Sometimes a specific episode of a television show comes along and causes us to sit back in satisfied awe at the wonder we have witnessed. These are the episodes we refer to as classic without any trace of hyperbole. Fringe’s “Peter” is one such episode.
THE SERIES: Fringe
THE EPISODE: “Peter”
THE PLOT: When Fringe premiered on the Fox network in 2008, it was easy to write it off as a more scientifically minded, The X-Files. It was unfair to write it off as such , because it…well, no, never mind. For the first season, it was almost exactly like The X-Files. Both programs aired on Fox, both featured F.B.I. agents investigating the paranormal, and the series centered around a photogenic male-female duo with a “will they, or won’t they” vibe that drove much of their character interactions.
However, as the series went on, it became less about monsters and fringe scientific creations, introduced the concept of a parallel world existing simultaneously with ours, and the show shifted from X-Files- lite to “Omigod, this amazing.” Yet, it kept one thing in common with The X-Files: it never let the sci-fi elements overwhelm the strong, dynamic amazingly compelling character dynamics. The series’ primary focus centered around Olivia Dunham, the somber, traumatized, F.B.I. agent who possesses psychic abilities as a result of her involvement in a study involving giving children an experimental drug, Peter Bishop, the rogue, civilian consultant brought in to help monitor and guard the third character in our trio: his estranged father, Walter Bishop. By far, the most arresting and compelling of these characters is Walter Bishop, the eccentric (insane?) scientist who’s past experiments are responsible for much of the fringe-science cases the team encounters. He exists as both blissfully at ease with saying whatever enters his mind out loud, while also haunted by his past (he created/ performed the experiments that caused Olivia so many emotional difficulties). As the series progressed, much of the focus shifted to the romance between Peter and Olivia, but for me the best, most interesting relationship was the ever-evolving father-son dynamic that guided the series’ early seasons.
Peter blamed his father for his mother’s suicide, and barely wanted contact with him when the series began. Walter spent much of the first two seasons trying to reestablish a connection between them, with Peter resisting him at every turn. By the second season, their bond was more fully established.
However, the first season spent a great deal of its time sprinkling little clues that Peter may be more than he seemed. In the closing moments of the season 1 finale, Walter is found standing over Peter’s grave, revealing that Peter is from the parallel world. With that knowledge established, the viewer became more and more aware of the fact that the burgeoning father-son bond is living in a perpetually, precariously balanced state. Their relationship is a living on borrowed time, because once Peter figures out Walter is not really his father, the relationship they have been building will be irrevocably damaged. The destruction and eventual rebuilding of that relationship is a major force for the remainder of the second season and the third season and the series never really forgot, even as the focus shifted towards the romantic Peter-Olivia relationship, how compelling their relationship was.
(From this point on, SPOILERS are present. Read at your own risk. You’ve been warned.)
From the series’ second season, “Peter” finally provides the back story as to how Peter ended up in our universe. The episode opens in 1985. We see Oliver, the character we have loved since the series’ beginning. Yet, this is not the licorice-loving, absent-minded professor we have known throughout the show’s two seasons. This Oliver is confident, collected, and vaguely sinister. This is the Walter who is haunted by nothing, and only considers what scientific advancements he can attain next. He has found a parallel world and a way in which he can observe it. After some awesome 1980s-era opening credits, we return to the present day with Olivia, who figured out Peter came from the parallel world in the previous episode, coming to Walter and demanding an explanation as to why Peter is here. Walter is willing to tell her what happened, and we flash back to 1985. We learn Walter has been observing the parallel world, including the parallel version of Walter, called “Walternate,” while searching for a cure to his son’s illness.” Walter comes home to his young son, Peter, deathly ill in bed, and the son dies in Walter’s arms.
Still grieving his son’s death, Walter becomes obsessed with watching Walternate, whose version of Peter is also ill, seeking a cure for his son’s condition. He sees that Walternate is able to develop the cure, but does not notice, because an Observer (one of the enigmatic characters that are forever maneuvering around the series’ edges), appears and distracts him. Armed with the knowledge that he now knows how to create the cure, he develops it, and makes plans to cross into parallel world and cure the parallel version of his son.
Alas, the vial of the cure he brought with him in to the parallel world shatters, so now he must bring Peter back into his own universe and administer the cure there. Yet, once his wife sees the cured, parallel world version of her son, resting in Walter’s lab, she begs Walter not to take him back. Walter knows how much losing Peter again will crush his wife, and cannot do that to her. As a result, he agrees to keep Peter there. The episode ends back in the present day, with Walter telling Olivia that he knows he is responsible for all of the anomalies present in both universes– his breaking through the barrier that separated them caused the cracks between the two worlds and the catastrophes he knows are approaching.
Why I Love this Episode:
First of all, this episode has an incredibly difficult task. As an audience, we know Peter comes from the parallel world, we knew Walter’s “real” son died as a young boy, and we are pretty certain Walter has taken the parallel world Peter away from his own family and raised him as his own son.
The episode basically has to give a back story covering events the audience has known and understood for quite some time. what gives the episode its power is the way in which it presents the events.
First, we learn Walter’s initial intent is not to kidnap Peter. In fact, he would have never gone near the parallel world were it not for Walternate being distracted by the Observer. He fails to see the cure for which he had been so diligently searching had been created. The observer recognizes the error he has made, but wanted to see what he deemed an “important moment.” As it is, the observer creates this moment, because he indirectly becomes responsible for the increasingly threadbare barrier between the two universes. Walter’s motivations are less self-serving and more desperate. He knows he cannot have his son back, but he feels if the parallel version of him survives, then he can still feel as though his son is out there somewhere. For him, that knowledge would be sufficient (although the episode foreshadows the fact that his wife may not find this knowledge as comforting as Walter). It’s through circumstances of tragic coincidences and turns of events that force him to take the drastic actions he takes, and the love he feels towards his wife that leads him to make a decision (keep Peter with them) that he both regrets and would not do differently.
As stated above, Walter emerged from the series as its most interesting character. We know he is responsible for several problematic experiments, including much of the trauma heaped upon Olivia, so it was easy for the audience to believe he had simply taken Peter out of a selfish, if understandable, impulse to regain his son. Twisting that expectation with the events the way they are presented here creates a far more interesting portrayal of Walter. In 1985, he’s not the quirky, candy-loving, guilt-ridden, eccentric for which the audience feels great sympathy. Instead he’s arrogant and willing to take massive scientific risks, regardless of the potential cost. If present-day Walter is concerned with the “greater good,” 1985’s Walter is concerned with the “greater scientific leap” and what will make him feel more accomplished. Crossing into the parallel world is a massive risk. Even he is unaware of the ramifications it will have, though it is hardly a great leap to assume one cannot simply destroy a universe-separating barrier without consequences. However, Walter is still willing to make the right decision and return the child back to his true parents’ waiting arms. It is his wife that persuades him to have Peter remain there with them. Walter’s weakness robs his parallel world counterpart of a son (though it could be argued that Walternate would have lost that child anyway, because he failed to notice his discovery of the cure), knowing how bereaved they will feel, not out of cruelty of selfishness, but because he lacks the ability to cause his wife that much pain.
When Walternate reenters the picture in the season’s final episodes and continues to plague the Fringe team into the next seasons, the viewers, Walter, and everyone connected to the Fringe team understand Walter’s 1985 decisions are responsible for much of their problems. Walter becomes the catalyst for much of the rest of the series.
When we flash back to the present day, we see the sad, tired, conflicted Walter we have known over the last two seasons. He may wish he could change the actions he took to save Peter’s life and he certainly has regrets over keeping as his own son, but it is too late for regrets. He begs Olivia not to tell Peter, because he knows it will cost him the bond it has taken him so long to establish, and that may be more than Walter can bear. All he can do is prepare for the catastrophic storm he knows is coming because of actions he undertook and decisions he made that he cannot escape. As a result, Walter emerges as a wonderfully sympathetic character, a grounding, poignantly human character encircled by high-concept science fiction, and the story of the moment that set the rest of Walter’s life in motion is the series’ best.
Check out a promo for the episode:
Fringe is available to stream on Netflix and Amazon (free to Prime members) and to purchase on DVD and Blu-ray.
Did you approve of our choice? Is there another episode of Fringe you think is better? Do you hate Fringe all together, and think we should have featured a different series entirely? Let us know in the comments!