Monday, May 16, 2011

TV Episode Review: Fringe “The Day We Died”

Is it blasphemous if I admit that I was a bit underwhelmed by the Fringe finale?  I’m having trouble coming to terms with it myself, so amped was I after last week to discover what exactly had happened to Peter and what world it was he had been suddenly plopped into the middle of.  The answers to those questions weren’t entirely surprising, nor were they unsatisfying.  In fact, I’m quite intrigued by the cruel twist of fate involved—Peter’s activation of the machine on our side led to the destabilization of things on the other side which resulted in that Earth’s complete destruction.  It’s a twist we didn’t see coming, but it’s compounded by the fact that the worlds were never meant to be in competition with one another in the first place—they are linked together in some Fringe-sciencey way which makes certain that the destruction of the one means the imminent (and painfully slow, apparently) doom of the other.  This would probably also be a fitting place to note that the show’s opening has changed again (the last time representing the introduction of Earth 2 as a setting for complete episodes) suggesting a shift in the show’s fundamental premise.  Among the new pseudo-science phrases floating around were concepts like “biosuspension” and “dual maternity”.  Intriguing. 

What was (to my surprise) slightly less intriguing was the ongoing discovery of where 15 years have taken our characters.  Walter is in prison for setting all of these events in motion (although Peter points out that he’s the one who climbed into the machine), Broyles is a Senator with one heck of a bad case of glaucoma (how eerie was that eye, seriously), Olivia and Peter are both happily married with slightly less stylish hair and no children, since, you know, the world is ending, and Astrid is now a full Fringe Agent with a much cooler haircut than she used to have.  There was a lot of detail put into hair tonight; obviously a way of keeping us straight on what amounts to the third versions of each of these characters, but also perhaps a way of reminding us of the individual identities of each of these human beings, in sharp contrast with the bald, undifferentiable Observers who announce at the end of the episode, while staring at our version of the Statue of Liberty, that Peter has served his purpose, and that, oh yeah, he never existed.  A seemingly ridiculous assertion, but then he does suddenly phase out in mid-sentence while Walter and Walternate stand face to face, and both react as if they’d just been momentarily distracted by a flash of light that’s no longer there.  It’s a killer of a cliffhanger, though there are so many ways of interpreting these events that the interwebs should be busy clear through next fall.  It was a great way to close out the episode, as is the unanswered (thus far) plea of Peter to the two Walters:  The worlds are intertwined—Walternate HAS to abandon his quest to tear our world apart in favor of helping both worlds to survive through cooperation.  I’m not sure how to read the look on Fauxlivia’s face when she faces her doppelganger either—the look didn’t exactly scream “ready to help, multiverse sister!”

It would seem, though, that we aren’t done in that future world anyway—not with the addition of two intriguing new faces added to the mix.  We meet Olivia’s now-grown niece, who has become a Fringe Agent herself, and is made enough of a presence tonight to rule out this being nothing more than a “hey here’s a fun twist” type Easter egg element.  She’s been a character of some significance as a child; becoming something of an emotional source of strength for Olivia in our world and a source of tragedy in the alternate world where Olivia’s sister didn’t survive.  Even more central to tonight’s proceedings is the figure of Moreau, head of the “End of Dayers” cult which is trying to hasten the, well, the name says it all, I guess.  Their true head is Walternate, but their figurehead is Moreau, played by the incomparable Brad Dourif, and if you’ve noticed how seldom I bother to mention actors by name on this blog, you know how much I think of this guy.  He brings a lot to the table, and I find it beyond imagining that he was brought in to set off a couple of “Electro-Light” devices and mutter a few lines unless there’s a recurring place for him in the master story.  Of course, that might imply that Walternate doesn’t accept the suggestion of Peter “Who?  I Don’t Know Anyone Named Peter” Bishop, which is the only way the future’s destruction would continue to exist. 

Or maybe it doesn’t.  The show has officially opened a can of worms—namely the paradoxes of time travel—which essentially gives the writers a blank check regarding all past and future events on the show.  Even Walter and Peter’s dialogue about what time travel really allows them to change is filled with the sort of muddy theoretical dialogue common to time travel science fiction literature.  It makes internal sense if you listen to it, but it’s also quite easily manipulated because it ultimately just says that time is inconstant (which is certainly consistent with the multiple universes the show has already been committed to for two seasons).  The cleverness of the whole premise is in the fact that Peter’s use of the machine was provided for by “The First People” who are really the characters we know and love who placed the clues to the machine back in time for this very event to occur.  Why they didn’t just write the directions in plain English with a note of explanation is beyond me.  I’m sure the writers would defend it by saying the wrong people finding it could alter events, but that’s the entire problem with time travel stories:  By their very definition they free the storyteller from committing to anything in a permanent or meaningful way.  I’m fairly confident that the Fringe writers will avoid doing something like that given how sharp they’ve been about everything else on this show, but then I had the same confidence in Lost (consider how many behind-the-scenes names cross over between the two shows) so you can see where I’m a bit uneasy about this new development.

 That, however, is not the reason I mentioned feeling ambiguous about the episode.  As it was unfolding, the idea of them being able to reverse the horrible chain of events wrought by the machine’s activation was so appealing that I was swept up in the intensity and awe of the final quarter of the episode.  In fact, by the time two versions of everybody but Peter were standing in The Machine Room as Peter tried to explain to them the solution to all of their problems, I was hardly even processing all of the ramifications of all that we were witnessing.  The problem with the episode is that, for me, the duration should have had this effect on me.  The final quarter of any episode of television in this genre is going to carry some enhanced sense of suspense; it’s a necessity of the very nature of serial television.  For a finale, which, mind you, is simultaneously meant to tie together the multiple story strands of a long season (and provide some satisfactory “payoff”, if it’s well written) and also create new open strands and mysteries to carry viewers through the long and painful off season, having an exposition-heavy front end and early “reveals” which aren’t terribly interesting or exciting (if the world is ending through means as incredible as wormholes in Central Park, how interesting is it, really, that some stupid cult is trying to make it happen faster?) is pretty unforgivable.  All of it was necessary to a greater or lesser extent, and even that which felt somewhat expendable will probably prove most important of all as gaps in our knowledge fill in next season, but that doesn’t change the fact that it made for some slow television, at least by Fringe standards.

The saving grace of the episode, at least to some extent, is the reliance on some strong and touching character moments which are certainly well earned.  Seeing Walter disheveled and unkempt in prison garb is something beyond heartbreaking, as is his quiet acceptance of the reasons for his imprisonment.  When he’s later taken back to his abandoned lab and wonders aloud whether Astrid will be there, realizing almost immediately that without him to babysit she’s probably “spread her wings,” it speaks volumes about how deeply Walter cares about the human beings in his life.  The death of Future Olivia is also compelling, though not exactly devastating, since our awareness of being outside of “our” time dulls the impact of the event a bit.  More sad, to me, was the revelation that though Peter and Olivia do eventually marry, it’s in a world where having children seems to be almost an act of cruelty, and in a time when Walter was never even able to kiss his new daughter-in-law at the wedding. 

So we enter the long abyss of summer.  Next season may bring the natural (as in, by the writers’ designs, not network pressures) conclusion to Fringe, or it may simply expand the story in new directions and hope for an extension.  At any rate, it clearly will not be the Fringe we’ve come to know and love.  I think we’ll still love it just fine, but this jarring of the show’s foundations seems somehow more drastic than the introduction of Earth 2 (and you’ll recall that I’ve struggled somewhat to really feel “at home” in that world’s episodes) and certainly filled with even bigger implications to the master story.  It was an incredible season of risk-taking and character driven storytelling this year, and I wouldn’t have missed it.  See you in a few long months.

Overall Rating:  8.5/10
Season Rating:  9.4/10

Great Lines, Interesting Moments, Whatnot, and Occasionally What-Have-You:

Nice gory moment in the aftermath of the opera house bombing—these guys aren’t messing around.

I like that even when drawn to his physical limits by imprisonment, Walter can muster up a bit of excitement at the idea of a wormhole to prehistory: “Sauropods?” he asks excitedly when Peter tells him about the hole in Central Park.

“I know him and I know his intentions weren’t this; but there’s not a single person out there who hasn’t lost someone because of him.”  Sad, truthful words from Broyles about Walter.

“If what we lost in Detroit still means anything to you, just give me one chance.”  I think this odd little line might be a key to next season, but good luck mining clues out of it.

“I didn’t realize how much I’ve missed swivel chairs.  I’ve also missed swiveling.”

Olivia’s future funeral is a bit odd—seems more like a Viking ceremony than anything else.  And I’m pretty sure the shot of Peter carrying the torch to set her pyre aflame is a direct recreation of the scene where Luke sets Vader’s pyre to burning. 

So how does Peter not exist, and is it relevant that he seemed to “phase out” sort of like a disappearing hologram?  Share your theories!


  1. Quick note first: the second image didn't load. Might be a problem on my end, though.

    Yeah, I don't know how they're going to go about the "Peter never existed" thing, but I trust the writers.

    You mentioned Lost, which brings to mind a theory that we talked about a long time ago: The J.J. Abrams Universe. His shows seem to give nods to each other and part of me hopes it's for more than shits and giggles. Maybe we'll find Faraday's journal? A Desmond cameo? Ha ha...

  2. That's a great point--I do think Abrams has dreams of creating interacting movies and TV series which exist inside of a complex, interconnected universe, and given the introduction of time travel as an element here, anything seems possible. Having said that, I doubt there will be any meaningful crossovers based on the simple inhibiting factor of competing networks--I doubt Fox is going to let the writers draw in any recognizable Lost elements--big or small--as a master element of a low-rated, non-mainstream show. Which is unfortunate, in a sense.