When Fringe debuted on Fox four years ago, its debt to The X-Files was clear. Like that earlier show, Fringe is about government agents investigating inexplicable, paranormal events, some of which are part of a larger mythology. There are also significant differences: there are two FBI agents, but they’re not partners; the team is larger, but no one is as skeptical as Scully was; and the larger story, the mythology, is more coherent.
The chief difference between the shows, however, is that at its heart, Fringe is about the power of love to transform the world, for good and ill.
This has been clear from the very beginning. If the pilot is about the formation of the Fringe team, its engine is FBI agent Olivia Dunham’s efforts to save the man she loves, John Scott. He’s injured in the course of an investigation into a bizarre event on an airplane, his injuries peculiar (his skin becomes transparent) and life-threatening. The only man who can help her is Dr. Walter Bishop, locked in a mental hospital for the last seventeen years; the only way she can get to Dr. Bishop is through his estranged son, Peter. Olivia is so determined to get help, she convinces a superior who has no use for her to let her follow this unlikely lead. She hunts Peter down in Baghdad and cons him into helping her. This action is the beginning of not one, but two love stories central to the series.
Olivia coerces him into signing his father out of the hospital and agreeing to act as his father’s guardian. At first, Peter is angry—angry with his father for his failures over the years, angry with Olivia for forcing him to deal with his father and the emotions he evokes. Little by little, Peter’s resentment fades as he learns to recognize the sweetness that’s grown in Walter over the years of his hospitalization. His deepening tenderness towards his father helps anchor Walter in the here and now, helps Walter regain lucidity. And his commitment to his father and the team, especially Olivia, helps him find purpose in a life that, up until now, has been aimless and self-serving.
Even the discovery he’s not Walter’s son—at least not this Walter’s—can’t break the bond between them.
Twenty-five years ago, Walter Bishop’s son Peter was desperately ill with an unnamed disorder...in two universes. Two Walters, two Peters. A cure is discovered, but not in time to save the Peter in this universe. Our Walter decides to try to save the other Peter. With every intention of returning the other universe’s Peter to this side, he brings him to our universe and heals him, but the gate between the worlds closes before he can bring Peter back. Worse, the portal he opened between the two universes fatally damaged the other one. His love for his son—for both versions of his son—has wreaked irrevocable harm to an entire, alternate universe.
And that’s just the first season.
And the first love story. The second one is between Olivia and Peter.
As with many great love stories, this one starts out with doubt and distrust between our hero and heroine, but quickly moves beyond that. Peter’s discovery that his father isn’t the monster he thought Walter was allows him to forgive Olivia for forcing him into being his father’s babysitter. Without her actions, he would never have found this new, weirdly lovable Walter.
As for Olivia, John Scott doesn’t survive. Worse, he’s revealed to be a traitor and a fraud before he dies, leaving Olivia to grieve for her illusions, as well as the man she loved. Peter’s understanding and support, his willingness to be a sounding board as she works through the layers of loss she feels over John Scott’s deception and death, lead her first to friendship, then to love.
Their love is tested over and over again, by dopplegangers and monsters, sacrifice and absence, even by a reboot of the world’s timeline that leaves Walter and Olivia with no knowledge of Peter—in this version of history, both Peters died when they were boys. When our Peter erupts into their lives, the force of his longing for those he loves, for the people who love him, force this Walter to open up his closed, frightened heart and provoke this Olivia into accessing the memories, experiences and emotions of the self she never was. Peter’s love changes reality. (You’ll have to trust me that this all makes sense when it unfolds over time.)
So, if I’ve piqued your interest but you’re wondering why begin with a show that only has thirteen episodes left, what can I say to persuade you to check this show out?
Watch it for the performances. The second, third and fourth seasons spend time in both universes, where there are two of almost everyone, and the actors portraying both versions make them distinct individuals. Fauxlivia isn’t Olivia; Walternate isn’t Walter. It shocks me that neither Anna Torv (Olivia/Fauxlivia) nor John Noble (Walter/Walternate) has won an Emmy, given the quality of their performances. They make it believable, they make it look easy, they almost make you believe there’s more than one actor playing these roles.
Watch it for the writing. The series is smart, complex, and well thought-out. Rewatching it, I’m surprised by how well later events are set up, very early on. This gives me confidence that the producers are telling the truth when they say they’ve planned the series out. Oh, and it’s funny and scary and fascinating.
But the best reason to watch is the emotion, the love that drives the series, that connects the characters, making them into a family. There is hope and kindness here, a positive way of seeing things despite all the darkness the series explores, and in my book, that makes it worth watching and re-watching.