Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Fourth Season Of Fringe Keeps The Story Going Well!

The Good: Intriguing continuity, Good character work, Decent acting, Intriguing plot direction
The Bad: Some predictable moments/bottle episode issues
The Basics: Over the course of twenty-two episodes, Fringe Season Four explores an aberration in the timeline after Peter Bishop was erased.

There are few television series’ that I return to with such enthusiasm as Fringe. Before picking up Season Four of Fringe, I rewatched the entire series, which was helpful because the fourth season does not simply pick up where Season Three (reviewed here!) left off; it has frequent allusions to the first two seasons and to get the most out of it, one has to see those prior seasons. The fourth season might be a very minor slip from the quality of the third season, but it is still hard not to argue that Fringe is one of the rare shows that gets better and better as the series goes on. Fringe is a series that truly takes its time to develop and evolve and the fourth season is essentially a love story that explores the power of love and how loneliness and loss can leave people shattered to their core.

With twenty-two episodes, season four of Fringe reestablishes the Fringe multiverse as a place where the integral character – Peter Bishop – never existed. While this fundamentally redefines the series, the re-emergence of Peter Bishop into the altered multiverse creates new and old conflicts. The surprise of the season is how well it works, though parts of the season build up to nonevents (Peter Bishop spends most of the season trying to get back to “his Olivia,” implying that he is in a third universe, when the concept of the season is that the two universes are the same as in the prior two seasons, but as altered by Peter’s removal from the timestream). The fourth season of Fringe also added Lincoln Lee – played by Seth Gabel – as a main cast member. Lincoln Lee had previously only been seen (with one exception late in the third season) in his Alternate Universe version as a leader on their Fringe team.

With a bridge between the two universes formed and a peace accord reached, the distrust between the leaders of both universes grows in the wake of Peter being removed from the timeline by the Observers and his integrating with the machine left by the First People. In our universe, Lincoln Lee’s partner Robert Danzig is killed by new, organically-based shapeshifters. The reclusive Walter Bishop blames his alternate and Lee starts working with Olivia Dunham and her FBI Fringe team. The tensions between both sides rise when the Other Side seeks help from our side in dealing with a serial killer (whose counterpart teaches forensic psychology) who steals people’s happy memories as he kills them. Agent Dunham finds herself re-experiencing moments of time and she and Walter begin seeing a strange man flashing in and out of existence before them. After Dunham has a dream that includes Peter Bishop, Peter Bishop appears in a lake in New York.

Instantly suspicious of Peter Bishop, Walter and Olivia become convinced that the impossible man cannot truly exist. But when Peter is able to help expose information about how the new shapeshifters work and he recognizes their creator, David Robert Jones, he instantly becomes invaluable to Walternate. With Walternate desperate to stop the infiltrators and David Robert Jones and Peter desperate to return to his native universe, Olivia begins experiencing migraines. Jones needs Olivia to re-develop her talent and someone close to Olivia is working with Jones to dose Olivia with cortexiphan. Jones’s endgame seems to include radically altering the human genome and breaking down the barriers between the universes. With shapeshifters infiltrating the other side’s Fringe Division and Peter searching for a way home – using aid from the Observers – Olivia experiences a deep betrayal which allows her mind to break through the temporal barriers set up by the Observers. As the rebooted Olivia makes a conscious decision to sacrifice her memories for the love she had with Peter, Jones accelerates his experiments that put both universes in peril.

The fourth season of Fringe has a number of stories that deal with love. Peter’s love for Olivia made it hard for him to be completely erased from the timeline and the love others had for Peter helped subconsciously suck him back into normal existence. The stories of Peter and Olivia are blended with serial killers who use pheromones and a man who developed a time machine that kept his wife in a loop that preserved her mind before she succumbed to Alzheimer’s. The fourth season of Fringe is smart enough to not simply be working back to its beginning; the universes were both fundamentally altered by the removal of Peter Bishop from the timeline, but that did not change how both Walter and Walternate lost their Peter and even Peter’s return does not restore Walter’s memories or rewrite the cases that Peter was not a part of before his return.

That requires a fundamental rewrite of the backstories of several of the characters and stories that were in prior seasons – Walter was removed from the asylum by Olivia and has been under her care for years, Olivia was raised by Nina Sharp in both universes – which makes for an enjoyable twist for viewers who have been watching the prior seasons. Knowing minutae about prior seasons makes a big difference as the season progresses – the show revisits an early Fringe case with the new universe alteration which is fun and understanding what happened to Colonel Broyles’s son that allows the Alternate Broyles to be exploited is not made explicit in the later episodes. Even details like the Alternate Olivia managing an impossible shot (she was an Olympic sharpshooter in the Alternate Universe in the prior timeline) are covered by having prior knowledge from earlier seasons.

What I found fascinating was how the minor characters who seem insignificant are given the freedom to develop over the course of the season. At the outset of the fourth season, it seemed like the producers and writers had absolutely no idea how to use Nina Sharp, but when she pops back up, she takes on a real significance (though in one of her most important episodes, the reversal is painfully predictable for fans of spy thrillers and science fiction). Astrid and the Alternate Astrid are given a surprisingly wonderful episode and when they share scenes it’s actually a treat to watch. Even Lincoln Lee has some cool moments as he has an understated, unrequited love for Olivia that gets crushed with Peter’s return.

To better understand what is going on in the fourth season of Fringe, it helps to know who the characters are and how they were redefined for the season. In the fourth season, the principle characters are:

Walter Bishop – Having tried to save his son twenty-six years prior and nearly precipitating a war between the universes when he abducted the Alternate Peter, but he died when the ice broke beneath him upon his return, he is on edge because Olivia has the power to have him remanded to the asylum. Terrified that Olivia will return him to St. Claire’s, he struggles with leaving his Harvard lab where he lives. Otherwise, he uses Astrid as his eyes and ears on all missions. When Peter appears, he is suspicious and refuses to accept him as his son. As he gets to know him, though, he does things like share the gifts he had bought for Peter after Peter’s death,

Olivia Dunham – Suffering from time loops and migraines, she was raised by Nina Sharp after she ran away from the Cortexiphan experiments as a child. She does not trust her alternate and she has custody of Walter. She distrusts Peter, but soon starts to rely upon his intel. When she is dosed with massive amounts of Cortexiphan, she begins to remember the alternate time line and her feelings for Peter Bishop make her feel something she did not expect,

Astrid – She leaves the lab to act as the eyes and ears of Walter, relaying all information to the Fringe scientist. She encounters her alternate self and has compassion for her unemotional counterpart. She is the consummate professional, even keeping her father at a distance from the work she does,

Nina – Still in command of Massive Dynamic (given the temporal reset), she raised Olivia Dunham. When Olivia makes the conscious choice to follow love, she implores her “daughter” to form a new bond with her,

Broyles – Professional as always, he runs the FBI Fringe Division. He is continually mystified working with Peter and Olivia, but is integral to keeping the peace with the alternate universe,

Lincoln Lee – An F.B.I. agent whose partner is killed by a shapeshifter, he is slowly brought into the fold of the Fringe Division. He becomes fascinated by how his life and the life of his alternate diverged. He is more reserved and less confident than his counterpart and working with Dunham slowly opens him up to feelings that make him want to stay in one place (which he never wanted to do before),

Peter Bishop – Phasing in and out after his existence is nullified, he is restored to the timeline through acts of love and an unexpected technology. When he finds that no one knows who he is, he appeals to Walter to explore the possibility that he actually exists and figure out how. When David Robert Jones resurfaces, he exposes him as the man behind the organic shapeshifters. Making a deal with Walternate to get him back to his native universe, he struggles to accept what the Observer (September) tells him about his existence. He loves Olivia and is cautious about making the same mistakes as he did in the past with the Alternate Olivia. He assists on cases that he is familiar with from the original timeline and works with the Fringe Team to save both universes,

Alternate Broyles – Almost instantly exposed as an ally to David Robert Jones, he runs the Fringe Division, though it takes some time for his weakness to be revealed. When Olivia is captured, he has to make a choice as to how to best save his family and his universe,

Alternate Astrid – A statistical expert, she has no real social skills. Even so, she crosses over to meet the other Astrid when her father dies and she does not know how to deal with it. She falls in love with liquid coffee,

Alternate Nina – Unsurprisingly devious, she has allied herself with the most dangerous person in the multiverse and she is prepared to use Olivia to reach their endgame,

Alternate Olivia – Distrusted by Walter for an incident where she replaced Olivia for some weeks, she works closely with the Alternate Lincoln Lee in investigating Fringe Events in the other universe. She tries to make peace with Walter and herself, but shows no attraction to Peter. Working with Walter, she comes to suspect the mole in the Fringe Division,

and Walternate – The chief suspect in the organic shapeshifter conspiracy, he takes a huge risk to trust Peter when Peter Bishop reappears. Otherwise, he takes a back seat as the Director of the Department Of Defense to investigate the shapeshifter conspiracy. As David Robert Jones moves to collapse both universes and create a new universe in his image, Walter opens himself to believing in extraordinary events in order to try to save his universe.

The fourth season of Fringe is dominated by performances by the second-tier actors. Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, and John Noble are all predictably wonderful as their primary and Alternate characters, but none of them truly give viewers anything we have not already seen before. Seth Gabel becomes a surprisingly good addition to the cast as Lincoln Lee. He plays the primary Lincoln with a subtle romantic underpinning for Olivia that plays well over the course of the season. Gabel plays off himself expertly in the scenes he shares where he plays Lee and Alternate Lee. The creates two characters so distinctly different that when Lincoln Lee becomes obsessed with the question of where the two diverged, it seems perfectly natural for the viewer.

Of the long-term cast of Fringe, Jasika Nicole might well have the best role to showcase real emotional range and depth. Nicole plays Astrid and at the outset of the season, she has a much more active role in Fringe. Nicole also plays the Alternate Astrid and the other version of Astrid is downright robotic. When the two interact, the episodes are funny and their relationship is clever and well-defined. It offers Nicole the chance to play a truly different set of characters and that gives her a chance to shine (and she does).

On DVD and Blu-Ray, Fringe The Complete Fourth Season is loaded with bonus features from deleted and extended scenes to featurettes that both illustrate the making of the show and how various elements are tied together. The fourth season has great primary materials and the bonus features drive up the value of the Blu-Ray set.

Ultimately, season four of Fringe might be an extended play for the people who are already fans of the show, but it has some resonating themes and moments of greatness that make it worth watching and worth sticking with the show for.

For other works with Jared Harris, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones
Tales Of The Black Freighter
Mr. Deeds
Dead Man


For other television reviews, please be sure to visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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