Tyranny, Hope, and Family in the Fifth Season Premiere of “Fringe”

For four seasons, the TV series “Fringe” has been a family drama under the guise of a sci-fi and horror show, with the themes of man, science and God running throughout. Specifically, it presented viewers with questions about how far is too far when it comes to creating scientific breakthroughs. Can human beings break the laws of physics and nature in the name of scientific progress without negative consequences? The character who originated many of those experiments, Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), learned the answer is no. (Read more on that theme in this piece).

Through developing mature and loving relationships with his son Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), FBI agent and Peter’s love interest Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), and FBI agent Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole), Walter also came to see that human beings are more than just fodder for lab experiments – that they’re entitled to dignity and respect simply by virtue of their being human.

As season four ended, all the characters were essentially in a happy place after defeating the ultimate mad scientist who wanted to destroy the world in order to remake it in his own image (God’s version of the world was too flawed for him). Peter and Olivia were going to have a baby – and Walter finally had the loving family that, deep down, he’d always wanted. But since happy endings don’t make for good storytelling, a new conflict arose.

As the fifth and final season of “Fringe” begins, the year is 2036. The world is now under the totalitarian rule of a race known as the Observers. Because they polluted their own world in the future making it uninhabitable, they traveled back in time to take over the earth. Though Olivia, Peter, Walter and Astrid tried to fight the Observers when they first arrived, they were losing the battle and so put themselves into a state of suspended animation called “ambering” until someone could free them. Twenty-one years later, that someone turns out to be Henrietta Bishop (Georgina Haig), Peter and Olivia’s daughter, who they haven’t seen since she was kidnapped by the Observers at age three. (SPOILERS AHEAD)

The opening title sequence of “Fringe” always included scientific concepts with which the show dealt: artificial intelligence, teleportation, quantum entanglements. But this season’s titles are much different based on the premiere last night. Instead of scientific concepts, we’re presented with ideas about humanity and society, ideas that are being suppressed under the Observers’ rule: joy, community, individuality, education, imagination, private thought, due process, ownership, free will, freedom.

While scientific themes may still play a part, this season looks like it will be asking other questions: What does it take to maintain the best parts of your humanity under a dictatorship? How do you live when your freedom is taken away? And with the Observers able to read people’s thoughts, what about the possibility your private thoughts won’t remain private? (If you’ve ever looked at the targeted ads on your Facebook page or email home page, you’ll know that question isn’t so unrealistic.)

Though the concept of “beauty” wasn’t included in the opening titles, two scenes in the premiere suggest it holds a key place in moving the story forward and saving humanity. The first occurs after Walter has been captured and is being interrogated by an Observer. The Observers, it should be noted, are the ultimate rationalists. They don’t generally experience emotions like love or beauty. They’re completely clinical and focused on keeping citizens in line. Their motto is “The Future in Order.”

As the lead Observer is reading Walter’s mind, he finds that the scientist is thinking of classical music. This is the exchange that follows:

Observer: You’re trying to think of music. You miss music.

Walter: There’s not a lot of it here.

Observer: We tolerate it. But it’s merely tones, rhythms and harmonic vibrations. I don’t understand it.

Walter: Mostly it amazes me. Music helps you shift perspective, to see things differently if you need to.

Observer: See things like hope?

Walter: Yes. Very much like that.

Observer: But there is no hope for you. Nothing grows from scorched earth.

Though Walter has witnessed a lot of strange and unbelievable things in his years as a scientist, he remains in awe of the power of music. Far from it being simply “tones, rhythms and harmonic vibrations,” music has the ability to touch his spirit with its beauty. That’s a truth that goes beyond science. It’s something that doesn’t make sense from the Observer’s scientific-rationalism-without-emotion point of view.

Nevertheless, Walter is shaken after this exchange. He’d always been a relatively optimistic man who focused on what could be done, not what couldn’t. But in the path of the Observers’ destruction, the possibility that something beautiful could grow or survive seems to be over.

Walter is tortured before finally being rescued. The experience appears to have destroyed his memories of the plan he had created 21 years ago that would have gotten rid of the Observers. Angry and despairing, he lays down in his bed ready to succumb to the fruitlessness of his pursuit. Then he notices flickering lights and colors appearing on his wall. Looking for the source, he finds a collage of broken CDs hanging next to an abandoned car on the street below his window. Among the broken CDs lies one labeled “Trip Mix 6.” He puts it in the car stereo which still works. It’s a song called “Only You” by Alison Moyet – and it has a visible calming effect on Walter. Then he glances at the street and notices a single, bright yellow dandelion growing out of a crack in the sidewalk. Out of the scorched earth, a tiny bit of beauty blooms. Walter’s despair is ended. Hope has returned.

Science can describe hope; it can show the state of the brain when it’s feeling hopeful. But science can’t explain hope. Hope is something immaterial, something spiritual, that has produced undeniable results and progress in the real world – whether it be Rosa Parks’ hope to improve the lives of black citizens in the United States by not moving to the back of the bus, or scientists believing that it’s possible to take mankind to the moon.

In the context of “Fringe,” it’s interesting to note that it wasn’t the thought of defeating an enemy that ultimately gives Walter hope. It’s the possibility of helping to restore beauty in the world. His motivation, therefore, is a positive, not a negative.

In addition to the themes of hope and beauty, the emotional resonance of the Bishop family reconnecting with each other is powerful as well. From the scene where Henrietta kisses the grandfather she barely remembers on the cheek after he tells her she’ll always be a little girl to him – to the moment when Olivia and Henrietta see each other for the first time in 21 years, this is a moving human story about characters who love each other and are willing to sacrifice for each other.

I’ve enjoyed “Fringe” for four years and was thrilled with its entry point for the final 13-episode season. Sign me up for the rebellion.

About Tony Rossi

After graduating from St. John's University in New York with degrees in Communications and English, Tony Rossi found a job at the Catholic media organization, The Christophers, that allowed him to indulge his interest in religion, media, and pop culture. He served as The Christophers' TV producer for 11 years, and is currently the host and producer of the organization's radio show/podcast Christopher Closeup, writer and editor of their syndicated Light One Candle column, and producer/scriptwriter of the annual Christopher Awards ceremony.


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