Neither Here Nor There: A Fringe Retrospective

If you would have told me back in 2008 that Fringe would be my favorite television show in 2012, I probably would have laughed in your face. At the time, I was mostly only watching for two reasons: it was created by J.J. Abrams and I was in the midst of my Lost obsession, and because Pacey (Joshua Jackson) was in it, and I was curious. But the Fringe that is on the air now is strikingly different from the one that premiered back in 2008, even while they share the same cast and the same sensibility for the weird and the wonderful. Here's a short look at how the show has evolved over the course of the four (slightly miraculous) years it's been on the air.

SEASON ONE: Putting the Team Together

 

Don't get me wrong. When Fringe premiered, it was gross and freaky as hell. That opening scene with the people on the plane? Faces melting off? Come on. That was totally sick. And sick is something that Fringe has been excellent at from the start. In that respect, it owes a huge debt to The X-Files, FOX's first paranormal FBI investigative team. For most of Fringe's first season, in fact, it came off largely as a modern day X-Files with updated technology and updated fears. It was a procedural show with a small undercurrent of serialization, just like The X-Files before it, with just a hint of Lost's mysteriousness about it, and a smidgen of Frankenstein, or whatever story about mad scientists you can think of. In season one, it was possible for new viewers to come into an episode and enjoy the story without needing to know much else beyond what was happening in the episode they were watching. This, among other reasons, is one of the reasons the show had such high ratings in its first season. People could handle a little bit of weird with their police procedural, and people loved mad scientist Walter (a terrific John Noble), who was always doing and saying wacky things.

Most people did not love Anna Torv as the show's lead, FBI agent Olivia Dunham, even as they were falling in love with Dr. Walter Bishop and his estranged son, Peter. For most people, she came off as kind of cold and reserved, nothing like the dynamic female leads usually found on J.J. Abrams shows. And then a funny thing happened, and I can tell you exactly what episode this happened in: the show turned the rules of its universe on their head by suggesting that Olivia, in effect, had superpowers. The episode, "Ability," singlehandedly turned Fringe from a show about normal people encountering weird things that might be connected by some over-arcing conspiracy, into a show whose imaginative boundaries were suddenly erased. If this can happen, I remember thinking, what else can happen? Olivia's burgeoning telekinesis also had the added benefit of making it clear just why the otherwise dynamic Anna Torv was playing it so conservative with Olivia: it was part of the story. It also gave her a backstory, a connection to Walter Bishop that further deepened her emotional connection to the Fringe team.

And then came that ending. In the season finale, Olivia was pulled to another universe, one in which Walter's old friend, William Bell (Leonard Nimoy) was hanging out in the still-standing twin towers. Another universe!? we thought. So it's that kind of story. We had no idea.

SEASON TWO: The Man From the Other Side

With the emotional bonds of the Fringe team set up and ready to go, and the rules of the Fringe universe set in place (the rules? There are no rules; we can do anything we want), season two mostly kept it's procedural base, instead choosing to ramp up the emotional drama. While Peter and Olivia grew closer (culminating in a season ending declaration of love on Olivia's part), we as viewers watched as Walter's terrible secret threatened to reveal itself. Walter had stolen Peter from the other universe when his Peter died at an early age, and it was that act on the part of a desperate and heartbroken Walter that presumably led to the oncoming war with the other universe. We also learn that this war had been brewing all during season one in many events originally attributed to what the Fringe team called The Pattern.

In the groundbreaking episode "Peter," the show took us back in time to the 1980s as Walter discovered a window to another universe, only to watch his doubled self (dubbed "Walternate") almost fail to save his terminally ill Peter as well. Walter took it into his own hands to save Walternate's Peter, but ended up taking him for his own. These actions reverberate through the rest of the season (and the series) both on an emotional level and a cosmic one, as the hole Walter made to travel to Earth-2 will eventually lead to the deterioriation of that world, which in turn leads to Earth-2 declaring war on Earth-1. The blame for all of this rests on Walter's shoulders.

All of that sounds completely ridiculous, I know, and it's impossible to sum up without making it sound that way. But what grounds all of this, especially in season two, is the wonderful character work done by both the writers and the actors. John Noble's portrayal of Walter is nothing short of mesmerizing, and even as he's universe hopping and stealing children, it's his performance (and that of Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson and the other cast members) who keep the show grounded in a firm reality. The season ended with a trip across universes, as the Fringe team crosses over to Earth-2 to rescue Peter from the clutches of his "evil" biological father, Walternate. Fringe season two re-oriented the show from being centered on a random series of paranormal events, to a show about people who will literally cross universes for those that they love.

SEASON THREE: A Tale of Two Universes

Here's where the show kind of goes off the rails, but in the best way possible. The Fringe creative team made the bold decision to split season three between the two universes. With Olivia held captive on Earth-2, and her duplicate, dubbed Fauxlivia, impersonating her on our side, we as an audience had a chance to get to know Earth-2 and its alternate versions of our favorite characters almost as well as we knew our own. And the more we got to know them, the less we hated them, even as Fauxlivia was off stealing Peter from Ourlivia, and Walternate basically threatened to kill Ourlivia just so he could destroy our universe.

But none of it was melodramatic. Fringe's greatest strength has always been the ability to tell fantastical stories while keeping its characters grounded in a stable, true emotional reality, and any plot contrivance first and foremost affects Fringe's characters. Walternate cared just as much about the loss of Peter as he did the loss of his own universe, which is essentially doomed by our Walter's actions. His attitude, and the attitude of all the other characters, is that only one universe can survive. But which one? As the season progressed, Walter, Peter and Olivia (eventually rescued from the other side) desperately seek to find a way to save both universes, even as Peter tries desperately to mend his relationship with a betrayed Olivia, who is devastated by the news that not only did Peter have a relationship with Fauxlivia, but he seemingly couldn't tell the difference between the two of them. It was a season that had at its basic core the question: What is it that makes us who we are?

Season three was Fringe's most critically acclaimed season, and perhaps its most beloved, but it's also the season that officially moved the show from it's "fringe" ratings status of being on the bubble, to an official low-rated cult show. New viewers tuning in to Fringe during season three would have been hopeless lost, and even if they weren't, they wouldn't have had the emotional backstory necessary to fully enjoy what they were seeing. Season three is when Fringe stopped being a procedural and went fully serialized. It didn't even look back. Season three also marks a tendency on the part of the show to up the "Did that just happen?" factor. More than ever, it became clear that an underlying philosophy of the show was to think of things that had never been on TV before and make it happen. The season ended with a game-changing finale, in which Peter sacrificed his very existence in order to save both universes, which are now held together by a bridge on Liberty Island.

SEASON FOUR: Neither Here Nor There

Season four went one step further. For season four, the Fringe creative team essentially threw their hands up in the air, saying, What the Hell, let's just go for it. Season three was serialized and unabashedly genre, and season four continued both of those trends, but it added an additional complication. With Peter erased from (presumably all) universes, the universe and characters we had spent three seasons with were suddenly "gone." And when Peter did suddenly return under mysterious circumstances, it was to a place and to people that did not know him. The central mystery that we and Peter had to solve during season four was, Where are we? Is this our universe and our characters? Or is it someplace new? Peter spent the majority of this year trying to figure out how to get home, only to realize that he had been home the whole time.

This was a huge risk for the show, as it could have alienated (and it did do so with some viewers) its audience if the audience felt that this "new timeline" nullified much of what had happened in the last three seasons. I believe season four of Fringe was a success, and that the show's continuing and ever-deepening obsession with the influences of memory on a person's identity are not only in line with what had come before, but in retrospect, have actually deepened the resonance of stories told in seasons one, two, and three.

Fringe season four brought back season one baddie David Robert Jones (Mad Men's Jared Harris). It showed us the beautiful harmony that is two universes working together. It finally told us what those maddening Observers that have been hanging around since season one are up to (answers that have vast implications for season five). It gave us episodes like "One Night in October," where a man could be a serial killer in one life and a normal man in the other, just because of one chance encounter as a child. It gave us the moment where Olivia chose to forget her non-Peter identity so that she could be the version of herself where she is happiest (a huge statement by the show about choice and identity). It gave us Peter meeting his daughter for the first time twenty years in the future. It gave us some crazy-ass television, and it's not done giving.

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Fringe has evolved from a series that was more of an homage to things past, into a series that is uniquely and weirdly its own thing. It's frankly one of the miracles of modern television that FOX has allowed the show to evolve and grow at its own pace, and that despite its loss of mass appeal, that that uniqueness hasn't been a death sentence. I can't wait to see what they have in store for us in season five.

The two part season finale of Fringe, titled "Brave New World," airs on FOX tonight, Friday, May 4th and Friday, May 11th.