Prophet of Paradox
Fox Network, Fridays, 9 PM
“The Day We Died”
Teleplay by Jeff Pinkner & J. H. Wyman
Story by Akiva Goldsman & J. H. Wyman & Jeff Pinkner
Directed by Joe Chappelle
“We can cheat the rules of time.” — Walter
J. J. Abrams has a thing for time travel. It showed up first in his groundbreaking Lost, with its flashforwards and flash-sideways incidents. He elaborated on the theme in his reboot of the Star Trekfranchise, which involved a black hole opening a tunnel through time. Now we get the third-season finale ofFringe, in which the presence of a wormhole extending into the past creates both a solution and a challenge for our embattled universe. I only wish he liked logic as much as he likes time paradoxes. The season finale not only gives us the traditional cliffhanger, it wraps up some potentially awkward plot choices, introduces a wonderful new bad guy, and ratchets up the stakes for the primary characters. Not a bad ending for a series that got renewed by the skin of its teeth.
“Our destiny was set the day we triggered the machine…That was the day we died.” — Walter
We begin in the year 2026, with a 47 year old Peter being treated after a Fringe event. Our world is disintegrating in much the same way that the Other Universe did, largely because Peter climbed into the Doomsday Machine fifteen years ago (our 2011) and triggered it. The universe has been tearing itself apart ever since, because as Walter realizes too late, the two are “inextricably” linked; like conjoined twins, if one dies, the other dies. The Fringe event that put Peter in the hospital is the opening of a wormhole in Central Park, one which had been Ambered but was released by a bomb set by an apocalyptic terrorist group calling themselves the End of Dayers. As we get to know the stresses and crises faced by our world plus fifteen, we find that Olivia and Peter are married, Olivia has Broyle’s job, Broyles is now a Senator with a spooky glowing right eye, and Walter is once again in prison, obscured behind a beard that would intimidate an old-time prophet. Say what you will, you cannot accuse the writers of this episode of skimping on the details.
“He came over here to save the world, only to be stuck here when his was destroyed.” — Walter
It would be so tempting to set aside character development and just pursue the fascinating question of what our future would look like, given such-and-such choices. Just explaining how Olivia’s niece Ella got to be a Fringe agent, and how Astrid wound up in the field, and how Broyles got elected to Congress, would be fascinating enough. Peter and Olivia’s marriage alone could fill a half hour of exposition. But the story smoothly integrates that with a well wrought story about doomsaying nihilists led by a Dr. Moreau (Brad Dourif, Priest), who is acting in cahoots with Walternate. Yes, it appears that Walter Bishop’s alter ego crossed over to our world, supposedly to beg for help, right before his universe disappeared, trapping him over here. Now he is implacable in his quest for revenge, even to the extent of wanting to kill his own son. Worse, he wants Peter to suffer, and does so by taking out the person Peter loves more than most. The shock of this murder is muted because we know this is all “in the future”, that supposedly it has not happened yet. Which implies that it need not happen at all.
“I’m the one who got in the machine. I’m the one who destroyed the other universe.” — Peter
This entire episode is a sort of cross between It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol, with Peter playing the role of reluctant prophet. He is experiencing a future which has already come to pass (in his perspective). It all appears as fixed and inevitable to him as to anyone living an ordinary life. From his perspective, he chose to sacrifice millions of lives in the other universe to save his own – not knowing it would backfire on him. Now he labors under the sort of guilt over bad choices that has infused Walter in every season. for a brief moment, there’s a humble, pensive Peter who understands Walter better than ever. But then Walter figures out that he can send the Doomsday Machine back 250 million years to hide it forever. He can bring Peter’s consciousness forward fifteen years to explain all this. And he can confuse his audience mightily.
Walter: I have already done it. Therefore I have no choice but to do it again.
Peter: Walter, that doesn’t make any sense.
As usual, Peter is dead right. It does not make any sense for Walter, who explained so patiently last year that time is not fixed, that different choices make different futures and different universes, to now claim that he has no choice. It makes no sense to, on the one hand, assert that the linearity of time is so embedded in the universe that it cannot be reversed, and then be plotting on the other hand to do just that. Nor does it make any sense for Walter to say that he cannot make a different choice, because it has already happened, but that Peter can make a different choice “within Walter’s choice”, as if there were some hierarchy of decisions here that an outside force were monitoring. I wanted to beg the writers to please stop trying to make sense of nonsense. This is what I mean by a lack of respect for logic; if you’re going to use time travel as a pry bar to massively re-vamp your universe, go ahead and do it, but don’t throw bad logic at us. Better no logic at all than confusing illogic. Fortunately, the superb writing and characterization for the rest of the show dilute the irritation quotient of this lapse in rationality.
“I’ve torn holes in both the universes, and they lead here, to this room, a bridge—” – Peter
In the end, Peter magically jumps backwards to our 2011, where he is still embedded in the Doomsday Machine. Seeing Olivia, he merges the two universes, universes he now knows are “inextricable”. As he shimmers into and out of view, the room on Liberty Island gains new people: Walternate, Fauxlivia, AltBrandon appear on the other side of the room from Walter, Olivia, and others of our universe. It’s an enormously clever idea to merge the other universe with ours; in future episodes (meaning next fall, not 2026), we can continue to explore the variations-on-a-world that made the Other Universe so amusing, without having to jump people back and forth. We also double the characters (Olivia/Fauxlivia, Walter/Walternate) while not doubling the payroll. Very clever. It was even foreshadowed in this episode credits, which instead of red or green were displayed in a neutral gray, with some unsettling new catchphrases. Dual maternity? It’s a great ending to the season: will Walter and Walternate reconcile? Can both universes be saved? Will anyone remember Peter? Does this mean young Henry is gone as well? Will Olivia still have telekinetic powers (and will she finally learn how to stop a bullet with her mind and not her brain tissue?) Who (or maybe what) is Sam Weiss, and where did he go?
Observer September: They don’t remember Peter.
Observer December: How could they? He never existed.
Fringe finished its third season down a tenth of a point from last week, to finish at a 1.2 share for adults 18-49. It garnered a mere 3.3 million viewers, undoubtedly the core of the core audience; no outsiders could have possibly fathomed what went on in that 45 minutes. It’s a damned shame that such a fabulously written, convoluted, downright intelligent show cannot garner a wider audience. I hate critics who tell audiences “you should be watching this”, but I can understand the impulse now. Season Three was a mature rendering of an inventive and wildly creative show; the introduction of a parallel universe was pure genius in terms both of storytelling and franchise solidification. The acting challenges – doubling everyone’s roles – were met with Emmy-level acting, and if the logic occasionally failed the visuals rarely did. If there is a reboot in Fringe’s future, it may open a window for a whole new audience to learn about this show, an audience that will not have to slog through three seasons of backstory to know who is who and what is going on. If comics of the 20th century have taught us anything, it’s that a retcon can be a good thing. It’s a heck of a gamble though, and we’ll find out if it pays off next year. If it brings back Kirk Acevedo, I’m all for it.