FOX’s “Fringe” wrapped up its third season on Friday night with a brain-bending cliffhanger that left fans expressing themselves with excited combinations of exclamation points and question marks.
Many fans loved the apparent shift in the “Fringe” paradigm. Some fans were less enamored. But for all of them, there was one major question: What the heck is this going to mean moving forward?
On Monday, I got on the phone with “Fringe” showrunners Jeff Pinkner and and Joel Howard “J.H.” Wyman to discuss “The Day We Died” and the way it will ripple into Season Four this fall.
It won’t surprise “Fringe” fans to know that I got very few concrete answers about next season, but I think that Pinkner and Wyman definitely provided a lot of insight into their approach to the structure and mythology of their show.
Click through for the full interview, but only assuming you’ve seen the finale…
HitFix: Hey guys. Thanks for chatting. We’ve had a few days since the finale aired. Have you had a chance to check out the reactions and gotten a feel for what the temperature in the room was?
Jeff Pinkner: We always do. We’ve said it before: We care very much what our fans and what the audience thinks. We also know that’s not representative of the entire audience. We strive to take what the audience thinks into consideration, while at the same time not allowing it to, in and of itself, drive the ship.
HitFix: What have have you thought of the reactions?
JP: We’re pleased. Yeah. I think that we’re very pleased by the reaction. I think that there was a lot of “What the f***?” and frustration at the very ending of the show, which is not surprising when one of the core characters ceases to exist. What did you think?
HitFix: Honestly? For me, the answer is going to be in how well you guys pay it off at the start of next season. If it gets paid off well? It’s all aces. Who knows from there?
JHW: I think that’s always the case with something that’s kinda audacious or risky in any sort of way. People are always going to say, “Well wait a minute. Why did you do that?” And if it becomes evident later that there was a good reason, then you’re right, people are going to say, “Wow. I completely understand why they did that.” Look, it’s our MO. We’ve said it before that we always plot the seasons out a year in advance. We’re not going around willy-nilly. It’s something that we always lay out and we definitely know where we’re going and feel like this is a perfect set-up for Season Four. A lot of the things and a lot of decisions that I think may confuse some people now — other people it didn’t, but some people it did confuse and some for some people they were good questions and for some people they were bad questions — we feel confident that the answers will be revealed in the following season.
HitFix: One thing I definitely felt as I finished the episode was, “Oh my goodness, if that had even potentially been a series finale, people would have burnt down your offices.” Did you guys have any fears about that?
JP: Well, we knew that this was not going to be the series finale. And, by the way, if it had been the series finale, we wouldn’t have been in the offices anymore, so it would have been a crime against property, but not necessarily against me and Joel and all of our colleagues. As fans, if that were the series finale of a show that I love, I would be frustrated. At the same time, there’s a certain honesty in it, that Walter ultimately was willing to make the the sacrifice that he recognized he may need to make in order to undo all of the wrongs, all of the damage that he had caused. A lot of our favorite stories don’t end necessarily happily with a neat little bow, but end with some sort of emotional complications. Life is not all good or all bad. It’s a mix of both. Had this been the end of the series, and it wasn’t and nor was it ever intended to be, I think we would have felt that we were being honest to the core of the show.
HitFix: How did you decide that this particular episode and place was where you wanted to end Season Three? The penultimate episode with the conclusion in the future also had a finale-esque feeling.
JHW: This was the plan from the beginning. If we would have left Peter in the future, then the people who *did* enjoy this one would say, “Wow. I didn’t like that.” For us, it was something that’s going to set up and lay groundwork and open a new chapter for the upcoming season. We didn’t ever waver from the direction where we set out. It wasn’t even an issue. It wasn’t even a question.
HitFix: Obviously you guys aren’t going to tell me specifics, but how would you describe the new structure or chapter this opens up for Season 4?
JP: New structure? Well, “Fringe” is always going to be “Fringe.” If you want to go back to the beginning of Season Two, when Jeff and I had to decide, “Well how are we going to tell the story of Over Here and Over There? Are we going to have flashbacks? Flashforwards? Flashovers, as it were? Or are we going to actually trade off going across one episode after the next or some degree of a pattern like that?” And we felt like it wasn’t honest enough to set up a compelling mythology for Over There if we’re just giving people little bits of an episode. We felt it was too hard for people to get on-board with just seeing half an episode Over There and half an episode Over Here. People would get lost or confused. We said, “Look, we know we have a compelling mythology Over There that we believe in and we want to allow people to experience that in the best possible way.” What that meant to us was being able to tell stories on a thematic level that we weren’t able to tell Over Here. We could learn more about stories and more about the human condition and ask question about existence from Over There, while asking and inviting the audience to become invested in these new ideas. So as that went forward, we were lucky and people really found what we hoped they would, which is that they enjoyed. We’re on a course of expansion. Last year we got the right to say we have two shows about one show, which is true.
So next season, what this allows us to do is it’s going to allow us to pull from other elements as well. We’re going to be able to have people Over Here that are from Over There, we’re going to have people Over There from Over Here. There’s a tremendous amount of drama. The worlds are still breaking down. What happened to Peter Bishop is obviously a question. Will he return? How is he going to return? In what capacity is he going to return? “Fringe” has the ability to not do anything normal. “Fringe” has the ability to take a kidnapping story and turn it into one that happened across universes. Or a pregnancy story and have the birth happen within the span of three hours. It’s safe to say that we just want to have as many options as possible to keep the entertainment coming, to keep the drama flowing and to keep people compelled. So that was our main goal, to be able to, next season, tell even richer stories with people you’re starting to get to know and who you know already.
HitFix: You’ve opened up a lot of storylines, but do you guys feel like you’ve closed off any storylines, per se? I saw a number of people concerned about the many things directly associated with Peter which, in their minds, could no longer exist because Peter “never existed.” Do you feel like there are any hard and fast rules for what doesn’t exist anymore?
JP: One of the notable things about time-travel paradoxes is that there are several ways to attack the time-travel paradox and as long as you remain honest and consistent with the rules that you choose to follow, the rules that you choose to establish, you’re good. So we’ll be very clear with the rules that we are establishing and hopefully we will remain true to those. But people’s concerns for the baby and Walter and Walternate’s history, those answers will become clear. It’s funny, we felt that we reinvented the show and that the network would be more concerned at the end of Season Two going into Season Three, the idea that Olivia was stuck Over There and Bolivia was embedded on our team. That was a huge reimagining of the show in the network’s eyes and they were very nervous, like “How are we going to tell ‘Fringe’ stories after that?” And we did. In fact, we would argue that the show became more compelling and that the storytelling became more rich and we hope to do the same thing this year, going into Season Four. And the network is not nearly as anxious. I think we’ve gained some trust and hopefully the audience will display the same trust.
There are two kinds of television shows: There’s a show that’s about a condition, about a hospital or about a police precinct or about a team of lawyers. And then there are shows about characters or an unfolding story. Ours is the latter and it needs to unfold. It can’t stay still. We couldn’t tell the same kinds of stories we were telling in Season Three forever, just like we couldn’t tell the same kind of stories we were telling in Season Two forever, without it starting to stagnate. So the show is moving forward. It’s the same character. It’s ultimately, hopefully, the same variety of themes that we enjoy exploring so much. And hopefully it will just continue to grow and deepen and to get richer.
HitFix: And you guys also left a ton of mysteries in the 2026 future that may not still exist. How alive do you see that future world as being for upcoming stories?
JHW: I think we’ve gained a platform being able to say that we’re going back in time and tell a slice of story that will inform the viewer and be able to say, “Hey, if I didn’t see that episode, I would have missed a lot. On all kinds of levels.” We look to the future-type-episodes as possibilities like that. Will it be the exact same future? We don’t know. Will it be after that? Who knows? Perhaps. I can guarantee you that the only reason we would slip back and forth is to tell stories that are thematically relevant to what we’re talking about now, in Season Four, to try and influence our storytelling in the past and future in that way. It’s not that the whole structure of the show is going to change. It’s not that you’re going to be in the future in ever second episode. That’s just not in the cards.
HitFix: But should viewers get invested in what happened in Detroit? Should viewers be invested in what happened with Broyles’ eye? Should they be invested in how Walter’s trial went down?
JHW: Yeah. Those are interesting. A lot of things are going to have degrees of importance. I think The Trial of Walter Bishop is very, very important and I know Jeff agrees. That’s a very big time in Walter’s life and people who love Walter will love to see that. We know what happened to Broyles in Detroit. We know what happened to his eye. We love to set seeds. That’s kinda what we do all the time. We endeavor to do that. People would say, “Oh my gosh, in Season One, I saw amber and I didn’t even understand what context it was. I had it in the wrong context. Now I realize that amber is something completely different from what I thought it was.” Or in Episode Two, even, where the babies rapidly grew, when they were growing the soldiers like tomatoes, this came back in the Olivia pregnancy storyline. We’re always trying to repeat on ourselves and always trying to to keep recontextualizing the program for the viewer who’s really paying attention.
JP: One of the themes we’ve explored from the beginning is this notion of Choice vs. Fate and Inevitability. As The Observers have said, there are many possible futures unfolding at every moment. Of course, which one comes to pass is determined by all the interconnected choices that all of humanity is making simultaneously. So we witnessed, in our finale, one possible future in 2026. Whether that specific future happens or whether we’re going to tell 15 more seasons of this television show to actually get there in real-time is unlikely on both fronts, because circumstances will change. However, there are certain events — like Walter’s Trial, like what happened in Detroit, which may or may not be related to how Broyles lost an eye — those events may unfold anyway, because constantly there’s tension between Fate and Choice and Synchronicity. Does that make sense?
HitFix: Ummm… *Some* sense, certainly?
JP: Sortta like the notion of… Your parents met under a certain set of circumstances, if they hadn’t met that way, would they have met some other way? Would you still be here, perhaps born a year later?
JHW: Or earlier.
JP: Or earlier. Are certain events inevitable or are they all determined simply based on the choices that we all make.
HitFix: It seemed notable that you ended the season with The Observers getting the last word, so to speak. This season there were a couple Observer-heavy episodes. How much is Season Four the Season of The Observer?
JHW: We’re definitely going to expand on people’s understanding of The Observers, for sure. That’s a story that’s now ready to be told and we’ll definitely go there.
HitFix: Earlier, you mentioned the things that were introduced in earlier episodes that maybe viewers didn’t understand in that context, but that came to be much more important later on. How much would you say that what we witnessed this season was always the plan for Peter’s machine, that this was always the plan you had for Sam Weiss, that this was always the plan behind the Olivia powers that were introduced in Season One and then not mentioned again for a while? How much was plan and how much was retroactive reimagining?
JP: Look, we as storytellers… It would be unfair to say it’s Joel and I… J.J. [Abrams] and Bob [Orci] and Alex [Kurtzman] created the show and Joel and I and Akiva Goldsman and our phenomenal staff of writers have a paradigm and a framework that’s been in place from early on. And we’re exploring a world. So we established the world from the beginning and as we find avenues that are interesting, we go down them further and then they lead to doors that were maybe unexpected, but we go “Oh, that door connected to… That’s a shortcut to France. We thought we would have to go to France by way of New York and then hopping on a plane and flying across an ocean, but in fact it turns out that we can head west and there’s a door to France.” I know that this is a horrible analogy, but a lot of the storytelling and a lot of the larger paradigms and themes have been in place from the beginning — as is the ending, as a matter of fact — but how we get there, we need to keep it interesting and exciting for ourselves. Otherwise, it will just be flat. So how we get there is always both predetermined and then also changes based on the choices we make.
JHW: To us, we enjoy setting things up and just saying, “OK. That’s set up. We can move on to something else.” We’re not saying people won’t be completely engaged by that thing we set up and are asking for an answer right away, but isn’t that sorta like opening your presents on the day before Christmas? It’s gonna come. That’s why you watch a narrative is to watch it unfold. We intentionally set things up and say, “OK. We’re gonna take our foot off of the accelerator on that element, for now, and examine these” and try to give people some building blocks for some other understanding that we want them to have. You mentioned the powers. In the season finale, they came to fruition, didn’t they? To a certain extent. So you realize, “OK, so she did develop something and there was something going on and she has sorta mastered them to some degree. Isn’t that interesting?” It’s a task, because “OK, we know where that’s going to go,” but to a viewer, hopefully, they’ll take it and go, “Oh, that’s cool. She must have developed it.” We think our viewers are really smart. And sometimes we do maybe ask them to paint in negative space. And that’s cool. They do, most of the time.
HitFix: It’s asking a lot sometimes. But when did you guys accept the idea that there would no longer be such a thing as a “casual” “Fringe” viewer? One who could drop in and drop out and still follow things?
JP: We haven’t really accepted that at all. We anecdotally, each of us have friends and acquaintances who sadly are just occasional “Fringe” viewers or happily are just occasional “Fringe” viewers. We strive to maintain access points for people who are not serialized, devoted viewers of every episode. Obviously the more heavily mythological episodes, you certainly want to know what’s going on, but a lot of the episodes we strive very hard to make sure that there is a story-of-the-week, whether it’s about our characters or it’s about the case-of-the-week, the bad guy of the week. Though suddenly they’re dropping off the networks, the daytime serials, I remember being a kid home from school and turning on “All My Children” and after 15 minutes, you’re pretty much caught up on everything you need to know in order to enjoy that episode. You might not know that this person, before losing their mind, was an alien, but you know enough to watch the episode now and get some real satisfaction out of it. And we still maintain to tell our stories like that. Joel and I have spoken often of this term, “myth-alone,” which we believe we’ve coined, which is telling stand-alone episodes — in that they each have a beginning, middle and end — while still being true and honest and advancing the character and narrative mythology of the world so that there’s something for everybody.
HitFix: And I like and have used the term “myth-alone.” It just feels like this season, episodes became more “myth” and less “alone.”
JHW: Sure, the end of the season was slanted a little more towards the mythology. It seems like a really simple idea like, “Hey, why don’t you do a show that has a case-of-the-week, but has some mythology running through it?” and it may be simple, but it’s like one of those puzzles where when you’re in it, you can’t see the answer, but when you know the answer you’re like, “Oh duh.” It took us some time to get there. An episode that we always point to is “White Tulip,” as a perfect example. I think that anybody can sit down and watch that story, because it’s about love, it’s about loss, it’s about faith. It’s about all of those things and people can identify with that. You can feel all of those thematic things in Walter’s performance and Walter’s storyline about giving that letter to Peter. You don’t need to know the entire thing. You just know that a man is facing a very difficult decision.
There are two types of viewers: There are the viewers who are going to sit down and they’re gonna watch a show because they’re invested in the characters and then there’s the person who’s going to follow the mythology. Our fans, our hardcore fans, the ones who followed us over to Friday and have been with us, they let us know loud and clear, “We’re not really interested in the monster-of-the-week format. We don’t respond to that. We want just mythology.” So that was our journey. It’s the network business to get new eyeballs and of course that’s totally logical. It’s a very expensive canvas to paint on and it needs to be paid for. I wish people would understand that this is not just a science fiction show, but a family drama and come to it. It’s a tough sell with the science fiction moniker. We just dove in and said, “We’re going to tell the stories that we really want to tell for as long as people will allow us to tell them.” So far, you guys and the press in general have been so kind and it’s for that reason that we’re still around, the reviews and the things like that. We’re just doing what we think is right. I don’t know that we’ll ever be a crossover hit where all of a sudden everybody in the world’s watching “Fringe.”
HitFix: As a last question, how are you guys approaching this fourth season, big picture-wise? You said you know where the end is. Are you approaching this as a prelude to a hypothetical Season 5, Season 6. Or is this a gift opportunity to bring the story close to that end?
JP: Certainly more the former. Certainly more that we have a lot of story left to tell and we hope that we have the good fortune and the opportunity to tell it. We’re never gonna… we’re not declaring an end to the series.
JHW: The show’s evolving and turning consistently and organically it’s changing. And with that change, there’s always more story avenues and venues to come up.
“Fringe” will be back on FOX this fall.