Most television shows like to live in a nice, comfortable place where things don't really change and at the end of every episode, characters are mostly back to where they started. Not Fringe. Even for a series that goes from 2-D to 3-D with the layers it presents each season, the storytelling device used in Season 4 was a huge risk that pissed off a lot of people.
Heck, the season started with one of the show's main characters completely missing, only flickering on the screen for split-second moments or appearing in the reflections of televisions. Naturally, this did not sit well with Olive Eaters (a name I just made up for Olivia-Peter 'shippers), and many fans complained that it undermined all the growing up we did with Peter, Olivia, and Walter (and Astrid!) in the show's first three seasons. All of a sudden we were in a new timeline where things were the same but incredibly different, as if we'd wiped the hard drive but still had the original system software. Walter was a lonely, sheltered kook, Olivia was the same drab agent we'd known in early Season 1, and only Peter was privy to what had happened in the previous 65 episodes.
I'm not sure this plan totally worked, but I found it to be a daring and fresh way to tell the stories of the characters' relationships all over again. And from a philosophical standpoint, it raised all the right questions...which I subsequently went crazy over: "What would happen if I never existed?" "Would my girlfriend still love me if we'd met at a different time?" "Are various iterations of ourselves still recognizable?" (Season 4 was the advanced course on that last topic; it was touched on in Seasons 2 and 3 on a 101 level.) In this sense, Season 4 actually outshone Fringe's previous seasons in the TV-for-thought department, and for the most part did a fantastic job with it.
Season 4 also played a lot with inter-universe action, which is totally badass. In retrospect, I actually wish Fringe had done more of this. I was such a fan of "One Night in October" (Episode 2), which brought a man over to the Other Side to help him catch his murderous counterpart—it could have been a fantastic template for the season. Imagine if Season 4 had dealt with the world slowly realizing the existence of multiple universes. That's a whole new can of worms that would have been mind-blowing to witness; just think about millions of people crawling over each other to get to the Other Side to see their dead pet parrot, a Cubs World Series win, or the seventh season of Firefly.
Instead, the inter-universe stuff was just first chapter of one of three overlapping arcs that made up Season 4. The first focused on the teamwork between the two universes and getting Peter back home. The second was the wonderful love story between Peter and New Olivia, which really got the brain and heart working. Seriously, if the Peter/New Olivia situation didn't make your heart ache, then GET OUT! We're sensitive types here who like to share their feelings! The storyline played to one of Fringe's strengths, which is creating engaging characters and situations. Even if we knew that Peter and Olivia would get together, we didn't know which Olivia it would be, we didn't know where Peter would end up, and the writers kept everything hidden exquisitely so we could sit around have plenty to talk about. If I had to choose, I'd say Season 4 was at its strongest during the Peter/Olivia love story arc, specifically that fantastic run from Episodes 12 through 15. Initially I thought the big Peter and Olivia thing would extend through the end of the season, but the writers had bigger plans.
And HUGE-GANTIC plans they were. Season 4's final leg focused on stopping David Robert Jones, and ultimately William Bell, from destroying our entire universe and the alternate universe and probably like a hundred other universes we don't even know exist in order to play God and create a new world where there's no shame in being a porcupine person. As I said in my episodic reviews, the two-part finale didn't make for as satisfying a finish for me; many of the layers Fringe is famous for were flattened, resulting in "let's catch the bad guy" one-dimensional storytelling. But in terms of wrapping things up and provide a finish that was fine in a summer movie kind of way, the two-parter did the trick. The events leading up to the final showdown were still intriguing, but once the bridge to the other universe was shut down, a huge part of Fringe went into hibernation, stuck in the amber of being shoved off to the side. Would the season have benefited if the spoilers from "Letters of Transit" hadn't been revealed? Olivia's pregnancy and Astrid's survival, two monumental moments in the two-part finale, were pretty much guaranteed based on what we saw in 2036.
In the technical departments, Fringe was once again blessed by superior acting. Joshua Jackson was his normal steady self, but Anna Torv and John Noble once again carried a huge load. Torv did wonders with all her characters, so much so that Olivia and Fauxlivia seemed like completely different people, but Old Olivia and New Olivia were immediately recognizable as individuals. That's serious acting skills when you think about it. Noble did the same with Walternate, and provided the best demonstration of acting his ass off when Walternate and Walter had their heart-to-heart. Production wise, the effects department was way on-it with what little budget it had to work with. The look and feel of Fringe caters to cheap filmmaking, but when they need to go big, they can. It was another great year for the people behind the scenes.
Season 4 had its ups and downs with specific plotting, but the season was remarkably well paced—there were few, if any, lulls. It did a great job of furthering the implementation of "mythalone" episodes (episodes featuring a case-of-the-week that thematically speaks to the overall story) and raising questions that transcended the events on screen. In that sense, Fringe really found its footing as an intelligent sci-fi drama. The season was also remarkably consistent in its high quality, and I think that had a lot to do with the way the season was parsed. It got to tell three huge stories in smaller arcs, rather than in one long, drawn-out season with filler. I thoroughly enjoyed it!
The Fringe Season 4 Superlative Awards
Best use of trans-universal device:
"One Night in October" (Episode 2). The professor who crossed universes to profile himself as a serial killer would still be twitching on the ground from the brain beatdown he took if he wasn't forced to forget everything. A great episode that only Fringe could pull off.
Best mythalone episode:
"And Those We've Left Behind" (Episode 6). This was just a killer story about the extent to which we'll go for a loved one. Stephen Root as a husband trying to help his dementia-stricken particle physics professor wife (real-life wife Romy Rosemont) was strong enough to be its own hour, but the way it tied into Peter and Olivia's situation was beautiful. Fringe at its mythalone best.
Best mythology episode:
"The End of All Things" (Episode 14). This great hour featured one of the scenes we've been looking forward to for years: Peter learning some truths from September by mind-jacking him. But it was also bookended by some great relationship stuff, as Peter and Olivia's hook-up was interrupted by a kidnapping and the episode ended with Peter turning his back on a heartbroken Olivia.
Best secondary character episode:
Tie: "Making Angels" (Episode 11) and "Everything In Its Right Place" (Episode 17). In "Angels," Astrid told her counterpart a white lie for her own good. In "Everything," Lincoln found the place where he belonged. Two great chapters that totally did these characters justice.
"Welcome to Westfield" (Episode 12). Walter, Olivia, and Peter got stuck in the town of Westfield, the eye of a storm that DRJ was using as an experiment on the effects of punching holes in the universe. The hour was claustrophobic and tense, and gave us a guy with two faces. And the freakiness wasn't confined to Westfield; when Peter came back to New Olivia's, she kissed him like he never left.
Best episode still searching for a superlative that's fitting:
"Letters of Transit" (Episode 19). I initially thought this episode was the writers having fun with a possible future scenario, but apparently it was much more important than that and will play a big role in Season 5. Totally fun with a fascinating bummer of a future, "Letters of Transit" showed off the series' imagination and just how much longer Fringe is capable of going.
"Alone in the World" (Episode 3). Telepathic moss instructed a boy to bring bullies to its den so it could kill them. Bleh.
Best Walter quote:
"Peace out!" So simple, so perfect. Other good ones: "I think it's in my Spider-Man fanny pack." "These are not the droids you are looking for." "I'm feeling more peckish than thirsty." And, while approaching a kid in a blood-spattered apron, "Alright young man, let's get started—take off your shirt and hop on the table."
And that's it! I'll be back in the fall to cover Season 5 unless I win the lottery or get stuck in another universe. What did you think of Season 4 as a whole?
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom