Fringe: “White Tulip”

The Law of Unitended Consequences

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Stegall

Tuesdays on Fox at 9/8 E/C

White Tulip”

Written by J.H. Wyman & Jeff Vlaming
Directed by Thomas Yatsko

Peter: Notice anything weird?

Olivia: Not yet, but give it ten minutes.

Most TV scripts about time travel look like a breeze: just write one or two scenes and then repeat as necessary. But the really good ones do more than simply repeat the same lines; they show how the repeats deepen and enrich the characters. Such is the case in this episode, which presents us with a “villain” who may be the most sympathetic in the entire run of this series.

Peter is trying to figure out why his father has suddenly become withdrawn and uncommunicative; Walter is struggling to find a way to tell his son the truth about himself. Olivia is just waiting for the other shoe to drop. In the midst of all this drama, the source of which is rooted in their pasts, fate drops a case into their lives which echoes Walter’s own tragedy.

An entire car full of commuters on a suburban train has been found dead. While Walter checks their underwear (we can always rely on Walter Bishop for a moment of horrified laughter), Peter notices that every single source of energy on the car—from iPods to wrist watches—has been drained. Worse, in the laboratory, Walter and Astrid discover that the cells of the victims themselves have been drained of energy. Meanwhile, a witness and a security camera lead the Fringe team to Alistair Peck (Peter Weller, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension). They track him to his home, break down the door, and find the walls covered with mathematical formulae. It turns out Beck is a former professor of astrophysics at MIT. Peck himself walks in the door, and when the agents arrest him, Walter notices that he has surgically implanted electrodes in his body, creating a Faraday mesh to create a “temporal pocket” around his body. Peck shimmies and disappears.

And then we’re back to Scene One, word for word, as Walter struggles to find a way to tell his son the truth about himself. The scene plays out several more times, each one with a slight twist, but always the same outcome: eventually, Walter finds out that Peck is trying to get back to the moment, ten months ago, when his fiancée was killed in a car wreck. Walter concludes that Peck may be jumping through time, but at great expense: any place he “jumps” to will be instantly drained of enormous amounts of energy, killing all living organisms nearby. If Peck jumps all the way back ten months, to the time of Arlette’s death, he may kill hundreds of people. Peter says that they have to catch Peck before that; Walter says they may already have caught him several times. Walter is comfortable with temporal ambiguity.

The real heart and soul of this episode was Walter’s conversation with Peck. As a SWAT team gets ready to commit open, government-sanctioned murder on a man who has broken only the laws of nature, Walter sits down to try to talk him out of his plan. As one scientist to another, as one man to another, as onegrieving man to another, Walter communicates with Peck in a way he has never been able to connect with his own son. Guilt has driven a wedge between Walter and Peter; Walter now warns Peck, who is almost his alter ego, that guilt will make it impossible for him to love Arlette as he once did.

But Peck jumps, as we knew he would, and time is “reset” for the rest of the team. Peck jumps to an empty field, which kills all the grass around him, but leaves humans untouched. He races to find Arlette before the car crash, and climbs into the car beside her. Mouthing “I love you”, he tenderly takes her hand, not even paying attention to the truck that bears down on them, which will kill them both. It’s a tragic, poignant, and very satisfying solution to the dilemma Walter faced: if Peck cannot rescue his love, he will die with her.

Even more poignant is the fact that, having already been “reset”, none of the Fringe team members will know or remember this story. The only hint they get is when a letter arrives, months later, from Peck. He had mailed it before his jump, arranging for its delivery much later. In it, Walter finds the one thing he had told Peck would symbolize God’s forgiveness of his breaking the barrier between the worlds: a white tulip. Walter smiles, believing he has been forgiven.

I really liked this story of love and tragedy, with its overtones of scientific arrogance and hard-won humility. Walter, better than any other, understands how badly the best-laid plans can go awry, how evil the outcome of one’s best intentions can be. He knows how hubris is rewarded in this world. Peck, smart enough to find a door to the past, finally proves that he is wise as well. His love for Arlette is less selfish than Walter’s love for Peter. He understands better than Walter that the law of unintended consequences can overrule any other.

If the script was a little formulaic (scene one, take three…), the acting in this episode certainly was not. John Noble and Peter Weller are not only fine actors in their own rights, but teachers as well. Their one scene together was a lesson in nuance, in making it all look natural and unforced. In these few minutes, I got to see two masters of the art of acting pull out everything, to play out a subtle and important scene, with so many ramifications about Walter’s character and the entire meaning of the series. This was a privileged moment, one which, as Weller has said of acting itself, expands an audience’s sense of humanity.

Fringe improved on last week’s performance a little, pulling in 6.7 million viewers and garnering a 2.4 share. I am delighted to see more viewers, but a little worried. How many new viewers had any kind of clue what the angst between Peter and Walter was all about? If new audiences so much as blinked during the one-minute now-obligatory flashback at the opening of the show, they would have missed all the backstory that fuels this emotional tension between father and son. I only hope that future episodes will explain a bit more of this, so that what I hope is a burgeoning audience can get with the franchise more quickly. With writing this good, the show deserves at least as long a run as The X-Files.