When we last saw our friendly neighbourhood Fringe Division, they were straddling parallel universes in an attempt to save Peter (Joshua Jackson) from his biological father, Walternate (John Noble). With the other universe’s Olivia having switched with our own in the heat of the rescue attempt, Anna Torv’s FBI agent finds herself alone and imprisoned in a foreign America, as she struggles to hold onto her own identity amidst the Zeppelins and rationed coffee. With the wall between universes quickly deteriorating as singularities riddle the parallel universe and the portentous Observers continue to make their presence felt in the series’ original, prime universe, the stage is set for a whole new set of adventures as our heroes come to terms with the challenges at hand.
Having started out as a monster-of-the-week series akin to the similarly supernatural The X-Files, Fringe found an identity of its own in season two as the drama was split across two universes, bridged by Walter’s previous kidnapping of Peter. Bonkers from the beginning, the introdution of Walternate, Fauxlivia and a reality in which the World Trade Centre is still standing ensures that Fringe is flaunting its genre status from the off, with an abandon that might, with hindsight, have served sister-series Lost – by going full disclosure with its more universal audience. With the pre-title recap growing to truly dizzying lengths by the latter half of the collection, by this point you’re either in or you’re very, very out.
Boasting a cast which has, in effect, doubled in size, with each actor now shouldering what really amounts to a whole other character, Fringe has found new ways of exploring its ensemble without resorting to the standard practice of active, psychological development. It is a challenge to which its cast rise entirely. Evil by default, the show’s writers have similarly done a truly revelatory job of devillifying the alternative Fringe Division to the point that they are sympathetic, relatable protagonists in their own right. It is both novel, and unfalteringly interesting to see how each character might have progressed had they made different choices, or been subjected to different choices in the past.
This third season is awash with interesting cases, stand-out episodes and sequences (the computer generated ‘cartoon’ segment is an absolute joy), and a forking arc that threatens to blow your fragile little mind (that said, SOUL MAGNETS?! Really?). Some of the season’s best moments come from neither universe at all, in fact, but are instead the by-product of a backstory that is almost as interesting as the struggle at hand. The relationship between Walter and William Bell (Leonard Nimoy) is endlessly compelling, and any insight into their past is always very welcome. Flashing back to the characters’ youth, we serve witness to events that we have to this point only heard about; it is a decision that helps to flesh out a very engaging story that is forever on the move.
My problem with Fringe, however, is that it has begun to spread itself a little thin, not only across universes but now back in time, too. As we jump, intermittently, between universes prime and parallel – a necessary evil, I’ll admit – the narrative effectively drops threads that have been building and building for years now in order to pander to characters (however worthy) with whom we have much less invested. I found myself craving a return to simpler times, an hour in the company of our original heroes, in order to finally pick up where we left off. We still know next to nothing about Astrid (Jasika Nicole), about Nina Sharpe (Blair Brown), and I’m beginning to worry that if we keep sidelining these characters so that we can meet alternate versions, we might never see the originals come into their own. I needed a time out from the madness.
As you can imagine, providing you have yourself kept up to date with the series, the final episode only fanned the flames (I will say no more). I believe I have been patient, that I have played along, but as I watch every genre trope imaginable marched onscreen for its contractual moment in the sunlit nectar – shapeshifters, amnesia, possession – I find myself more and more frustrated at the lack of simple, honest character development and time spent with the characters with whom we started this adventure (the indelibly Fringe-esque humour is bafflingly dropped about half way through the season). How many narrative quirks and alternate realities will we have to sit through before the story of Walter, Olivia and Peter is brought to a satisfying conclusion? Everything else feels like side-notes.
Of course, with the series going in such a potentially divisive direction this is only my own personal opinion; it is impossible to deny that Fringe is tenderly acted, beautifully scripted and intricately plotted genre entertainment at its most inventive. The fact that the third season leaves you wanting more (so, so much more) can only bode well for the upcoming fourth season. With a dwindling audience, however, I only hope that the show-runners don’t forget their original mission statement in their ongoing pursuit of new and exciting dimensions.