Fringe had been off the air since early February, which made last night’s episode momentous enough. But when it was revealed that the story line would divulge the background of how Walter retrieved Peter from the alternate universe 25 years ago, you could understand why fans were salivating even more for the show’s return. What we got was an episode that strayed from many of the show’s conventions and ended up being all the more satisfying for it.
The Setup: As opposed to a normal Fringe episode, which kicks off with a gruesome death caused by a bizarre virus or hidden evil, “Peter” began with Walter visiting Dunham in the middle of the night, desperate to explain why the Peter she’s always known is actually from the alternate universe.
The Revelation: The rest of the hour was an extended flashback to 1985, the time when Walter had just developed a “window” to peer into the alternate universe. With 7-year-old Peter dying from a terminal genetic disease, Walter studied the alternate-universe Walter to see if he was having any more luck coming up with a cure than he was. But after this-world Peter died, our Walter ignored the warnings of those around him and went into the alternate universe to grab the other son and bring him back to our world, convinced he had finally figured out the correct mix of chemical compounds to save the boy.
Wacky Factor: Fringe’s soberest episode ever didn’t have much time for frivolity. Still, the writers obliged us with some zaniness by revealing that in the alternate 1985, Back to the Future stars original lead Eric Stoltz. (And that world’s supposed to be more advanced than ours?) Plus, and apropos of nothing, Walter announced at one point that he’s dubbed his parallel-world doppelgänger “Walternate.”
Paranoia Level: High. Watching shows like Fringe, which are decked out with such intricate backstories, you can feel hopelessly lost at times if you can’t remember every single twist and turn that’s happened in previous episodes. But last night, a little bit of mythology amnesia turned out to be a real blessing. Not immediately remembering all the random clues that the writers had previously laid out — Peter’s memory of falling into icy water as a boy, the strange man who saved him, Nina Sharp’s bionic hand — helped make the episode especially rewarding as one by one they magically fell into place and it all came back to you. At times, “Peter” sagged from the responsibility of having to tie up so many loose ends, but from a plot standpoint it was pretty solid.
But the emotional undercurrents were the real treat. Not only did the show stray from its typical mystery/thriller structure, but it also focused almost entirely on Walter. With Joshua Jackson not making an appearance and Anna Torv only showing up during the episode’s bookends, “Peter” was really a John Noble showcase, and he didn’t disappoint.
We’re used to Walter being the zany scientist or in doting-father mode, but last night truly drove home the fact that his decision to snatch the parallel-world Peter was an act of unspeakable selfishness. If in some ways the episode was merely an excuse to connect the narrative dots of what happened long before the series began, the real revelation was that Walter’s risky venture into the parallel world didn’t just have potential cosmic repercussions, but also familial ones. While Fringe has previously focused on the fact that Walter “saved” Peter, last night we learned that in fact Walter betrayed his parallel-world wife by pretending to be her husband and stealing Peter away, lying that he would bring the boy right back. Our Walter got Peter back, but the other Walter never did.
Near the end of the episode, the Observer informs Walter that he intervened to rescue Peter from the icy water back in 1985 because “the boy is important; he has to live,” but the superb irony of “Peter” was that the Observer’s need for Peter to stay alive is entirely different than Walter’s — one involves the fabric of the universe, the other the bonds between a father and his son. Noble’s performance superbly captured the complexity of a man who did something terrible for what he thought was an honorable reason, and one can only hope that this inner tension continues to simmer for many episodes to come.
The AV Club’s Noel Murray doesn’t hedge his bets: “I’d file ‘Peter’ along with the top TV of 2010 so far.”
MTV.com’s Josh Wigler discusses the different Walters — present day, eighties, and alternate universe — and wonders how long it will be until Peter learns the truth about himself.
TV Squad’s Jane Boursaw brings up a good question: Since Walter had a funeral for this world’s Peter, wouldn’t it be difficult to explain how he suddenly has a new Peter?
And TV Fanatic’s Agent SAHM raises another good point: Did alternate-universe Walter ever figure out that his son had been taken into our world?