Review: Fringe, Season 2, Episode 18: White Tulip
As Aaron would say, there are no plot holes in Fringe. Now while this is not always the case (and Aaron might have been a little sarcastic), “White Tulip” certainly doesn’t seem to have any plot holes, which is rather unusual for a story about time travel.
It’s a normal evening; harried workers are heading home from work, when the lights start flickering inside a moving commuter train; as they go out, a mysterious trench coat-wearing man – no, not Castiel – appears. He seems horrified by what he sees in the train and leaves in a hurry. The time: 5h48. A young man enters the train and realises that everyone inside is dead.
Walter is at home, writing a letter to Peter. He ignores a call from Peter, who implies that Walter has been a little down lately, and that the new case they have been assigned might cheer him up, since Walter loves trains.
Walter’s first theory concerns a shared heart attack, which makes Peter roll his eyes. The train car’s lights are all out and none of the electronic devices belonging to the dead commuters work. Back at the lab, Astrid runs tests and finds out that all the energy in the train car has disappeared.
The FBI is eventually able to track Alistair Peck back to his apartment, where they find formulas on blackboards and large sheets of paper all over the walls that Peter refers to as “numerical wallpapering”. Walter tells the team that he used to work with mathematical formulas such as these when he was trying to figure out how subatomic particles behaved.
Alistair Peck comes home. Surrounded, he emits what looks like a force field and is back on the train where, ever the gentleman, he apologizes to the young man who is about to embark to discover, again, the dead people. What’s with this show and its impeccably polite baddies? Jones, Newton, and now Peck?
Once again, we see Walter writing a letter, we hear Peter leaving him a voicemail about the new case, and we follow Olivia, Walter, and Peter as they investigate the same crime scene. Most of the details are similar, except for one thing: this time, Peck talks to the young man, telling him, “Sorry you have to go through this again”. This time, the team traces Peck to his house via a fingerprint that NASA had on file.
This time around, Peck doesn’t come back to his apartment; also, the team finds handmade gear-like objects which we soon find out were invented and made by Peck as part of his time traveling method. In an Ironman-meets-Frankenstein moment, we are shown that these ‘gears’ are in fact part of an elaborate subcutaneous system created by Peck for time traveling.
This obsession with time travel is confirmed during an interview with Peck’s colleague, who identifies the woman as Arlette, Peck’s fiancée, pictures of whom Peter found in Peck’s apartment. Walter figures out that Peck has made time travel a reality and that the tremendous energy required to time travel is what killed the people in the train. When Astrid finds out that Arlette died a year ago (May 18 at 2:18PM to be exact), the team realises why Peck has been so intent on achieving this feat. Walter estimates that the energy required for Peck to get back to the day of his fiancée’s death would kill hundreds of people.
The team tracks Peck down at his old lab, number 107, on the MIT campus. Walter, keenly aware of the parallels between his situation and Peck’s, talks his way into being an ambassador, and sits with Peck for a chat over a cup of tea.
The chat centers on the burden of the responsibility an act as drastic as returning in time puts on the individual, a burden Walter parallels with the one he carries for tearing open the fabric between the two universes. But while Walter believes in God and has been seeking a sign of forgiveness from Him, whom he’s convinced has been punishing him since 1985 for what he did, Peck believes that God is science. And so, the all-important and omnipresent God versus science discussion, beautifully done in true Fringe style, continues. Unfortunately, the talk is interrupted when Broyles sends in his agents out of concern for Walter’s safety, since the latter disabled the wiretap and can’t be heard by the team anymore. And so, Peck jumps again.
This time, the dead are not in a train car, but rather right outside Peck’s apartment, where he is frantically reworking his formula for time traveling according to specifications given to him by Walter. The FBI arrives at his place; they work at opening the barricaded door while Peck quickly writes a letter addressed to Carol Bryce.
Before the FBI can get to him, Peck jumps back to a field where a hot air balloon is moored. He races to Arlette’s side, but instead of pulling her out of the car, he gets in with her. He tells her he loves her seconds before the truck hits the car, killing them both.
A year later, Carol Bryce takes out Peck’s letter, within which is a letter to Walter Bishop and instructions to deliver it to him on March 18, 2010.
We find Walter at the Bishops’ place, writing, again, a letter to Peter. But this time, no phone call interrupts him. And, after he seals the letter, Walter reflects for a little while, then drops it in the fireplace. Peter comes home with Walter’s turntable, which he fixed: “I thought you’d like some music to cheer you up.” Walter responds to Peter’s concern: “Something was weighing on me. A decision. But I’m fine.”
The mail arrives and with it, the letter from Peck. It’s a simple tulip, drawn in black ink on white paper. It’s the sign Walter was looking for, a gift from Peck, meant to bring the same peace to Walter that Peck’s death gave him.
“White Tulip” is storytelling at its best. It took the best of the episode “Peter” in relation to storytelling and the best in science fiction in episodes such as “Grey Matters” and “What Lies Below” to create a fantastic narrative that captivated for a full hour and took the Fringe mythology one solid step forward. As a writer, it is my hope that one day I will be able to weave as spellbinding a tale as this one.
The quality of the filming served to enhance the writing. The director managed to make the scene in the train car and in Peck’s apartment seem very different by using different camera angles. I find that this technique made the second viewing of those scenes feel not only non-repetitious, but gave it a feeling of déjà vu. It really felt like something we had kind of seen before, but not quite, and not quite in the same way.
Of course the stellar performance of the cast added another dollop of awesomeness to this episode. On top of our usual suspects – John Noble, Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, and Jasika Nicole – we were treated to a guest appearance by Peter Weller. His portrayal of Alistair Peck, a sympathetic antagonist, blurred the line between good and bad so well that all the subsequent discussions I have had around the topic of scientific responsibility were all the more interesting because of it.
The episode’s name made an appearance in the form of the sign Walter was waiting for, a white tulip (a symbol of forgiveness). This had been pointed out in the chat room during last week’s The Fringe Report show by none other than Allan.
As pointed out by Ian and Levi, this episode had a heavy comic-like feel. I found it particularly striking in one of the last sequences, i.e. when Peck travels to May 28 to die at Arlette’s side. The rapid firing of images really made it feel like we were reading a comic strip.
The glyphs spelled “secret”, a word with many layers of meaning in the Fringe mythology. It is a reference to the secret Walter is withholding from his son, one he shares with Olivia; it could be a reference to the Bishop family secret Peter will be telling Olivia about in the next episode; it could be the secrets surrounding the events of the Pattern, held by people like Nina and Broyles. It was a well chosen word that seeps into all layers of the mythology.
I didn’t spot the Observer at first, and was only able to do so thanks to Fringe Insider who directed me to the end of the episode, right before the truck struck Arlette’s car. No wonder I missed it – and kudos to whoever managed to see that!
Nadine pointed out a great Easter egg: a little seahorse-shaped object (soap, perhaps?) in Peck’s bathroom cabinet the second time they are investigating the train car deaths. She also pointed out that the train car had, on its side, a Massive Dynamic logo. Did anyone else smile a little at the irony of the tagline on that poster, “Be there in no time”?
The Bishops’ answering machine message in this episode, while recorded by Peter, isn’t the same as the one in the recently released series of Walter’s phone logs. I wonder why – production mistake, or something that was done on purpose?
Walter still hadn’t told Peter about his alter-worldly origins despite the latter’s multiple urgings to share what has lately been burdening the former. I was worried, not that Peter would find the letter (it seemed too obvious a course of action for a show like Fringe, to be honest), but rather that Walter would actually give him the letter instead of telling him the truth.
The letter could have been for a totally different reason. While it was addressed to Peter, it might never have been intended to be read by him. After all, Walter is keenly aware that he isn’t what he used to be. In this case, he isn’t quite the speaker he was in 1985, a glimpse of which we caught in the episode “Peter.” I am of the opinion that the letter was only a way for Walter to prepare himself for the big reveal, and only a plan B should Peter react angrily, a way for Walter to give something to Peter should he decide to walk away.
Because however angry Peter might initially be, the last year and a half won’t be without importance when it comes to his future relationship with his father – or the alternate version of his father. And what a difference a year and a half has made; the impatient and short-tempered son from 2008 has made way for a loving, encouraging one: “Whatever it is, I’m sure you’re going to make sense of it, Walter.”
Too bad he burned it.
The parallel between Walter’s and Peck’s stories are, of course, obvious to everyone. But other that the fact that they both are scientific geniuses pushing the boundaries of science to save the lives of people they love, their stories are quite different: Walter was going to lose his son, Peck already lost his fiancée; Walter knowingly tore the fabric between two universes despite knowing of the disastrous consequences of such an action, Peck is travelling responsibly through time, doing everything he can to avoid negative consequences.
The weight of the emotional grief each man has to bear is what brings them together, acting as a powerful push for a newly empathic Walter to reach out to Peck. It also makes of Peck one the most, if not the most sympathetic villain we have yet encountered in Fringe.
I found it fascinating how the change that has occurred in Walter between 1985 and his discharge from St. Claire in 2008 is shown to us – again, storytelling at its best. In “Peter,” Carla played the role of Walter’s conscience when she confronted him in the lab about the consequences of tearing the fabric between the two universes. In “White Tulip” Walter is now playing that very same role to Peck’s traveling through time. And so, Walter has become to Peck the conscience Carla was trying to be to him then.
Another major difference between what Walter went through in 1985 and what Peck is trying to do is that while the former was expecting Peter 1.0 to die, the former has no reason to think that his fiancée will die. For most, death comes unheralded, and like Peck, we are never quite ready for it. For those who, like Peck, lose someone after leaving them on a sour note, the process of healing can’t always include jumping backwards to save their lives or even to made amends. It really makes me wonder how the balance between being honest – i.e. telling people how you really feel about things, even if negative – and leaving things on good terms is meant to be struck.
I also find it interesting how Walter equates tearing the fabric between the two universes and starting off the events of the Pattern with jumping through time in a well thought-out manner. I’m assuming that if there were even a theoretical backfiring to time travel, the two men would have discussed it (like Carla and Walter did). Could this mean that Walter is seeking redemption from God by keeping Peck on the straight and narrow? And if this is the case, however well-meaning he might be, isn’t it rather hypocritical of Walter to be doing so?
Walter: I’m going to tell you something that I have never told another soul. Until I took my son from the other side, I had never believed in God. But it occurred to me that my actions had betrayed him and that everything that had happened to me since was God punishing me.
The question of the real meaning of faith has been the focus of many of my Supernatural reviews, and I think it could become the focus of a future Fringe review. Everyone has their own path to tread in life, and it seems that Walter’s rather arduous one has brought him closer to acquiring faith. One only has to think of the conversation he had with the priest in “Unearthed” to realize that Walter is seeking the truth about a higher power.
Does it mean that Walter believes in God now? Or is it just a way for him to seek solace for all the bad things that have happened to him, which would imply that, once life becomes better, he is going to turn away from God again?
I found it interesting that Walter has asked God for a sign of forgiveness in the form of a white tulip. While I agree that God can make anything happen, even a white tulip arrive in Walter’s hands at any time of the year – is it fair of Walter to be asking for such a specific sign? Isn’t it part of the whole ‘having faith’ thing to look for the signs that God sends us?
Walter: But He’s God. And if God can forgive me for my acts, maybe it’s in the realm of that my son possibility will be able to forgive me too.
Peck: Walter, God is science. … We are men of science. That’s the only faith we need.
Walter: Then allow me to serve as a cautionary tale. There will be repercussions. If you pull Arlette from that car, you don’t know how things will be changed by that action. But they will. It’s not our place to adjust the universe and you will never be able to look at her again without knowing that, just like every time I look at my son. I have traveled through madness to figure this out, and you will, too.
Walter is giving us a huge hint as to the reason why he went to St. Claire’s. We know from “Grey Matters” that Bell removed his memories because he had become a liability, and we learned in the comics that Bell was right to take such precautions, as someone had been visiting Walter in St. Claire’s to question him and get the information he wanted out of him. But we still don’t quite know the chronological sequence of events that led Walter to St. Claire’s.The events in “Peter” gave us a hint that perhaps going to the alternate universe and coming back might have put a biological strain on Walter, as well as affected his relationship with Carla, Nina, Bell, and Elizabeth – i.e. all those closest to him. Now we realise that the trigger seems to be Walter’s guilt at having taken Peter 2.0 away from his rightful parents, and that what is keeping him from telling Peter the truth isn’t only that he’s afraid of losing Peter, but also that he is afraid that losing Peter will force him to sink right back into that guilt that drove him mad in the first place.
I’m curious to figure out how the unburdening Walter is going to feel after getting the white tulip is going to affect him. While he can never go back to who he was before his brain matter was removed, this just might mean that we are going to be seeing more of 1985!Walter shine through 2010!Walter.
The colour red is prominently displayed in two key areas of this episode: Peck was distracted by a red hot air balloon that made him go to the field where he had his epiphany on time travelling, and Arlette’s red Beattle. Lauren pointed out that the red balloon is reminiscent of the one at the beginning of “Bad Dreams” (117). Both are object of distraction closely related to death.
There are more key scenes in other Fringe episodes in which the colour red was prominent, such as:
- “Grey Matters” (210), Joseph Slater, the first person to be operated on by Newton, was obsessed with a little girl in a red dress that lives across the street (which was, in fact, part of Walter’s memories);
- “Dream Logic” (205), Sam asked Olivia to get a business card from anyone wearing the colour red;
- “Momentum Deferred” (204), Olivia’s memories of her encounter with Bell are tinged with red.
There is also Nina’s red hair & lipstick, but I don’t know if that has anything to do with anything, except perhaps frequent rants by fans on the terrible wig used in the episode ‘Peter’ (216).
I also don’t know if the significance for which the colour red was used in each episode is the same, since there are so many significances related to said colour. Some possibilities include:
Arlette’s red car could be related to Peck’s guilt;
- The red balloon in “Bad Dreams” could be related to Lane’s anger;
- The little girl’s red dress in “Grey Matter”;
- The business cards from individuals wearing red could be related to Olivia’s pain at having lost a close friend;
- The red-hued memories could be a warning sign.
However it does seem a little far-fetched to me; I’m of the opinion that, just like the greys and blacks represent the colours CortexiKids were told to use to blend in, red is a colour used to bring out certain details.
Or it could just be a JJ Abrams shout-out to previous projects.
The concept of time travelling used in this episode made my nerdy senses tingle. It resembled that of Back to the Future – at least, as far as I could tell. It also implies that the conception of time as experienced by humans in Fringe is a linear one.
This conception of time as perceived by humans and as manipulated by Peck (a human) also gives us another hint as to the nature of the Observers. Remember how Brandon explained the concept of time as perceived by the Observers? They don’t perceive time as a linear, horizontal sequence of events as manipulated by Peck. Rather, it seems that, for the Observers, everything happens at the same time. It means that the Observers are of a nature that makes them able to experience time on a higher plane, much like three dimensional objects experience space on a higher plane than two dimensional objects. Here is an awesome, simple yet mind blowing video about the ten dimensions theorised about. Try to imagine: how would you explain to a 2-dimensional object the nature of a 3-dimensional object?
Maybe that’s why the Observers don’t talk to us that much.
Peck’s method for time travelling requires energy that is sapped out of whatever source is available in the area where he jumps to. As Walter explains, “Einstein himself theorised this. (…) He said that if something could propel an object faster than the speed of light, then time would appear to bend. When those two folds connect, tremendous amount of energy is required to absorb the jump.”
Oh, how my nerdy senses are tingling.
I wish I had the know-how to comment on the feasibility of such a thing, be it on the theoritcal level but ironically enough perhaps, I have had the time yet to delve into the matter. But I do have one nitpicker’s comment: when Pecker jumps back to the field where the hot balloon is moored, we see that the fire holding the balloon up is still burning. Shouldn’t he have sucked the energy from it, too, since it would have provided him with much more energy than the plant life laying dead at his feet?
However I do have a small thought to share on the ethics of time travelling. If the conception of time is that, each time that Peck travels back, everything that happened in that time gets erased – is it ethically acceptable for him to be taking this time away from, well, everyone? In a way, each time Peck goes backwards in time, he ‘kills’ the progress made in that time by, well, everyone.
Could it even be said that each time Peck goes from today to yesterday, he ‘killed’ the people from today? For example, Peck ‘killed’ the Walter he had an intimate conversation with when he jumped to the past. While Walter isn’t dead, does Peck have the right to remove the experiences Walter accumulated in the 24 hours he erased?
The fact that this episode would be an exploration of the nature of God was hinted at the very beginning, with the young man who was asking people for money at the train station holding up a sign that states “God is watching”. I wonder what Peck would have told the young man had he noticed that sign, and I wonder if he would have used the ‘Big Brother’ technique of the FBI to track him from the train station to the café as ‘God’ watching him.
Was it then a way for Peck to thumb his nose at a spiritual conception of God by sending Walter the sign of forgiveness he had been looking for? By sending Walter the sign of forgiveness he was looking for through the wonders of science, was Peck proving – at least to himself – that God doesn’t exist, and that God really is science? Or was it an act of empathy, from one suffering man to another?
I have the impression that although Peck claimed that God is science, there is enough in him that believes in a higher force that Walter’s experience had an effect on him. If Peck didn’t believe in God, if God really was only science, then the fact that he was able to go back in time to save Arlette was the best ‘prayer’ he could have done in the name of science as God.
But Peck chose to let Arlette die. Either it means that, as a scientist, he couldn’t take the risk of time being affected by letting her live, either it means that as a believer, he couldn’t risk changing the universe in a way that humans are not allowed to.
And it could be argued that while Peck is the one who, using science, went back through time and sent the white tulip to Walter, God is the One who gave Peck the intelligence and the drive to figure out time travelling and then put Walter in his path.
The rather gross scene of Peck implanting a gear-like apparatus in his own flesh made me wonder at the ethics of such research on oneself. I think we can all easily agree that subjecting others to horrendous, painful tests in the name of science isn’t ethically correct. I also think that subjecting others who accept to be tested on has its boundaries; the question of the tests run on a willing Rebecca Kibner in “Momentum Deferred” (204) still lingers at the back of my mind.
But in this case, Peck was doing gruesome things to himself. Let’s pretend for a second that there are absolutely no negative consequences to his time travelling, which is a whole other jar of ethical pickles. Is what he did to himself ethically acceptable?
White Tulip is not only a fantastic episode of Fringe, but also another chapter of a great exposé on tempting fate through spectacular advances in science. But you know what really blows my mind about all of this? The fact that technically, this case never happened. Just thought I’d leave this thought here, at the end of the review, just so that it accompanies you for the next couple of days. Aren’t I nice?
Some great Walter moments include:
Walter calls Astrid ‘Astro’.
Walter and Astrid verbalize the same idea (to take extra samples at the same time) in exact sync, which amuses Astrid, Peter and Walter just a little bit.
Some of these moments only indirectly have to do with Walter, such as:
Walter: Something is not right here.
Astrid: Yup. I think it’s my paycheque.
Olivia: Well, I happen to know someone who is fluent in gobbledygook.
And lately, Walter moments have proven to not only be the typically amusing ones, but also poignant and deep ones, such as:
Walter: Grief can drive people to extraordinary lengths.