Spoilers for Friday’s Fringe follow:
When Fringe debuted, there was the by-now-usual speculation as to whether it might become (whatever this means) the next Lost. (This is the typical rite of passage now for any network sci-fi-inflected drama, but especially one that comes from J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot.) At first it wasn’t and that was something of a letdown; then it wasn’t, and that was a good thing—that is, it developed its own voice and momentum without having to recapitulate Lost’s tics and strategies.
But “Subject 13,” Fringe’s second, emotional return to Walter’s shaggy-haired days as a researcher in the 1980s, reminds us that the show does share some DNA, as it were, with Lost (as well as other Abrams efforts like Alias)—and, as long as those parallels don’t overwhelm the show, that can make a good thing even better.
The overt parallels, as in last season’s “Peter,” included the flashback framing—not just the trip to the past, which many shows might do, but Fringe’s nerdy, affectionate playing with the details and technologies of the past. (“I’m compiling some recordings on my new Betamax, e.g.”—was anyone else reminded poignantly of the auteuristic stylings of Marvin Candle?)
But “Subject 13” was more than an amusing curtain call for a successful episode (“Peter” being one of the show’s high water marks to date) or a mythological info-dump. Just the opposite, in fact. While “Peter” gave us the story of Walter’s original sin in stealing Peter from Over There, “Subject 13” has less informational lifting to do in terms of the bigger arc: it filled in bits that we might already have inferred about the beginnings of the war, Olivia’s early days and significance as a research subject and the way that Peter, apparently, came to forget, or repress, the memory of his early childhood. (This now replaced by the question of how Peter came to forget, or repress, meeting Olivia—not to mention Olivia’s own loss of memory about her test-subject days with Walter.)
Rather, like many a Lost flashback, it advanced a bigger story in small ways while showing the emotional rooting of the present in the past—not to mention, to emphasize how its characters’ lives are driven by trying to avoid repeating their mistakes, or those of their parents. That the emotional grounding of “Subject 13” worked as well as it did is in no small part thanks to the outstanding casting of the child actors, in particular Karley Scott Collins, who uncannily well captured the mannerisms of the grown Anna Torv. (It’s a testimony to the level of acting in this episode that it didn’t occur to me until after the episode that we hadn’t seen Torv or Joshua Jackson.)
But while our attention was most conspicuously drawn to the budding connection between Peter and Olivia—a neat, though not entirely necessary, bit of backstory—I found that to be maybe the third most interesting relationship drawn in the episode. More revelatory were the ones between Olivia and Walter—in his defense of her against her abusive stepfather, you see how long he has been torn between fascination for her as a research subject and protectiveness of her as a guardian—and Walter, his wife Elizabeth (Orla Brady) and Peter. Brady in particular embodied the sad repercussions of Walter’s decision. She can’t deny her attachment to this boy who looks like her dead son, yet can’t comfortably bring herself to deceive him either; keeping him and returning him are equally agonizing, and neither can ultimately undo the damage to her or to the universes now thrown into conflict.
“Subject 13” was not the revelation that “Peter” was, though a phase-shifting Olivia’s mistaking of Walternate for Walter was one of the series’ most mindblowing moments (and, again, a Lostian bit of disorienting sleight of hand). But it was again an effective detour in which Fringe reminded us that time has parallels just has space does, and that the past is emotionally overlaid on the present just as its Over There is overlaid on our world.
And I look forward to the eventual ’90s flashback. Peter and Olivia would totally rock some flannel.