Season Finale: Fringe – “The Day We Died”

“The Day We Died”

May 6th, 2011

While I intended on writing something following the Fringe finale all week, I expected it to be a piece about how my general distance from the series made the finale less satisfying than it may have been for its hardcore fans. As the anticipation has been building online, I found myself with absolutely no investment in the series or its characters: while John Noble continues to give a really tremendous performance, the entire back end of the season has squandered a lot of the engagement I had with the series. I wasn’t looking forward to explaining why, to be honest: I don’t think there’s a simple answer, and I don’t exactly wear my inability to be a “fan” of this show as some sort of badge of honor.

However, it turns out that my lack of attachment is maybe the only thing keeping me from feeling outright ripped off by this awkward, poorly written, and yet unquestionably ballsy finale. In the final moments of “The Day We Died,” the show throws a hail mary that is designed to have fans both panicking and frantically revisiting previous episodes to discover either a loophole or some sort of reasoning for such a drastic turn of events.

For me, meanwhile, it’s the one breath of life in an episode which created too many problems for itself to properly tap into any of the pathos introduced earlier in the season, returning instead to vague generalities mapped onto poorly defined MacGuffins of little import or value. And, thankfully, I didn’t care enough to be outraged about it.

Let’s get it out of the way: John Noble and Joshua Jackson are both pretty tremendous in this episode, the former in particular. In what is very clearly a gesture back to the pilot, Walter goes through yet another transformation during incarcertation, and that lost time creates an automatic sense of reflection which offers Noble some beautiful scenes to play with Peter as well as a collection of other characters. Heck, even Walter’s brief moment with Ella (who has now grown up to be a Fringe agent like her Aunt) towards the end of the episode became a poignant moment, evidence of how great Noble is at playing this man who is forced to live with the weight of his actions once more.

However, Noble isn’t given much of a storyline to work with, or at least a storyline that never amounts to anything, beyond this. The show knows where it wants to get Walter, but it doesn’t know how to get there, nor does it know how to draw more complex thematic elements to the surface. For example, one of the things I found strange was that there was no attempt to emphasize how different this 15 years in prison differed from his first stint in a mental institution. In both cases, he had to live with what he had unknowingly done, but before he was barely lucid thanks to William’s brain surgery. This time around, Walter was considerably more aware of his actions, and yet we saw no greater sense of psychic turmoil. Walter was just his regular old self once he shaved, which I felt was strange.

They couldn’t have Walter be more affected, of course, because they had too much else to accomplish. They had to introduce Moreau (an all too brief appearance from Brad Dourif, who I enjoy having on my television), so that they could introduce the MacGuffin device, so that it could justify Walter’s removal from prison, so that he could unlock its secrets to lead Peter to his old house on the lake, so that Peter could leave Olivia alone to get shot, so that he could be sent into a shame spiral and be willing to risk traveling back in time to…do something.

The result was a collection of scenes which were well-rendered by Noble and Jackson but then undercut by some incredibly clunky dialogue. Every scene had to function as part exposition, unearthing details from the past fifteen years that I never found interesting enough to justify their clunkiness. What poetry found in the episode was less impactful when it had to be set up so quickly, and without much in the way of naturalistic dialogue. Part of what makes Fringe so elegant sometimes is the way it introduces scenarios organically, showing us the lightning field breaking out in the middle of a highway or other phenomenon emerging in natural ways. Here, we got dropped right into the conspiracy without any time to get our bearings, told about this world instead of being able to see it for ourselves. We didn’t even get to use Peter as our avatar, given that he was subsumed into Future Peter within just a few minutes.

There was just no narrative momentum established, which made Liv’s fake death (which was clearly marked as fake given that there was never any real danger of not going back to the original timeline) that much less impressive. It’s possible that this is the point in the episode where more ardent fans may have been more invested than I was, but seriously: a cheap bit of pregnancy-related exposition based on a drawing on a fridge by an unseen neighborhood girl and we’re supposed to consider Olivia’s death poetic? That’s just lazy, and more problematically unearned: while the montage at the (beautifully-lit) beachside funeral was more effective, it still felt like we were missing fifteen years of the story, and that the emotional score was being used to fill in the gaps through sheer musical determination. It also felt like we were missing a piece of the puzzle: wouldn’t the Peter we know have immediately tried to get vengeance on Walternate instead of falling into a deep depression? Or are we just supposed to guess at how the characters have changed, and pretend that justified such gaps in logic?

By the time we get to the conclusion, and Walter gives Peter a big speech about paradoxes that I honestly don’t understand in the least, my passive enjoyment had devolved into near dislike, which is why the return to our “present” was so welcome. At the same time, though, it was jarring: it robbed us of the details of Peter’s return (leaving the other timeline a loose end, likely on purpose), and it returns us to a situation that I had honestly sort of forgotten. I wonder if it might have been more beneficial to move back and forth between the timelines, using the pathos from the present more clearly in the future, but it didn’t matter: once we got back, and Peter merged the two worlds together using the machine (which was apparently designed for this purpose, by Walter, in the future), the show finally got to where it was going all along. Walternate vs. Walter. Olivia vs. Fauxlivia.

And then Peter disappeared.

I can see why there’s so much shock and outrage about this, but I think it’s the one thing that saves the finale from feeling entirely worthless outside of Noble’s performance (which I feel I’ve said too many times, but know that the repetition is less to harp on its worthlessness and more to emphasize how strong Noble was in spite of it). It raises questions of format and structure that we were asking at the end of last season, and it makes us wonder if the show has established two timelines: one where Peter lives on without Olivia in some sort of stasis but is forced to feel her absence, and another where Olivia lives on without Peter without even realizing it. I don’t know that this is the case, but I don’t think that Joshua Jackson is leaving the show, and I actually think that the results of that moment have the potential to return the show to what made it so effective earlier in the season.

However, it had nothing to do with the episode that came before it, and the Observer scene explaining it was obnoxious in every possible way. I can see how fans might be angry, as they are given absolutely no indication of what this could potentially mean, but as someone who isn’t particularly engaged I did a brief spit take before laughing to myself. It doesn’t help any of the episode that came before: it was still incredibly uneven, and still failed to properly wrap up any of the season’s storylines. What it does do, though, is take all the attention off the finale: people won’t be dwelling on the fundamental loss of narrative momentum, they’ll be talking about the blatant artifice used to put all of the attention on the upcoming season four.

It’s a smart move in a poorly executed finale, one which is so concerned about moving towards the future that it reverts to broad themes and leaves behind a nuanced, derailed season.

Cultural Observations

  • So what happened to that dude in Olivia’s head who was going to kill her, huh?
  • It appears that J.J. Abrams was really hands off on Lost, as it seems the strong use of flashforwards on that show didn’t teach him any lessons that he should have learned from season three of Alias. Yes, I know he wasn’t directly involved here, but still – he should know better, at this stage.
  • If you’ll forgive the Buffy spoiler, so avert your eyes if you haven’t seen the show…*SERIOUSLY, SPOILERS* It’s like Dawn in reverse! *SPOILERS OVER*
  • There is nothing I hate more about time travel episodes than “Oooh, let’s give someone a distinct physical characteristic to make them seem more future-y.” Accordingly, Broyles’ cyborg eye felt obnoxious, even if I have to admit it looked pretty badass. Unfortunately, Broyles also had some of the weakest dialogue outside of Ella, which didn’t help matters.
  • I am aware that this is particularly snarkier than usual – not sure why that is, but it might be the point at which I officially disengage from writing about the show, despite some pretty good traffic/discussion when I’ve put together a review.
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18 Comments

Filed under Fringe

18 responses to “Season Finale: Fringe – “The Day We Died”

  1. sent into a shame spiral and be willing to risk traveling back in time

    FWIW, it’s the other way around. Walter specifically says it’s about giving present-day Peter a forward glimpse of what could happen, not sending future Peter back.

    • Which is implied by the way in which they cut to the future, via present Peter’s POV, having him wake up confused in 2026 (even if he seemed to forget after he woke up in the hospital). Walter’s plan has already been enacted long before we as an audience learn about it, or he’s even thought of it.

  2. Reuben

    I basically have to agree. This was a very poorly paced episode. It was probably 3 episodes worth of exposition crammed together. None of the payoffs were set up nearly well enough to, well, pay off. I can’t help thinking that the looming possibility of cancellation played into this.

  3. Felt like I was watching LOST with all the horrible explanations for certain mysteries. Walter sending the machine back doesn’t explain the books that were written and the idea of people living before the dinosaurs and creating this device was much more interesting than Walter sending it back. Also, if Walter sent it back in time, then who created the machine?

    This was as infuriating as finding out that Sam Weiss was just a regular guy. I’m starting to get nervous that this show is going t shit the bed when it tries to wrap up the series. I hope i’m wrong, but I’m getting nervous.

    • Tausif Khan

      Two possible explanations:

      1) One of the observers built the machine and put it in our timeline

      2)Future Walter invents it after the future we see in this episode (in the future that existed before present Peter became aware of the consequences of just choosing our universe).

      • Eldritch

        Just to rule out this possibility, future Walter couldn’t have invented the machine and sent it back. His working on that would require the alt universe to be destroyed by Peter. But because future Peter traveled back in time to make a “different” choice, that never happened. Can you say Grandfather Paradox? The show seems to be saying that Walter couldn’t travel back in time because of the Grandfather Paradox, but somehow Peter could despite it.

        It’s an irritating episode to me because it reveals that the show’s entire mythology is built on illogic.

        • Tausif Khan

          While I agree that because Peter went back and changed the past that changed the future that we saw in this episode I do not think that Peter needed to destroy the altuniverse to make Walter work on the machine. What would be necessary for us to know that future Walter worked on the machine is whether or not he sends it back through the wormhole. The producers have said that the war between Walter and Walternate would have existed without Peter because they were working on crossing over anyway and their meddling would have led to anger between them. Therefore it is conceivable that a wormhole is ripped regardless of whether Peter exists (Walternate also travels to the future as well). Thus the only thing we need to know that future Walter invents the machine is that there is a wormhole that can communicate with the past.

          Furthermore Walter states that he needs to keep on warning the past about the present future so he keeps on sending the machine back through the wormhole. However, because Peter ceases to exist the machine will have a different purpose in the new future; a different effect because Peter no longer exists.

          • Tausif Khan

            *

            “While I agree that because Peter went back and changed the past that changed the future that we saw in this episode, I do not think that Peter needed to destroy the altuniverse to make Walter work on the machine. ”

            While I agree that because Peter went back and changed the past that changed the future- which changed the future timeline

            I do not think that Peter needed to destroy the altuniverse to make future Walter work on the machine.

    • If I’m understanding this correctly (and this always happens with time travel episodes), nobody created the machine, that’s why it’s a paradox. The 2011 Fringe team only unearthed it because Walter sent it back, and Walter only sent it back because the team had found it in the past. There might also be something else going on we just don’t know about yet, and because the show cut away from 2026 just as Walter was forming his plan, we aren’t allowed to luxury of seeing he and Peter enact it (which I’m assuming was for logistical purposes, as it would have taken them months to figure it out).

      • Eldritch

        That’s my take on it. Nobody created the machine. It was just there.

        And for a machine that never existed, it’s pretty durable. What materials do we have that wouldn’t rust or corrode away over some 200 million years? The only reason dinosaur bones exist is because they turned to stone.

        • Tausif Khan

          How can something just exist? It needs something to generate it production. To create matter from nothing would break the laws of physics.

          • Eldritch

            Exactly. It’s a flaw in the logic of the story. A paradox. It’s can’t be, yet the story hinges on it.

            The Paradox:
            A man invents a time machine which briefly takes him 30 years into the future. He finds himself in a museum. Quickly he grabs a futuristic looking gismo before his machine drags him back to the present. For 25 years international teams of scientist study it, but fail to figure out what it does or how it works. So they do the only thing they can. They put it in a museum where it stays until one day a time traveler steals it.

            So who made the gizmo? That’s the time travel paradox this episode violated. But it makes a nice story if you’re not obsessed with stories making sense.

  4. Tausif Khan

    Peter’s disappearance more to me like Starbuck in the finale for BSG.

    Dollhouse Epitaph 1 v. Fringe The Day We Died

    the difference between these two episodes for me is that while both played out an intellectual/philosophical exercise and introduced new characters we knew nothing about, however, the success of the former is that the audience was able to connect to these characters (Mag, Zone…) emotionally within the context of that episode. The characters were so rich they spawned their own comic. Fringe failed completely on this account. This compounded by the fact that these new characters were future versions of characters we have seen before (albeit with different histories).

  5. croMammut

    I have to disagree with what has been said in this review. It is true that some of the dialogues were not as rich as they could have been, but I think if you were more immersed in the actual storyline, the lack of depth in the future character’s dialogues could easily been forgiven. The general idea of showing us the future is to make the viewers understand the outcome of the machine’s activation. You should draw a line between that and, say, an Alternate Universe. If the AU was poorly-presented (which clearly it isn’t since everything on the Other Side is on point), then it would remove some of the show’s value. The flashforward also closed some loose ends albeit not being too straight-forward. The producer probably expected the viewer to make the connections, even if they were hidden at times, without them being spoon-fed to you (which, if you think the ending with the observers was obnoxious, it would have been shadowed by the awkwardness of tying everything together through dialogue).

    Moreover, all mysteries from season 1 that stretched to season 2 were explained in that season, and the same goes for season 3 explaining some of season 2′s stuff. I am almost certain that J.J. Abrams will tie season 3′s loose ends in season 4 (if there is one). The finale’s pace was such that a fan of the show will be startled as the story unfolds, until the very last dialogue. Keep in mind that, unlike a cartoon where every episode has a new plot, a show like Fringe needs to be cogent throughout the seasons and that, after a while, the show is bound to seem ‘over the top’. I think J.J. Abrams has been doing a great job so far by not digressing too much from season to season and the transitions were all smooth. Looking forward to season 4.

    @ShaneMD: The machine was created by the original Fringe division and was used, thus bringing forth Doomsday as we saw in the finale. To prevent the events from unrolling the way they did, future Walter sent the pieces back to the past with a ‘rig’ that will project peter’s conscious into a set time, allowing him to make a judgement call about whether or not to use the machine. As depicted in the last minutes, Peter did not destroy the alternate universe and essentially, we understand that the future has been changed.

  6. ADam

    Talking about something that does not exist as though it is supposed to make sense. Fascinating. Thanks for the review. If I am going to think about nonsense, then I appreciate someone doing the timelines and filling in the colors. I was never very good at that in kindergarten.

  7. I have to say, I’m really not understanding all the backlash to this episode. For me, this is the same show I’ve been watching all season: the same problems (cheesy dialogue, crazy sci-fi twists), the same things that are great (the Walter/Peter relationship, the wonderfully fleshed out new worlds, just to name two). Certainly there are elements of this finale that were exceedingly puzzling, but it wasn’t meant to provide answers. I think this is one of those times where we’re just going to have to wait to see what the answers are in season four, and judging the finale as poor because we’re confused for the moment doesn’t seem like the best reaction.

    It’s not like the show hasn’t done this to us before. It has. Both the finales to season one and two left us on cliffhangers that eventually resolved themselves in the early goings of the next season, and in each case, the show was better for it. I’m not saying that it’s not possible for the show to derail or that it won’t happen, but it seems premature to me to write the show off before we even know the answers, as most fans who disliked the episode seem to be doing. I can also see where people might be having panic-flashbacks to Lost, but at this point, we need to take Lost off the table and judge Fringe based on its own merits. Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have literally nothing to do with this show, any more than JJ Abrams had anything to do with their show past the pilot. Wyman and Pinkner are Fringe, and this is their show.

    For me, since the middle of season two, Fringe has consistently been the most entertaining and thought-provoking program on network television, and I think that has earned it the benefit of the doubt.

  8. I found it curious that Fringe did such an elegant job of building an alternate universe but couldn’t do the future without the most painful and creaky exposition, except for a few great little touches (steak in a can, anyone?).

    I like the idea of showing a possible future, but placing it as a season finale seemed like a misstep. As you point out, there’s no investment in Olivia’s death because isn’t happening to the “real” Olivia. In fact, that was the moment when I knew that the events of the episode didn’t really matter, because it would all be fixed. That the fix entailed Peter’s erasure didn’t really do much for me, except to provoke a kind of dull curiosity as to how he would be reintroduced in the next season.

    What the heck, though. I’m a fan of Fringe and I’m going to be there when season four starts up.

  9. blklip4lp

    I guess for me…going to the alternate world only matters if there is a risk. Peter went back but I wasnt sure of the risk, and I always knew he was going back to the real world.
    However, before when Olivia and Walter traveled to the fake world with the team of youngsters with powers there was danger at every turn.
    And it appeared as though none of the future events made an impact on the real world when he got back except he didnt exist. Maybe if the real Olivia and Walter killed the fake Olivia and Walter and then Peter disappeared I would have been like oh no WTF. But that would have only helped the ending.

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