It’s only fitting that Yaz’s “Only You” closes out the final season premiere of “Fringe”. Written by Vince Clarke, who many will know from his work in Depeche Mode and Erasure, “Only You” is a synthesizer-based ballad. In other words, it creates beauty from inside the cold confines of technology. That’s always been the greatest strength of “Fringe” as well. It has taken the sometimes-cold world of science fiction and imbued the genre with enough heart and emotion to fill a half-dozen other television programs. Even if the fourth season never quite generated those some emotional highs as previous years, it has still aimed to tell very personal stories within a vast universe. This makes tonight’s episode, “Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11", so perplexing.
Before you jump to the comments and chew me out, let me explain. I’m not convinced tonight’s episode is bad by any stretch (especially since this season’s narrative gamble needs to play out in full before final judgment is rendered), but it certainly demands some adjustments from the viewer. Even with Season Four’s “Letter Of Transit” serving as out introduction to the “Fringe” future world of 2036, it’s still difficult to properly process everything that’s going on through a first pass. What makes this difficult? Glad you asked!
The first reason is purely practical. We all know how low-rated the show has been over the years, and getting a fifth (albeit truncated) season is nothing short of a minor miracle. FOX clearly loves this show. FOX apparently didn’t know how to market this show. And so that put the producers of the show in the curious spot of having to essentially skip to the end of the long-ranging narrative it’s had in mind for some time. There are about a dozen times in “Transilience” in which I felt like the show was reminding me of events that happened during a season that somehow never aired. There’s probably a season’s worth of stories to be told from the end of the fourth season through the events depicted in “Transit”, but all “Fringe” can do is shove those episodes into brief bursts of exposition. We get one, fragmented flashback to the day Olivia and Peter lost their child during the initial Observer invasion, but everything else is told from one person to another in 2036.
The second reason gets to the most perplexing part of this episode, which ostensibly kicks off a season-long insurrection story in which our heroes make a stand against The Observers after spending over two decades in amber. A paragraph ago, I alluded to this being the final chapter in the show’s planned saga. But it feels like an odd final chapter, one that doesn’t quite align with those that have come before it. Even when the fourth season threatened to go off the rails, it still told the same types of small, character-based stories that it always had. I didn’t buy those stories by and large due to the reality reboot, but they felt like intentional variations on pre-existing themes. Where “Fringe” has always excelled is in making the true adversary internal as opposed to external. People often fight against their own worse impulses on this show, placing the drama squarely upon the choices they make. Those self-contained conflicts often spill out and affect others around them, but always have a personal point of origin.
But in 2036, “Fringe” has replaced the internal with the external, turning the show away from a series-long examination of empathy into a more rote “us versus them” battle that doesn’t feel particularly inevitable within the larger text of the show. The previous war between two universes felt larger than the battle currently being waged in this fifth season, but it also felt far more intimate. “Fringe” challenged us in the third season to view the “other” world as equally viable as the one it originally established. And it completely succeeded in doing so! The actual plot mechanics of the Doomsday Device fall apart upon any close examination, but that doesn’t matter: We felt for both sides, didn’t want either to win OR lose, and thus focused on the moral quandaries presented by Walter Bishop’s all-too-human original sin. Crossing over to save a version of Peter Bishop started this story. Did anyone see it ending with an invasion by a future race of humans that destroyed their version of Earth?
“But,” some might say, “If we could predict that, that would be a terrible narrative!” With this, I completely agree. But I would also say that there are plenty of stories that take twists that are unexpected at the time, but make sense upon further analysis or further unspooling. So I’m perplexed that showrunnerJoel Wyman (working without Jeff Pinkner for the first time this season) views this as the logical, inevitable end of his five-year story. But I’m also willing to ride it out and see if in fact jumping ahead and fighting The Observers actually ties a bow around the show’s story as a whole. If erasing Peter from history was designed to grease the wheels for this invasion, then Season 4’s plot mechanics make sense. That doesn’t make that season retroactively solid in my mind. But it helps explain the decision to rewrite everyone’s realty (and thus everyone’s character) in some way. I hadn’t been able to come up with a single decent explanation for why they did it. Now? I might have one.
But even if this season is designed to tie that metaphorical bow, tonight’s premiere still managed to serve as a fairly excellent place for someone to just randomly jump into the story. Would you get more out of every interaction having watched the first four seasons? Absolutely. But so freakin’ much is skipped (especially in regards to that imaginary season between four and five detailed above) from a narrative point of view that a “Fringe” newbie would be quite often as lost as a veteran. We lose out on a lot of emotionally powerful scenes in favor of didactic dialogue. But that loss translates into easier accessibility and the ability to almost treat this season as a stand-alone sci-fi miniseries adventure.
Everything one needs to understand the basics about the Observer-invaded world is present and accounted for in “Transilience”. “Fringe” is always and ever excellent at world creation, and this dystopic 2036 is no exception. The carbon-monoxide farms, the egg sticks, the “Blade Runner”-esque black markets in which “amber gypsies” carve out loved ones in exchange for highly-coveted walnuts…these are all rich, vibrant, immediate details that sell the reality of the world in a few quick brush strokes. This show’s budget may have shrunk, but it rarely looks that way onscreen. “Fringe” has always been smart about its production design, and much of “Transilience” takes place within spare, degraded spaces. The wide shots help sell the overall atmosphere, an atmosphere being polluted to serve The Observers’ tastes…or rather, their lungs.
(Let’s not argue about how The Observers escaped an over-polluted world only to then mess up Earth’s atmosphere in an earlier point in history. Nor shall we discuss the multiverse implications of their invasion: Did they only invade this universe? Could they attack Fauxlivia and Lincoln mid-makeout even if they wanted to? Oh look, blood vessels have burst in my eye. So very Walter of me.)
But again, it’s not about the production design, or the high concepts, or the “us versus them” plot of the final season. People sticking with the show at this point are sticking with it for the characters. This brings me to the last, and perhaps MOST perplexing problem of the entire episode. It’s a problem that I imagine was very hard for many of you to swallow. That problem? The revelation that Olivia and Peter actually separated after Etta’s disappearance. Sure, this helps explain why Olivia wasn’t there when Etta rescued the others in “Transit”. But does this revelation track with what we know about this pair? Do we believe that after years of slowly falling in love, only to have Fauxlivia interfere and produce the wrong child in the wrong universe, only to have their eventual reunion ripped apart by The Observers’ rebooting of reality, only to have Peter fight his way back into existence because of the power of that love, only to have Olivia slowly realize her life as she knew it was not her life…after all that, would the loss of Henrietta really be something that would drive them apart?
How you answer that question informs how much you enjoyed tonight’s episode, I’d wager. It most likely didn’t make or break that enjoyment, but I know it certainly put a damper on mine. Let’s put aside the very true psychological grounding that goes into that narrative decision. I’m not saying that Etta’s disappearance wouldn’t be traumatic. But I am saying that “Fringe” has established this pair as two people actually equipped to deal with it in a way that wouldn’t dissolve their relationship. Instead, the world goes to hell, Olivia goes to work in New York, and Peter stays behind in Boston. (I’m guessing he joined Walter and Astrid post-2015 when Olivia disappeared.) “Fringe” has Peter apologize to Olivia, even though Olivia essentially gave up on her only daughter. She did so for the greater good, and I understand that’s the reason. But it’s hard to grasp all the nuances of these critical choices when the entire saga is depicted in a short scene that featured that worst dialogue of the entire episode. "We lost our child,” Olivia tells Peter, “And in the grief, we weren't able to, or were incapable of, being what we needed for each other." I’m not sure why an actress as talented as Anna Torv was forced to say those lines, but there you have it.
While that dialogue was poor, the Windmark/Walter interrogation scenes were strong. I mentioned “Blade Runner” earlier, but “The Matrix” also cast a heavy shadow over tonight’s proceedings as well. Substitute Agent Smith for Windmark and Morpheus for Walter and you have the same beats, the same psychological torture, and the same feeling that our hero might actually lose this battle of wills. But this battle primarily serves to provide an obstacle for the remainder of the season. Before ambering himself, Walter worked with September to scramble the components for a device to help defeat The Observers in his brain. The title of the episode refers to the device Olivia went to retrieve before encapsulating herself in amber. But Windmark did such a number on Walter’s brain that the elder Bishop no longer has September’s information in his cranium.
Defeated and depressed, he listens to the aforementioned “Only You” in a desperate attempt to locate the missing memories. What he sees instead is a single dandelion growing from the concrete. Windmark had assured Walter that there was no hope for him, that, “Nothing grows on scorched earth.” But “Fringe” is far too optimistic and humane for such a viewpoint. While Walter doesn’t find what he’s looking for inside his mind, he does see something that hints as potential promise and progress. That long, twelve-episode road towards a better tomorrow may not take the form many of us anticipated. But despite my many misgivings about tonight’s hour, there are still reasons to think that perhaps the road just might yield more pleasant surprises down the final line for “Fringe”.
What did you think of the premiere? Is jumping ahead to 2036 a smart move or a self-inflicted wound? Does the show still feel like “Fringe” to you? Sound off below!
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