The final season of Fringe brings us to a world where the creators, no longer plagued by the need to play to new viewers or worry about ratings, dive into the beginning of the most ambitious, riveting and sci-fi-heavy plot the show’s ever done, while still keeping the focus squarely on the characters.
It’s easy to be equally excited and nervous about the new 2036 setting for Fringe‘s final hurrah. It’s almost a completely different show now, not just with the setting, but with everything pertaining to the structure and concept. Fringe likes to screw with its audiences by putting them in uncomfortable and conflicted situations, like long-term trips to the parallel universe, or the entirety of season 4′s alternate timeline. This is an even more extreme (and probably permanent) case. Not only that, but it could certainly be easy for the writers to get lost in world-building and creating new characters, or just turning this into a season-long “Letters in Transit” instead of character development. Buffy made the mistake of losing its core characters to the mythology and multitudes of new characters in its final season, as did Alias to an extent. But in the same sense that the show’s events have prepared the characters for this challenge, it’s prepared the writers, too—they keep the focus squarely Olivia, Peter and Walter.
Sometimes it does feel a little exposition-heavy, particularly with Peter’s mysterious guilt, but it’s not overbearing and feels more like set-up for future events. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see an extended flashback episode later on, and it already gives a hurdle for Peter and Olivia to overcome as the season goes along beyond the Observer story. The exposition we got wasn’t so much recapping and reminding us of years of plot threads we missed, but instead setting up the characters’ emotional states.
A good example of how much it worked was Etta and Olivia’s tearful reunion. We haven’t seen these two spend any time together—even Peter’s flashback/dream had him interacting with Etta, not so much Olivia. There was no definitive established emotional connection between Olivia and Etta outside of the concept that Etta is her daughter. But we know Olivia, and that inside her tough exterior is a gigantic, overbearing heart. We know from “The Day We Died” that she’s always wanted children of her own, and from her relationship with Ella in season 2 that she loves children in general. And we know through those bits of exposition that Peter and Olivia were fighting hard for their daughter in 2015. The conversations were never just about defeating the observers, but always behind the filter of “we need to save our daughter.” And we know from “Letters of Transit” that Etta has been basically spending her entire life trying to find them, and had no qualms putting her own life at stake. So by the time Etta and Olivia call each other beautiful and hug for what to us is the first time, we still get the sense of years of love and history between the two, just from a handful of exposition and Olivia remembering Etta’s age to the day. This is the right way to handle a timeskip.
Had I been reviewing Fringe during season 4, I would have already said this, but it’s worth noting now—Georgia Haig is a revelation as Peter and Olivia’s daughter. I’ll admit, Etta as a character on her own is a little more bland than she should be, but that’s certainly due to the limited time we’ve spent with her. It still works, because Haig has a great presence that captures an amazing amount of Anna Torv’s mannerisms and speech patterns, while carrying the specific confidence and swagger Joshua Jackson does. It’ll be interesting to see if the show explores some underlying abandonment issues Etta ought to have, or if the point of her character is to not have ever lost faith in her parents. The episode’s (and probably season’s) theme seems to center on keeping hope alive, and it would be fitting to have the bloodline of the people who have saved the world multiple times be the beacon of hope the world needs.
If there’s one thing to be worried about, though, it’s that the show doesn’t fall into a kidnapping/search-and-rescue crutch. It’s a fascist world where the Fringe team is on the run, so there’s lots and lots of chances they’ll be captured and have to be rescued, but…it gets boring very quickly. We already had two search-and-rescues (albeit different kinds) for Olivia and Walter in one episode, which is understandable for how the plot progressed here. The captured/tortured/rescued structure is really easy to do, especially in this kind of setting, but it’s not terribly interesting to watch repeatedly. So while it’s definitely excusable for this week, hopefully the rest of the season offers some variety to its storytelling.
Still, it certainly says something that in a futuristic, dystopian world with a mythology-heavy plot, I’ve spent more time talking about character development and episode structure than the actual plot and titular device. The scrambled plan in Walter’s brain was a clever plot point (and also leaves us yearning to see more of the Walter/September relationship, imagine them in the lab working together!) It wasn’t necessarily surprising that the plan would be wiped from Walter’s brain, but it’s still devastating. Walter doesn’t take loss very well, and John Noble brought out his A-game, like always, bringing out the intense pain (both physically and emotionally) Walter experienced over this hour. But, again, keeping hope alive is a big part of the episode, so it was a well-deserved catharsis when Walter finally gets to listen to some music and things suddenly don’t seem so bleak. He’s Walter Bishop, after all, and he and his team have saved the world from (arguably) worse fates. There’s no reason they can’t do it again over the next twelve episodes.
Some stray tidbits:
Try as I might to avoid an egregious cliché, there’s just no other way to describe the final season premiere of a series: the beginning of the end. At least in regards to Fringe and “Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11,” the adage carries more meaning than just a descriptor for the show’s impending conclusion. Picking up in the not-so-distant Orwellian future of 2036 from last season’s “Letters of Transit,” the premiere masterfully illustrates how near the end of the world is, capturing the state of urgency in the show’s newfound focus and direction.
In light of the show’s shortened episode order, the cast and crew have no time to waste on the “freak of the week” buffers between overarching plot points, giving them the all-clear to fully develop the series mythology. Even though it’s been more than twenty years since the events of Season Four’s finale “Brave New World,” a lot of questions get answered – even ones we didn’t know we were looking for.
Fringe fans—we did it. We got five seasons of Fringe. Even with those terrible ratings and timeslots that jumped all over the schedule, we got all five and producers are getting to end on their own terms.
Perhaps The Observers taking over the planet, since they ruined their version of it sometime in the 2600s, had always been the producers end-game. But it’s a bit of a head snap since the alternate world no longer seems in play (for now) and while we get hints of the gaps between 2012 and 2036, it still seems like an awful big rush to get to this point, even if all of this was set up in Letters of Transit episode last season.
To enjoy season five of Fringe, you have to make a narrative leap. And just go with it.
One narrative leap that might be tougher to swallow – yes, even more than that – is the idea that Peter and Olivia, who had been through so much together (he basically punched a wall through the universe to get back to her last season, even though the universe didn’t really want him there) separated when their child was taken.
Narratively, it’s fascinating to see one of them fight to find that child, while the other fights to save the world (which, inevitably, would save that child.) And gosh, seeing that fight would be awesome. But instead, we skip past it. But hopefully we’ll get to see it in flashbacks.
Put aside those leaps of faith, however, and you come away with a pretty entertaining hour of television, and one that perfectly sets up the endgame. Plus, who didn’t feel something dusty in the air when Peter put his hands on Olivia for the first time after she’s de-ambered? Or Olivia lays eyes on her now grown daughter?
While things seem pretty desolate and pretty dire in the future, all hope is not lost. The Observer torturing Walter tells him that nothing grows in scorched Earth. But Walter, who plays an old song in a dead car at the end of the episode, does indeed see a dandelion growing in the scorched Earth. Not unlike the one that is blowing away when Etta plays in the park in the flashback at the beginning of the episode before she’s taken away from her parents.
Walter can’t remember the plan for defeating The Observers that September put in his head, and Etta seems pretty convinced it’s lost forever. But our heroes will find it. And will find a way to defeat them.
Perhaps September also put that exact plan in Walternate’s head. Just in case.