Say the old saw is true: say there’s a universe for every decision we make. In some universe, there’s a new episode of Supernatural on tonight, and I’m reviewing that instead of this; in some universe, Noel Murray stayed home from Sundance because he’s terrified of flying, and he’s writing different words about “Enemy Of My Enemy.” In some universe, you gave up Fringe at the start of this season, and tonight, you took up crochet; in some universe, the AV Club never came into being, and this web space is being used by a Roy-Orbison-in-cling-film fetish site. Say all of that’s possible, and it’s not that difficult to imagine, because it’s an idea science fiction has been getting mileage out of for years. But if all these things are possible, that means anything is possible. It means every choice that could’ve been made was made somewhere, and there are billions of trillions of infinities of you out there, doing everything. And that means that the only thing that really matters, the only thing that really makes the person you are here different from all the other yous, are the decisions you make. When every choice is a reality, specificity is crucial; a million grains of sand all appear the same from a distance, but each one is unique up close. If you can be anyone, the only way you matter is if you are someone.
The current season of Fringe is a case in point. This show has always been about identity, and how many different ways a person can be fundamentally the same and completely unrecognizable at the same time. We have Walter and Walternate—one man, two lives—and all the various duplicates and doppelgangers the show has thrown out over the years. Even the science questions the nature of “self,” with shape-shifters, human bombs, albino cave children, and various other monsters; how much can you change a body before it stops being a person? Again and again, we see its the relationships people form that help them stay who they are, even in the face of a universe determined to undermine the basic assumptions of reality. No matter how absurd it gets, the show could stay recognizable because, at heart, it was about a small group of characters we liked quite a lot, and no matter how many versions of them we met, we still had our characters. But here we are in season four, and the ground has shifted yet again. Peter believes he’s stumbled into another wrong universe, and everyone we see here is familiar, but just different enough to allow us to believe he’s right. (Although I spent the first half of the season assuming we were just seeing the original universes in a post-Peter alignment. I’m still not certain I was wrong, actually, but hold that thought for now.)
It’s a bold move for the show, but it’s turned off a lot of critics and fans, and it’s not hard to see why. One of the reasons we watch a television show (or get invested in any sort of long-form storytelling) is because it’s fun to care about fictional people. If these people are well-written and well-acted, it’s more than just fun; there’s something rewarding about the investment which can’t really be quantified. The longer a show goes on, the greater the investment, and the more possessive fans become. The fourth season of Fringe has, so far as we can tell, left nearly everyone we know behind. It’s the same actors, even the same names, but everyone’s just different enough to feel, well, wrong. This new Olivia still works in Fringe division, and she’s still a total bad-ass, but she’s harder now; this new Walter is the same lovable nutter he’s always been, but the deaths of both Peters have made him nervous, paranoid, and self-loathing. In a ways, it’s less like we jumped universes and more like we turned the clock back three seasons. The Olivia and Walter we see now are more like the Olivia and Walter we saw at the start of the show, before life, and Peter’s support, gradually brought them out of their shells. In effect, this seems to nullify so much of what made us care about the series to begin with, however all of this ends up; if these are characters capable of progression, we want to have faith that this progression matters, and isn’t just something that can be tossed aside when it becomes narratively convenient to do so.
All of this sounds like I’m not enjoying the show as much as I used to, but oddly enough, the fourth season has actually by and large worked for me. I thought tonight’s episode was a fun, thrilling piece of work, with plenty of solid emotional scenes to help ground the action sequences. It’s great seeing Jared Harris back on the show, and addition of a non-Walternate villain helps keep the current story arc from simply being a regurgitation of the conflicts we’ve already seen between the two universes. This new reality gives the writers a chance to riff on established characters, which is one of the main pleasures of any “mirror universe” scenarios. So while the Olivias are as noble and bad-ass as ever, Walternate gets to be more of a good guy than we’ve seen him, and the other side’s Broyles is, it turns out, a bad guy, serving as Mr. Jones’s inside man in the Fringe division. Although it could be that the other side’s Broyles isn’t really Broyles at all, but a shape-shifter made to look like Broyles, which means the actual other side Broyles is dead, which is pretty much what happend to him the last time around.
See, that’s another problem—there’s just so much weirdness on the show that it gets difficult to parse out at times. There’s nothing wrong with weirdness, of course; plenty of my closest friends are weird, etc. But the more complicated a narrative becomes, the more important it is to have something to hold on to, in order to put everything in context. For the most part, Fringe has gone off on its tangents and craziness by keeping a major conflict (the other universe is trying to kill us!) and major relationships intact. We may not have known exactly what the Observers were, or what Walternate was planning, but we knew bad news was coming, and we wanted Peter, Olivia, Walter, and Astrid to find a way through it. Now, though, it’s getting complicated, and while it’s not impossible to follow the current story arc, there’s less of a clear sense of what’s at stake. Should we be worried about this universe? Sure, but what’s going on back home? Are we concerned what happens to these Olivias and Walters et al? Yeah, but maybe not as concerned as we might have been.
Like I said, I’ve been enjoying this season for the most part, and I still haven’t given up hope, but it makes me nervous. There were some wonderful scenes in “Enemy of My Enemy.” Harris is a terrific bad guy, and the conversation between him and Peter in the interrogation room was one of the few times the show has really managed to take advantage of Peter’s outsider status in a way that heightened the tension instead of deflating it. The gassing of an E.R. was the kind of shocking, icky horror setpiece the show generally does well with, and the pace throughout the episode was solid. There’s momentum building here, which is a good sign. There were also some terrific moments between Elizabeth, Walternate’s wife, and Walter, and the scene between Walter and Peter at the end is the sort of scene Fringe has always been great at.
The problem is that, having viewed this show in a serious critical context for maybe the first time this season, I’m starting to understand what everyone’s been getting at. Great as that scene between Walter and Peter was, it doesn’t quite sit right in my head, because I can’t help wonder what happened to the real Walter. When Walternate gives a big speech about everyone needing to team up to work together to stop the new threat, it’s hard not to remember that the end of last season seemed to promise we’d spend this new season watching the two realities come to grips with each other. Instead, we got something similar, but different. The longer this goes on, the more the show needs to stick the landing to justify this season, and there’s never a good position for a show to be in. I liked “Enemy” well enough, and I want to keep on liking it, but there’s something confusing about all this sideways material. The reason I care about a show is because it’s that show, and no other. I respect creative ambition, and I sincerely hope (and sort of still believe) this is going someplace. Because if it isn’t, I’m not sure how much any of this matters.
- I’m wondering if Peter’s “wrong universe” theory is correct. At the end of last season, the Observer wiped him from existence, and everything we’ve seen of this reality could just be the result of him dying on the ice. While that would mean that there’s no “home” for him to return to (and thus the changes we see in the cast are more permanent than any of us would like), it would make a little more sense from a dramatic perspective. Otherwise, he’s basically had a season-long detour in a dreamland, because at this point, there’s no way he’s going to just get in the universe jumping machine before the season finale. (Given the show’s low ratings, there’s a very real chance this could all end ala Sam Beckett never finding his way home.)
- I believe we got a “White Tulip” reference during Walter’s conversation with Elizabeth.
- No! Nina is evil! Or else she’s a shape-shifter. Who knows. Probably evil, though.
- “I lost a partner.” “I lost a universe!”
- “Are you really from another timeline?” “Yeah, I think so.” “…Cool.”