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The White Tulip: Forgiveness on Fringe

I'm looking for a sign of forgiveness, a specific one, a white tulip." - Walter Bishop

I've gotten more than a few emails, comments, and questions on Twitter asking what happened to my write-up of Thursday evening's transcendent episode of Fringe ("White Tulip"). Due to circumstances beyond my control (namely being out both Thursday and Friday evenings), I didn't get a chance to watch this week's episode until the weekend, a real rarity in the Televisionary household.

But now that I've seen the episode, written by J.H. Wyman and Jeff Vlaming and directed by Jeffrey G. Hunt, I thought I'd weigh in on what was a remarkable installment of a season of Fringe that has found its true format: intense mysteries of the week that are grounded by searing and powerful emotional arcs involving the central characters.

I've been shouting at the rooftops that John Noble deserves an Emmy nomination for his amazing work this season as Walter Bishop, who has deepened and grown in some very expected ways over the last few episodes. While we had believed that Walter had stolen another world's Peter to erase his grief, the truth behind his actions were far more complicated, proving once again that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

It's a similar trap that enmeshes MIT professor Alastair Peck (Peter Weller): a man so determined to save the life of his dead fiancee Arlette (Kristen Ross) that he's willing to do the unthinkable: sacrifice his humanity and his body in order to recreate a temporal pocket that will allow him to travel back in time and prevent the car accident that took her life.

It's a noble gesture and speaks volumes about the way that guilt and grief, those twin specters, can make us step over lines that we should never cross. While the mystery of the week deals with the Fringe team attempting to stop Peck time and time again (while beginning to experience deja vu as they repeat the same actions, each time with slightly different results), it's really the story of Walter Bishop's guilt. He's torn between telling Peter the truth about his identity and risk losing him or continuing to lie for the rest of his life.

It's that loss that propels both Peck to risk the lives of numerous people to travel back in time and Walter to rip open the fabric separating the two worlds. Both desperately want to find a way to save the lives of the people they loved and they are willing to sacrifice everything--even sanity--in order to bring them back.

But actions have consequences. Thanks to help from Walter, Peck is able to travel to that empty field with the red balloon (a gorgeous visual that's all the more creepy when he kills every crop within a specific radius) and apologize to Arlette, telling her that he loves her, just as a truck careens right into her car. Arlette is still killed but this time Peck dies with her. Does Walter's warning to him prevent him from saving Arlette? Or does he realize that he can't without altering the universe? Is it better just to have one last moment together, even if it means his own death?

Walter may have saved Peter from death but he still ended up losing him all the same. After getting a second chance with his son, is the truth worth the risk of losing him all over again? He writes Peter a letter confessing all, a letter that twice ends up nearly discovered by Peter aboard the Mass Transit train as they investigate the mysterious deaths of the passengers.

Deep inside Walter knows that he has to tell Peter the truth. Freud would say that there is no such think as a mistake: that subconsciously Walter wanted Peter to find the letter yet couldn't bring himself to give it to him. But Peter doesn't find the letter each time, narrowly escaping the truth about himself.

But after one last time around the timeloop, Walter decides to burn the letter in the fireplace. Is it enough that he wrote out those painful words? Or is it that he knows that if he's going to confess to Peter it needs to be face to face instead of via a letter? Will the truth set him free or just make things even worse?

His brief encounter with Peck sets in motion a moment of profound transcendence for Walter Bishop. Telling Peck that his experiences have reawakened a belief in the divine, he is looking for a sign that will prove that God has forgiven him for his actions: a specific sign that is so unlikely that it will prove beyond a doubt that he is worthy of grace: a white tulip.

Tormented by his own fate, Peck offers Walter something that no one else can: forgiveness. Acting as Walter's confessor, he arranges to have Walter receive an anonymous letter on the very day that he writes that letter to Peter. With no return address and no message, it contains a single card with a drawing of a white tulip.

It's a small moment but a gut-wrenchingly powerful one. Noble perfectly captures the mixture of sadness, relief, and shock running concurrently within Walter upon seeing that image.

It's additionally a sign that Fringe is becoming aware of just how to structure these episodes. I don't mind that the series isn't inherently hyper-serialized by nature if these types of installments--ones that deal with the procedural and the emotional--continue to define this season and the next. While the plots may be designed to shock, surprise, or scare, it's the characters--and their inherent imperfections--that keep us all coming back week after week.

This week on Fringe ("The Man From the Other Side"), the team investigates the murder of two teenagers found at an abandoned warehouse with three puncture wounds to the soft palate, a trademark of the shape-shifters; discovering a shape-shifting embryo, Walter returns to the lab to conduct further analysis; Olivia and Peter head to Massive Dynamic for answers; Peter reveals a family secret to Olivia as Walter struggles to recall what Newton knows about "building a door."


Unknown said…
What "Fringe" (and "Lost") gets (that shows like "Flash Forward" and "V" don't seem to) is that you have to really care about the characters in order for what happens to them to matter. "Fringe" has done a great job of getting me emotionally invested in Olivia, Peter, and Walter.
Kat said…
Jace - I also had to wait until this weekend to watch this episode and it was so compelling I dashed to internet to look for your recap. I was disappointed not to find it so thank you very much for your thoughts on this great series.

Jonahblue - Amen brutha! I watch Fringe not so much for the mystery of the week but much very for the wonderful acting by John Noble and the characters of Walter, Peter and Olivia.
Unknown said…
Thanks, Jace! I was one of the ones who emailed you, as I had somehow missed the quote you opened this post with, and could not figure out the significance of the letter he received at the end.

Now it makes more sense (but not complete sense, this being Fringe and all!).
Heatherette said…
I agree that the mysteries are fun but the show is at its best when it deals with the relationships between the main characters. I feel like, this season, it's really found its voice and is living up to its full potential. (Although I still wish they'd give Astrid more to do!)
Unknown said…
It was amazing. One of the best episodes so far. Extremely profound. When he opened that envelope....just amazing!
Taezar said…
I must admit to shedding a tear when we see the letter open and what it contains. The drawing is so simple yet elegant which just added to the power. It has been to hard not the torrent this and watch it with the delay where in Australia...

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