Go big or go home.
Fringe is not perfect. It’s not. At all. Plot lines are occasionally dropped, some characters remain criminally underdeveloped, and sometimes cases of the week require leaps of physical, mental or emotional logic to make the slightest bit of sense.
But if I wanted perfect, I’d be watching Mad Men.
As a medium, though, television is uniquely unsuited to perfection. It is the only story you are ever told where the teller is not aware of the ending when he or she begins. It is not about the fine tune, or the ideal through-line. It is not – as show runners like Matthew Weiner or David Simon would have it – a visualised, realised novel, where chapters only have relevance when taken as part of a whole.
To reduce television to this is to ignore the potential of the art form, and its greatest strength: invention.
Television is not concerned with the one great journey of a character or set of characters – it is about how a group of characters react to circumstances that are ever evolving, and how these circumstances in and of themselves can be interesting. It is a medium which can combine parable with character context, offering us a chance to see an anthological perspective that changes story week to week but retains the same characters. How do people react to an ever-changing world? How do we allow four characters to breathe and be real as we tell over a hundred stories around them?
So Fringe is not perfect. But fuck is it ever inventive.
As a recap (if ever a word was too small for itself), previous seasons of Fringe saw FBI agent Olivia Dunham thrust into an X-Files-ish case-of-the-week structure as she joined forces with scientist Walter Bishop, his wayward son Peter, and their assistant Astrid Farnsworth. Over four seasons they made world-changing and ongoing contact with a parallel universe, re-moulded the world around the non-existence and then re-existence of Peter, and watched as father and son re-connected while Peter and Olivia struck up a relationship.
Last season’s “Letters In Transit” was, even for this show (where animation, musicals, time travel and an obsession with liquorice are common), a departure from the norm. Set in the future, it depicted a world where the ever-present Observers – a sort of omnipotent race of course-correctors for Earth’s timeline – had taken over Earth, plunging it into an Orwellian slavish obedience. Peter, Walter and Astrid had been frozen in amber (a sort of oft-occurring impenetrable material) and were released by a young rebellion fighter who turned out to be Olivia and Peter’s adult daughter, Henrietta.
Dangling on the edge of cancellation, it was a bold move so late in Fringe’s hit-and-miss fourth season – establishing a life beyond the use-by-date of the show itself and hinting at an ending we might not get to see. A precedent was set by Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse (SPOILERS), again done when risking cancellation, yet both shows managed to see their concepts to fruition.
Fringe’s fifth season, then, picks up in 2036, with Peter, Astrid and Walter liberated from the amber and on the hunt for Olivia – who may or may not be out there in amber herself. It’s a lot for any casual viewer to catch up on, and even the opening credits (something that Fringe changes around regularly) change to match the dynamic of this new world.
As a piece of story-telling it’s no mean feat, and one that the writers muddle through with an opener that is engaging if not entirely satisfactory.
The biggest strength here is, as always in Fringe, the depth of the relationships. Snippets of flashbacks show the day the Observers arrived, with Peter, Olivia and a four-year-old Etta (who hadn’t been born at the end of Fringe’s fourth season) playing in the park. As their daughter blew on a dandelion, dozens of the suit-clad, bald Observers arrived, snatching her away before launching an attack that put both Olivia and Peter in an ad hoc medical camp.
From what we can gather here, the search for their daughter caused a rift between the two. After they find and liberate Olivia from amber, the frosty relationship between her and Peter shows that while he may have never given up the hunt, Olivia instead chose to fight for rebellion. As they both see it, she gave up on her daughter, and now she’s faced with an adult manifestation of her guilt.
Freeing Olivia comes at a cost, however, and Walter is captured by the Observers and tortured for information on a resistance plan that he’d formulated twenty years previous. What sort of plan could last so long? The Observers want to know, but unfortunately Walter has no idea. The pieces of the plan were hidden long ago in the back of his brain, to be freed by the Thought Unifier Model of the episode’s title. The Observers hope to poke around in Walter’s mind until they can find these details, but they are either reckless or incapable – and before he is eventually rescued the damage to his mind is irreparable.
In many ways, it’s a return to a Walter we recognise, a scattershot, tortured old man driven to the depths of madness by the actions he took over Peter’s death as a young boy (the first emotional anchor the show introduced). A reset button like this could be seen as a step back, but there is much emotional resonance in Walter’s strained functionality in the family unit he’s created with Peter, Olivia and Astrid – and with the introduction of his granddaughter there’s more to see.
In the end, the Unifier Model doesn’t work, Walter’s mind being too frazzled by the torture.
As he sits in an abandoned car at some long-destroyed New York intersection, listening to a discarded CD hung like a trinket on a nearby fence, he spots a dandelion growing in the soil.
An apt metaphor, perhaps, for the rebirth that the Fringe team’s arrival in 2036 may bring – but a stronger one for the state of Walter’s mind, and the concept of rebellion itself.
A strong gust of wind may, on appearance, destroy the flower.
But in truth it spreads the seeds.
– How do I feel about Georgina Haig’s performance as Etta in this opening episode? A little too weak for my liking, but she hardens nicely in the upcoming episodes. Judgement reserved.
– Will we be seeing any Broyles or Nina this season? A sad loss if not, even a nice videotape from the past would be good.
– I’m officially describing Anna Torv’s acting style as unknowable. Things are going on up in that head.