I almost titled this piece "Quid Nutriti Me Iam Nunc Destruit Me," but I thought that might be a little heavy-handed, even if it is true. It means "That Which Once Sustained Me Now Destroys Me."
I can pinpoint the moment I stopped understanding what the Hell Fringe thought it was doing with itself and it started being painful to watch. It was actually two moments. Maybe three. One was when they broke the universes apart and left them separate--for no discernible reason--and another was when they revealed that Peter came back because Love. Not because "Love Motivated A Being Who Is Basically A Time God To Do Something He Absolutely Was Not Supposed To Do." No. Just, because "Love."
Now, Pretenders, here: I like Love--hell, I Love Love--but in the Fringe Universe, it was previously always about what Love caused humans to do, not just "Love made this happen...somehow." Try to guess which of these I find more interesting. But I've already written about the ways in which these things seemed senseless. Those links all catalogue that. What I want to talk about now is the end of the series--the last chance to get it right.
So Observers Are Evil...?
So, back in Episode 19 of Season 4, we get a jump ahead twenty years to a jackbooted-Observer-controlled future, where everything has gone horribly awry! Or...something. You know: a little taste of what Season 5 was going to hold. In context, this should have signaled the beginning of the end for Fringe--the Herald of Doom, as it were. All of a Sudden, all the Observers are evil and the stated mission, ethos, and operational principles for Observers, as demonstrated by September's team's actions and words for Three Years, no longer made any damn sense. And here we are going, "...wait, what?"
Well, congratulations! Thanks to a two-minute conversation between September and December (the leader of the original group of Observers), we now know that the members of their group were all pawns for some reason, sent back to observe and prep the world for a takeover of which they alone were kept unaware...why not. Every other Observer was always an evil douche ready to do some seriously paradoxical time mojo to conquer the past, but not these twelve rubes. "Get those squares outta here so we can plan Evil," I guess they all said.
I honestly don't know who they thought this would satisfy. According to everything September's said and done--ever--all Observers are tasked with making sure the timeline stays on track to make sure that their potential future becomes the "actual" future. A Much more likely scenario would have been that every member of the OG12 knew the "real plan" and September got all wibbly over the Bishops and went Human Rogue (crit range=18-20). And while we're in the process of jawing about September and alternate realities and time travel, let's keep doing that.
Obey Your Own Time Travel/Multiverse Rules!
Fringe has always had trouble obeying the rules it lays out for how things are supposed to work, but many times we can forgive that. Sometimes, however, it just doesn't make any damn sense. For instance, way back in the second half of Season 1 when we were first introduced to the parallel universes idea, we are given the sense that there are multiple if not infinite parallel Earths. These result from timelines which branched slightly or completely or remerged or any number of combinations of those and other possibilities. But then, when we are introduced to the paradigm of the Blue Universe/Red Universe split, all of that seemed to change. Now we're looking at two universes only. No others, just two, like in that one episode of Futurama.
Except that September says Observers come from a "Possible Alternate Future" (PAF). That necessarily means an alternate universe that is neither Blue nor Red. So what the Hall and Oates is that about, right? Well never you mind, because guess what? It doesn't matter. Time travel works however you want it to work!
You want to create a stable wormhole to sustain your PAF Earth, even as you work on conquering this present Earth, so as to bring about an Observer-Controlled world, all paradox-free? No problem. Not only that, but if some punk-ass humans want to come along and ruin all your hard work by trying to negate your future selves via jumping to their future (Observer Past) after you've already taken over their present, it'll still be okay for them. Their plan'll work, too!
As Charlie Jane Anders* of io9 put it, the end of that plan should've been them walking out of a wormhole, and right into an Observer-Controlled Future.
Think about time travel for a second, and you'll realise that the only way Donald and Walter's Time Planâ„¢ should've worked is if they either:
A) First jumped back in time to 2015, pre-Observer-Invasion, and then jumped forward to 2167, or
B) First Jumped Forward to Observer World: 2609!â„¢, using a stable Observer Shipping Lane, and then jumped from there back to the moment in the Observers' past that they were trying to change (2167 again), in order to reset their timeline.
Anything else just has you shuffling around in a timeline where the Observers have already taken over Our Earth. See the Problem? Good, because we're not done.
McGuffins, McGuffins, McGuffins (Or: McGuffins 'R' Us)
From Olivia's resurgence of Cortexiphan powers to the Atomic Trigger for Donald nÃ©e September's time machine (and hell, the whole Tapes/Components/Time Machine scenario, in the first place), this finale and this whole final season have been borne on a tide of McGuffins. We even get a rare Evil Red Herring (Double McGuffin) when Broyles breaks and reveals the team's location to Windmark...just before said team stages a massive incursion on the Observer base. But far and away the most McGuffin-y of McGuffins found life and form in Peter and Etta Bishop.
Peter Bishop: So loved and Important that the rewriting of history just slides off him like crap off a goose and multiple people want him dead, unmade, or back in the universe from which he was stolen. He's a genius at everything, he's the centre of a time travel loop that he and his family all created, the only one who can control the device that interlocks universes and reshapes time and space. And he's meaningless. Nothing he is or does means anything. His mysterious past? Nothing. His weird, otherworldly glow? Nevermind. The fact that he got Fauxlivia Pregnant? Never happened. No, because, you see, when September said, "The Boy Must Live," as he pulled Peter and Walter out of Reiden lake, he was actually talking about the baby Observer those two would find twenty-some odd years later, if and ONLY IF September saved them now. September could have made it so they found his son any number of ways, but no. Peter, and stuff, because things. Then there's Peter and Olivia's Daughter.
Henrietta "Etta" Bishop: The child of a genetically modified badass FBI super-agent and the aforementioned seemingly specialest boy who ever specialed. So amazing is this girl that she is able to block the Observers' ability to read future probabilities and human thought patterns, and she can teach other people how to do the same. How'd she learn? She didn't. It's just a thing she can do. So obviously she's the Human Resistance's Secret Weapon, right? Obviously she is super important and special and amazing and reuniting with her long-lost family and she's fridged. In a move so telegraphed, so blatantly foreshadowed, so trite that it barely warrants mention, the amazing woman who is Etta Bishop is given no explanation, no development, and no purpose or meaning other than to die, so that her parents may be more motivated to avenge her death. Cheap.
I could even go off into a thing about the infantilization of strong female characters, but...yeah, I'll do that.
Where the Eff Did That Astrid Go?
I have noted elsewhere that Astrid Farnsworth's character has basically been nerfed, this entire season. In the beginning, Astrid was a cryptographer, a hacker, linguist, a pattern-recognition engine, and a general all-around polymath. She was freaking amazing. She was more than Wacky Ol' Walter's foil, but she was superlative, even at being that. She was so amazing, fans wondered how she could be real, even in the context of that universe. And then we met Alt!Strid and it all made a little bit more sense. But at the end of Season 4, she goes out to save Walter's life and gets shot (and if she'd died, we wouldn't be having this conversation, because I would have stopped watching the show), leading us to Season 5: The season in which she had maybe one line per episode, and never, EVER (okay once or twice) left the freaking Lab. What is that?!
And what about Nina Sharp? When we saw her at all, she was a shell, basically. Another "hidden node" in the resistance network. But what was she actually doing? Where was her fire and capability and fierce intelligence? In the end, she made a rookie mistake which led to her having to take her own life, in order to keep the Observers from finding the others. This woman ran a conspiracy that spanned and shaped two planets, and she doesn't stop to think they're tracking her cellphone all the time in the future? What is that?!
And Then: Olivia Dunham. Oh Olivia. You were hard as depleted uranium nails. You had a fucking eidetic memory which you used to your advantage often. You pulled your hair back when you were in the field, because you like your hair long, but it might get in the way, at a crucial moment. You once killed a man with your entire body strapped to an exam table, and only one hand free. You weren't great with kids, but you tried, when you had to, and they seemed to like you, which made you more uncomfortable. You learned how to sharp-shoot by being brainwashed into thinking you were the alternate-universe version of yourself but when you figured that out...and deprogrammed yourself? You kept your sharpshooting skills. Why? Because you are Olivia Fucking Dunham, and why wouldn't you?
But now...hair down, all the time? Only cares about her kid and her husband? Focuses everything she does through the lens of "And Will This Help Me Get My Daughter Back?" That's Our Olivia! Um. In no way, shape or form.
But, you know, aside from all of that, the series finale wasn't completely terrible.
You Gotta Have Friends
There was one unequivocally good thing about the series finale of Fringe. The friendship between Astrid and Walter (and Gene) was perfectly portrayed. Everything they meant to each other, how perfectly they understood each other, how much they loved each other: all clearly seen in a true friendship. I nearly teared up a little on Walter's last line. Beautiful.
In the end, they also made the case that September/Donald's son was the perfect blending of emotionality and intellect. Their entire plan hinged on the idea that humans can be both things. Which...well, that almost made up for the shit they'd pulled by making the Observers into evil Lizard Robots, in the first place. Almost.
But that's really the best I can say about this finale. I could go on and on about every character who was Fantastic and deserved more (Charlie needed more than he got, by far), or every plot hole they left open ("I think that's The Man Who Kills Me," anyone?), but I won't. I need to be wrapping this up, before I pop a blood vessel.
Ultimately, Fringe was a show about how fathers show their love for their sons; everything else that wasn't a part of that story was pared down, forgotten, or outright thrown away. I don't mind stories about fathers and sons--I have a father and emotions are things that exist--but when you throw away the potential to tell something about the full breadth and depth of human experience, in what you know will be your final season, and instead decide to narrow scope? Decide to become less ambitious and more predictable? Why? When a known final season is a blank check that so few are ever given? To know how things will go, and to be able to make sweeping statements about the nature of choice and imagination and exploration, and to, instead, choose...this?
Bah, I say. Bah.
If you need a reset ending, I'd rather Walter had woken up in in his lab, in the 70's, covered in strawberry milkshake and Redvines, and said, "And that's why you don't do mescaline and LSD, right before bed." Series over.
Come on, people! Show some guts! Let's re-open the bridge, and lock it in place. Have Broyles and Astrid travel through. There, they'll start a detective agency with Alt!Strid and Alter-Charlie where they all four of them help people whose lives are still affected by Fringe Events.
I'd watch that show, all damn day.
*NB: Every time I see Charlie Jane Anders' name I read it as "Charlie JADE Anders," which... is appropriate for this discussion.