“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.
- 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.