“I don’t think that we can underestimate the role that empathy plays in the structuring of the self, or the lack thereof.” – Professor McClennan
“I’ve always thought there are people who leave an indelible mark on your soul, an imprint that can never be erased.” – Cheeky Writers
Cheekiness aside, Friday’s episode was another great example of Fringe’s ability to tell a compelling stand alone story. When the Fringe team from Over There is unable to track down a serial killer, our team is asked for assistance. The alliance is uneasy, with Altlivia gleefully pushing Ourliv’s buttons to see which way her alternate will jump. Tension between the two teams is still quite high, given Walternate’s recent attempt at universal fratricide. It’s revealed that in the new timeline, Olivia was kidnapped and replaced with her doppelganger just long enough to steal a crucial piece of the machine, and then was apparently released to die along with the rest of her world. Walternate’s plan didn’t work however; instead of destroying this universe it tore holes in both, creating the “Bridge” room and prompting something called The Accord – an uneasy truce between worlds that now have no choice but to work together for their mutual survival.
The killer in question is one John McClennan (John Pyper-Ferguson), a brilliant man surpassing even Walter’s IQ. After brain-freezing twenty-three victims, he finally left a single hair behind, providing Fringe Division with their first break in the case. They know who he is but can’t find him, leading them to believe that his alternate – a criminal psychologist on this side – may be able to provide some insight into his movements. When told that the case is highly classified, and he can’t know where they’re going, John agrees surprisingly readily to being dosed with an unknown sedative and transported on “a long journey,” telling Olivia that he’s been “working towards this my entire life.”
Olivia accompanies her charge to the other side, agreeing without protest to listen in the van while Altlivia takes McClennan on an unwitting tour of his double’s house. Liv is impersonating her counterpart for the charade, wearing a blond wig and chafing in the unfamiliar clothing. Olivia’s obviously still holding a grudge, refusing even to greet her alternate when she arrives, telling her instead to button her jacket. The two women, identical as they are, couldn’t be more different. Faced with the extreme discomfort of the situation, Olivia is tight lipped and dour, while Altliv pulls faces, enjoying getting under her other’s skin. Lincoln watches them both, perhaps seeing more similarity than either would ever admit. Much as he loves her, he seems a little put out at his Olivia’s lack of consideration.
Alone in his lab, Walter is attempting to drown out the voice in his head, playing Mozart so loudly that all the speakers in his Maxell array are visibly pulsing. A deeply concerned Astrid interrupts, begging him to tell her what’s wrong, and telling him that all his medication levels are way off. He’s too frightened to ask for help though, convinced that if he admits to hallucinations he’ll be back in St. Claire’s before you can say “butterscotch pudding” Gathering his tattered wits, he heads to his room for a nap, but is unable to ignore the towel that’s fallen off a reflective surface, compulsively straightening it before fleeing with as much dignity as he can muster. Dismayed, Astrid watches him go.
Unbeknownst to him, McClennan is examining the life he might have had, had things gone just a bit differently for him. He chuckles at his alternate’s model of the functions of the human brain – identical to the one in his office, but fails to notice the statue of “Early Homo Sapiens” that sits on his own desk at home. He’s profiling his own might-have-been, noting that the man was deprived of things as a child and is now attempting to make up for it, that he’s prone to obsessive cataloging, and that he’s fascinated by the brain. He’s bemused to find a chair in the shed identical to one his family used to have, but the weirdness of the situation finally clicks when he finds a photo of his own father among those of hundreds of happy strangers. Unnerved, he bolts, and as Olivia and Lincoln run to intercept him he has just time enough to register that there are two of her before noticing the giant bubble of Amber down the street.
Lincoln and Liv wait outside while Olivia tries to explain the situation to McClennan. Altliv isn’t good at waiting for anything, especially not her double, and when she moves to interrupt, Lincoln restrains her, firmly insisting that she “give her a minute.” Inside, McClennan is heartbroken for he other self, seeing plainly how a simple twist of fate saved him from becoming the monster. He tells Olivia that the same darkness lives inside of him as well, and that his father saw it and tried to quell it with violence. Overcome, he’s unable to continue until Olivia tells him that she also came from an abusive home, a confession Liv escaped Lincoln just in time to hear. Aware that her alternate is listening, Olivia tells him anyway. Empathy has always been one of her greatest strengths, and if reaching out to Johns pain with her own will help stop a killer, then her mocking other self can have something else to feel superior for. Except that she doesn’t. Liv watches silently, going suddenly still at Olivia’s words. The facade is back almost as soon as it’s gone, but it slipped for just a moment; like it or not, the other woman is a real girl after all.
Encouraged by Olivia’s honesty, McClennan goes on to say that he’ been able to resist his urges because of a woman named Marjorie, who taught him that he could step out of the darkness and into the light. The other John’s life is like a nightmare, one he’s imagined his life might have been like if Marjorie hadn’t saved him. His grief for his doppelganger is terrible, and he desperately wants to help the other man, to tell him what he knows about hope. Olivia’s insistence that there’s “no other road” for the killer McClennan is like a death sentence, and when she returns from stepping outside to hear a report of a new victim, McClennan is gone.
At Fringe Division headquarters, Colonel Broyles is blessedly alive again, albeit sporting a deep new scar on his neck. As Liv and Lincoln squabble over who gets to take the blame for losing the psychologist, Olivia posits that he’s looking for his alternate, wanting to stop him. Altlivia is back to full bristle, barely biting her tongue at Olivia’s presumption, but when Olivia tells her that they may be able to find John using the plates from the tractor in his father’s photo, she has little choice but to check it out – a good thing for Noreen Miller.
John McClennan is only a moment away from drilling into his victim’s skull when the door opens behind him. He turns quickly to find – himself – approaching with hands raised placatingly. Our John knows where he keeps the gun he’s going for, just as he knew where to find him. He tells his other that it doesn’t have to be this way, sharing a story about the night his father found the dead things. Alter McClennan is incredulous, insisting that it’s his story, and it is – the details are the same, the carnival, the ring toss, the furious face of his father, and hiding behind the wagon wheel. It’s the same until he’s caught, dragged home and beaten for endless hours, and there it diverges. Our John wasn’t caught. Instead he ran, “as far and as fast and as long” as he could, until he fell asleep in a field, and woke to find an angel standing over him. Her name was Marjorie, and she showed him how to make the pain stop. “I can show you how,” John says, placing his hand compassionately on his alternate’s shoulder. “Maybe you can,” replies McClennan, and clocks him with an old can of beans.
On their way to the farm, the Olivias are riding together, per Altliv’s inexplicable request. The silence is thick until Liv asks too casually about Olivia’s stepfather, wanting to shove her irritating other back into the box she’s built for her. Yes, Olivia admits, she was trying to open John up, but it was also true. And when asked what happened to him, she blandly replies, “killed him,” before getting out of the car. Liv stares after her, shocked and perturbed.
In his musty storm cellar, McClennan has drilled into John’s head, and has a tube full of blue liquid running from from his skull and through a radiator, attaching to a port in his own brain on the other end. “Tell me about your happiest memories,”he says intensely, “tell me about Marjorie.” She made John feel safe, loved. She saw his darkness and didn’t condemn it, instead she showed him how to defeat it. McClennan is appalled, trembling and weeping at the beauty of the memories, for the first time in his life feeling for someone else, and it undoes him.
Having searched the abandoned farmhouse and found nothing, Fringe Division is relentlessly searching the rest of the grounds. Lincoln and Olivia find the storm cellar, and descend the stairs to find John in the process of freezing to death, and Noreen sedated but unharmed. A noise alerts them to their killer’s presence and Olivia finds him still reeling in the next room. “I wanted what he had,” he gasps, “what she gave him. I took her from him, I shouldn’t have. Marjorie? What have I done?” He fires the gun under his chin and is gone.
Professor McClennan is transported back to his own world and is recuperating from his budget brain surgery in the hospital. He has no memory of the last few weeks, and has been told he was injured profiling for the FBI. Broyles tells Olivia that he’s suffered permanent memory loss, Marjorie has been extracted from his brain. Stricken, knowing he may now be the monster those memories saved him from becoming, Olivia goes in to see him. He doesn’t remember Olivia, and he doesn’t know anyone named Marjorie. Lamely, Olivia tells him to get better soon. Another casualty of weird science, he’s luckier than most, but it’s still bitter that her failure to protect him cost him his humanity. As she turns to go, he stops her, “you know what they say,” he says “even when it’s the darkest you can step into the light.”
Grinning happily in the hallway, Olivia marvels over the fact that although he can’t remember Marjorie, John still remembers what she taught him. “At the risk of sounding sentimental,” Broyles responds, “I’ve always thought there are people who leave an indelible mark on your soul, an imprint that can never be erased.”
Oh Fringe. I love you.
And on that note we find Walter again, alone in his office cum bedroom, checking the corners for boogeymen before cautiously turning off the light. For a moment all is well, and then there’s a familiar voice: “Walter, I’m here. Can you hear me? I’m right here. Walter I’m right here!” Walter panics, shouting to the empty room that the voice is a figment of his imagination before turning the record player on as loud as it will go. Terrified, unable to drown out the cacophony in his head, Walter sinks into a corner, clutching his head as Peter pleads with him for help.
This was a wonderful episode. McClennan’s story is powerfully illustrative of the influence one person can have over the life of another, and lives beyond that by extension. We create ripples with our interactions that we’re largely unaware of, impacting others in ways we rarely comprehend. It’s not just the big things we do, it’s the accumulation of ourselves through which we leave our mark. A smile for a stranger can change the course of a day; a random act of kindness can change the world. It’s a power we dismiss at our peril, for the inverse is also true: the damage we can do when we’re thoughtless or inconsiderate can be catastrophic under the wrong circumstances, breaking hearts we never knew were so fragile.
The writers of Fringe are showing us the impact we have with their depiction of a Peterless existence. That’s the point they’re driving home. Of course they have a larger story to tell, and I hope more than anything that they get to tell it to completion. Peter will be back, and when he arrives it will be in proper time, not just for the overall story of Fringe, but for this point to be well made. We, all of us, affect each other, and when someone is removed from the equation it leaves a hole in the lives of those around them. Please keep watching. I know there are folks out there who’ve lost interest without Peter, but he can’t come back if he doesn’t have a show to come back to. Fringe is about more than one character, it’s about more than all the characters. At it’s bottom it’s about people, and what makes them worth protecting. I can’t wait to have Peter back, but I’m willing to listen to what the creators are trying to say, because I know it’ll be worth it. Trust these guys, they’ve earned it. They know what they’re doing.