Fringe recap: Dark Knight Rising
Peter Bishop goes to dangerous extremes to avenge Etta and vanquish The Observers in 'An Origin Story'
Sometimes, we see what we want to see. Sometimes, we won’t acknowledge what’s clearly visible. Sometimes, we don’t know what we don’t know. For proof of these assertions, one needs to look no further than… my recaps of Fringe. (Or Lost. Or American Horror Story.) Another, more relevant case study: Peter Bishop, a man who spent a lot of time looking in mirrors in “An Origin Story,” but refused to see what Walter, Olivia, and Astrid could see as plain as day: That grief over Etta’s death was turning him into something dark and terrifying. The closing moments of the episode suggested a shocking possibility: Peter Bishop is not the hero of his life’s story – nay, the entire Fringeverse – but the villain.
Unless, of course, I’m just seeing things again.
We found Peter in Etta’s bedroom, going through his dead daughter’s things. He found her Fringe division photo ID, stroked the image with his thumb, and compared her visage to Olivia, who was sleeping in Etta’s bed. So similar. He opened a drawer, saw a tin of Bluebell Soap. He noticed something else – a button, hidden with the drawer’s housing. He pushed, and a framed print of a parade balloon (a pilgrim, although I first thought it was Pinocchio) detached from the wall, revealing a hidden compartment filled with guns and anti-matter batons. “That’s my girl,” he said. It was a line that echoed forward, when we saw Peter torture and then kill an Observer, and then back to the season’s second episode, when Etta tortured a Loyalist for intel and then spared his life — a choice she made as a result of her mother’s influence. The ironies and lessons not learned.
Olivia awoke, wishing she hadn’t. “I keep waking up, thinking that I’m dreaming this terrible thing, and then I realize it’s not a dream,” she told Peter, who felt the same way. “Why did we get her back, just to lose her again?” They sought comfort for their shared grief by embracing. From this point forward, they pursued different paths for coping, for better and worse.
Walter presented Olivia with an opportunity to directly confront the loss when he discovered a videotape in his Harvard office. No, not another part of his master plan to beat and banish The Observers. It was a recording of Etta’s first birthday. Walter encouraged her to take the tape and watch it with Peter, no matter how painful. In fact, feeling the pain was the point. “The pain is her legacy to you both. It’s proof she was here. I’ve had experience with this sort of pain. You can’t escape it by building walls around your heart. Or by breaking the universe. Or by vengeance,” said Walter, who clearly had learned the lessons of his own hard history (see: the death of Peter, the big bang of the Fringeverse)… and absorbed the lessons of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. “You lost each other once. But you have another chance.” Walter was asking Olivia to recast Etta’s loss as an origin story – an inspiring, true myth. (“We need myths to get by. We need story; otherwise the tremendous randomness of experience overwhelms us. Story is what penetrates.” – Robert Coover, The Public Burning.) It would take some time for Olivia to recognize the wisdom of this course of action – but she would.
Peter would not. His darker path presented itself when Resistance leader Anil brought word of an opportunity to delivery a blow to The Observers. The baldies were importing machinery from the future via wormholes – components for the air degradation system that they were building in New York’s Central Park. Once this pollution factory was complete, The Observers would be able to fully smogify Earth 2036 into a carbon monoxide-saturated Planet Greenhouse – a toxic ecosystem identical to their environmentally-wrecked far future home. It would also doom everyone else on Earth to a lifespan of just 45 years. Anil told the team they had recently captured an Observer who most likely knew when and where the next shipment from the future would arrive, as this Observer possessed a kit of wormhole-making tech and a ledger. Anil wanted to extract intel from The Observer and subvert future imports.
But Peter wanted to hit The Observers harder. And during a visit to the site of a recent shipment, he believed they could. The wormhole had scorched the street. Ash everywhere, like snow. “Look at the destruction it causes,” Peter said of the veritable wasteland. “That’s a tremendous amount of energy.” He wondered: What if the team could find a way to use the wormhole tech against The Observers and inflict major damage in the present and future? Walter, Olivia and Anil were wary of Peter’s ambition, as it was way more ambitious than necessary, and therefore more risky. They also saw that his desire was fueled by Dead Etta rage, and they were afraid his emotions were clouding his judgment. (Anil, quoting Confucius: “Before you go on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”) But in an ominously symbolic moment, Peter turned his back and declared “I’ve made up my mind.” It was clear to all that Peter was slipping into a hard, graceless place. It was also clear they didn’t know what, if anything, could be done to stop that slide.
By the way: Did you catch the graffiti in the background of this scene? “GO ASK ALICE.” A reference to the Jefferson Airplane psychedelic rock classic “White Rabbit,” an ode/cautionary tale about what happens when you fill your body with exotic, consciousness-altering substances… or read too much Alice In Wonderland. The haunting final line: Remember what the dormouse said/Feed your head!/FEED YOUR HEAD!
NEXT: Black Hole Son
Back at the Harvard lab, where an ill placed bottle of ethanol and a tank of propane had slowed the labor of burning more master plan videotapes out of the amber (Walter, it seems, had been trying to clean the Hibachi to grill some bratwurst during a recording session),
“Abner” Astrid worked on decoding the ledger. She despaired because her single computer couldn’t crack The Observer’s language. Then she had an epiphany. Astrid speculated that each individual character in The Observers’ language might have multiple meanings. A “B” might not just be a “B” but also a “C” and an “8” and a “6 and a “56.” Olivia arranged to get more computing power, and eventually, Astrid made sense of the ledger.
Meanwhile, Walter presented Peter with a plan of attack. Using an impressive model involving toy cars, green plastic army soldiers, a black sheet and marbles, Walter demonstrated how a wormhole worked. He suggested that if they could collapse and cinch the 2036 end of the wormhole with anti-matter, then the wormhole would become a black hole, causing mucho devastation on the far-future end. It was essential that they figure out how to work the wormhole tech – The Cube – so they could open and control the doorway in the present when The Observers initiated the corridor form the future. That meant getting the captured Observer to spill his secrets, by any means necessary.
Peter was gung-go to execute those means. Olivia expressed her fears, asked him to check himself. But Peter, silly Peter, somehow made Olivia feel like the one who wasn’t thinking clearly. “Our daughter dedicated her life to freeing us. Now we’re going to make sure that that means something,” he said. “When we win, when we beat them, I want everyone to know that Etta is responsible for the world being saved.” Olivia: “I want that too.” Peter: “Then we have to do this. And we can. Together.” It wasn’t ‘famous last words,’ as more words would follow… but it sure sounded like it.
Peter traveled to the apartment where The Resistance was keeping the captured Observer on ice, almost literally: An infusion of chemicals – basically anti-freeze – was preventing The Observer from using his science-indistinguishable-from-magic to apparate and escape. (This week’s featured Baldie was well played by John Prosky. The smart casting of The Observers continues the project of making these characters the menacing heavies they need to be.) Peter intimated he was going to physically torture The Observer. And he didn’t care if The Observer used his Jedi power and read his mind to glean his intentions, because it didn’t matter: “You and I both know you’re not going to walk out of here.”
The Observer smirked. “You don’t even know what you don’t know.” His quip was an allusion to a bit of ancient wisdom attributed to several different deep thinkers. It was Plato’s Socrates who said, “I know one thing, that I know nothing.” Such sober self-awareness is admirable; it keeps us from doing rash things, like, say, the vengeance scheme Peter pursued in this episode. For those who lack this wisdom, there is the fate promised by the Persian poet Ibn Yamin: “One who doesn’t know and doesn’t know that he doesn’t know/He will be eternally lost in his hopeless oblivion!”
Round One of Peter vs. The Observer was fought on the psychic plane. Leveraging the mentalist skills he mastered during his years as a scam artist, Peter attempted to manipulate The Observer into showing him how to assemble the components in The Observer’s wormhole kit, but without making The Observer say a word. As Peter assembled the treacherous puzzle pieces – one false move and KABLOOEY! –he studied The Observer’s eyeball on a video monitor. Peter’s theory was that The Observer – despite evolved physiology and technological augmentations – was nonetheless still human enough to have human tells. If The Observer was suddenly afraid, his pupil would contract. If that anxiety eased, his pupil would dilate. And so Peter eyeballed The Observer’s eyeball as he constructed the cube, and his theory seemed to prove itself at a critical moment. The Observer’s pupil contracted just as Peter was about to attach the final piece. Peter turned it the other way, and the pupil dilated. It worked. Mission: Accomplished. Peter: Victorious! He had beaten a superior mind-reader at his own game – and it felt good.
The Observer said nothing. Just gave him that cold, dead fish stare.
NEXT: Peter Bishop: Observer No. 1?
The heroes thought they had everything they needed to turn wormholes into black holes. They understood how the cube worked. They knew the date and location of the next shipment. And they had the anti-matter, courtesy of Etta’s anti-matter batons. Peter and Olivia were nearly thwarted when a pair of teleporting Observers ambushed their ambush (how did they know?), but Peter was still able to fire an anti-matter missile into the wormhole. The mouth collapsed. Mission: Accomplished, yes? Peter: Victorious, no?
No. As Peter and Olivia raced away with Anil, they looked back … and saw that a wormhole had opened, and that a shipment was arriving. But… how? Shouldn’t they have crippled The Observers’ operation in the far future with their black hole? Peter was furious. Humiliated. How did The Observer beat him? He tore off to find the answers. Olivia was again left all alone. She also came face to face with the pain of loss she was trying to deny. Looking around, she noticed that The Resistance had pasted flyers everywhere with Etta’s face on them – a viral media rejoinder to The Observers’ massive billboards, featuring an archetypal, oppressively monolithic Observer and the slogan “The Future Is In Order.” Etta was now the iconic Che of the revolution. Looking into the face of a woman that looked so much like herself, Olivia only saw grief. And she could no longer resist it.
Peter blazed back to the safe house, which was about to become very unsafe for the hostile held there. Peter wrapped The Observer’s head in plastic and brought him thisclose to death by suffocation, then pulled the sheet away. Why didn’t it work?! Because: Emotion had blinded him. Because: He didn’t know what he didn’t know. Peter success in assembling the cube had everything to do with his skill, experience and intuition, and nothing to do with The Observer giving away secrets. The moment when his eyes dilated wasn’t an involuntary response to possible KABLOOEY! A fly on the window had distracted him; his pupils dilated and contracted as he focused on it. “You ascribed meaning to something that was not there. You saw what you wanted to see. You believed what you wanted to believe. Because that is what your emotions do. … They fool your perception as to what is real.”
Peter rejected this. He was in control! He had the bastard beat! He saw everything clearly! And anyway: His emotions weren’t meaningless. They were real. Like his love for Etta. Like his rage over her death. The Observer continued to read him like a book. He saw into Peter’s mind, saw that he held The Observers responsible for Etta’s death, saw that he couldn’t accept that his little girl was gone. Forever. Peter cracked him upside the head with a gun and went on a rant that led him to a provocative, chilling epiphany. “She is not simply ‘gone.’ She will be remembered! Unlike you! If I kill you right now, no one will remember you, no one will miss you. You are nothing but tech! I would be ten times what you are if I had that tech in my head!” Peter’s eyes blazed with fury, the resolved into a decision. The Observer saw the choice coalesce in his head even soon, and his face wrinkled into something that resembled fear…
And so Peter took a scalpel and sliced open the back of The Observer’s head and yanked out the implant attached to his brain stem, the tech that made this white zombie astro-creep a more-human-than-a-human super-man. The violation of the surgery, the raping and reaping caused The Observer to violently seize, then die. Peter retreated to a bathroom, took a long look at himself in the mirror. Then he cut his noggin and tried to insert the implant. Feed your head! FEED YOUR HEAD!
He didn’t have to work too hard. The parasitic device seemed to activate, and burrowed toward Peter’s brain stem. As the tech took hold, Peter’s phone rang. It was Olivia. She was back at the lab, watching the video. On the screen, birthday girl Etta, playing queen of hearts, ordered her parents to kiss, the ripped open a gift. The Olivia of now wept. Etta was gone. Forever. But Olivia still had Peter, and Peter still had Olivia, and Walter was right, they needed each other, now more than ever. “Peter, I want you to come home,” she said. “I don’t want to lose you. Etta would want us to be together. She would want us to survive this. I love you.” Peter said he loved her, too, and hung up. He shivered from the rush of… whatever it was that the thing was doing to his brain, body, and being. He looked at himself in the mirror, observing his transformation with cold, dead fish eyes. The agony, the ecstasy. The horror, the horror!
And in this way, Singular events create Transcendent Men, be they next gen heroes who will lead us into a brave new world, or Darth Vaders who will march us into dystopia. Have we just seen witnessed “origin story” of how The Observers came to be? Time travel paradox meets Adam Warlock/Magus meets The Prisoner meets Memento! Is Peter Bishop Observer Number One?! A through-the-looking-glass development indeed. My prediction? These tapes that Walter left for the team to find? They’re not a master plan to defeat The Observer, per se. They are a road map to Peter’s redemption, which in turn might defeat The Observers. Each step along the way is producing history that will eventually teach Peter the error of his path, that will prevent him from becoming a full-tilt Black Hole Sun that will destroy all of us.
“Black holes are the seductive dragons of the universe, outwardly quiescent yet violent at the heart, uncanny, hostile, primeval, emitting a negative radiance that draws all toward them, gobbling up all who come too close. Once having entered the tumultuous orbit of a black hole, nothing can break away from its passionate but fatal embrace. Though cons of teasing play may be granted the doomed, ultimately play turns to prey and all are sucked haplessly―brilliantly aglow, true, but oh so briefly so―into the fire-breathing maw of oblivion. Black holes, which have no memory, are said to contain the earliest memories of the universe, and the most recent, too, while at the same time obliterating all memory by obliterating all its embodiments. Such paradoxes characterize these strange galactic monsters, for whom creation is destruction, death life, chaos order. And darkness illumination: for, as dragons are also called worms, so black hole are known as wormholes, offering a mystical and intimate pathway to the farthest reaches of the cosmos, thus bring light as they consume it.” — Robert Coover, A Child Again
Your turn: What did you think of “An Origin Story,” Fringe fans?