“It”s not about fate…it”s about changing fate. It”s about hope. And protecting our children.” September, to Walter Bishop
Here we are, at the end of the “Fringe” journey. It started with a mysterious incident on a plane and ended with a white tulip addressed to Peter Bishop. In between were some of the loveliest, most evocative, most affecting (as well as effective) genre storytelling on television in recent memory. It was far from a perfect show, as even the hardiest of fans would agree. But when it worked, it worked like gangbusters, and there was nothing else like it. Considering how downright strange, how openly earnest, and how narratively demanding it was, it”s no hyperbole to say that television as a whole was better for having “Fringe” in its ecosphere.
But it”s unfortunately also not hyperbole to say that tonight”s final two episodes proved this fifth and final season to be a huge misstep.
There are certain things that have been under the show”s control, and certain things that have not. The thirteen-episode final season was a gift by FOX to both the show itself and to its fans, a testament to how much the network brass loved the show even if they couldn”t find a way to make anyone actually watch it. With the final season order cut short, and with budgets undoubtedly slashed, showrunner J.H. Wyman and company had some decisions to make under those less-than-ideal circumstances. What they decided to do was double down on the crippling decision to reboot reality at the end of Season 3, once again creating a new timeline in which people have no recollection of what happened before. Sure, the tulip gives Peter pause, but we”ll never see him finish that mental thought. The show is over. The timelines have been reset. We remember the sacrifices. But those onscreen do not.
Last week, I wondered aloud if this meant any potential finale such as this would feel earned. (In essence, I asked: Would the actions onscreen be as meaningful if those that survived couldn”t remember it?) Whether or not it felt earned is for everyone to decide for themselves. But watching tonight”s back-to-back episodes, everything certainly felt tired. The first hour, “Liberty”, moved at an almost glacial pace that belied its placement in the overall structure of the series. It took nearly half of that episode simply to get Olivia into place to cross over. And whenever Walter or September reiterated the steps of the plan to defeat The Observers, neither felt particularly invested in the proceedings. That sense of weight pressing upon everything is a direct result of the show piling on plot to the point of overburdening “Fringe” as a whole, leaving the show to limp across the finish line. The first three seasons dealt with large issues, but kept things focused within intimate settings. Hell, you can sum it up thusly: “Two worlds. One door. Who ya got?” (In fact, I have summed it up thusly in the past.)
But if the overall plot was relatively simple, the emotional stakes were even simpler. Don”t confuse “simple” for “naïve”. In this case, “simple” is a positive trait, one that allowed for easy, often effortless connection with characters onscreen. Season 2″s “Peter” took a metaphysical, mindbending concept and forged a connection with the viewing public via primary emotional impulses. Learning that Walter crossed over to save Peter not only answered a big mystery, but also crystallized what worked about the show by grounding its fantastical proceedings in recognizable, understandable motivations. When the show did this (and it did it ridiculously often), “Fringe” sung. It could be as weird or gross or funny as it wanted to be, because we had Walter, Peter, and Olivia to ground us at all times. “Liberty” and “An Enemy Of Fate” tried to link the emotional truths of “Peter” through September”s connection with Michael. But one had to wade through multiple timelines, a season-long scavenger hunt, and dozens of Easter eggs masquerading as callbacks in order to arrive at that point. Mysteries this season weren”t tied to human wants and desires. In fact, they were often hermetically sealed from them.
Were there positives tonight? Of course. It was fantastic to see Lincoln and Fauxlivia (looking like Clay Morrow”s old lady on “Sons Of Anarchy”) again. And props should be freely and generously given to John Noble”s big farewell scenes with Joshua Jackson and Jasika Nicole. But three strong scenes do not a strong finale make. If anything, those scenes highlighted everything that was wrong around them. Sure, everything about the scavenger hunt came together. But…so what? That”s a testament to mechanical storytelling, nothing else. And that”s certainly a skill unto itself, but isn”t responsible for what has made “Fringe” great in the past.
Look back on the episodes this season. For every one that managed to tie in that piece of the puzzle with a character arc, another kept things standing still on both fronts. The pacing problems on display tonight have been there throughout the year. We never got enough sense of what transpired in the near future after Season 4, and we never really got a strong sense of the true calamity of the present. We couldn”t experience anything organically, as everything was squeezed through THE PLAN and compressed, contorted, and ultimately twisted around it. Nothing had anytime to breathe, which would have been OK had this season been a balls-to-the-wall thriller in a dystopian future. Instead, we saw our merry band of freedom fighters casually lasering holes in an ambered lab, right under the noses of the supposedly omniscient, omnipresent threat.
Antigravity bullets are indeed “cool”, Walter. Know what”s cooler? Caring about what”s going on. Caring about the stakes not of the world, but this particular group of people. As soon as Walter suddenly remembered The Magic Locker Full O” Cortexiphan, my heart sank. Not only was that a deus ex machina of the highest order, but also served to reinforce one of my nagging issues all season: that Olivia Dunham was no longer the central focus of the show. For four seasons, the Bishop Boys provided plenty of emotional highs, and certainly drove a lot of the narrative. But Olivia”s role in “Fringe” as a whole was central. She was the one experimented on as a child. She was the one bred for war without her knowledge. She was someone designed as a pawn but has vast reserves of inner strength that provided her agency. She was vitally important by every conceivable metric. But her cortexiphan-laced biology was NOT the thing that made her special. Her resolve, her compassion, and her moral purpose helped keep everyone in check. Once her cortexiphan reserves were drained in the Season 4 finale, the show pushed her further and further into the recesses of the show, often keeping her offscreen for long periods of time while Walter and Peter figured out how to proceed. The Olivia we once knew was gone, replaced onscreen by a shell of that entity.
There”s no reason each character need stay the same over the course of a show. Things ebb and flow as story dictates. But Season 5 of “Fringe” isn”t the same as, say, Season 4 of “The Wire”. McNulty”s relative absence that season made sense. Olivia never went away this season to that extent, but she certainly disappeared in terms of overall importance to the story. Only when re-injected with the drug was she re-injected into active engagement with the storyline, allowing her to make four jumps to and from the red universe and then smash Windmark with a car after draining the power out of New York City. Cool? Sure. But Olivia Dunham was great without the active use of cortexiphan for years. Bringing it back now only served to show how underutilized Anna Torv has been this season.
All of this brings us to the end scene, which many had predicted would happen ever since the notion of another timeline reboot was introduced. It seemed so likely, in fact, that it was tempting to think the show was actually messing with us. But no, “Fringe” dumped us back into 2015 after Walter took Michael to 2167. There, it restaged the picnic scene we”ve seen sprinkled throughout the season. But this time, no Observers arrive, Etta lands safely in Peter”s arms, and neither he nor Olivia seem any the wiser about what has occurred. Sure, his last look after seeing the tulip seemed to trigger….something. That something could have been: the original timeline, the future in which Walternate shot Olivia, the reset timeline without him in it, the dystopian future in which the Observers ruled, or the reset post-yet-pre-apocalypse in which Walter”s letter arrives at Peter”s doorstep. So many options! Much like Windmark around Michael, I now have a massive nosebleed trying to figure that out.
As Maureen Ryan noted in her review of the start of the previously mentioned “Sons Of Anarchy”, complication is NOT the same as complexity. Simply adding things to the narrative pile doesn”t add anything but confusion. Having that many options behind Peter”s look isn”t a feature. It”s a bug. Let”s look at something else to help elucidate this point. Earlier today on Twitter, I asked followers if the “Mr. X” storyline had ever been actually resolved on the show. (I had forgotten, was on the go, but wanted to ask before it slipped my mind.) I got back roughly a dozen different answers to that seemingly simple question. Some people forgot about that plot line. Others were confident that it was never addressed. Some thought it maybe was William Bell. Others were so sure that it was Bell that they scolded me for daring to forget in the first place. That”s just one example of how the show piled on so many disparate elements that it ended up being its own worst enemy. The final onscreen mystery didn”t inspire awe. It only underlined the show”s obtuseness.
Know what I have never forgotten? Elizabeth Bishop unwilling to let Peter go after Walter brought him back. A professor of theoretical physics warping time itself to have another day with his wife. Olivia horrified to learn she had been replaced with a lookalike that her makeshift family may have even preferred to herself. The Pattern and the “First People” and the ZFT and this season”s scavenger hunt were window dressing on an intensely personal, often emotionally-rewarding chamber drama concerning family, love, and mutual respect. When the former services the latter, the show worked like no other. When it was the other way around, well…things didn”t work out so well. In the end, Season 5 was about making a device work. “Fringe” at its best was about finding out what made the human heart work. And while that heartbeat could still be occasionally heard this season, it was so faint and distance that you had to strain to hear it.
Instead, we mostly heard the monotone musings of Windmark and the other Observers. So enamored of these individuals were Wyman and Co. that they pushed our heroes aside in the final act in favor of these walking, talking ciphers. We never really learned what these entities wanted. Sure, they screwed up the planet in the future (something that really calls into question their superior intellect) and used twelve of their kind to scout optimal time periods to invade in the past. But their plan really boiled down to making the current world as inhospitable as the future. That seems counterproductive, to say the least. Their “infection” by emotion might have been interesting, tying into the show”s longstanding investigation of the interaction of science, morality, faith, and emotion. But really, in the end, they simply served as boogeyman of varied effectiveness. The Windmark who killed Etta? Terrifying badass. The Windmark who kept driving to places instead of teleporting when trying to capture resistance members? Less so.
Regardless, “Fringe” made the mistake of thinking these creatures were the most interesting thing about the show, the logical endpoint for the series” run. And that”s where we come to the real crux of things: Rather than keeping things human-scaled, “Fringe” committed the same sin so many long-running serials do: it tried to make its world bigger instead of deeper. Once Peter stepped into the Doomsday Device, the show”s fate was sealed. Ending the show the way it did, with a blissful family picnic, offers the illusion of that intimacy having pervaded the entire proceedings. But really, it was another Etch-A-Sketch approach that demonstrated the show”s inability to write itself out of the corners it created for itself. Throwing everything but the kitchen sink at a narrative isn”t good storytelling. It”s a smoke screen that attempts to hide the fact that “Fringe” didn”t trust that simply spending time with these characters would engage the audience enough. For a show that did exactly that for three seasons, and it did tremendously well, that lack of faith is fascinating as well as semi-tragic.
Does tonight, or even this season, negate the series as a whole? Of course not. A great finale doesn”t usually redeem an overall poor show, and a bad one certainly doesn”t erase the good stuff that preceded it. I don”t understand people that retroactively change their entire opinion about a series based on its last 30, 60, or 120 minutes. But that happened with “The Sopranos”, “Lost”, “Battlestar: Galactica”, and another dozen shows I could rattle off. It happens. Nothing I say can, will, or probably should change this phenomenon. That”s fine. But it”s also unfortunate.
Ultimately, “Fringe” was an often emotionally rich, deeply flawed television show that in later seasons moved away from what made it truly special. But it”s also a show that followed its own path throughout the course of its run. Sure, I bet all involved wish they had been able to film an extra season to connect the dots between seasons four and five, but it”s pretty clear that nothing in between would have changed the final destination. This is the story the show wanted to tell, and FOX gave them mostly enough resources to do it. That”s pretty remarkable, all things being said. People will find this show for decades to come, and imagine it will inspire equally passionate responses then as it has over these last five years. It resonated with the most of the small fan base that stuck around until the end, and there will always be a small but dedicated group henceforth that will share this show with others. If that”s the show ultimate legacy…well, that”s a mighty strong accomplishment.
What did you think of the finale? What will the show”s place in TV history be? Sound off below!