“It’s one of the inherent pitfalls of being a scientist, trying to maintain that distinction between God’s domain and our own.”
– Walter

Fringe takes place in a world where science is king. Multi-billion dollar corporation Massive Dynamic has managed to harness the power of science in order to achieve unparalleled financial success. Their innovations have pushed boundaries of the realm of possibility and have improved thousands of lives all across the globe.

But Massive Dynamic also develops frightening new weapons systems for governments with deep pockets. Their immense power has allowed them to influence election results, and they even run private armies in foreign countries. Furthermore, if the final few seconds of “The Same Old Story” are any indication, then the company also engages in research that is deeply disturbing, if not grossly unethical. Thus, Massive Dynamic embodies one of Fringe’s central ideas: the power of science to do great good, but also to cause great harm.

Many Fringe episodes follow a familiar format: science is used to commit a crime (or do harm), and science is used to catch the culprit (or do good). “The Same Old Story” is no different, and it finds Olivia, Peter, and Walter investigating a newborn baby who grew to old age within the span of four hours. For Walter, his work with the FBI may be a way of atoning for the scientific sins he committed over seventeen years ago, when bolstered by the enthusiasm and naïveté of relative youth, he flouted the implicit ethical rules that govern most scientists’ research. No doubt he was encouraged and enabled by those around him. In this episode, we find out that he conducted experiments on behalf of the U.S. Defense Department to determine if soldiers could essentially be grown in test tubes, an endeavour that most would consider immoral. Walter has aged now, and while he is still elated to run complicated experiments and use fancy equipment, he carries with him some new wisdom. He now understands that though science itself may be limitless, there are indeed ethical boundaries that impose constraints on research.

Unfortunately, few have had the occasion to meet the new Walter Bishop. Dr. Klaus Penrose, who worked with Walter on the soldier-growing project, remembers a version of Walter who was unfettered by any sort of ethical oversight. He believes that Walter being imprisoned in a mental institution was the best thing that ever could have happened to humanity. Unwilling to continue with research that he thought was wrong, Penrose resigned from his job with the U.S. government.

But how then to explain his apparent hypocrisy in doing something wrong by using the tools of science to kill young women for their pituitary glands in order to save his son? As will come to be even clearer in later episodes, the bond between father and son is special; it can override any and all ethical considerations. Thus, while Penrose is aware that encouraging his son to kill his victims is wrong, he is willing to set that concern aside if it means saving his son’s life. He may even view it as a way to correct a past misdeed, to reverse the rapid aging process that he helped develop.

The central relationship at the heart of Fringe is one of father and son, between Walter and Peter Bishop. As Walter hints at in this episode, like Penrose, he may have crossed some ethical boundaries in order to save his son. The consequences of that transgression could be enormous. But in Walter’s mind, even if he has to spend the rest of his life atoning for what he did (whatever it might have been), it will have been worth it, for an ethical violation is a small price to pay in order to save one’s son.

For more information on the Fringe rewatch project, please click here.

Advertisements