Fringe: “Subject 9”

The Damnation of Walter Bishop


Fox Network, Fridays, 9 PM

“Subject 9”

Written by Jeff Pinkner & J.H. Wyman & Akiva Goldsman
Directed by Frederick E.O. Toye

“Sometimes the world we have is not the world we want.” —Elizabeth Bishop

Having brought Peter and Olivia together in the last episode of Fringe, the show now takes a step back into that alternate reality we all share: memory. In an episode in which Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson do not even appear, their earlier selves are explored in a “flashback” episode which dresses John Noble in the worst wig ever, and gives us another look at Peter’s mother Elizabeth (Orla Brady, The Deep). It picks up six months after Season Two’s episode “Peter” left off, with Walter’s abduction of young Peter from the Other Side. And right away it runs into trouble. In “Peter” we saw Walter and Elizabeth nearly paralyzed with grief over the death of their son, a grief so unbearable it drove Walter to violate the most fundamental laws of physics; yet in this episode, which takes place only weeks later, they both seem anxious to get him out of their lives and back to the Other Side as quickly as possible. The only grief we see over Peter himself comes from Walternate and AltElizabeth in a scene near the end.

“I am not your son. You are not my father, and she is not my mother!” —Young Peter

Possibly the Bishops’ 180-degree turn regarding young Peter is a reaction to his constant nagging. “I want to go home”, he whines, and that is his answer to virtually every question put to him. When he’s not nagging or whining, he’s sullen. He’s as smart as our current version of the grown-up Peter, with none of the charm or personality. Mostly he spends his time trying to “prove” to Elizabeth and Walter that they are not his parents (which of course they already know anyway): he knows the Dodgers play for Brooklyn, not Los Angeles; he knows that the famous comic book character is Red Lantern, not Green Lantern, and he absolutely knows he never owned a baseball glove. I wanted to feel pity for this stubborn little boy, brave enough to speak truth even when denied on every side. But he was so whiny, so underwritten, that for the most part I found him annoying. By the end of the episode, I was totally on board with Elizabeth’s wish to return him to his Other World.

“I know I sound crazy, but I’m not!” —Young Peter

The first time we see young Peter, he is trying to drown himself in Reidel Lake, the lake Walter crossed to bring him over, the lake they nearly drowned in. What looks like a suicide attempt turns out to be only Peter trying to go home; he does not remember the Crossing, but he remembers being at the bottom of the lake, so he thinks the door to the Other World is there. It’s an interesting theory, since twenty-some years later it will turn out that immersion tanks are the gateway. What I found most disturbing was the way Walter and Elizabeth kept telling the boy that he really was their son; what did they think would happen if they succeeded in sending him back? What did they think would happen if he woke up on the Other Side again, where the Dodgers play in Brooklyn and the Red Lantern is his favorite comic again? Surely the boy would suffer serious dislocation problems, but the Bishops seem to think nothing of freaking with his head. It is easy to see how Peter would grow up to be emotionally closed off, brilliant but suspicious, unable to trust anyone. The only time young Peter seems to act normally is when he first meets Olivia. They first spot one another through glass, at the Jacksonville Day Care Center. Yet some bond is established, because later he will be the only person who figures out where to find her.

“A unique combination of love and terror does stimulate a cortical reaction that may be the key to her crossing over.” —Walter

We meet young Olivia, who is already one of Walter’s test subjects; in fact, she’s “Subject 13”. As if that weren’t bad enough, it turns out that Olivia’s abusive stepfather has been beating her. When she annoys him, he chases her through their house, and in her fear and panic she teleports herself into a field of white tulips, where a blimp cruises overhead. In the blink of an eye, she is back home, and her stepfather’s heavy hand comes down on her. The next day, even the oblivious Dr. Bishop can see the bruises on her face. Yet he neglects to report this to authorities, an omission which cannot be blamed on the date (1985). The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act was passed in 1974, and any day care center in the US would have been fully aware of its mandate. This is our first hint of Walter’s growing callousness; when Elizabeth learns not only that Olivia is being abused but that her husband proposes to return her to that environment, he cold-bloodedly tells her that he is willing to sacrifice her for the sake of others. But these “others” are entirely theoretical; he does not even look for another answer to the crossover problem. Instead, he subjects Olivia to increasingly stressful tests to find out what triggers her crossing; when he finally scares her with a scenario in which she finds a playmate “dead” on the floor of the lab. Not only does she disappear, she sets fire to the day care center.

Elizabeth: So you would sacrifice one for the other… this little girl Olivia for Peter?

Walter: No. But for thousands of others, or millions…

Like Elizabeth, I found Walter’s attitude appalling. I was instantly reminded of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hugo-winning classic story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”. In her story, the good life of Omelas depends entirely on the abuse of one innocent child; upon coming of age, citizens are informed of this. Most accept the sacrifice of one child for the benefit of many, but some walk away. The idea that one scapegoat may suffer in order for many to live in oblivious comfort is a favorite theme of moral philosophers, and one that would surely make any person of compassion squirm. Yet Walter, who has already endangered an entire universe for his own selfish ends, now proposes to “fix” that problem with yet another selfish and immoral act. Really, Walternate is looking better all the time.

“Do you trust him?” —Olivia

Peter finds Olivia’s drawing of the field of tulips where she teleported, and recognizes it from an earlier drive with his not-mother. When they return to the day care center, Olivia decides to trust Walter and runs into his office. She pours out her story: when her stepfather hurt her, she jumped to the Other World. But Walter does not understand what she’s talking about; and she turns around to see Walter entering the room behind her. It’s a brilliant moment, where we realize that Olivia momentarily jumped to the Other World long enough to tell Walternate (not Walter) what made her jump. It’s the key Walternate has been looking for; I love the irony that it is Olivia herself who tells him the secret. She apparently leaves her drawing book behind when she inadvertently reverts to our universe. This was a great twist I didn’t see coming, which took my breath away. The cruel reward for Olivia’s brave act is for Walter to turn her over to her stepfather, whom he knows is abusing her. Walter puts on his most forbidding scowl (which, in that god-awful wig, was more ludicrous than terrifying) and warns him sternly that if he hurts Olivia again, he will inform the authorities. That ought to put the fear of God into a man who routinely beats his wife and stepdaughter. Never have I seen Walter weaker or more pusillanimous. What a wimp. Olivia’s stepfather probably didn’t even understand one word in ten of Walter’s little speech.

“I’ll take care of you, I’ll protect you, and I’ll never let anyone take you away from me.” —Elizabeth

Walter is not alone in having a spine of Jell-O. When young Peter finally demands honesty from Elizabeth, she abandons all her noble principles. While assuring him that she will take care of him and protect him, she nevertheless refuses to be honest with him. She tells him she really is his mother. We can see that he doesn’t believe this, that he finally realizes he will never be able to trust his fake parents, and we can see the reserve that will later characterize the adult Peter Bishop fill the younger boy’s eyes. It’s a heartbreaking moment, and made me positively hate the Bishops for their weakness and cowardice.

“You know, tulips don’t usually grow in areas like this.” —Elizabeth

The details in this episode are, as always, superbly managed. The Other Side, which we see briefly, is easily spotted: Walternate works at Bishop Dynamics, and they apparently never invented airplanes. Even more interesting is the attention paid to details of the past: Walter delights in his Betamax recorder, and the toys in a toy shop are straight out of 1985. The field of white tulips is a particularly good touch; they played a part in the second season episode “White Tulip” where they were a symbol to Walter of forgiveness for his kidnapping of Peter. Here, they are a symbol of innocence and hope, as well as harbingers of troubles to come: when Peter finds her, Olivia is sitting in the center of a patch of dead tulips, killed by her arrival, just as Alistair Peck’s teleporting killed everything around him. I absolutely love the way this series’ writers pay attention to continuity and detail like this. So much writing on television is slapdash and careless, but these writers take infinite pains with details (even if they are playing fast and loose with physics).

Ratings for Fringe were a slow leak even before the move to Friday nights. Now, after six Fridays, the ratings seem to have steadied at around a 1.5 share among adults 18-49, or about four million viewers per night. Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly has said that a 1.5 share is the bottom end of acceptability for the show, which means if the audience share falls much more, the show will likely be canceled. Smart money is already saying it’s doomed, which would be a terrible shame. Reilly has also said, “We have a lot of passion for that show here.” I hope that passion lasts. This is still, despite a few lapses, the best, smartest sci-fi show on television, and I will hate to see it go.