Exclusive: Joel Wyman Talks 'Fringe:' Past, Present, and Future



The stakes have never been higher on Fringe. Peter, Olivia and Walter are stuck in a post-apocalyptic, Observer-run future. Peter and Olivia’s daughter, Etta, was killed by an Observer. In desperation, Peter has inserted strange Observer technology into his system. And perhaps most devastating of all, the Fringe TV series will conclude on January 18, 2013.  It’s all a lot to take in. Executive producer Joel Wyman spoke exclusively to me about Fringe’s past, present and future.

The Observers could have overrun the planet in present day. Story-wise, what does moving that conflict into the future allow you to do?

The future scenario gives something very important to me, which is it sets up that we lost. And it sets up the importance of hope. And it sets up a condition that needs to be overcome. It creates a visually stimulating palette where you don’t know what is around the corner. There’s some really interesting things to look at. It gives it a needed jolt of energy where I can tell stories about the human condition, but in a way that’s compelling and interesting to look at. If you hadn’t lost anything, you can’t come back in the game. Keep in mind, there’s only 13 episodes this year; it’s not another 22-episode season. This is the end. It couldn’t be “We were just invaded. We have to beat them now.” We don’t know what oppression feels like, so unless we can imagine and see what oppression is.... 

I don’t think it’s very subtle, but the reason why I used a dandelion in that episode and the flashbacks, is I had to grasp an image or metaphor for how indomitable I think the human spirit is. It’s a dandelion. They can’t be eradicated. That’s the whole idea, that even though the human spirit has been basically snuffed out here, there are still a few embers, and those embers will catch fire and rage again. I could tell that story much better in the future where I could depict that evil and cautionary tale of what happens when the human race becomes too evolved.

And here we thought it was just to create a new verb like “ambering.”

That was a happy accident. A lot of people say, “Did you know on the bus in season one...” We’re like, “Nope.” The truth is there’s so many things you come up with and you’re like, “That could spin into something cool,” and it becomes much more important than it was originally conceived to be. “Ambering” is a good one.

We finally had the family all together this season. What purpose did Etta’s death serve?

I think it’s going to become clear. Off the bat, I said that I was trying to tell a story that is real and has a real emotion. Her death is instrumental. It’s about destiny fulfilled and being an enemy of fate and accepting life. For me, the show is a weekly metaphor for what we all go through on a daily basis. It is important to me as an artist to show that the world, if you look in the wrong places, is a very dark place and can overwhelm you sometimes. It’s hard to find beauty and inspiration. What I’m really sort of saying is that hope is so crucial and beauty can come from the ashes. You have to work hard and commit to those around you. Life is defined by the connections you make and you have to find those moments of beauty and live and hold your family close by. Those are things that mean something to me as an artist, so of course it’s going to be reflected in my work.

And here are these people on their odyssey and I’ve said that there’s three different odysseys going on. I looked at the season as three separate acts, like it’s a large feature film. It’s a realization that you are a piece in a larger part of the puzzle, that there are mysteries still in the world. There are things that are unknown. There’s no mistake with the line “You don’t even know what you don’t know.” That’s key. 

Given that loss, is Peter spiralling out of control or doing whatever is necessary at this point?

I think it’s evident Peter will do whatever it takes. It’s very frustrating going up against an enemy you cannot beat. Pain, anger... these are things Peter and viewers are feeling. In the past, so many of the good things we’ve done, and we’ve taken missteps as well, but there’s been a lack of consistency at times where you really couldn’t follow people’s emotional stories. That’s the nature of a type of network television. Every week, there’s a new dilemma for Olivia when really people connect with... people and it’s a long haul. I’m really interested in knowing that person and how she’s going to deal with stuff. When these scary monsters are sort of thrown at her and these twists and turns in life, I want to feel like I’m going through it with her. I want to watch her react. Therein lies the key to her character and how I watch her. In the past, one week she was upset how Peter talked to her and the next week, she has a blemish on her arm and what was that? There was always a different thing. This year, we wanted it to be a continuous emotion. Peter’s is a logical continuation. 

When he feels so helpless, and willing to do what he did for vengeance, you have to watch him and see what happens. Essentially, I’m drawing parallels between him and Walter with Walter’s original sin of what he did. And Peter is sort of doing the same thing, isn’t he? This is all for the want and lust of love, and wanting to make things right.

Now that Peter has attached this alien technology to his body, what does a journey into “Observerville” entail?

You’re talking about a completely evolved version of us. That’s a dangerous thing. Anything can happen. That’s what we wanted to propose. Again, cautionary tale. We’re made the way we’re made for a reason. The one thing we do have, and we do possess, is a healthy understanding of that. How much knowledge is too much knowledge? And when do you cross that line and get into the domain of God? Is that hubris that brings you there and makes you make that mistake? So Peter is essentially living that mistake and he’ll have to deal with what’s coming up.

It’s about time Joshua Jackson and Peter got some juicy material.

Josh was involved in early conversations. He was sort of thrilled with this character arc because I think he, and rightly so, had some moments of wishing that his character would do more. As a performer or artist, you’re always going to want to stretch and grow. Playing the same character for five years gets tedious. When Josh heard what the plan was, he was like, “Wow. That’s going to challenge me.” I must say, he’s doing the best work I’ve ever seen him do. You’re going to flip. Josh is so funny. He never forgets a line. He is always in a good mood. He shows up like a pro and never complains. Anything we’ve thrown at him, he’s handled with incredible talent and professionalism and the will to do better.

We haven’t seen Nina or Massive Dynamics this season. Are there plans for them?

Yes! Nina is such a quintessential part of Fringe. So is Broyles. They have not been forgotten at all. Different people have different favorite episodes so far. That’s the nature of the beast. When you look at all 13 when we’re finished, you’ll say, “I know why he told that. I know why Nina came in now and how she fits into the grand scheme of things.” You have to pick and choose your moments when you only have 13 episodes. The main people I’m really obsessed with are Olivia, Walter and Peter, of course. That’s what everybody demands and wants to see. People love Nina and she should, and does, have a very important part. It’s just not as much screen time as our three heroes.

Walter is the heart and soul of the series. Was that always the case or did it evolve along the way?

Even in the pilot, Walter was always an intriguing, well-drawn character. When you get a guy like John Noble and see what he does, you realize instantly you have gold. The second you watch him, it works. You’re sitting there and you’re like, “Oh my God. This guy is touched.” It’s really fun to write for that. Number one, John Noble never bungles anything. Every single intention that you want or dream of on the page, he transcends it and turns it into this delicious, incredible performance. You find yourself doing something in your life, like going to get a coffee, and you start to think of something and chuckle because you’re like, “I can’t wait to write that for Walter.” He’s always in your head. It was always the intention he would be the chewy center everybody loves.

Can you preview tonight’s episode?

You’re going to see a lot more of the progression of Peter’s decision to do what he did. It’s really exciting. Going forward now, it’s revelation after revelation after revelation.

With only a handful of episodes left, is there a difference between crafting a satisfying finale for you, or for the fans, or to better serve the characters?

The goal is to do all of those things. I had my moments thinking “How is this going to end emotionally and what would I want as a fan of television of I invested so many hours of my life watching these characters I fell in love with? What would I want?” I came up with the following criteria. I would want everything to resolve in a way that is logical and exciting, that makes me feel “Oh my God. I’ve watched this. It’s re-contextualized everything I’ve seen in a cool way. And wow, that was something else.” Number two, I would like to see things happen to all my characters that they have earned, that things have happened in maybe surprising ways, but in ways that I understand as also logical and obvious, that “This is where they belong. This is something that makes incredible sense.” The third and final one is I hate saying goodbye. That one is a biggie. As a person, I don’t like goodbyes. “See you” is different. I would want to sit in my car the day after the final episode and think, “I know it’s over, but I can kind of imagine where everybody is. I can still feel these people I loved. They’re not gone. They are just right next door to me in another universe.”

To get your own sense of closure, was it important to direct the series finale?

Yeah, it really was. Directing is a luxury. Showrunners don’t really have a chance to do it because you’re so busy. Literally, you’re making a million decisions a day and everybody is coming through you. You have a responsibility to make sure the scripts are on time and production is running smoothly and post production is going well. There are so many things. It’s a great job, but it’s very time consuming. To direct, you basically have to go for a week to prep and then you have to shoot for a week and then you have to post for a week. That’s three weeks. I cannot disappear for three hours. It was announced I was going to direct a whole bunch of episodes and I kept putting them off because I felt it was irresponsible to go and do it. I kept pushing it off until literally, the crew and everybody said, “No, you have to come and direct this episode, ‘A Short Story About Love.’” It was at a perfect time before Christmas where everything was under control and I could actually leave and do it. Then when we started talking about the finale and I was asked to do it, I thought, “That’s good. I’m telling a very particular story and the way I’m seeing things is so unique.” I don’t know that anybody could get exactly what I’m trying to say the way I could. It would be different. I’m not saying it would be any less engaging, but it would just be very different. I feel it’s a very humbling opportunity to be able to say goodbye to these people on the set with them, and actually go through it, and be the guy to call last cut.

On that very last day of filming, is there a prop you intend on snagging as a memento?

Yes, there is and I think it will become clear. I definitely have my eye on what it is going to be. I am going to make out with it quickly in the night.

Fringe viewers have been extremely passionate and vocal. Any last words to those fans?

This has been the highlight of my career and I’ve never, ever felt so much love. As a writer, we are working in a vacuum. Honestly, the highlight of my career was walking out onto that stage in Comic-Con and having all those people put up those white tulips. That episode was obviously incredibly important to me personally, but it blew my mind. What that meant to me I can’t even really put into words. It goes straight to my theory about writing and why I write. People can disagree with the way I do a certain plot. I’m not asking everyone to go along with my narrative or every choice I’ve made. What really gets me off is they are concerned about the same things I’m concerned about. They get it. They are people who want to believe in hope and go to another level and dig deeper into human relationships. We’re like-minded people and that to me is really profound. The fact that they thought of so many incredible ways to keep the show on the air is just amazing. I’ve never experienced anything like it and, frankly, I probably won’t again.