“…people have unique tolerances to electrical stimuli, mine for instance is extremely high; Peter’s unusually low.”
- walter bishop (season 1).
It starts with a fire or maybe it starts further back, beginnings are treacherous by nature, fraught with unexpected explosions; linear time doesn’t exist but the thought’s a comfort, to make sense of a small drop of water in a larger whirlpool. (“I think you’re a little mad,” Elizabeth declares). Walter’s thirty-two when he meets her, drawn by the richness of her accent, her husky laugh, Elizabeth’s elegant, out of his league Belly said, but she’s smitten, caught by the lightning intelligence bottled in Walter’s eyes. It’s a beginning or a diversion, in another world they might have met at University; the first time Walter understood the concept of fear was when she marched through his dorm-room, her eyes stained red. (“Harold’s overdosed. If you use again, Walter, LSD, anything, I swear I’m leaving you.”) In this scenario, Walter’s nineteen and he’s loved Elizabeth since the moment he saw her, the drug paraphernalia that’s crept into his dorm-room vanishes overnight, the future Secretary of Defense never looks back. It ends with a fire as well in some ways, but that just leads us back to the original point, perception is a tricky thing. Our kids are happy kids, a slogan on a wall shouts out – and in the future, Olivia will stare at it and think she has cause to disagree. The Observers know there are no beginnings or endings, the complexities of human relations stretches far into the past, bends into the future, like refracted light around a solid object, shimmering with potential beauty.
Elizabeth will cup her hand over a child’s skull, stare at his screwed up visage and think Cherub-cheeks. Words are playful, leapfrogging over innuendo and double meaning, they’re rendered decipherable by the guiding emotion. In this instance, Cherub-cheeks is comparable to I love bacon – neither of which reveal what is intended. When her son is returned, Elizabeth stands by his bedside, fixing form to memory, Peter wasn’t a pretty boy, he hasn’t grown up to be a pretty man but he’s tall, lean, and in truth carries no extra weight, what little he does is found in his face. Cherub-cheeks, Elizabeth thinks, and places her hand across his brow; lets the warmth of her adult son bleed into her palm, the thought’s chased by another, desolate with creeping sadness, I was displaced, too.
(In another world Elizabeth will stare as a coffin lowers into the December ground, cushioned on a cloud of shock, but that’s sleight of hand, so pay attention; Peter was torn from his reality, deposited into another world, and any attempted journey across universes without the protection of cortexiphan leads to a damaged mind indeed, Walter could attest to this fact – except he spends seventeen years in a mental institution).
In 1985, Elizabeth will spend twenty-four hours with the police after Peter’s abduction. She will tell the sequence of events that lead to the intruder in order, reverse order and completely out of order, depending on how the FBI try to trick her. She will sit on the edge of a couch and feel Walter’s stare burrow into her skull. “What did the man look like?” “He appeared as my husband.” “You understand there’s video footage, clearly showing Walter Bishop at the company lab?” “Yes,” Elizabeth will say, voice stripped raw with exhaustion. When she’s allowed to leave, Elizabeth walks to the kitchen, stares at the whiskey bottle before making green tea.
A sleepless week passes while they wait for a ransom demand, when none’s forthcoming the FBI presence shifts from conciliatory to active suspicion.
“What do you reckon?” a voice asks at the magazine rack, bored, muffled by distance. “Honestly, I think the mother offed him. The poor kid’s lying in the woods somewhere, buried under a shallow grave.” Elizabeth’s trying to decide between red or white wine when she overhears the conversation, the bottle she exams drops, splinters across the floor like spilled blood. Her lungs constrict until she can’t breathe, twin spots of color blossoming high on her cheekbones. She’s nearly doubled over, pierced with agony, because dear god, it must be what everyone is thinking. When Walter’s hand comes to rest on her spine, she flinches. “I believe you,” he says, resolute. “Do you hear me, Elizabeth, I believe you.” In the minutes it takes Elizabeth to regain her composure, to find inner equilibrium, Walter’s presence never falters. They walk out of the supermarket together, straight into the floodlights of a jackal media.
In years to come, when their marriage is null, void, Elizabeth will think she never loved Walter more than in that moment. Six months later, her husband finds out where Peter is, her version of events confirmed, although the public's never informed of parallel realities. For Elizabeth, the disdain people show in her presence (the particular brand of hatred reserved for mothers who kill their children, or are suspected of doing so) is fixed; conversations stop mid-flow; looks turn appraising, the way people turn their shoulders, these are things Elizabeth learns to navigate. She grows stronger under the weight of the public’s veiled cynicism; it’s her geological framework not to bend to their will. Elizabeth won’t carry guilt wrongly assigned; the only thing capable of destroying Elizabeth is her own internal monologue. When Peter meets her he’s as shy as a twelve year old, slipping from pillar to post, Elizabeth who is equally chagrined and bemused, wonders if Peter’s trying not to spook her. “I love bacon,” he says. Elizabeth, fluent in the complexities of human language, the hidden intent, wraps her fingers around his hand.
For the record Walter did go insane, a process stretched over five long years. It starts when he reopens the viewing window into the alternate world, (or maybe it started earlier when he first crossed over, or when he lost a son, when the constant exposure to narcotics began to warp his train of thought, beginnings are tricky things, sliding backwards on a shifting terrain), and finds his doppelganger staring at him. Detection alarms flash green, green, red in the background, a man with his eyes, his face looks up, fingers interlaced, and says calmly. “I’m going to destroy you.” Words are playful, full of trickery, leapfrogging over innuendo, on occasion they mean exactly as intended.
This same face follows him to Saint Claire’s, sits on the edge of his bed, he will smile from across the balcony, eyes wintry cold. When faced with the threat, Walter will dismantle the viewing window and scatter it across four seperate states in safety deposit boxes (William has another stashed away, but Bell will never tell, his empire is built on stolen technology, his riches formed by reverse engineering concepts not entirely of his own making; Bell has a young man’s blindness, gaze fixed on his marching feet). Walter will stop trying to send Peter home (the alternate world is self-destructing, Walter didn’t save his son to condemn him to death) he becomes obsessed with the concept of war, with how to distinguish us from them. It’s not about Peter; it’s about the destruction of worlds. In Saint Claire’s Walter will remember it was Elizabeth who named their son, it derives from the Greek meaning ‘rock’, apt, since the boy he stole is a weight hanging from the necks of those who took him, drowning them individually, one by one. (Olivia, too, researched Peter’s name, looking for possible aliases after he fled, but unlike the cruel honesty of Walter’s thought she perceives ‘rock’ in an entirely different way). Walter sees faces in a crowd; he begins to sees those same faces everywhere. How to tell us from them?
“They have a glow,” a university student says in 1979, “They have a shimmer,” a girl with mottled bruises says in 1985. Electro-magnetic fields, Walter thinks, excited, frantic with insanity in 1991. Walter can’t concentrate on any one thing for more than a few seconds, he feels like he’s being followed, a constant itch between his shoulder blades, his arguments with Elizabeth grow exponentially, he starts to live out of the lab, fails to come home for a fishing trip, theories, solutions, counter-traps race through his waking thoughts.
If electro-magnetic fields are a branching point between realities then Walter needs to investigate. He has a living sample - the only one in this reality - and he’s trying to save the world. (Oh god, Belly, what have I done?) “Would you like to help me with a project, son?” Peter’s small for his age, he won’t hit his growth spurt until almost sixteen. Walter, who was once described as a myopic son of a bitch, doesn’t see the fishing tackle stashed on his son’s bookshelf, the same way he never notices Elizabeth’s drinking. “Sure,” his boy says, wary, if Walter’s not interested in Peter’s hobbies, maybe he should partake in his. (I will promise you this. I will be the best mother I possibly can be for you. I’ll take care of you. I’ll protect you).
Peter’s age spared him, the concrete bunkers he built around his mind, but he has a low tolerance to electrical stimuli. In 2011 memories long buried are rattled loose, chased by a lightning storm inside his frame, placing him near the Machine when those memories only just surfaced was questionable and for the record, the Observers are not impressed with Sam Weiss’. In 1991, Belly places a hand over Walter’s shoulder. (“The decision is simple, old friend. The police are investigating Carla's death, rest assured charges will be laid, so the only thing you need to decide is this: who do you want to raise Peter?”)
It starts with a fire, in some ways for Elizabeth it ends with a fire too. Peter knew he was from another reality, knew it down to his bones; he calls Elizabeth mum because she shelters him, in the strange world Peter finds himself, with airplanes instead of blimps, it’s the easiest way to reciprocate – unlike his father, Peter’s not oblivious to his mother’s emotions, the way her hands shake before the four o clock whiskey. (“Einai kalytero anthropo apo ton patera toy,” Elizabeth whispers, anguished. Peter will whisper the words back, fingers on her hand, a slow tap like the tapestry of music). Peter wakes up the following morning after helping his father in the lab with swathes of memory completely missing, he hurts as if his muscles have seized in sleep, Elizabeth stands beside the bed, corpse white, except for a smear of ash across her face.
When Peter meets her in 2010, he sees a woman who’s been defined by allegations, who refuses to drop her gaze for any one, Elizabeth knows the only voice worth listening to is her own. Elizabeth’s like stone, the grinding pressures of a smothering earth leaving a perfect diamond in its wake. Her story doesn’t end here; it follows on.
(In 1991 Elizabeth will stare as a coffin is lowered into the December ground, cushioned on a cloud of shock, her nails will leave a perfect half crescent on the inside of her palm. She's cold with the knowledge the only voice worth listening to is her own. She set the fire to make Walter stop, stop researching the differences, stop experimenting on their son, to destroy every scrap of research in that damned lab…but she didn't account for Carla. Elizabeth will drop a single flower onto the grave of Ms. Warrens - lab assistant, friend, good Christian who tried to stop her husband from crossing over, from stealing a son - and three years later take her own life).
“…you used to do this to me when I was a kid, you’d strap me down and shock me…”
- peter bishop (season 1)