The Fringe Emotions: How What We Feel Keeps Us Human

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In the recently ended television show Fringe, emotion is at the heart of the conflict. But while negative emotions can be destructive, the real danger is when we feel nothing at all.

I tend to have bad luck with television shows. Yes, of course some of the shows I watch enjoy commercial success but, in general, the shows I love either get cancelled quickly or have small followings. There could be many reasons for this but I tend to believe it’s because, if I’m going to invest a large amount of time, I want the show to have a deeper meaning. I want it to portray the intricacies of the human condition. Most shows prove disappointing in that area, but the recently ended Fringe never was. That show definitely had something to say.

I know that many people don’t care for science fiction but I have never understood that. One of their complaints is that it is not real, and they may have a point about the bad stuff. However, truly great science fiction takes our current reality and shows us where it could possibly lead. In fact, lots of great science fiction books, movies and television shows have been quite prescient. Just take a look at Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World‘s ominous foresight about psychotropic medication and genetic engineering; the Terminator series and the new Battlestar Galactica both showed what could happen when acceptable machine behavior (you know, like drones) goes seriously wrong; and Star Trek was practically clairvoyant in its depiction of cell phones, virtual reality, and laser technology (among other things).

What the television show Fringe did was equally as special because it was all about the intersection of science and emotion. The premise of the show centered on a team of people who investigated “fringe” events, like alternate universes, telekinesis and enhanced abilities via altered states of consciousness. These events were so named because their occurrences were possible due to fringe science, which is scientific inquiry in an established field of study that departs significantly from mainstream theories. However, freaky happenings were really just a frame through which the show very cleverly played with the power, danger and joy of emotion. As a psychologist, I adore emotions.

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One of the really great things about the show is that it bookended the extremes of emotion. The show started with a look at the devastation wrought by the love of a father who happened to be a brilliant scientist. Dr. Walter Bishop was a Harvard researcher who went crazy when his seven-year-old son died from an incurable illness. In his grief, he found a way to cross into an alternate universe in which his son, Peter, was alive and brought the boy back with him. Walter meant to give the boy the cure he discovered so that this Peter could live and then return him to his world, but his love for his son overcame his sense of morality and Walter ended up keeping Peter in our reality. Unbeknownst to Walter, this one event — caused by the extreme “positive” emotion of love — set off a chain reaction of events in which the two universes collided and chaos ensued. And that was how the show started.

In contrast, the show ended by examining the devastation caused by eliminating “negative” emotions. In Fringe‘s 5th and final season, we discovered that scientists would soon find a way to take a difficult emotion like jealousy and use that space in the brain to enhance our reasoning abilities instead. This invention was done with the best of intentions (as so much of science is) but unfortunately had a terrifying outcome. Scientists, people stereotypically depicted as having few emotions, were excited by the possibilities and replaced more and more emotions with reasoning abilities until eventually no emotions were left. And once emotions were eliminated, all that remained were beings called the Observers, technologically advanced humans who were essentially amoral monsters.

Interestingly, all of the Observers were similar looking males because, without emotion, they had little interest in sex. Reproduction was accomplished through technology and diversity was not valued. I wondered whether the lack of female Observers was done purposely in order to highlight the stereotypical division of the sexes. Since women are believed to be more emotional, they were eliminated from our future while men, as the “logical” sex, continued. One might consider that a demonstration of male superiority until you realized that while the Observers were not burdened by all of the negative feelings of jealousy, anger, sadness, fear or guilt, they also were unable to feel joy, love, contentment or, perhaps most importantly, compassion.

This examination of the power, destruction and necessity of emotion was fascinating and one which we should heed. The show’s creators were brilliant in their warnings about the indirect outcome of too much technology and not enough emotion. It should not have escaped notice that almost all of the fringe events occurred as a direct result of technology gone awry. Nor should we ignore the fact that, as people became more technologically advanced, we lost what it is that makes us uniquely human. Unfortunately, with the advent of technology that allows us to spend more time interacting with machines and less time with real people, we’re already on our way. And nowhere is this more evident than with emotions.

Let’s face it. Emotions can be messy and a lot of times, we’d just prefer not to deal with them. After all, it is excruciating when we have our hearts broken or when someone we love dies. Our fears are sometimes so overwhelming that they keep us from functioning at our best. And anger can make fools of us all. So yes, it’s tempting to want to do away with these emotions, to never have to feel bad again. However, so-called negative and positive emotions are two sides of the same coin. Emotions can tear us down, but they also give us strength, compassion, hope and love. In short, they give us what is best in humanity.

The last season of Fringe involved our team of emotion-filled humans battling the emotion-less Observers for the future of our world. And in a wonderful resolution, the tragedies that were caused by love and selfishness (when Walter could not let go) were rectified by two parents whose selflessness and love for their child would not let them rest until they put our world back on track. In short, emotions won the day. Let’s hope that we all take heed of this lesson and don’t let the challenge of difficult emotions push them away. Unlike the aforementioned great science fiction, I really don’t want Fringe to be as prescient.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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