What Fringe's Never-Ending Supply of Mad Scientists Tells Us About Walter Bishop

It's amazing how many episodes of Fringe focus on a mad scientist who's misguided, either due to hubris or some dreadful loss in his past. (It's usually a "he.") It's like the show keeps showing us a composite portrait of Walter Bishop, reflected in a parade of older male guest stars, even as the real Walter Bishop gets more and more perplexing.


Last night's Walter Bishop counterpart was a man who learned too late that he should have listened to William Bell. Spoilers ahead...

Rewatching "Novation," I was really struck by the change in Walter — there was a time he would have given anything to have his son back. In fact, he pretty much did give everything, including the security of two whole universes. Now, his long-dead son has returned to him, apparently grown up and as sane as anybody can be in this messed-up multiverse... and Walter sees it as a kind of cosmic taunt, and then eventually as a kind of test of his resolve.

In this version of events, Peter drowned when Walter brought him back from the other universe. So Walter witnessed all the same horrific consequences to his universe-crossing, but without the consolation of having saved the boy's life. Walter's spent the last 25 years repenting and viewing every day as a punishment.

Even before Walter realizes that the man from his visions, who's suddenly reappeared in the flesh, is his son, he's on the edge. Hence the barbiturate-induced nap and the compulsive snorting of weird substances. (Quaaludes? I'm not sure.) After Peter reveals the truth about himself, Walter freaks out even more, because he can't handle getting the thing he's always dreamed of having. Walter doesn't believe he's earned the reprieve of having his son back, and he sees Peter as a temptation to go tampering with the forces of creation once again.

And meanwhile, we get yet another overreaching scientist: Malcolm Truss, a former Massive Dynamic researcher who came up with a cellular regeneration treatment that's indirectly given rise to the new and improved shapeshifters. William Bell shut down Malcolm's research, citing ethical concerns — somewhat unusually for William Bell, it must be said. Malcolm's been pouting in exile ever since, but now one of the shapeshifters wants his help in perfecting the formula, and she appeals to his vanity and his desire for recognition. Even though Malcolm can tell there's something screwy here — she's recruiting him at gunpoint, and she seems distinctly weird — he goes along with it, because he gets to prove William Bell wrong.

Most of the time, the Walter Bishop-analogue mad scientists on Fringe are a bit arrogant but they're also to be pitied — they've lost someone, or they have a sick loved one, or they have some deep impossible need that can only be filled by something from the realm of the uncanny. Malcolm, rather poignantly, doesn't realize that he's lost his wife, because the shapeshifter killed her — he still hopes he can be part of her life again someday.


Eventually, Malcolm gleans the truth — that he's helping the monster who killed his wife. And he makes a kind of stab at killing her, by giving her the wrong chemicals. But when she attacks him, he knuckles under and gives her the compound she wants. And in the end, he concedes that William Bell was right and there are realms that people weren't meant to tamper with, just as Walter has now resigned himself to the idea that he can never have his son back, and it's wicked even to imagine otherwise.

Malcolm is an unusually passive mad scientist, for Fringe — he's content to putter in hiding, until he gets kidnapped. And as such, he illuminates two unusual sides of Walter — the simmering resentment towards Nina and quite possibly William Bell, for their part in his situation, and the dreadful resignation to his fate. This is the most defeated version of Walter we've ever seen.


(Usually, when we meet another mad scientist on Fringe, he represents other, more proactive sides of Walter, like his willingness to "cross the line" or his obsession with his own personal losses or traumas. The mad-scientist-of-the-week is often someone who's so trapped in his own private melodrama, he can't even see that the multiverse is breaking — and yet often, the weekly mad scientist represents the tangle of arrogance and grief that broke the multiverse in the first place.)

So depressed is Walter, he can't even hear what Peter is saying — that there could be terrible consequences from Peter being in the wrong reality. I'm guessing that Peter is serving as the Voice of the Show when he theorizes that he was "supposed" to die in both universes, and the fact that he still exists is a paradox which could have dire consequences. (The fact that the Observer was supposed to finish the job of wiping Peter from reality seems to back that up, somewhat.)


Meanwhile, in the drive to make Peter seem more indispensible, this episode made the rest of the Fringe team in this timeline seem a bit... flat-footed.

Like, for example, the Fringe crew don't know who the Observers are. They've been meddling with the boundary between universes for years now, and haven't noticed creepy bald men staring at them from the sidelines? Plus of course, they don't know anything about how the previous generation of shapeshifters worked, and they've never managed to decrypt one of the shapeshifter data disks, or figure out how they work. Good thing Peter's here to get them all up to speed.


I guess, to be fair, a lot of the relative ignorance of this version of the Fringe Division stems from the fact that "their" version of Walter was a lot less use, without Peter to hold his hand. With Walter unable to leave his lab and constantly on the verge of a total breakdown, he wasn't able to make as much headway in figuring stuff out. But also, Peter's level of knowledge seems to have been amped up considerably — he not only knows how to decode the shapeshifter's data disk, he can also turn on its GPS and figure out how it mimics human DNA. Was Peter always this scientifically savvy?

Then there's the fact that the Fringe team are constantly one step behind Nadine, the shapeshifter in this episode. And was I the only one who was screaming at the television that the wounded FBI agent on the roof was obviously the shapeshifter? When the shapeshifter in FBI disguise pointed at the water and said, "She went that-away," I was waiting for Olivia to get just a tad suspicious. But no — apparently in all her dealings with shapeshifters in this timeline, she's never had a problem with them shapeshifting into someone on her team before. (And yet, apparently, "our" Charlie is still dead. Sigh.)


So speaking of foils for Walter — we still haven't seen Walternate this season. But the episode ends with Nadine typing away happily on a transdimensional typewriter. Which seems to confirm that the most well-dressed version of Walter is still up to his old tricks. We can hope, anyway.



I am not enjoying this new season much. There haven't been enough O.M.G. WTF moments. The characters are flat and weirdly subdued. Seriously, if you were Peter, wouldn't you be freaking out more? Wouldn't you have grabbed Olivia in the previous episode and shouted, "WE LOVE EACH OTHER!" Instead, he is patiently passive while he's a potential paradox bomb that could ignite multiple dimensions at any moment. Completely depressed Walter is not nearly as fun and doesn't tug my heart strings. Olivia has no sparkle or inner strength but, hey—what's the matter with Lincoln Lee? Why NOT have dinner with your coworker and get friendlier even if she's bland? There is a lack of natural emotional responses that feels artificial and contrived. Whatever universe these characters are in, they need to cut back on their Prozac dosage 'cause they are disassociated from their here-and-now... and I'm getting bored.