The show says goodbye to one character and hello, improbably, to another.
"Donald, can you see me? Can you feel me near you?"
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One thing that’s arisen in this final season of “Fringe” as a topic of debate is just how much needs to actually unfold onscreen to engage audiences on either a practical or emotional level. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach here, like anything else in a creative sphere. Through both conscious choice and external limitations, the show has skipped over large chunks of its overall storyline in order to get to its finish line. And the closer we get, the more than those gaps seem to be accentuated. “Anomaly XB-6783746” was an episode that nearly ground the season’s momentum to a halt only to kick things into major overdrive in the final moments. (I may need to adjust my neck from the whiplash, and not because it allows more sound waves to enter my ears.) To those still buying what the show is selling, filling in those gaps tonight might have been thrilling. To those less engaged with the show, filling them in might have been frustrating.
My own tolerance varies from week to week, along with my tolerance for the season-long scavenger hunt that apparently will end…exactly where most of us thought it might. Even if one didn’t make the leap of “Donald”=“September” (and I’ll confess I didn’t, because that sure didn’t sound like him on the video in “Through The Looking Glass And What Walter Found There”), one had to assume our fedora’d friend would play into the endgame in some fashion. He arrived on the scene in, appropriately, “The Arrival”, and has lurked on the fringes (an unfortunate pun that’s also an accurate description) of the show ever since. His curiosity with the events at Reiden Lake kicked off the “story” of “Fringe”, so it’s only appropriate that the story of the show end with him somehow involved there as well.
But what to make of the extremely follicled Donald in Walter’s vision/memory? It’s certainly a surprising image, and one that sends the mind racing towards possibilities of what it might mean. But September, and The Observers as a whole, have been a cipher for so long in the show’s run that giving him backstory now feels like too little, too late. It’s one thing to have a central mystery upon which the endgame rests. It’s another to make that mystery so opaque that any attempt to solve it will yield inconsolable frustration. If you’ve been dying for answers…well, it seems like you’re about to get a ton. If you gave up caring long ago…well, you’re about to get a lot of answers you probably didn’t need. Mileage will vary, as the saying goes.
Seeing September look like a modern-day man living in a modestly appointed suburban home is certainly shocking. I assume “Donald” is the name he had before…well, whatever turned the Observers into the Observers. Tonight’s final montage hinted that September saying, “The boy is important….he has to life” was directed not at Peter but in fact Michael. I don’t feel terrifically good about that assumption, since Windmark called Michael not a boy but a “chromosomal mistake”. But it seems like a fair assumption all the same, whether or not Michael is actually Donald’s child or just a young person to whom Donald became attached. What I think we’re meant to take away is that Donald/September hid Michael in our timeline after observing Walter’s love for Peter. He saw a kindred spirit, one that would also do anything for a sick child. Perhaps Michael himself was sick, and an early recipient of what would eventually become Observer technology, and was partially but not completely cured in a society that soon craved “perfection”. So, “Gattica”, but with a lot more swanky hats, I guess.
I need a drink.
If this is indeed the case, then the massive jump to 2036 has more thematic resonance than previously assumed. My issues with the post-apocalyptic scenario have always stemmed from emotional applicability: So long as the jump served an emotional, not narrative, arc, then it would work as a whole. For a while, Etta seemed like that emotional link. Once severed, the point of this period seemed somewhat lost. If Donald’s original sin links up with Walter’s original sin, then “Fringe” as a whole becomes about the destructive power of playing God, with The Observers the result of hundreds of years of hubris undoing man’s natural evolution. Up is down, black is white, and humans are turning into lizards. But not the “V” kind. I don’t think. I certainly hope not, as much as that might mean Elizabeth Mitchell would show up in the finale.
If that resonance is indeed achieved, that’s great. But it feels like the show is shoving it in rather than gradually unveiling it. Again, this comes down to taste. But let’s move away from the Observer mythology and look at this same suddenness in terms of Nina Sharpe’s suicide. Neither Nina nor Broyles have been well-served this season, to say the least. In fact, Nina has been served rather poorly since Peter stepped into the Doomsday Device. Her backstory got changed as a result of the new timeline, and for a while she was actually an evil doppelganger pretending to be new Nina. This season, she’s been all but absent, stuck occasionally helping a daughter figure who now has memories of a different timeline. Following her arc has been exhausting to the point of making me not care, which means that I in turn didn’t care much for Nina’s noble end tonight.
That’s to take nothing away from Blair Brown’s performance in that last scene, which I thought matched her best work on the show. But Nina as a character has been non-existent this season, brought in only when the plot needed her to fetch something for The Walter/Donald Super Complicated Plan-O-Matic. Nina was never supposed to be the driving engine of the show, but she did offer unique insights into the other characters along the way. She was professionally involved with the cofounders of Massive Dynamic (in addition to being romantically involved with William Bell), and served as mentor/aide/occasionally enemy to the younger generation of the show. Much like the metaphysical bridge Peter created inside the Doomsday Device, Nina served as a bridge between many aspects of the show. Removing her from the show removed not only that bridge between those aspects, but also the bridge between that character and the audience as well.
I’ve focused almost exclusively on the last fifteen minutes because….essentially nothing happened in the first forty-five. “Anomaly XB-6783746” was not unlike “The Recordist” in that it somehow stalled the momentum of a show that should have no choice but putting the narrative pedal to the metal. Far too long was spent on methodically getting Michael to communicate anything to anyone, all while Windmark demonstrated an equally laid-back attitude towards finding the mole inside The Ministry of Science. Everything unfolded at a semi-leisurely pace that belied the placement of this episode within the larger structure of the season/series. “Fringe” knew how it wanted to end this episode, but was far less sure about how to fill the time leading up to that ending.
That’s simply baffling, because that last sequence suggests there’s a heaping helping of material that “Fringe” needs to get through in the final three hours of the series. Placing all of the Donald backstory into those episodes feels like a lot of late lifting, especially since it will recontextualize the entire series once deployed. Paralleling Donald’s story to Walter’s is fine, and as mentioned earlier, certainly would help redeem some of this season’s structure. But The Observers have been so obtuse for so long that getting actual explanations for their actions now feels a bit like learning about midi-chlorians in “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace”.
Donald’s story certainly seems like one with exploring. But it also seems like one that “Fringe” should have started exploring a long time ago. Having September look at Michael in Season 1’s “Inner Child” doesn’t count as long-term storytelling. If anything, holding this revelation until now feels like a clever retcon rather than long-term payoff. There’s nothing wrong with coming up with a cool, unintended connection well after the fact. Many of the best stories and character revelations come from just such a process. But it’s also hard to start feeling something this late in the process for Donald/September, especially when the show has worked its butt off this season to make sure we didn’t meet him until (maybe) it was too late.
In the end, I care about Olivia, Peter, and Walter, and Astrid. I want to see their journeys end and their characters reach some sort of resolution. I don’t know what is waiting for those four, but I’m willing to see where the show wants those characters to go. “Lost” made a nearly fatal mistake with its antepenultimate episode “Across The Sea”, and “Fringe” just might be on the verge of doing the same. If we spend the next three hours unpacking Donald’s life story and make the core characters secondary in these final episodes, that might be the worst narrative sin the show will have committed in its history. And at this stage of things, that’s saying something. Wrapping up the story in a clean, tidy manner is unimportant. But giving these character we’ve spent half a decade with proper closure couldn’t be more important.
What did you think of tonight’s episode? Did the Donald-as-September surprise satisfy you? What did you think about Nina’s death? What are you hoping to see in the final three hours of the show when it returns in January? Sound off below!
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