Saturday, February 18, 2012

Humanity on the Fringe

If you haven't caught up with Fringe, through the episode entitled "A Better Human Being" please do so and then come back and take a look at this entry.



I had been slightly worried about this fourth season of Fringe.  It took a precarious leap at the end of last season, with the disappearance of Peter Bishop, and the collision of two universes.  It did, indeed resolve the story line of the season in a neat way, in a way I had almost predicted, but my heart sank in the last moment.  "There's a catch" I reassured myself.  And for four months I got my parents hooked on the series, re-watched every episode and then gave up trying to figure out where in the world the writers would go with this twist.  When the first couple of episodes started, seeming eerily similar to some first season episodes, seeming to stand alone with creatures/powers/impossibilities of the week, with only mere glimpses of the characters I had invested in for 3 seasons I started to worry a bit.  With every kinetic energy flicker of Peter or his "remnant" or whatever anyone would want to call something that is not entirely a physical entity and not entirely a non-entity, my heart broke a bit.  But, once again, as has been true with every season of this show, I need not have worried.  While I think that there could be a case made that the beginning of this fourth season has been a weaker one than the previous two seasons, I think Fringe has also done something incredibly remarkable with this fourth season: it, at least for me, has begun to make an argument as something that's much more than a television show.  It's beginning to be a little transcendent if I may be permitted to use the phrase.

For a show made up of a relatively small ensemble (Broyles, Olivia Dunham, Peter, Walter, Astrid, Lincoln, Nina Sharp and the rarely seen William Bell and sadly gone Charlie), the show has managed to reinvent itself every season.  However unlike shows that sometimes rely on style or increased casting to indicate a new direction, Fringe has instead chosen a more cerebral approach, each season broadening the scope of the issues.   Season two was about coming to terms with the present, season three was about understanding the past and season four is about creating the future, all the while using different variations of the characters fans have become attached to.  There are currently 3 versions of most of our main characters.  There's a Universe A version (ours), a Universe B version (the other side) and a Universe C version (the post-Peter world), but only two of those are in play at the same time on any season.  Overthinking like this aside (sorry, sometimes my brain just gets carried away after watching this show) there's a realization to be arrived at and that's that, to my eyes, the only constant has been Peter Bishop (and let me just take this moment to praise Joshua Jackson for continually doing an exceptional job with a character that is both the most enigmatic and least flashy, an odd, yet brilliant combination) and The Observers.  Now, next week is supposed to be a pretty heavy Observer mythology episode, so I'll put them to the side, because, for this week's thought, they don't really enter too much into my reasoning.

What I wanted to say about this most recent episode is that it seems to have finally brought everything around to the biggest question of all, the one that usually it's up to philosophers and The Who to wrestle with, but Fringe has managed to bring it to network tv, even in all of it's Sci-Fi cloaked glory: Who are we?  What makes us human?  I mean I don't want to sound all hoy polloi here, but in a world where Jersey Shore and The Real(ish) Housewives of all Rich Suburban Counties are standard fallback fare on television, it's a bold question to be asking the audience to ponder.  And while not everyone will take the bit, I certainly have and with each episode, I find myself mesmerized.  And really, I won't get started again on the genius that is John Noble.  You sir, are in a class of your own and I salute you and smile with at least mirth, mostly glee, when you are onscreen.

As I said, in previous seasons I've marveled at the talent of the cast, and the writers, to be able to make me believe that these people who look the same are different people.  I mean that ploy always works in any media where there are twins involved in the plot, but here, it's never the issue of twins.  These are all, actually, biologically the same people, and yet they are all very separate from each other.  I'll never forget the feeling of watching Peter and (Faux)livia finally getting together.  In most series, being the shipper that I am, this is the moment I'm waiting for.  I mean when Pam and Jim finally got together on The Office, I practically thew a party and had balloons made that said "We Be JAM-min'" but with this I had a sinking feeling.  I just wanted to reach into the screen and shout at Peter "It's not right!  Don't you understand, she's NOT Olivia"...but she was Olivia.

This season, with the new (our world, Peter-less) Olivia, there was a completely different way of operating.  Again, she was Olivia and she wasn't.  And you know what, there were moments I thought "I think I actually like Fauxlivia better" and it wasn't just because she has a much more fashion-forward wardrobe.  I mean honestly Olivia, would it KILL you to invest in some casual pants?  But it came from the fact that this new Olivia wasn't going to do any of the things I had come to expect.  I mean she was falling for Lincoln, not Peter, and the only Olivia that is supposed to fall for Lincoln is Fauxlivia, and you know what, it's not even OUR Lincoln that she's supposed to fall for!  I think what I love about the series so much is that it recognizes that there are tropes that every show needs to have, and it does have them, but not in any way that you would expect.

With "A Better Human Being" what the audience finally gets is a teasing reminder of what's been left behind, the Peter and Olivia that have only just begun in the world Peter is trying to get back to, but brought to life in the world he helped create.  The new Olivia is beginning to remember things that Season 3 Olivia would remember and the question that those moments really beg is "What makes us love?"  I think for all of the science and genetic mutations and anomalies of biology and physics that have been explored on this show, those things are all just window dressing.  They're things that make you stay interested for 35 minutes of the show, but deep down, what I, as a viewer want, are those glorious 10-15 minutes of sheer human interaction.  When the machines shut down and it's just Peter and Olivia at home, or when it's just Walter and Peter at a diner with a milkshake or Astrid helping Walter, well do just about everything.  It's those moments, those experiences, those memories that make us who we are.  And it's something that's been drilled into us, as viewers of the show, but without ever saying it out loud.

This episode forces us to confront what we think it is that makes up a human being. In Olivia's case, she's experiencing memories which are forming emotions, which lead her to THINK like our (and Peter's) Olivia.  And biologically she's the same person.  So what does it mean when biology and thoughts are the same?  So while Season 3 was all about Peter realizing he had betrayed Olivia with someone who LOOKED the same, now he feels like he's betraying Olivia with someone who THINKS and FEELS the same, essentially an Olivia who has the same soul.  I mean, granted I feel terrible for Peter, because let's face it, he's in a no-win situation.  There's no amount of flowers or gold in the world that makes it ok for him to eventually go back and say "Honey, I'm so sorry, she sounded and thought and said things JUST LIKE YOU...I thought she was you!" a second time.  But until he has to face that, this season is making for extremely engaging television, making us question, do we love someone because of who they are or because of what we've gone through together?  In honesty, I was just happy to see Peter and Olivia together again, if even for a moment.  All of the best love stories are really only made up of moments anyway, and I know some will hate to hear it, but I think, at its heart, Fringe is a love story.  Not just about Peter and Olivia, but about Walter and Peter and Walter and Astrid and all of those combinations of friendship, family and those we choose to be family.  It's as much about the questions of fate and the people that are meant to be in our lives as it is about the scientific explanations to the other "whys" of life.

I think the ultimate lesson of "A Better Human Being" is that while physical life is about the scientifics of the genetics, daily life, the things we cherish and desire, that's about the connections we form.  Someone recently suggested to me that Peter could eventually become happy and complacent in this new world and that he would stop trying to get back to his world.  I balked at the idea.  Insisting that Peter BELONGED in the other world, in "his" world.  But the more I think about it, the more it seems that Fringe is kind of an elaborate version of The Wizard of Oz.  Although he sort of had to, Peter jumped over the rainbow.  And although Dorothy ultimately made her way back, it's like she says at the end:
      " if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with! Is that right? ....Oh, but anyway, Toto, we're home. Home! And this is my room, and you're all here. And I'm not gonna leave here ever, ever again, because I love you all, and - oh, Auntie Em - there's no place like home! "


And while Peter is looking for home so desperately, what happens if he discovers that he does have everything he needs right here, that he has found home?  As an old cliche assures us, home is where the heart is, and perhaps Peter's heart is realizing that it's not just a place and time. This still doesn't really resolve the issue that this Walter isn't our Walter, but even he is changing week by week, with Peter's presence.  But since Olivia's cortexiphan dose could run out soon and we'll be back at square one, I should probably just enjoy the moments and let them play out as they will.  Because, as any optimist or hopeless romantic would tell you, every good love story is made up of the moments and, at the end of the day, we all want to believe that all you need is love. And the perfect strawberry milkshake.


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