It is, make no mistake, a wonderful thing that FOX (with the financial cooperation of studio Warner Bros) is bringing FRINGE, one of television’s most distinctive and imaginative shows, back for a 5th and final 13-episode season. It also has to be said, though, that Season 4 wasn’t the show’s best. (Note: SPOILERS will follow.)
Setting a show in a narrative space where there are infinite universes is risky, and this year some of the risks caught up with Fringe Not so much a lack of clarity–the show has always been quite good at ultimately making it clear where we, the viewers, are–but a lessening of stakes. Although the series handled the parallel universe ir created at the end of Season 1 brilliantly, the introduction of alternate timelines to go along with alternate universes, and the storyline of Alternate Timeline Olivia (Anna Torv) developing the memories of “Real” Timeline Olivia so that she, too, could fall in love with Peter (Joshua Jackson) made the romance side of the show weaker, and the new versions of other regulars like Walter (the always-superb John Noble) and Nina (Blair Brown)–who were initially quite different from their “real” selves but soon became almost indistinguishable, as though the writers lost interest–added little.
Other aspects of the season were questionable too. After all the time and care devoted to villain David Robert Jones (Jared Harris), there was surprisingly little payoff for his ultimate demise. And William Bell (Leonard Nimoy)’s master plan, finally revealed in the season finale (written by Executive Producers Jeff Pinkner, J.H. Wyman and Akiva Goldsman, and directed by Joe Chappelle), turned out to be one of those disproportionately crazy plots that supervillains have in more conventional thrillers: since he was dying of cancer, he decided to destroy 2 universes in order to create his own Noah’s Ark-ish new one of human-less perfection. (Although it’s not clear how he was planning to stop evolution from creating humans eventually.) For those of us resistant to Olivia and her Cortexiphan-fueled superpowers, the final episodes of the season were also wearying, as Bell’s activation of her potential meant she could suddenly conduct remote-controlled battles, affect body temperatures, jump between universes, come back from the dead (for the old trick where a major character’s prophesied death counts as fulfilled even though the character doesn’t stay permanently dead), and serve as such an intense power source that she was personally capable of ripping the universes apart. (It didn’t help that the show had apparently blown its special effects budget, so the episode could only afford a single CG shot of the upcoming apocalypse, and that one not very good.)
All that being said, Fringe is still a valuable part of this TV universe. It’s the rare fantasy show that takes itself, and its mythology, completely seriously, and its characters have far more depth than the genre usually allows. Torv has been terrific in the alternate universe episodes, and they seem to have brought more emotion to her “real” Olivia, too, while Noble brings remarkable shadings of warmth, humor, arrogance, love and sheer craziness to his Walter Bishop.
Next season promises to be a fine capper to the series. As the episode we saw 3 weeks ago implied, and the final scene of last night’s finale confirmed, it will concern the arrival of the Watchers, not as neutral observers but as conquerors, who in the future we’d glimpsed had turned this universe into a totalitarian hell, needing to be saved by Olivia and Peter’s now-grown daughter. One hopes the show won’t get too gimmicky with its time-and-universe travel in telling this story–although bringing back the Alternate universe we’ve come to know would be fine–and stick to what it does best, which is infusing satisfyingly complicated and fantastic tales with genuine emotion.