I complained recently about one of my favorite shows, Parks and Recreation, going off the rails in its final season by taking its natural positivity and detonating it into continual happy endings so excessive they seemed like the promises you read in chain emails.
Now I want to remember a show that did pull off a kick-ass final season by pushing its characters into new directions (which they somehow rendered inevitable). That show is 30 Rock.
30 Rock was renewed for its 7th season in 2012 with the understanding that its 13 episodes would be it for the show. This is, incidentally, the same arrangement that Parks and Recreation got for its final season, which was also its seventh. Perhaps 30 Rock was thinking further ahead; a lot of the plotlines that pay off in season 7 were set up in season 6. Of course, you could say the same about Parks and Recreation. Basically, both shows seem to have had the exact same advantages and disadvantages, and while Parks and Rec provided a sweaty, dubious final season, 30 Rock’s was concise, heartwarming, surprising (and still funny!).
The final season structure. The Fringe production staff knew going in that they would have 13 episodes in which to close out the show, and they carried it out very well. The dystopic future in which it would take place had been established in a fourth season episode (4.19, “Letters of Transit”), and the fifth season launched right in where that episode left off. From there, the season took on sort of a scavenger hunt structure: there were videotapes that led to various objects which in some context were going to eventually build a machine that would save the world. This allowed several of the early- to middle-season episodes to be simply single-task procedurals with a dystopian backdrop, and then to become more important in hindsight as the plan came together. Meanwhile, we got to see different aspects of this New and Different World as the tasks took the Fringe team to different areas and through different survivor subcultures (some more interesting than others). All very shrewd moves. The gamble the Fringe writers and producers took setting their last season in an environment entirely foreign from the show in its previous incarnation showed a lot of nerve, and they could have dropped the ball in a LOT of ways. Overall, I think they made it a success.
More time spent with September, the fallen Observer. The one whom we had seen the most of, previously, but whom I feared was gone forever after crazy Charlotte-from-Lost shot him in the fourth season finale. And he didn’t appear for awhile, until suddenly, there he was again, only he looked like a person, his Observer qualities having been erased by the removal of his Observer chip. With that floppy-haired wig they had on him, actor Michael Cerveris looked weirdly like Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, only scruffier. So, not unhandsome. He explained a lot about the Observers that we didn’t know before, and then figured significantly in the final executed plan, up to and including dying heroically. Great work, September!
The animated interlude in “Black Blotter”. Seasons two, three, and four all made a big deal out of their episode 19, shifting out of the continuity of the usual show to do something weird and different. Season 2 it was a noir musical, season 3 an animated trip through Olivia’s subconscious. Season 4 was the aforementioned flash-ahead to the Observer dictatorship. (By the way, we should thank 4.19 for probably being the episode that sold Fox on Fringe’s wrap-up season. “It’ll all be like this! Isn’t it strange and different?”) Anyway, with a 13-episode season, there was no episode 19 to properly house a bizarre step out of narrative reality, so they slid it into “Black Blotter,” as the LSD trip that reminds Walter of the passphrase he didn’t know he knew.
Nina Sharp’s defiant end (and her dynamite silver hair). Most of our regular characters spent twenty years in suspended animation and thus their fifth-season 2036 selves looked just like their fourth season 2011 selves. Nina (and Broyles, but we didn’t see so much of him) had aged both appropriately and spectacularly into a wheelchaired, silver-haired old broad. She manages from her position (could she still be heading Massive Dynamic at her age? Isn’t she probably more of a CEO Emeritus?) to assist the Fringe team on the down low until episode 10 when she is discovered to have been subverting Observer rule and is surrounded in her secret underground lab. Instead of allowing herself to be taken by the Observers and have her mind read (putting the rest of the team in danger), she puts a gun to her own head instead. (But not before letting the Observers confront her so she can throw some choice words at them first!)
Windmark as a villain. Fringe always worked best when it had a strong evil presence pulling the strings on the side of bad: Walternate, David Robert Jones. The fifth season (actually that fourth season preview episode) introduced the cold and calculating leader of the invading Observers, Captain Windmark. Like all Observers, he’s calm in the face of insubordination, because he can almost always crush it. He even managed to best Etta, whose ability to mask her thoughts had previously kept her on top of things. My favorite moment of Windmark evil was when he was interrogating Broyles (whom he knows to be treasonous), blaming him for having loyalty to humans, and then cops to himself being prey to at least one emotion: hate. We felt it, dude!
Returns and wrapups. I was very excited when the penultimate episode had Olivia crossing over into the alt-verse one last time, just long enough for us to get updated on the comings-and-goings of our alt-friends. A remarkably well-preserved Fauxlivia appears to be head of her division and is married to a gray-haired but otherwise barely-aged Lincoln Lee. Walternate has retired from the government and from evildoing and lectures at Harvard. Whether the redverse still suffers cataclysmic events from tears in the fabric of their universe we don’t know; we do know that they haven’t been enslaved by Observers, so they have that going for them at least. Beyond that, we got to find out what Sam Weiss was up to while the Fringe team snoozed in amber. We had the return of the Observer boy (although, see cons below). We even got to see the show return to one of its best heart-tugging episodes, season 2’s “White Tulip” by bringing back that blasted white tulip to make us cry over its deepened contextual value in the finale.
Walter’s end. I wanted somebody in the central Fringe team to die before the end. Not because of blood lust, mind you, but because of stakes. A battle for the fate of the world needs some personal losses to have emotional resonance. The early death of Etta didn’t count towards this even though it was kind of devastating (see cons) because she was too new to the team. So I was excited to see how the final episode managed to not kill Walter exactly but still take him away from the life he knew and from the people he loves. The note of self-sacrifice sort of beautifully brought his character full circle as well, negating the narcissism and selfishness of his youthful choices.
The Observer makeup. My antenna doesn’t pick up Fox, so I watched the entire fifth season on Hulu, which, if I’m not mistaken, streams an HD broadcast of the show. God knows it was a crisp picture, one in which I could see literally every pore on every actor’s face. It really destroyed the effect of the Observers’ paleness, having to see white makeup caked into the peaks and valleys of everybody’s skin.
Killing Etta. Though I should have known that the finale would allow the timeline to be rewritten such that this never happened, I did not immediately foresee that at the end of “The Bullet That Saved the World,” when Windmark shot Etta point blank, and she detonated an explosive to take into the next life as many Observers as she could. This event depressed me so considerably that I didn’t watch the show again for almost five weeks! You have these main characters, Peter and Olivia, that you love, and then you have to watch them watch their kid die? It wasn’t cool for Etta’s sake really, either; whereas Peter, Olivia, Walter, and Astrid all got to spend 20 years of the dystopia in suspended animation, Etta lived through the whole thing from the time she was a little girl. It was more her fight than anyone’s; for her to lose her own battle so early on seemed unfair to her. I just really did not like this development, then or now. It didn’t even seem gutsy on the part of the writers and producers. It just seemed mean.
The Peter-as-Observer detour. Well, that was pointless. They tried the Peter Descends Into Darkness thing before, in season 3, when he was serial killing shapeshifters. This time, he inserted a chip into his neck to gain the cognitive abilities of the Observers (to be able to defeat them at their own game and thus avenge Etta). And even though it made sense for the character emotionally following Etta’s death, it was frustrating to watch, and then the show stepped back from it within three episodes. If you’re gonna go there, go there! Send Peter fully to Observerdom, make the others have to kill him! But that would have been reeeeeeeeally dark. And I wouldn’t have liked it either.
The Observer boy. So, the Observer boy was one of the nods to past plots; in theory, he first appeared in a season 1 episode (1.15, “Inner Child”). Here are my various problems with that, though. First, they didn’t bring back the same kid, probably because that kid had gotten too old, but the kid they got this time around was kind of awful. He wasn’t as cute as the first boy. Not to contribute to any internet memes, but under his bad Observer makeup (see above) this kid is obviously a redhead with intense freckles, and that’s wrong. Gingers are just as good as any other people, except when they are acting on Fringe as Observers, and then they look stupid. Secondly, major plot points hinged on how psychologically and intellectually developed the kid was. He doesn’t speak—ever—for the five episodes that he is in. Neither did the first kid, but he was physically responsive to other characters speaking and had—how do I describe it?—a sensitive face. He seemed like a kid with deep thoughts. This fifth season kid? No way. This kid seemed to have the depth of a thimble. Bad casting. Bad bad casting.
Anil and the other incredibly boring rebels. Speaking of bad casting. Or maybe it was indifferent casting, or indifferent plotting, but Etta’s friends and co-revolutionaries, who occasionally dropped in to provide the Fringe team with info or ammunition or to helpfully explain some convention of the Observer world, were none of them the least bit interesting in their own right. Not even the most visible of them, Anil, who exhibited the classic television equation of “Scottish is to accent as edgy is to personality.” We got one episode with Henry Ian Cusick (Lost’s Desmond) as Etta’s partner in season 4, and he was eleven times more interesting than any of these other guys. Is that why he had to die?
No last-ditch effort to make Astrid a person. Astrid has forever been an underserved part of the Fringe narrative. We never knew much about her life outside the investigation of the week, although there were a couple personal moments in season 4: when we met her father, and when she told Olivia that she sees the FBI’s shrink every week to deal with her work. That admission was more about Olivia (wondering if she had grown desensitized to her work if she didn’t need the same kind of emotional tending that Astrid did), but I think it was still a strong character beat for her. Astrid always clearly knew she was by far the most normal/functional of any of the Fringe team, and it seemed when she said she saw a shrink that she was professing how hard she works towards that.
BUT ANYWAY. Season five went by in its entirety without ever addressing one fact I wish they would have addressed: though Astrid must have had loved ones outside the Fringe team payroll, she will never see them again. Olivia and the Bishops are family. Olivia never mentioned whether her sister and niece had survived the Observer apocalypse, but she had her husband and father-in-law there, and her daughter, at least to start, so she was contented enough when she woke up from the amber. What about Astrid? Were her parents still living? Friends? Siblings if she had any? As far as we know, Astrid never questioned or looked for any other people in her life after awaking from a 20-year slumber, all because she was never important enough to the story to have the opportunity. (Sorry, Jasika Nicole. You were lovely. I hope your next job gives you more to do.)
The Fringe team become terrorists. This was a fifth season development to which I never quite grew accustomed. The previous four seasons, the Fringe team were indisputably the good guys, or at least Olivia was (Walter was on the side of good, atoning for having been a bad guy in his past). The fifth season reboot found them fugitives under an unjust dictatorial regime. And to overthrow this regime, our heroes engaged in any number of destructive and/or lethal activities, in many cases even using technology that had previously been used against them. This new conception of our team was especially obvious in moments like the one in “Black Blotter,” when Olivia, Peter, Astrid, and Walter engage a small boat to take them across a river to pick up the Observer boy. They bribe the dock guy and are just taking off when a vessel full of Loyalist offiers pulls up and demands to see their paperwork. The team are all outlaws, off the grid—why they never got falsified paperwork, I don’t know—maybe the bioinformatics of the future made it impossible—but anyway, the Fringe team responded the only way they could, by blowing away the entire crew. That’s a lot of people to just kill, and I still just don’t know how I feel about this.
Fringe has always been a bit laissez-faire about guns and killing bad guys. People always praise those cop shows where the cops hardly ever use their weapons, and Fringe was not that show. Some rainy day I want to count how many villains and their henchmen Olivia felled without breaking a sweat. And I guess righteous revolutions have different rules re: acceptable human losses. Still, this was not a season for the morally squeamish.