Recap: 'Fringe' - 'The End of All Things'
The show doubles down on its season-long arc heading into its winter hiatus
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I’ve been watching TV all of my life. Growing up, we had a TV in every single room of the house that wasn’t a bathroom. Poor parenting? More like preparation for a life in TV criticism, I say! In terms of writing about the medium, that started about six years ago. In that time, I’ve tried to not only get better at what I do, but also constantly try to reevaluate the medium itself and what about it appeals to me. I look back at articles written three or four years ago in horror, but also fascination. Horror because Lordy, some of those essays were atrocious. Fascination because it often sounds like someone that no longer shares the same tastes as I do now.
It’s not that my tastes have become more refined or any nonsense like that. It’s just that as I’ve changed, and my understanding of what gives me pleasure on the small screen has changed, the ways in which I look for positive and negative qualities in the shows I review has changed. Change should be a good thing: adhering to a specific line of reasoning may help automate the workload but doesn’t really yield interesting prose. A few years ago, tonight’s big Peter/Observer scene would have sent me into the stratosphere with joy. The guy who spent literally months dissecting the hieroglyphics in “Lost” would have pored over every frame of that scene like it was the Zapruder film. But the guy writing this review right now? He dutifully took notes, rolled his eyes a few times, and moved on.
This season of “Fringe” is a great example of the type of television I simply don’t enjoy anymore. My lack of enjoyment isn’t a comment about the genre of the show, the ambition of the show, or the hard work all the actors have been putting in each week. My lack of enjoyment stems from the very same problem that Olivia Dunham described to “Nina” during her incarceration in tonight’s “The End of All Things.” David Robert Jones asks Olivia to turn on a series of lights in a box, just as the original version did back in Season 1’s “Ability.” He knows from Walter’s notes that Olivia’s powers are activated out of fear for the safety of those she loves. And yet, seeing “Nina” tortured in front of her evokes no emotional response. The problem? The cortexiphan injected into her body has disconnected her from the memories of this timeline, which in turn leave her emotionally distant from the events in it. “I just need for you to help me feel it,” Olivia begs her.
Bam. Thanks, Olivia. Couldn’t have said it better myself, even though I’ve essentially been saying this all season.
I’m sure a lot of you want to discuss the information revealed about The Observers tonight, and who shot September. But honestly, all I can think about is how much “Fringe” has constantly provided in-show dialogue detailing the self-inflicted wound of this new reality. He’s a scientist from the distant future of one possible timeline? Good God. Who cares? It’s trivia. It’s not vital to our understanding of what’s happened. Everything about September’s curiosity was sufficiently outlined before this episode. Having a character beyond our understanding demonstrate human emotions would have been enough. Answers such as those given in tonight’s hour are the worst kind: they are specific enough to limit speculation, yet open the door to about thirty more questions at the same time. If they are from one possible future, does that mean there is another scientific team in another future with thick, luxurious hair? Do they hate spicy foods? You can go down the rabbit hole with this until you lose your mind. Or, to put it less dramatically, it’s like looking at a photo album of another person’s life. Again: not my words. Olivia spoke those in tonight’s episode.
I’m not putting Olivia’s name in quotes, because my sense is that the “right” Olivia and the “right” Peter are together now so they can produce a Henry that won’t turn into the Antichrist. At least, I think that’s what September was getting at in the Universal Cube of Vague Proclamations. On one level, props to the show for addressing the Henry paradox head on. On another level, the show wrote a baby (along with a timeline) out of existence in order to correct a mistake neither September nor the show ever had to fix. It’s a bizarre meta-theatrical production, one in which the Observer stands in for the writers changing small things that turn into monster problems. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: What was wrong with making this season about an uneasy alliance between universes potentially punctured by an Over There Jones wreaking havoc?
And yet, had the show done all of this and finally united Peter and Olivia at the end, maybe I’d be feeling better about the show’s prospects when it returns from hiatus. As it stands now, I feel like “home” for Peter is “Downton Amber Abbey”, where he’ll periodically check in and make googly eyes at Lady Olivia for LITERALLY YEARS. (Meanwhile, the Dowager Countess Nina Sharp throws barbs at Astrid, who tends to the manor’s bovine population. I could go on and on. Luckily for you, I won’t.) If September is right, and everything will reset itself once Olivia’s knocked up, then anything that comes between Peter and her knocking boots is just a stall tactic at this point. It’s one thing to want these two crazy kids to get together. It’s another for him to say, “Look, I’ve already had sex with one version of you that was from another universe. Don’t make me go down this road again.” The show wants us to swoon. Instead, I just reached for the booze as “Fringe” tried to restage the end of the third season of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” a show that knew a thing or three about doomed romance.
What matters in shows this fantastical is that the characters are grounded enough to make all the silliness make sense. But the show’s core strengths have been erased, written over, and now we have to analyze them like the microchip in Olivia’s apartment for signs of anything we once knew. The show did this in its first few years, only to essentially encase it in glass and wall us off much in the way Jones walled off Olivia and Peter in order to activate her ability. And “Fringe” doesn’t plan on tearing this wall down anytime soon. It wants us to worry about future science teams and multiple timelines and shapeshifters when really, all this show needs to worry about is Olivia, Peter, and Walter. That’s it. The show believes it’s crafted a tale that’s served those characters. But all it’s really done is dismantle them. And all you need do is look at this version of David Robert Jones to know that rebuilding characters on an atomic level can yield some unpleasant results.
If Peter can’t recognize the real Olivia, then I’m not sure how we’re supposed to, either. Yes, watching television requires a suspension in disbelief. But each show also has to construct something for us to suspend our beliefs for. For many of you, the story of the show is still engaging enough for you to do so. For many of us, the loss of familiar characters has made any suspension all but impossible. All I can see is the structure. Structure is something helpful for the show to use to build an episode, and it’s something helpful to analyze after the fact. But it’s deadly to notice in the moment. It’s easy to ignore the strings pulling at these people when you’re emotionally invested in their fictional worlds. But when all you see is artifice, then the whole endeavor turns artificial.
And that’s a sad thing to think, weeks before the show starts what might be its final run of episodes. I’m rooting for a strong run up to that end point, whether it be a season or series finale. But I can’t honestly say I have much hope at this point. I’ve looked into this show’s eyes, and like when Peter looked into Olivia’s, I just can’t be sure what I’m looking at anymore. I need “Fringe” to help me feel it again. Because it’s been a long, long time since it’s done that.
What did you think about the winter finale of “Fringe”? Did the information about The Observer help your understanding or just muddy things further? How likely are you to come back for the season’s finale string of episodes? Sound off below!
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