Warning: this post contains spoilers for the Fringe series finale.
As the credits rolled on the final episode of Fringe, I knew one thing for sure: I did not like the ending. I felt somehow dissatisfied with it, rubbed the wrong way. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something Not Right at the core of this happy ending. After some reflection (e.g., browsing on Tumblr), I realized I was mostly upset about Donald/September dying rather than living on with his son. Which, okay, I guess is what the show was going for. They want viewers to be upset when a sympathetic character dies. But, for me, this went way beyond the feels and right into crip rage.
Why? Because this bittersweet happy ending was sweet for Peter and Olivia and Etta (the white, heterosexual, able-bodied nuclear family), but bitter for Michael and Walter (the neurodivergent contingent of the Fringe cast this season).
This happy ending signified by Etta safely coming home with her parents could only happen if two disabled characters were separated from their families forever. And given that Walter is a member of Etta’s extended family, this has the Unfortunate Implication that the Happy Family can only exist if disabled members are out of the picture. Rather than placing Grampa Walter in a nursing home, they put him a hundred years into the future.
Michael, the child Observer, doesn’t fair any better. A perpetual child, Michael is taken from his loving father (now dead and without a place in society because of his disabled son) to be studied for the foreseeable future by scientists he’s never met. Nonverbal Michael, emotionally-vibrant-yet-distant Michael, genetic-anomaly-to-be-disassembled Michael, puzzle-piece-in-a-plan Michael, shows-affection-to-his-father-with-the-same-finger-touching-gesture-as-the-autistic-protagonist-from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time Michael will save the future if the men in white lab coats—eugenicists—can study him. Etta, the able-bodied, neurotypical, blonde-haired child can be reborn and live on safely in the past while Michael is poked and prodded in the future.
Think of the children. Which children?
My biggest problem with the series finale is that all this rending crip from family was entirely unnecessary—and, frankly, a little boring. There was no reason why Walter had to go with Michael instead of Donald. The show can talk a good deal about how Walter needed to make a huge, difficult sacrifice to redeem himself, but sacrifice is not difficult for disabled people. We are conditioned to sacrifice. It comes goddamn naturally by adulthood. All the little things we go without, all the little “compromises” we make in daily life to make able-bodied people more comfortable. All the budgets balanced on our backs; all the food taken from our bellies to keep afloat a government that doesn’t give two damns about us. Walter was institutionalized in Saint Claire’s for seventeen years. Seventeen years where he sacrificed his freedom to go and and stay, when to sleep, when to eat, what to eat. He sacrificed every detail of his life. He sacrificed parts of his brain. To be erased from 2015—to die, essentially—would not be an awfully big sacrifice, then. What is difficult is for disabled people is to work to undo the internalized ableism that tells us we are inconveniences who should disappear. To stay, to live would be an awfully big sacrifice. But a sacrifice made by the entire family, not just Walter. Peter, Olivia, Etta, Astrid, and Gene would have to make a few compromises to be Walter’s family. Just as they would for any other family member. That level of realism would make it a bittersweet happy ending.
Not predictable twists-and-turns and unsurprising surprises. Because, really, who among us was shocked when Walter went through the portal with Michael? I’m betting not a lot of us. Because we’ve watched movies and TV shows, read books, played video games… We’re all quite familiar with fiction and that when characters say, “Here is exactly what we’re going to do,” that’s not what’s going to happen. The writers know we would be bored if we had to hear this elaborate plan and then watch it play out verbatim five minutes later. And we know that they know. So we expect things to go awry. Therefore, when Donald tells Walter he will be the one to accompany Michael to the future, we know that ain’t gonna happen. Zero shock when Donald gets gunned down and Walter take his place.
What would’ve been shocking and subversive and not the same it’s-the-finale-so-someone-has-to-die dren we’ve grown accustomed to since Lost… what if Donald never told Walter about his plan to take Michael through the shipping lane? What if as Walter and Michael walked to the shipping lane, Donald shot Walter? “You shot me. I thought you were one of the nice Observers. You have hair.” Donald takes Michael’s hand, explaining that he knew that physically incapacitating Walter was the only way he could stop Walter’s self-destructive/self-sacrificing impulse (think back to the LSD and begging Nina to remove parts of his brain), and the only way Michael could spend the future with the father who loves him—and the only way Walter could spend the past with the son who loves him. Sacrifice might be noble, but being there is harder.
Sacrificing a disabled character is cheap, wreaking of the cultural logic of euthanasia and the stale series finale formula that dictates someone has to die. Instead of working on the fringe of storytelling, Fringe writers aligned themselves with the mainstream when they decided:
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some fix-it fic to read.