Spoilers abound, so beware.
22 episodes, FOX (September 2011 - May 2012)
There were definitely moments at the start of Fringe's fourth season where I began to question the decisions of the writing team. The resolution to season three, in which Peter was removed from existence in order to broker peace between both universes, was as arresting a cliffhanger as ever. But as we settled into season four, as entertaining as the show remained, there was definitely that nagging sense that Fringe was merely covering old ground, delaying the inevitable far longer than at all necessary.
But gradually, around the time that Walter's angst towards the newly-returned Peter began to break down a little, Fringe turned itself around. Those annoying tensions and areas of uncomfortable distrust gave way to the characters collectively experiencing that sensation that things aren't entirely okay. Relationships grew deeper, emotions were suddenly felt, and the universe began to put itself back together. It was magnetic romanticism of the best kind, a group of people rendered mere shells of who they used to be gradually experiencing those feelings that were unknowingly taken away from them. Walter began to accept the man claiming to be his son. Astrid grew to appreciate Walter's eccentricities instead of being bothered by them. And Olivia fell back in love with Peter.
Now it's easy to argue that this was essentially a sped-forward remake of characterization that we've already seen in seasons past, but the writers conveyed this gradual growth of love so well that it was no longer an issue. And because you're so swept up in this emotional rollercoaster, it only made episodes involving Olivia's abduction and her initial distance from Peter so much more affecting.
It's a feeling most notable, weirdly, in the story of Lincoln Lee and Fauxlivia, both characters who were given so many deeper levels with the universe reset. While we were waiting for Peter and Olivia to find each other again, seeing Lincoln and Olivia's mutual attraction gradually fall apart was crushing. This was only furthered by Lincoln's own sense of self crumbling on 'our side', eventually finding his true vocation on the other side when his own doppelganger meets his demise. Fauxlivia, with her butch swagger, moon-boots and wiggy bangs, was wildly obnoxious in the past; but the writers gave her additional depth this season, finding the emotional heartbeat that we all saw in Olivia towards the end of season one. As Walter remarked at one point this year, both Olivia's are scarily similar -- and I loved how the show pushing the reset button allowed these developments to occur.
Away from the character beats, I still adore the gorgeous intricacies of Fringe's mythology. The Observers, Olivia being fated to die, the desire to smash both universes into each other... it's all crazily inventive. The strongest episode of the season, Letters of Transit, pushed the myth-arc elements further with a stunning flash-forward hour that emphasized the emotional tenderness of the series while retaining that sucker-punching energy that has always been the show's trademark. I've always said that Fringe is radical Philip K. Dick-style science-fiction that is so rare for modern television, full of clever inventions and cool little plot devices, like the Rebecca Mader pulsating zombie-face thing in the season finale or the Cronenberg-ish body horror of the double sets of teeth in the Westfield episode. It's genre television that pushes sci-fi boundaries while remaining rooted in science itself. I'm sure it's all hooey, but the conviction the show has always had really makes you believe that maybe, just maybe... these things could actually exist.
But, above all of that, it's the ensemble that keeps you coming back. Walter remains this tragically ambiguous mad scientist, witnessing the chaos he is partly responsible for and overwhelmed by guilt, all the while remaining one of the most adorable, hilarious creations on television. Astrid's relationship with her Other Side duplicate was particularly moving, too. There's Broyle's disparate allegiances in the other universe, as well as the emotional upheaval for Olivia, Peter and Lincoln as mentioned above. Even the standalone cases are transparently metaphorical, always somehow resembling the inner experiences of the main cast.
I was unsure of what to think of season four back in the fall, but the show always manages to justify events that are somewhat questionable at the time, once again turning out material that is crazily ambitious and heart-warming. And it's that rare show treated phenomenally well by FOX, granting them a thirteen-episode wrap-up that is arguably the greatest gift the show has ever been given. It's absolutely the right time for the show to bow out, and an example of the respect that strong, forward-thinking television should naturally receive. A-
Favorite Episode For making you experience what amounts to an emotional smackdown via characters you've never even met before, the hauntingly hopeful Letters of Transit (4.19) takes the prize this season, placing the audience in a daring position where we're fully aware of the mass carnage that our ensemble needs to fight to prevent.