Wednesday, May 18, 2011

SitS: Fringe - Season 2

Basic Info:
Fringe - Season 2
22* Episodes
Originally Aired Fall 2009/Spring 2010

My relationship with Fringe has not been a straightforward one. It premiered when I did not have cable or a capable antenna, and lukewarm early reviews put me off of finding other ways of watching, as I'd prefer to watch "good" shows—whatever that means—that I've missed over the years rather than blow rentals on so-so ones. Then I heard Fringe compared to a favorite show from my youth, The X-Files, and that comparison intrigued me. Eventually I decided to check the show out, and was thoroughly underwhelmed through about half of the first season. It's one thing to have a procedural backbone and focus primarily on "Freak of the Week" episodes, but in its early goings, Fringe felt a lot like the same episode, played with slight variations, week after week. I grew bored.

I can't say there was a single turning point. Perhaps my cynical edge was gradually worn down by Fringe's charms. Perhaps the thought that a more focused serialized plot was just around the bend kept me watching. Whatever the case may be, I stuck with the show and, by Season 1's excellent conclusion, even grew to like it. Now I've made my way though the entirety of the first two seasons. I can decisively state that Season 2 is better than the first, though some of Season 1's problems do occasionally pop up. More on that in a bit. For now, be warned: SPOILER ALERT in effect for all of Seasons 1-2 from this point on.

Fringe concerns itself with investigations carried out by Fringe Division, a branch of the FBI that examines cases related to "The Pattern." The Pattern is a series of attacks-cum-human experiments, involving genetic manipulation, biological research, and freaky advanced technology. All of this may or may not relate to pioneering work performed by two men: William Bell (Leonard Nimoy), the founder of Massive Dynamic (a tech mega-company and defense contractor), and his former lab mate Walter Bishop (John Noble), a once-great scientist who is confined to a mental institution at the start of the series.

The Fringe team is led by Colonel Broyles (Lance Reddick), who is joined by Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), a talented agent whose past is actually quite entangled with The Pattern, Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), Walter's bright-but-troubled con man son, Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole), a young, tech-savvy agent, and Walter Bishop himself, now liberated from the asylum. Each week, we generally see the fatal results of a single Pattern-related incident, and it's up to the Fringe team to solve the case, typically via some crazy hunch Walter explores in the lab. As the seasons progress, each character's backstory gets fleshed out to reveal that there's more to everyone than meets the eye, and the show's ongoing arc becomes more pronounced over time.

In its second season, Fringe doesn't spend THAT much more time on its serialized elements, so much as it better integrates them into the plot and makes them matter more. By this point, viewers are (or ought to be) more emotionally attached to the characters, and so their heartbreaks, their victories, and their bad decisions all feel more important. The lines between "freak-of-the-week" episodes and arc-centric "mythology" episodes have begun to blur, and the show becomes stronger for it. This is all aided by the showrunners beginning to reveal more and more crucial information throughout the season, and their increased willingness to take chances and deviate from formula.

Much of the season focuses on the things people will do in the name of love. You see, Walter Bishop and a parallel universe counterpart (affectionately dubbed Walternate) seem to be the cause of The Pattern. We learn that, when the original Peter died as a child, our Walter found a way to step into the parallel universe and steal THAT Peter, whom he raised as his own. But Walter's transgression also led to a weakening of the divide between the universes, bringing about some of the Pattern's anomalies and possibly endangering both worlds. On the other side, the enraged Walternate began looking for ways to destroy our universe, both to stop the anomalies and to get retribution for Peter's kidnapping. So the season provides us with the necessary justification for both sides of the conflict, and asks us to examine the difference between the two Walters' actions. Our Walter goes mad from guilt and shame, while Walternate gets even through armed retaliation. But both are, to a point, responses to heartbreak that make a certain amount of sense given the circumstances. Who wouldn't want to be reunited with a lost loved one?

There's obviously more to the show than that, and Fringe's second season provides many hints about its other bizarre elements, many of which remain unresolved. We learn more about The Observers, a strange, bald race who watch humanity and occasionally intervene to make sure destiny is served. We meet new villains, including alternate universe machine-men with mercury blood and the ability to mimic other people's appearance. We're introduced to Kevin Corrigan as Sam Weiss, a bowling instructor with Yoda-like mentoring skills, who helps Olivia recover from trauma and develop her abilities. And there are still some hints that Massive Dynamic's intentions aren't always benevolent, and the specter of last season's big bad (the terrorist group ZFT) hasn't entirely disappeared.

But, again, so much of Fringe comes back to the central theme of love, reflected in the need for stable, loving relationships and families, and the damage caused when these are disrupted. When Peter gets taken back to the parallel universe towards the season's end, Olivia and Walter mount an elaborate incursion to rescue him. They do this not solely out of concern for Peter's well being, but because they each need what Peter has come to represent for them. Olivia has grown to love Peter on a non-Platonic level, while Walter's relationship with Peter is about the only thing keeping him sane. The show's wider world may be a crazier, less-focused place where not every case is about broken relationships (though enough of them certainly are), but when it comes to the central figures we grow to love, it's all about creating a family and a support structure that lets them survive even the weirdest events.

Season Two also succeeds by letting the show take slightly different paths than the more-formulaic first season. The "pattern," if you will, of the standard Fringe episode gets broken in new and interesting ways. Here, we have "Brown Betty," where a stoned Walter improvises a Singing Detective-esque '40s noir musical version of a Fringe case as a story for Olivia's niece Ella. We also have the Pacific Northwest–set "Northwest Passage," which is largely Peter-centric, and the Observer-focused "August," which reveals crucial information about those mysterious beings. And we get the mindscrewing time-travel episode "White Tulip," which requires way more careful attention from the audience than any episode I've seen to date. By alternately shattering or poking fun at the show's formula, the creative team lets Fringe transcends its pedestrian roots. Even when villains' abilities seem to be cribbed directly from old X-Files episodes—such as the Flukeman-esque creature in "Night of Desirable Objects" or the Pusher-like child in "Of Human Action—Fringe has gotten quite good at putting its own, unique stamp on each story.

The point is that the showrunners have learned to be less risk-averse than they seemed in the early days. The lesson had begun sinking in towards the end of Season 1, and—with a few exceptions—seems fully absorbed by the time Season 2 ends. They've learned to add real weight to the problems besetting the show's world, weight that isn't always present within the loose, stand-alone episodes. Things go far better when our characters' decisions have legitimate consequences, like Walter's kidnapping of Peter, or when we know what they stand to lose.

And, from a critical perspective, I think Fringe benefits from pushing its audience around a bit. The alternative universe stuff presents the real risk of alienating or confusing the audience, as "doubles" are rarely an easy concept for audiences to buy. But somehow, through the more tightly-controlled, slow release of information evident throughout the season, the showrunners get us to accept their extreme premises to such a great extent that, by the season's end, we're actually excited to see that the evil alterna-Olivia switched places with our Livvy. That's a pretty mean coup for a show that started so slowly!

Best Episode - Episode 16: "Peter"
The most amusing, intriguing, and emotionally satisfying episode of the show to date, "Peter" takes us into the past to witness exactly how and why Walter came to steal the other Peter and raise him as his own. It adds needed context to Walter's wife's eventual suicide, as it's clear that she's the main thing that convinces Walter not to return the boy. "Peter" is an excellent look at the power of grief and loss, and how longing to "fix" life's unsolvable problems can make monstrous acts seem reasonable. And the added touch of using a 1980's version of the Fringe opening credits? That was just gravy.

Worst Episode - Episode 5: "Dream Logic"
This was actually a bit of a toss-up, as, with one notable exception explained below, there really weren't any BAD episodes this season. There were plenty of unremarkable ones, and a few that fizzled out in some way, squandering an interesting premise. "Dream Logic" is one of those, as an interesting idea and a lot of back-and-forth leads to an extremely improbable villain, revealed very late in the game, who kindly takes himself out of the picture. The sloppy metaphors related to prescription drug trials and drug abuse add insult to injury.

*While there are 23 episodes listed this season, I've chosen to count only 22 of them, as one episode ("Unearthed") was aired as a "special" and was actually filmed during the first season. It's a typical Season One standalone, and makes no sense airing when it did as at least ONE dead character features prominently and nothing ties in to Season Two's ongoing plot. The episode doesn't even appear in sequence on the DVDs, instead showing up as a special feature on the last disc. For those reasons, it just doesn't count in my book!


  1. Blogger ate my first post and I can't bring myself to rewrite the whole thing.

    A summary of what I wrote follows.

    I came to watch fringe in a very similar way to you.

    I agree with your review and like Fringe despite some groan worth plots and bad "science"

  2. @spurge

    Yeah, I went back and forth on whether to write something about the terrible science and extremely woo-ish side of Fringe, but in the end I decided to leave that out. It's a sci-fi show, after all, and it's very clear (most of the time at least) that the world of the show is not meant to be "real."

    Still, it does annoy me that everything paranormal is automatically legit... but that's MY problem as a skeptic, not the show's :-P

  3. It is not so much the woo that bothers me but when they talk about science I know they are always so very wrong.

    Still a great show.