Quite the full banquet on tonight’s Fringe, huh? Pathos, humor, action, explanations… the show came back with a sense of purpose and surety it’s rarely had, even at its best. In fact, I’d file “Peter” along with the top TV of 2010 so far.
Let’s start with the opening scene, at U.S. Army Research Headquarters in Manhattan, circa 1985. A younger (most likely computer-airbrushed) Walter shows off some of the advanced technology that he's copied from the alternate universe we’ve come to know so well watching Fringe. Then Walter and his colleague Dr. Carla Warren shows off the actual window to that world, which allows them to peek at—but not travel to—Earth-2, a world where dirigibles dock at the Empire State Building and cellular phone technology has significantly outpaced our best efforts.
That's a fun start, made even more fun by what followed: ‘80s-style Fringe credits, complete with cruddy graphics, a tinny score, and on-screen text touting the cutting-edge mysteries of “Virtual Reality” and “In Vitro Fertilization.”
Immediately following that whiz-bang beginning, “Peter” downshifts, taking us to the present-day, where Walter arrives at Olivia’s doorstep and promises to explain why his son looks so shimmery. He tells her a tale of a quarter-century ago, when Peter-1 died despite Walter’s best efforts to find a cure for his rare genetic disease, and how he peered across at Walter-2—or “Walternate,” as he called him—to see if the more technologically advanced version of himself had any more luck at curing his son.
The answer? Yes! Except that at the moment when Walter-2’s curative formula is properly synthesized, the Walternate gets distracted by a visit from our favorite Observer, September. Walter-1 sees this, but he can only watch helplessly as the unstable formula turns from pink to blue and pink again, leaving Walter-2 certain that he’d failed.
This sets up the chain of events that we’ve known about since last season: Walter-1 stepping across to the other dimension to swipe Peter-2. Only it doesn’t happen in quite so nefarious a fashion. Walter’s intention is only to slip across and leave the stable curative, then slip back, secure in the knowledge that somewhere in the multiverse, a Peter is alive, and loved by a Walter and an Elizabeth. But it all gets bollixed thanks in part to Dr. Warren, who believes in two things: Lord God Almighty, and that there are some lines that scientists should not cross. So while Walter builds a generator-powered dimension-gate and drives it up to his lake house in upstate New York, Dr. Warren tips off Nina Sharp and the two ladies haul ass after him, to stop the experiment. Walter tries to deflect Nina's concerns by insisting that William Bell has been pushing for just this kind of bold move, but Nina’s having none of it, and wrestles with Walter just as he switches his gate on. The result? Nina loses a forearm (sort of), and Walter’s formula-bottle breaks.
So what choice does Walter have? He becomes a Peter-napper, after heartbreakingly promising poor trusting, ignorant Elizabeth-2 that he’ll bring the boy back once he’s cured.
It's those moments of poignant loss that make “Peter” such a strong episode. Mythology-wise, it was significant to see Walter actually breach the barrier between the two worlds, touching off the crisis that both realities find themselves in now. And it was intriguing to hear September, after pulling Walter and Peter-2 out of a frozen lake, tell Walter, “The boy is important. He has to live.” (A statement that will surely have more meaning as the series stretches into Season Three.) But none of that was as powerful as Peter-2 looking at Walter-1 and saying, in a somewhat panicky voice, “You’re not my father, are you?” Or hearing Walter-1 try to reassure Elizabeth by saying of their dead son, “He knew he was loved. Didn’t he?”
Early in the episode, as Walter-1 and Elizabeth-1 peek at Peter-2 through his magic window, we see the depths of their grief, and how hard it must be to let an opportunity go to bring their boy back. “We dealt with what we were given,” Walter says at one point, referring to Peter’s short, sickly childhood. But they were also give the means to fix their problem, and it’s hard to fault them for taking it—even though they may have doomed billions.
-“The mobile telephone can be much smaller, I assure you!”
-Interesting that the first image in the “previously on Fringe” montage is of Peter’s fingers shuffling a coin. The coin-shuffling turned out to be a recurring visual motif in this episode, and possibly a thematic one as well: think of the two sides of the hand as the two universes, and Walter as the coin, dipping in and out.
-This episode was directed by David Straiton, and written by pretty much every major Fringe scribe. I’m not sure who gets credit for the choice to keep the music so minimal in the first half hour and then bring it back up in the second half hour, but kudos are due.
-Loved Nina’s huge cell phone, especially as a contrast to the smaller one that Walter was showing off. In fact all the old technology in 1985 was a treat to look at, from the console computers to the bulky land-line telephones. The Fringe folks have always had a fascination with outmoded tech; they’re like steampunkers, but a century later. Theirs is a dot-matrix rendering of the future.
-Following up on that thought: Note that Walter says to the Army that Earth-2’s cell phones are about 30 years ahead of ours, and yet the kind of phone he shows off is one we’ve had for a while now. The implication—as I saw it, anyway—is that Earth-1’s technological advances have been expedited by our using Earth-2 as a cheat sheet. But it’s also an interesting take on how many of us see technology: as a kind of magic, bestowed upon us from elsewhere, and not the product of our own hands.
-The movie marquee reading “Back To The Future, starring Eric Stoltz” wasn’t just a random joke. That movie actually began filming with Stoltz in the lead, before all concerned decided he was miscast. Apparently, on Earth-2, it worked out differently.
-As The Observers were leaving Back To The Future—Slushos in hand—they passed a poster for Clue. Was this a clue?
-Oh, and when Walter peeled off in his station wagon, didn’t the moment look a little Back To The Future-y?
-This might sound odd, given the complaining I’ve done about some of Fringe’s stand-alone episodes, but I wouldn’t want every week to be a “Peter.” This hour was very satisfying, but I’m looking forward to the seeing the Fringe Division work a case and meet a freak next week.
-Do you think the Fringe writers ever have to consult with the Lost writers to make sure that they’re not accidentally using the same ideas?
-"Don’t you quote Oppenheimer at me!"