Join us for our Fringe Summer re-watch, where we review every episode of Fringe during the summer hiatus. Comments are welcome as we dig into the connections made over three seasons.
Fringe is a love story
At its heart, Fringe has always been a love story. Surprise! Did you think you were watching a sci-fi show? You are of course, and like all good science fiction, Fringe shines most brightly when it reflects our image back at us through the lens of the bizarre. Whether it's the future, the past, another universe, or outer space, science fiction has a unique capability to show us who we are, endlessly illuminating our humanity against the backdrop of the weird, telling us the story of ourselves through metaphor. Fringe has become one of the most compelling sci-fi stories I've ever seen, because it never forgets that it's about love. Why is this universe worth fighting for? Why is that one worth saving? Because of the people who inhabit them: the complicated, flawed, glorious humanity that is capable of love. Of all the things humans have ever done, or will ever do, love is the finest, and the only one worth saving. Fringe is a story about a man who loved a boy so much he broke the universe to save him, and it's about that boy learning to love a man he grew up hating. It's about two people drawn together by forces that transcend worlds, and falling in love. It's a story about love strong enough to break the world, and strong enough to heal it.
6B is the story of Alice Merchant and her heartbreak at losing her husband after a lifetime spent together. It's also the story of Olivia, finally moving past her obstacles and daring to take that first step with Peter. It's the continuing story of Walter, and the consequences of his actions. It's one of Fringe's finest hours, a beautiful parable on the power and tragedy of love, and the ways in which we bear its cost.
Alice and Olivia mirror each other like bookends across time and possibility. Olivia stands at the beginning of a frightening and uncertain road, unsure if she's capable of making the journey before her, unsure if she wants to. Alice stands at the other end, love's journey completed and paying the price, her grand affair over with at last. Between the two points lie the detritus of a shared lifetime: the arguments and adventures, the darkness and uncertainty, the laughter and strength that make the most ordinary seeming relationships epic in their own right. Alice's home is littered with the evidence of abiding love, a wonderland of memories Olivia has yet to make.
At the beginning of the episode, she's not ready. After Walter's adorable attempt to set them up, Olivia's defensive with Peter, still trying to pretend that it's him she's angry with, him she doesn't trust. But in the secret places of her mind she's already aware that she's only seeking the easy path, avoiding confrontation with that part of herself that believes she's too damaged to love. Peter has been amazingly patient with her, giving her as much space as she needs to work through her emotional trauma. But he hasn't been hiding his love for her; he holds it like a torch, bright and ready for her to take up if she chooses. When she confronts him with her belief that he's been hiding things from her, he answers honestly that she's right; he's been hiding the depth of his desire for a life with her, a thing he thought he caught a glimpse of before it was taken from him too. It's a reminder that Olivia wasn't the only victim in their tragedy, and when he asks her who's stopping them now, she's forced to accept that it's only herself.
This acceptance is the beginning of a conscious struggle with herself that lasts for the rest of the episode. He's got her thinking now, and although she has no answer right away, Olivia takes the first opportunity to pursue the conversation further. On seismograph duty in the bar, she brings it up again, telling Peter that she wants to know what the beauty he described feels like. She kisses him hesitantly, for the first time since she crossed universes to bring him back to her. Olivia is an astonishingly strong woman, possessed of rare courage and determination, risking her life time after time to protect other people. Love, however, requires a different kind of courage, and when she opens her eyes the glimmer surrounding him informs her that she hasn't found it yet. She retreats in confusion, and when he follows her out it's her turn to come clean – she's afraid.
It's not about Peter; she knows she can trust him, and she's no longer afraid of any lingering feelings he might have for her deceptive doppelganger. She's afraid of herself, afraid that she's lost the ability to be vulnerable, that she's become too closed to love, and the shutters may be rusted shut. Walter and Bell intended to make soldiers out of the children they experimented on, human weapons to guard their world. What if they succeeded too well? What if the reintroduction of Cortexiphan into her system and the resulting activation of her abilities, combined with the psychological trauma she's endured, has somehow numbed her to the point that she's no longer capable of letting anyone in? She's afraid that she's fallen too far down the slope of isolation to be able to pull herself back up, no matter how badly she wants to.
And she does want to. Peter loves her, simply and unequivocally. He's waiting for her lead, but his love is proffered, extended like a hand ready to pull her out of the darkness. All she has to do is take it, but first she has to remember how to reach out. Ironically, it's the inevitable pain love brings that reminds her.
Love always ends in grief. As inevitably as time, pain follows love like night follows day. It's the price we pay for the most precious thing we have. The cost is high, unbearably so, but we pay it because we can't help ourselves. We're made to love, and the knowledge that love and grief are inextricably connected reminds us to treasure it while we can, because sooner or later it has to end. Whether we're given a few days or a lifetime, we remain mortal, and even if we weather all the other slings and arrows that can break us apart, death will separate us in the end. There is no light without darkness, and if there was the light would have no meaning.
Alice Merchant is paying the price of a lifetime of love and happiness. She tells Olivia that after Derek died, she couldn't get out of bed. They'd been together for nearly forty-five years, and he was part of her. When he was gone her life was so empty that she wanted to die too, and when he came back to her it was a miracle she didn't question. She hurries home just to see him again, glimmering spectrally in her living room. She ignores the strange happenings around her, guarding her secret, willing to stay while the world falls down around her if she can only look at him for awhile longer. Her pain is devastating to watch, as are Derek's attempts to communicate across the vastness of loss. “There's so much more to tell you,” he says, “things I never got a chance to say."
Time catches us all out in the end. Even after forty-five years, there's never enough time.
Alice and Derek were two halves of a whole, their connection so strong that their grief for each other threatens the weakened fabric of the worlds. When Olivia tells Alice that the man she sees is not her husband and she must let him go, she cannot accept the loss, clinging desperately to love like a woman drowning. In the penultimate moments of the episode, Peter intervenes, telling Alice with utter sincerity that "you've already had what most of us only dream of: a lifetime with the person that you love. Look around you, your entire house is filled with mementos, ticket stubs, evidence of a life shared with somebody. Proof that what you and Derek had was true and real. And I know that when you have something so real you'll do anything to keep from losing it, but please, you have to let him go." Even so, it's only when Derek mentions the daughters they never had that the truth penetrates, and Alice is forced to admit that her Love is really gone, severing the connection and closing the vortex that threatens to swallow them all.
Peter's words are exactly what Olivia needed to hear. His conviction that Alice's life with Derek was worth the pain of losing him is the final blow to the walls she's built around herself, shattering the ice inside her soul. This is what he wants with her: newspapers and coffee and ticket stubs and photographs, mornings and nights and memories and life. He wants to share it with her, and she's been the one stopping him. But he's thawed her frozen self, and she's aware that she wants those things too, with him, because she is capable of love, and she's in love with Peter. And if it breaks her heart in the end, she'll have had him for a little while. It's all anyone can ask.
Later that night she's made peace with herself, and is ready at last to make peace with him. When she kisses him it's deliberate, and he can't help but sigh with relief. When the doubt tries to surface she quashes it firmly. Love is risk made certain, but life is meaningless without it, and she's kept him waiting long enough. She breaks the kiss before he's ready, and steps back a little to look at him. When he asks if he's glowing she smiles wistfully and answers no. He's filled with a different light, made of love and hope and possibility, and she's awestruck and humbled in its presence. She offers him her hand, and they climb up out of her darkness together.
Walter starts out the episode happy and singing about blueberry pancakes. He's missed Olivia the last couple of weeks, and he hates seeing her and Peter unhappy. His romantic breakfast trap is absolutely endearing, to the two of them as well as to us. When he realizes the nature of the disturbances at the Rosencrantz, he becomes agitated and uncharacteristically waspish, snapping at everyone except Olivia. In her current emotional state, she's as ephemeral as a wisp of smoke and he doesn't want her to drift away from them; he lowers his voice when he speaks to her. His distress is caused by the knowledge that this side is beginning to decay as rapidly as the other, and he has no better answer than Walternate. He's facing having to unleash amber on his world just to hold it together for a little while longer. Overriding Broyles' objections about public reaction, Walter is the one to point out that the reaction will be much worse if half of Brooklyn is swallowed up by an inter-dimensional vortex. It's a grimly sane observation. He's already showing signs of the change September was looking for. He watches without objection as Olivia and Peter enter the Rosencrantz to talk to Alice, and although he can't bring himself to do it, he's willing to tell Broyles how to activate the amber, despite the fact that his children are inside.
He's beginning to see a world worth saving beyond Peter. Only trouble is, he doesn't know how to save it. When Nina tells him that he'd better start learning, he takes her hand and holds it wordlessly against his heart.
- Shakespeare: The Rosencrantz building is named after the character from Hamlet. Alice 's last name is Merchant, a reference to The Merchant of Venice. Derek Jacobi is an internationally renowned classical actor. Among his many Shakespearean roles was that of the treasonous Claudius in Kenneth Branagh's 1996 Hamlet.
- Rosencrantz: In Stoppard's play, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead, Rosencrantz wins ninety-two coin tosses in a row, each of them coming up heads, leading Gildenstern to speculate that there may be “un, sub, or supernatural” forces at work. The title characters are portrayed as powerless over the events that sweep them along, yet sentient enough to realize that they are pawns of fate. Their memories are faulty and incomplete. At the end of the play (and occurring offstage in Hamlet itself,) Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are betrayed by Hamlet and left holding a letter that orders the execution of it's bearers. Awaiting execution for no crime, Gildenstern wonders why they must die: “Was it all for this? Who are we that so much should converge on our little deaths?” Answers the Tragedian: “You are Rosencrantz and Gildenstern and that is enough.”
- Alice: another among many references to Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.
- There's a lot of music in this one. Walter's idea of mood music is Feelings. The consummation song is Lou Reed's lovely Pale Blue Eyes. Peter tells Olivia a hilariously disturbing story about Walter's clothing optional rendition of Never Gonna Give You Up, to which she responds that she loves Barry White. Peter told Fauxlivia that he'd never heard her express any interest in music.
- At the bar, Peter plays For Once in My Life, the song sung by Olivia in Brown Betty.
- Violet Sedan Chair: (She's Doing Fine) She really does look a LOT like Alice. Alice Merchant could easily be Olivia in forty years.
- Walter refers to the idea of emotional quantum entanglement as “spooky action at a distance.”In physics, action at a distance refers to the interaction of separate objects with no observable means of interacting. As Peter puts it: “Two objects interacting with each other even though they're separated by a great distance.” “Action at a distance” is a line from Seven Suns (Rising).
Odds and Ends
- The awning outside the Rosencrantz building says Tulip Food, and there's a vase full of White Tulips on Alice's end table.
- Mrs. Marcello is leaving the Rosencrantz for less haunted territory. Her destination is the Schrödinger Hotel.
- The concept of Soul Magnets is introduced here. Walter says that used to argue with William Bell about what happened to the energy of the body after death. Bell theorized that the energy could be captured. He said if he were right he'd contact Walter from the great beyond, but Walter hasn't gotten the call. Yet.
- Walter demonstrates the impending vortex by tapping a piece of glass with a hammer. The fracture pattern is nearly identical to the pattern of Fringe events around the soft spots in New York and Providence, shown in There's More Than One of Everything. As if to make certain we notice this, there's a monitor showing both cities with their surrounding patterns in the office where Peter, Walter and Olivia are discussing the possibility of emotional quantum entanglement.
- Olivia's fear that she's lost the ability to love reminds me strongly of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy periodically worries that the burden and isolation of being the slayer is making her too hard to form normal bonds with people.
- The initialization sequence on the amber canister blinks GGGR.
- February eighteenth is officially second guess everything Walter does day, so sayeth me.
If Peter didn't exist...
Peter was instrumental in preventing the vortex at the Rosencrantz. Again, he refuses to accept the accelerating entropy and insists that “There's gotta be another way.” It was Peter who insisted on finding a reason for the incidents, rather than simply ambering the place over. He's the one who questioned why Alice could see the other side, and why she could only see Derek. And it was he who guessed that it must have been the other Alice who lost the coin toss, leading directly to the conclusion that it was human emotion causing a rift between worlds. And even before Derek mentioned his daughters, Alice was listening to him. If it hadn't been for Peter, our side would have either seen its first amber quarantine, or its first gaping wound.