FRINGE Showrunner J.H. Wyman Talks the Show’s Final Season, Character Arcs, Working Within a TV Budget and Giving Fans a Satisfying Conclusion

     September 28, 2012


The critically acclaimed and fan-favorite sci-fi drama series Fringe is back for a fifth and final 13-episode season. Promising to deliver a climactic and satisfying conclusion, things will pick up in 2036, when the Observers have become ruthless rulers who will reign supreme. Now, the Fringe team will make a final stand, bringing together all that they have witnessed, in order to battle and protect the world.

During this recent interview to promote the show’s return, showrunner/writer/executive producer J.H. Wyman talked about when they decided to set the final season in the future, where Peter (Joshua Jackson) and Olivia’s (Anna Torv) journey will go and how Walter (John Noble) has changed now, how he’s learned to constrain his ideas with a TV show budget, his reticence in changing the show so dramatically for the final season, what has changed most from the original plan, the major challenges they faced in bringing everything to a satisfying conclusion, whether there was always an intention to make the Observers the bad guys, and what he will take away from his experience on Fringe.  Check out what he had to say after the jump, but be are that there are some spoilers.

j-h-wyman-jeff-pinkner-imageQuestion:  When you were working on “Letters of Transit” last season, did you already know that 2036 was going to be the focus of this season, or was that originally just a stand-alone story?

J.H. WYMAN:  Well, we knew that traditionally, in the 19th episode spot of each season, we always went off the beaten path, and we were throwing around a whole bunch of very interesting ideas on what to do last season.  When we didn’t really know the entire fate of what the program was going to be concretely, we thought, “Well, it would be terrible if we ended without some form of an ending, that I could either pick up by comic book or some other media that would finish the story for the dedicated fans.”  That got us thinking, “Well, what if we used the Episode 19 spot like a backdoor pilot?”  We’ve always been interested in going back and forth in time, and we thought it would be such an interesting idea to maybe tell the story in the future.  One way or the other, we were like, “Hmm, let’s see how that goes.”  So, we used that Episode 19 slot to be like a test to see how it went.  I think, when the result of it came in, it was pretty clear and, to be honest, I fell in love with the possibilities of telling the story in the future, and married that quickly.

You’ve talked a lot about Peter (Joshua Jackson) and Olivia (Anna Torv) being a fractured fairytale in Season 5.  What can you say about their journey, this season?

WYMAN:  Well, no love story worth telling is easy.  The hills and valleys that make a relationship, in my opinion, is really a dynamic worth watching.  The harder the tale, the more worthy the pay-off.  So, what I can say about this year is that, with everything that’s come in the four years before, I’m really trying to give the characters a specific odyssey this year that are singular odysseys for each character, but also relationship dynamic odysseys.  Things are just growing and shifting and shaping, and Peter and Olivia are going to be part of that.  Their relationship will shift and grow and evolve, but I think that it’s safe to say that we’ll be there, every step of the way.  Everything will be logical.  This year, I found great for telling authentic, real emotional stories.  I’m treating the 13 episodes as a saga.  You’ll get to track their emotional growth pattern and their relationship, very carefully.  We really get in underneath the hood and investigate those relationships.

joshua-jackson-j-h-wyman-fringeWith the limited budget of television, how have you learned to constrain your ideas, in terms of being able to tell the story within what you have to tell it?  Is there anything that you’ve had to sacrifice because you just couldn’t do it on a TV budget?

WYMAN:  Well, we’re really fortunate because technology is so advanced.  My special effects vendors can do things that feature films couldn’t do, just a few years ago.  It’s unbelievable.  So, costs have come down for all these great effects that people have come to expect from Fringe.  My effects supervisor, Jay Worth, is outrageously talented.  When I go to his office and say, “I want to see this and this and this.  Is this possible?”  He’s like, “Yes,” and I’m like, “Great!  Let’s do this.”  You just have to learn to get really good at choosing your moments and making sure that your story isn’t overwhelmed by the effects, and that your emotional storyline is what’s driving the train.  You just have to get really good at moving money around.  You realize that everything is a moving budget, and sometimes you’ve got to borrow from Peter to pay Paul, to make it happen.  When you have a production team like ours, it really makes it look easy and makes me look really good, but everybody does their job so well.

Was there any reticence of changing the show so dramatically, for the final season? 

WYMAN:  Well, it’s funny because the answer is yes.  I think it’s all part of the grand design.  When I was sitting down thinking, “Okay, how am I going to tell this story, over the last season,” my biggest concern, of course, was telling an authentic, honest story that I could stand behind, and that I would feel that I was giving the fans a love letter that I think they deserve.  There’s so many things to pull from because we had four seasons of things.  But, what became very clear is that, when you sit down and ask yourself that question, as a showrunner, the only place you wind up is, “What would move me, and what would I want as a closure?”  I’m a huge fan of films and television and, if I invested four years of my life in these characters that I’ve grown to love and be interested in and dedicated so much effort into paying attention to, what would I want?  

Fringe-Joshua-JacksonOnce I started asking myself those real questions, it became really clear.  That answer, for me, was that I want the truth.  I want to feel that Fringe made sense.  I want to feel that my characters evolved into a place that they deserved, that was sometimes unexpected, but where I would feel satiated that logically they have come to a conclusion that makes me feel satisfied.  After I finished watching the season finale of my favorite show, I would want to feel like, “Wow, that was an experience!  I just cannot believe that that is over.”  I can imagine where my characters are going in the future.  It’s really messy out there, but the truth is that there’s a lot of things to be celebrated and we have to focus on hope.  So, I just wanted people to feel like, “Wow, that was satisfying!”  So, the key to that, for me, is the emotional relationships, and it always has been.  

On Fringe, sometimes we did great things and sometimes we took missteps.  That’s the nature of the beast.  With the missteps, I have personally learned that usually they revolve around things that aren’t involving real character, but plot.  So, I wanted to tell these real odyssey stories about these people, and really watch them and give them a little bit more sense of continuity this year, and the ability for the viewer go through things, at ground level, with the characters, not like in the past.  Sometimes we’ve made the mistake of watching the characters from above and disconnecting from them, to a certain degree, but I really wanted to get the viewer, for this final season, down on the floor with them and go through the things that they’re going through.  It’s a family show.  It’s about disparate people that are trying very hard to hold together a family, in a very difficult time to hold together families.  I think people really relate to that, so it wasn’t really a risk at all.  I just went with what my heart and my gut said, and here we are.  That’s how it went.  And I have to say that seeing the way the actors are performing, I really am enthusiastic.  I cannot wait for you guys to see some of the performances that are being pulled off this year.  To me, it’s mind blowing.  They, too, feel like it’s the end and they want to bring their best and examine the characters that they’ve created for four years.

fringe-castFive years ago, did you expect to be here?  What has most changed from your original plan?

WYMAN:  Well, it’s been such a long road of twists and turns, and ideas come from all over.  Sometimes something you thought wouldn’t really be as big as it was blows up into something else.  There are certain episodes that, all of a sudden, just really touched people. “White Tulip” came from a dream.  I thought, “Why did that episode touch people?”  We like to be clever and say, “Well, we knew a lot of stuff,” because we did, but the truth is that we didn’t know a lot of stuff, as well.  We did not know, at the beginning on the bus, that the amber was amber from the alternate universe.  It was re-contextualized.  It just fits like a puzzle and you go, “Wow, that’s really interesting.”  You find the things that work and the things that don’t work, and you go from there.  It’s like a living, breathing organism that you listen to.  Sometimes we don’t hear so well, but if you listen to it, it indicates where you should go, naturally.  So, that idea has changed where we’re going to end up, even up until the last episode.  My thinking on the episode was fluctuating and vacillating between several different ideas. 

What were the major challenges that you faced in bringing this all to a conclusion, that the fans would both appreciate and accept as a suitable ending to the series? 

WYMAN: Good question.  I adore everybody who supports the program.  In my opinion, it’s like everybody owns a little brick in the building because they supported it.  When I started looking at it, I realized that the only thing that did save the show were the reactions of the media and the fans that could identify the heart in the program and the aspirational ideas, and they responded to that.  I have to believe that they’re not here to see how a flux capacitor works.  They’re here to see what the human heart is about and watch these people that they love go through things, as they go through it with them.  So, once I committed to saying, “Look, it’s all about the people.  Yes, the narrative is incredibly important, but really, it’s the characters that people love,” I just had to go with that.  I think the fans love the same things I do, which is these incredible people.  If I can tell the story honestly and with a degree of depth, and make people think and go through things with them, this last, final season, that would be a great reward because they’ve invested so much time.  So, I just went, “All right, I’ve got to go with my heart and my gut and tell the story this way.”

fringe-final-seasonWhat was the thinking behind turning the Observers into the evil bad guys, or was that something that was planned all along?

WYMAN:  Yes, this has been in the hatch for awhile.  The heart is an organ of fire and you can’t stop it from feeling or connecting.  That’s what our job is, as human beings, and how wonderful to have this Observer “September” come and understand that, although we are very messed up, we are very special and beautiful people.  So, while he was pushed out on a mission, as one of 12 scientists to come and evaluate and watch us, for reasons they didn’t really fully understand either, he fell in love with us.  That’s why he seems very cuddly.  When I was writing “August,” I really did toy with the title.  My first working title for it was “A Cautionary Tale for an Observer.”  The answers lie in that.  But, he fell in love with us and he was cuddly because he understood that we were flawed, but special.  The agenda was what it was.  When the rest of them come, it has nothing to do with warm, cuddly feelings. 

It has been said that this final season is going to be more serialized.  What freedoms has that given you, as a storyteller, in constructing this final piece of the Fringe puzzle?

WYMAN:  I’m probably guilty of saying it myself, but it’s not really that.  There’s more of a continuity of emotion and story, but it’s not like you’re going to get Walter finishing a sentence, and then you come back the next week and he’s talking about the same thing.  There are still capsulated episodes, but they’re all about one thing.  These 13 stories are about one story.  What I and the staff have really enjoyed is that continuity of emotions.  Just by the nature of being episodic television, and the responsibilities we have to our partners at FOX, the episodes should stand on their own.  The one week, you’ll have Olivia very concerned about something that Peter did to her, and then the next week, she’s upset because she has a blemish on her hand and doesn’t know what it is.  There’s a randomness to what people are going through, on a week-to-week basis.  That goes along with episodic television on a network.  So, in this season, what it’s allowed us to do is to not really be so concerned with that, but more concerned with, “Okay, how are these people going through what they’re going through?  These are real issues.  How are they going to deal with them and what’s going to happen?”  That’s actually been a lot of fun, and very freeing. 

Fringe-final-seasonWhat will viewers see from Nina and Broyles in 2036?

WYMAN:  Well, I don’t want to spoil anything and, traditionally, I’m very tight-lipped.  It’s really tough because there’s only 13 episodes and I really don’t want to give anything away.  I want people to really enjoy the surprises that are coming, and the turn of events that are waiting for you.  It’s not a secret that, in Episode 19, we saw that they’re around.  They’re going to continue, in a capacity that you may or not expect, and hopefully we have given them work that will fill out their characters and be satisfying to the fans of those two particular characters, as well.  That’s all I can really say.  They’re around.

What can you say about Walter Bishop and how he’s changed now?

WYMAN: John Noble is such a fantastic actor.  One of the consistent challenges is to give him things that he’s never played before because he’ll do the work.  He is just outrageous.  We carefully designed a journey for him, this year, that is entirely unique and will probably affect him in ways that I’m sure we haven’t seen before.  When you’re dealing with the brain and taking tissue out, this is Fringe and anything can happen.  It’s definitely a concern for him that has never been there before.  That’s spoiling it enough, but secret enough, at the same time. 

With only 13 episodes, are you planning on squeezing in one of those crazy episodes?

WYMAN:  The truth is that I’ve got something that’s really special planned, but I don’t want to talk about it.  I think it will be memorable.  It’s definitely a breadth of a difference, and a step in a different direction.

Fringe-castWhat will you take away from this whole experience, working on this show? 

WYMAN:  It’s been the highlight of my career because, when I first got on the program, in the first season, the show was starting to find what it was.  I was a fan, but I didn’t really know a lot about it.  J.J. [Abrams] had said that the concept of the program is that it’s about a family.  I’m always leaning more towards being an existentialist, so I said, “How am I going to start to tell stories that are meaningful, and not just crazy things from out of this world circumstances, but just are something that people can really relate to and something that I care about writing about the human condition?”  Once I figured that out and went, “Oh, yeah, I can see that the further science fiction gets, the more about humanity it actually is,” it changed me, my impression of science fiction, and how I would attack my work on the program.  So, I think I definitely became a better writer and a deeper thinker, in regards to demanding more from my 43 minutes of television.  And it’s been about working with these incredible actors and the support.  Never in my career have I got the support for what I’m doing, any more than I have on Fringe.  As an artist, it makes you go, “Wow, people are feeling things that I’m feeling in the world and we’re all concerned about the same things because the viewers are telling me that.”  That’s very satisfying.  On so many levels, that’s really been the highlight.  I’ve definitely emerged from it a much better thinker, a much better writer and a much better storyteller, in general.

Fringe airs on Friday nights on FOX.