With the ‘reset’ in the Fringe timeline, it almost feels like we are watching a new show, rather than one triumphantly entering its fourth season. Which is why this is the perfect time to ‘reset’ the way I review the show. As the executive producers of the show often say, Fringe is as much about the human story as it is about the science fiction. I would like to start recapping the themes of the show as the storyline advances, in the hopes of giving the human story the attention it deserves. So instead of the usual thorough episode recap, interspaced with theories and brief discussions on the various underlying themes, from now on you will read a more in-depth look into the themes touched upon in each episode. Thoughts on this new stage of Sahar’s Reviews are always appreciated in the comments thread.
Fringe’s Season 4 starts with a relatively calm earthquake. Peter, having served his purpose, had been wiped from existence at the close of Season 3, but the bridge he’d created so the two sides could start fixing the tears in the fabric between them is still very much there.
Season 4 thus begins with Olivia and Altivia exchanging documents from their respective divisions, as well as some stinging words. We immediately notice that Olivia is different; we see an aspect of her personality we haven’t seen in awhile; she is an angry, justice-seeking vigilante with a thick shell not many, if any, have been able to penetrate.
This first scene underlines one of the things the executive producers of the show, Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman, promised us: to take advantage of the two universes working together to contrast each version of one character with the other. Only Altivia telling Olivia that she has a trust issue would have that impact; how can it not, when the words are coming out of a mouth that looks exactly like hers?
It reminds me of the concept of self-reflection, i.e. when you take the time to ‘talk to yourself’ about something that is bothering you, be it verbally or in written form. Often, when it comes to dealing with a thorny subject, people shut out those who talks to them about it when they are not ready. But all it can take is a bit of tough self-love: writing it down in a diary, talking out loud to oneself, meditating about it. Whatever the technique, reflecting one’s own feelings and emotions can often help to clarify things in a relatively short period of time. Could this mean that both Olivia and Altivia, as well as all our other ‘dual’ characters, will be able to deal with thorny issues they haven’t be able to deal with before?
Just like looking into a face that resembles yours but isn’t, watching this episode felt like returning to a home where everything has slightly shifted. While the characters are familiar, they all come with a little shift in their personalities clearly related to the absence of Peter in their lives. Olivia’s trust issues are worse; Walter’s anxiety is such that keeps him in the lab; and Astrid, although still caring, is a lot less patient than before. This timeline clearly shows that Peter, who, back in Season 1, expressed a feeling of not belonging, was a positive influence in the lives of these three people – and God only knows how many others.
This leads straight back to a theme at the heart of this show: that of interconnectedness. Olivia’s trust issues stem from her relationship with her stepfather; they had been retreating thanks to her relationship with Peter. Walter’s “tether to the world” had been Peter; when he lost his son, he lost that tether and went to St-Claire’s. When he found that tether, it allowed him to lead a remarkably normal life (well, relatively speaking, what with all the Fringe cases).
As for Astrid, quite unfortunately, we don’t know nearly enough about her. But it can be said that in the previous timeline, her patience had been honed potentially because Fringe Division, especially at the Harvard lab, was becoming like a family, while in this timeline, without Peter as the glue that brought the “family” together, she remained as brusque as in the first couple of episodes of Season 1. The three of them, Olivia, Walter and Astrid, managed to help each other somewhat; but without Peter, they could only go so far.
How interesting is it then that this timeline, comparatively bleak and depressing compared to the previous one (although in this one, Olivia does seem to wear colour), is the normal one, as “it should have been”. And how interesting will it be that September’s free will, to ‘detonate’ the ‘Peter-erasing’ machine or not, will define the destiny of these people and so many more. If September has this much power over these people’s lives, does it mean that these people don’t have free will?
Such a statement is a false dichotomy, for in the framework of the timeline September chooses for them, these people have free will to do what they want with it. And so it isn’t too far-fetched to theorize that as a whole, these people’s lives will achieve the same purpose, albeit in a different way, because it is in their nature to do so. It is in Olivia’s nature, whatever timeline she may end up in, to fight for justice, just like it is in Walter’s nature to imagine the impossibilities.
Are traits of character in one’s nature? Perhaps so, which means that it doesn’t come as a surprise that this timeline’s Lincoln Lee comes with the same sense of astonishment and quiet strength at his first appearance in the episode “Stowaway” (Season 3, Episode 17). However, I didn’t expect his despair, although it does make for some great discussions, all the more that it comes in sharp contrast to Peter’s seemingly bottomless well of hope in the last season. One would think that the latter would have more reason to be desperate than the former and yet, in 2026, he still held hope that the future warranted having a child with his then-wife Olivia.
The answer to the question of hope versus despair depends largely on one’s conceptual framework of the meaning of life. Peter seems to have clung onto the fact that he had been saved from death by Walter, and that alone proved that he was alive for a purpose. Perhaps Lee, having joined Fringe Division, will be able to find such a meaning for his own life as well.
Then again, finding out more about the Observers and the power they hold on the future of humanity might become a great source of disempowerment for Lee as well as for the rest of the characters in Fringe. Our fedora wearing friends continue to be mysterious, as September is told to wipe out any lingering traces of Peter from the timeline but, once again, goes against what he should, as an Observer, have done. Why is September going against what his nature dictates him to be, i.e. an Observer, bent on protecting the timeline that is meant to be from altering its course?
Now that the Observers are an integral part of the plot and quite easy to find, it looks like that the producers of the show have another “Where is” to keep us avidly glued to the screen. Peter appears quite a few times in this episode (making a very early first appearance at a mere 1:56), although it can be a little difficult to see at first. But other than the fact that it is amusing and a sign of the bleeding through of traces of Peter, I loved the imagery of having your past lingering around you even if you are wholly unaware of it, albeit in a slightly creepy way.
The crystallization of the vision that the two universes have to work together to survive culminated in an ultimate sacrifice by its most vocal proponent; one can only wonder when and how Peter is going to return, and if his return will coincide with a much needed dose of hope to keep two former enemies working together despite the negative forces acting against them. The stage has been set for what looks like yet another great season of Fringe.