“Be a better man than your father:” My thoughts on the end of “Fringe”

Despite appearances, this is still primarily a book blog, I promise! I’ve just been reading the same book for a while, so I haven’t had any new reviews to post. And in the meantime, a TV show that I really like just aired its series finale. So I’d like to take a few minutes and talk about “Fringe,” the sci-fi show that surprised everyone by hanging on for 100 episodes.

Confession time: I started watching this show because I have an absurd celebrity crush on Joshua Jackson. (The ear-splitting grin? The easygoing charm? The constant five-o’clock shadow? I swoon.) But while I came for the eye candy, I stayed for the original storytelling (which spans multiple universes and timelines), fascinating mythology, and complex relationships between the three core characters, Olivia, Walter, and Peter.

Since I don’t want to spoil people who haven’t seen the whole show yet — or bore people who couldn’t care less — I’ll post my thoughts on the series under the jump. (Warning: they are very long and full of spoilers!) Would love to hear from anyone else who watched the show!

“Fringe” got off to a rocky start with season 1, initially being a fairly straightforward procedural that just happened to contain some weird science-y elements. But once we met the evil David Robert Jones and were introduced to the concept of the alternate universes, I was hooked. It was such an interesting premise, and I was excited to see how it would develop over the course of the show.

Even more than that, I grew to really care about Olivia, Peter, and Walter. I loved Olivia as a TV heroine because she’s not at all stereotypical. She’s very striking-looking but not your average pretty actress; she’s also not witty, outgoing, or particularly loveable at first. I was drawn to her reserved character, especially as her backstory with the cortexiphan was slowly revealed.

Walter Bishop, the show’s resident “mad scientist,” definitely got the funniest lines and often stole the show. As it turned out, he also got the most powerful story arc as far as character development. It was his hubristic action in kidnapping Peter from the alternate universe that caused the present fringe events Over Here. He also wreaked havoc Over There and created a seemingly implacable enemy in his alternate-universe counterpart. His guilt and need for forgiveness led to “White Tulip,” the best episode of the show and probably one of my all-time favorite hours of television.

As for Peter, well, clearly I was a little in love with him. 🙂 But honestly, I don’t think the show entirely nailed down his character — which is weird, because he was the only character with consistent memories and experiences throughout all five seasons. He’s initially portrayed as a renegade genius and con man, but except for a few allusions to his seedy past, we don’t see any of that. I was hoping his past would somehow come back in later episodes, but it really didn’t seem to matter.

Also, I loved the recurring theme of Peter’s story, “Be a better man than your father.” The phase is repeated several times throughout the series, and its meaning becomes abundantly clear as Walter’s past actions are slowly revealed. But the show really dropped the ball on developing this theme, in my opinion. Peter ought to have faced a similar situation to Walter’s back in 1985: he should have had to choose between his own selfish desires and the welfare of all. But he never really has to make that choice in the series, which to my mind is a major narrative flaw.

I don’t have much to say about Astrid, Broyles, Nina, or any of the other recurring characters, mostly because the show neglected to give them either a backstory (except for one or two Broyles-centric episodes) or a character arc. I wanted to be interested in these people, and I really don’t understand why the show didn’t try a little harder to develop them.

And now for the plot: as I mentioned, I really liked the parallel-universe storyline. The revelation that Peter was kidnapped from Over There was a suitably major and shocking one, and it created wonderful tension between the three main characters over the course of seasons 1 and 2. Then the interaction between the parallel universes was wonderful. At first I wasn’t a fan of the Olivia switcheroo at the end of season 2 — especially the fact that Peter unknowingly started a relationship with Alt-livia in season 3 — but I really enjoyed seeing each version of Olivia adapt to a new universe in the third season.

What I especially admired was the show’s decision not to make this plot a straightforward story about good vs. evil. It would have been terribly easy to paint the people Over There as the bad guys, especially with a majorly pissed-off Walternate as the secretary of defense. But instead the show made us care just as deeply for the alternate universe as for our own, so the story became more about trying to find a way to coexist and heal both worlds.

So basically, I was a big fan for the first three seasons. Unfortunately, the moment Peter was erased from the timeline, everything went to crap. I hate hate HATE any variation of the gimmick that “it was all a dream”…and essentially that’s what happened in season 4. For everyone except Peter, it was like the first three seasons had never happened — which means that all the relationship-building between Olivia, Walter, and Peter never happened. The central conflict of the show up to that point (Walter’s need to atone for his sins) vanished into thin air, because the season 4 version of Walter never took Peter from Over There. When Peter returns, eventually Olivia “remembers” her life from the other timeline, and New Walter acts basically the same as Original Recipe Walter, so at least there’s some character consistency at the end of season 4. But it’s not really the same, and it bugged me.

Then the show made the atrocious decision to set season 5 in the future, in a world where the Observers (who were previously an intriguing mystery that lurked on the sidelines of the show) have invaded our universe and instituted a totalitarian regime. Now comes the straightforward good-vs.-evil plot that the show so magnificently avoided earlier. The Observers are purely malicious, and Olivia and the Bishops have to somehow overthrow them. It’s been done a million times before, and it’s boring, boring, boring.

Maybe if I had still cared about our main characters, I would have been able to root for them in spite of the predictability. But sadly, the season 5 protagonists are once again different people from who they were before! Olivia and Peter are dealing with the loss of their dead daughter — but since we barely meet the daughter, it’s hard for us to really feel their loss. There are no character arcs in this season whatsoever; the entire show is focused on the plot to defeat the Observers.

And I have to say, for a show so focused on the Observer rebellion, season 5 sure was sloppy. The Observers supposedly instituted this repressive, totalitarian regime. Yet even when they realize that Olivia and the Bishops are out and about, they don’t track them down. They don’t even monitor Walter’s old lab, so our heroes are able to live and work there without a care in the world. Surely an intellectually superior uber-race would have found and destroyed them long ago, right?

Sadly, none of these problems from the later seasons were addressed by the finale. It was well acted and had some lovely emotional moments. Peter mouthing “I love you, Dad” to Walter at the end did make me tear up. Also, Olivia taking out Windmark with a car was badass! But the overall resolution of the series was predictable and dull — and ended with yet another reset of the timeline, meaning that nothing in season 5 ever really happened. The characters’ actions had no consequences…and in the long run, I’m not sure the show will either. “Fringe” had some great moments, and even some great story arcs, particularly in seasons 2 and 3. But the disappointing final seasons have convinced me that this probably isn’t a show I need to own on DVD.

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