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In a commuter train station, a young kid panhandles aggressively alongside a stopped train. He’s not having much luck, probably because he’s waiflike and has killer cheekbones and looks like a Calvin Klein model, circa 1994; I can only speak for myself, but I have a strict policy against giving money to panhandlers who are that much hotter than me. He’s carrying a hand-lettered sign that reads, “God is watching you.” That’s the first parry in this episode’s ill-advised God-versus-science duel. A businessman refuses to give the kid a handout, so he pickpocket the guy’s wallet in retribution. Apparently, this kid did not read his own sign.
Inside the nearest train car, which is half-filled with passengers, the lights go out all at once. There’s a blur of light, and all of a sudden a man in a long white trench coat materializes out of nowhere. Hey, it’s Robocop! Peter Weller, how have you been, man? He looks sort of like hell. However, at least he looks alive, which is more than can be said for all the other passengers in the train car, who are all very… still.
Robocop exits the train. The kid hits him up for a handout, but Robocop, immune to his Bambi eyes and cheekbones, strides past him without answering.
The kid steps onto the car and looks around in the darkness. Everyone’s pasty and dead. The kid, naturally enough, freaks. The door closes behind him; he pounds on it and screams that he wants off the train. Meanwhile, Robocop saunters toward the exit of the station.
Casa Bishop: Walter sits at his desk and pens a letter to Peter, which, from what we can read, seems to be all about how Peter is very, very special. Yep, we already got that memo. So this is how Walter intends to spill the beans about Peter’s dubious origins.
While Walter scribbles away, the phone rings, and Peter’s voice comes on the answering machine. Show of hands: How many people still have answering machines these days? Anyone? Peter is at the Harvard laboratory, where he’s holding a smoking-hot soldering iron and fussing around with some wiring. He talks on the answering machine, bemused and exasperated, explaining to Walter how to pick up the phone and talk to him.
Walter doesn’t pick up. He remains at his desk, looking like a deer in the headlights, as Peter explains on the machine that Olivia just called him about an incident on a train, and thus Peter will swing by to pick Walter up in fifteen minutes. “I know how much you love trains,” Peter says. Trains and ice cream sodas. In many ways, Walter is an uncomplicated soul.
Walter finishes his letter, folds it up, and sticks it in an envelope, then writes Peter’s name on the front. He stuffs the envelope in the loose, baggy pocket of his loose, baggy cardigan, where it’s sure to topple out every so often just to raise the thrilling possibility of Peter accidentally finding and reading it.
At the train station, Walter walks by himself while Peter and Olivia hold a secret powwow a few paces behind him. Peter claims Walter’s been avoiding him for a couple weeks. Per Peter, Walter has been “enveloped in sadness.” Well, look: It’s Walter. If he’s not giddy with delight, he’s enveloped in sadness. Those are his default modes. Olivia blatantly lies and says she hasn’t noticed anything different about Walter. Peter throws Olivia a betrayed look.
On the train, Walter looks around at all the pasty corpses. He shines a pen light in their eyes. One of the corpses is wearing a crucifix; Walter picks it up and examines it. God versus science, folks. They’re starting out slow, but trust me, the episode is going to beat you repeatedly over the head and shoulders with this theme by the time we’re done with it.
Walter gropes around inside a corpse’s underwear, then cheerfully explains to a nonplussed FBI agent on the scene that he’s just checking for signs of bladder or bowel release. Poor train passengers. Here they all were, just trying to return to their homes after a long day of work, and they get killed by Robocop, then Walter gropes around in their panties to see if they’ve soiled themselves. That’s the textbook definition of a lousy day.
Walter presents a theory: Maybe the people all died of collective heart failure? Maybe heart failure was contagious, like yawning? Peter dismisses this idea as improbable. Peter, my love, didn’t we just have an entire episode devoted to contagious cancer? Exactly how is contagious heart failure less plausible?
Olivia notices that all the train lights are out, which doesn’t fit in with Walter’s collective heart failure idea. Broyles calls Olivia off the train to talk to the glamorous young panhandler who discovered the bodies and who saw Robocop leaving the train car. We don’t actually see Broyles and Olivia talking to the kid, which struck me as sort of funny and sloppy at first, but it’ll make sense later on. This episode has a few surprises up its sleeve, and for the most part they pay off, but a little patience is needed — upon first viewing, this whole sequence seems a little disjointed and odd.
Peter swipes one of the corpse’s cell phones and notices the battery is dead. A random FBI agent finds Walter’s letter to Peter, which, yep, fell out of the shallow, droopy pocket of Walter’s baggy cardigan. This is exactly why I carry a handbag. Walter swipes his letter back from the agent in great relief. Peter tells Broyles that the batteries of all the electronic devices on the train car have been drained; Walter asks for some of the bodies to be sent to his lab.
Olivia looks over security camera footage of the train platform. Robocop, in his long white trench coat, can be seen walking away from the train.
Walter and Astrid do their usual nasty business with the corpses in the Harvard laboratory. Walter notes that the victims seem like their switches have just been turned off — there’s not the level of post-death cellular decay that he’d expect. Distracted, Walter orders Astrid to take a variety of organ samples. “Something’s not right here,” he mutters. “Yup. I think it’s my paycheck,” replies a weary Astrid, who just won my coveted Most Favoritest Character prize this episode with that line.
Peter arrives at the lab. Walter sort of ignores him, then, when Peter calls him on his weird behavior, insists (unconvincingly) that everything’s fine. He completes his analysis of the corpses: The mitochondria have simply ceased functioning, having been drained like batteries, which in turn has caused every cell to stop working. What’s the mascot of MIT? The beaver? Really? That’s dull. They should adopt mitochondria as their mascot instead. If they’re feeling especially cute, they can call themselves the Mighty Mitochondria. I like it. Quirky and apropos, plus it’d look great emblazoned on a sweatshirt.
Broyles and Olivia watch security camera footage of Robocop. A whole lot of security camera footage, from several different cameras. They wax philosophical about the vanishing nature of the concept of privacy in this age of prevalent security cameras. They both seem to think this is a pretty awesome thing, seeing how it’s made tracking down Robocop a breeze. After leaving the train station, Robocop went to a coffee shop called CafÃ© Wilusa. Wilusa was a city in western Anatolia. I don’t think that’s important or pertinent to anything, but I try to be service-y.
At CafÃ© Wilusa, they show the cute countergirl a security camera photo of Robocop. She confirms that he’s a regular customer, prone to scribbling formulas and calculations on napkins and placemats. She pulls his credit card receipts, which identify him as Alistair Peck. Huh. Peter Weller does not especially seem like someone who might be named Alistair Peck. Michael Caine, now there’s someone who seems like an Alistair Peck.
The FBI raids Peck’s messy two-story home. It’s filled with blackboards covered with elaborate equations and piles of electronic equipment. Olivia prowls around the second floor. Among all the other clutter, there are some surgical tools and a bunch of wadded-up pieces of bloody gauze. At the sight of all the equations, she speaks into her walkie-talkie: “Send the Bishops up, please.”
The equations delight Walter. He proclaims that Peck has “turned relativity on its ear!”, which sounds like a bit of hyperbole. Peter snoops around and finds a broken frame holding a certificate: Alistair Peck is a astrophysics professor at MIT.
From across the street, Peck watches as the FBI confiscates all his equations and books and Gary Numan albums. He strides into his home and demands to know what they’re doing. Naturally enough, everyone draws guns on him.
Olivia accuses Peck of killing twelve innocent people. Peck insists they’re not permanently dead, which is pretty lame, but I guess when the FBI’s got you at gunpoint, any crappy defense starts sounding pretty good. Something’s horribly wrong with his arm — it looks mangled, and there are wires running into it. Walter says, “You’ve implanted a Faraday mesh!” — a shield made of conductive material designed to block electrical fields. Hey, did anyone else just figure out how Faraday on Lost got his name?
Walter is really excited about this: Peck has created a temporal pocket around his body. “That’s fantastic!” Walter says, forgetting about those twelve dead people on the train.
Peck suddenly seems to blur and pulse, and then he vanishes in a blast of light. He reappears, back on the same damn commuter train. The lights go out, everyone dies. The same people who died before, in fact — Peck has gone back in time. So, yeah, he was right — those people weren’t permanently dead, but seeing as he just killed them all over again, he probably shouldn’t be patting himself on the back too much.
He exits the train and passes by the same glamorous urchin. “I’m sorry you have to go through this again,” he tells him. The kid looks at him in confusion, then steps on the train, sees the bodies, and spazzes out again.
Aaaaaand we go back to the start of the episode. Walter sits at his desk, writing his letter to Peter while looking sad and distracted. Peter once again yammers on the answering machine for Walter to pick up the damn phone. This time, we can see more clearly what Peter is up to at the lab: He’s using the soldering iron to repair Walter’s old phonographic record player. Peter is a good son.
Once again, we’re at the train station. The Fringe gang swarms over the train car and examines the bodies, again. It’s pretty much the same exact scene, only with subtle variations. I can’t decide whether the coolness factor of the slight changes outweighs the tedium factor of seeing the same slightly-overlong scene once again. I’m leaning a little toward the tedium end of the spectrum, but it’s kind of an interesting idea, so I’m willing to be lenient.
This time through, we see Olivia and Broyles talk with the urchin. He relates what Peck told him: “I’m sorry you have to go through this again,” which, since he has no memory of it ever happening before, seems deucedly enigmatic.
I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “deucedly” before.
Once again, Walter drops his letter to Peter. Peter comes close to finding it — at one point, he’s even stepping on it — but once again, an FBI agent picks it up, and once again, Walter safely retrieves it before anyone opens it. Pants pockets, Walter. Try keeping it in your pants pockets. Or follow my example and carry a handbag.
Federal Building: Olivia talks on the phone with Peter, who’s back in the lab. Peter fills her in on the drained mitochondria. Broyles intercepts Olivia in the hallway and says they’ve managed to identify a fingerprint on the train car railing as belonging to Alistair Peck, a former NASA employee. Broyles has pulled Peck’s address from the record, which spares us from having to go through all that business with tracking him down through security camera footage once again.
More repeated scenes: The FBI raids Peck’s home again, and though again there are subtle differences, it’s largely the same: the smashed MIT teaching certificate, Olivia’s “Send up the Bishops” line. At one point, Olivia experiences a flash of dÃ©jÃ vu, as well she should. Peter mentions a theory that dÃ©jÃ vu is Fate’s way of telling you you’re in line with your destiny. Peter never gets dÃ©jÃ vu, because he doesn’t think he’s on track with his own destiny. Peter, I think Walter has a pretty good explanation for why that might be the case.
Peter finds a photo album containing pictures of Alistair with an unidentified woman. There are two toothbrushes in the bathroom, suggesting Alistair has been shacking up with someone. Or Alistair is particularly fastidious about dental hygiene, whichever.
They wait and wait and wait in Alistair’s apartment, but this time, he doesn’t show up. Walter gets grumpy and sulky, so they decide to go home, which is sort of anticlimactic. Walter asks Olivia if she can drive him home — he doesn’t want to be alone with Peter, because he’s so uptight over the secret he’s been keeping from him. Olivia tells him Peter knows there’s something wrong, because Peter is very bright and Walter has been acting weird and squirrelly for two entire episodes now. Walter tells Olivia about the letter. He’s going to give it to Peter, but he knows the inevitable outcome will be terrible. First, he proclaims enigmatically, there’s something important he’s waiting for.
Peter calls them over. He found some handmade metal templates for machine parts, all created recently. They’re prototypes, but they can’t figure out what they do.
Meanwhile, in what looks like a metal shop somewhere, Peck is working on… things. You know how his arm looked cut up and gross, with wires sticking into it? Yeah, his whole chest looks the same way, but worse. His skin looks like it’s been partially flayed, with his bones exposed and copper wires strung throughout. Nice.
At MIT (go mitochondria!), Peter and Olivia talk with Carol Bryce, a professor who worked with Peck. Peck specialized in particle acceleration and theories about time travel. He left the university a year ago. Olivia shows Bryce a photo of Peck with the mystery woman, whom the professor identifies as Peck’s fiancÃ©e, Arlette. According to Bryce, Peck kept to himself and never socialized much. She gives Olivia a stack of unpublished spiral-bound manuscripts Peck had left with her. She claims the theories in them are beyond her, describing them as “gobbledygook.” Good to see the MIT physics faculty is familiar with all the proper technical jargon.
Cut to the laboratory, where Walter cheerfully holds up the manuscripts. “Finished!” he says. He claims that, with another twenty years and some help from some other great minds, he may actually absorb the information in them. The manuscripts contain Peck’s iconoclastic theories about time travel. Walter demonstrates Einstein’s theories about the bendable nature of time to the duller minds around him by rolling a piece of paper into a tube. Thank you, Walter. That was helpful. The energy required to travel through time would kill anyone around Peck, which is what sucked all the life out of the people on the train.
Peck’s final manuscript is unfinished, though there are handwritten notes about something called the Arlette Principle. Astrid figures out what this means: Peck’s fiancÃ©e Arlette was killed in a car crash ten months ago. Peck has been trying to travel back in time to prevent her death. Walter calculates that Peck last jumped about twelve hours back in time, and it killed a dozen people. A ten-month jump back would kill hundreds.
Astrid discovers that Arlette’s cell phone number is still active. It’s been used recently from the MIT campus, where Peck still has a laboratory.
Broyles leads a raid on Peck’s former lab. Walter asks Olivia for permission to go in first and try to convince Peck not to jump back in time.
In his laboratory, Peck listens to “Are ‘Friends’ Electric” by Gary Numan’s old band, Tubeway Army, at top volume, which is a pretty awesome song. The parallels between Peck and Walter are obvious: both have brilliant minds, both keep secret labs at high-profile universities, and both are driven to do crazy things by grief. Peck, however, has better taste in music. While listening to Numan, Peck sticks various metal parts and gears and wires into his chest.
It’s all very Tetsuo: The Iron Man, which is to say it’s both fascinating and gross as all hell.
Walter enters the laboratory and introduces himself. Peck knows who he is, claiming he’s followed his work. The two mad scientists hold a little mutual fan club tea party (really, they do — Peck fixes them both a nice spot of tea).
Walter knows Peck wants to travel back in time to the day Arlette died. He warns Peck to stay away from the windows, as there are FBI snipers outside waiting to kill him.
Outside, Broyles, Peter and Olivia listen in on Walter’s conversation. Broyles is sort of not terribly thrilled about Walter tipping off Peck to the snipers.
Walter tells Peck a large number of people will be killed if he jumps. Peck insists that every time he jumps back in time, it clears the slate of the people he killed on the previous jump. Walter points out the obvious flaw in this: After Peck jumps back in time ten months, which will presumably be his final jump, the vast number of people he kills in that jump will remain dead.
Peck tells Walter about Arlette: Just before the crash that killed her, they argued passionately about their wedding gift registry. Really? Who on earth has strong feelings one way or another on wedding gift registries? He saw a hot air balloon in a nearby empty field, which led to an epiphany about applying his theories of time travel. If he hadn’t fought with Arlette, she wouldn’t have been in the crash, and this whole business with him killing lots of people repeatedly never would have happened. Peck’s plan is to jump back to the empty field — he’ll drain all the life from the plants, but no one will be killed — and save her from the crash.
Walter claims to know why Peck hasn’t jumped back ten months yet. He’s never been able to jump further back than the commuter train, because his calculations are in error. Walter dismantles the FBI listening device and talks to Peck in secrecy. He points out the flaw in Peck’s equations — something about seven versus nine polynomials.
Peeved that Walter disconnected the bug, Broyles orders the FBI strike team to go in.
Walter cautions Peck that there will be divine consequences if he goes back to save Arlette. Hey, Walter? If you don’t want Peck to travel back in time, why’d you just correct his faulty calculations? Walter tells Peck all about taking the other version of Peter from the parallel universe, and how now he feels the burden of his actions every day. He never believed in God before taking Peter; now, he thinks his actions betrayed God, and God is punishing him for it (by… making him feel guilty about it? By making him worried Peter will hate him when he finds out the truth? I can’t quite follow the logic here). He’s looking for a very specific sign of God’s forgiveness — a white tulip — so he’ll know he can tell the truth to Peter. Peck, representing Team Science, explains that God can be found in scientific progress, like life-saving vaccines.
I don’t like this scene. In fact, I think this scene pretty much ruins the episode. Walter is written badly out of character — a rare misstep for this show, where the characterizations are usually pretty much spot on. I don’t have a problem with Walter, whom we saw as a die-hard atheist in the flashback to 1985, discovering religion after he brought Peter back from the parallel universe. Hey, if having your dead kid returned to you doesn’t give you faith, nothing will. But this white tulip business is entirely wrong. Walter’s faith developed after he’d gone through a series of extraordinary and proactive steps — developing the cure for Peter’s mysterious genetic illness, building a portal to the parallel universe, crossing over to the parallel universe, and taking the other Peter back with him to cure him. That’s a very different sort of faith than expecting a higher power to give him an explicit and literal sign — a white tulip — to convey a specific message.
Also, there’s a not-terribly-subtle subtext here of Team God (captained by Walter) versus Team Science (captained by Peck), and the viewer sympathies are clearly meant to be aligned with sweet, brilliant, familiar Walter instead of with freakish antisocial murderer Peck. A show like Fringe, with a premise devoted entirely to science — fantastical and improbable science, yes, but science nonetheless — may take one of two paths: It can show science peacefully coexisting with religion, or it can take the side of science. However, unless it wants to alienate its core audience (i.e. people who think science is neat), it can’t take the approach that God explicitly disapproves of scientific advancement, unless that viewpoint is presented by one of the non-scientific characters, such as Olivia, or Broyles, or even Astrid. To have that viewpoint coming from Walter, of all people… well, you know in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy how there’s a line about how counting in front of a computer is the equivalent of going up to a human and saying, “Blood… blood… blood… blood”? That’s what this scene does to me: It goes up to me and says, “Blood… blood… blood… blood.”
The FBI bursts in, guns drawn. Walter yells at them to stop — if Peck goes back in time, they won’t remember anything — but it’s no use. Peck zips himself back in time.
Outside Peck’s home, a police officer finds a bunch of dead bodies, drained of all life, from Peck’s latest jaunt into the past.
And it’s time for more repeated scenes. We’re back in the lab, a handful of scenes back, when Astrid tracks Arlette’s cell phone signal to MIT. Broyles calls Olivia to fill her in on the dead bodies outside Peck’s house.
The FBI storms the building at MIT. In his lab, Peck scribbles something on a piece of paper, which he places in an envelope addressed to Carol Bryce at MIT.
When Olivia and the gang burst into his lab, guns drawn, he blips himself back in time and disappears.
He reappears ten months in the past, in a field under a hot air balloon, on the day of Arlette’s death. He runs to save Arlette — he passes by an Observer on the sidewalk along the way — and hops in the passenger seat of her car.
Arlette looks happy and relieved to see him, though she might reconsider that when she takes a gander at the way he’s mutilated his own arms and torso. The scene is without sound, but he’s clearly apologizing to her for arguing about their stupid gift registry, and she’s clearly forgiving him. Then a truck smashes into the driver’s side of the car and kills them both.
Divine consequences! That’s what you get for messing with God, foolish scientists!
(Blood… blood… blood… blood.)
Ten months later: At MIT, Carol Bryce looks at the envelope Peck left for her, which contains a letter addressed to Walter Bishop, with instructions not to deliver it until March 18th, 2010. A particularly gossipy colleague suggests she open it and read it, even though it’s: a) sealed, and b) not addressed to her. You know, buddy, if she hasn’t opened it in ten months, she’s probably not going to open it now.
At the Bishop house, we’re right back at the beginning. Again. Walter writes his letter to Peter. This time, Peter doesn’t call him to alert him to the bodies on the train, because of course the people on the train aren’t dead this time around.
Walter stares at a photo of himself and Peter in happier days, then tosses the letter into the lit fireplace. This whole plotline with the letter was productive and not at all a total waste of viewer time. Thank you, Fringe.
Peter comes home, lugging the newly-repaired record player. Peter notes that Walter has been sad lately and asks if he wants to talk. Walter claims everything’s fine — a decision had weighed heavily on him, but it’s in the past.
The letter from Peck arrives, Carol Bryce having dropped it in the mail. Walter opens it up and finds a drawing of a white tulip. He looks up to the heavens.
Hmm. There’s a clever idea somewhere in this, with Walter thinking he’s had a sign from God — he has no memory of ever telling Peck about the white tulip nonsense, since in the new timeline he never met Peck, so it would seem like divine intervention. But… it’s weak. A drawing of a white tulip is not a white tulip, after all, and with all the craziness Walter goes through in his day-to-day life, he should know that a letter postmarked from MIT probably didn’t come straight from the hand of God to his mail slot. Also, what motivation could Peck have had to send it to Walter? To give him reassurance of the existence of God, or just to mess with his head a bit? Neither option seems terribly likely.
Hey, Fringe? In future episodes, could you maybe knock it off with the implication that God hates science? That’d be great. Thank you.