I’ve been watching, enjoying, thinking about, and writing about Fringe since the first episode aired on September 9th, 2008 (my 38th birthday, as it happens), and I’m still not entirely sure how best to recommend the show to people who’ve never watched it. For fans of intelligent genre fare—in particular science-fiction and horror—Fringe is remarkably philosophical and imaginative, recontextualizing dozens of cool fantasy concepts in the form of memorable monsters and troubled heroes. But it’s also a sappy show, that falls back on the usual TV drama abstractions of “love” and “trust” and “fate” and “change” to drive some stories to non-science-based conclusions. For fans of sophisticated serialized television, Fringe has spun a complicated and unusually consistent longform narrative over its five seasons, anchored by acting and directing as strong as some of the most acclaimed shows of this era. But the narrative doesn’t really start to become compelling until around episode 35, and after that it takes so many jarring turns with each new season that even people who come to love the show may find that love tested sorely. Plus Fringe really can be corny, in ways unlikely to appeal to those not already inclined to like Porcupine Men and inter-dimensional romances. It’s never been a smooth ride, this show.
But I still say that Fringe has been a hell of an achievement, and one likely to be thought of more fondly with each passing year, in the way that The Twilight Zone, Star Trek and Firefly have been. The creative team has delivered very few mediocre or outright bad episodes, and are responsible for enough high points that tabulating a definitive list of Fringe’s Top 20 episodes would be a struggle. (Believe me, I tried.) These characters will be remembered. These stories will be remembered.
Where does this two-part finale rank on the continuum of Fringe episodes? Typical of Fringe, it’s a mixed bag, with a little foot-dragging, followed by a bit of “wow,” and a not-so-surprising swell of emotion. And then: A final image so perfect and poignant that I think it’s going to be pretty easy for Fringe fans to forgive some of the unevenness that precedes it.
The first part, “Liberty,” takes a while to get going, though it ramps up considerably in its second half. Once our heroes learn from Philip “The Dove” Broyles that Michael: Boy Observer is being held on Liberty Island—in the stump of what used to be the symbol of American freedom—Olivia comes up with the bright idea to cross over to Earth-2, travel to their Liberty Island, grab Michael, and then cross back at Battery Park. Then it’s just a matter of killing twenty minutes or so while Peter tries to talk Olivia out of it, and Walter prepares painful injections of Cortexiphan. There’s never any doubt that this adventure’s going to happen. Peter poked himself in the back of the neck to avenge Etta; Olivia has to poke herself in the back of the neck to try and bring her back.
The second half of “Liberty” is much more exciting, as Olivia hallucinates and drifts in and out of the two worlds, while tracking down Michael, whom The Observers have decided to “disassemble” for further study. Longtime Fringe devotees were probably hoping for a little more interaction with—and action from—Fauxlivia and Lincoln Lee. But it was nice to see that they’re living happily, with a kid of their own; and it was nice to hear one last energetic “Dunham!” from Fauxlivia. Anyway, the Michael-rescue is genuinely suspenseful. Will the drifting Olivia see The Observers in time to shoot them? Will her presence end up infesting Earth-2 with Observers? Ultimately, all resolves in our heroes’ favor—after the first of many touching goodbyes, this time between the two Olivias—and the stage is set for “An Enemy Of Fate.”
If I wanted to be nitpicky, I could note that “Liberty” is mostly busy-work. If Michael never steps off the train at the end of “The Boy Must Live,” then there’s no need to go to Earth-2, and this episode doesn’t exist—with no major change in the overall plot, really. But “Liberty” does establish a little more about Michael—that he has an intellectual capacity and a depth of emotion that The Observers are “unable to comprehend”—and it gives the Fringe faithful what we’ve been demanding, which is another trip to the other side, and a few more minutes with Lincoln and the gang.
Anyway, if I’m being totally honest, “An Enemy Of Fate” is essentially busy-work, too. It’s all about assembling a machine, and then getting that machine to the right place at the right time, so that everything will happen as it’s supposed to: with Walter and Michael traveling to the future and creating a new reality, where The Observers never exist, and thus never invade. All the Fringe themes—the arrogance of scientists, the wonder of technology, the malleability of identity, the persistence of humanity, the boundaries between realities—were all established long ago. “An Enemy Of Fate” doesn’t dwell on any of them much; it’s more meant to move the plot to its endpoint.
But there’s a moment in “An Enemy Of Fate” when Walter arms himself and Peter with anti-gravity bullets, which will kill Observers and make them float off into the air, and when Peter asks what the point of that would be, Walter says that it’ll be “cool.” And let’s face it: It is cool. The same can be said of the return of December, who tries to help Donald/September acquire the last piece of his time machine; and Broyles grouching at Olivia to “just get it done” when it becomes apparent that he’s about to be captured by Captain Windmark; and Windmark’s goofy confession that he’s been seized by a thing we call “hate,” to which Broyles says, “The feeling is mutual;” and Peter and Olivia deploying a half-dozen Fringe Event creatures and weapons in order to infiltrate Observer/Loyalist central and thus seize control of one of the Observers’ “shipping lanes.” There are callbacks aplenty in “An Enemy Of Fate,” right down to the way the cylindrical device shoots through a wormhole in time, looking a lot like The Bullet That Saved The World.
Mainly though, “An Enemy Of Fate” is all about pushing emotional buttons, and skillfully so. Early on, Peter pulls a videotape out of the amber, on which Past Walter explains that he’d been dosed back in 2015 with a drug to help him make the journey through time, and that once he goes with Michael, they won’t be coming back. Walter will disappear from existence as of 2015, to prevent a paradox. So father and son have a goodbye, in which Walter calls Peter his “favorite thing.” Then Walter has another goodbye with Astrid, in which she talks about how soon they’ll all be drinking strawberry milkshakes, and he tells her how beautiful her name is. These moments are powerful, and thanks to the skill of these actors, they never feel too forced. They’re all apt.
Walter gets a reprieve, when Dontember takes the last remaining dose of the time-travel drug and says he’ll be taking Walter’s place. But it seemed fairly obvious as “An Enemy Of Fate” was nearing its end that Dontember wasn’t going to make it, and that Walter was going to have to make the trip after all; and given how much I’ve stressed that Fringe needed an ending that hurts a little, I was pleased to see him have to make that choice. (I would’ve been fine with a little more sacrifice, personally; but I respect the Fringe writers’ commitment to warmth.) I also realized the episode wasn’t going to show Walter and Michael making their case for a non-Observerized future, which is fine—there’s no way that that scene would’ve played as anything but drippy, I’m sure.
I was a little surprised at first that we didn’t see the future immediately remade, with a grown-up Etta and no Observers. But then I guess our heroes would’ve been living in that world for so long by then that they wouldn’t have realized anything had changed. It makes more sense to go back to that moment when the Observers didn’t invade. All the other Fringes: the ones with the Earth-2 of the future, the Earth-2 of the past, the Observer dystopia, the happy non-Observer future, the worlds with and without Peter and/or Walter… they’re all still going on somewhere. This version of Fringe however ends with Walter disappearing in 2015, Peter and Olivia enjoying the company of their darling little girl, and Peter opening a letter from Walter, containing a drawing of a white tulip. Cut to black.
Earlier today on Twitter, I suggested that even people who’d never watched Fringe should check the show out tonight, just to honor the rarity of a long-running series that gets to end on its own terms. True TV finales—planned-out, with a real last scene—don’t come around that often, and over the years have provided TV fans with some of our most indelible memories. I confess that throughout this evening, I wondered if any non-Fringe-fans had taken my advice, and if so, whether they were able to follow (or enjoy) what was happening. Honestly, I suspect that a newcomer would’ve been baffled and bored in the first half hour, but probably could’ve picked up enough to be as moved by “An Enemy Of Fate” as longtime viewers should’ve been. (Though the white tulip would’ve been a head-scratcher, no doubt.)
More than anything, I’d hope that anyone who tuned in for the first time tonight would think of all these little nods to past episodes as well-established artifacts, there to be examined at their leisure later, by watching the series from the beginning. Ultimately, these two episodes were about the Fringe writers and stars getting one last chance to play around in all of these worlds that they all created. Then when they were done, they stopped in the most pleasant one—letting the others keep spinning on, in our imaginations.
- As I said last week, I’m not even going to try and wrap my head around the various time paradoxes, and how Fringe as we know it would’ve existed with no Observers. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter that much to me. I understand that some (or many) of you may disagree.
- How many Fringe Event creatures and weapons can you name from Olivia and Peter’s assault on Observer/Loyalist central? Correlate to their episode titles for extra credit.
- When one of the Loyalists implies that Broyles might be The Dove, he quips that he’s “more of a raven.”
- Astrid has lightbulbs popping all over these two episodes. It’s her idea to use The Observers’ shipping lanes to power the time machine after December gets killed, and she also suggests they use Walter’s Universe Window to peer into Earth-2 and make sure it’s safe over there. (Cue Walter: “That’s brilliant, Ashcan!”)
- In Future Earth-2, Chelsea Clinton is leading the polls!
- I kept waiting for Olivia to ask Fauxlivia and/or Lincoln about their son—his name, at least. C’mon!
- When Lincoln told Olivia it was good to see her, I thought to myself that he kind of sees her every day already. I know Fauxlivia’s supposed to be older—and chides her husband for “checking out my young ass” on Olivia—but aside from the streak of white in Fauxlivia’s hair, they’re not so different.
- I also enjoyed watching Dontember get all science-y in classic Fringe fashion, pouring poorly mixed Kool-Aid into a funnel and making a big gel-filled tube. Just all, “Doopy-doopy-doo… makin’ my machine.” And then watching the numbers go up… up… up! And then down… down… down. Oh no! The science didn’t work. (In our living room, my wife and I were shouting, “Whack it! Jiggle the cable! Unplug and then plug it back in!”)
- It’s nice to know that in one of the multiplicities of Fringe, Gene is still frozen in amber.
- I highly recommend TV Guide’s four-part oral history of Fringe, which features pretty much every major figure in the show’s creation, and some honest assessments from all concerned. You can read it here, here, here, and here.
- I’d like to thank Ryan McGee, TV Club contributor, who’s written about Fringe for HitFix for the past couple of seasons, and has changed in that time from a super-fan to a skeptic. I don’t agree with Ryan’s take on what’s happened to the show over the past two seasons, but I’ve always appreciated his passion, born from his sincerely caring about Fringe and its characters. His frustration has helped me to understand why I’ve liked what he didn’t. He’s a good man and a good critic.
- And of course I’d like to thank all of you, for reading and commenting, and making this one of the most-read weekly reviews in TV Club, even as the real-world viewership of Fringe declined. This has been one of my most enjoyable assignments. I’m sad—but satisfied—to see it end.