‘Fringe’ – ‘The Day We Died’: Back and forth and back again

Senior Television Writer
05.07.11 77 Comments


I stopped reviewing “Fringe” when it moved to Fridays, in part because HitFix already had Ryan McGee (who’s always felt more passionately about the show than me) writing about each episode, but mainly because weekends are family time and it’s tough to write about a weekend show I don’t get to see in advance. Still, the third season finale was momentous enough – and apparently polarizing enough – that I knew I wanted to weigh in. Some thoughts coming up just as soon as I try to use a neighbor kid’s drawing to seduce my wife…

Though I’d stopped writing about the show after “The Firefly,” I had continued enjoying the season a lot up until the William Bell possession arc, which I felt derailed a lot of the season’s narrative momentum in service to a character who had already received an effective farewell in season two’s finale. Still, things had gotten sufficiently bananas in the last couple of episodes that my investment was back up, and I was curious to see how Pinkner, Wyman and company managed to pay off everything they had been building to all season…

… and, at least from my perspective, they unfortunately paid off very little, using a time-travel twist to duck out on their own story, devoting most of the finale to a not particularly interesting alternate future, and then erasing Peter from existence (for now, anyway) in a manner so oblique that we needed The Observers to turn up to explain it to us all in a clunky final scene.

If the comments on Ryan’s review are any indication, there’s precious little middle ground with “The Day We Died.” Most people either loved it or hated it, and while “love” is winning out in those comments, I have to put myself in the other camp.

I’m not saying that the trip to 2026 wasn’t planned way back when, nor that that timeline will cease to matter in season 4. After all, there was enough unexplained material in those scenes (how Broyles lost his eye, for instance) that we could make periodic trips into the future next season in the same way that season 3 occasionally spent an hour Over There even after the two Olivias came home. And the machine has been a background element for so long that I’m giving the writers the benefit of the doubt that they always intended to use it this way once it was activated.

But even if was always part of the series roadmap from the day Pinkner and Wyman figured out how to reorient the show from its mediocre original incarnation, it still played to me as an abrupt detour, a way to avoid dealing with the story we’d been following all year. Again, even believing that this was where the plot was heading all along, and even though the future itself was built by the events of this season, it felt at times like the writers had come to a point in that story arc where they didn’t know how to juggle all the balls they had up in the air, and so they stepped aside and said, “Screw it; we’ll just do the ‘Days of Futures Past’ thing.”

And perhaps if that future had been better-drawn, I wouldn’t have minded. But there was just so much exposition, and so little characterization for the future versions of anyone other than Walter and Walternate, that I didn’t much care about any of it, well before Future Olivia took a bullet to the head and I knew for sure that Peter would find some way to undo all of this. To bring in another recent FOX Friday sci-fi show, “Dollhouse” did a similar trick at the end of its first season (albeit in an episode that FOX never aired, “Epitaph One”), and even though much of that episode was devoted to characters we’d never even met before, those people and that world felt more alive and engaging than this. For that matter, the Over There universe seemed more fully-realized even from the start. There were not only stakes there from the start, but Fauxlivia and Alt-Charlie and the rest immediately registered as interesting characters in a way that Senator Broyles and not-so-young Ella didn’t.

So a lot of that dragged, even though John Noble was predictably great, even though Brad Dourif was suitably creepy. (He’s such a perfect “Fringe” villain that I wish they’d saved him for an episode that could have been more about his character.) And then we got to Walter delivering a speech on paradox that really made my head hurt – and I say that as someone who had no problem at all following “Lost” season 5, and who shrugs off a lot of similar wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey speeches on “Doctor Who” because that show usually treats them as besides the point (which is that time travel is cool, and isn’t the universe a great and wondrous thing?). Here, though, Walter’s explanation for how he was going to build the machine himself, seed it into the past and use it to allow Peter to fix this mess wasn’t something that could be ignored, as it’s the key plot point to where the show is going in season 4. And for the most part, its logic seemed oddly similar to that moment in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” when the guys realize that, because they have a time machine, they can go back later and solve all the problems currently facing them.

And while erasing Peter from existence raises even more questions about paradox, and how the show will keep Joshua Jackson present until the inevitable point where he gets restored to the timeline, etc., the manner in which they presented it was not well-done at all. I cringed when they had to resort to a bunch of Observers standing around to explain what had just happened and why nobody in the bridge room seemed troubled by Peter’s disappearance. Years from now, screenwriting classes are going to use that scene as a cautionary tale when they get to the “Show, don’t tell” lesson.

I admire the audacity of this episode, I suppose. It was taking risks and trying crazy things that brought “Fringe” to the creative level it spent most of this season at. But I thought very little of the episode was well-executed, and I don’t know that any of what it set in motion for the new season is going to have me counting the days until fall. I’ll be back because of the reservoir of goodwill so much of this season built up, and because there’s a good amount of talent in front of and behind the camera, but that was not an hour I particularly enjoyed.

If the comments on Ryan’s review are any indication, I imagine many of you will disagree with me, so let’s have at it. What did everybody else think?

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