Let it never be said the show took the safe path this season...but where has it led us?
Leonard Nimoy of "Fringe"
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So, yeah, that happened.
By “that” I mean a few things. Primarily, I mean the second half of the two-part finale
“Brave New World.” But I also mean the fourth season of “Fringe
” in general, which I think will go down as a case study in how following one’s muse sometimes allows you to lose your way. I’ve been watching a lot of the reaction online the past few days to announcements of renewals, pick-ups, and cancellations of various television shows. And it strikes me just how much people feel invested in those programs. Sure, I’ve always known about that investment, but it’s felt particularly acute over the past 48 hours. But there’s a difference in feeling invested
in them and actually owning
them. None of us watching these programs own them. It might feel that way at times, but it’s just not true. So when I say that “Fringe” bitterly disappointed me for nearly an entire year, I want it clear that I respected the decision of the show to go this route even as they took it further and further away from what I used to love. They had no obligation to make any show other than the one they wanted, and they absolutely achieved that goal.
It’s a crucial distinction to make, and one that hopefully makes the last few months of writing about the show less about a personal grudge and more about analyzing the ways that shows can sometimes go completely off the rails. You can leverage many complaints against this show, but you can never, ever say it didn’t hold true to its own vision of what that show could and should be. In this day and age of so many cookie-cutter shows, “Fringe” offered up literally worlds of different experiences, tones, moral problems, and downright scary imagery (If Rebecca Mader’s reenactment of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” didn’t freak you out, I’m pretty sure I never want to be in a dark alley with you.) But “Fringe” got so caught up it what it COULD do that it rarely stopped to think about what it SHOULD do. Just as Walter Bishop and William Bell rarely understood there were theoretical lines that should never be crossed, the creators of “Fringe” saw narrative temptation and were unable to resist its siren call.
Here, at the end of all things (well, season-wise, if not series-wise), what can we glean from the past few months? “Fringe” took the opportunity to reboot its entire show in an effort not to preserve character but instead revisit lost villains in order to take another run at a season-long, potentially universe-ending threat. While the Peter and Olivia we knew from the first three seasons ended the season essentially intact (Peter corporeally, Olivia really only mentally), everyone else ended up as a variation on a theme, not a continuation of character. Astrid was basically Astrid, Walter eventually resembled Walter, and both Lincolns were fair approximations. These weren’t night-and-day different entities, but they weren’t the same people. Had all of this amounted to a tone poem based around a nature/nurture exploration of man’s innate existence, this fourth season would have been a ponderous but potentially interesting experiment. Instead, here at the end, we basically have the show rewriting its own rules to bring back two characters it had already killed off.
Thus, we open tonight on a scene I dubbed “Jurassic Spock” in my notes, with the once (many times over) dead William Bell extolling the virtues of the pristine world that would be populated with human porcupine people. This was the entire point of rewriting reality? Peter’s actions in the Doomsday device seem less like a sacrifice when 1) the show never planned on returning to that timeline, and 2) it didn’t solve anything so much as provide new opportunities for chaos. You could say neither point really matters, if you just cared about watching the actors and understand conflict has to exist in order for drama to unfold. While I lay no fault of this season at the actors’ feet (the core trio did their usual stellar work all season long), I tend to want to be invested in the characters while watching the show and only think about those actors in the analysis phase after the episode has ended. There’s a huge difference between Walter Bishop making me cry and John Noble impressing the hell out of me. The two are interrelated, to be sure, but shouldn’t be mixed in the moment.
And that’s what the fourth season did over and over again: call attention to its artifice and thus denying attempts to suspend disbelief. Tonight’s hour was almost entirely hampered by “Letters of Transit,” an episode that looks more and more like a horrible mistake. Why? For one thing, it fundamentally robbed a lot of the tension from tonight’s hour. Did we worry about Astrid’s death? No. (We saw her in the future.) Did we worry about Olivia’s death? (No. We know she has to give birth to Henrietta before William Bell does something horrible to her.) Moreover, “Transit” was designed, conceived, and executed at a time when the show didn’t know if it was coming back. “Transit”, when coupled with the final moment in tonight’s episode, feels like the show saying, “Go ahead. We dare you to cancel us and enrage our fanbase.” I’m not accusing the powers that be of overtly doing this, but Lord in heaven that’s how it plays. As a point of contrast ook at the way “Parks and Recreation” pulled off this same trick and yet did so with respect to both itself, the network, and its fans. This balancing act can be achieved, when you respect the here and now while simultaneously laying groundwork for the future. Had tonight been the series, not season, finale of “Fringe”, then people would have lost their damn minds. And not in the good way.
I haven’t yet talked much about the plot of tonight’s episode, because there’s not much to tell. It was an unbalanced affair from the start, with the pacing of it odd due it being the second-half of a two-part story rather than a single installment unto itself. (“Sons of Anarchy” had a similar problem in its fourth season as well.) Events here might have played out more smoothly had they immediately followed last week’s episode, since we basically start halfway through Act 2 of a three-act play right from the get go. We learn that all of Bell’s machinations have been designed to activate Olivia, who in this timeline has been dosed with enough cortexiphan to turn into a human battery strong enough to power the collapse of both universes. Bell doesn’t see a future for humanity in that new world, but figures porcupine men and their hybrid brethren will make less of a mess of Earth than humans can.
Rather than allow that to unfold, Walter shoots Olivia between the eyes after she and Peter cross over and infiltrate Bell’s Ark. Killing her essentially powers down the energy, thus maintaining the integrity of both worlds. Bell then rings the soul magnet bell on the ship, which allows him to disappear. Then, Chekov’s Lemon Cake comes into play. Since we saw that cake regenerate last week, we knew that cortexiphan’s healing properties would come into play this week. And lo and behold, once Walter pushes the bullet out of from Olivia’s brain (into handy, necklace-ready form), her mind heals itself and manages to protect the fetus inside of her as well. It was a pop culture cornucopia of references tonight. In short: we had scenes inspired by “Lost” (a boat at sea that many can’t see due to electromagnetic barriers), “Heroes” (magic blood, not unlike that belonging to the cheerleader Claire), and “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” with a “Prophecy Girl”-esque workaround for The Observer’s claim that Olivia had to die in every timeline.
We also saw The Observer get shot by Jessica, working with Bell using “stasis runes” and a gun that counteracts The Observer’s fast-moving, bullet-catching abilities. We learn that he hasn’t experienced the scene in the opera house from “Back To Where You’ve Never Been” yet from his perspective. (This transforms The Observer into The Doctor to Olivia’s River Song, I suppose, although without all that fun banter and wildly inappropriate sexual chemistry.) It’s unclear what relation that bloodied Observer bears to the one that appears at the end of the episode inside Walter’s lab to set up Season Five’s invasion storyline, but that last visit will no doubt dovetail into Fringe Division’s newly obtained government funding overseen by (the now) General Broyles. I assume Walter Bishop with unlimited funding will be able to generate some interesting devices in order to pre-emptively avoid a takeover, or at least provide a nice amber encasement should things go south. Still, we know the invasion works…because “Letters of Transit” told us so! So either the future in which Henrietta is laced with Olivia’s “biological signature” is another theoretical one, or we’re going to spend a good chunk of Season 5 filling in the gaps while getting to that predetermined location.
You’ll notice I’m talking a lot about plot, and not character, here. And that’s because there’s little character left to talk about. These people are puppets at this point in the hands of the writers, unable to surprise us because they are enslaved to the story. Anytime character choice determines story, there’s a good chance for things to become organically interesting. Anytime story needs determine a character’s decisions, there’s a good chance for events to feel inorganic and inauthentic. “Fringe” has always been bugnuts crazy, but also made its unfolding action feel like the natural progression of its character’s decisions.
After all, everything in “Fringe” had revolved around a single act: Walter saving the Peter Over There. “Fringe” removed that act from existence, and thus robbed the show of its core emotional resonance. To put it in terms the show might: “Fringe” changed its own frequency. Many people still heard that frequency and enjoyed it, even it they understood that it had changed. Others heard either dissonance, or, even worse, nothing at all. That last sentence summarizes my progression this season quite succinctly: I couldn’t get in tune with the show at all for the longest time, and eventually, I stopped even listening for it. Eventually, I couldn’t even here it. For me, the show simply existed, and moved along as a shadow of itself, and I greeted tonight’s season finale with neither excitement nor anger. I greeted it with indifference. Sure, Olivia grabbing three supercharged bullets out of the air and hurling them back at The Observer’s would-be assassin was pretty cool. But while that Olivia shares memories we have of those first few seasons, she’s still fundamentally different on a molecular level. She has old memories in a body that went through a different reality. She looks the same. Maybe she even acts the same. But she’s not the same. Not truly. Nor is “Fringe.”
I don’t know what the future will hold, either for the show or my place writing about it. I’m guessing this will be it, although I would never say never. Shows ebb and flow, as do the passions of those watching it. Getting thirteen episodes to wrap things up will hopefully bring some closure to both “Fringe” and its remaining, small, passionate fanbase. I have no doubt the show will continue to follow its own muse. Again, I respect that. I hope the show respects the fact that there’s probably no place for me in that future. I also respect all of the opinions you, dear readers, have expressed over this season, just as I hope you have respected mine. It’s been an instructive, illuminating year covering this show, and I’m grateful for the chance to have done it.
Even with its missteps this year, “Fringe” is a special, important show in the current TV
landscape. It had the courage to try something bold, to go beyond what most shows would risk in order to try and achieve something unique. The fact that I think it failed in that attempt couldn’t be less important in the grand scheme of things. It’s a disappointment for me, but it’s a step forward for television in general. More shows should be as bold as “Fringe.” Being bold means risking failure, but those failures are as instructive as successes. By engaging with what works and what doesn’t as a result of those bold choice, we learn more about what’s possible than we would from watching shows that stay within boring, pre-existing boundaries.
What did you think of the finale, and the show as a whole this season? Are you excited by the prospects of the invasion-centric fifth season? Did Olivia’s “death” feel cheap or clever? Did “Letters of Transit” augment or hinder your enjoyment of these last three weeks? Sound off below! (And once again, thanks so much for reading all year.)
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