Review: Fringe, “Back To Where You’ve Never Been”

I spent a good deal of time at the end of 2011 being frustrated and disappointed with Fringe. I wrote a review or two and did two podcasts about the first part of the series’ fourth season and if you recall those products, you’ll remember that I felt like Fringe’s approach to this second pair of universes was too slow, too obvious and frankly, not that interesting. The series created two new worlds and wanted to spend a lot of time showing us the “differences” between these two and “our two,” but the changes the writers made were so small that they felt pointless. New Olivia has a deeper relationship with Nina and New Walter can barely go outside. You’ve completely erased the characters I’ve grown to love for three years so you can tell stories with that one beat? OK, sure.

Moreover, the weirdest part of it all was that some episodes and certain “changes” in the characters we used to know played entirely lifeless. The first few episodes spent a lot of time telling us – and definitely not showing us – how these worlds and people were different, and then the plot just sort of moved on. There’s been little explanation about exactly what, in a macro sense, is that dissimilar about the two new universes. Is Peter’s lack of existence the sole reason everything is different? Did all other events happen in the exact same way? Apparently, those questions don’t matter, because golly there’s a case of the week to solve!

The changes made weren’t impactful enough to justify doing them in the first place and the way the series sort of nonchalantly moved on without exploring the dissimilarities in detail (particularly compared to season three), made very little sense. Combined, those two elements left me very cold on Fringe in the fall.

However, I enjoyed the last few episodes of the fall run, despite having major problems, and knew that the true “fall finale” was shoved until now because of wonky scheduling matters. Thus, my excitement for last night’s “Back to Where You’ve Never Been” was at a legitimately high level. And although I wouldn’t say the episode subsided my fears about the overall seemingly aimless direction of the season, I will say that “Back to Where You’ve Never Been” is a small step towards something better.

One of the biggest disappointments of the season for me has been the lack of time spent in the “alternate” universe. Outside of some short time in the premiere and one other episode, most of the action has been centered in “our” universe and that’s stripped us from being able to get to know the altered versions of Walter, Olivia, Broyles and Lincoln. The great thing about season three of Fringe is that it was dedicated to telling stories about all the characters so that we would get a great sense of who they were and ultimately recognize that context was key. Fauxlivia and Walternate just tried to do the best that they could with the circumstances they were given, and while that might have led the latter to becoming supremely antagonistic towards “our side,” there were damn good reasons for it. No one, really, was a villain last season. Everyone had their reasons for doing things that we could totally understand.

“Back” finally starts that process in this new pair of universes. Peter’s decision to stop screwing around in a world full of people he does not care about* and who cannot help him forces the action into the alternate universe, but it also forces New Olivia and New Lincoln to actually be active participants in a story instead of oddly flaccid, boring versions of the characters we love. The moment where New Olivia fixes New Lincoln’s hair to make sure he blends in as the other Lincoln is probably my favorite moment of the season for both characters. Those are the kinds of touches this season has lacked in spades.

*Peter was very adamant about his lack of desire to be involved with the issues and relationships of these foreign versions of the people he loves/hates. While that’s clearly part of a larger story to have him grow closer to them in some way(s), Peter’s coldness towards everyone reminded me of the determined shapeshifter-killing Peter from last season. That determination has led Peter to darkness before and I’m curious to see if it does again, or if those scenes were only there to set up future pay-offs.

It appears as though the writers wanted to hold off on meeting New Walternate so that they could build tension about him being the super-bad man behind the new shapeshifters and while I respect that decision in the abstract, I never particularly bought that this version of Walternate was behind anything and last night’s episode proved me correct. The first scene between Peter and Walternate still was still tension-filled, but it was still a misdirect I think most of us probably saw coming. I do, however, quite like this version of Walternate. In Peter’s pair of universes, the Walters continue to do everything they can to gain get their son back. In this pair, the two men reacted differently to Peter’s death. New Walter lost control of his mind and is now terrified to help Peter, but New Walternate appears to be a controlled and fairly honorable man. He wants to help, obviously for selfish reasons, but also because I think he cares in a way New Walter just cannot because of how haunted he is.

Scenes like the final one with Peter and New Walternate or the one earlier in the episode when New Lincoln convinces New Fauxlivia that he knows she’s a good person are Fringe’s strength. For all its appearances of complex mythology, the series worked so well for three seasons because it privileged the characters and their emotions above all else. That kind of emotional potency has been missing from season four. The story here was still fairly plot-heavy and there’s still no real indication of where this is all headed, but forcing characters to interact with one another can only be a good thing for a story that had become stilted.

Other thoughts:

  • David Robert Jones! I’m weary of what his return actually means for the convoluted nature of this plot, but if you’re going to do a new pair of universes gimmick, you might as well embrace it by bringing back one of your best characters.
  • The final scene with September and New Olivia was surprising, but also seems dumb. Last season it was all about Peter and prophecies (which I know weren’t really true, but still) and now OLIVIA MUST DIE. That sort of manufactured tension bothers me, and with the series struggling anyway, it really bothers me.
  • Peter is dreaming of home. I’m growing weary that we won’t get back there for a very long time, and perhaps never, since the series is likely to get canceled this spring.

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