Friday, May 13, 2011

Thoughts On The Mind-Melting S3 FRINGE Finale!

FRINGE Season 3 finale thoughts:

- Is there any ballsier show on TV than Fringe? For the last several weeks, FRINGE just plowed forward with no fear. No fear of being too weird, no fear of being too experimental, no fear of being too ambitious. Fringe went for broke this year, and the same is true of its incredible, mind-blowing finale. It didn't just deliver a single twist or "game-changer." No, Fringe did Lost one better, delivering twist upon twist, turn over turn - and all in the framework of an time and space-spanning story that took us into the future and back, across universes, and into the great unknown.

I will admit, there were times in Season 3 of Fringe where the show seemed to lose a good deal of momentum. While the season kicked off with a bang - employing an ambitious structure in which each week's episode alternated between Earth's 1 and 2 - things definitely cooled off for a bit mid-season. A couple of episodes in a row seemed to veer away from the thing I love most about Fringe - that it attacks all of its plotlines from a SCIENTIFIC angle, maintaining a sense of wonder because everything, no matter how outrageous, somehow feels plausible. For a bit, Fringe started doing stories where love was the answer. Love overcame the rift in the universes, love was what would determine the fate of worlds, etc. That to me was not Fringe, and that, to me, was a big part of what made Lost get so off-course at the end. Yes, there is the old saying from writers and producers that these shows are "about the characters." And Fringe does indeed have some of the best characters - played by some of the best actors - on TV. But those characters work so well *because* of the stories being told about them. And if those stories are undermined by odd divergences in theme or tone, well, the characters get weaker as well. I mean, what's wrong with having two characters who love each other, but having it be a flawed, hard-luck, earned sort of love? That's the kind of love that it seems Peter and Olivia share. I think that making them star-crossed, fate-of-the-universe-rests-on-their-love lovers was out of character for Fringe. To that end, I think you could argue that having a two episode arc in which Olivia was possessed by the spirit of William Bell (Leonard Nimoy) was also a bit much for the show. It's a huge, huge testament to the great Anna Torv that she somehow pulled this sorta-silly storyline off and made it work, even made it pretty fun. And, ultimately, it helped pave the way for a nice send-off to Nimoy and Bell, and gave some nice character development for Walter. But, let's just say I think most Fringe fans were relieved when the body-swapping storyline wrapped (even if the final part of the story included a crazy, trippy, sort of awesome animated sequence through Olivia's subconcious). Now though, finally, it was time to get to the good stuff.

And it was the good stuff indeed. We got one last, ultra-intense visit to Earth 2, where Fauxlivia was beginning to doubt Walternate's increasingly sinister-sounding plans to destroy Earth 1. Her rebellion and attempt to escape to warn the denizens of our Earth failed, however, and Earth 2's Olivia Dunham was locked up by that world's Secretary of Defense version of Walter Bishop. Later, the penultimate Fringe episode of Season 3 ramped up the tension even more, with the fabric of the universe coming apart at the seams. Desperate to halt the disaster, Peter again tries to enter the machine that was built off of plans found in the books of "the first people." The first time Peter attempted to enter the machine, it fried him as if he'd been hit by a bolt of lightning. But now, in theory, the machine - having been moved to the same spot as Walternate's version on Earth 2, Liberty Island - would give Peter the power to close the rifts and heal Earth 1. But that next-to-last episode ended with a HUGE cliffhanger - Peter gets into the machine, and appears to be in control. However, in a shocking twist, Peter wakes up IN THE FUTURE of Earth 1. His conciousness has been transported twenty years through time, to an apocalyptic world where earth is on the brink of collapse thanks to the rip in the universe. It's a world where an aged Walter is imprisoned, having been found guilty of causing the initial damage. It's a world where the Fringe division keeps order in what has become a near-police state. And it's a world where Walternate roams, plotting acts of terror and chaos. His world - Earth 2 - has been destroyed, but he managed to flee to Earth 1 before all was lost. Now, seeing that Earth 1 is also a sinking ship, he threatens to ensure that it too goes down in apocalyptic flame.

After all of the alternate realities we've seen on Fringe, it was somewhat shocking to see yet another warped version of the show and of the characters we love. It was a lot to process - Peter and Olivia were married! - Broyles had one eye! - Walter was old and bearded and seemed to have suffered a stroke of some sort! - Olivia's niece was all grown up and a junior Fringe Division agent! Holy crap.

But this look into the future of Fringe was a tantalizing glimpse at what might be if our heroes in the present fail to avert the damage to Earth 1. And not only that, the finale was full of amazing character moments that made this more than just a "What-If?", but into a genuinely moving, heart-wrenching episode. We know these characters so well, that it was easy to imagine them in this future. Imagine if Walter was in isolation for 20 years - we know how much he'd miss Peter and Olivia. And it made the moment where he finally does see Olivia again that much more packed with emotion. And by god, is John Noble the man or is he the man?! To see him play essentially a third version of Walter, with such nuance, such emotion, such humor, such pathos. I mean, there is no doubt in my mind - John Noble as Walter is the single greatest dramatic performance on television at the moment. The guy just rules it on all levels, and any would-be actor should study his performance here. If he doesn't win an Emmy, then holy crap, screw the Emmys. This is simply phenomenal work. Even the little scene where Peter brought him his favorite candy, Red Vines. Walter's reaction was hilarious, emotional, just so bursting with different things. Good lord, Noble is the real deal.

Everyone on Fringe has really kicked ass, and pulled off near-impossible acting challenges. Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, Lance Reddick - all amazing. Torv especially has really risen to the occasion. Anyone who could pull off playing two versions of her character plus Leonard Nimoy deserves huge kudos. And the final fate of future-Olivia in the finale ... even though we knew this was merely a "possible' future, that didn't make Olivia's murder at the hands of Walternate any less shocking or impactful.

Overall, when I think about the apocalyptic future world that we saw in the finale ... it was an ambitious, thought-provoking plot turn, and that to me is Fringe at its best. Again, seeing this raised the stakes for the characters in the present day, and also provided a whole potential playground that the show could, in theory, revisit. I don't think it *has* to happen, but there were so many intriguing threads in that future-verse that it definitely left me hungry for more. In any case, the big twists happened as future Peter and Walter hatched a plan to save their world via time-travel. Afterall, it was becoming increasingly clear that all of the "first people" stuff was the product of some kind of crazy time-travel shenanigans, so it seemed as though Peter was fated to somehow interfere in his own past. So Peter's conciousness had, all this time, been pulled into the future thanks to his own future self. And when it returns to the present, it does so with the directive to create a hub between the two worlds - so that Walter, Walternate, and everyone else can work together to heal the universes. Peter does this, and this ending alone would have been enough - with Walter standing face to face with Walternate in a merged bridge between worlds. But right as we were coming to terms with this striking notion, BAM, Twist #2 occurs. Peter blinks out of existence - disappears! Cut to a group of the mysterious Observers standing outside. They observe, as they are prone to do, that all is according to plan -- now, Peter has been erased - it is as though he *never* existed!

WTF! What does that mean? Is Peter unstuck in time, Slaughterhouse 5 style? Is he outside of time? Is he dead? And if he never existed, then what now is the revised version of reality sans Peter? Without Peter, why did Walter ever end up crossing over to Earth 2, and why do he and Walternate think this war between them ever started? Perhaps Peter's erasure was necessary to ensure that the two Walters work together instead of trying to destroy each other? And is Peter now time-hopping, planting all of the "first-people" clues throughout time and space? And where and when will Season 4 pick up?

Talk about mind-blowing, mind-bending, mind-%&#$'ing. This was one hell of an ending, and is sure to be the subject of many a speculative summer discussion and debate.

All I know is, FRINGE had some missteps in Season 3, sure - but mostly, it cemented itself as one of the smartest, riskiest, and emotion-packed series on TV. For those who loved the likes of LOST but have yet to jump aboard the Fringe bandwagon, I urge you to spend the summer catching up. Because while Fringe lacks Lost's breadth of characters, it gets the most out of who it does have. And Fringe is telling an epic sci-fi story better than Lost. Because there is mystery and there are questions, but there is also momentum and forward movement. Questions and cliffhangers are there in service of dramatic storytelling, but there is always the sense that all of this escalation is going somewhere. And already, in three seasons, the payoffs and rewards have been huge. John Noble - he just owns. Awards for him, asap. And Fringe - man - that is a finale, man. That's how you shake things up and raise the bar.

My Grade: A

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