Monday, September 28, 2015

Masculinity Monday: 'Fringe' and the Complexities of Fatherhood

You know, for a show that really just felt like an updated version of the X Files, and for a creator as insistently deaf to any frustrations people might have with how he portrays female characters (see: JJ Abrams and anything written about Star Trek: Into Darkness), Fringe is a shockingly complex and interesting show.

It's complex on a number of levels - most of the plot serves as a dissection of normal science fiction tropes while also appreciating those same tropes and incorporating them into a larger mythos - but the aspect I find most interesting is how the show deals with gender. For starters, it has a female protagonist, Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), a woman who seems like she ought to hit every button of a badly written "strong female character", but who's actually just really cool and badass.

Olivia, who is an FBI agent, becomes embroiled in an investigation of the weird science crimes that plague our world when her FBI partner/secret boyfriend is killed while they investigate a horrific act of bioterrorism. Only what turns out to be true is that said partner/boyfriend isn't exactly dead and wasn't exactly who she thought he was, and said bioterrorism attack was actually part of a series of strange science fiction events that the FBI calls "The Pattern."

So Olivia recruits the best possible people she can think of to help her solve the case: renowned mad scientist Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble in what I consider his best role) and Dr. Bishop's son, Peter (Joshua Jackson). I mean, she doesn't actually want Peter to come along, but she needs him because only a relative can check Dr. Bishop out of the mental institution he's been staying in for the last seventeen years.

I wasn't kidding when I called him a mad scientist.

This is the plot of the first season or so. Olivia, Peter, and Walter fight crime with the help of Junior Agent Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole) and Agent Broyles (Lance Reddick) and mysterious executive at a science corporation Nina Sharp (Blair Brown). The crimes they fight are weird science fiction type crimes and they do it all from their hidden lab in the basement of Harvard University. Sound kind of like an episode of Scooby Doo crossed with the X Files? Good. I'm pretty sure that's what they were going for.

Still, it becomes clear pretty early on that the show has more up its sleeves than just moderately entertaining "case of the week" storytelling. And this is also where it gets more complex in its examinations of gender. I'll talk more about how Olivia is kind of my favorite person ever in another article - suffice to say that she might fit stereotypes about "strong female characters", but she's also one of the single most fully drawn characters I've ever seen on TV full stop - today we're going to talk about what this show has to say about masculinity.

See, masculinity in this show is actually really wrapped up in fatherhood. What does it mean to be a father, and even more, what does it mean to be a good father? And that question, in turn, becomes the backbone of the entire series. So, sorry to say that in order to discuss this with you, I'm kind of going to have to spoil the whole series. Whoops. 


For the majority of the first season, Peter and Walter have a very contentious relationship. Though not a lot of details are given, we know that Peter does not like his father. He doesn't even deign to call him "father". Upon being informed that his father needs to be released from a mental institution in the very first episode, Peter is unwilling to so much as sign a piece of paper having to do with his dear old dad. Olivia has to blackmail him into helping. As the season wears on, Peter begrudgingly puts up with Walter's antics, but it's clear he kind of hates his dad.

His father, after all, was a workaholic mad scientist who made his mother miserable and killed someone when he was a child. Peter grew up with a father who was cold and callous and genuinely cruel at times, a genius, sure, but not the kind of person you want around your kid. The fact that Walter is different now, that seventeen years in a mental institution has changed him irrevocably, makes little impression on Peter at first. He's abrupt and angry and rude and dismissive of Walter, and it's not hard to see why.

Eventually, though, even the hardest hearts can thaw, and so Peter becomes a bit gentler to his father. He learns to distinguish between Walter then and Walter now. That makes it all the more heartbreaking when, towards the end of the first season, we discover that there's something deeply wrong in that relationship, something Walter hasn't told his son: Peter is dead. Peter has been dead for a very long time.

Or, at least, that's what it looks like. While on a quest to stop the Pattern by repairing the hole in time and space that he himself tore twenty-five years ago, Walter and a strange "Observer" stop at a grave in Upstate New York. The grave is that of Peter Bishop, who died when he was a little boy. But that of course doesn't make sense. Peter is alive and well and in Boston. So what gives? 

The answer comes to us over the course of the next season and it is absolutely devastating. Peter did die when he was a little boy. Peter Bishop was always a very sickly child and when he was nine or so he just didn't get better. Walter dedicated himself to finding a cure, but couldn't find anything. His son died. But. 

Prior to this point, Walter had invented a window that would let him look into a parallel universe. In that universe he also found a Peter who was sick and a Walter trying to save him. But this Walter was close to succeeding, if only he hadn't been distracted at the last minute by the appearance of an Observer in his lab.* Our Walter is devastated by this realization, that the cure has been found and then immediately lost again, so he decides to do something about it. He couldn't save his Peter, but he can save this other Peter.

Which is how we come to Walter, on a frozen lake bed, tearing a whole in the fabric of two universes to save one little boy. Except everything goes wrong. The medicine is smashed in his journey through, so Walter has to take Peter with him to save him. Then the machine falls through the ice of the lake and Walter and Peter almost drown - it's only the Observer coming and fishing them out that saves them. Then Walter's wife stumbles across her husband saving an alternate version of their child, and she just can't bring herself to let him go again.

All of that is to say that in the story of Walter and Peter's relationship, Peter might be missing a few key details. Especially seeing as he's repressed the hell out of all of this.

As I'm sure you've gathered from this, the relationship between Walter and Peter is what comes to form the backbone of the series. Peter, upon discovering his true heritage and realizing that his father basically ended the world in order to save him, has some processing to do. The Pattern, after all, is nothing more than a spiral of cracks in their universe, all spreading outward through time and space from where Walter brought him through. 

And the malicious attacks they've experienced are actually war cries from people on the other universe who think they are fighting for their very existences as they try to repair what was broken when Walter came through and ended their world. Later on, Peter determines that the only way to solve this, the only way to fix what was broken on his behalf, is to sacrifice himself by stepping into a machine that can bridge between the two universes, but in so doing he finds himself written out of existence.

Seriously, I'm not making this up. The whole framework of the show is actually about Walter and Peter Bishop trying to get their crap together and figure out how they feel about each other. Sure, there's a mess of episodes about Peter and Olivia as well, but their relationship is always much more secure (even when Olivia gets trapped in an alternate universe and Peter accidentally dates her double). It's the ties between Walter and Peter that are frayed and insecure and always in danger of snapping. 

Season four sees Walter haunted by visions of a man he doesn't recognize, and since this Walter was unsuccessful in saving either version of his son, he's hesitant to believe Peter even when he does appear. By the time he finally comes to agree that Peter is his son, it's almost too late. Peter is nearly killed or lost or broken. Season five sees them together once more, but it's in the face of a greater threat. It's with the understanding that both Peter and Walter are in danger of losing themselves in a fight against overwhelming odds, and that their love for each other might not be enough.

Fathers and sons. Or, really, fathers and children. For all that the show spends four seasons examining what it means for fathers to love their sons, digging deep into Walter and Peter's relationship but also showing us glimpses of other relationships like Broyles and his son Christopher, the fifth season shows us who Peter is as a father. In season five we meet Etta (Georgina Haig), Peter and Olivia's daughter. While Peter and Olivia and Walter (and Astrid) were trapped in amber, stuck in stasis and neither aging nor dying, Etta grew up. We meet her fully formed as an adult and a Fringe Agent, but also as a little girl delighted to have her parents with her again.

It's clear from the get-go that Peter and Etta are very close. They get each other. We also find out that losing Etta - she went missing when she was four, just before all of them went into amber - drove Peter mad with grief. It tore him and Olivia apart. When she dies again, this time as an adult, it rends Peter's world apart. He has no idea how to function in a world that would give him his child only to take her away again. 

Throughout all of this, Walter himself is contemplating his feelings for Peter. Peter is his son, after all, but Walter knows better than anyone else the destructive power of grief. Walter knows that one cannot privilege the life of one child, even one's own child, over those of everyone else in the entire universe. 

The show even uses two new characters, Donald and his son Michael, to examine this parent-child bone. Or, really, the bond of the father and his child. Donald knows that his son Michael must be sacrificed in order to save the human race. He only asks that he be allowed to sacrifice himself along with him so that they can be together and so that Michael won't be scared.

I think that for all of its flaws and failures and occasional inconsistencies in the writing or tone, Fringe had a lot to say about what it means to be a father and what it ultimately means to be a son. And I respect what they did say.

First, the show made it clear that while it is good to love your children and mourn them if/when they die, it is not good to make your child an idol. Walter and Peter both have their moments of elevating their dead children above every other human who has ever lived, and that's really not okay. I mean, it's an exaggerated example, obviously, but it also gets at something very true in all of us. 

There's this idea that what it means to be a good father is to hold onto your child as the most precious thing. That no one should be able to blame a man for the things he does to protect his kids. No, this show says. That's not true. Even more, it argues that the child might not appreciate having such atrocities thrown at their feet.

Second, the series looks at what a "good father" actually is. Is Peter any less of a good father because he's openly emotional and fulfills more of a nurturing role while Olivia is the protector and the disciplinarian and the clear leader of their household? Hell no! Peter is a great dad, lapses in sanity aside. Gender roles don't matter so much as loving your child and appreciating them for who they really are. Peter is a good dad because he never demands that his daughter change to suit his needs, he just shows her that he believes she can be more than she might think.

Third, it goes into the idea that there is no single view of what fatherhood looks like. In Walter and Peter's case, it looks like a relationship that blooms very late in life. I mean, they aren't restored, not really, until Peter is well in his thirties and Walter is in his sixties. Their relationship is slow to grow, but eventually it comes together. 

Then there's Peter and Etta. They bond, but in spurts and pieces. He doesn't even see her for twenty-one years, but when they reunite they learn how to be father and child again. Or what about Donald and Michael? Donald cannot understand Michael fully, but he loves him all the same. Broyles is willing to sacrifice anything, even his self-respect, for Christopher. And so on and so on and so on. 

Finally, I think the most profound thing that Fringe ultimately has to say about fatherhood is that it changes you. Simply put, it changes you a lot. Walter in particular becomes a completely different person because he needs to be someone who his son can admire. He feels a need to win his son's respect and deserve his love, and so he comes back from the brink and becomes a man worthy of that love. If nothing else, fatherhood has the potential to make you a better man. It might not. It might also transform you into the destroyer of worlds, or a man your child fears and hates, but the potential is there to become something better and more than you were before.

I guess what I'm getting at is this: fatherhood is rarely considered as inextricably linked to masculinity as motherhood is to femininity, but that doesn't mean it's not important. It really really is. By examining the different permutations of fatherhood and how being a father affects what it means to be a man, Fringe adds new layers to our understanding of masculinity. 

The relationship between Peter and Walter, which underwrites the whole show, is one of deep feeling, hard-won emotions, and a lot of crying. And all of that is okay. Better than okay, it's great!

The tenderness. The gentleness. The way they refuse to be ashamed of the depth of their feelings for each other. At their better moments (which are, sadly, few and far between in the early seasons), Peter and Walter have a love story that rivals any romantic saga. These are two men who really really love each other and have fought to keep that love alive when their past actions and the constant threat of death tried to keep them at odds. 

Saying that Peter and Walter love each other is no knock on either of them and no detriment to their relationships with other people. In large part Olivia falls in love with Peter because of how he changes in attitude towards his father. Their love for each other enhances their other relationships, rather than detracting from them.

These are men in touch with their emotions. Yes, they live in a world very different than ours and absolutely yes their lives are strange and hard to relate to,  but the example they set, of working for love and of finding the balance of a healthy relationship with one's children, is worth paying attention to.

*The Observers are another thing altogether and are interesting enough that the fifth season deals with them pretty exclusively. Suffice to say that Obvservers are like super powerful time-traveling aliens/future humans who come back in time to witness important events in science. The reasons why they do that become clear later on in the show and aren't super relevant to our topic today.


  1. Sound kind of like an episode of Scooby Doo crossed with the X Files?

    Early on, they call this in the show, with Broyles making a reference to the "X" Division. In a lot of ways, it's what the X-Files *should* have been.

    (I have to confess, I've spent far too much time coming up with ways to fit Fringe, Alias, and Lost into one setting).

    Eventually, though, even the hardest hearts can thaw, and so Peter becomes a bit gentler to his father.

    The episode where Walter had to go back to the mental hospital was a great stage in this. Peter still disliked him at this point, but found it impossible to remain unmoved by the way Walter broke the moment he set foot in there. It wasn't so much warming up as setting his hostility aside, but it laid a foundation for later.

    [While it's not about fatherhood, I like how the show treats Walter's mental illness]

    Come to think of it, that is relevant - because Walter spends most of the series broken by his guilt and illness, Peter has to take on a lot of the role of father in caring for him. How he grows into that role parallels how Walter recovers his own sense of fatherhood.

    Then we've got Walternate. Also grieved by the loss of his son, and burdened by the horrors overtaking his world, he's grown colder and harder. Except when it comes to children and those who lose loved ones - but only in the abstract. When it comes to Peter himself, or Peter and Fauxlivia's son, he can't or won't turn off from thinking tactically. But then he's trying to save his world, and putting your loved ones ahead of the whole world is what started this mess. Like Walter, he's broken as a father, but completely differently.

    I guess what I'm getting at is this: fatherhood is rarely considered as inextricably linked to masculinity as motherhood is to femininity, but that doesn't mean it's not important.

    Rarely, but you're right, Fringe definitely does treat it as such. You didn't talk much about Donald, but back when he was September (the spoilers have been coming thick and fast, so I feel free adding some :) ), love for his son was his very first emotion - so much so that he had no context for what he was experiencing, just an indefinable conviction that "the boy" was important and had to live. Becoming a father, and loving his son, is literally what made him human.

    The love August developed for Christine doesn't translate well into any human kind of love, but it was sparked by an event in her childhood and grew through watching her whole life unfold. So I'm inclined to think adoptive parent is probably a closer match than anything else.

  2. This was a really interesting read, and quite refreshing after I recently read some ranty posts that just referred to Walter and Peter as male tropes that took over the narrative...but I found it more complex then that. Especially as Peter and Olivia's relationship is a little atypical; not only are they rarely sexualized, but it's also mostly from Olivia's POV, and it develops over a longer period, and when they have problems they try to talk about it and he allows her to have her space.

    I binged Fringe over the summer and LOVED it, and I'm so excited to hear what you have to say about Olivia. She means a lot to me, and I love that her story keeps coming back to the powers that are actually activated by her own fear and vulnerability and emotions. She doesn't have an innate grasp and confidence in them either, and the parts where Walter/Peter/Nina encouraged her were just so inspiring. I also really liked how she pulls her hair back a lot, because I feel like on TV you usually see women who are always decked out, but in reality, sometimes you just want to pull your hair back and get on with life.