Jul 4 2012 11:00am

Love In, On, and Around the Fringe

Fringe posterWhen 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.

Walter and Peter Bishop in FringeOlivia 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 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.

Peter and OliviaAnd 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?

Peter and Olivia have breakfast in bedWatch 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.

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Gwenda Bond
1. GwendaBond
Great post -- couldn't agree more. There's a hopefulness at the core of the show, even though terrible things happen, that comes directly out of its focus on love and relationships and how much they matter.
romance reader
2. bookstorecat
I really enjoyed this past season, much more than season 3. Definitely agree that the show's mythology is more coherent than the XFiles. Looking forward to the last season.
PM Kavanaugh
3. PM Kavanaugh
When it first aired, my niece told me that I would love this show. But I didn't have time/mental "bandwidth" to commit to a new "piece" of entertainment. Your post is making me re-consider. Hello, DVD's! Thanks for such a provoking and concise summary of what is clearly a twisty-turny, yet coherent show.
PM Kavanaugh
5. SassyT
I LOVE Fringe with a capital L. I have from the first moment it came on. And you are totally right. The love of the characters (not just romantic love either) for each other makes the show better. I'm going to miss this show. There aren't a whole lot of sci-fi shows on t.v. nowadays and this one was really well done. Thanks for giving it the attention it deserves.
Katy Cooper
6. katy.madellio
I came to Fringe late -- I think the first episode I saw was "OS", from the third season (with Alan Ruck as the scientist with the son in a wheelchair and the whole lighter-than-air thing, to identify it without being spoilery). I started watching because, Ken Tucker in particular, had so championed it.

One of the cool things about re-watching it is that you catch the little, little things that you miss in the first (or second or third) go round. For example, September has blink-and-you'll-miss-him appearances in dozens of episodes, and in the third season episode "Peter", there's a moment when Walternate is exactly like Walter as he talks about losing Peter. That flash showed me how Walter ended up in St. Clare's, and it showed me they really are the same man in different circumstances. It's not something I noticed the first two times I saw the episode.

As for how it all ends, I can't help wondering if everything has been September trying to prevent the events of "2036" (from the 4th season, and the focus of the 5th season). I think it would be wicked cool if that were the case, and I think there's support for it in the things that happen.
But one never knows...
Myretta Robens
7. Myretta
I don't know, Katy. I hate committing to a series, but you might have sucked me in.
PM Kavanaugh
8. CindyS
I have been so happy that this show has managed to keep going and I'm glad they have time to give us a real ending instead of losing the whole story.

You wrote about the love so wonderfully - Even between Walter and Astrid - how careful she is with him but also frustrated by continually doing something mundane to help him. There is genuine compassion between all the characters considering Walter has caused so much of the problems they are now having but the love the man he has become despite the things he did in his past.

Also, the episode where the Olivia is taken over by William (Leonard Nimoy) Bell - the actress nailed it - definitely Emmy worthy!

Rakisha Kearns-White
9. BrooklynShoeBabe
I love Fringe, and you did a wonderful job describing how love really is at the crux of this story. How Anna Torv hasn't won an Emmy yet is beyond me! Besides playing Olivia and Fauxlivia, she also had a funny turn playing Walter's BBF/Frenemy William Bell. That's three personalities. The emotions of the characters always ride so close to the surface that you can feel their pain, love, confusion. (My husband and I always enjoy it when a character is introduced to Fringe the division and the knowledge of the alternaverse.)
Katy Cooper
10. katy.madellio
She also did subtle variations on Olivia/Fauxlivia in the reset timeline--they were close, but not quite the same.

What's everyone's favorite episode? Least favorite? My least favorite is the one with the kid with mind control powers. As for favorite, I'm not sure I can pick one...
PM Kavanaugh
11. Olivia Dunham and the DH
Fantastic article. It made me cry, not sure why, tho. Loved it.

It's hard to choose
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