Fringe Season 5 (Review)

Contains spoilers.

I finally got around to watching the final ever season of the brilliant TV show Fringe.  It was originally broadcast in the USA between September 2012 and January 2013 but due to various factors, including not having an inhabitable house, I decided to wait until the DVD came out.  The brainchild of science fiction King J.J. Abrams, whose written and directorial work also includes Lost, Alias, the two most recent Star Trek filmsSuper 8, and also the next Star Wars film.  That’s the kind of CV most directors would kill for.  From 2009 – 2011, during its first four seasons, Fringe has proved itself to be an immensely imaginative show.  I particularly enjoyed its focus on parallel worlds; after the conclusion to series 2 I spent months imagining my home village and town as parallel worlds.

Then in series 4 we had that incredible episode, “Letters of Transit,” revealing the terrifying future of 2036 where the Observers have enslaved humanity and created a totalitarian authority – a great concept for the final season.  There was initially some confusion over whether the show would continue, so I was very relieved when it was announced the show would end with season 5.  It’s so upsetting to see such a promising show decline without a proper resolution.

To start off, as I mentioned, I love the concept.  Dystopias are one of my favourite genres and I was excited to see what Fringe did with it.  Unfortunately I don’t think the concept was utilised as well as it could have been.  I don’t mean it was handled badly – a tone of paranoia, suspicion and despair was developed sufficiently in the early episodes – it just never felt entirely convincing.  We’ve been told that the Observers wiped out a large portion of humanity in ‘The Purge’ then took control of the remnants, yet this society is strikingly similar to the world we know today – only technologically superior and, you know, ruled by Observers.  There are wrecked districts and abandoned cars here and there, but it never quite feels enough.  Maybe the fact we only ever see a handful of locations in what was formerly the USA contributed to this; there’s never much indication that this was a worldwide invasion.  As often happens, the Americancentric view harms the setting.

I’m also not convinced by the extent of Observer control.  The fact that the Fringe team can walk through city streets, often quite freely, is a serious flaw.  Surely they would be wielding mass surveillance, mass thought control, mass infiltrations?  The totalitarian state of Nineteen Eighty-Four is more effective, and that’s run by humans with 1940s technology!  I’m also quite shocked the Observers don’t have the ability to communicate with one another.  They can teleport, travel in time, read minds and torture people without lifting a finger yet don’t have the capability to send a simple radio wave to one another?  I appreciate that they have to have limitations in order for the protagonists to even have a chance and there is still an omnipresent threat throughout the season, but at times I felt the characters had it too easy.  Given the fantastic opening credits, I never quite believe that concepts such as ‘joy’, ‘private thought’, and ‘community’ can quite be considered Fringe topics (as is the norm for words during the credits).

I’m doing the concept a disservice by being so critical – there are areas where it worked extremely well.  As might be expected with Fringe, it works best when taking a personal response, such as the ending of episode 1 where Walter first experiences hope after waking in this new world.  The idea is well developed by such symbols: Captain Windmark tells Walter that “nothing grows from scorched earth,” and later he sees a solitary flower in the street.  Then, later in the season, we see the White Tulip again.

To discuss a third weakness of the Observers and their world, I first have to discuss a subplot which generally worked really well: Peter’s conversion into an Observer.  After the death of Etta (more later) Peter, so distraught with grief and anger, tortures a captured Observer to death and implants its technology into himself…  This is really dark stuff.  This transition works so effectively due to the subtleties of Joshua Jackson’s acting; the monotone voice; slow, deliberate movements; and the ever-so-slight head tilts.  The end of episode 7 is one of the series’ best moments (yes, David Bowie helps).  This idea was cut short with Peter’s decision to remove the Observer technology which, from a science fiction point of view, feels cut short but for the character is exactly right.  Peter returns and discovers that the way to defeat Observers is through love and compassion.  My main problem is that, through this subplot, we discover just how powerful the Observers are.  Peter is able to assassinate some Observers by charting their movements and predicting their futures.  I can understand how he is successful at first – he has the element of surprise – but once the Observers are aware that the Fringe team is operating, and particularly once Peter removes the technology, then why don’t they stop them?  Windmark’s obsession with killing the team is undermined by this fact.  I’m merely left wondering, “Well, why don’t you?”

It was a very brave decision to kill Etta as early as episode 4.  Though it seemed strange at the time I believe it was the right decision.  Her death provided much of the tension for the next several episodes as Olivia and Peter’s relationship teetered at breaking point and Peter took elaborate steps to exact his revenge, but it also worked tonally.  That, above all else, made the Observers appear truly dangerous.  The shocking death of Nina Sharp a bit later had the same impact, and then Donald’s in the finale.  It also provided for one of the season’s central themes: the conflict between emotion and cold logic.  It is arguably Etta’s death which drives the team to victory, which gives them a determination that the Observers could never understand.  This contrast is greater when the Observers do begin to find themselves developing emotions; Windmark’s only feeling is hate.

The theme of characters in transition crops up a lot during the season, in fact.  I’ve already mentioned Peter and Windmark, but we also see September in human form.  During his travels through human history he developed an affinity for the species and was consequently stripped of his, uh, Observership.  He becomes Donald and is a truly fascinating character.  The fact that Donald/September is such an empathetic, courageous and generally humacharacter emphasises how similar Observers and humans are.  Observers can be seen to be the dark side of human nature, the side which strives for efficiency and unregulated progress.  Then there is also Walter’s gradual return to the cold, ruthless person he was before the operation to remove parts of his brain.  This is a plot threat which builds until Walter communicates with the child Observer and then, I suppose, becomes kind of enlightened.  This sounds terrible but it never felt cheap or rushed – it just seemed to work, and tied in with the general concept of the child Observer being humanity’s saviour and the ‘perfect human’.

I was very impressed with the way various threads from previous seasons were tied up.  J. H. Wyman, showrunner for the season, stated his intention was to:

“…bring back things that you’ve forgotten about and maybe some things you haven’t forgotten about, recontextualize them and have the series make sense. That was really a very big part of what I was after…”

In that, he certainly succeeded.  I couldn’t recall all the plot points which are returned to: the parallel world and cortexiphan, the previous fringe cases and the child Observer, to name a few.  I really enjoyed seeing the parallel world again, even if only for a fleeting appearance – it really helped to close the series.  Using horrific fringe cases against the Observers and, often, their human ‘loyalists’ posed quite a moral dilemma which never seemed to be addressed.  There was the debate early on between Etta and Olivia over the treatment of prisoners, but eventually even she seems to accept the idea that ‘everything goes’ in war.  Considering they’re fighting to rewrite time, this doesn’t jar too much.  And I thought it was genius to bring back the child Observer, not seen since season 1, and make him an integral part in the resolution of the series.  It’s as if this was planned from the beginning when clearly it wasn’t.  Badly written arcs are my main bugbear of TV series, so considering the convoluted nature of Fringe’s plots this continuity is nothing short of incredible.

Of course, this couldn’t all be smooth.  One area where I think Fringe spectacularly failed was the creation of an ‘alternative timeline’ for season 4.  It was interesting for maybe, oh, one episode, then became repetitive.  Characters spent the season trying to discover secrets the viewers already knew, only to recover memories from the old world anyway.  I had hoped that this admirable but ultimately unsuccessful arc would be swept under the carpet but unfortunately, in a bid to stick with continuity, it had to return.  “Maybe the child Observer won’t remember us; that was a whole other timeline after all.”  “Oh, of course, Walter won’t remember that.”  It’s just messy.  But that’s only a minor point.

I’m glad that the writers decided to abandon filler episodes for this final season.  They worked back in the modern day but for this dystopian epic the plot really needed to be focused in one direction.  It did unfortunately still end up falling into the routine of “let’s find the latest piece of the puzzle” which is a rather typical way of plotting TV seasons, but still managed to stay interesting throughout and followed the different pattern of having to find tapes from inside the ambered laboratory.  This concluded in a remarkably simple plan: show the child Observer, who September engineered to have both a superior intellect and empathy, to the scientists in 2167 who first developed Observer technology in order to convince them to then take a different path and engineer more compassionate race so the Observers will never exist.  I would have liked to see at least the beginning of this meeting, however.  I’m afraid I wasn’t completely satisfied with the ending.  It felt a little rushed and went out with more of a whimper than a bang.  Walter rushes off with the Child Observer, never to see Peter or Olivia again, then we snap back to 2015 and all is well.  It wasn’t bad as such, but just felt somewhat underwhelming.

The characterisation and acting in this final season continued to be of the high quality we’ve come to expect from Fringe.  Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson and John Noble continue to play Olivia, Peter and Walter with incredible conviction, forcing any emotion desired in the audience and pushing the story forward with great energy.  Noble again demonstrates skill in shifting between Walter’s various personalities.  Jasika Nicole provides great consistency with the often forgotten Astrid, providing the glue which binds the team together.  Georgina Haig was good in her short appearance as Etta, as were Blair Brown, Lance Reddick and Michael Cerveris reappearing as Nina, Broyles and September – all of whom made very welcome returns.  But I think the standout performance, for me, was by Michael Kopsa as Windmark.  First for his general creepy, powerful ‘Observerness’ but then as he developed simple, almost primal feeling of hatred – his presence stole every scene he was in.

In conclusion, season 5 is a worthy end to Fringe.  Loose ends are tied up satisfactorily and the characters’ journeys arrive at a suitable end.  While there are some problems, none of these are large enough to have a significant impact on the season and I’m left with an overall very positive impression.  I don’t know whether I’ll ever find another show which matches Fringe‘s quirky combination of the extraordinary with simple, grounded humanity.

Final rating: 8/10