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Bridge to Nowhere: Quick Thoughts on the Third Season Finale of Fringe

It's no secret that I love Fringe. I've written numerous features and posts celebrating the way in which it blends science fiction with nuanced emotional drama, positioning the fractured characters of the Bishops and Olivia Dunham as a makeshift family studying the mysteries of the universe... and the human heart.

Which might be why I was so monumentally disappointed with the Season Three finale ("The Day We Died"), which aired on Friday evening. After a season that was so tremendously emotional, which delivered a series of staggering performances from John Noble, Anna Torv, and Joshua Jackson in two separate, parallel universes, my expectations were extremely high indeed. But what I found with the future-set finale was that I didn't care about "these" versions of Olivia, Walter, and Peter and that the drama here felt entirely manufactured and without emotional weight, destroying the intense momentum established within the last few episodes.

It was clear from the start that the future timeline of 2016 Fringe was a mere detour on the road to the season finale (I had anticipated the Days of Future Past-style storyline earlier in the week), which erased all sense of narrative stakes from the story unfolding here: End of Dayers, the "death" of Olivia Dunham, the grief of Peter Bishop, all of it would be wiped clean before the final credits rolled.

And it's true: they were. While I didn't anticipate that Peter himself would be erased from the timeline (more on that in a second), the future-set storyline attempted to set up some tantalizing storylines (just what happened to Broyles' eye? Ella is now a Fringe agent! Astrid has a kick-ass new hairstyle), but it paled in comparison to the depth and scope of Over There's characters, which we had a real sense of from the beginning. In the hands of Noble and Co., those performances were incredibly nuanced, using more than wigs or funny-colored contact lenses to give us a sense of the underlying differences between the versions of these now-familiar characters.

In the future, there was a lot of shorthand going on: things that we weren't privy to happened off-screen in between the last episode and the 15 years that have gone by. But whereas the subtle differences within the characters was explored organically Over There, in the future world of Fringe, we're not given much depth, but rather just a hell of a lot of exposition. (Heck, Walter Bishop was more or less the Exposition Fairy throughout this episode.) Olivia and Peter are married; Olivia wants a kid but is unsure (her internal dilemma summed up by a refrigerator drawing of an unknown and unseen child neighbor) of whether or not they should, given the crazy world they live in; Ella has grown up and followed her aunt into the Fringe Division; Walternate somehow crossed over from his world before his universe was wiped out by Peter Bishop; and Walter is in jail, imprisoned for his vast crimes against humanity. (Interestingly, Astrid still doesn't have much of a storyline, even 15 years down the line.)

The Walter bits got under my skin in a major way. We saw in the pilot episode, clearly intended to be referenced here, what the effects were of his incarceration at St. Clare's. But here, there's no real sense of what the difference was between those two imprisonments or how his mental state further deteriorated. Or if it did. If you're going to attempt to come full circle and use that scene in St. Clare's as a callback of sorts, it needs to pay off better than it did here.

(Broyles' bionic eye grated in a way I didn't expect. Surely, if William Bell could create a bionic arm for Nina that looked extremely real, surely way in the future, a bionic eye could match Broyles' natural eye color? As for Nina, she got reduced to being a funeral guest in the future. A major missed opportunity for story there.)

We're shown scenes that are clearly meant to tug at the audience's heartstrings--Peter brings Walter licorice and calls him dad, Walter embraces Olivia as he might a daughter, Olivia is shot to death before our eyes--but these moments don't carry much weight because (A) the Peter/Walter dynamic has already played out far more convincingly within the main narrative where that same moment ("dad") had a lot more impact than it did here and (B) because these characters and situations would likely not exist by the time the final credits rolled... as Fringe would not suddenly jump ahead 15 years within its main narrative. (Sorry, but even for a show as unpredictable as this one, aging up the actors is just not going to happen on a weekly basis.)

I thought it was interesting that the producers would opt for a sort of Days of Future Past storyline here in order to undo Peter's decision at the end of the last episode by sending Peter's consciousness to inhabit his future self and see the error of his ways. But I also think that Joel Wyman and Jeff Pinkner missed a trick here by having Peter's subconscious subsume his "younger" self. Other than a throwaway line of dialogue from Ella about Peter rambling about the machine, it was 2026's Peter Bishop who was running things, rather than vice-versa.

While it meant that Peter didn't have to play catch-up within this new "reality," it also meant that the narrative stakes were eliminated for him as well. No longer on a mission, having conveniently "forgotten" that he had come forward in time, it was the status quo for Peter Bishop, able to remember what he cooked for Olivia for breakfast and containing the sum of his experiences from the last 15 years. He wasn't a fish-out-of-water, he wasn't his younger self traveling to the future; he was just a middle-aged guy that looked like our Peter Bishop who had inexplicably become a government agent and who wore a wedding band.

So much of Season Three has focused on the familial tensions between Peter and Walter and the romantic ones between Peter and Olivia, so it suddenly felt incredibly trite to see them as a married couple for a little bit here, albeit a marriage that comes to an end with Olivia's sudden (and very predictable) death. Given how much I love the character, I was shocked how little I cared about her demise here, as I knew instantly that it wouldn't "stick" and that the producers would not be getting rid of Torv (or of Jackson) any time soon.

The lack of real emotion carried through to Peter's eulogy at Olivia's watery funeral ceremony, where the cameras pulled back from Peter's speech to offer a musical montage set to Michael Giacchino's score. Lost pulled this trick before (we don't need to hear the words to get the sense of the scene and its tone), but that device only works when there is genuine emotion underneath and I didn't feel that for a second here. Rather, it felt lazy, a shorthand way of getting around having to write the eulogy without it seeming hokey or cliche.

The episode got bogged down first in a dull case of the week (End of Dayers, who weren't given any real development, and despite using Brad Dourif as their putative leader, he was an incredibly flat character) and then in a discussion of paradox, explained rather clunkily by Noble's Walter, that ends up bogging down science fiction-based time-travel dramas. The machine wasn't created by the First People but by Walter himself, sent back to prehistoric times by a wormhole that was created by the machine that they assembled. The First People were, in fact, our Fringe team: Walter, Ella, and possibly Astrid, traveling through the wormhole to hide the pieces of the machine so that they could one day assemble it and Peter could one day use it. But while Walter couldn't not build the machine (it had already been built), Peter could change his decision within the machine. He could opt to create, rather than destroy, to save, rather than damn.

And so he does, his subconscious drifting back to his body in 2011, encased within the machine, which he uses to create a bridge between the two universes, bringing Walter and Olivia face-to-face with Walternate and Fauxlivia, two halves of the same people mirroring one another within Liberty Island, two universes folding over each other at this point in time and space.

And then just when Peter declares that both sides will have to work together, to coexist (to live together or die alone, to quote another show) and that he had created in this space a bridge between the two worlds, he blinks out of existence and we're told by the Observers that, having served his purpose, Peter Bishop never existed.

It's this final moment that gives the episode some heft, a brain puzzle of a reveal that changes the status quo of the show because it means that everything has changed as a result of Peter not existing. We've still gotten to this point--to the two Walters and Olivias staring across a room at each other--but the events that lead them here have been different. Walter had to have crossed Over There but not to save his son, because he NEVER had a son, never suffered the loss of a child, never lost his mind or his moral compass because he acted out of love. Was Walter ever in St Clare's? Was his mind ever compromised? Did Olivia ever step outside the armor she'd constructed for herself? Did they skate out of some tough cases because Peter "knew a guy" that could help them? (Nope.) Did she ever love? Did Walter ever lose his wife, his family?

Peter's disappearance from reality not only changes the status quo of the two universes, but it closes the door to the 2026 divergent reality we saw in "The Day We Died." Because Peter never existed, that world never existed because Walter and Walternate never fought over a stolen son; Olivia never married Peter; Olivia never died. There's a sense of course-correction here, of the facts being true but in slightly different ways, of Walter and Olivia's lives changing as a result of the absence of Peter Bishop from them. Which is definitely interesting and thought-provoking. I just wish we could have gotten to that moment without the hokum and water-treading of the majority of this installment.

I'm still a Fringe fan and I'm sticking with the show when it returns in the fall, but it doesn't diminish the head-scratching, disappointing qualities of the season finale... and of my frustration that a show that has so consistently gotten it right lately had gotten it so terribly wrong.

What did you make of the season finale? Did you love it or hate it or did you fall somewhere in between? Agree with my assessment or disagree. Head to the comments section to discuss "The Day We Died."

Season Four of Fringe will begin this fall on FOX.

Comments

DAVID BISHOP said…
Boy, did you not like the finale! I wonder how much of that is due to unfulfilled expectations, and how much is due to flaws in the ep.

Be interested to know if you feel differently about this finale in a few months, when the inevitable boxed set gets released.

The good news? There's a 4th season to come. Imagine how you'd feel if that had been the last ever Fringe!
Unknown said…
You're spot on with the future stuff - it was obvious it wasn't going to count for much, so it became a mere curiosity, with no intensity or emotional attachment.

(I imagine this is how I would have felt about the "sideways" universe in "Lost" had I known ahead of time what that was going to turn out to be.)

While Peter's disappearance at the end has me curious about how he will return, you know he has to, just as Olivia could never really be killed off, as they're both too important to the show.

Just hope that story line is much more engaging than this finale, which I also found to be disappointing.
Anonymous said…
You have put into words everything that I found so frustrating about the finale. I didn't dislike it and disappointed is too strong a word but it lacked the emotional involvement that previous episodes have given me. It set up some wonderful directions for the next season and maybe that is the problem; it felt like a set up episode rather than a finale. There was so much exposition that I spent the first half thinking I must have missed an episode. I have been a fan of Fringe from the beginning, I have loved this season and I am looking forward to the next but the finale felt a little flat.
Anonymous said…
Not to just parrot you or the other comments, but yes, spot on about the complete lack of investment in the lengthy funeral scene. By jumping so far forward and going too far into what-if comic-book style (This issue! EVERYBODY DIES!), we are so clearly watching things that are never going to happen that it's impossible to care. A few nice moments (Peter crying over the drawing on the fridge) couldn't erase the sense that we were mostly wasting time until Peter returned to the present and event s began to matter again. Like you, I didn't hate the episode and I'm sure not bailing on the series, but as a season finale, it was pretty underwhelming.
Anonymous said…
I agree with you, Jace. The episode was devoid of emotion and I felt frustrated because I have grown to care for these people and the world they were struggling to save.
Tempest said…
I thought that the penultimate episode would have made a good season finale, so I expected even more from the official season finale. (My reasoning was that if they didn't end with "The Last Sam Weiss" then what followed it must be fantastic. Ummm,no.) I wonder if we would all be so irritated if this had been the first episode of season 4? Of course, until season 4 rolls around, we really can't tell. But it does seem a bummer that this is what we have to carry us through the summer.

Like others, I wasn't emotionally invested in the future. It felt more like an exercise in "what if." Now, I thought it was a fun exercise, but I knew it wouldn't last. I knew Olivia's death would get reversed. (And honestly, I was glad to see her future death that wouldn't stick. Having been unable to avoid -- despite my best efforts -- the spoiler that someone would die, I was afraid that Astrid was going to meet an untimely demise that would stick. So, I watched Olivia's death with some relief, thinking "Oh, good. Astrid's safe." Not, I believe, the reaction the writers would want.)

I'm still not sure about the "Peter never existed." It certainly made me yell at my tv, but it seems like one of those we're-trying-for-a-Rod-Serling-moment-that-we-haven't-really-thought-through. I hope I'm wrong. I hope the writers have thought this through and that come next fall I will be kicking myself for being so cranky about this episode.
Page48 said…
Peter and Olivia are pushing 50 and undecided yet about having kids. Flip a coin...NOW.
Anonymous said…
I like Fringe but have to say the parallel universe stuff was just so overplayed I lost interest in it. Now, Fringe did it much better than LOST did, as LOST just left us all wholly unsatisfied and feeling cheated. One last long con if you will. But I was groaning at most of the "future" world stuff. I was having a hard time keeping interest in the alternate universe episodes throughout this season.

But how I am supposed to care about a character I've seen so many permutations of? I get it. In a parallel world things would be different. But don't use that as a crutch in your writing.

Tell me a good story now - with real character development - don't trot out a bunch of different diluted versions of characters and think it makes you "deep."

This was a neat (if becoming a tad overdone) concept and Fringe put together some great episodes - but they cheapened it again by adding this meaningless future time. I also think the disappointment is tied to how good the previous episode was and the fact that 95% of the finale felt like wasted time just to get to that last scene.
Ray said…
I actually enjoyed the finale. Yes, I had qualms with certain issues, and they definitely packed in a whole lot, but I still believe there was an emotional stake. For me, the characters were an extension of the characters we've grown to love. So, I felt I could still relate to them.

I've also been reading a lot from the producers, and I have complete faith in them.
Anonymous said…
Since the last three episodes were basically a 3-part finale, I think of all of them together, and together I think they made an excellent finale. However, its true, the last episode was a bit of a disappointment both for the opportunities missed and the lack of emotional investment. I don't think there was any need to spend an entire episode in this possible future. They could have given us a fifteen minute sequence that summed up all the terrible effects of destroying one universe (since that was the only real point behind the time travel) and then spent more time on the current-time feud between the two worlds. Or, even better, if the writers could have found a way to swap part 2 with part 3, so that the future took place in the previous week's episode and all the cool stuff of The Last Sam Weiss happened this week, while still saving the final twist, of course. I don't think it would have been as disappointing had there been one more episode after the time travel.

That said, while disappointed, I did like the finale for what it set up for next season. I had wanted to see a showdown between the two universes, as that seemed to be the obvious direction that the finale was headed. But instead I guess they're saving the actual "showdown" for next season, which is a much more exciting idea to me. I really like the "over there" storyline and wasn't looking forward to it ending, so, depending on how long the two universes are bridged, we could get another season of the two interacting on a much closer level. And while I'm worried about how the writers will approach the "Peter doesn't exist" story, I think that could add another very interesting element to the story next year if it is done right.

Yes, The Day We Died is almost entirely useless except for the last two minutes, but the future of the show sounds very exciting to me. I trust the writers to know what they are doing. They haven't let me down before. Also, I suspect that now that time travel has officially been introduced into the show, it's possible that there will be future visits to the future. If that's the case, maybe the events in the finale aren't as useless as they appear to be right now.
Tonya Ricucci said…
This season had some really strong points - I loved seeing both universes and was really emotionally invested in both. The penultimate episode was excellent and the finale just bleck. I was hoping they could somehow integrate the universes in an interesting way, but it doesn't look like we're going that route. sigh.
rockauteur said…
I liked the finale more than you did but found a lot of the same faults... especially that funeral scene where we didn't hear Peter's words... guess the writers couldn't actually write an emotional scene there, which reminds me of the movie Finding Forester when Anthony Hopkins' character reads from the student's writing and we only hear music over it.

Hopefully the Peter situation gets resolved pretty quickly because - just as you said you didn't care about the future - I don't care about the course-corrected present. No real stakes there since we know that Peter will return eventually to sort things out. It's almost like - why bother going there?

I do like the Statue of Liberty as the bridge between the worlds. And I hear the producers say that the characters can cross into that room as a safe zone, so to speak, before going back out the doors back to their worlds. Thats a cool premise.

It was also a nice twist that Walter et al was the First People in the end. And that he built the machine, designing it for Peter and allowing Olivia's telekinesis abilities to also play a role. But I do wonder who actually made the trip (I'm thinking Walter, who wrote the initial manuscript for The First People, I guess, though wouldn't he recognize his own handwriting?)
Old Darth said…
Wow Jace we have been in simpatico on Fringe for most of this season's run...... Until now.

Found the finale brilliant in concept but can agree it was a little cold in execution. The previous two episodes, which felt padded out and could have been combined into 1 and made the future finale 2 episodes.

That aside the Peter creating the bridge between the two worlds and the disappearing is the same watershed moment for the series as at the end of Season 3 of Lost when the show jumped to the future and Jack told Kate - we have to go back.

Also disagree with your evaluation of Peter being just a narrative passenger. He lived those moments and the Fringe crew is too good to let those moments become meaningless.

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