Over the last few years, I’ve become a fairly devoted fan of the TV show Fringe, now in its fifth and final season on Fox. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched it—I get the sense its ratings aren’t too hot, which is why it’s ending—but it’s surprisingly good, particularly considering it comes from the J.J. Abrams wonder factory, better known for creating mysteries than solving them.
Anyway, Fringe revolves around the lives of three people: Olivia Dunham, a tough FBI agent with a photographic memory; Peter Bishop, a rebellious young scientist; and Walter Bishop, Peter’s father, an aging scientist who’s spent the last couple of decades in an insane asylum. Together they investigate “Fringe events,” bizarre crimes with a far-out scientific angle—people who suddenly transform into monster hedgehogs, killers who can liquefy your brain, shape-shifters, and so on. Of course, there’s an overarching mythology-conspiracy tying everything together, slowly revealed over the course of many episodes (spoiler: it involves multiple universes and an ominous post-human race called the Observers).
Quite satisfyingly, the mythology pretty much holds together: This ain’t lost. But what makes the show fun to watch are those main characters—particularly Walter Bishop, an acid-dropping, milkshake-concocting, bathrobe-wearing genius (played by the wonderfully crinkly-faced John Noble)—and the consistency of the themes that emerge from their interactions. The first seasons are about Olivia coming to terms with her childhood traumas, and about Walter’s attempts to rebuild his relationship with his distrustful son Peter, who didn’t really appreciate Dad’s going crazy when he was a teen. The tension builds across the seasons as we learn that Walter, the genius scientist, had done terrible things in his earlier years—experiments that, while seemingly high-minded, were truly unethical, destroyed the relationships everyone is now trying to mend, and may have led to many of the bizarre fringe events the team is now trying to solve.
Again and again through the show, parents like Walter (and, later, Olivia and Peter) use all their formidable powers to try to create a better world for the future—for their children—and yet hubris reigns: The world they create turns out to be more dangerous, threatening not only their own children’s lives but everyone’s. They are geniuses, highly professional law-enforcement agents, and devoted whiskey drinkers, and yet, no matter how many battles they win, against other rogue scientists, against hedgehog men, against the disintegrating fabric of the universe, THERE IS NOTHING THEY CAN DO. All will lose the people they love—their children, their parents, everything they love.
As I watched the show last night, this theme was perhaps more in my mind than usual. The massacre at Sandy Hook, which only slowly filtered into my attention through the course of the day, had left me horrified, uncomfortable, but also weirdly numb. I can’t imagine being one of those parents, learning their children had been killed in an utterly senseless slaughter—or rather, I can all too easily imagine it. These things happen, more and more often it seems—just that morning, some guy killed 22 kids at a school in China with a knife—and it feels like it’s only a matter of time before it happens to us. What were once “fringe events” are now daily reality.
And so I ask myself (as many other parents are probably asking): What can I do about it? And I answer myself: not much. Unless I want to quit my job, home-school my daughters, and never leave them alone for a single second, they are going to be out there in the world—at day care, in kindergarten, hanging out with their friends at libraries, malls, movie theaters, boarding airplanes for far-off lands, or just walking down the wrong street on the wrong day. I can teach Sasha and Sandy (not the most popular name now, I guess) to be ready for calamity—and indeed, Sasha’s school did so yesterday, having the kids practice hiding under a shelf and telling them, according to Sasha, that they did a “fabulous” job.
But readiness only goes so far, and hiding under a shelf is no guarantee that some 20-year-old with Asperger’s won’t slaughter my child for reasons no one will ever really understand. There are matters beyond my control—beyond all our control.
Or are they? Clamping down on guns would help. Improving access to mental-heath care would help. I guess. Insert whatever practical-sounding, reasonable approaches you like here—I’d vote for them, maybe even fight for them. Those things would help.
Or not. Maybe those things would just help preserve our illusion of control. Maybe, as with Walter Bishop, our best intentions will bring unintended consequences. Maybe we’ve fucked this world up so deeply in the past 50 years that there’s nothing we can do but cross our fingers we’ll somehow make it out the other end, live good, long lives, and watch our children grow into adults and start their own families. That’s what I hope for at least, but then I’m seized with a final fear: that the day after my own death, some unspeakable calamity will befall the loved ones I’ve left behind, that despite all I’ve done to keep them safe, their universe will be torn asunder, and that it will never be fully repaired, not even five seasons later.
I don’t mean this to be as utterly depressing as it sounds. In fact, it’s somewhat liberating. Knowing you can’t control the universe, knowing that you will die, that your children will die, that these are the most certain of certainties in our world means that we shouldn’t worry about them, that we should care instead about the moments we have together, however short and uncertain they may be. My daughters could be killed at school next week—or they might not. As likely as the calamities may seem, the lack of calamity is probably just as likely, maybe even more likely. We could all just go on and on, living happy, boring lives, and dying slightly less happy, but equally boring deaths, for generation after generation. So go, eat, drink, be merry, listen to the Flaming Lips, and as President Obama said yesterday, “Hug your children tighter tonight.” And every night.