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Fringe Season Four

on Mon, 09/10/2012 - 00:00

The fourth season of the FOX sci-fi drama Fringe begins with one of its main character, Peter Bishop, missing in action. From the very beginning of the series, Bishop was one of the three prongs on which the show was built, along with FBI Agent Olivia Dunham and Peter’s father, the psychologically-damaged genius Walter Bishop. Together, they investigated strange phenomenon that had ties to science on the fringes of the conventional, including a pending war with an alternative universe that would result in only one dimension left standing. Both Bishops inevitably played a key role in the overarching narrative, with the elder Bishop tearing a hole between the two universes when his literal son died at a young age and then crossing over to the parallel universe, kidnapping the alternative Peter in the process.

Peter Bishop, meanwhile, turned out to be the only one capable of controlling a “doomsday” device that would expedite the upcoming destruction. Instead of choosing between the two worlds, however, the younger Bishop found a way to build a “bridge” between the universes in order for the two sides to work together to avoid armageddon. In doing so, he also erased himself from the timeline and thus ceased to exist in both universes. Although he does eventually find a way back during the early stages of season four, no one remembers Peter Bishop nonetheless, and not only Peter Bishop but Olivia Dunham and Walter Bishop must struggle to find their way in a world in which their emotional ties have been severed.

Thus while Fringe is grounded in science fiction, it is the personal relationships that have mattered most during the course of the series. By eliminating one of the key components of the narrative, Fringe is able to explore the nature of its characters in ways that more conventional television shows have never been able.

“At the risk of sounding sentimental, I’ve always thought there were people who leave an indelible mark on your soul,” Special Agent Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick) tells Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) during the second episode of the season. “An imprint that can never be erased.” The erasing of Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), meanwhile, has had the opposite effect. “I know what it’s like to have a hole in your life,” Dunham explains to colleague Lincoln Lee (Seth Gabel). “It’s been there as long as I can remember.” During the previous seasons of Fringe, that hole was filled by the growing love between Olivia Dunham and Peter Bishop. Before Bishop’s return to the Fringe universe, Dunham had been having dreams of him, even though she did not remember Peter Bishop. This lack of remembrance continues once he re-arrives into her life, but eventually the walls between the past timeline and the present begin to break down, in effect erasing the new Olivia Dunham and replacing her with the old. Although being secretly dosed with a drug known as Cortexiphan is determined to be the cause, Dunham refuses to be treated by Walter Bishop (John Noble) and embraces both the person she is becoming as well as her love for Peter.

Walter Bishop is likewise lost in the world before the return of his offspring. “It depends on your definition of alright,” Olivia Dunham replies when Lincoln Lee first meets the elder Bishop and asks about his mental stability. “He’s functional, except when he’s not. But he is often quite brilliant. He just never had anything to tether him to the world.” The events of this Walter Bishop’s life evolved in much the same way as in the original timeline, with his own son Peter dying at a young age and the father finding a way to cross universes, but that alternative Peter ended up dying as well. Thus when the younger Bishop returns, Walter Bishop is even more reluctant to embrace him than Olivia Dunham.

“Every day, for the past 25 years, I’ve tried to imagine what you would look like as a man,” Walter Bishop tells Peter. “My son. But I don’t deserve this, I don’t deserve you. I realize now this was my punishment. You were sent to tempt me, to see if I would repeat the mistakes of the past. Wherever you came from, however you got here, it doesn’t matter. I can’t help you. I tried to help a boy, a version of my son, twenty-five years ago. But that boy was never my son, and neither are you.” It is only after being visited by the alternative version of his dead wife and forgiven for his previous actions does he slowly accept Peter. In the process, the psychologically-damaged genius scientist loses his fear of venturing into the world-at-large and begins to not only rely on Peter Bishop but soon affectionately calls him “son” as well.

With Peter Bishop fully reasserted into the lives of those he cares about—and vice versa—the Fringe Team is able to focus on the main villain of season four, David Robert Jones (Jared Harris). During the first season of Fringe, a series of events collectively known as The Pattern wreaked havoc on mankind. “These events appear to be scientific in nature and suggest a larger strategy, a concerted effort,” Phillip Broyles explained at the time. It later turned out that The Pattern was related to a radical extremist group known as ZFT, whose manifesto, entitled “Destruction by Advancement of Technology,” was written by Walter Bishop’s former lab partner, William Bell (Leonard Nimoy). Jones was a follower of ZFT during the first season of Fringe, but was killed by Peter Bishop while attempting to crossover to the alternative universe.

In the new timeline of season four, however, that event never took place and David Robert Jones has emerged as the leader of a new extremist group. “If I remember, it means ‘renewal’ or ‘rebirth,’” Peter Bishop and Olivia Dunham are told of a symbol they found related to the movement. “There have been some rumblings lately about a group out there, a cult really. They’re obsessed with the guided evolution of man. They want to create a new species, a better species. ‘Mutation by design.’”

The original Pattern of season one was inevitably related to the experiments of Walter Bishop and William Bell, experiments that often defied the laws of conventional science, and the new events of the season four timeline likewise draw inspiration from the works of Bishop and Bell. While Walter Bishop was later institutionalized, William Bell formed a corporation around his scientific achievements known as Massive Dynamic, and parlayed his success to become one of the wealthiest men on the planet. The company, as well as its elusive CEO, were the chief suspects behind The Pattern during season one of Fringe, although they were both later exonerated.

Not so in season four, however, as it turns out that Bell faked his own death seven years earlier and is the actual mastermind behind the efforts of David Robert Jones. Throughout the narrative of Fringe, there has always been a recurring theme regarding the dangers of rapid advancement in both technology and science. That underlying thesis has been most exemplified by Walter Bishop, who discovered a way to cross universes but at the risk of destroying multiple worlds in the process.

During season four of Fringe, William Bell emerges as the new poster child for unchecked scientific advancement. “This was all your idea,” Bell explains to Walter Bishop in regards to his plans to destroy both universes and create a new one in the process. “Peter died. Twice. You hated God. ‘What kind of God would cause so much suffering?’ That’s what you said. So you decided to create a universe that would operate by your rules. And then, when you realized you were smart enough to do it, you got scared. You asked me to cut out a portion of your brain. We cut those ideas out of your head, to literally put the genie back in the bottle.” While Walter Bishop ultimately discovered the dangers of playing God, it was apparently a lesson lost on William Bell.

“I grew older, I grew cynical, I grew cancer,” Bell continues in his conversation with Bishop. “And that’s when it occurred to me. You were right, Walter. Every rant you ever went on made perfect sense. Suddenly I understood, not just you, but everything. God made us in his image. If that is so, if we are capable of being gods, then it is our destiny to do so.”

Although not the last season of Fringe, the sci-fi drama brings its overall narrative full circle during its fourth season, answering many of the questions it raised from the very beginning about not only the dangers of scientific advancement but the meaning of family, love and relationships as well. Fringe likewise does so in the same manner as its previous seasons, with inventive storylines that challenge the preconceptions of science fiction on television while assuming that the audience is intelligent enough to follow the often complex plot strands. Fringe may not be a ratings juggernaut, but it is an exemplary example of television at its best nonetheless.

Anthony Letizia

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