Dr. Bell, Houdini’s Last Trick, and the Immortal Game ~ Fringe Television - Fan Site for the FOX TV Series Fringe

Dr. Bell, Houdini’s Last Trick, and the Immortal Game

      Email Post       4/11/2011 12:57:00 PM      

This Fringe article is by guest contributor "Count Screwloose":

If You Think This Universe Is Bad, You Should See Some Of The Others

There are children playing in the streets who could solve some of my top problems in physics, because they have modes of sensory perception that I lost long ago.
- J. Robert Oppenheimer

"Must a name mean something?" Alice asked doubtfully.
- Through The Looking Glass

Patterns of light and dark. A reconciliation of opposites. A full circle.

As we enter the home stretch of FRINGE’s extraordinary third season, it seems like a good time to assess what went on, why, and where we could possibly be going. And it’s not that I’m interested so much in providing specific answers as I am in trying to swim around in what was kicked up, thrown out, and otherwise spread out on the table this time around. FRINGE has a tendency to “hat tip” or sometimes weave in familiar sci-fi voices and tropes and identifying them can be simply a fun sort of parlor game, but I think it can also be a way of foreshadowing events to come or even a method of offering different ways of reading the show if viewers are inclined to do so.

So let’s have a look at a few of the things that may or may not have any relevance as we slide into home plate. Consider them ports of call or points for discussion.

For me, thinking about Season Three began with this dialogue at the end of Season Two:

Walter, you asked me why I took out part of your brain. I did it because you asked me to. Because of what you were becoming.

What in the world did William Bell mean? And what could poor, dotty Walter Bishop be capable of becoming? Why would anyone be concerned? Clearly, though, Walter Bishop himself was concerned and the obvious answer was that he felt himself losing his moral compass and feared becoming something he might not be able to stop. In short, something like Walternate. From here, of course, it’s a short step to wondering what the two Walters might have in common and, more importantly, why.

And if Walter was capable of becoming something that scared even himself, what was preventing Walternate, seemingly a much more amoral individual, from already beating him to it?

Logic dictated, then, that if the two Walters ever managed to pool their collective power and intellect, they might become something the world had good need to fear.

And from there:

Had they ever been…one Walter?

The War Of The Worlds

Nature doesn't recognize good and evil, Philip. Nature only recognizes balance and imbalance.
- Walter Bishop, Secretary of Defense

Nature abhors a vacuum.
- Spinoza

By the time Season Three began, word had got out that we’d be traveling back and forth between the universes and there was much talk from the producers and the actors that they’d slowly be demonstrating that the characters we knew and their doppelgangers from Over There had far more in common than we might have suspected. It seemed clear that each week would bring a slow reconciliation of what we’d originally thought were opposites. When you considered that this was happening on a television show, where white hats and black hats are standard issue, not to mention a show that had a tenuous grip on being renewed (to say the least), it seemed a particularly brave move to make.

The audience was going to be asked to deal with a certain amount of moral ambiguity, something that really hadn’t been popular since the post-Watergate era (if then!). They’d have to consider that the “Other Side” (consider the deeper meanings of that phrase, too, in the sense of dehumanizing a group in order to see them as an enemy) contained people who might feel the same way we do. FRINGE can be read as a parable about war, if you like, about two sides and what either has to lose or gain. The shadow of war, particularly World War Two, and what people are capable of doing in the name of it is never far from the show (“Because of what you were becoming”).

At any rate, by the second or third episode I had my Unified Fringe Theory all sewn up. Well, not all sewn up but roughly sketched and it went something like this:

At some point in time, Over Here and Over There comprised a single universe. Its original timeline spun out to a point that was so horrendous, so inhumane and unbearable, that it was determined by The Observers that it must be changed and never allowed to come to pass. To this end, the universe was split in two at the earliest possible moment of its existence, in this case during that period of time when the First People were running the show.

(I can hear you snickering, by the way. But this was a first pass and, besides, you’ve got your own theories, too!)

I’m a little uncertain of the genesis (I’m choosing my words here carefully!) of The Vacuum that accomplished this, but let’s say it was technology that belonged to The Observers or First People or even, somehow, William Bell. What is important is that the force of tearing the universe in two destroyed the First People (save for…well, we’ll see). The purpose of The Vacuum is to keep the two sides forever apart and as a precaution, the pieces of it were scattered as far from each other as possible, in hopes of preventing anyone from ever activating it again. If they were to do so, both sides would once again become one and mankind would suffer an unthinkable fate.

Another precaution: the same DNA used to operate it the first time would be required to run it again.

But here’s where it gets interesting: I don’t think Walter Bishop’s visit to the Other Side is responsible for the degradation between the sides or, rather, that if he is, it’s only as a tool of what we’ll call (for lack of a better term) Nature. The entire point of the third season has been to present a dramatic version of the old Nature Vs. Nurture argument: how much of these people’s personalities are innate and how much has been brought about by their environment? Well, what if the sundering of a universe in two is the ultimate crime against Nature? What if even The Vacuum can only do so much in the face of so much natural force and two sides torn apart are going to have to join back together again eventually?

It could be, then, that regardless of how much free will someone thinks they have, someone or something could be pulling the strings. Let’s say Nature refuses to stop until it has set things back to their natural state, as awful as that may be. Then a Walter Bishop, an Olivia Dunham, maybe even an Observer, could all be unwitting marionettes in the service of something greater than they know. Nature, as Walternate correctly point out, is dispassionate. It may benefit mankind to split it in two, as it did the atom, but who knows what terrible power that may unleash?

If we follow this possibility, other questions worth asking might be whether or not all of the Observers, up to this point seen as the major puppeteers on the show, are working towards the same ends. If there are so-called “rogue Observers,” could some be dedicated to reversing what The Vacuum accomplished? What if preventing Walternate from finding a cure for Peter was completely intentional? Who are the puppets and who are the puppeteers?

Well, that was the theory. Sort of. I’m not so sure about it now.

Through The Looking Glass, And What Alice Found There

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Arthur C. Clarke

So many out-of-the-way things had happened lately, that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.
- Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland

What was clear was that many of the answers were probably tied up with the show’s most mysterious character, Sam Weiss. We knew very little about him other than the fact that he liked to speak in zen parables and coded messages.

Let’s talk a little bit about 6B.

Yeah, you remember it, the one with the ghosts and the soul magnets.

The thing that struck me about it the most, aside from the sly Ghostbusters jokes it managed to slip in, was the pains it seemed to take to bring up the ghost of someone in particular:

Harry Houdini.

Now why in the world would a show so concerned with science and multiverses go out of its way to point viewers in the direction of the 20th century’s most celebrated magician?

I think the reason lies precisely in the Arthur C. Clarke quote sitting just above. If you’re going to discuss science then you had better get around to discussing magic. Magic can be Science’s doppelganger, if you like. Anything that resembles a miracle only remains so until it is explained.

As soon as Walter and Peter had this exchange:

Walter: Belly and I used to argue about this constantly - what happens to the body's energy after death. William theorized we should be able to capture that energy using what he called “soul magnets.”
Peter: It's a catchy name.
Walter: He said if he were right, he would contact me from The Great Beyond. I haven't gotten the call yet.

I immediately thought of Houdini, who famously promised his wife that if there were any way at all for him to contact her after his death, he would do so. Of course, the plot of 6B takes this famous story and demonstrates what might have happened if he’d succeeded. It’s no coincidence that the episode presents us with a husband contacting his wife from what appears to be “The Great Beyond.” Bess Houdini held a séance every Halloween for ten years after her husband’s death in hopes that he would find a way to speak the secret message they’d agreed upon, a coded message that spelled out simply:


Cut to my perusing a book on the great escape artist a couple of months ago and discovering that Houdini, whose real name was Erik Weisz (he would change the spelling to Ehrich Weiss – the Houdini he would borrow from the great French magician Robert-Houdin) had a father who was a rabbi. A rabbi named Mayer Samuel Weiss.

Sam Weiss.

Things were getting curiouser and curiouser.

Why name Sam Weiss after Houdini’s father? Yes, it establishes the fathers-and-sons motif, not to mention the interesting tableau of a religious man whose son goes on to perform feats that appear to be miracles. But could it mean anything beyond a hat tip? Was there a hidden Houdini amongst our cast of characters and, if so, were he and Weiss related in any significant way?

It’s hard not to consider the possibility that Peter Bishop is meant as a gloss on Harry Houdini. From the coinplay that one identifies with close-up sleight-of-hand magic, to his enthusiasm for airplanes and, finally, his upcoming date with what appears to be an unbreakable and unbeatable trap that offers no possibility of escape. Are we meant to draw a parallel between The Vacuum and the many “death-traps” that made the magician famous? Like Houdini, Peter is always pulling a secret key out of somewhere that allows Fringe Division to break through some barrier in their case.

He, in some ways, is nearly as mysterious as Weiss.

Cab driver Henry Higgins similarly knows “a lot of shortcuts.” If he’s meant as a hat tip to Shaw’s Pygmalion because he ends up dealing with two different but identical women, it’s an awkward one: our Henry isn’t responsible for anyone’s transformation. What if his initials are meant to make us consider the possibility that he is our Houdini and that he knows much more than he is letting on?

What any of this may mean I’ll leave to you. But it certainly has some interesting implications.

Although Houdini initially became famous for illusions, he became nearly as famous for debunking psychics and phony spiritualists. He offered cash to any medium (“psychics” who claimed they could contact the dead and allow them to speak through them – Bellivia, anyone?) who could prove themselves authentic and never had to pay out a single cent. One fan of his, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, better known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a great believer in spiritualism and Houdini’s insistence on exposing those individuals who professed to have psychic powers caused an irrevocable break between the two. Doyle was so torn, in fact, between his faith in Houdini and his faith in spiritualism that he claimed that Houdini’s psychic powers were so great that they allowed him to block the powers of lesser mediums, making them only appear to be fake!

Now that is belief.

And although he wasn’t the only inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes, I think it’s generally agreed that the main inspiration can be said to be a gentlemen whose powers of observation greatly impressed the young writer-to-be.

A Dr. Bell.

(Robert-Houdin) walked into the audience and touched items that the audience held up and his blindfolded assistant, played by his son, described each one in detail…Eventually (he) changed the method so instead of asking his son what was in his hands, he simply rang a bell. This stunned those that suspected a spoken code. He would even set the bell off to the side and remain silent and his son still described every object handed to his father.
- Wikipedia

A Game Of You or: The Simulacra

The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country.
- J. Robert Oppenheimer

God does not play dice.
- Albert Einstein

If I’ve tried to make any point up to now, it’s basically that FRINGE enjoys setting opposites against each other (and sometimes inside each other!) to demonstrate the nature of paradox and to show that sometimes one extreme is closer to the other extreme than it is to the middle, in the way that a circle is.

A full circle.

The subjects of faith and reason and belief and science and magic and miracles and good and evil come up again and again, making different patterns each time. It’s why I have to smile every time I see someone complain in print that the show has completely dropped talking about “The Pattern.” “Where’s The Pattern?” they cry, “What happened to that?”

The show is now about nothing but patterns: the patterns that result every time a decision is made; the complications that ensue when a good person tries to seek redemption; the tragedies that happen merely because someone went left instead of right or up instead of down.

Two identical sides lined up one against the other?

It’s such an obvious parallel that I’m surprised I haven’t seen it discussed more: Season Three has been a chess game. Not only that, but a very specific chess game. You’re probably already familiar with it:

Computer: New entry. A Mr. J. F. Sebastian. 1-6-4-1-7.
Tyrell: At this hour? What can I do for you, Sebastian?
Sebastian: Queen to Bishop 6. Check.
Tyrell: Nonsense. Just a moment. Mmm. Queen to Bishop 6. Ridiculous. Queen to Bishop 6. Hmm... Knight takes Queen. -- What's on your mind, Sebastian? What are you thinking about?
Roy: (whispered) Bishop to King 7. Checkmate.
Sebastian: Bishop to King 7. Checkmate, I think.
Tyrell: Got a brainstorm, huh, Sebastian? Milk and cookies kept you awake, huh? Lets discuss this. You better come up, Sebastian.
Sebastian: Mr. Tyrell, I - I brought a friend.
Tyrell: I'm surprised you didn't come here sooner.
Roy: It's not an easy thing to meet your maker.

It won’t surprise anyone that this exchange is from Blade Runner, a film which has informed a great deal of what’s gone on this season, not the least of which has been the question that so much of Philip K. Dick’s fiction posed: What Is Human? It takes place just before the replicant Roy Batty murders his “father,” so to speak, after demanding that he somehow increase his lifespan. The chess game itself is quite real and quite legendary. Known popularly as “The Immortal Game,” the following description (from the Histories Of Things To Come blog, which also provided the BR transcript) could be instructive to anyone looking to puzzle out where this season is heading:

The chess game in Blade Runner is taken from a famous real chess game played by chess masters Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky in London at Simpson's on the Strand in 1851. It was dubbed the 'Immortal Game' in 1855 by Austrian chess master Ernst Falkbeer. Considered one of the greatest chess games in history, it is noted because the winner, Anderssen, boldly moved across the board, sacrificing his major pieces, apparently barrelling toward defeat. He gave up both rooks, a bishop and his queen in order to surprise his opponent at the last second, cornering and defeating him with three minor pieces. The Immortal Game, in other words, is synonymous with an all-or-nothing credo. It represents a willingness to sacrifice almost everything in exchange for attaining one big goal, even if that means you're left with almost nothing at the end.

Bishop 6…Queen to Bishop 6. 6B? And if one were to transpose the B with its numeric equivalent: 6:02. Checkmate?

Two things are especially noteworthy here, I think: one is that the game calls for the sacrifice of a Bishop. Another is that the game consisted of 22 exchanges of play (each player taking a turn) with the winner making a 23rd move.

In other words, the precise number of episodes in a season.

Anyone interested in seeing how closely each episode hews to the moves in The Immortal Game are welcome to do so, although I imagine the parallels are probably looser than the already arbitrary ones we know from Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass, a book which has already provided FRINGE with a good deal of inspiration (I imagine it’s how the Other Side received a Red Queen!). It’d certainly be interesting to see somebody make a case for it, though.

It may also explain the deluge of Twin Peaks references that have consistently been popping up on the show since The Firefly. The last half of that show’s second and final season took the form of a bizarre chess game between Special Agent Dale Cooper and the mad Windom Earle.

With two characters named Bishop, of course, it’s tempting to read any description of a chess move and consider how it applies to the show. Just a random Google search:

The bishop can play a supporting role for a queen similar to that of the knight in the previous example. While the queen delivers the checkmate, the bishop can support the queen from afar.
- Ten Basic Checkmates To Know


The easiest checkmate to get with a King and two minor pieces versus a lone King is the one in which your two minor pieces are both bishops.
- The Two Bishops

So it’s easy to overread. But a no-holds-barred match that also appears in  Blade Runner and which is known as The Immortal Game?

Pass the Occam’s Razor, please. We are moving towards Checkmate.

Don’t you usually identify Pawns by their little round bald heads?

Tyrell: The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. And you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy. Look at you. You're the prodigal son. You're quite a prize!
Roy: I've done questionable things.

The Shape Of Things To Come or: Now Wait For Last Year

Broyles: Doctor Bishop, do you have any idea why this machine would or could be configured for Peter, why it would respond to him?
Walter: I know that this machine is dangerous.
Broyles: Which is why we need to understand it. If it is indeed a threat -
Walter: - then to ignore it would be irresponsible. I've heard that argument before. That's what you people told Oppenheimer when you discovered that the Nazis were working on a bomb. And how do you think he slept after his little invention had killed hundreds of thousands in a fraction of a second?
- “The Box”

Scully: I'm sure all the necessary precautions will be taken.
Mulder: And I'm sure that Robert Oppenheimer got similar reassurances from his government.
- “Soft Light”

Chess, of course, is really a stylized way of playing War, which brings us back to where we began, I think. As the show makes its final moves for the season, the mood feels (quite appropriately for this show) simultaneously darker and lighter, for as everyone’s fate appears to become grimmer, there is a growing sense that miracles, however strange, have begun to manifest themselves for better or worse. The horror appears to be counterbalanced by magic the further we go down the road. Good things come from bad intentions and, as we know, good intentions, well…

They don’t always result in good things.

If we take The Immortal Game as a template (you have to love that name in this context!), many pieces will have to be sacrificed in order to win the game. How many and whom remains to be seen.

So whither Season Four, then? How realistic an expectation is it that the season would actually conclude in a reconciliation of two worlds?

From almost every possible standpoint, this would be an even braver move to make than any of those made in Season Three. You’d be presenting a show that takes place somewhere we’ve never been and peopled with characters we’ve never really met (although arguably, if the characters we know are merely halves of the individuals they were intended to be, we haven’t really met anyone yet). And this would be on a show that only just managed to slip its head out of the ratings noose.

So I think there’s room for doubt. And yet, what other possible answer can there be?

There are some clues. The producers have said that the season will come “full circle.” It’s a very interesting choice of phrase. It has an obvious meaning, some sort of satisfying way of having the plot cash a check written by the first episodes of the season, but what else? Doesn’t it also imply something linear being turned into a loop, possibly even repeating itself? Does it mean that Time, a linear concept, might be as important to this upcoming season as Space was to this one, not to mention as malleable? Is that why the months in the First People’s book consist of so many different lengths? What would it mean if different realities ran at different rates of speed? And take another look at that official network publicity shot for Season Three.

It’s Walter, Peter, and Olivia placed against the backdrop of…a full circle. A full circle that reveals the Other Side from inside the soft spot that allowed them to cross over.

What does it mean? I haven’t the faintest. But they’re not in front of a circle for no reason.

Another clue: the episode devoted to the birth of Peter and Olivia’s baby was entitled “Bloodline.”

In all of history, only a few bloodlines have been found to be ready for the work of our body. Only very few of those of the right lines are capable of dealing with the responsibility…

Welcome back to the ZFT Manuscript. Just when you thought it was safe…

Go back and read the excerpts we’ve seen of the manuscript. It’s all right, we’ll wait.

I’d forgotten what an uncomfortable read it is. The insistence on the survival of the fittest and the process of natural selection, bloodlines and eugenics, and the worthlessness of the social contract and morality itself.

When I had initially considered what this (possibly) divided reality might have (possibly) originally consisted of, I felt that it was the thing that Walter Bishop was becoming that was the key to it. Separately, one would safely concentrate on science while the other would look after affairs of state. The more their Walter began to behave like a scientist and the more our Walter became something like a Secretary of Defense, however, the more likely and frightening the possibility of their merging seemed to become. Put them together and what have you got? A living embodiment of the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned about. A genius with complete social control. An all-powerful dictator who might put one in mind of the spectre of Nazi Germany and that’s a spectre that FRINGE has had in the background for quite some time. The ZFT manuscript certainly flirts with the idea of a master race and who should or shouldn’t be allowed to live.

Or, perhaps, evolve. Becoming is another word for evolving. Think of Walter evolving backwards thanks to the Chimp DNA he used in an attempt to become smarter. Think of the DNA all over the picture of The Vacuum.

So, going in, this is where I’m at: the Fourth Season is the Season of Time and an Evolutionary War. Think of the plot of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (Wells, by the way, believed in theories of eugenics): I don’t think our upcoming war is between our worlds but, rather, between beings who are more evolved and those who are less evolved. Is Ella’s name a signpost meant to point us towards “Eloi”? Does Peter and Olivia’s child represent a new evolutionary step? Is the important question not Where are we? but When are we? Anyone who holds the keys to Time holds the keys to Evolution.

Why do we have a character, Lincoln Lee, whose name seems to suggest a reconciliation between the two sides that fought the Civil War? Who was his father, the late jurist? Why does he recognize Nick Lane? Why does he seem to fit so neatly into the space that might have been Peter’s on the Other Side?

Something else: I don’t think the William Bell purporting to be operating Olivia Dunham right now is who he says he is. I think you would usually have better luck finding this mysterious puppeteer in the vicinity of a bowling alley. I bet he can manage this trick on both sides as well.

One can, of course, play these games forever. Is Peter meant as a Christ figure? The cruciform of The Vacuum that awaits him certainly leaves that interpretation open. Curious how the comic book covers that Walternate had framed for him all seem to deal with beginnings and endings (or, rather, death and resurrection). If a man decides to play God, is his son fated to play the Son of God?

In the end, it probably isn’t too wise to identify any of these characters with specific people, living, dead, or fictional. For instance, to consider Walter Bishop to be purely an analogue for Robert Oppenheimer would be to reduce the meaning of the character and the story.

Although Oppenheimer did have a son named Peter.

The White Queen lives backwards in time, due to the fact that she lives through the looking glass.
- Wikipedia

If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of the nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. The people of this world must unite or they will perish.
- J. Robert Oppenheimer

You see, family is very important to me. There's nothing I wouldn't do.
- Walter Bishop


Josh said...

Fantastic article! I loved reading every word of this. Extremely provocative and well-researched! Bravo!

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to add that the name of Water's father is Robert, just a thought

Anonymous said...

Sam Weiss: "I hope you have nothing against the color red"

Count Screwloose said...

More than kind, Josh, thanks! Glad you liked it!

Anon 1: As in Robert-Houdin? Hadn't considered that! Check out the HH that flanks the yellow brick road on the cover of "Seven Suns," too...

Anon 2: Olivia surely has something against the color red at the moment! Maybe she has to get past that in order to save the day, in fact, perhaps forgiveness is the key to saving all of FRINGE's characters. And where there is forgiveness, of course, there must be...white tulips.

fringeobsessed said...

Nice to see you in this group here. :)
I'm used to seeing you Over There, haha.

Anonymous said...

Extremely well articulated, insightful and mind-blowing! What an awesome read for us Fringe addicts during the nerve-wrecking hiatus! :)

FringeFrogee said...

So much more to think about, you wonder when these guys have time to write the episodes, there is just so much going on underneath. I might have to print this out and ponder. Thank you CS.

Count Screwloose said...

fringeobsessed: Surely by now you knew there was more than one of everything! ;)

Anon: Thank you so much, so glad you enjoyed it! Writing it helped me with the wait, too!

FringeFrogee: You're welcome, thanks for reading it! I'm always surprised when I discover another layer or someone points out something I'd missed previously. Of course, my guesses could be way off the mark but part of the fun is considering all the (im)possibilities!

amz said...

Wow, extremely well written! I just LOVE your ideas on Houdini, the beginnings of S3 being about nature vs nuture, and the Immortal Game (studied Blade Runner in depth for my final exams!). The whole 6B - 6.02am, a bit mindblowing, when you point it out it's just whoa! Everything fits so well!

amz said...

Double post- One thing that immediately jumped to mind when you mentioned 'full circle', I read a theory the other day that future Peter goes back in time some time in the final ep arc and prevents/stops the initial Olivia switch. No spoilers, this was just pure fan speculation (one of those 'wouldn't it be cool if...'). After reading this it sounds even more possible!

Count Screwloose said...

amz: Thanks so much for saying! "Blade Runner" (or PKD's original novel) has certainly made itself felt this year. And if Deckard is a replicant and Peter is Deckard (at least in "Reciprocity"), then is Peter less than human? Is someone else? Why is Olivia Dunham an anagram for Humanoid Vial? (OK, that one's a reach!) I've seen other theories involving an equally famous PKD novel (yet to be filmed) that I might not write off, either! ;)

The Future Peter theory is an interesting one, but seems a little too easy. Would the show merely press a reset button like that, and wouldn't we face the same set of problems? And where would it leave Peter Jr., who might be the real threat down the road in a TERMINATOR sense? What if Peter (due to some complex time-traveling thing) turns out to somehow be Robert Bischoff and the show's father/son dynamic gets turned on its head when we find out that Peter is Walter's father?

OK, I'm confusing myself. I still think forgiveness is going to be the key word as the remainder of this season unfolds.

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