One of the television shows I watch online is called Fringe. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it’s a sci-fi/thriller that tells the story of two alternate universes colliding. The story is told through the viewpoints of a special division of Homeland Security/FBI, starring Anna Torv as Olivia Dunham, Joshua Jackson as Peter Bishop, John Noble as Walter Bishop, Jasika Nicole as Astrid Farnsworth, and Lance Reddick as Philip Broyles.
This series compels me on many levels. As a science fiction piece, it questions scientific progress and the limits we place on ourselves (or fail to place on ourselves) based on moral and ethical grounds. As a drama, it explores the complex relationships of Walter and Peter Bishop, who are father and son, touching on issues as heart-rending as abuse, kidnapping, and the need for time to develop deep familial bonds. It also explores the love-story between Peter and Olivia. As a social commentary, it not only explores the good vs. evil dynamic, but questions what truly is evil by showing how two diametrically opposed forces can be both right and wrong simultaneously. It also explores how we, as a society, respond to and treat the mentally ill. Walter is insane, and his experiences are highlighted in many episodes—from his frustration when coping with his impaired thought processes to the way the “treatments” he received during his forced institutionalization caused more harm than good, from the way his son feels put-upon by having to “babysit” his father to Olivia’s insistence that Walter is more capable than Peter gives him credit for. There are many compelling elements to this story, and its complexity has sometimes excused them dropping the ball in one way or another (at least, in my opinion).
However, I’m less forgiving regarding the most recent episode, Os (Season 3, Episode 16), which involves a man experimenting on disabled individuals (users of wheelchairs, particularly those with muscular dystrophy) to “fix” their mobility problems by making them essentially weightless. While the man considers his a noble effort to “save” his son the treatments are unfortunately toxic and have killed several people. The man intends to perfect the mixture by continuing his deadly experiments before he administers it to his son, who also uses a wheelchair.
I would like to say this show passes. There is one poignant scene where the son, for whom the man has done all of this, comes to the prison to see his father. The father uses “fix” in his explanation, and the son is devastated when he realizes his father sees him (and others like him) as broken and in need of fixing. The son tells his father he was happy, because he went to bed every night knowing he had a father who loved him. The implication as the son rolls away is that the son no longer believes this.
This scene—which is the final point of this particular storyline—could make up for a lot. But, it’s not enough. While the characters regret the deaths of those who were experimented on, earlier in the episode Peter describes their willingness to participate as “a deal with the devil anyone would make,” referring to how the subjects, i.e. the disabled men who became weightless, had to steal the ingredients for their treatment. After all, who wouldn’t want to go from being bound in a wheelchair to being able to fly? That kind of ablist assumption is intolerable, especially coming from one of the heroes of the story.
Compounding that is the language used in the show recap (emphasis added):
“Meanwhile, Krick watches a wheelchair basketball game, cheering on a player named Michael, who turns out to be his son. Vince, another wheelchair-bound youth, watches wistfully nearby.”
“The doctor dodges Olivia and Peter, who find the thief's partially dissected corpse ... and a walk-in freezer containing more bodies. All had toxic levels of osmium in their blood - and suffered from muscular dystrophy.”
I’ll give them credit for trying—I think the creators of the show really did try to express something of value—but, they failed to overcome their own ablist assumptions, which spoiled the final effect. In essence, it is not the father’s motivation or his assumptions that are questioned, but the lengths to which he would go—sacrificing other people’s sons to save his own—that are discouraged. The final confrontation between father and son cannot make up for the majority of the episode, which reinforced the assumption that people with disabilities are dying to become able-bodied and justifiably so.