Let’s do a little thought experiment, which seems more than appropriate given the subject matter. Pretend that Lost never really got the kind of ratings the network wanted, and after a handful of struggling seasons, the show was given a final truncated season to wrap up the story the way the creators intended. Pretend that the previous season ended with the bomb drop of Jack telling Kate “WE HAVE TO GO BACK!” Now pretend that the next season opens exactly as the final season of Lost did; with all the players in a seeming alternate reality with no memory of the previous one. You’d have a lot of questions; right? You’d feel confused and wonder if somehow the show got beyond your capability to understand it. You’d wonder if you missed a couple of episodes along the way that somehow aired without you knowing about it. You might even feel a little stupid.
That’s kind of how it felt watching last night’s Fringe premiere.
To be fair, we’d probably have been confused no matter what. In the interests of full disclosure, here’s our relationship with Fringe in a nutshell: Jumped on board with the first season, found it to be a post-millenial X-Files redux which failed to capture our attention, let it slip from our viewing schedule. Heard good things about how the show improved, came back for season 2 and once again, lost interest in a story that didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be from moment to moment. Occasionally dropped by for a visit and found ourselves slowly getting sucked in, due mostly to the performances of two of its leads, the incredible John Noble as tortured genius Walter Bishop and the highly under-rated Anna Torv, who never seemed to bat an eye, no matter what the writing asked of her, even if it asked her to do a reasonably good Leonard Nimoy impersonation for a couple of episodes. Based entirely on those two Emmy-worthy performances, we found ourselves going from intrigued to fully immersed, even if the quality and direction of the show seemed to vary from week to week. Unlike X-Files (and we fully admit the comparison isn’t fair because they’re wildly different shows despite the initial surface similarities) Fringe was capable of wringing heart-wrenching emotional moments out of coldly horror-tinged science fiction stories. We’ve been fully immersed ever since.
Last season’s jump 24 years into a dystopian future was thrilling and bold and we ended the season excited about the possibility of something radically new for the show, since the endless explorations of alternate realities had gotten a little stale and left some viewers feeling that the characters they’d been following for several seasons weren’t the same characters anymore. Tom’s a big ol’ comic book nerd, so things like parallel earths and time travel are practically intuitive to him, but even he had trouble explaining to Lorenzo what the hell was going on anymore. The show was in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own mythology so the creators bravely decided to up-end the entire playing board.
For the first half-hour or so of last night’s premiere, we were holding our breath. It was thrilling and confusing, but we couldn’t deny how exciting it all was and how the show felt super-charged with its new direction. We’re not saying the second half-hour was inferior somehow; just that, once Olivia got de-ambered and the entire Bishop clan (+ Astrid) was reunited, the reality of the new status quo set in. No more Earth 2, no more monster-of-the-week cases, no more Lincoln Lee, Fauxlivia, or Walternate. Everything that had kept us engaged was gone forever and we started mourning its loss, even though we had been prepared for it.
And maybe that’s the point. Maybe this dystopia is meant to make us mourn what once was. It’s a brave move on the part of the creators, to deliberately NOT give the show’s fans what they’ve always loved about the show. From a critical analysis point of view, we really don’t have any complaints. Things were tense, emotions were wrung out of relationships, and John Noble got to give yet another in a long string of jaw-dropping performances. Even better, the story is now working on several levels and using themes and motifs to signal them. The world of 2036 has had hope ripped away from it (much as the world of Fringe has had its status quo ripped away from its fans), but to Walter, Olivia and Peter, hope still lives and it’s embodied by the youngest and newest member of the Bishop clan, Olivia and Peter’s now-grown daughter Henrietta. And while there’s no real reason to believe that anyone involved can actually save the earth, the final shot of the episode zeroed in on a dandelion stubbornly growing through cracks of cement, calling back to the dandelion seeds Etta herself was seen scattering to the winds just at the moment the Observers attacked. And as the ravaged face of Walter smiled at the sight, we marveled at the soundtrack choice, the synth-pop classic “Only You,” by the late, lamented Yaz (an old school T Lo fave). A perfectly thematic ending to the beginning of Fringe‘s new chapter: wringing deep emotion out of the coldly scientific sounds of synthesizer.
We don’t know what’s going to happen (and given the science on this show, we’re not ruling out a reset button that brings us back to the present), but that one moment told us that the creators know what they’re doing and even if it’s not giving us what we want, it’s giving us something pretty wonderful. We don’t know what the hell’s going on, but we’re on board to the end, and we hope it’s not a bitter one.
[Photo Credit: Fox]