bishop. The natural product of these emotions is selfishness. One gets the feeling that Walter does not care about saving Peter for Peter's sake. He is driven to save his son to spare himself the pain of his loss. Even an altruistic act is driven by the analysis of how it will benefit Walter.

Corollary to this selfishness is Walter's conscious disregard of the consequences of his actions. By opening the dimensional gate Walter not only endangers our world but causes grievous damage to the alternate universe as well.

Walter knew the consequences of his actions, and decided to go through with them anyway. Dr. Warren again tries to plead with her boss that Peter is not worth it, for the sake of one life you would destroy the world.

Of course Walter, who is both physicist and pharmacist, a father figure who experiments on the children of other fathers, who sees too far but cannot see what is right in front of him, crosses to the other side anyway.

Letting Go

If you haven't watched the show and have read up to this point you may be thinking that Walter is a monster, a caricature of a mad scientist intoxicated on his own greatness. Indeed, it could be argued that Walter is Fringe's greatest villain, an amoral man who only cares for himself and his own; others and the world be damned.

But Walter is also the show's greatest human being because he is not one dimensional, because he struggles with the wrongs he has done. Walter Bishop is a tragic character in the classic sense: the same abilities which uplifted him (intelligence, will, determination) also bring about his downfall.

Moreover, Walter is not a villain because his actions are natural impulses we can readily sympathize with. Who hasn't wanted to prevent the death of a loved one? Who hasn't refused to let go of someone dear?

The audience is lead to confront its own refusal to let go, is led to sympathize with the innately human desires of Walter Bishop, via the device of the alternate universe.

Conceptually the alternate universe is the embodiment of wish fulfillment, a world where we need not accept loss because that loss never happened. As such it is thematically fitting that Walter took Peter from the other universe; essentially Walter's wish is granted, he need not deal with loss because he has his son again.

When we first see the alternate universe we know immediately that it is different from our own because the twin towers of the World Trade Center still proudly pierce the New York Skyline.

Here again is wish fulfillment, specifically in its most visual sense: the horror of 9/11, and the subsequent war on terror, never happened. The towers still stand, society need not grieve their loss and ruin; we don't need to endure that pain. The deliberate placing of the towers in the alternate universe is a device whereby the audience can sympathize with Walter's refusal to let go, to accept loss.

We know that the alternate universe is not our own because what we have lost here is still found over there. This is true of Peter Bishop as well as the World Trade Center. In the alternate universe the audience can indulge in what-could-have-beens, can refuse to accept the loss of the World Trade Center and the lives which perished with it; just as in the plot of Fringe Walter can refuse to accept the death of his son.

Redemption

As the show progresses though Walter begins to mature. This is in large part due to his interactions with Peter as well as his extended family, Olivia and Astrid.

The horrific consequences of his actions as well are played out before him in Seasons 2-3, where the damage to the alternate universe is explored in depth.

In seeing what he has caused (the fringe events, the destruction of another world) and faced with the possibility of alienating the people he cares about (Peter, Olivia and Astrid); Walter begins to change for the better.

The Walter of Season 5 is aware of his character flaws, indeed at that point he is no longer wishes to regress to his earlier self, The man I was before, he was consumed by ambition, by hubris, all he cared about was walking with the gods.

Thus it is fitting in the end that Walter is able to do the one thing he has been resisting the entire show, to let go. In order to save the world, an act which benefits others but which will cause him pain, he must let go of everyone he cares about and bring the Observer child to the near future.

The Walter Bishop of old would have refused, would have gotten someone else to do it, would have come up with another way. But the changed Walter at the end of the series knows that his time with his son is over, and that he must move on.

Review:

I enjoyed watching Fringe but it never quite fixed the flaws which prevented it from becoming, IMHO, a great/classic sci-fi show.

For one it was a very talky series. This characteristic was present in the early episodes and morphed into standard practice in later seasons, especially in the very slow season 5. The characters love to talk to each other about their feelings. Feeling bad that Eta is dead? Let's have a 15 minute close up on Olivia who will tell us just how badly she is feeling. Pissed off at the world because someone rejected you? Fringe will give you a 10 minute soliloquy by the bad guy in order to get you to sympathize with him.

Talk is fine but the show became overburdened with all this motionless chatter. Show us, don't tell us.

Two, the plot became so trippy (not in a good way) that pivotal moments lacked dramatic effect since they didn't matter anyway. Broyles sacrifices himself and dies a hero's death? No worries, he'll be resurrected again when the universes reset. Moreover his death will be pointless and ultimately have no reason.

This predilection to write out/negate large portions of the plot is seen in Season 5 - a season whose events never happened because Walter successfully manages to change history. Humanity never evolves into Observers and therefore they never invade.

Anything the characters learned, experienced, affected in Season 5 resulted in absolutely nothing. So yes, of course we get Eta back. Because if someone dies on Fringe that just means another plot reset is coming.

Third, most of the episodes are basically centered around the dramatic premise of beating the clock. Walter must figure out the mystery in time otherwise bacteria will evolve into viruses or the sky will start raining sheep or everyone's heart will start beating out the chorus of a Justin Bieber song. You get the idea.

The problem with this is that of course Walter will figure it out because he has figured it out for all the episodes you've watched so far. The beat the clock plot impetus is one horse the writers kept beating long after it was dead.

A species of the beat the clock plot is the find the tech plot which involved finding whatever tech was necessary to avert whatever disaster was in the making this week. This tendency is again best seen in Season 5 which revolves entirely around finding the tech - so much so that the writers get tired of even coming up with names for things and thus we have characters simply saying tech for every other line of dialogue.

Despite everything though I did watch the series to its end. Fringe was best when it focused on the dynamic of Walter and Peter and built its episodes around the many contradictions of Walter Bishop.

As such, for me the best episode of the series was 2x17, White Tulip. This wasn't a beat the clock episode. In fact Walter has no way of stopping the antagonist in this case. Rather the antagonist forces Walter to accept his limitations, the fragility of his relationship with Peter, the difficulty of doing the right thing.

White Tulip showcases a humbled Walter, one who is looking for a sign on how to proceed. That the sign was planted by a human but taken as a divine really isn't the point. What's important is Walter's frame of mind of seeking for and receiving a sign. This is quite a different man who broke into another universe to steal away a boy, consequences be damned.

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