If you had asked me three years ago if I thought Fringe would make it to a fifth season, I probably would have laughed. The odds were stacked against this little-engine-that-could of a television show. Yet somehow, despite earning meager ratings on a network not known for giving the benefit of the doubt to genre shows with a cult following, despite being moved to the death slot on Friday nights, despite the increasingly complicated plot lines and mythology of the show, despite being perpetually overlooked by major awards shows, Fringe has done it. It has achieved the impossible. Going into its fifth season, Fringe will end its respectably long run (at least for a sci-fi show on FOX) on its own terms. I am both amazed and incredibly grateful, because I know this isn’t an opportunity given to many shows as beloved as this one.
At this point in the show, it’s hard to really be surprised by anything that Fringe does. Alternate universes? Sure. Evil shapeshifters? Why not. Mutant porcupine people? Not weird at all. Egg sticks? Commonplace. Fringe has made “strange” into the norm, but after watching last season’s “Letters of Transit,” followed by the season 5 premiere, I can honestly say that I’m still amazed by everything about this show. That’s the real triumph of Fringe, I think: that no matter how the landscape of the show changes, whether it’s taking place in a different universe, a different timeline, or a dystopian future, it still always manages to maintain that distinct Fringe-ness that feels familiar, even when the setting—and sometimes the characters—are completely new.
This season takes place in the year 2036, so it’s certainly going to be an adjustment, particularly for Walter, who already hates it because the food is abysmal. And also probably because he got his brain fried by Captain Windmark, the creepiest Observer that ever lived. Windmark was trying to decode the plan created by Walter and September (miss you, buddy!) to defeat the Observers. To solve and execute the plan, they have to find the various pieces that they’ve hidden. After being tortured by Windmark, however, Walter’s brain might not be able to repair the damage, and the plan might be lost. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s begin at the beginning.
After Peter, Walter, Astrid, and William Bell’s hand were removed from amber, the first order of business was finding Olivia, who had been ambered separately from everyone else (which was already cause for concern regarding the state of her and Peter’s relationship). When they found her, she was being used as a coffee table by none other than Edward Markham, the formerly-endearing-but-now-just-really-creepy owner of a specialty store of rare and used books. Apparently Markham was still infatuated with Olivia and convinced that he would be the one to wake her up, at which point she would be enchanted by his gallantry and would fall madly in love with him. It’s quite possible that Markham has been snorting ground-up egg sticks if he really thinks Olivia is his true love. I mean, I can’t blame the man for falling in love with the flawless human being that is Olivia Dunham, but I can blame him for standing in the way of Olivia being reunited with Peter. Fortunately, Peter was having none of it, and he made quick work of disarming Markham and absconding with his ambered soul mate, although Walter was captured by Observers in the process.
Peter and Olivia’s reunion was pretty much perfect. The look of joy and relief on his face, and the way she said his name like it was the most natural thing in the world, showed how much they still care about each other. They savored the moment, indulging in some sexy forehead-touching, before Peter told Olivia, “I found her,” and gestured to Etta, who looked almost as happy as I was to have her family back together. Olivia’s reaction to seeing her daughter for the first time since she was three years, one month, and five days old (*cue sobbing*) was truly one of the most moving scenes in the history of Fringe. Until this moment, it was hard for me to imagine Olivia as a mother, but now it seems like she was always meant to be Etta’s mother, like Etta was the missing piece of Peter and Olivia that we never realized was supposed to be there. I was reminded of Walter, and how he understands the devastation of losing a child, and even though he got Peter back, it wasn’t really the same. Just like it won’t be for Peter and Olivia. Even though they’ve finally found their daughter and they’re all safe and happy together, I’m sure they will still mourn the loss of all those years of her childhood. I think after they finish saving the world from the Observers, they should take a family vacation to Disney World and do all the fun family things they missed out on while they were apart. I can see the montage now … amusement park rides, camping trips, building sand castles, science projects, soccer games … they can still have it all! It’s not too late! Unless the Observers have outlawed s’mores, in which case Walter had better figure out how to make marshmallows in the lab.
Later on, Peter and Olivia had a chance to talk alone, to revel in their shared joy at finding their daughter again. It was positively gut-wrenching, probably the saddest scene ever that didn’t involve the death of Lincoln Lee. Peter revealed that he and Olivia had essentially been separated before they were ambered. He couldn’t bear to give up the search for Etta, while Olivia knew that the world needed them to keep fighting the battle against the Observers. Losing a child is the hardest thing a couple can go through, and as much as Peter and Olivia have overcome, it’s not surprising to discover that their relationship suffered after Etta was taken. If this were any other show, it might seem like this was just a way to manipulate the audience so that there’s still a sense of will-they-won’t-they in the Peter-Olivia romance for the final season, but because of Fringe’s masterful storytelling, it feels true to the story and the characters. Of course, I still feel like my heart has been shattered into a thousand tiny pieces, but in a good way.
What I loved most about this episode was that it really focused on the characters. There was plenty of action and plot development, but the family relationships were the undercurrent that kept everything going, and that’s how a final season (or any season, really) should be. I was really glad they didn’t try to focus much on any new characters. We met a couple of Etta’s fellow Resistance fighters, but they remained in the background, only taking up valuable screen time when they were being used for exposition or getaway driving. I was like, “Yo new guys, I’m really happy for you and I’mma let you finish, but Fringe has one of the best casts of all time.” Granted, I would not be opposed to the addition of Henry Ian Cusick as a regular cast member. There was some mention of Etta’s partner, Simon Foster, who was discovered in amber and is now a known Resistance fighter, according to the Loyalist guard who’s totally crushing on Etta. As much as I appreciate the focus on the core Fringe group for the final season, I would love it if they freed Simon so he could join their merry band of badasses in the mission to overthrow the Observers. I really enjoyed getting to see the relationship between him and Etta, and I think he could add a lot to the group. For instance, his superhuman charm and stunning good looks. Plus, adding more Henry Ian Cusick is just always a good idea. ALWAYS.
Now let’s talk about that final scene. You know, the one that restored my faith in the world and made me feel things I didn’t even know were feelings. Also, it was a slight allusion to The Hunger Games, so that may have been part of why it had such a big effect on me. Anyway, in addition to the lack of real food, another thing Walter loves that’s missing from this future is music. I guess the Observers’ ears are too delicate, though that’s hard to believe, considering their taste buds can withstand the power of super-spicy Tabasco sauce. After having a breakdown at the realization that his brain had been scrambled by Windmark to the point of not remembering September’s master plan, Walter awoke to some mysterious shimmering light reflecting on his face. When Walter went to investigate (wearing a robe and boxers, of course), he found some CDs being blown in the wind. He pulled a disc out of a bag and inserted it into the CD player of the nearest taxicab. The synthesized beat of Yaz’s “Only You” poured out of the speakers as Walter closed his eyes and let the music wash over him. I could practically see the neurons in Walter’s brain sewing themselves back together. I don’t know if music is the key to helping Walter remember the plan, or if that’s even possible, but it was clear that listening to music was at least helping to heal Walter’s soul, if not his mind.
He opened his eyes to the ruins of New York and saw a single yellow dandelion growing in the concrete. Walter smiled, no doubt remembering Windmark’s earlier comment that “nothing grows from scorched earth.” This flower proved him wrong. More than that, so does Etta’s existence. She grew up in this dark, gray world without her parents to protect her, and still she became a strong, smart, beautiful person who fights for what she believes in. Etta is Walter’s dandelion, and she represents the hope for the future that Peter, Olivia, and Walter thought was lost. The episode began with a young Etta blowing the seeds off of dandelion heads in a field before being taken by the Observers. To end on an image of a blooming dandelion growing in wreckage gave an undeniable sense of hope. For me, it seemed like an affirmation of my hope that Fringe would have the truly remarkable final season that it—and its fans—deserve.
Photo Courtesy of FOX