Since most of my favorite shows have been on hiatus for six weeks, recently I decided to dive back into the second season of Fringe. I have found it much more addictive than I remember, as well as better-crafted. I am, in a word, hooked, and very, very glad that all of season three that has aired thus far is stashed on my DVR!
The premise is simple: it is a sci-fi show reminiscent of The X-Files that deals with “fringe science,” and a team that investigates them: there’s the hard-hitting Olivia, the “official” FBI agent among them, Dr. Walter Bishop, a genius who usually forgets things and spent 17 years in a mental institution, his son Peter, and Walter’s assistant, Astrid. Except he never can remember her name. Seems relatively simple, right? Uh, no… you see, along with his science partner, Dr. William Bell, Walter used to do experiments on children… and Olivia was one of the kids “enhanced” by his treatments. Then there’s the alternate universe, all sorts of bio-terrorist activities, the occasional exploding individual and giant worm, traveling between worlds, the mysterious “Observers,” and what-have-you.
But that’s not really why I watch; the characters are my reason to keep tuning in. You see, unlike a lot of shows on television, Fringe has actual progression in the lives of its team members. They are complex, multi-dimensional beings very human in their faults and strengths alike, but never entirely complete, since like one of Walter’s experiments, all of them are still “cooking.” Who will they be? How will they change their world? What is hidden in their past? It is not merely the characters, but the changes in them that are enticing. The series may attempt, like a magician, to misdirect our attention with enthralling mysteries and eerie encounters, but ultimately it is all about relationships and learning not only to forgive each other but the past as well. As the series unfolds and secrets are told, all of them face the same dilemmas: Olivia must forgive Walter and William, then later on, Peter; Peter must forgive his father; and Walter must learn to forgive not only William, but also himself—something he struggles with continually.
The use of good and evil is intriguing, constantly turning what we know around on its head and revealing another aspect to their lives. You have the main characters and their decisions, which are sometimes selfish and sometimes selfless, and then there are the “Observers,” who are meant to watch and not intervene… yet even some of them cannot stand by and allow things to unfold as planned. One intrudes in an attempt to keep Peter alive, which sets off a chain reaction of unfortunate events. Another helped the woman he loved not to die; he “made her important” by ultimately making her responsible for his own death; therefore, she became “significant” and was permitted to live and create an alternate future for herself. There is never one incident that does not impact another, a choice that will not change the course of history. In the last episode, “Firefly,” Walter learned that in saving his own son, he unconsciously caused another man’s son to perish.
One thing that stood out to me as I re-watched season two was how the show deals with the concept of God. It is a little ironic therefore that I should get up this morning to an e-mail alert for an article talking about the spiritual symbolism in the latest episode. (You can read it here.) I found the writer’s theories fascinating, as Spock would say, and have a few further thoughts of my own to share based on what we have seen thus far. Spirituality is not a new concept to sci-fi; much of the time, it is not dealt with at all, but whenever it is mentioned, inevitably debates arise between science and faith and whether or not both can survive in the same mind; is it even rational to be a scientist and believe in God? The X-Files dealt with that a lot, as Scully attempted to weigh out her Catholic upbringing with the unusual, inexplicable, and sinister events she and Mulder encountered every single day.
Fringe, interestingly, takes a completely different approach in Walter. Throughout the course of several seasons we slowly come to understand his story… and it is an interesting one full of redemption and wrongdoing. Walter is and was a genius, but he was a man without many scruples in his professional life: ruthless, ambitious, and perhaps even sociopathic in his treatment of children. He recognized a great evil in himself due to his vast intelligence and asked his partner to remove those portions of his mind. The end result left him forgetful and doddering, but also profoundly altered his personality. The Walter of our world is kind and remorseful over his previous actions; but the “Walternate” in the other universe is diabolical and cruel. “Our” Walter “stole” his son Peter from an alternate dimension when his own son died; ever since he has lived in a state of deep grief and tremendous guilt, which interestingly, turned him to a Higher Power—God.
Walter is a scientist. He comprehends it. He knows it. He has learned all its secrets and is aware of the possibilities. He has played ‘God’ so many times in his own life and the lives of others that he knows the enormous danger that comes from such tampering—yet unlike his son, he is not an agnostic. Walter chooses to believe because he is striving for redemption and God can offer it to him; the removal of his ambition has made him sorry for what he has done. He is still the same man, but profoundly humbled by his inadequacies and the loss of his memories. He cannot remember much of what transpired before and this frustrates him. In “White Tulip,” he has a discussion with a fellow scientist about God in which he professes his belief in a higher power, in spite of the scientist arguing that to men of higher intellect, “science is God.” Walter has asked for a sign that God has forgiven him: a white tulip. Through a twist of time, the other scientist acknowledges his deeper need for forgiveness and ensures that Walter receives his white tulip, without knowing where it came from.
One could say this may be evidence that the show believes God doesn’t exist, or it could indicate a wider belief that God uses even skeptics to carry out His will. Either through acknowledgment of his own failings or his newfound faith and restored belief that he above all is in need of forgiveness, Walter has changed completely into one willing to relinquish his hold on his son for the higher good, rather than willing to destroy other worlds to keep him safe. The concept of souls and the perils of science run rampant, most particularly in a recent episode in which a man “re-animates” the dead. Much like in the wonderful Victorian horror story Frankenstein, his excitement in having succeeded in returning her to life turns into fear and abhorrence over what he has done, for as he confesses that what he brought back “was not what I loved.” Whatever he brought back was not her, but a damaged echo of her soul. Which once again brings the question to the forefront: simply because you can, does that mean you should?
William Bell also was involved in risky experiments and exploited knowledge from “the other side” in order to launch his company, Massive Dynamic. At Walter’s insistence, he stinted his friend’s intellect and was mysteriously absent when Walter decided to travel to the other side and save Peter. Because, as Walter told Nina at the time, it was what they had been working toward for years. He began to travel back and forth between the two worlds to repair the damage Walter caused by taking Peter. This leads me to wonder if William ever found redemption? He did give his life (we presume) for the others in allowing them to return to our world. At the height of his intellect, Walter was desperately in need of intervention, a Savior, of being humbled… but what about William? Both men were of equal responsibility in the damaging scientific pursuits that left a trail of broken lives in their wake… but which one is a better man? Is it William because he can contain the evil within himself, or Walter because he saw his own evil and took drastic steps to eradicate it?
Though it is a question with multiple potential answers, the most evident response to me is Walter, because it takes a humble heart to first acknowledge an inner darkness and then courage to admit you cannot handle it alone. In a way, although Walter was an agnostic during the years in which he fought to save his son, he was far closer to God than even he realized.