Chitchat: Reflecting on the end of Fringe

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In the aftermath of Fringe’s series finale, I exchanged some emails with friend of the site Cameron White. 

Cory: Well Cameron, Fringe is over. The 13-episode final season had its ups and downs (which we’ll get to), but the finale played it pretty straight. There weren’t too many BIG surprises and the emotional beats carried the story over the bumpy, machinations of the plot. But before we get there: TVS readers know that I’ve been disappointed with the show since the admittedly-ballsy decision to erase Peter from existence at the end of season three. If you would, describe where you were with the show coming into the final string of episodes. I think that’ll set a nice baseline for further discussion. 

Cameron: Yeah, Peter disappearing was kind of a big deal, because from that point, it defined a lot of peoples’ opinions about the show moving forward. I’ve always stood firmly as someone who took as a positive — it was incredibly ballsy, and I think it ultimately paid off dividends that were worth exploring for his character, at least in terms of his sacrifice and the fallout of that. I was similarly bullish about jumping into the future, though at that point I wasn’t simply backed by my corner of the fandom, as many people found “Letters of Transit” thoroughly enjoyable. (And I’m never getting over how much Georgina Haig looks like Anna Torv. If ever there were a more perfect casting decision in the history of the arts…)

But I think my base feeling going into the show’s final season had more to do with the relief of actually getting a final season. It’s very comparable to how I felt about Chuck‘s final season, in that while I was (and still am) hesitant about certain story decisions made (for Chuck, it was the belated attempt to give Morgan the Intersect; in Fringe, it was the crutch-y scavenger hunt plot structure as the gang uses videotapes to search out random objects), I was just happy to be able to see how the shows would conclude, as both Chuck and Fringe were clinging to life come renewal time. It’s especially poignant for me, as I had watched both Chuck and Fringe from day one, and so any lingering doubts I had about story decisions made were overshadowed by simply wanting those precious few moments where the characters finally conclude long-standing jokes or make implicit subtext more explicit and textual in content. I just wanted a conclusion, damn it, and I’m more forgiving when I’m in that mode of “just get me to the end in tears, man!”

Cory: I can respect that point of view, and really, I respect the show for making so many big (albeit) curious choices. But as this final season and these final two episodes especially unspooled, I couldn’t help but think about the version of Fringe from the middle of season three that had made bold choices and yet kept those choices in-line with the show’s big interests of family, fate, love, etc. On a simple level, I understood what Peter, Olivia, Walter and Astrid were fighting for in this last season, but the show never made much of an effort to make me care about it. If we want to get technical, these weren’t even the versions of the characters I really cared about, so why should I give a damn if they get a happy ending? I know the show tried–and in my opinion failed quite miserably–to bring everything together, even going as far as having Walter “remember” the original timeline of events, but it never quite tracked with me why the show had to blow itself up over and over again, yet claim that nothing had changed all that much. Do you, or perhaps can you, understand that perspective on the show?

Image courtesy of Fox/WB.

Cameron: I certainly can. Even though I continued to feel a strong emotional connection to the show, there was a certain mechanical quality to the fifth season that I couldn’t ignore. Especially after “The Bullet That Saved The World,” when Etta dies, the show seemed to be exhausting its last possible storytelling options in service of a final story, and not everything came together in the end. (I would have liked more about Walter’s brain forcing back into Walternate territory, personally; that one also came to a premature end courtesy of Nina’s sacrifice.) To keep with my Chuck comparison, that show’s fifth and final season may have started slow, using up three episodes to resolve a cliffhanger and then moving on, but by the end, it had more than justified its storytelling choices AND made a bold move that cemented Chuck‘s ending as one that few viewers who saw it will ever forget, regardless of how they felt about it.

That may be the problem, ultimately, with the Fringe finale: it felt right, and there were a lot of beautiful moments sprinkled between “Liberty” and “Enemy of Fate” to make it feel finale-esque, but it also didn’t take any significant risks on the level of Chuck, or Lost, or the granddaddy of controversial finales, The Sopranos. The fabric of the show was intact right up to the final moment, when Peter receives a white tulip in the mail.

Part of that probably has to do with the fans. Those same fans that became more vocally supportive of the show the more risks it took, beginning with Olivia’s initial trip to the other side at the very end of season one, were a big part of the decision-making that went into keeping Fringe alive. (Kevin Reilly being a vocal supporter of sci-fi television probably didn’t hurt either.) But at the very end, there’s no more need for fan support, so there’s no need for those big, evocative risks that kept the show going long after the initial push of House viewers burned out. (Fringe was attached to House‘s fifth season on Tuesdays the very first season back in 2008; I remember because “Dying Changes Everything” was the first full episode of House I ever watched.) It’s the double-edged sword of fandom-based shows; at the end of the series, the financial relationship between viewers and producers ends. The remainder is whatever love or strong emotional attachment you still have to the show, which is beautiful, but not monetizable over a long period of time.

Cory: You read my mind about the lack of risk-taking in the finale. Although there were compelling and moving moments along the way, the final season’s narrative ending up being kind of pointless. Etta as we know her is gone, the Observers are gone, and even the reconciliation between Olivia and Peter doesn’t matter now. We can argue all day about what Peter might do in the aftermath of receiving the white tulip in the mail, but again, it doesn’t REALLY matter. 

This is a problem I have with the last two seasons of the show. Not to keep belaboring this point, but the last 38 episodes of the show were basically an exercise in “what if…” shenanigans that never found a tangible, necessary purpose for existing. Wyman seems to think that continuously tinkering with the universes is what made the show appealing, and while I respect his vision, I think he’s wrong.

Of course, had the finale completely reverted back to the mid-S3 universe, this might have been even more pointless.

Other than the macro issues I have with the show’s recent history, let me ask you this: remember when Olivia played a central role in this whole endeavor? I love the Bishops and I think both Josh Jackson and John Noble killed it in recent years, but Olivia got pushed to the side to such a weird degree that I kept waiting for there to be a major reason for it — and then the finale just gave her Cortexiphan again. How do you feel about how the show used her in the final run? 

Cameron: I think the show always kind of thought of itself as The Walter Bishop Show, in a sense, because both Peter and Olivia have reasons for connecting to Walter beyond the initial reasons — Olivia was one of his test subjects for Cortexiphan as a kid, and Peter is, like, his son from another universe. So in a way, I was kind of expecting the eventual shove away from her story, and that started happening somewhere around the middle of S4, when the implications of Peter disappearing became too great to ignore for more than an episode at a time.

Still, Olivia is an instrumental part of the DNA of the show, even within the context of the Bishops. When asked to point to an episode that both defined the series and the point at which it went from “pretty good sci-fi” to “must-see TV,” almost everyone will point to “Peter,” the episode that kicks off the final third of season two. While I agree with the essential nature and outstanding quality of that episode, I argue that its context cannot be ignored — namely, the episode preceding it, “Jacksonville.” Both episodes force Walter to come to terms with the consequences of his choices, choices he made in the name of science. When Olivia was a child, he saw her only as a test subject. But she was their best, and she was also a human being with a pretty bad home situation. These things conspired to make Olivia the character she is, leaning into her cold exterior because inside, as she says, “I’m still that scared little girl.” By stark contrast, Walter was blinded by the loss of his son in the Blue Universe, so much so that he risked ripping both universes apart just so he could save the Peter from the Red Universe.

In their own ways, S3 and S4 work together in service of the character of Walter. S3 pushed Olivia (and Anna Torv) to new heights as she struggles with the challenges her Red counterpart presents her, in the form of taking over her life (as she states to Peter in, I believe, “Marionette”). S4 erases Peter from the equation, then brings him back in order to show how his absence affected the course of other characters’ development. But all of this comes back to reflect on Walter, and the series finale drove that point home by having him make the ultimate sacrifice as a means of finally absolving his sins and letting his son “be a better man than his father,” as the old saying went. So while I continued to watch for signals of Olivia’s character as defined elsewhere, just as I did with the others (like Astrid, and Broyles, and Nina, and Gene — just kidding about Gene, or am I?), I didn’t have much hope that her story would get any better than it did in the incredible third season. (I’m sure at this point a lot of people could argue that the Peter/Olivia relationship weakened both of their individual characters, but I don’t necessarily believe that.)

Image courtesy of Fox/WB.

Cory: You sure know how to spin a negative into a positive! More seriously, I mostly buy your point about how Olivia’s journey was used to reflect certain things about the Bishops, and mostly Walter, but I can’t help but recognize that the show was at its strongest when she was much more central to the story. Just an observation.

And because you brought it up, why don’t we talk about the Olivia-Peter romance for a moment. After some resistance to it in the first season (a lot of which seems to have come from Joshua Jackson himself, likely scarred about his time on the Creek), the show embraced their connection in the second season and then almost immediately ramped it up, reconstructing much of the narrative around their fated love. This led to some great episodes of the show, but also some particularly cheesy ones as well (though I still admire the show’s willingness to go for broke on the emotionality of that relationship). While I’m satisfied that the two of them ended up (relatively) happy, whatever in the blue hell happened in season four sort of ruined their relationship for me, and this final season didn’t seem interested in carrying the water for the story it claimed to want to tell at the beginning, with them separated emotionally.

I don’t want to seem completely disappointed with the show, because I’m not. On an emotional level, Fringe hit me pretty hard in the last two years; it just did it way less often in than it did in the first three seasons. And, you “glass half full” viewpoint on the show allows me to bounce these things off you. So, how’d you feel about how the show handled that relationship in the final few years, and as you alluded to, why do you think certain people might believe the pairing hurt them as individual characters?

Cameron: Well, the pairing of Peter and Olivia can be taken from any number of angles. As a sci-fi show, it could just be a way for the show to maintain a different kind of grounded human connection to the story, to contrast with the father-son story of Peter and Walter. From the fan perspective, it was one of the most widely shipped of all the ships before it became canon, so to speak, and began to overtake their individual narratives.

I don’t necessarily think the relationship harmed either character greatly; rather, it added a new wrinkle to their usual set of worries and objectives that slowly became how they were defined as characters. The show never forgot that both Peter and Olivia had other things in their lives to worry about, but the romance became intermingled with the plot, and so it became impossible to ignore that chemistry when it made a difference in how the show proceeded. The biggest example of this is, of course, S3, when Peter finally declares his love for Olivia and it’s not his Olivia. That made for a great deal of tension and firmly grounded the war between the two universes in a conflict that could be easily accessed just by turning to one character or the other.

But somewhere along the way, Peter’s abilities from his years as a con artist, and Olivia’s life as an FBI agent who presents a cold exterior to shelter herself from fear, began to fade in favor of just writing the two together in conjunction with the rest of the cast and the craziness of the plots going on at the same time. It never goes away, nor is it ever really commented on, and so I think part of the blame lies at the extensive complexity of S4 and S5’s plots. Once the show’s scope expanded beyond two universes in one timeline, the story had to boil down to the simplest and most powerful objectives, and that means the big stuff, like Love or Hate or Fear or something else that can be reduced to a single word. At the same time, I would have liked more scenes like Olivia’s “Keep looking up” scene to Altlivia (fittingly, that sentence served as the hashtag for “Liberty,” our last glimpse of the Red Universe in the series proper) and more of our supporting cast, all of whom were interesting, had built-in character arcs, and were all played by fantastic thespians. It’s tough to just let talent like Lance Reddick and Jasika Nicole lay dormant for years while the other actors get large-scale character arcs to follow over five years.

On the other hand, given how things worked out for some people regarding Polivia, especially those who shipped Olivia/Lincoln Lee when that character was introduced, maybe it was for the best that we never really hated Astrid or Broyles. When a show’s taking a lot of risks, you need some constants to keep you from just throwing up your hands. (Just ask Desmond Hume and Daniel Faraday. BAM, obligatory LOST reference.)

Cory: Okay, final question: How do you think this show will be remembered? Will time be kind? And how will you remember it?

Cameron: As a sci-fi show, I believe (and hope!) that it will be remembered as the one that successfully managed to do what The X-Files could not do, since that show was basically the progenitor of the sci-fi of the 2000s. I think the concept of “fringe” science will be to its benefit in the future; as we continue to explore scientific possibility, many of the concepts explored by the show in a dramatic framework could be applied to real-life in a variety of ways, so in that sense, the show will stand as a testament to science fiction as a model for scientists to follow when considering how to approach real-life scientific problems. (Full disclosure: that’s what my thesis is about, so that’s just my personal argument for its long-term remembrance. But I’m just saying, it’s true and my thesis is going to be awesome.) In terms of the history of television, it will definitely stand with Chuck and other shows of this era of television as the ones where fandom involvement finally began to merge with the interests of the network television business model, such that they could be viewed as a mutually beneficial relationship. Something I always appreciated about Fringe and Chuck particularly was how they integrated the product placement in their own ways. Fringe frequently had Nissan cars and Sprint phones, but never tried too hard to make a big deal out of it, while Chuck was delightfully drenched in humor with the integration of Subway, though humor from love, since the Subway idea was a fan’s idea first.

As for me, I’ll remember it quite fondly for much of the same reasons I fondly remember Chuck. I could pick apart both shows with logic and analysis all day, but I have very powerful memories attached to the viewing of these shows live, as well, and so I can only remember them with love and appreciation for what they were trying to do, and how I was a part of keeping that spirit alive, however small a part that was. And I’ll especially remember the really good moments, like going to Twitter after the season two finale and tweeting, “That was fucking COOL.” Because you know what? Fringe was fucking cool, man.

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2 thoughts on “Chitchat: Reflecting on the end of Fringe

  1. Not to keep belaboring this point, but the last 38 episodes of the show were basically an exercise in “what if…” shenanigans that never found a tangible, necessary purpose for existing.”

    For me, the whole purpose of Season 4 was to finally tie up the inter-universe war storyline of the previous seasons. The timeline alteration actually made that possible, since Peter was able to serve as a go-between to which neither side had emotional attachment. Only by the forcible removal of the emotional cause of the war (Peter himself) could you forge the peace. I’m kind of surprised more reviewers didn’t notice the narrative through-line there from Season 3 to Season 4. I thought it was definitely more than “what-if” wheelspinning.

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