“I think I’m starting to understand why the process didn’t work. You are different. You’re not that frightened child anymore. I thought all we needed was a heightened emotional response from you, but I was wrong. We needed a specific one: fear! And you’re not capable of that anymore. Not like she was. What we did to you, you found a way to protect yourself. You channeled your fear into anger, which is why you’re so good at your job, but if you want to save those people you have to find your way back to that scared little girl.” -Walter
Note: the following contains spoilers for the first two seasons. If you’re just wondering if the show is good: yes it is.
“Fringe” had a decent first season, settling quickly into an “X-Files”-light, creature of the week rhythm. There was a bit of romantic tension between the two leads, hints of larger stories, and a generous helping of good old fashioned mad science. That first season ended with a spectacular mind fuck bitch slap. Teased all season about the mysterious William Bell, we ended with an elevator ride, a step into an office and in rapid succession: Leonard Nimoy stepping from the shadows, “I’m William Bell,” and a zoom out of a skyline with two towers. J.J. Abrams might have many flaws, but the man knows how to hang his cliffs.
The second season picked up that momentum and ran with it, letting things get stranger even as answers to earlier questions were doled out. It avoided the “Lost” pitfall of only answering questions with different questions, running the viewers in circles, and so far has avoided the “X-Files” folly of giving answers that just aren’t as satisfying as the mystery originally suggested.
The story is allowed to wrap back around to Walter, the mad scientist who is the source of so much joy in the stories, but the source of so much pain for the characters. He’s blissfully hilarious to the audience, collecting baboon semen, milking his cow, home brewing LSD, gleefully conducting autopsies with a scalpel in one hand and a twizzler in the other. The first season brilliantly left him in the background, letting him grow on us so that when he emerged into the spotlight of the second season we’d never considered him the main character. He was the comic relief and the Q rolled into one. John Noble brings a downright Shakespearean pain to the role, channeling the mentally broken child of someone whose brain is breaking mixed with the furious superiority of a genius. The latter half of the second season is heartbreaking as the overwhelming sadness of his character overcomes his resolute pride.
Peter and Olivia are both his children and neither are. He stole both their childhoods, and managed to make them both more than they ever would be alone. But the cost was childhood itself. Cortexifan children come out of the woodwork in the second season, monsters broken in youth by the experiments of old men, introduced as monsters of the week, but gradually evolving into something more, into exactly the army that Walter and William envisioned them to be, the first line of defense against an invasion. One offers Walter a grudging blessing, says that he used to hate Walter, until he realized that he had made them special.
They allowed the two leads to come together instead of letting the tension molder for years. A hundred reasons why Peter has to come back, but the simplest one is the true one: because he needs to be with her. And then the terrible sinking feeling as you realize that it’s the wrong Olivia going with him. It’s Andy Kaufman irony, give the audience exactly what they want in such a way that it punches them in the soft spots.
The other side is what we get without a conscience. It’s a world without children. We get the toys, the power, the arrogance to use them however we wish. The other side is not evil, it’s arrogance incarnate. The characters are what they are when they have no one to love. Walternate is exactly the same except he doesn’t have Peter. This is exactly what Walter would be if he hadn’t stolen Peter. This is exactly what Olivia would be if she was a soldier instead of a cop, if she had a war to fight but no one to defend.
It starts with a single act, a single violation. And the cracks spread through the entirety of two universes. Every character in the series, even the ones signing death warrants, experimenting and stealing children, are doing so because of love. When the antagonist of a piece is a man who is moving heaven and earth to get his son back, and the protagonist is the same, that’s a hell of a story.
“I realized at that moment that despite what I’d promised, what I fully intended to do, that I could never take Peter back. The way she looked at him. I saw in her what I feared most in myself when I saw him: I couldn’t lose him again. It was the first hole, Olivia. The first breach. The first crack in the pattern of cracks. Spaces between the worlds. And it’s my fault. You can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a child.” -Walter
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.