Season Finale — Fringe, “The Day We Died”

Hey folks, I had a busy weekend full of personal business, so I’ll be posting some reviews of Friday television today. They’re late and probably a bit shorter than usual, but hopefully they’re still worth reading.

I said in my review of Fringe‘s penultimate episode that this season was one of my favorite of recent memory. After the season finale, “The Day We Died,” I’m not sure how strongly I feel anymore. For a season full of great ideas and wonderfully heartfelt emotion, “The Day We Died” is a fairly sizable misfire. I think I’ve grown to like it more after a second viewing, but of all the series I watch, this is the one I expected to be least disappointed in come finale time. I think I’m still a bit shocked about how unfortunate this episode is.

Listen, I loved the idea of going into the dystopian future and what it could mean for the two universes. I knew that this episode wouldn’t officially push the story into the future for good and was mostly just hoping to see what this future meant to Peter and how it could shade the story happening in present day. In some ways, “Died” did accomplish those goals. It gave us a number of really solid character-based moments between Peter and the two Walters and Peter and Olivia. It was really cool to have Peter call Walter his “dad” and Walternate his “father,” just as it was awesome to spend a few moments with a mostly happily married Peter and Olivia. Despite all the terrible things that have happened in this future world, the two of them are still themselves and it’s just so cute.

Of course, the future also gave us some pertinent information about what happened to bring this future about: Once Peter got into the machine in 2011, it destroyed the alternate universe, killing what appears to be everyone but Walternate (who snuck over near the end). Unfortunately, that didn’t stop the problems in our universe. In fact, it made them worse. By the time we check in on Peter and company in 2026, our universe is rapidly deteriorating and Walter has been jailed for years for crimes against humanity. Fringe Division works to stop things with amber and its impressive technology, but the terrorists and the fringe events are becoming too much to handle.

In one episode, I’m fine with that kind of information. We need to know why this future matters, both to the characters and for the narrative, and there are certainly moments here that do work in that context. But there’s so much of this future world that just doesn’t matter, and yet the episode tries way too hard to convince us that it does. The little changes and narrative info-dumps are fine, but when Walternate kills Olivia in the middle of the episode and everything comes to a screeching halt it’s just kind of pointless. Joshua Jackson does an excellent job with Peter’s reaction to his wife’s death and I thought the viking funeral was a nice touch, but come on, we all know that Olivia isn’t going to be dead. At that moment, the time we spent in this future becomes a bit more frivolous for this reason. We assumed that this wouldn’t stick, but after Olivia dies, we know that it won’t.

The last 10 minutes of the episode were pretty good though. I know some people are upset about it, but I actually really, really like the reveal that the First People are actually just Walter, Astrid and whomever else, dropping the pieces of the machine in the past so that Peter can eventually make a different choice. Obviously, the machine then becomes like the compass in Lost. It has no real origin, just stuck in this loop that will never actually end. The final twist, that Peter has now made a bridge between the two universes to save them and subsequently doesn’t exist, was tremendous. It raises dozens and dozens of questions for season four and creates all sorts of different storytelling possibilities, especially structurally. Will we toggle back and forth between 2011, with the two Walters and the two Olivias trying to fix their universe’s problems, and 2026, with Peter and Walter scheming to bring him to the moment in this episode where he disappears? Will Peter be completely gone for a handful of episodes? Does Peter and Fauxlivia’s baby still exist? There are so many questions that need to be answered and the cliffhanger crystallized them well.

But instead of being overwhelmed with the awesomeness of that cliffhanger, I’m mostly disappointed with the previous 40 minutes that led up to it. The cliffhanger itself is great, but it would have had so much more of an impact if the episode could have reached those same heights earlier. As it stands now, it feels like the Fringe team came up with this fantastic cliffhanger and then built the episode backward from there. I know that they didn’t because this season has (in my opinion) has been very well structured and developed, but the fact that it feels like that is very problematic. Fringe is a series that relies on its mind-f*** twists, but it’s just as successful when focusing on the three main characters. “The Day We Died” lacked much of that, and even when it tried to hone in on Peter, Olivia or Walter, they were future versions that we couldn’t quite care about because we knew it wasn’t necessarily real or concrete. I’ve seen some people note that this episode would have worked much better as a two-parter and I wholly agree. That’s how the series handled its first full-bore journey into the other universe last season, so it makes sense that they would have done the exact same thing here. Another 40 minutes in that world might not have made future Olivia’s death really matter, but it would have certainly made it matter more than it did here.

I understand that the whole point of going to the future is to show us the importance of figuring out the differences between the two universes in 2011. It’s a warning sign. Moreover, it’s also supposed to give us some big emotional beat about Peter traveling back to save Olivia even though it erases himself from existence. That’s pretty romantic and heroic and all that. But even though that all sounds fantastic in theory, the execution of it here is rushed, a bit heavy-handed and ultimately, kind of pointless. And I never, ever thought I’d say that about a Fringe episode, let alone a finale. I’ll definitely be back for season four and I don’t expect the series to continue to be as problematic as this episode was, but it’s just so disappointing to end such a great season with such a mediocre episode.

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