So I just finished watching Fringe. (Yeah, I know I’m late to the game. I usually am.) I don’t want to get into spoilers, but I found the ending (and the series overall) really satisfying and impressive for a number of reasons:
- They kept the focus on the characters and their relationships, and both individuals and relationships between them had definite arcs.
I’m sure it helped that they knew going into the fifth season it would be their final one, so they were able to wrap up arcs accordingly, but really that was the heart of their show and they never lost sight of that. (This, by the way, is also what I loved about early Criminal Minds and why I ultimately stopped watching: I loved Criminal Minds because it was about a chosen family full of intelligent, caring people who were trying to make the world a safer place, and when I finally stopped watching it was because it felt like those relationships had long since fallen by the wayside or become taken for granted, and the gruesome, terrible things and people became the focus.)
- For such a complicated show, it was actually surprisingly coherent.
A little while back, when I was still on the second or third of five seasons, a friend asked about the show and commented that someone else she knew had compared it unfavorably with The X-Files. One of the key differences I saw was that The X-Files has a lot more weird-thing-of-the-week episodes, many of which had nothing to do with the central plot, while even weird-thing-of-the-week episodes tended to come back somehow on Fringe. This isn’t necessarily a good thing or a bad thing on its own — certainly a lot of the best X-Files episodes were one-off ones where they could play with their usual structure — but I like fiddly, complicated stories where things turn out to be unexpectedly meaningful. Granted also The X-Files had to sustain itself over a much longer period of time and many more episodes, but I thought Fringe did a better job of picking a mythology and sticking to it. Even when things changed (and things changed drastically at a couple of points in the series), even when timelines were rewritten, there was a consistent internal logic to the world. I never did understand what was up with The X-Files in terms of aliens and government conspiracies and what have you because it became too convoluted to follow.
And this brings me to my last point, and probably the one that impressed me the most:
- They managed time travel and alternate universes, including multiple timelines re-writing each other, in ways that I found compelling rather than annoying.
As a general rule, I’m not a time travel fan: it’s too easy to cheat or contradict yourself, and the potential pardoxes make my head hurt enough that it stops being fun. I think Fringe succeeded at making it work for me because the end result of their instances of time travel were always emotionally satisfying, but there was also always a cost. Beloved characters got written out of existence, and not all of them found their ways back. Characters used time travel to send messages in ways that could be read as simple cause and effect or as divine workings, and we as an audience were left with that ambiguity. And the time travel storylines always had an arc to them: visually, they began and ended with different versions of the same moments and imagery from the first time travel episode “White Tulip” (probably one of my favorite episodes of television ever) is repeated later on.
Okay, I thought that was going to be my last point, but I realized there was one other which I hadn’t discussed yet. All through the final season I was worried that it would end sadly. No, not just sadly; devastatingly. Heartbreakingly. And to a small degree I suppose it did. But it was also beautiful, and happy, and hopeful, and the heartbreak was much smaller than it could have been and, in keeping with the show throughout, came from an act of knowing self-sacrifice so that others could live and love and be happy. Straightforward happy endings are comforting, but they can also be boring, and I find I have less and less patience for endings that are entirely without hope (if only because how many times to I really want to subject myself to that?), but hopeful-if-slightly-bittersweet endings? Yes please.
This is already a good bit longer than I thought it would be, but I want to end with the two things I’m taking away from the end of the show: a desire to work on my own story-in-progress (which I’d been avoiding out of a combination of exhaustion and fear) and a desire to go back and re-watch the series, not just because I love the characters but because they came so far and grew so dramatically that I want to see again where they started, to remind myself how different the beginning was in order to better appreciate the journey.