'Fringe' series review: Darker than amber, lighter than air

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Image Credit: Liane Hentscher/Fox

In the end, Fringe — which concluded with a back-to-back, two-episode wallop on Friday night — fulfilled nearly every promise it made to its audience over the course of five seasons. It remained true to its core values: the primacy of family, the sacredness of trust, the joy of a good joke, the exhilaration of intellectual inquiry, and the jolting power of love.

Fringe‘s final two hours were constructed as a big, action-packed adventure, an outline that served its finale well, because when the show took its pauses for sad moments, the air around them seemed all the more charged, yet still. Much of the first hour made a connection to the best early, Cortexiphan-injected episodes of Fringe. The boy Michael was being experimented upon by the Observers, and we couldn’t help but think of the way Olivia as a child had been experimented upon by Walter and William Bell. Now, however, Olivia took doses of Cortexiphan that were voluntary — these four shots, administered by Walter, were injected to re-enable her powers to penetrate to the alternate universe and restore her telekinetic powers. The “universal window” even made a guest appearance, cracked but still vital, looking like a piece of Marcel Duchamp’s three-dimensional artwork “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even.”

Olivia’s trip to the alt-universe enabled us to enjoy some parallel-world possibilities (Chelsea Clinton was ahead in the latest Presidential poll there) and to see a middle-aged Fauxlivia with Susan Sontag hair and an ever-so-slightly crinkly-looking Lincoln Lee, a happy couple with a son. Anna Torv imbued both aspects of Olivia with vividly distinct drama; when the camera closed in on her face, you could see the whole history of Fringe, be reminded of the little-girl Olivia who once was fearful and trapped by her confusion as a result of the Cortexiphan trials but who grew into the powerful woman she was now. And for sure, Fringe paid off on this strength with a number of crackling action scenes that allowed us to see the relentless side of Olivia (that immensely satisfying, fatal, telekinetic smoooshing of Windmark between two cars!) as well as, at the end, the peace she had attained.

I’m not going to step on Jeff Jensen’s verbal toes with his recap. I want to write more broadly about the way Fringe achieved its effects, both this night and throughout its run. Over the course of the finale, connections and alliances were shown to be crucial. For example: For September/Donald, Walter Bishop proved to be a model for the kind of father-figure the former could be for “the boy”/Anomaly XB-6783746/Michael — Walter and Peter Bishop’s irreducible bond, it could be said, was what engendered (in September’s words) “emotive development” among some of the Observers, and which ultimately led to the defeat of most oppressive Observers led by Windmark, who told a tortured, captive Broyles that the emotion he felt was “hatred.”

The connection between Walter and Peter led to the night’s most moving moment. Preparing to sacrifice himself to save the world, to avoid the Observer invasion by taking Michael into the future without possibility of return, Walter bade goodbye to Peter with the words, “The time we had together we stole.” A lesser actor than John Noble would have wrung that sentence out for all its melodrama, but once again he acted the sentiment with a brilliant clarity of purpose. On his end, Josh Jackson made some of his greatest impact on Friday night with wordless reactions that were as eloquent as any dialogue. I freely admit it: I cried, glad to feel the sorrow, the release.

And there were the connections that worked as pure, exhilarating entertainment, as when the bio-hazard spores loosed upon the Observer enemies resulted in many deaths, each of them grim, black-humored little call-backs to previous Fringe monsters-of-the-weeks. And of course the final image of the white tulip was the connection to what I think is likely the best single Fringe hour of all.

Fringe was always a deeply emotional show in a way that distinguished it from all previous sci-fi-based TV series. I was never into Star Trek; I loved The X-Files most when it was least emotional (Chris Carter is many things, but a convincing Romantic is not among them); I was a late-blooming admirer of Battlestar Galactica; over the years, I have sampled and rejected genre shows of varying degrees of quality and low ratings from Alien Nation to Space Rangers to TekWars to Mann and Machine to VR.5 up through the remake of V and on to FlashForward and the uneventful The Event.  I could muster little more than grudging respect for Dollhouse. Lost lost me after the first few seasons. (Confession: When a TV show begins to feel like homework, I’d rather read a book.)

But for me, Fringe hit a sweet spot: A fantastical drama conceived in the form of a thriller about filial love. When the show was firing on all cylinders, with showrunners Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman building ever so artfully, carefully, delicately upon the initial concept brought to television by J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci, Fringe was a constant, rich pleasure, readily giving itself over to repeated viewings that rewarded close attention and a sense of humor, as opposed to the sort of dourly relentless fact-checking and sci-fi historicism that has come to characterize much of the genre’s fandom. (Just ask poor Damon Lindelof in re Lost, as vividly documented most recently in Alan Sepinwall’s fine book The Revolution Was Televised.)

I admit that season four tested my fondest feelings for the series. In making the audacious move of shifting to a new timeline, Fringe showed a strain in its storytelling it hadn’t had before. Watching the series then was a matter of getting used to new characters played by the same actors and, unlike the season three alt-universe schema, always — for me, at least — wishing that the original, crispy characters were still in place.

While I know that much of the admiration for the series hinges for many fans and TV commentators on the series’ sustained meditation on the connection between humanity and technology — where one ends and the other begins; how they blend — I always circle back to the elements I enjoyed most about the show: Its interest in alternative realities as frequently represented in the specific baby-boomer decades in which Walter and William Bell were (in every sense) most alive — the 60s and 70s, when dropping acid and tripping on the natural highs of rock-music album-cover art and psychedelic and prog-rock music was truly, for these men and for an often neglected segment of America’s TV audience, inspirational. I loved the way Pinkner and Wyman reconceived the very term “counterculture” to make it expand to include not just Walter’s LSD trips but the creation of literal cultures that ran counter to humanity’s goals, dreams, and ideals.

What the film critic Manny Farber once wrote about Val Lewton’s The Leopard Man (1943) — “a nerve-twitching whodunit giving the creepy impression that human beings and ‘things’ are interchangeable and almost synonymous and that both are pawns of a bizarre and terrible destiny” — might serve as an apt summation of much of dramatic friction sparked in Fringe, except for the remarkable achievement of the series: The idea, as September/Donald put it this night, that “destiny can be changed.” That, indeed, the “bizarre and terrible” can through will power and brain power be turned into the idyllic and the wondrous.

This is the legacy of Fringe. (That, and a Gene forever preserved in amber.) Now it’s up to us to carry that into our futures, and to be on the look-out for whatever television (of any kind, in any genre) can pick up on Fringe‘s ever-reverberating vibe. Why? I quote Walter from the final hour and one last time: “Because it’s cool.”

Twitter: @kentucker

For more: Fringe finale recap: The Paradox That Saved The World


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