The strongest element of any Fringe episode has to be John Noble’s terrific performance as the adorably eccentric Walter Bishop, but last night Noble found a worthy sparring partner in the form of guest star Peter Weller. These two were so compelling together that they helped justify an episode that could have very easily been terribly hokey — instead, it was one of the season’s best standalone stories.
The Evil: On a commuter train, a mysterious man appears out of thin air, causing the passengers to die instantly from what seems to be simultaneous heart attacks.
The Determination: The man is Dr. Peck (Weller), a former MIT professor of astrophysics who has been obsessed with conquering time travel ever since his fiancée died in a car accident ten months ago. By implanting devices, wires, and cables inside his skin, Peck has turned his body into a makeshift time machine, but the large amount of energy needed for the machine to work causes those in the area where he “lands” to have all their vital functions stop.
Wacky Factor: Still fretting over how to tell Peter that he’s from the alternate universe, Walter wasn’t so much “wacky” as he was distracted. Rather than acting normal around his son, Walter has taken to ignoring him or simply looking at him oddly whenever he says anything. In other words, Walter is the last guy you’d want to share a secret with — his poker face is absolutely terrible. Still, Walter did have a great moment when he insisted, in his typically deadpan way, on inspecting the underwear of the dead commuters because “during sudden death, victims often experience a sudden bladder release of urine.” Beat. “And sometimes excrement.”
Paranoia Level: Medium-to-High. Fringe’s weekly weirdo/bad guy tends to be played by a forgettable character actor, so there was little reason to think that Weller’s guest spot would be any different, especially since Mr. RoboCop can sometimes lean too heavily on his odd-dude shtick. Much to our surprise, though, Weller’s Peck was a restrained, coldly brilliant man who seemed to be Walter’s intellectual soul mate. This, of course, was by design, since last night’s episode tried mightily to “ironically” mirror Walter’s dilemma about talking to Peter with Peck’s quest to disrupt the laws of the universe to rescue his fiancée. (See — Walter did the same thing when he saved Peter! What are the odds?!)
The rhyming of those two story lines was overly precious, but the two actors made it riveting, particularly when Walter confronted Peck man-to-man. In their exchange, where Walter warned Peck that changing the past only leads to more problems, Fringe had one of those rare moments where you got the sense that Walter was talking to someone at his own level. Perhaps not surprisingly, that kinship inspired this devoted man of science to admit to Peck that his rescuing of the alternate-universe Peter made him believe in God for the first time.
But their conversation wasn’t just an esoteric debate about faith versus science — there was an important emotional component as well. Peck’s demise after he went back in time to reunite with his fiancée might have been predictable — as Walter suggested, tampering with the past only ends in heartbreak — but that didn’t make it any less affecting in light of Walter’s warning. But even more crucially, Peck ended up being the one person Walter could talk to about Peter since both men share the pain of losing those dearest to them. One of the overriding themes of Fringe is that no matter how close Walter gets to Astrid, Dunham, and Peter, he’s always going to be his own island. Last night, he met someone much more like himself — but unfortunately for Walter, it was a very short-lived friendship.
The AV Club’s Steve Heisler (filling in for Noel Murray) dug the story’s circular plot in which Peck “restarts” the episode from the beginning, but he’s equally intrigued by the introduction of God into the overall narrative.
MTV’s Josh Wigler agrees that Weller has been one of the few Fringe actors to really go toe-to-toe with Noble.
TV Squad’s Jane Boursaw wonders whether Peck always intended to go back in time and die in the auto accident with his fiancée or if his conversation with Walter gave him the idea.
And TV Fanatic’s Agent SAHM thinks that Peter will end up forgiving his father once he learns the truth about his identity. We agree but think it’ll take several episodes for that forgiveness to occur.