Fringe, Speculative Fiction, Ideas of Order, and Indeterminacy


Editor’s Note: I’m migrating some content from older web presences onto my current site. I’m currently (December 2016) re-watching Fringe as I spend some time home for the holidays, so I wanted to re-visit this post I originally wrote back in April 2011.

Possible SPOILERS up to Season 3 of Fringe.

Fringe is one of my (many) guilty pleasures these days.  I say “guilty pleasure” because while I enjoy many elements of the show, its apparent investment in a strictly-ordered universe — most immediately present in the show’s warring alternate realities and the creepy, Powder-times-Data-divided-by-The Adjustment Bureau dudes who seem to be monitoring and / or running the show — remind me of an element of science fiction and fantasy narratives that I wish we could get beyond: The Chosen One(s) tasked with restoring order to a world that is both “broken” and capable of “fixing.”

In the Fringe universe, reality is literally broken: the anomalies that the Fringe Divisions of both universes explore are primarily the result of this break. The immediate cause of this mess is Walter Bishop (the fantastic John Noble), a scientist who discovers a gateway to an alternate reality and uses this knowledge to replace his dead son Peter with that reality’s Peter, who is still alive. In addition to the grief this causes his “Walternate” (the show’s term) and Peter himself, the theft also disrupts both realities, causing them to be filled with anomalies of all shapes and sizes (i.e. the fodder for Fringe‘s “case of the week” needs as a televised serial narrative). The alternate reality is much worse off than “our” world: black holes are opening up in Brooklyn, and the government has responded by encasing said holes — and any unfortunate soul in its vicinity — in an amber-like substance. The weight of his crimes — playing God, violating the order of the familial unit, the physical damage and loss of life caused by the deteriorating reality — weigh heavily on Walter’s mind, to the extent that he requests (and receives) a partial lobotomy to ensure that he never be tempted to cross over into other worlds again.

The creators behind Fringe want viewers to consider the consequences of their actions: co-director Jeff Pinker notes, for example, that there’s an investment in showing “how small choices that you make define you as a person and can change your life in large ways down the line.” Fringe is obsessed with showing us demonstrable proof that “the butterfly effect” is more than just a vehicle for Ashton Kutcher to prove he can be dramatic. The universe as we know it can be drastically and devastatingly shaped and reshaped by our actions, so think carefully about which foot you use to step out of the bed each morning. At a time when one of our current top stories is the correlation between the burning of a Koran in Florida and the deaths of U.N. workers in Afghanistan (not to mention cautionary tales about nuclear energy, Ponzi schemes, and the real estate market), I can see why the view of reality offered by Fringe hits home with many viewers.

But for a show so invested in science and pseudoscience, Fringe sure does spend a lot of time trotting out — and, more importantly, validating — conventional mythic narratives. Fringe practices the Jurassic Park school of scientific cautionary tale-telling (no big shock, given the fondness creator J.J. Abrams has for Steven Spielberg): dress up an old story in the language of recent scientific breakthroughs to make it more palatable to present-day audiences (in both cases, chaos theory reigns supreme). Fringe doesn’t try to hide its narrative inheritance: its no coincidence that butterflies and apples appear on the screen right before the show goes to commercial. And at times the show does seem interested in exploring the implications of deploying mythic narratives, moreso than Jurassic Park, at least, which taught millions of children that bringing the dead back to live is a terrible idea, no matter how cool it would be to see freaking dinosaurs walk the earth again.

For example, two recent episodes from the third season of Fringe present us with cautionary tales about relying on narrative conventions to construct both the world as broken and the self as heroic protagonist. In “Os,” we see a father trying to “fix” his son’s legs via experiments that literally cause his test subjects to fly: the Daedalus connections are not lost on anyone here. But instead of an Icarus-centric version of the myth, the father is at center stage, and his misreading of his son as “broken”  (and, perhaps, other narratives of the family that emphasize a whole and healthy unit) drives his unorthodox experimentations, projects which leave countless trial patients dead. Shades of Walter Bishop’s own desire to restore health and order to his own family: perhaps the lesson here might be that our ideas of order are, as Wallace Stevens reminds us, ideas. We’ll come back to that.

In “Stowaway,” we are introduced to a woman who is unable to die, despite her countless attempts to do so. But the death desired is a physical and “spiritual” one: for reasons unknown, she can’t depart this mortal coil even after withstanding severe physical damage. Later in the episode, she is introduced to the story of Azrael, a man banished to purgatory who is released from his sentence by angels who believe him to have suffered enough. She rewrites this narrative in a manner that somehow requires her to blow up a train full of commuters, and here Fringe is once again showing us the way myths might provide delusions rather than order. It is telling that the woman learns the myth from a man about to commit suicide, for example.

But this reading of myth is quickly subsumed by the myths that Fringe has bought into on a much larger scale. Instead of blowing up the train, the woman flees, bomb in hand, and detonates it (and herself) a safe distance from the passengers. She successfully kills herself here. The reason? The Fringe team (and the show itself) suggests that she needed to serve a purpose: the man who introduces Azrael to her is also the man who planted the bomb on the train, and once she successfully removed the device, she was no longer needed by the world (and, of course, by the show, which will move on to another case next week). For the Fringe team serves a higher purpose: they believe themselves to possess the ability to actually restore actual order to a world that is actually broken. The grown Peter is now a kind of Chosen One: “our” reality’s agents believe that he inherently possesses the ability to fix both worlds, while the alternate world views him as the natural ingredient in a mad scientist-y doomsday device that will obliterate its trouble-making doppelganger. Peter’s “chosen-ness” has been naturalized, as have the abilities of Fringe agent Olivia, who is somehow able to travel between universes with relative ease.

For all of its insistence on choice (and the word, or variations upon it, is uttered from the mouths of the cast dozens of times per episode), there are also “right” and “wrong” choices. The “butterfly effect” cosmology has been rewritten — due in part to the conventions of serial narratives, which presently require most if not all of the same central cast to appear week after week, regardless of the perils faced — privileging those figures gifted or blessed or naturally endowed with particular talents and abilities. Things fall apart, not in a haphazard way, but by clearly-defined and governable rules of order and disorder.

I’ve spent more time than I wanted to presenting a somewhat negative picture of Fringe, a show that I enjoy very much. The weekly proceedings of a show about the collapse and termination of two realities that Fringe provides viewers is more funny than somber, thanks to a great cast and a clear intent by the showrunners to not take themselves too seriously. For example, the last few episodes have featured an Olivia (Anna Torv) who’s been possessed by the spirit of William Bell (Leonard Nimoy), a condition that has left Torv speaking like Nimoy, an inspired act of ridiculousness in a time where sci-fi seems to take itself too seriously. And the show still might pull the rug out from under me and the rest of its viewing audiences, the result being that Peter and Walter, respectively, are neither the cause nor the cure for what ails their worlds. That being said, I wonder if we’ve reached the point where indeterminacy, not order, might lead us to science fiction and fantasy that treats its foundational myths as myths and not organizing principles of reality.