Fans of “Fringe” know that its days are numbered. Despite the fervent fandom that seems to gather around this kind of show, the Fox series never managed to pull in serious numbers, and its move to the Friday night death-slot only confirms what people have suspected. The writing’s on the wall: unless something spectacular happens, this year is the last we’ll see the Fringe Division of either parallel Earth.
It’s interesting, then, that with a finite number of episodes left, the writers are spending time reinventing the show. Peter Bishop, one of the main characters and the unintentional catalyst for the war between Earth-1 and Earth-2, was erased from time in the Season 3 finale and the first two episodes of the new season spend considerable time (including an exposition-heavy rant from Walter Bishop) explaining the historical differences now that he’s no longer around. Olivia Dunham is as cold as she was in season one, and Walter Bishop is even less stable. But these changes feel like wasted space; the writers have already sown the seeds of Peter’s return (as if there was any other doubt), and it’s somewhat difficult to care about the altered timeline when it could snap back at any moment.
However, this part of the mythology has mostly been dealt with on the fringes (no pun intended) of the episodes so far. The premiere was a formulaic and unmemorable “freak of the week” episode to showcase the new dynamic of the team, but it ignored what’s most exciting about this new season: the joining of Earths-1 and 2. This was something the second episode, “One Night in October” handled with aplomb. Acting as both Olivia and Fauxlivia (the Olivia of Earth-2), Anna Torv managed to show off some mean acting chops. Since we first met Fauxlivia, Torv has impressed me with her ability to pull off two variations of the same character, but until I saw them acting alongside each other for an entire episode I didn’t appreciate the subtle nuance used to distinguish them. The differences extend beyond their hair color and personality quirks to the way they style and carry themselves. Several actors on the show play alternate versions of themselves, of course, but none are as nuanced as Torv’s performances.
This was echoed by the primary mystery of “October,” when John McClennan, a criminal profiler from Earth-1, was brought in to investigate himself, a serial killer on Earth-2. Bringing an outsider in on the madness that is Fringe Division was a fantastic and much needed reframing of the situation. The best stories about the parallel worlds have always involved how slight changes in our history can radically change who we are; while I felt that McClennan’s serendipitous encounter with the woman who changed his life wasn’t particularly subtle, the episode is still one of my favorite stories the show has told using the two worlds.
There’s no question that “Fringe” is on its way out. But for the first time, it’s not too upsetting that a show I enjoy is getting canceled. It’s not that it’s a worse show–I mean, even “Dollhouse” upset me more than this. But “Fringe” didn’t live past its prime, nor did it never reach its full potential. It’s a show with three years of solid storytelling that’s reaching a natural conclusion. It’s true; I’m not sold on this season of “Fringe” yet. The writers are playing their long game a bit too close to the chest for me to be invested in the arc just yet. But when you look back at older “Fringe” stories, it’s fascinating to see how the show has evolved. Unlike certain other J.J. Abrams shows, mysteries aren’t used to lead the audience on, but to push the story forward. Solving one, like “the Pattern,” motivates another, like the parallel worlds. Olivia put it best in the premiere: “Sometimes answers lead to more questions.” It’s practically the show’s mission statement. “Fringe” may not be long for this (or any) world, but it’s clear that in the meantime it has plenty of tricks up its sleeve.