Fringe has come to a conclusion, after five seasons on the air. It’s been a heck of a ride, and while I wouldn’t say it was perfect, I would certainly say it had more ups than downs. With the final episode airing last night, it’s time for me to take a look back at the series and how it evolved, and what I did and didn’t like. Obviously, there will be spoilers; if you haven’t seen the finale, go check your DVR and come back later.
I missed the first few episodes of Fringe when it launched five years ago, but it didn’t take long for me to find out about it and get caught up in it. The premise, of an FBI agent (Anna Torv as Olivia Dunham) assigned to investigate paranormal incidents with a team of civilian scientists, had a lot of potential. It bore some surface similarity to The X-Files in its concept, but the execution was different, because Fringe made no bones about what was going on. If there was a cover-up, the Fringe team wasn’t in the group being kept out of the loop. In The X-Files, “the truth [was] out there”. In Fringe, the truth was right there, and probably trying to gnaw your face off.
It made for an exciting and intelligent show. In the first season, it mostly kept to a “monster of the week” format, where the Fringe team would investigate a different threat each time, all of them apparently unrelated. But even then there were hints that there was something underneath it all, as too many of the cases seemed related to Walter Bishop’s earlier research projects. It’s a quandary that a lot of shows, particularly genre shows, have to face: the question of whether to stay as a “threat of the week” show, or to start adding a “myth arc”, where an overriding plot line starts shaping the seasons. The former means that viewers won’t get lost, and it’s possible to maintain the same level of quality — a bad storyline will only ruin one episode instead of a whole season. But it’s hard to maintain viewer interest without the ongoing story arc, and Fringe, as with most sci-fi shows, started introducing arcs with the second season. This initially took the form of the threats unleashed by David Robert Jones, and his mysterious agenda regarding otherworldly invaders, but was eventually sidelined by the alternate universe.
The alternate universe gave most of the actors a chance to really show their range, as the alternate versions of their characters often turned out rather differently (save for Joshua Jackson, whose character Peter only existed in one universe). It also provided a plot line that could last for a few seasons, establishing a conflict where neither side is entirely right or entirely wrong. It’s one thing to establish a “mirror universe” where everyone is evil. It’s another thing entirely to create an alternate universe where people are just as good or bad, but are driven to interdimensional war out of desperation to survive — with that survival jeopardized by an act that was made with the most benevolent of intentions.
If there was a point where the series stumbled a bit, it was in the fourth season. It felt as if the writers had painted themselves into a corner with the alternate universe, and wanted to hit the reset button in a lot of ways. They altered the timeline, brought back David Robert Jones (Jared Harris), and even revisited a lot of the plots from the earlier seasons. While it was still interesting, it couldn’t escape the feeling of familiarity.
For the fifth season, the writers knew they were writing for the final season, and decided to shake things up quite a bit. Foreshadowed by a fourth season episode — one which would have been much better served had it simply been the premiere of the fifth season — the final season was set significantly in the future. The Observers, who had always seemed benevolent or at least benign, were now ruling the world with an iron fist. Peter and Olivia’s daughter, Henrietta (Georgina Haig) was the leader of the resistance, and the Fringe team was brought into the future by having been preserved in amber during the duration. There were some issues with this season — notably, the explanation for the difference in the Observers’ behavior wasn’t explained until late into it (that explanation being that the first wave were simply scouts and were unaware of their society’s larger plans). Additionally, while the season did explore a bit of what it means to be human, via Peter experimenting with Observer tech, it didn’t address the moral issues of weaponizing the fringe events, which could have provided a bit more depth to the season. But perhaps most importantly, while the season was still fun and interesting, it felt separate from all the previous seasons. The first four seasons sometimes went in different directions, but they felt like the same show; season five felt more like a sequel series, the same characters in a new show. This is not to say that it was bad; just that it didn’t feel quite like Fringe any more.
Nevertheless, the show still succeeded where it always did, which is with the characters. On one level, the characters of Olivia, Peter, and Astrid aren’t anything special by genre standards. They’re not flat characters, but neither are they unusually deep; any show which runs for five seasons should have that approximate level of characterization. But there was enough exploration of each character throughout the seasons, including the last one, to give each a fully rounded personality, and to make the cast interactions interesting and believable. And then there’s Walter. Played magnificently by John Noble, Walter Bishop is simply one of the best characters to have been on television in the past several years. Alternately childlike and egotistical, he’s a mad scientist who is both funny and a little frightening at the same time. Capable of fantastic feats of scientific genius, yet utterly helpless in the outside world. A man who was once a monster, ruthless in his pursuit of knowledge, and was so appalled by what he’d become that he literally cut his own brain open to prevent himself from ever becoming that man again. During the course of five seasons, alternate universes and timelines and flashbacks, Walter is shown to be capable and helpless, jovial and callous, monstrous and saintlike. He is an extraordinarily complex character, and yet despite all the dichotomies to his personality, every stage of every version of him is nevertheless immediately recognizable as being the same man, all the seeming contradictions forming one cohesive whole. It is very rare that a television character has seemed both larger than life and so perfectly real at the same time… let alone also being highly entertaining to watch.
After five seasons, it was probably time for Fringe to go. But I’m going to miss the intelligent writing, and the numerous respectful nods to science fiction and fantasy greats; I remember one of the first ones I caught being when they referred to “the Zelazny building”. I’m going to miss the creative and downright freaky ideas the writers came up with for fringe events. And I’m going to miss watching a character as fun and fascinating as Walter Bishop.