The producers of Fringe promised a couple years ago that there was a meaning to the show that they hadn't fully shared with us, which we would understand when we saw the final episode. And after last night's final showdown with the Observers, that meaning seems pretty clear: Fringe was a show about fatherhood, and the difference between being a father and being a patriarch.
Walter, Peter and September wrestled with fatherhood and the sacrifices you make for your kids. And meanwhile, they faced up against the ultimate Patriarchs, the bald dictatorial mind-fuckers from the future. Spoilers ahead...
To some extent, Fringe's biggest villains have always been father figures gone bad. Walternate was a distorted reflection of Peter's adoptive father Walter, who clung to his dignity and authority as a cover for his rage. Walternate set himself up as a father, not just to Peter, but to his entire Fringe Division and arguably the whole world, doing whatever it took to protect his people. And then there was Evil William Bell, who wanted to be the father of a whole new race of chimeras in a brand new universe that he personally gave life to. Walter's bumbling, amiable, well-meaning attempts to be a father to Peter have always been set against the attempts of other men to be stern, controlling Daddies.
And this year, we've seen the Observers set themselves up as the ultimate patriarchs, in a future where their oppressive posters hang everywhere and their cameras and loyalists see everything. The Observers see themselves as superior to humans, but also as fulfilling the destiny of the 21st century human race. Their regime is built on a sort of benign contempt for the people they rule, but also depends on those people being obedient, complicit children.
If this season had one fatal flaw, it's that we haven't really spent that much time learning how the Observers' world works. We had that one episode where Etta tortures a Loyalist, and we've caught glimpses here and there, but we haven't really interrogated the mechanisms of Observer totalitarianism in the way the show seemed to be promising back when it unveiled this world in "Letters of Transit." That episode showed us a world of Observer nightclubs and people caught in the middle. Since then, though, the show has thrown out plot elements whenever the suited the story — like Amber Gypsies, who are apparently a common enough thing in the future that everybody knows about them, despite the fact that there doesn't really seem to be much amber anywhere outside of Walter's lab.
Instead, the show has given us a single antagonist: Windmark, who's slowly gotten more and more consumed by hatred until he finally gives into it in the final episodes.
In any case, the key emotional scenes in last night's episode were all about being a good parent, and the nature of "sacrifice" — that word was brought up enough times, by enough different characters, that it was clearly the takeaway message of the show's final hours. The difference between a patriarch and a good father? A patriarch takes from his children, while a father sacrifices for them. So let's talk about sacrifice.
Walter and September
So it turns out that when Walter said he would have to "sacrifice himself" for the plan to succeed, he didn't mean that he'd have to die. Not right away, anyway. Instead, he would have to accompany Michael, the Child Observer, to the future to meet with the Norwegian scientist Dävrøs. As a result, Walter would be erased from time starting with the Observer invasion in 2015 — more on that in a bit.
All of this comes out when Peter finds a syringe in the amber, which turns out to be for time travel inoculation. And a videotape, which Walter somehow plans to send back in time to Peter in 2015 explaining why Walter had to disappear and go live in the future. There's a wonderfully surreal scene where Peter and Walter watch the tape of Walter side by side, while the recorded Walter explains that the moments he and Peter had together were stolen, and they were lucky to have the time they did.
But then it turns out that September wants to be the one to take Michael into the future, because he needs to prove that he's a good dad and he loves his son — and seeing Walter and Peter being tender together has made September realize how important that is.
This sets up what might be the central conflict of the episode: Who's going to get to sacrifice himself? Walter wants to pay the price himself, because he still needs to atone for breaking the multiverse back in 1985, rescuing Peter. He already let go of Peter to fix the damage back in season three, with September and the other Observers goading him to do the right thing back then. But that wasn't enough of a penalty, and he wants to be stranded in 2167 and cut off from the ones he loves forever, as an extra penance. Plus Walter's sacrifice will ensure that Peter and Olivia, and Etta, are safe.
Meanwhile, Walter's need for atonement is placed against September's need to show his son that he loves him — plus, of course, if the plan succeeds, September will be erased from time unless he goes to 2167 and becomes a paradox. In any case, when there's a conflict between "being a father" and paying for your past sins, being a father clearly wins out.
But meanwhile, Walter gets lots and lots of closure on his relationship with Peter. Peter calls Walter "Dad" again and they hug and accept each other once and for all, and Peter seems at last to have decided that Walter was a good father, in spite of all his madness and universe-wrecking.
And then, of course, Walter has to go with Michael into the future anyway. This is a bit confusing — Michael puts his finger to his lips, as if telling Olivia that she shouldn't interfere in what's about to happen. And then September is killed and Michael plays his music box for his dad one last time, before leaving with Walter. Did Michael want September to die? Was there some reason why going with Walter had a better chance of success than going with September? We'll never really know.
But we know the plan succeeded, because — as pretty much everybody expected — the episode ends with Peter and Olivia back in that field of dandelions with young Etta, at the moment when the Observers invaded. And this time? No Observer invasion. Instead, Peter holds his daughter in his arms. And then he goes home and gets a letter in the mail from his father: a White Tulip, Walter's sign of forgiveness and grace.
WTF time paradox
So, yeah, the time paradox doesn't entirely make sense. Why would Walter be erased from time as of 2015? The Observers were around long before that, and had a huge impact on Walter's personal timeline for 30 years before that. As many people have pointed out, a world without Observers would be one where Walternate succeeded in curing Peter himself, and Walter didn't have a reason to kidnap his son from the Other Side. So the plan succeeding should mean that Peter wakes up in bed with Fauxlivia.
I can only guess that 2015 is the date where Walter gets erased from the universe because the Observer invasion is such a huge, Earth-shattering event that resetting it causes a massive disruption. But that's just a guess.
And meanwhile, there's also the puzzling bit where September goes to see December, his fellow member of the original group of twelve Observers. The whole plot of these last two episodes revolves around a series of obstacles on the way to implementing the plan (at the end of which the plan succeeds), and one of those obstacles is that the reactor thingy for September's time machine doesn't work. It's lost its charge.
So September visits December, and convinces him to get them a new reactor thingy from the future. I have some questions about this — like, why hasn't September asked December for help before? It doesn't seem to take much to convince December to help, after all. And if December still has the ability to time travel, which he's going to use to go to the future to get a reactor to build a time machine, why not just ask him to take September and Michael to 2167? In for a penny, in for a pound, after all. December agrees to help erase himself and his fellow Observers from the universe, but he'll only help to do it in the most complicated way possible. (I guess having December take the Child Observer to 2167 would require trusting him a bit more.)
In any case, when our heroes can't get a new reactor thingy from December, they're screwed. Until Astrid suggests taking over one of the Observer's own time portals, and everybody's like "great idea!". This was another moment where my suspension of disbelief went out the window slightly — the Observers' time portals are of massive strategic importance, and our heroes already attacked one recently. You would think this would be like saying "Let's attack the Pentagon in broad daylight, armed with rubber bands!" But the same could be said for stealing an Observer Time Cube from one of their maximum security facilities, which the heroes also pull off a short time earlier. A lot of this final episode requires accepting, once and for all, that the Observers really are the Keystone Kops of evil overlords.
Oh, one last nitpick — the Observers have been masters of time travel for yonks. You would think they would identify key strategic points in history, like the moment of their original creation, and secure them somehow. Like, send a fraction of your evil army to Norway in 2167 to keep an eye on Dävrøs and covertly dispose of anyone who seems to be trying to interfere with established events. That's what I would do.
Okay, done nitpicking now.
Olivia gets to be badass one more time
My favorite moment in the episode is towards the end, when Olivia is apparently beaten by Windmark, who advances on Michael — and then Olivia looks at Etta's bullet necklace, and gets seriously pissed. And all of her intense emotion activates her Cortexiphan once and for all, turning off all the lights and then smushing Windmark like a bug before he can teleplop out of there.
We've been waiting all season to see Cortexiphan powers against Observer powers, and it was totally worth it.
Olivia gets to shine quite a bit in these last couple episodes. In the first hour, our heroes are dealing with one of the obstacles in their path: the Observers have Michael and are going to dissect him. So Olivia comes up with a plan. She'll take a massive dose of Cortexiphan, reactivating her lost powers, and travel on the Other Side to the place on Liberty Island where Michael is being held. Then she'll come back to our universe, grab Michael, and jump back to the Other Side for a clean getaway.
This means one last time of Walter being a dickish mad scientist, giving Olivia more and more Cortexiphan doses even though her heart rate is like, infinity. "There is no greater authority" on Cortexiphan, he intones. And it means Anna Torv gets to play one last version of Olivia: middle aged mom Fauxlivia, happily married to Lincoln Lee, with a teenage son. (Another best moment: Faulivia telling Lincoln to stop checking out her other self's young ass.)
Of course, doing all that Cortexiphan causes hallucinations and a shaky grasp on which universe you're in, so Olivia is stuck infiltrating the most secure Observer installation on Earth while seeing phantoms from the other universe. She can barely be sure what's real, and of course the Observers can teleplop in and out of existence in any case. This rescue mission is suspenseful and intense in a way that the high-stakes missions in the final hour can't quite match, with Olivia visibly trying to hold it together while fighting her way through Observers and Loyalists.
And it's all worth it, because as Olivia says to Peter while they're waiting in the car before the big day, they're going to get their daughter back. Once again, being a parent and sacrificing for your kid makes you awesome.
Broyles' Last Stand
This episode also gives some nice screen time to the two unsung members of the Fringe team, Broyles and Astrid. (No Charlie Francis, though. Not even a namecheck or brief Kirk Acevedo cameo. Sad.)
Broyles finally gets caught as the mole because he gives Olivia the location where the Child Observer is being held, information that only a few humans could have known. (Remember that whole thing about there being a mysterious resistance leader named the Dove? I guess it was Broyles after all, even though he prefers to be called the Raven.) The Observers let Broyles go, hoping he'll lead them to the Bishop Gang, but instead he just leads them on a chase.
So Broyles winds up in Windmark's dentist chair, where Windmark confesses to his almost-ex-colleague Philip that living among humans has given rise to a new emotion in Windmark: hate. Broyles gets to be all steely and tough one last time, as he tells Windmark it's mutual. And then luckily, Broyles turns out to be just down the hall from where Olivia and Peter are already stealing a time cube. So Broyles gets to fight in the last battle. Yay!
Meanwhile, Astrid gets a few nice moments too, holding her own in some firefights. She's the one who thinks of using the universe window to spy on the Other Side nad make sure it's Observer-free. She's the one who comes up with the "hijack a portal" idea. And she gets to take Walter deep inside the amber in his lab, to show him where Gene the cow is still frozen. And Walter tells Astrid that she always knew how to soothe him, and that Astrid is a beautiful name. He finally gets her name right!
Final Thoughts About Fringe
Fringe went through more changes in five years than most shows do in seven or eight. I can still remember when Peter and Olivia had a brother-sister vibe going on, and everybody was insisting those two would never get together romantically. But you can make a pretty strong case that the show was always about love, and in particular about family.
Most TV shows feature a group of people who are pushed together by circumstances and become an "unconventional family," but Fringe always had the weird father-son relationship between Walter and Peter at its core, plus Olivia's complicated past with Walter. And around that trio, the show built a small family of weirdos.
Love broke the walls between universes. And the two alternate universes became the focal point for a big love triangle. Later, Peter sacrifices himself to fix the multiverse, partly out of love. And then he was brought back from being erased from time, because the people who loved him couldn't forget him. And at last, Walter erased himself from a big chunk of time so he could save his son and his granddaughter.
Fringe always had one of the best casts on television. In particular, John Noble and Anna Torv were able to convey complicated, tortured emotions with just little facial movements. And I long since lost count of how many versions of Walter and Olivia those two played. But in general, all of the main castmembers of Fringe did an amazing job of making the show's endless barrage of weird shit feel real. And personal.
We'll remember Fringe for the characters, in their myriad versions and their complicated emotional lives. Way more than we will for its random plot devices, like the First People and the Pattern and the zeppelin guy. Olivia, Peter, Walter, Astrid, Broyles and the rest. They were real, and their struggles were epic. Godspeed, Fringe. We'll see you on the Other Side.