Last weekend, a man told me he was never attracted to church because “I’m a man of science.”
Maybe it’s because I was awaiting tonight’s series finale of Fox’s Fringe, but all I could think of was Walter Bishop (John Noble). As the show now ends, it’s clear its central arc all along has been the story of this humbled and earnest man of science turned seeker.
When Fringe began five seasons ago, Walter was an absent-minded and broken old man who had spent 17 years in a mental asylum. Often confused, lost and downright kooky, it was hard to see how this mess was the brilliant scientist many claimed him to be. What happened?
Fringe withheld the answer until its fourth season. And in revealing Walter’s back story, Fringe cemented itself as fictional television’s most nuanced, sincere and personal exploration of science and faith.
On a show all about mad scientists, Walter was once the maddest - a genius controlled by arrogance and entitlement. He believed his intellect made him a god. When wrecked by terrible tragedy, Bishop used his knowledge of fringe sciences to commit a heart-wrenchingly awful act - and it changed him. "Before [that], I had never believed in God," he later revealed. "But it occurred to me … that my actions had betrayed Him."
What led to his present state was Walter’s response to his sin, a startlingly literal sci-fi twist on Mark 9:43-48. Attributing his sin to his superior intellect, forbidden knowledge and unstoppable hubris, Walter did not cut off a hand or pluck out an eye. He surgically removed part of his brain. And so, all of the madness was the result of a man’s self-imposed penance, a desperate act of self-transformation.
Last season's finale hammered home the consequences of playing God by showing what Walter could have become had he not repented, had he not changed. The message was powerful. Still, I had an uneasy feeling. Yes, Walter’s story depicted a man recognizing God’s law and changing. But it seemed hollow. After all, this was not God’s transformation. It was man-made. Of course a man without eyes can no longer see, but it doesn’t mean the desire to lust or envy is gone. Was this real redemption?
This idea was tested this season when - in order to save the world - Walter replaced the removed parts of his brain. He was, as his son Peter (Joshua Jackson) explained, “so afraid of becoming the man he used to be.” And that’s what happened. The hubris, the defiance and the arrogance grew back. Disgusted with himself, Walter demanded the surgery be repeated. After all, he knew no other way of transformation.
Then something happened. A strange boy, believed to be the savior for an oppressed world, touched his face. Like the lion who tears away Eustace’s scales in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, this boy transformed Walter when he could not himself. The boy, Walter explained last week, gave him two things: humility and true appreciation for relationship, for love.
Fringe still has two hours left to make its final statement, but these instruments of change seem much more true to the God I know than does self-imposed penance.
“What is this boy?” asked Peter when he saw the change in his father. “How could he do this for you?”
The answer might have been hinted at in the very next scene. As adults talked about how the boy might save the world, he quietly listened to a music box. It played the English folk tune “Greensleeves,” a tune more commonly known today as “What Child is This?”
Come, peasant, king, to own him
The King of kings salvation brings
Let loving hearts enthrone him.