Note: Do not read on if you have not seen the Season 4 finale of "Fringe," entitled "Brave New World Part 2."
Genetically mutated dinosaurs? A Cortexiphan baby? Leonard Nimoy? Brain-laced lemon cake?
You can't say there wasn't a lot going on in the May 11 "Fringe" finale. But weirdly enough, that's always been part of the problem with this unlikely survivor, which has been renewed for a fifth and final season.
The Fox show is always trying to balance "stuff" -- the complex mythology that has grown up around the Observers, Olivia Dunham, Walter Bishop, his old friend William Bell, his son Peter and a number of alternate worlds and scenarios -- with the ultimate emotional impact of the stories it tells.
It's not an easy balance to strike, and Season 4 was something of an object lesson in the perils of ideas that seem cool on paper, but can lessen the cumulative impact of what's happening on both the characters and the audience. The stories jumped around so much and the show has so many versions of characters and universes that it's hard to feel as deeply invested in any of it as I was in the show's third season, when "Fringe" was at its most consistently thrilling.
I love complex mythologies, but only when they make the stories and the characters and their relationships richer, deeper and more likely to move me. In its fourth season, "Fringe" provided some interesting episodes and some satisfying moments -- often due to the talents of its exceptional cast -- but it wasn't the show's finest hour. It's worth recalling that the Season 2 and 3 storylines with the most impact involved relatively simple concepts: They largely revolved around lies and the impact of characters finding out about those deceptions. Those stories' effectiveness wasn't especially dependent on elaborate structural conceits.
Don't get me wrong: I'm happy that, after a break of several months, I caught up with what I'd missed, and the second half of the show's season supplied some wonderfully creepy moments and nicely calibrated quandaries for the characters. I just wish all the side trips and excursions had added up to more, and I'm hoping that in its fifth season, "Fringe" does what it has done at its best: use imaginative storytelling to go for the emotional jugular.
Ultimately, I hope that I won't have to watch Season 5 with the sense of reduced expectations that I brought to Season 4, which got less clunky and more engaging as it progressed, but which still contained a number of parallels and metaphors that didn't leave much to the imagination.
Still, there was the look on Walter Bishop's face when he realized how much he loved this "new" version of his son; there was the look on Walter's face when, beset by anxieties during a visit to the mental hospital where he'd previously lived, he spotted Peter, who had come to collect him. The relief on his face was heartbreaking. And there was the way that Peter and a different Olivia fell in love again, which was so sweet that I was willing to forgive the fact that the show had its lemon cake and ate it too by having the "new" Olivia and the previous one essentially morph into the same person.
I would have liked it if more attention had been paid to that love story, and there was a lot about the finale that felt rushed as well. Though the storyline involving "Lost's" Rebecca Mader was admirably tense (and suitably freaky-scary), the overall story didn't quite track in its second half. How could one individual, even one chock-full of Cortexiphan, power the collision of two worlds? That just seems preposterous, even allowing for the heightened realities in which "Fringe" functions. I also thought the fall from a helicopter could have killed Peter and Olivia (who barely had a scratch), and the great Jared Harris was criminally underused as David Robert Jones.
And while it was great to see Leonard Nimoy again, his Belly was slotted into a fairly standard arrogant-villain role. And isn't it odd that the world was apparently ending, but a lot of what we saw was a small room on Belly's boat? I'm guessing that "Fringe" may have been overbudget by the time the finale rolled around.
Also, the way that the show undid the grievous injuries of Astrid and Olivia served as a reminder that the stakes can occasionally get dangerously low on this show. There are now a number of extra bodies, magical drugs and alternate universes in play, and it wouldn't be good to keep relying on them for storytelling "Get Out of Jail Free" cards.
Having said all that, there was an admirable pace to the first two-thirds of the finale, and another part of the finale resonated with me, mainly the theme of Olivia as a heroic savior, not unlike Jean Grey of "The X-Men." Olivia's story recalled Grey's Dark Phoenix saga, and after being disappointed by the relatively lackluster endings of the stories of the female characters on "Lost," it was nice to see another mythology-heavy sci-fi show give a woman such an ambitious narrative (and perhaps Olivia's savior role will be expanded and embroidered upon in Season 5).
My favorite moment in the finale was Olivia talking about being used by powerful men for much of her life, and Peter telling her that she was no longer alone in that situation. That's the kind of moment that keeps me coming back to "Fringe."
Once I dove back into Season 4, after a break that gave me time to accept that the show wasn't going back to the way things were, I could see what was attractive to the writers about examining the "Peter-free" version of the "Fringe" universe. I still think the ending of Season 3 was a bad idea and the start of Season 4 was a low point for the show, but I can see how that move allowed "Fringe" to keep playing around with ideas about trust, loss, identity and love.
And some of the resistance to Season 4 was purely personal, I realized a few weeks ago. I have a parent who, thanks to a serious neurological condition, is changing into someone else every few months (or weeks, it seems). Change can be terrifying, and I realize that I may be more resistant to it than most right now. Intellectual ideas about change melt away and don't matter much when faced with someone who is different every time you see them. But I'm learning a lot about letting go and accepting what's in front of me, which is the spirit with which I'll try to face what's coming next.
If I'm being honest, though, it was a relief that the end of the Season 4 finale didn't involve yet another massive alteration or reset for the characters. Olivia's baby will surely add a number of complications (is it even Peter's?), and it looks as though the Observers will be stirring things up once again. It appears I'm going to have to try to be more accepting of time shenanigans, which isn't my strong suit, but for Olivia, Peter, Walter and Astro, I'll give it a shot.
All in all, I still have a great deal of affection for "Fringe." And I'm glad that as the show heads into the home stretch, I can watch the final season with at least a modicum of anticipation. This is a show that takes chances that don't always pay off, but I remain happy that, in our universe, it will close out its five-season run with around 100 episodes.
Talk about truth being stranger than fiction.
A final note: I loathe the Twitter hashtags that Fox puts on the screen during episodes of "Fringe" (a social-media sin that other networks frequently commit as well). If fans want to tweet about something weird or cool happening on their TV screens, that should be part of a spontaneous grass-roots reaction, not a process controlled by a TV show's marketing or publicity agenda. To me, whoever is imposing onscreen hashtags is misunderstanding the very nature and purpose of Twitter, which is all about viewers guiding the conversation and commenting on their spontaneous experiences and reactions. It's not about obedient viewers following the commands they see on screen. #stopit #annoying
Update: A few fans on Twitter told me that the hashtags were part of a fan-generated campaign. Sorry for any incorrect impressions left by the paragraph above. This is the first I've heard of this effort, and I can't be the only viewer who wasn't aware that fans were involved. To elaborate on what I said above, I still find the hashtags distracting and an attempt to guide the conversation in non-spontaneous ways, and that's not something I personally appreciate. This is not singling "Fringe" out: In general, I am not a fan of anything on my TV screen except the show I'm watching. Your mileage may vary.
Follow Maureen Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/moryan