01/20/2013 01:04 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2013

'Fringe' Finale Review: The Pleasures And Pain Of A Show That Created Its Own Fate

Don't read on unless you've seen "Liberty"/"An Enemy of Fate," the series finale of "Fringe."

To get to the important facts first: Of course Walter Bishop made me tear up during the "Fringe" finale. Or, I should say, John Noble made me misty, more than once, during the "Fringe" finale. The lab scene in which he said goodbye to Peter was moving, thanks to Noble and Josh Jackson's wonderful work and the undoubtedly real emotions the men felt as the cast filmed the finale.

And the scene between Astrid (Jasika Nicole) and Walter snuck up on me as well. I was hoping for a Gene moment before the series ended, and to have those two characters reaffirm their bond as they gazed on the ambered cow made for a wonderful mixture of nostalgia and affection. Astrid is a lovely name.

The thing is, I knew going in to the finale that I'd probably only be able to appreciate pieces of it. I was fairly certain that moments, scenes, performances and callbacks would satisfy me; I knew better than to expect a finale that would truly hang together or satisfy on macro levels. The micro -- the interpersonal and the specific -- would have to suffice. And a number of moments like that (including Walter's joyous "That is cool!" as an Observer floated away) made me glad I stuck around for the finale.

But I kept having a recurring thought throughout the show's last three hours: I wish I could rearrange this whole season (if not beyond). The show waited until the endgame was nigh to introduce a humanized September, it didn't compellingly fill in the Observer mythology until very late in the game, and it waited until the very end of the series to bring Donald into the group's orbit. Holy red vines, all that was frustrating to ponder as the last few hours unfolded.

This is just something that "Fringe" does, though -- a couple of seasons ago I began resigning myself to the way, in recent seasons, it held off good ideas and embraced questionable ones. I appreciate its penchant for risk-taking -- and clearly that has paid off in the past, most consistently in Season 3 -- but after that high point, the show tended to make big, show-changing choices I didn't agree with, and then take far too long to arrive at any kind of payoff for those choices.

For example, Peter's decision to enter the device at the end of Season 3 was noble and I loved Jackson's work in that scene. It certainly made sense that Peter would want to make that sacrifice, given the man that he'd become, thanks to the influence of his father and Olivia. But the Peter-less chunk of Season 4 was often difficult to wade through, and ultimately, the show never truly regained the mojo it had had during large parts of Season 2 and 3. At some point, "Fringe" kind of fell in love with change for its own sake, and it wandered away for long periods from what powered its finest moments -- the complex bonds among Olivia, Peter and Walter.

Ah well. What are you going to do? The fact that I thought the "Fringe" producers' choices ultimately led to diminishing returns for the show wasn't going to change anything. So I stuck around for the cast's great work and for the moments the show was still capable of creating on occasion. Now and then, it would pull a vintage "Fringe" vibe out of its hat; there were still moments and episodes in which the experiments and the manipulations of space and time and character were used to create emotionally resonant scenarios. The show sometimes got results, even if the means of doing so could be debatable.

But the show's addiction to alteration and evolution had a side-effect: It taught me that the "Fringe" universe could be a Choose Your Own Adventure affair. If the writers could mix things up and change events and scenarios at will, why couldn't I? And so I did -- in my head, anyway.

One of my biggest problems with Season 5 of "Fringe" is that the Observers have been boring villains. They know how to manipulate time and they want to keep everyone under control -- that's basically most of what we know about them. They were, by design, colorless and robotic. If I don't know the bad guys' back story and most things about their motivations and history are opaque, it's hard to invest in an ongoing conflict with them. In Season 5, these odd ducks were suddenly the Big Bad, but I don't think the show did a good job of making me understand or care why that was the case.

If it were up to me, the revelations about the Observers, September and the connections to Michael would have started to arrive in Episode 2 or 3 of the fifth season. We learned key facts about them and their genesis in the last three hours, and what we did learn was pretty interesting. If the show had filled in their mythology earlier in the season, there's a good chance they may have been more interesting antagonists.

Same goes for Donald/September. Michael Cerveris was so great in the Donald role (and September as well) that I would have loved to have seen more of him this year. Think about how wonderful it would have been to see his love for Michael blossom over 12 or 13 hours, as opposed to one or two. We hardly saw them interact in the finale, and that was an opportunity missed.

But weird pacing afflicted both the finale and the season as a whole. We'd barely started to get to know Ella when she was killed off, and Peter's "I want to become an Observer" arc was similarly truncated. Yet we had time for jaunts out to the magnet lady's compound and other less-compelling stops along the device scavenger-hunt trail.

If time could be rewritten and the Moebius strip of connections and consequences laid out a different way, here's what I would have done: I'd have taken out a lot of the techno-jargon of the last few hours, and made time for a longer Over There reunion. I would have created a season in which some combination of Etta, Peter, Olivia, Broyles, September, Lincoln Lee, Fauxlivia and Astrid battled Observers whose history we knew better and whose fight against emotion could have been their collective undoing. The hints that we got that Windmark had become ensnared by emotions were enticing: Imagine a season in which he (and others) were driven and unsettled by this new drug -- feelings.

In the end, though, Olivia's telekinetic powers (which took on a "deus ex machina" flavor, given how long it's been since we'd seen them) defeated Windmark, and the whole plot depended on the decision of a scientist in the future we'd never met. Why would this nameless person go along with the urgings of a charmingly cracked scientist? How would a mute boy help persuade the future scientist to end his inquiries? I don't know, but it made for stakes that felt theoretical rather than real. Why was the final hour structured so oddly, with many scenes of those in the lab talking and hanging around after Broyles had told them the Observers were on their way? I don't know, but it drained a large portion of the finale of its momentum and energy.

Thank goodness I made my peace with "Fringe" and its frustrating ability to trip itself up some time ago. Ultimately, I could just let a lot of things go, and wait for the moments that did work-- the slices that I could cut out of the surrounding tissue, like those much-discussed removable bits of Walter's brain.

In the final three hours, I enjoyed all the callouts to previous episodes and seasons, particularly the "everything and the kitchen-sink bacteria" nature of the toxic cloud Olivia and Peter used on the Observers' building. Cerveris was terrific, as were Lance Reddick, Seth Gabel and Blair Brown (Nina's death was suitably noble in "Anomaly XB-6783746"). Donald's death scene and Michael playing the music box was a beautifully sad moment.

And the last look between Peter and Walter was moving, as I knew it would be. It was strange (a little disappointing) that ultimately it was Michael who played a key role in saving the world, rather than Olivia, who'd had such importance to the show for so long (as Ryan McGee convincingly does, you could make the argument that both Peter and Olivia didn't feel truly vital to a fair amount of the last few episodes -- they were around, but were they consistently the lynchpins of anything, on a plot or emotional basis?). But the theme of the final few hours was fathers and sons and their connections, and even if I have misgivings about what got left out, thanks to the cast, a lot of moments related to those ideas worked well.

And so we ended with Peter receiving the white tulip, which was a callback to one of the show's finest episodes, and also a symbol of the bond between the fans and those making the show (audience members held them up at the show's final Comic-Con panel).

It's also a symbol of a few other things: forgiveness (in "White Tulip," Walter wanted redemption for all the secrets he'd kept from his son); connection (the kinds that last across time and space); and confusion (after consultations with both friends and the Internet, I think I understand how Peter could have gotten Walter's letter in that timeline -- maybe -- but I'll admit trying to figure that out caused me a certain amount of fried-brain syndrome).

It was, the more I thought about it, the perfect symbol of the show. After that scene had ended, the potential for time paradoxes and confusion hit me, and I began to try to figure out the intellectual side of the letter's transit.

But in the moment, as I watched the finale, the thought and emotion behind the gesture were clear. So I can let the confusion go, embrace the sentiment behind the white tulip and ultimately be grateful the show got to go out on its own terms.

I never imagined a timeline in which we'd get five seasons of "Fringe." All things considered, when I think about all the things the show did right over the years and how wonderful the cast was, there's no paradox. I'm simply grateful.

Several TV writers (including me) mused on what we'll miss about "Fringe" in this post.

Fringe Season 5