24 January 2013
The final season of Fringe was not a misstep, but a plummet off a cliff of stale, forced ideas. I am being melodramatic in order to care, at all, about the meandering storylines and wasted potential of this season.
I can pinpoint the precise moment when my apathy turned to rage: in the ninth episode, “Black Blotter” perennially kooky Walter Bishop drops acid. Near the end of the episode, his hallucination of a lab assistant leans in and says — actually states!!! — “I represent all of the things that you’re trying to keep buried.” The Fringe writers apparently couldn’t even trust its audience to understand the most basic of hammered-home metaphors. The writing of this season was not merely lazy, but condescending. In that moment, with hands thrown in the air, I knew that there was no coming back from this nosedive.
The most basic of writing lessons: show, don’t tell. And how season five told, and told, and told. The problem of the season was that the show flopped the stakes, the villains and the resolution on the metaphorical table, and expected, by virtue of their screen time for us to care about any of it.
First: the stakes. Early on our heroes (whose trust and charm were well-earned over four seasons of character development and excellent acting) are suddenly given a child. And oh, the depths and levels on which I did not care about Etta, Peter and Olivia’s newly introduced child. I did not care about her living, dead, and I really, really didn’t care about her running in slow motion through every use of the idyllic and clichéd montage that drove Peter and Olivia’s actions throughout the season.
Etta was introduced for the first time alongside a throwaway character played by beloved Lost star, Henry Ian Cusick. His character was indicative of the acres of wasted potential Fringe burned through in its last season. Not only did he appear in a scant two episodes, but in the second, he appeared for mere moments, as a head upon which experiments were being performed. Nothing whatsoever came of neither this, nor any of the many elements at play in this dystopian future. The show spent lots of time showing us the destruction of this terrible timeline, while never making us feel that it needed to be destroyed.
Instead, they resorted to slapping some Nazi-like uniforms on people, throwing the floating words “Due Process” and “Freedom” behind bars in the opening credits, and expecting sheer repetition to construct a terrifying future. Through the season, the Fringe team interacts almost exclusively with people who are set apart from (future dystopian) society by their desire to help the Fringe team. While this drives the plot forward, it means that like so much else, the new universe was merely a half-developed idea.
Which leads us to the villains, a mess of contradictory science-fiction clichés, blandly blanding around my television. The Observers are genetically modified hyper-intelligent humans — though this genetic modification is simultaneously somehow a device in the back of their necks — who apparently control the entire world, but can’t track down four people who never leave New England. They’re Spock-level rational cold, and yet have illicit nightclubs. They can read minds, but not monitor cellphone networks. We only learn their backstory long after they are simply presented to us as semi-robotic Villains who we must accept as Evil.
And finally, the resolutions. Stunningly, every single plot, from minor to major, was resolved in a haphazard, truncated way. Beyond just the overall Observer plot! Let us not forget the pointless Peter is an Observer plot (he just needed to remember love!) or Walter turning into Walternate plot (he also just needed to remember love!). But then, the resolution of the season-long plot to destroy the Observers hinged on a staring, bald child.
If I found one child, Etta, an on-screen blank spot of indifference, I found Michael, the Observer-Child-Savior a void; a black hole into which my love for the show, my interest in its resolution, with the concept of Fringe itself, were all sucked in, collapsed in on themselves and rewarded with a blank, badly made up ten year old. Love and family are fine things to drive and tie together Fringe, but this does not work when the suddenly the most important recipient of this love, rather than being one of many beloved characters, is an unresponsive, pointlessly melodramatic symbol.
Far too late in the season, the show messily states Michael’s importance, and hope that clever tie ins to earlier, superior seasons of Fringe will make him a lasting force. In the last episodes, Fringe merely nods to previously established relationships (Gene!) powers (cortexiphan!) and stories (biohazard attacks!) rather than making use of them. Nothings really led up to Michael, and little leads from him. To say nothing of the mile-wide plot holes his storyline introduced and never acknowledged.
The last two episodes, aired together, ground out the sterile plot in a tedious, but organized fashion. As Fringe ended, with all my good will spent, I couldn’t bring myself to be sad about saying goodbye to the universe, to once loved characters. The show resolved happily, with the characters getting to live out their lives in a universe where season five never happened. I wish I could join them.