Some series are easy to review, each season’s plays out in its own way with strengths and weaknesses on clear display and all adding up either to a positive or negative final balance. Some series are a bit trickier though, sometimes what in isolation looks like a poor season is necessary in order to set up future brilliance, look at Mad Men for example, the first couple of seasons can very easily be labelled as boring, but without them the pay offs in later seasons wouldn’t have anywhere near the impact.
Fringe definitely falls into this area. Even if you exclude the first few episodes of season 1 which were almost a different show, seasons 1 and 2 were a bit of a trudge – X-Files style monsters of the week and glacially slow teases of what the show is really about. But then… wow. Once the true ideas really get going, the thing takes off and the audience is completely immersed into alternate universes, parallel timelines and just about every other science fiction trope that is going. It’s appeared on my ‘best shows of the year’ list for the last two years and have some of the most adventurous, creative and challenging storylines I’ve seen on television, all delivered by some of the most under-rated actors of the time.
Unfortunately if I review season 5 in isolation, it just doesn’t rank as highly. It didn’t feel as fresh or extreme as the previous seasons and although what was left return was entertaining, it just didn’t soar to the same levels. It felt much more like a return to the early days of the series and each episode was a mini-mission in isolation, hunting out this or that doodad, with little linking up between them. Maybe it’s because I watched all dozen episodes in the space of just three days, but storylines like Peter’s experimentation with observer technology seemed to come and go in the blink of an eye, with no long term impact, and characters barely had a chance to make connections before they were gone.
The setting of a post-invasion future may be original for the science-fiction light television environment these days, but compared to the worlds Fringe has previously shown us, it felt very tame. Sneaking in the shadows, avoiding checkpoints, guerilla warfare and underground resistance just felt grey and predictable. Jumping into the characters futures disconnected the audience from their previously slowly developing relationships. It was hard to engage emotionally with Peter and Olivia grieving the loss of a child, when we had never seen them with said child; how could we really grasp how estranged they’d become due to their different reactions to this loss, when we’d barely had a chance to get used to them as a couple in the first place. Similarly the flip rapid cycle of Walter’s increased, forgotten and regained knowledge left me struggling to keep on top of his emotions.
But, while season 5 may not be the best season of the series, it does make an extremely satisfying conclusion for a superb series. By jumping far into the future it cements the events of previous season as world shaping, without having to actually go through a slow burn of revelation. Isolating the characters makes everything more personal for them, they only have each other to rely on, everything they know is gone and they are seemingly the last chance for the human race, so what option do they have but to be heroes? It all makes sense in the wider story that the series as a whole is trying to tell.
I’m sure there are threads that were dropped and questions that were left unanswered if you watched the series even more obsessively than I did. For me the biggest frustration was that I didn’t feel Astrid ever really got the chance to flourish in her own right. She had an incredibly beautiful relationship with Walter (I’m tearing up just thinking about their last few scenes), but I wish we got to see more of her relationship with the rest of the team and she got more moments to shine for her own skills. Likewise I really missed the alternate universe in season 5, way back when they were introduced I didn’t think I would ever come to care for them, but their absence was a real hole in season 5 and I wish they’d used them more.
Season 5 may not be as excellent as previous seasons have been, but it was a very good way to end the series, given the limited number of episodes they had available. I think the writers and producers of the show, and the executives at Fox deserve a lot of praise both for keeping the show on the air this long, and for closing it down gradually and completing the stories. I will miss the characters and the stories, there simply isn’t anything else like it on television at the moment, and the airwaves are sadder for it.