The maiden season of Fringe introduced interesting characters and peaked our curiosity. The second season, capitalizing on those achievements, turned interesting characters into compelling ones and elegantly developed the fascinating concept of co-existing universes. When the third season started, I think regular viewers felt they had embarked into something different and special, but it came with fears of disappointment, fears that the show would not be able to fulfill the promises of such an outstanding beginning. Ultimately, the writers succeeded and arguably went further: they managed to make it difficult — even for viewers not blinded by unconditional love for the series — to easily dismiss any episode in a full 22-episode season.
The well known proverb "There's no accounting for taste" was proven wrong time and again during the third season of Fringe. The second season extended finale had shown us glimpses of a world so fascinating that when viewers discovered both Olivias had been switched, I suspect many — though torn at the thought of having an impostor on This Side — were relieved for a simple reason: it meant we would be seeing the crimson universe again. But even then, no one foresaw that what was essentially a mission to rescue Peter would usher in a gripping story alternating between the two universes. There was some initial resistance in some corners of the blogosphere, but most viewers yielded quickly, finding very tasteful what seemed at first likely to turn them away. And this was just the beginning of a trend: The writers and producers would come up with new ideas and viewers would be wary at first, but then they would see the beauty of it and jump on the bandwagon.
Alternating between the universes proved brilliant. It brought us an array of alternate characters that we liked right away, even those (such as Lincoln) who didn't yet have an original on This Side. In some cases, the show built on what we already had on This Side and performed minor or significant changes, but in other cases (like for the amazing alt-Astrid) the character was almost completely reinvented. Because of these changes, the cast that was already impressive, appeared even more so. Noble, Torv and Nicole portrayed Walternate, Fauxlivia and alt-Astrid in a way that never raised a doubt on which character they were at any given time.
There is no good science-fiction without a proper setting or milieu, and the show did here as well as it did with the characters throughout the season. The key was the idea of things being slightly different, which mostly translated as things being slightly more advanced as far as science and technology were concerned. It could be seen in telecommunication (phone ear-pieces), in data storage and processing (tablets and computers) and in medicine (regeneration chamber) to name just a few. Those little differences were always there and helped enhance the story by outlining the contrast between the universes. The result was a subtle sense of wonder each time events unfolded on The Other Side.
Beyond science and technology, an even more important aspect of the setting on The Other Side was displayed in the consequences of Walter's action at Reiden lake. Beside the loss of loved ones and the always present threat of "fringe events," some food items (coffee, avocados, etc.) became very hard to come by. This reality was carefully unraveled throughout the season and gradually influenced how we perceived Fauxlivia's side, people living there, and the conflict between the two worlds.
The season arc revolved around that conflict. The fight for survival between two universes inhabited by people who — as it gradually emerged — all deserved to live. On one side there was the original sin of Walter, and on the other the ruthless and vengeful agenda of Walernate, hiding behind some dubious philosophy. Because of that backdrop, it was only natural for the viewers to unequivocally pick This Side. But then, after using Fauxlivia for a while like a plot device everyone loved to hate, the writers progressively and mercilessly started her rehabilitation. All that while uncovering the Machine's and Peter's role as well as introducing a love triangle of world shattering importance. What's more, by sowing the seeds of discord on The Other Side, the show now had viewers split (and torn) over the possible outcomes.
The above season-long story was developed at a proper pace, with some of its components like the love triangle, the relationship between Peter and Walter, and the "beguiling Olivia Dunham" producing solid and heartbreaking episodes. By the end of the season, the confrontation was unavoidable and the writers produced a solution that — despite a few less than straightforward points — preserved the settings and the characters we all came to love, while raising the question of the existence of Peter.
The fourth season will open in a world where the universes are still falling apart but with two major differences: the existence of a bridge between the two, and the nonexistence of Peter, the person who wielded the tool of creation and destruction to build that bridge. In his absence, the story we have followed for three seasons now must have gone down very differently. The show has chosen to bring him back at some point under one form or another, which is why instead of having characters and events perfectly consistent without him, we will be embarking in a story where people will be missing something in their lives, having "longing and memories of lost things." It will be fascinating to see how Walter, for example, is developed without Peter to worry about and to use as an anchor. Just like it will be interesting to see how Olivia, who loosened up with Peter, is depicted without him. Seth Gabel (Lincoln Lee) has now joined the regular cast, so watching his role in this rewritten past is also of interest.
However, it should be said the writers' approach is risky because it is counter intuitive. We would have expected the world to simply be without Peter. As in a parallel chain of events where he never existed; therefore, where his absence couldn't be missed. So here we are again, at the beginning of a season, worried about some creative choices. The difference is that this time, I hope the production team will surprise us as agreeably as they did throughout the previous season.
The fourth season of Fringe will premiere with the episode, “Neither Here Nor There” on Friday, September 23 at 9pm EST on Fox.