Walter Bishop (John Noble) asked for a sign that God would forgive him. Specifically, he requested a white tulip because it didn’t grow during that time of year. Receiving one would be an unusual-enough occurrence to signal a miracle of sorts.
Why was Walter asking God’s forgiveness during this season two episode of the sci-fi TV series “Fringe?” As a formerly atheistic, ends-justifies-the-means scientist who worshiped his own intellect – once even declaring, “There’s only room for one God in this lab” – Walter finally acknowledged God’s existence after discovering an alternate universe in which his young son, Peter, didn’t die from a fatal disease.
Though he was motivated by love, Walter broke the laws of physics and the laws of conscience by kidnapping Peter from that universe and raising him as his own. Those choices eventually drove him into a mental asylum, until he was recruited by the F.B.I.’s Fringe Science Division years later, allowing him to reconnect with Peter (Joshua Jackson), along with the agent who would become like a daughter to him, Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv). When Walter received his white tulip, he saw it as a sign that he could be forgiven by both God and Peter.
That white tulip came into play once again in Season Five in the “Fringe” series finale, reflecting both God’s continued presence and the ways in which Walter had changed in the ensuing years. It was a change grounded in the selfless love of his son.
In the Beginning
When “Fringe” began five years ago, I gave it a chance because it was created by J.J. Abrams,who had also created “Lost,” my favorite show at the time. I liked Abrams’ work because, even though the stories could turn dark, there was always an element of hope at their foundation, an acknowledgment that good would beat evil in the end even if there was a cost.
Abrams work also tends to include an acknowledgment and appreciation of “mystery,” reflected in his life by an unopened “mystery box” of magic tricks he bought as a kid. In explaining why he never opened it, he said at a TED conference, “It represents infinite possibility. It represents hope; it represents potential… mystery is the catalyst for imagination… maybe there are times where mystery is more important than knowledge.”
“Fringe” sought its own identity during its first season and part of its second. At first, it felt reminiscent of “The X Files” with its monster-of-the-week stories, frequent goriness, and hinted-at mythology. Yet the main characters of Peter, Walter and Olivia were so well written and acted – and even hysterically funny at times – that they mattered more than the scripts’ occasional shortcomings. Like a lot of the best stories, this one was about the creation of a family and all the challenges that entails. (Plus, Walter had a pet cow named Gene, which is always a plus.)
It was during Season Two that “Fringe” found its true path, following the repercussions of Walter’s “breaking the universe” and how it affected the people he loved, along with many innocent victims. “Fringe” still had mysteries of the week, but they fit seamlessly into that larger plotline and mythology.
In a sense, “Fringe” took the opposite track of “Lost” which began as a very focused show in its first season, then created a much more sprawling storyline in order to sustain multi-year storytelling. As much as I loved “Lost,” I admit they untangled too many plot threads that were never tied up.
“Fringe,” on the other hand, started off unsure of itself, then became more focused as time went on. Though it created a new plotline for its final season, it also tied up some old ones, bringing back elements and characters from all its previous seasons. Major credit goes to the various Executive Producers over its five year history including co-creators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, Bryan Burk, Joe Chapelle, Jeff Pinkner, and J.H. Wyman.
The God and Science Factor
Best of all, the show addressed themes like sacrifice, scientific ethics, and God throughout its run – not typical fare for network television. Christians often complain that there aren’t any shows on TV that reflect their values. Yet “Fringe” tackled themes that are incredibly relevant to our times and our lives as Christians. I’m left to wonder why it didn’t garner a huge audience among the religious. Was it because the faithful couldn’t see through the sci-fi/horror aspects? The genre may not be to everybody’s taste, but for a certain type of viewer, it’s a great entry point to exploring the show’s deeper moral and spiritual facets, especially on DVD.
As Houston Chronicle writer Ken Chitwood recently commented:
“The spiritual appeared on the periphery from time-to-time. Then there were the glyphs, the frogs and leaves blipping on the screen at commercial breaks. Decoded, some of them read, “grace” or “faith,” “hope” and “love.” Other times, the divine overtones were more direct, as Walter confessed a former atheism only to reveal a renewed sense of a need for forgiveness that ultimately lead him to kneel before a cross and beg God to spare humanity from his faulty experimentations. Most intriguing is when Fringe’s plot-lines challenged the very science that in every episode seemed the savior. Throughout the show, the characters and villains pressed the margins of science and reality and inadvertently revealed science’s limits and more pointedly, the dangers of science’s blindly devoted disciples.”
No Greater Love
I’ve written about this season’s storyline and themes several times, but the love of family was once again at the show’s heart. Peter and Olivia had an emotional reunion with their now-adult daughter, Etta, who was stolen from them by the Observers when she was a child. They worked with her for several episodes in her role as a rebel leader, then watched her die at the hands of their enemies. Devastated by her loss, the couple wondered why they would be allowed to find her only to lose her again.
(Finale Spoilers Ahead) When Walter and the now-human Observer, September, devised a plan to reset time in a way that would prevent the Observers from ever invading, Walter knew he had to pursue it because it would give Peter and Olivia the opportunity to raise their daughter. The goal became personal once again. It wasn’t just about saving the world; it was about parents saving their child.
In order for this to happen, Walter would need to make a tremendous sacrifice. Though he wouldn’t die, it would prevent him from ever seeing Peter again. When Peter objects to losing the father he’s grown to love after so many years of resenting him, Walter responds, “I know in my soul this is what I’m supposed to do. I want you to give Olivia your daughter back. I want to give you your life back. As a father, how could I not do that for you?”
Walter was once a man willing to break the universe and allow others to suffer so he could have a son. Now he’s willing to give up his greatest happiness – his relationship with Peter – in order to bring about a greater good and a greater happiness for the people he loves. He’s come to live out the words of John 15:13, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” His actions are also reminiscent of the St. Therese quote, “Love is fed by and develops from sacrifice.” In a series finale filled with emotional moments, Walter’s scenes with Peter should earn John Noble a long-deserved Emmy.
The theme of a fathers’ love ran through the episode in other ways as well, including September’s relation to Michael, the child Observer whose existence and power could be considered the “mystery box” element of this final season. September is willing to give up everything for the opportunity to be a father to Michael, who was revealed to be his son, because “it’s about hope and protecting our children.”
And of course, Peter’s greatest wish is to be the father to Etta that he never fully had the chance to be.
We see this kind of love in daily life as well through fathers’ daily sacrifices for their children – and in extraordinary acts like Rick Van Beek carrying his cerebral palsy-afflicted daughter in triathlons. Even Lance Armstrong, who didn’t exactly give emotional apologies for his drug use, got choked up at the thought of telling his son that he had lied to him.
Consider the powerful pull all these fathers feel for their children. Then multiply it to infinity to imagine the love God the Father has for all His children – how much He desires a relationship with each of us and the selfless lengths He’ll go through to get it.
In the show’s final minutes, Walter heartwrenchingly leaves his loved ones behind as he enters the future with Michael and reboots time. The next scene is the same one that started off this final season: a young Etta in a park running toward Peter’s arms while Olivia relaxes in the background. Only in the original scene, Etta never got to Peter because the Observers invaded and took her. This time, she arrives in her father’s arms and gets a big hug from him. Walter’s plan worked. Peter got his family back.
When they all arrive home from the park, Peter finds a letter from Walter. He opens it to find a picture of a white tulip that has somehow managed to cross time and space. Peter seems not to know exactly what it means, but loyal fans of the show do: God is present and love remains.
That’s because, in the end, “Fringe” was all about a father’s love. And in the end, it’s about a Father’s love for all of us.
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