“I’ve seen strange. This… this is something else.”
Yes it is, isn’t it? After tonight’s Fringe season finale—and the nifty twist ending therein—it’s going to be very interesting to see what direction the show moves in next. I suspect it will proceed as it always has, with a mix of case-of-the-week episodes and mythology episodes, but obviously after the events of “Over There” things will be… well, something else. A change has occurred—one that will make the way Fringe Division cracks cases in Season Three very different indeed.
Before I run down what happened in the second hour of “Over There,” I want to offer a word of praise to the Fringe team for the way they’ve handled our first long looks at Earth-2 over the past six weeks, from “Peter” onward. They haven’t skimped on the sense of wonder and weirdness—the dirigible-clouded skies, the Gaudi-designed hotels, the campuses and arenas frozen in Quarantine Amber—but neither have they made the otherness of the other Earth the center of the episodes. We’re just there, picking up on the little differences in passing as our heroes execute their plan to steal Peter Bishop from his Walternate father.
Credit is also due to the cast—especially Anna Torv and John Noble—for inhabiting their respective worlds so well. It’s not just the hair or clothes that sets Olivia apart from Alt-Olivia, or Walter from Walternate; it’s the way they carry themselves, and the varying degrees of certitude with which they deliver their lines. And while I’m passing out praise, I should save some for writer/director Akiva Goldsman, who shot this episode with an emphasis on the characters more than the setting, and thus was able to deliver some clever visual cues, and when a scene cuts from Alt-Olivia on the left side of the screen in Walternate’s office to Our Olivia on the right side of the screen at a chicken establishment that shall remain nameless. (Hey, they’re not paying me to mention them.) It’s those little framing/blocking games that enabled Goldsman and company to pull a fast one on us in the closing moments of “Over There.”
But we can’t end before we begin, can we? The second part of “Over There” begins the morning after the end of the first part, with Walter in the hospital healing quickly from his bullet wound (thanks to advanced Earth-2 technology!) while Olivia and William Bell hustle to find him before Earth-2’s Fringe Department does. As it happens, they just beat Alt-Olivia and Alt-Charlie to the hospital, where William Bell distracts the pursuers while Olivia whisks Walter away. During this scene, we discover that the Alt-Fringers are not familiar with William Bell. And we discover that Walter’s not that keen on seeing his old friend. (“I see you’ve aged,” he says cooly.)
Meanwhile, Peter flies in to the Statue Of Liberty HQ of the FD to meet with Walternate, who explains that he wants his son to use the non-existent “breakthroughs from the other side” to solve the puzzle of the strange machine he’s building—when in fact what he really wants, apparently, is for Peter to bond biologically with that machine, the way he’s supposed to. After failing at the hospital, Alt-Olivia follows Walternate’s orders and takes Peter to a safe location, with odd variations of famous comic book covers framed on the wall. (Including Red Lantern/Red Arrow, and what looked like a version of The Dark Knight Returns with Superman as the hero.) It doesn’t take long though for Peter to figure out that he’s being used, as the machinery he’s working with responds to his body movements. And so he begins to pine for Olivia. (Any Olivia really, regardless of hair color.)
Lucky for Peter, his preferred Olivia is working on an escape plan with the two W.B.s. Walter and William head up to Harvard to get some necessary equipment to re-open the door between universes, and while they’re there they have a frank conversation about Massive Dynamic and mental institutions and missing parts of Walter’s brain. Or at least Walter tries to have that conversation, while William urges him to stay on task and “let the past be the past.” At the same time, Olivia sneaks into Alt-Olivia’s apartment (because the latter keeps her hide-a-key in the same place), and asks for her help, saying, “You’ve got to trust me. I’m you.” But Alt-Olivia proves untrustworthy, and we get a few minutes of Olivia-a-Olivia fighting. (Philosophical query: If you were facing down an alternate you, would you be willing to kill yourself?)
Our Olivia breaks free, dyes her hair, gets Alt-Charlie to take her to Peter, then clobbers her semi-former partner and announces herself: “Peter, it’s me.” (Peter: “Thanks, I think I just figured that out.”) The two make moony eyes at each other, Olivia insists that, “You have to come back because you belong with me,” and then they hustle to the Opera House where William and Walter are waiting. They come under fire from the Fringe Department, William reveals that while the FD is using the 76 Bell sidearms he has “the 77,” and then a timely Bell-designed/Olivia-flung grenade flattens the opposition, giving our gang time to get on with the door-opening. William reveals his plan to be “the doorstop,” using the unstable atoms in his body to propel Walter and company back across. Walter hesitates a moment before activating his machinery, realizing that this will be the end of Belly, and then he says his goodbyes. But little does Walter know, he’s bringing a double-agent with him: Alt-Olivia, who took the place of her counterpart after her grenade went off.
1. It would suck if this really was Leonard Nimoy’s last appearance on Fringe, as the actor has said. He’s been such a good addition to this show, and his calmness plays so well off of John Noble’s crazy energy. But there’s apparently no Alt-William, so I guess that’s that.
2. After the grenade went off, it took me about 5 second to guess that it would be Alt-Olivia joining our team on their journey, and not Our Olivia. But it was still a well-staged switch, with a pan from one Olivia to the other, then the explosion, then Alt-Olivia swooping in. Nice sleight-of-hand.
Which brings us to where we are now: Peter’s back with Walter and not all that happy about it, though he does appreciate that his faux-father will at least not try to kill him. (So that’s a start.) Olivia’s being held captive by Walternate, while Alt-Olivia is sending messages from Earth-1. Next season, we should get to see how Alt-Olivia deals with Peter’s affection and getting to know her sister and niece. And we’ll maybe get to see how Our Olivia handles having a hunky boyfriend and a living mother.
This is a very exciting way to leave things, both in terms of story possibilities and in terms of what it has to say about our characters and their broken lives. On Earth-2, some things were better for Peter and Olivia, and some were worse. Nothing was exactly perfect. Still, it’s got to be hard for them not to play what-if. After all, you know what they say: The grass is always redder….
-Some effects of Fringe Events on Earth-2: The softening of the fabric between universes at the Long Island Triangle; the quarantine of Madison Square Garden, leaving 10,000 citizens trapped in amber and declared dead; the quarantining of almost all of Boston; and of course The Blight that the two W.B.’s drove through on their way to the old Harvard lab.
-Other little differences: Walternate keeps a photo of a gray-haired JFK on his desk, no one’s ever heard of The Lindbergh Baby, people use an older version of Windows, and nurses in the ER point to charts and ask questions like, “How big were the bees? Bigger than this?”
-Similarities: Rocky Horror Picture Show is still popular. (Actually, between the “Science Fiction Double Feature” nod and the comics on the wall, I wonder if the whole Earth-2 culture is mad about geeky things. And I wonder if that ties to the popularity of Walternate’s book, the cover of which looked a lot like something by L. Ron Hubbard.)
-Walter used to know all of KFC’s secret herbs and spices.
-Wonderful sense of resignation in Peter’s voice as he comes to realize that Walternate’s machine is made for “a subset of one… me.”
-I searched my notes and came up empty, but I could swear that the conversation between Olivia and Alt-Charlie about how the job had changed and how he “wasn’t trained for this stuff” was an exact copy of a conversation in an earlier Fringe episode—perhaps between Olivia and Charlie, or perhaps between Olivia and Peter. Am I having deja vu, or do I remember correctly?
-You think that typewriter salesman is tired of getting customers who don’t really want to buy typewriters?
-Which will be freakier, based on their commercials? Inception, or the bold flavors of 5 React gum?
Thought for the future…
With Lost ending, there’s been a lot of talk about whether network television will ever see another show of similar ambition, either in terms of the show’s sprawling narrative or its spare-no-expense approach to casting and location-shooting. On the latter count, I’d say the answer is probably no; the returns just aren’t great enough anymore to justify spending what ABC/Disney spent on Lost each week. (Then again, with digital effects, it’s possible to make shows look more expensive than they are, so I could see another studio/network launching a series with a globe-hopping bent.) On the former count, I’d say… maybe? The problem in the years since Lost debuted is that too many creators have taken the wrong lessons from Lost’s success. They think it’s all about freaky reveals and teasing out a mystery, and too many head writers start their shows thinking that they’re going to improve on Lost, by having a clearer idea from the start where they’re headed. The end result are shows that have five-year-plans but don’t last ten episodes, because they’re too dull and/or confusing in the early going.
Lost, by contrast, nearly always tried to deliver an entertaining hour of TV, first and foremost. And perhaps to the show’s ultimate detriment. It could be argued, persuasively, that in the effort to make every episode dramatic and haunting, Lost left its fans expecting more from its endgame than its creators have been able to provide. But if Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse hadn’t gone in that direction, it’s doubtful that Lost would’ve lasted six seasons—or even two. And it definitely wouldn’t have left behind so many hours of television that fans remember just from their titles alone. Lost’s greatest weakness—a lack of clear, unwavering focus—has also been the source of its greatest strength. The writers did what they had to from hour to hour to keep viewers guessing—and, more importantly, interested in guessing.
Can Fringe be the next Lost? Probably not. Unless it shows a marked ratings improvement next season, Fringe is probably only to going to have one more year on television, or maybe two, but not enough to expand the story as it currently exists to anything like Lost’s epic scale. Fringe has fewer characters and fewer mysteries, and a premise that’s more limiting. Lost could be a romance novel one week and a science-fiction story the next. Fringe, by-and-large, is just cops-and-monsters.
But I think there’s a lesson for future TV writers and producers in the way Fringe has developed. J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci had a bigger story in mind, but they were willing to let it simmer while they delivered stand-alone episodes to build audience interest. And then they were willing to expedite the mythology a little when the hardcore fans and critics complained that that the monster-of-the-week episodes were getting stale. Something similar happened with Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, which started out too goofy and then deepened magnificently by the end of its second (and final) season. Neither of these shows has gotten the balance exactly right, but they’ve lit the pathway for others to follow. If you want to make the next Lost, you can’t start out planning to make a show like Lost. You’re better off planning to make something like—oh, I don’t know—Castle, or The Mentalist. And then just see where you end up.