Fringe Thinking: Ticket to Ride

With its final episode, Fringe took us back to the first episode of its last and (to me) least season. Much of the capper referenced past moments in the show's run, as Season Five has done to varying degrees throughout. Yet despite the fact that the answer to avoiding its despotic, dystopic future would seem to suggest another rewriting of Fringe history, the events it changed appear to be limited to those that — save for a brief flashforward late in Season Four from which the eventual Season Five sprang — followed the Season Four finale and indeed are, so far, still in our future (or would be if we were living in Fringe's world). Although Season Five has echoed and even recontextualized pivotal elements of previous episodes, it's entirely possible to view the series' bonus stretch as a thing apart, from beginning to the double-shot ending one week ago in...

I'm not sure how much there is to say about the episodes that I haven't said already in this batch of "Fringe Thinking".
More than once I described how the fifth season has felt oddly like AfterFringe, a spinoff of sorts, or like a revival of Fringe done at remove of some years  — never mind that it included the entire core cast and was a genuine continuation of the series proper that picked up in September from the previous May as television seasons usually do. This was not Dallas redux or Arrested Development's surprise Netflix return or The Brady Brides; this was the very thing itself, next page, albeit with a shortened order and more limited budget.

Perhaps it's best if I start with what I liked about the season finale and the finale season in general, because it's not like I just hated these 13 episodes. As a meta-level case in point, I'd put the agreement between Fox (which aired the show) and Warner Bros. (whose TV arm produced it) high on a list of things that made me happy in 2012 even though most elements of Fringe's victory lap — the pure emotional beats a sure exception — left me underwhelmed. A weird epilogue season of Fringe informed by the past four seasons that didn't really impact those seasons if you'd rather it didn't is still Fringe, more or less, and the ways in which it was less are honestly a disappointment only in the context of Fringe's demonstrated potential rather than bad television by any objective measure. I'm certainly grateful that a deal was reached to lighten the show's licensing fee in the name of bringing its total number of episodes to 100 (the better for Warner Bros. to sell the series in syndication, plus another season to release on DVD).

Going from the macro to the micro: I enjoyed Windmark meeting his demise. Having Olivia deliver the crushing blow by asserting her Cortexiphan abilities one more time made it all the sweeter, especially in terms of how she was prompted by Michael — whose resistance to Windmark's probing and general intimidation, in the form of turning the tables (nosebleeds, a burst blood vessel in the eye, general disquietude), was a satisfying running thread. One more dip into the Harvard lab's trophy room cum arsenal for the assault on the Invaders' headquarters was entirely acceptable "fan service" too. December showed up. Broyles was back in the game, putting his mole status to good use again before being exposed and telling Windmark off. It was strangely touching to see an ambered Gene the Cow, with the moment that followed between Walter and Astrid quite possibly the most eye-moistening of the entire evening. The father/son interplay between Walter and Peter, as well as the variations on filial bonds involving Walter, Michael, and September, were also highlights. And we visited Over There one last time, with an especially poignant glimpse of Fauxlivia [a.k.a. Altivia, OOlivia, Bolivia, Olivib], Lincoln, and their son in a family portrait — doubtless reminding Olivia that she was fighting not only for humanity at large but for her family in particular, to give Henrietta a better life.

So much of what we got, of course, put into stark relief what we didn't get. The Other Side was used inventively yet all too briefly. There was no revisitation of the Recordist's clan from early this season, no mention of Olivia's sister Rachel, no homage to Olivia's ex-partner Charlie, no connection to her dead flame John Scott, no surprise appearance by or even lip service to William Bell. The extent to which fans clamored for, expected, or would even have cared about each of these things varies, to be sure, but the way in which the show became a greatest-hits revue begs the question of how it chose to include or dismiss various elements of its past, the availability of certain actors notwithstanding. Most frustratingly for me throughout the season and right up to the very last moments of the series was the focus on Walter and Peter, no matter how moving, at the expense of Olivia; yes, she took the spotlight crossing universes, rescuing Michael, and pancaking Windmark, but it's inexcusable that Olivia — and by extension, by definition, Anna Torv — was absent from the show's enigmatic final shot.

The big-picture shock was the actual fulfillment of the Plan. I felt pretty sure that having it laid out in such detail in Episode 5.11 — complete with Olivia telling Peter that it was their chance to get Etta "back" — guaranteed that it couldn't come to pass, the TV-trope version of a jinx.

In terms of detail rather than overall plot, on the other hand, I was surprised by September's visit in 5.12 to December. It was satisfying to hear explicitly that the original group of Observers had no idea that it was an advance team staking out the early 21st century for an occupying force from the 27th. The fact that December's apartment number was 513, a drolly obvious (if you keep an eye out for such things) allusion to the imminent Episode 5.13, makes me suspect that September's apartment number in the previous week's 5.11 was intentional after all.

Also referenced in Fringe's last chapters — and indeed its last frames — was Episode 2.18, "White Tulip". In that standout, considered by many to be the series' finest hour, Peter Weller guested as a very different tragic machine-man from the one he played decades earlier on the big screen. His Alastair Peck was a study in comparison and contrast to John Noble's Walter Bishop, an adversary for the Fringe team who was deeply sympathetic. When the episode aired, I marveled at how brave it felt for everyone involved in its creation to let the story breathe; not only were scenes repeated from different angles as time looped around again but a serious discussion was had between Walter and Peck in which the putative villain of the piece truly listened. "It's not our place to adjust the universe," Peck said. "I have traveled through madness to figure this out. And you will too." Since the episode was co-written by Season Five showrunner (and finale writer/director) J.H. Wyman, I suppose it's safe to assume that — as demonstrated by Peter's reappearance into a timeline that no longer included him in Season Four — the universe is only against being adjusted in the wrong direction, making Walter et al.'s decision to prevent the Invaders from storming 2015 in Season Five entirely proper. In the parlance of Lost one could say that the universe was "course-correcting" but preferring to have champions like the Fringe Division team actively do the work.

I blogged on much of Lost's final season, as I said in my writeup of Fringe Episode 5.01, and the fact that I still haven't gone back to conclude my analysis of that show's finale nor yet bothered to fix up the screwy HTML in several prior "Lost in Thought" posts is a strong reflection of my bitter disappointment over how those in charge of Lost chose to finish it. As with Fringe, Lost's showrunners had ample time to craft an ending for the series — the differences being that the close of Lost was planned even farther in advance and that where Fringe had to make up a coda on borrowed time Lost was a heavily serialized shinkansen barreling towards its expiration date whose penultimate season left viewers with one heck of a cliffhanger.

Fringe and Lost were both J.J. Abrams co-creations, although Abrams had little to do at the episode level with the former after Season One and even less to do with the latter after its pilot. Each in its own way offered a tremendously heart-tugging finale involving sacrifice on a scale at once human and grandly cosmic. Yet as much as I choked up at the very end of Lost I found most of the season that led to it a complete travesty. The irony, or at least an irony, is that (and here's a bit of a spoiler alert for Lost if you still haven't seen it but plan to) Fringe did the big ol' Jughead timeline reset in its final episode that everyone thought was coming in Lost.

Whether Lost should have gone through with the same between Seasons Five and Six is debatable. I only know that I'd almost have preferred for Lost to end with the Season Five finale's flash of white and just had to conjecture what happened next. Fringe, in perhaps another irony, can actually be viewed minus its last season and still impart sufficient closure in every respect except that admirers of Seasons One through Four will be left wanting more of the show simply because it's so good. Fringe's last stretch likewise mostly paled in comparison to what came before but unlike Lost it didn't have to continue and conclude a storyline; it was a sequelly sort of thing — albeit as noted earlier an exploit that cast the entirety of the series in a new light — which made it much easier for me to let the sentiment of the series finale override the general letdown of its finale season.

Season Five of Fringe possesses the distinction of being both irrelevant to Seasons One through Four if you choose to ignore it and essential to, even defining of, Fringe if you don't. It's quite brilliant in a somewhat perverse way. The actors, Wyman, and everyone else who worked on Season Five probably consider it incontrovertibly part and parcel of Fringe Proper, of course, but up through the possible series finale of Episodes 4.21 & 4.22 Fringe really does function as a self-contained beast; maybe that's for the best. In many ways I found Season Five to be less than the sum of its parts, and retcons like establishing Michael, not Peter, as the subject of September's grave line to Walter in 1985, "The boy must live," monkeyed with the show's mythology in way sure to irk some fans.

The Plan doesn't just replace the Pattern as the impetus of Fringe in its final season, it supersedes it in importance to the series as a whole. September was only recording — then interacting with — Walter in 1985, and before, and after, as part of an unwitting scouting mission for the 2015 invasion by Windmark's crew from 2609. How much of ZDT and the First People and the Sam Weiss lineage, etc., would exist without the Observers' presence is unknown. Walter Bishop and William Bell would still have been themselves; Walter's ability to view the Other Side may still have existed as well. Had September not distracted Walternate, however, causing his antidote for Peter to spoil, Walter may never crossed over to kidnap that Peter in the name of curing him where he couldn't save his own son, pitting the universes (really, the Earths; really, the Walters and company) against one another and giving rise to the series of superscience horrors termed the Pattern that became the raison d'ĂȘtre of Fringe Division. The genetic discovery in 2167 that will lead to the suppression of emotion, and in turn the far-future humans who travel back to 2015 as Invaders, necessitates September and Walter's creation of the Plan; September's race is elevated from Easter egg in Season One to plot impetus in Season Two and in Season Five becomes as overwhelming a part of Fringe continuity as the Other Side if not more so, both launching the events of Seasons One through Four and continuing long after them.

Viewers gave a collective foul call of "Paradox!" at the end of Episode 5.13, myself included. At issue is the fact that when Michael is led by Walter into the wormhole from 2036 to 2167 with the intention of preventing Windmark's Invaders from ever existing, the timeline shouldn't just be reset to that sunny day in the park in 2015. Peter should never have been brought Over Here by Walter from Over There. History should be reset to 1985 — and then, immediately after that, it should not be, since if there are no Observers then there is no September to help Walter prevent the Observers from becoming Invaders and therefore there is a September, and so on, just as I suggested in my writeup of Episode 5.11.

I submit that all is fine if we assume that the clever Walter can run all the variables in his mind necessary to certify that some semblance of whatever needed to happen happened, just a little bit better. He learned the hard way — through the admonitions of Alistair Peck and the hubris of William Bell and what his own considerable follies wrought — not to play God. And so Walter did not tinker with anything in history but the Invaders themselves, whose excursion into their own distant past no matter the percentage of success they calculated was a greater and more terrible anomaly than Michael could ever be. Walter did not attempt to avert other tragedies large and small; nor did he try to finesse a better relationship between Peter and himself, knowing that their division and reconciliation was what prepared him for the very sacrifice he had to make. He ensured that the human race would evolve with both emotions and intelligence, and that a version of September or perhaps Michael or even Walter himself would rescue Peter at Reiden Lake.

As Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure taught us, if you have access to time travel then you can reap the benefits now of what you'll sow later as long as you're committed. Jumping pop-culture media to the too-short-lived concept of Hypertime introduced in DC's The Kingdom, we can think of possible timelines as tributaries of a grand river that flow out and back to the main stream, making it possible not only that the picnic in 2015 leads to multiple potential futures but that it is the product of multiple potential pasts converging upon that scene. The moment that he stepped into that wormhole, altering history, Walter's fully realizable intentions shaped a new history. He may have fixed it so that Peter was never erased at the end of Season Three in 2011 — yet that doesn't necessarily mean that Peter isn't enjoying an afternoon with Olivia watching Henrietta in 2015 just as he did after he was erased but something, be it his own determination or Olivia's Cortexiphan-aided emotional ties to him or the universe taking matters into its own hands, brought him back. I feel that this is all the more plausible if it's an easier, preferred, natural course for history to take.

That's my answer. I wish that the show had done more to suggest something like it, and more than that I wish I could believe that the show was actively trusting us to come up with such an answer rather than merely hand-waving. Fantasy is great but it's different from science fiction — especially reasonably "hard" science fiction; there are rules. We'll have to settle for the poetry of Walter entering a portal in time with a boy in the name of saving everyone just as he had traveled through a portal between universes with a boy to save that boy decades before. A happy ending goes a long way.

I hope that you've enjoyed this episode-by-episode journey through Fringe Season Five and thank you for taking it with me. The episodes were not all I wanted them to be; my ability to say what I had to say about them in a timely fashion surely wasn't either. I have no plans to tackle another show right now, what with all the other projects on my plate. Who knows what the future will bring?

These episode's glyphs spell out the words "loved" and "close".

Fringe: The Complete Fifth and Final Season is scheduled for release on 4-disc DVD and 3-disc Blu-Ray sets in May. If you preorder through those links from Amazon, Blam's Blog may receive a small percentage of the sale, as with any other items you place in your cart and purchase during the session.

Images © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment, courtesy Fox Broadcasting Company.

Previously in 'Fringe Thinking':
You've Got to Hide Your Love Away (Episode 5.11)


  1. I finally finished the Fringe finale earlier this week and remembered I wanted to come read your take on it.

    I agree with a lot of your take. It was not the best season of Fringe, but I liked the ending, and the focus on the whole father/child dynamic between Walter and Peter and then Peter and Anna. Even if Olivia got shorted this season.

    I found one thing interesting. You saw the death of Windmark as Olivia's doing, which both the wife and I thought, until they cut to Michael and his enigmatic "shh" motion. We both took that as it was actually Michael that moved that got Windmark but he didn't want Olivia to spill the beans that he had that kind of power.

  2. By the way, that above comment was from me. :)

    Mike Nielsen


  3. Earlier, Michael had put his finger up to his lips in the same fashion. I think that it was less an indication that he was doing the "heavy lifting" and more a signal to Olivia to relax and let the solution (in the first instance) or the power (in the latter instance) come to her.

    Thanks for commenting, Mike!

  4. We finally saw this over the weekend. I'm too wiped to comment, and I haven't even read the post in full, but although I've been more generous towards this season than you I like what I've read so far.