Four years back, we dropped cable in the interest of saving money, vowing to use much more affordable streaming services to keep up with the shows we watched each week, including Fringe. But the practical effect of that move was that Fringe got put on hold with a strong intention to catch up with it again someday. In the newborn phase after my second child’s birth this summer, that day has come.
Fringe has always had the reputation of being an aughts replacement for The X-Files, and certainly it did have the crime procedural married to tales of a supernatural or bizarre nature and an overarching “mythology” narrative, Fringe proved itself distinct from its ancestor. Watching season 4 over the last few weeks brought home Fringe’s special recipe, and I dare say it has earned a place in the pantheon of great sci-fi television.
I do intend to write specifically about certain plot events, episodes, and moments, so if you’d like to remain naive on the season’s stories, stop reading now.
Season 3 ended with Peter getting in the Machine to create a bridge between the two universes to help stabilize both and allow the two Fringe teams to work together for more solutions. That meant that Peter was erased from the timeline as it got reset and 10-year-old Peter drowned in a lake, as he should have done without the Observer’s help.
So when season 4 picks back up, we return to the Fringe team we’re used to, but now they’re working with the other side, the other side is healing, and no one remembers Peter at all. But as the episodes add up, and Peter’s non-corporeal presence attempts to reach back into their reality, it becomes clearer and clearer what Peter’s presence meant to the team, especially Walter and Olivia. Olivia, without Peter in her life, has remained distrustful of everyone around her. She has remained the guarded, distant Olivia of the first season without the opening bond with Peter. Likewise, Walter stays distant from the world around him. He never leaves the lab and, in fact, sleeps in it. Astrid is his eyes and ears on the world through a camera she wears like a Bluetooth over-the-ear microphone.
What strikes me as a major difference between Fringe and The X-Files is the emphasis on the relationships in Fringe. This season largely explores the relationships between Peter and Walter and Olivia, but it also focuses on Lincoln’s relationships with his former partner and Olivia, Olivia’s relationship with Nina Sharp, and even Astrid’s relationship with her father. In fact, parent-child relationships are paramount. John Noble as Walter is a font of sympathy, pathos, and humor as he navigates the return of a Peter he didn’t know existed. Each Fringe event that the team studies directly mirrors the interpersonal conflicts of the team. The themes in both A- and B-plots are reflective in a way I don’t remember being as strong in the first three seasons.
Of course, rather than The X-Files‘ obsession with aliens, Fringe deep dives into the concepts of time and alternate realities. In season 3, we met Olivia’s and Walter’s alternate universe selves–nicknamed Bolivia or later Fauxlivia and Walternate respectively. We also met the other side’s Astrid, Lincoln, and Broyles. Each of them is a plausible variation on the character we came to know in the first two seasons. Now, in season 4 with the timeline reset and Peter gone, we get slight variations on both sets of characters we got to know in season 3. Walternate in season 3 was villainous, but Walternate in season 4 is well-meaning but hard. The doubling down on the variations of character is fascinating. A highlight is when Astrid finally meets her doppleganger, who is on the spectrum, and they bond.
I’m very pleased I decided to catch back up with season 4. The show antes up the relationships and concepts it built over the previous three seasons and creates what I would argue is the best season of the show.