Fringe: Season Three Wrap-Up — I’m in love with Lincoln Lee

If you follow my writing at all, whether it’s on Twitter, or over at Ashley Awesome, or here at Big Damn Heroes, then you know I’m a huge fan of Fringe. I look forward to it all week, and as soon as each episode is finished, I want the next one immediately. In fact, it’s my favorite show on television right now. Considering how I felt about the show when it first premiered back in 2008, that’s really kind of remarkable. (It goes without saying, by the way, but I guess I’ll say it anyway: SPOILERS AHOY!)

Flashback to summer 2008: I was still working full time at the Arizona Inn and getting ready to enter grad school. Honestly, being an operator was probably the easiest job I ever had. I logged packages, answered the phone, and gave wake up calls at all hours of the day. In between, I could basically do whatever I wanted. I read a lot of books during that job, and I surfed a lot of internet. Honestly, that job is the reason that I got into TV blogging in the first place. I was bored, so I cooked up a project I figured would take me a good long while (I was right . . . I still haven’t finished it), but what I didn’t imagine happening is that I would find something that I was good at, something that I loved. From the moment I posted my first recap, I felt like a real blogger. I had real readers and actual things to say. It was intoxicating. And then recapping led to Twitter, and Twitter led me to Alan Sepinwall, Myles McNutt and the world of professional post-air analysis, and then some really awesome people whose writing I admired very much asked me to start this site with them, and it was good. (Except we didn’t count on Heather Anne getting all internet famous and stuff.) So now here I am with you, three years later, and I can’t remember what it was like before all this. This constant reading and writing about television. Think about it: If I hadn’t gotten bored at work one day, I wouldn’t know any of you people.

What does any of this have to do with Fringe? A lot, as it turns out. It’s amazing how much a person can change over the course of three years, and the same goes for a television show. Fringe is a very different program from the one that premiered in September of 2008, and much better for it.  In the beginning, Fringe was a mostly procedural show hiding its true sci-fi roots, with a hint of mythology just under the surface. Your average everyday television viewer seems to have been comfortable with a police procedural that got a little weird and scary every now and then, but still seemed to be based in a universe quite like ours, and the ratings reflected that. But, more importantly, in its early stages, Fringe was a show viewers could bounce in and out of quite easily, and still understand the main thrust of the plot, like some sort of wacky-world Law & Order. Now? It’s a completely serialized balls-to-the-wall science-fiction program, whose new motto seems to be ‘Let’s try that, it sounds awesome.’ Where once there were “Monsters of the Week,” we’ve got parallel universes, doppelgängers from that universe who we spend almost as much time with as our originals, and a story that is completely impossible to follow unless you’ve seen all that’s come before. And even though everyone who still watches the show agrees that it’s better for all these changes, Fringe‘s new brand of awesome and network television viewership ratings don’t seem to be meshing.

3X09 -- "Entrada"

Ever since Lost went off the air, networks have been gravitating away from serialized shows, leaving that territory largely to cable and pay networks. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why: serialized shows don’t hold a large viewership. Lost had huge numbers until it started getting crazy (read: interesting), and the same thing happened to Fringe. 18 million people watched Lost‘s pilot, and by the time the series finale hit, that number was regularly in the range of 9-11 million. Because cable programming is offering the networks much more competition now than in 2004, the 9-11 million viewers Fringe achieved during its first season meant that it was one of the most successful new series in the fall of 2008. Now, it’s lucky if it can pull 4 or 5 million an episode. It’s a miracle it even got a fourth season pick-up. So: what changed? And how exactly is it that a show that is only getting more awesome by the minute, keeps losing viewers? I don’t have any concrete answers, but I am here to tell you, Fringe‘s low ratings have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of its storytelling.

2X22 - "Over There, Part Two"

In season one, Fringe was finding its niche, and during season two it was still digging around and making itself comfy. But in season three, by embracing the possibilities of the Earth-2 parallel universe, Fringe officially pushed its way into the halls of television greatness. For a show already a little bit obsessed with duality, the alternate universe was the perfect invention: a completely new storyworld to play around in, one which reinforced and reshaped the world they’d already created. For example: Charlie. There was a whole “thing” in 2009 about Kirk Acevedo throwing a fit about the death of his character, how it was so horrible he was “fired,” but it turns out they were planning for another Charlie to pop up all along on Earth-2, and that he was an even cooler character than he had been before. He wasn’t the only character to get this treatment. Because there was suddenly “more than one of everything,” two Olivias, two Broyles, two Charlies, there was suddenly also this intense emphasis on the power of choice, and of memory making us who we are. Right from the beginning, any time Fauxlivia was on screen, or Walternate, we suddenly became very aware of exactly who our Olivia was, and what made her tick; we saw the difference between a man who stole a child, and a man who lost one. This wonderful tense excitement infused every scene; the possibilities seemed endless. It was television magic.

3X09 -- "Entrada"

But the genius part of all this was that the existence of the alternate universe wasn’t just about our Olivia, our Walter, our Astrid. It wasn’t about evil twins, good versus evil, social or emotional repression, or any of that other stuff doppelgänger stories usually deal with. In the first half of the season, we spent just as much time “Over There” as we did on our side, and just as we were intended to, we began to love these people, too (and if not love, at least understand, though I would argue you can’t really do one without the other). Maybe we didn’t love them as much as we loved the original flavors, but Ourlivia, Peter and Walter had had three years to earn our trust. So where does Lincoln Lee come in? I’m a thousand words in, and I haven’t even mentioned him, even though he’s crucial to understanding just how awesome Fringe season three turned out to be.

3X18 -- "Bloodline"

We first met Lincoln Lee (Seth Gabel), Fringe Division Agent for Earth-2 in the season two ender, “Over There.” He was burned to a crisp as our folks attempted to rescue Peter from certain immolation at the hands of Walternate. We thought he was dead. He seemed just like another puzzle piece at first, another body to flesh this new world out, and one quickly sacrificed in the service of the greater good. And then he turned up in the season three premiere, “Olivia,” burned beyond recognition, but still alive, and a funny thing started to happen. At first he was just another member of the Fringe Division “Over There.” But as we watched him come back from the most devastating injury ever, watched him heal, watched him apprehend bad guys right alongside our Olivia (even if she did happen to possess her duplicate’s memories at the time), we began to care about him. That empathy helped us situate ourselves as viewers into this new world. He was our gateway drug. Sometimes for long stretches during “Over There” episodes, I would forget we were on Earth-2, and when we returned our POVs to “our” universe, I actually missed the guy. I looked forward to seeing his face every other week, after all, we didn’t have him on our side.

3X13 -- "Immortality"

I didn’t realize any of this until the season was half over. It was episode 3X13, “Immortality” when it kind of smacked me upside the head. Of course, since it was her first episode back on her home turf, Fauxlivia was in peril (and having boyfriend troubles), and everything was very tense, but then seemingly out of nowhere, I happened to catch the look on Seth Gabel’s face during a particularly emotional moment, and I just blurted out to my roommate without thinking, “Oh my God, he loves her!” She was like, “What?” So I screamed out, practically bouncing on the couch out of sheer glee, “He LOVES her!” I had no more evidence than that look on his face, but I knew I was right, because it just made sense. Just as Lincoln Lee was our way in to loving Earth-2, he would be our way in to loving Fauxlivia, a woman who had fucked up Ourlivia’s life and Peter’s life, to an unbelievably huge degree, and because three years of show had trained us to be loyal to Peter and Olivia, we automatically resented her. Mistrusted her. Hated her. But just like that, in an instant, Lincoln Lee loved her? I loved her.

3X22 -- "The Day We Died"

And then came “Bloodline,” and that scene, and I was done. As we watched her give birth to Peter’s baby, Fauxlivia became just a different version of the same awesome we’d already known (albeit with better hair and way less emotional baggage), and Lincoln Lee? Well, with those big eyes, and huge emotions? I was in love. Instantly. And he was in love. And it was beautiful. And I know it says it in the title of this post and everything, but I’m not just in love with Lincoln Lee (although I really am in love with him . . . that’s not a joke. Did you think I was joking? I wasn’t.) I’m in love with the whole other universe that we get to play around in, a whole universe of possibility that the Fringe writers haven’t even begun to tap into. Sylvia Plath once wrote,

“I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in life. And I am horribly limited.”

She was a smart lady, that Sylvia Plath, but a horribly depressing one. As humans, yes, we are limited, by time and space, brain power, social status, you name it. But there is no limit on the imagination, and no limit on the power of stories to call on it. That’s what’s great about great television, and that’s what Fringe gets right. The possibility of it all, the wonder. Quibbles with the finale aside (though I had none, if you want to know), the world these people have created is a rich one, and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

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2 Responses to “Fringe: Season Three Wrap-Up — I’m in love with Lincoln Lee”
  1. Dan says:

    I love how we can both watch the same shows and still have almost completely opposite opinions of them.

    While I admit that the first half of the first season was pretty weak, I really liked where Fringe went in the second half. I didn’t really mind the more procedural feel to it. It reminded me of the “freak-of-the-week” episodes of X-Files, which were always my favorites.

    But, by the third season it’s really lost me. I like the other universe in theory, but I’m not invested in that version of these characters. I like Walter and Olivia, not Walternate and Fauxlivia (okay, I admit that having a version of Charlie, any version of Charlie, still alive is okay by me).

    I will say that the third season finale ending with as good a WTF? moment as the first season…but, the show is starting to remind me a little too much of Alias, and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.

    • Ashley says:

      I love a good procedural as much as the next person, and Fringe was certainly a great procedural. I just think it makes a much better serialized show than it ever did as a procedural. For me, the weirder the show gets, the more I love it.

      I think the problem with the last two seasons of Alias was that instead of opening up new avenues of story opportunity, it just kept going deeper into its old ones, and as a result the stories got increasingly preposterous and, well, old. It started to feel cartoony. Fringe still feels very real to me.

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