In Peak Season, we dive deep into the year when a long-running show reached its high point. In this edition, season three of Fox’s sci-fi drama Fringe, which ran for five seasons between 2008 and 2013.
Previously on Fringe…
FBI Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) teams up with Walter Bishop (John Noble), a brilliant-but-eccentric scientist who spent years in a mental institution, and Walter’s equally brilliant son Peter (Joshua Jackson) to crack a series of mysterious cases involving all manner of paranormal activity, or “fringe science,” Walter’s area of expertise. Olivia’s superior officer Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick) explains that the unusual cases she’s been investigating are part of a larger phenomenon known as “The Pattern.” The loosely defined Pattern relates somehow to Massive Dynamic, a shadowy tech corporation that was co-founded by Walter, but has since fallen under the leadership of the mysterious Nina Sharp (Blair Brown).
Romance simmers between Olivia and Peter, but it’s complicated by the revelation of a shocking secret from Peter’s past. In 1985, Walter discovered a parallel universe that contains versions of each of the show’s central characters that are subtly or dramatically different from their prime universe counterparts based on the specific circumstances of the world they grew up in. The sole exception is Peter, who died as a child in the prime universe, leading a heartbroken Walter to cross over to the parallel universe and kidnap that version of his son, having generated a cure for Peter’s mysterious ailment. That fateful choice tore a hole in the fabric of space and time, triggering dangerous instabilities in the parallel universe and sparking a war between the two worlds, as well as the two versions of the Fringe Division tasked with keeping their respective universes intact. In the two-part season two finale, “Over There,” the prime universe team travels to the parallel universe to retrieve Peter, who was convinced by “Walternate” to return to his home. In a shocking cliffhanger, it’s revealed that not all is what it seems when the prime characters beam back over to their side.
In the beginning…
Early on, Fringe focused heavily on its cases of the week, stories of Cronenbergian body horror that made for tantalizingly gross cold opens. “The Pattern” provided a loose overarching mythology, but left each episode enough leeway to tell standalone stories without complicated serialization. Fringe excelled at telling its episodic stories, at least in terms of ginning up odd maladies and novel villains with plausible sounding explanations. An early favorite from the first season finds a unfortunate pharmaceutical rep being swarmed by butterflies with razor-sharp wings, then plunging to his death from an upper floor of the Massive Dynamic headquarters.
That episode, “The Dreamscape,” indicates how much effort and imagination went into the self-contained stories. But with a sharp focus on whatever creepy-crawlies were bursting out of a guest star‘s chest cavity on any given week, Fringe hewed too closely to The X-Files, which was still fresh in the public consciousness thanks to the second theatrical X-Files release, I Want To Believe. Though Believe was met with a tepid commercial and critical reception, it was nonetheless a suggestion that perhaps all of the best stories about a co-ed FBI monster squad had already been told. Especially because, early on, Fringe lacked the will-they/won’t-they romantic frisson that Mulder and Scully brought to the earlier show. With Olivia, Walter, and Peter investigating the occurrences together, their dynamic was often that of an awkward chaperoned date.
Fringe started to find its footing in season two, with the show reinvigorated by the stunning reveal in the season one finale, “There’s More Than One Of Everything,” of a parallel universe in which Manhattan’s World Trade Center remained intact, and the 9/11 attacks resulted in the destruction of the White House instead. The unveiling of the World Trade Center was the culmination of a series of subtle clues about the existence of a parallel universe, a story thread that became more prominent after executive producer J.H. Wyman joined the series as a co-showrunner alongside Jeff Pinkner. Once the parallel worlds element was firmly in place, talk of “The Pattern” abruptly ceased as the producers realized it wasn’t enough to string together the weekly cases with broad proclamations about the connections between them. Fringe became leaner and more focused in a hurry once it retired The Pattern, especially since the show already had a more intriguing pattern—the frequent, mysterious appearances of fedora-clad time travelers known as the Observers.
The peak season
By the start of the season three, Fringe had laid all the groundwork necessary for it to blossom into one of television’s finest dramas, even though it had shed the bulk of its audience by then.
The season-three premiere, “Olivia,” was a first for Fringe in many ways. It was the first premiere written by Pinkner and Wyman with no input from co-creator J.J. Abrams, whose imprimatur was instrumental to getting the show on the air. It was also the first premiere to feature a cold open focused on the main characters rather than the monster of the week. The approach was risky, as it relied on the audience’s investment in Olivia’s plight rather than using a freakish occurrence to hook viewers old and new. It also required spending a full hour in the alternate universe with characters who looked like the ones fans had warmed to, but bore little else in common with them. In an interview with Deadline, Pinkner spoke about how the Fox brass was hesitant about their plan to do episodes throughout the season entirely set in the parallel universe. But he and Wyman were adamant that the approach was key to strengthening the show’s emotional throughline, and could be smoothly executed because of how gradually it was introduced:
One of the things we’d said to our studio and network partners from the beginning is, this is very much a series that has to move forward and keep changing in order to be successful. It’s an unfolding story as opposed to a condition. It isn’t about a hospital where bodies come through or a police precinct with suspects. We knew early on that the series and saga involved two universes. But it was important to let it unfold relatively slowly, to have it open up to characters and viewers over time as opposed to the middle of season one. Because we knew it was a pretty heady concept.
It was also a concept that required breathtaking thespian feats from the cast, most of whom had to play different versions of the same character. The heaviest burden fell on Torv, who had been frequently identified as one of Fringe’s weakest links in the show’s early days. Torv’s performance initially seemed wooden and aloof, but once she was given the opportunity to play two different versions of Olivia Dunham, it quickly became clear she’d been underestimated. Of all the prime-parallel pairs, Olivia and “Fauxlivia,” as she came to be known, were most similar to each other. The death of Olivia’s mother when she was young, as well as a history of childhood abuse, made her into an aloof, humorless adult, whereas Fauxlivia didn’t face any of those circumstances and was looser and more comfortable in her skin.
The contrast between the two made clear that what seemed like Torv’s mediocrity was actually just lack of familiarity with the Australian actress as she played an emotionally reserved character. Torv’s season-three performance is startlingly good, as she plays not only two different versions of Olivia, but several nuanced shades between them. It isn’t just Olivia and Fauxlivia, it’s also Olivia posing as Fauxlivia and vice versa, as well as Olivia during a period when she’s been brainwashed into thinking she is Fauxlivia. Torv mastered the character to the point where, like with identical twins, one could be told apart from the other with a bit of practice, even when they looked the same.
The first half of the 22-episode season finds Olivia trapped on the other side, struggling to acclimate to a world in which commercial space travel exists, citizens live under Orwellian systems to keep track of their whereabouts, and the Statue of Liberty is home to a covert branch of the FBI. Fringe peaked thematically in season three, exploring the nuances of the alternate universe. The show is all about actions and consequences, how small choices can have colossal ramifications, and each universe is the sum of the events that took place in it. Olivia does her best to cope with her new surroundings, as Walternate plots to convince her that her other life is a figment of her imagination, but the real Olivia continues to bleed through.
In episode three, “The Plateau,” the alternate Fringe Division investigates Milo (Michael Eklund), who has hacked his brain with an experimental drug that causes super-intelligence. Milo becomes so intelligent, he can predict the future, as his brain calculates thousands of different results for every possible choice he could make. When the team finally closes in on Milo, Olivia gives chase, and Milo calculates a scenario in which she’ll be crushed by a load of bricks trying to catch him. What Milo doesn’t know is that because Olivia is not of his world, he can’t predict her actions in the same way he normally would. Instead of stopping to use a respirator when alerted to do so—harmful air is yet another consequence of Walter’s abduction of Peter—she keeps running and catches him. Later, after she’s been given oxygen, she can barely explain why she ignored the air quality advisory, something no sane other-sider would do. At the end of “The Plateau,” Olivia sees a vision of Peter telling her she isn’t where she belongs. Olivia’s surroundings have changed, but her identity is immutable.
By episode eight, “Entrada,” Fauxlivia has been exposed and Olivia is back where she belongs. For a lesser show, that development might have derailed the story. After all, most of the drama in a plot about a mole revolves around the mole’s ability to keep their true identity and motives concealed while wreaking havoc. But Fringe figured out how to balance cerebral genre fare with a deeply human core. Instead of slowing the season down, Olivia’s difficult transition back to her world provides Fringe some of its most compelling, emotionally resonant material. Another season high point comes in episode nine, “Marionette,” in which Olivia struggles to reclaim her old life. Fauxlivia’s ruse included a romance with Peter, who thought the long-simmering romantic tension between he and Olivia had finally boiled over, only to find later he’d been deceived. Olivia and Peter’s relationship is strained upon Olivia’s return, and when he confronts her about her prickly demeanor, she confesses her true feelings in a devastating scene.
So many shows have suffered as a result of trying to maintain a would-be romantic couple’s will-they/won’t-they dynamic for as long as possible. But Fringe found a way to create a complication for Olivia and Peter that grew organically out of the story and never felt like stalling for its own sake. Their complex relationship was another yet another riff on the theme of what shapes our identities, and the folly of expecting the people around you to see you the same way you see yourself. Peter sees the changes in Olivia, but thinks it’s the effect he’s having on her, not an indication that something isn’t quite right.
The scene is indicative of Fringe at its best, and even with no knowledge of the complicated backstory, it’s hard not to have an emotional response to it. It’s broadly representative of season three, the point at which Fringe finally figured out how to infuse its sci-fi freakiness with heart and pathos. It’s the point at which Fringe stopped resembling The X-Files and started resembling Lost, which became a pop-culture phenomenon by figuring out how to tell stories that would win the interest of people who would never otherwise dabble in sci-fi. Fringe never reached that level of success, and spent the rest of its run in the Friday night time slot generally reserved for shows with strong cult followings. But Fringe got to end on its own terms precisely because of the strength of season three, during which the show started winning frequent “best show on television” mentions from critics. Though the season takes some rudderless detours in the second half of the season before ending on a controversial final note, Fringe reached its peak because Pinkner and Wyman were able to do the same thing for the show that they did for the characters—imagine a world in which the slightest changes can make all the difference.
Best episodes: “The Plateau” (episode three), “Entrada” (episode eight), “Marionette” (episode nine), “6B” (episode 14), “The Day We Died” (episode 22)
Availability: The entire run of Fringe can be streamed on Netflix.