A flash. A man appears on a train, straightens his coat, and exits running into a boy (that kid from Caprica), saying nothing. The boy enters the train. Everyone is dead. Well, not so much dead, as "without life." Horror. Confusion. It's a moment that finds Fringe at it's finest.
Hi, I'm Steve Heisler, from the Internet's The A.V. Club. Noel Murray is out tonight, most likely in a lab somewhere shoving metallic gears inside his ribcage so he can travel 10 months into the past and watch the pilot of Michael & Michael Have Issues one more time. I'm thrilled to fill in for a show I've watched since day one, but didn't have much to say about until recently. I was one of "those" people who all but gave up on season one, only to come back around once it deepened the mythology and allowed its characters to get a better handle on themselves. I read the Entertainment Weekly cover story before its second season and immediately filled with unbridled anticipation: According to the story, the writers knew we wanted more with the parallel universe, less with the straightforward procedural. They kept that promise for a few episodes, killed Charlie, and got back to being boring. Now, they're slowly returning to form, with the rich "Peter" (which I wasn't as gaga over as Noel was, but still enjoyed) and last week's discovery that perhaps the pattern is starting to show itself.
My only disappointment with "White Tulip" probably has to do with my inability to keep this renewed glee in check. As soon as Alistair Peck popped into that train car, I immediately thought—prayed—that he was appearing from that alternate universe. Discovering later that he was just some supergenius from this side of the tracks, I have to admit, sucked some of the fun out of that first moment. Its suddenness was certainly a nice departure from the usual Fringe intros (normal person leading breezily busy life stumbles upon something weird, body starts to change slowly, look of panic, turns away, other person glances over seeing the freakiness, shot of odd ailment, opening credits), but for a moment I feared the beginning was simply setting us up for more procedural nonsense.
But it was only a moment, one of many that made "White Tulips" such a textured hour of television. We first see Walter laboring over a tell-all letter to Peter, bracing himself to accept the inevitable. The call from Broyles about the train interrupts everything, and soon the team is whisked over to the scene of the crime to begin their investigation. Walter checks for pee-pee (which would indicate the people died in, you know, the normal way), Peter snags a woman's Blackberry. The boy from the night before is found, briskly questioned, and dismissed. Later, Olivia and Broyles track the mysterious man to a cafe, and Olivia's able to snag his credit card receipt and find his house. The team enters and discovers a plethora of formulas and odd metallic pieces. Peter finds a certificate: This guy teaches at MIT. The man comes in, he's held at gunpoint, weird flashing happens, then suddenly Walter's at his desk, finishing his letter to Peter.
Huh. It seems we just traveled back in time. Hmm, this is going to be awesome.
Now those moments take center stage as I play my favorite Highlights game, "Find the differences in this picture." The team still arrives at the train, only this time the boy has an actual story to tell: Instead of saying nothing, the man apologized for making him do it all over again. We see Broyles snag Peck's file from the NASA database, revealing his address. It's Walter who finds the certificate, not Peter. And without Alistair barging in on his own house, Peter has time to snag the photo album he was reaching for in the previous scenario. He discovers Alistair had a wife, who died 10 months ago. He must be practicing traveling through time so he can go back and save her, Walter posits. Little by little, moment by moment, the picture comes into focus.
This paced, deliberate storytelling nicely counters the episode's climactic scene between Walter and Peck. Walter's the one who suggests the meeting, after realizing the parallels between his scenario and Peck's. "Grief drives people to extraordinary lengths," he says to Broyles, convincing the team to stand down as he enters Peck's lab solo. And what do two brilliant scientists with a mutual respect for one another talk about? God, of course. Seriously, even just hearing that word in an episode of Fringe took me aback. Walter's the one who brings it up, sharing that he believes God is punishing him for stealing Peter from the alterna-cabin. This is Walter we're talking about, a man who likely up until that fateful night believed with all his heart in what Peck counters with: "God is science." We start to understand just how broken up Walter was about the whole thing. He "traveled through madness" and turned to religion, presumably something he had shut out completely. He's just such a broken man.
Was he correct in his prediction? Did God punish Peck for meddling with the past by taking his life along with his wife's? Well, I'd argue that Peck figured this was going to happen all along: He mails letters to his colleague at MIT (where he served as, yes, a "time travel professor"), instructing her to mail one to Walter on the exact day of the train accident—which of course isn't happening anymore. When he appears in the past, the energy required needs to be sucked from somewhere. When something moves from one universe to the other, something moves back. Balance is inevitably restored even if it's by force. Call it God, or whatever you want, that similarly granted Walter forgiveness at the end of the episode with Peck's letter—a white tulip. Or call it the handiwork of a guy so entrenched in the formulas that he knows how things are going to work out, yet decides to meddle anyways even after his death. All I know is that in the world of Fringe, the more the character begin to understand, the more they realize just how far they are over their heads.
Grade: This was originally an A-, but then I figured my only complaint was really that it didn't address the parallel universe stuff like I had thought it would, and that's not much of a complaint. So now I'm going with A.
- Another moment worth noting: Astrid is gaining the ability to anticipate Walter's next request. Give that girl a vacation.
- I'm a little confused about how Peck believes his time travel won't kill anybody if he just travels even further in the past. Let's say he's at Z, goes to W, time progresses normally, then he goes back to P. When time progresses to W, I'd think another version of him would show up, yes? Or are we getting rid of all that? Sounds like a job for Hiro Nakamura.
- Also revealing: Walter's decision to burn the letter to Peter. I see the beginning of that moment at the beginning of the episode, and assume it's Walter preparing himself for the inevitable. Then, at the end, it seems I was reading that all wrong. Perhaps on Fringe, the inevitable isn't really all that inevitable.