Fringe: Season 4
Fringe has been one of the most consistently strong shows of the past few years. The best sci-fi around and a wonderful structure and long-term arc told in season-sized chunks each of which builds on the last and supersedes it in quality. Season four however did not quite follow this pattern. It was great television as always but it seemed to falter; the writers didn’t quite know what to do. This came across and the major narrative pieces seemed a little out of place perhaps, and out of keeping with what has gone before. The flip-side is that of course the show set itself up to allow this within its own rules, so ultimately can it be seen as a failure or a great triumph?
Let’s start at the beginning, or more pertinently the end of season three. Looking back at what we said this time last year, a lot of the conclusions have come to bear. Peter did die in the new timeline as a child, in each world. Olivia did however remember him somehow. Her love for him was stronger than any course-correction the Observers had put in place. The return of Peter changed the rules, or they had to be changed for him to return, anyway.
Peter and Olivia, once she realises he is hers and she his, despite the lack of memories of anyone else (and of course Olivia’s memory’s reversion to that of the original timeline), are the only ones whose memories are the same as the viewer’s. They remember what we have seen throughout seasons one to three. Everyone else has different ones. This allowed the writers to completely change things. Belly wasn’t dead. David Robert Jones hadn’t been cut in half by the closure of a dimension travelling doorway. Olivia had been brought up by Nina Sharp. It’s difficult to keep this in mind as we watched the finale. So much had happened so very quickly in the few episodes leading up to it.
We’d seen the world from inside an Observer’s mind, and learnt they were time travelling scientists. We had seen the new timeline’s future and in that future met Desmond (aye, brother) and the offspring of Dunham and Peter. We learnt that Belly was alive. But it was hard as we were always needing to remind ourselves that he was alive because this world wasn’t either of the ones we had been watching. Two worlds in which he had died. The future itself was different to the one Peter had been catapulted into towards the end of season three. All of this is important. If this is not uppermost in the watcher’s mind what happens makes absolutely no sense and can come across as a bit of a let-down.
What is a let-down is the pacing of the series. It starts slowly, although the re-appearance of Peter is handled fairly quickly, with Olivia’s change a little more slow. Too much focus is on David Robert Jones and Belly doesn’t come into it until the end. Why do we even see the new future as it just pops up in one episode and that’s it? Two reasons, we surmise. One, it shows Belly there and should cue the viewer into the fact he’s behind it all. Two, it introduces Olivia and Peter’s child. The right Olivia and Peter’s child. The right future, assuming you are comfortable Peter is in the future at all. The right future for the fight of humanity in the war to come. Not the right future for The Observers.
There you have it. The whole point of the (new) future look is to show that what happens is not what the Observers wanted. That then allows those very final moments of the series. We’ll get to that in a moment.
The finale itself, with Belly - despite the apparent rush to get there in the end - makes an awful lot of sense when we remember the whole world is different. What happened to get us to a point where Walter pre-brain biopsy thought of creating a new world, something which Belly carried (nearly) to fruition, makes sense in that new history given it doesn’t carry the weight of pre-conceptions we do from what we watched in the past three years. What does hold true to that which we had seen is Olivia’s strength, powered up by the cortexephan. Walter’s conclusion - thankfully borne out - was amazing and immediately before he got there and we saw her die, made complete and utter sense to all watching. It was nearly perfect.
What stopped it from being so is that we got to see perhaps the culmination of Olivia’s powers and her centrality to the narrative as a singular character (no doubt she and Peter and Walter will be key to winning the war) in a kind of cheat way. It hadn’t been built up to in three and a bit years. It had been arrived at after ripping away everything we knew to be true and putting in place - in a matter of a few episodes - this new idea. This, perhaps, is the first example of the show lacking confidence and direction since Fringe first began. Was it because they heard about the order for season five, a half year order and therefore significantly reduced lifetime? It was still excellent television in the moment, and worked completely, just without the full weight of the series’ history behind it.
Anyway, what the finale has allowed the writers to do is to set up the final season. A shorter episode order and clearly a fight between the newly aggressive Observers and our team, one presumes. Will we fight this final fight in the here and now or the newly seen future, with baby Dunham, newly amber free Dad Peter and (at some point) Olivia? It would be a shame to take us away from what we have spent so much time with and stick us in that new future, but it would make sense given the late introduction of this towards season four’s end.
The upcoming Blu-ray and DVD release of Fringe’s fourth season comes with a number of special features that not only take fans behind-the-scenes of the show, but expand on the Fringe universe itself. These include a short film into the making of Joshua Jackson penned Beyond the Fringe, a gag reel and a few documentaries showcasing the making of the Observers, and how the Fringe creators had to recalibrate their reality after the disappearance of Peter. One lingering fact that seems to cut across most of these documentaries is that for quite a while, the fate of Fringe being hung in the balance which explains the series finale and the inclusion of the future timeline episode.
The most interesting of the special features is a thirty minute round table discussion between the show’s producers, Walter Bishop himself John Noble and two physicists as they not only try and dissect the science of the show as well as commenting on how Walter, Olivia and Peter react to the situations in each episode. It’s a fascinating watch, particularly as the scientists themselves almost seem to be in awe of John Noble, setting up some rather humorous exchanges. Still, for a show with such rich mythology and scientific background, a few interactive special features wouldn’t have gone amiss, particularly from a Blu-ray package that delivers very high picture and sound quality.
We said last year that season four would be the completion of the magic trick, The Prestige if you will. The problem with a magic trick is that once it’s done, you look for how it was done. If you know that it doesn’t quite have the same effect anymore. On the surface this has happened here. The ripping up of what’s been series lore to allow for this finale is disappointing. Until you think that it all still worked, and kicks off the new direction the show has signposted for the endgame. It’s a lull in the performance right now. The true ending is still to come.
By Luciano Howard and Leigh Forgie