Fringe: Why the fourth season actually mattered, and what exactly rewriting time means anyway

It's been a week since sci-fi series Fringe ended its five-year run with the series finale "An Enemy of Fate." You'll find very few who will argue against Fringe's strong ending; plot contrivances aside, the finale was the emotional gut-punch that it was meant to be. That final shot of Peter looking up from Walter's white tulip, something akin to realization dawning in his eyes -- it still gives me chills, and I've watched it four times. 

Since Fringe delivered an ending that most of us can agree was a satisfying one, the discussion now turns to examining the series as a whole. It was by no means a perfect show: its best years were its second and third seasons, and it meandered creatively in its first and fourth years. Even the show's writers are now willing to admit that season 3's endgame and the early part of season 4 (which saw Peter erased from existence) were largely a creative misstep (although admit it, season 3 did leave us with a really cool cliffhanger). 

But now that we have the entire series in our rearview mirror, we can start recontextualizing even the show's mistakes. This article will take a look at the decision to remove Peter from the timeline in the early fourth season, and how that ultimately played to the show's advantage in the larger scheme of things. I'm not arguing that season 4 handled the storyline perfectly, but looking back, it actually kind of works within the series as a whole. 

Especially in its later seasons, Fringe didn't bother too much with getting into the nitty-gritty of time travel mechanics. This played to the show's advantage, for the most part -- nobody wants to watch a series full of complicated charts and and science lessons, which, let's be honest, Fringe could have very easily become at any time. But there were moments when a little more exposition could have been useful, especially when the series rebelled against established time travel sci-fi norms. 

See, season 4's real sin wasn't erasing Peter, it was not knowing what to do with him when he came back. Remember that portion of the season where Peter was trying desperately to return to his timeline, only to discover that the was in the right timeline -- it had only been altered to remove him. For a show that heavily featured an alternate universe, tossing the many-worlds interpretation (which dictates a lot of alt-universe sci-fi) right out the window was unnecessarily disorienting. That decision also meant that the series wasn't quite sure what terminology to use when describing the altered past, so "the other timeline" was what stuck.

It was a total quagmire of a storyline, but thankfully the writers realized this and largely swept it under the rug. Sure, it was a little frustrating that the first three seasons had no impact on the events of the fourth, but at least the show's golden years existed in the memories of Peter (and later Olivia). Season 5's jump in time also largely rendered the altered timeline issue moot, until it was suddenly brought up again in the third-to-last episode of the series, when the Observer boy, Michael, helped Walter to remember the events of the first three seasons (and also helped us to remember that Walter had forgotten in the first place).  Interestingly, the show made a pretty big deal out of it.  

What was there to gain by bringing Fringe's biggest plot blunder back up? Considering the finale, quite a bit, actually. 

In the penultimate scene of "An Enemy of Fate," Walter makes the decision to travel to the future with Michael, thus erasing the Observers from time and erasing himself from 2015 onward (I'm still not quite clear on how THOSE mechanics work-- enlighten me in the comments if you've figured it out). What's important here is that we're dealing with another reset of the universe, similar to what happened with Peter in season 4. The Observers were never created, meaning that, once again, the timeline has been completely rewritten. This should be where your head starts to hurt. 

If this final rewrite of the universe caused by erasing the Observers had been comprehensive (meaning that it completely overwrote season 4's reset), then the final scene of the series wouldn't have happened at all. Peter would be alive and well in the other universe, with Walternate having discovered the cure for his disease in 1985, uninterrupted by September. 

But it appears that rewriting the universe has more of a cumulative effect, meaning that the whole of Fringe wasn't rewritten, just the reality established by season 4. Seasons 1 through 3 had been erased before the Observers were, and you can't erase what's already been erased. Even without the efforts of September, Peter somehow popped back into existence in this rewritten universe -- and there is no reason for us to believe that Peter's memories (and the ones Olivia would later regain) were anything other than seasons 1 through 3, as we knew and loved them. 

So, without that confusing, frustrating season 4 storyline, Fringe would have been a show rendered irrelevant by its own ending. 

Again, this is not a defense of how Fringe handled the fourth season -- and it's probably applying too much logic to what should be remembered as a fun piece of fiction -- but it's admirable that the writers not only owned their mistake, but ultimately made it matter within the greater context of the show. 

One more point to make, if I may: it was his impact on the lives of Olivia and Walter -- and their love for him -- that brought Peter back into existence. Like the paradox that Walter foresaw that he would become in "An Enemy of Fate," the universe erased Peter, and he was brought back with, for lack of a less cheesy phrase, the power of love. So while I'm not quite certain exactly how Walter being erased from the post-2015 world works (again, commenters, this is your time to shine), what matters is that the universe apparently wiped him out of existence in a way that's similar (if less retroactive) to how it took care of Peter in the season 3 finale. 

So that white tulip from Walter (with the really weird return address) not only has the thematic importance of signifying Walter's ultimate atonement for his sins, but also serves to (potentially) jog Peter's memory. Love as strong as the bond between Peter and Walter proved to be enough to bring Peter back from nonexistence -- who's to say that it couldn't do it again? 

Peter's glance upward in the final shot of the series was intended to be an ambiguous one, and maybe that's why. Thanks to season 4, we know that the series leaves us with hope for a reunion between father and son. It leaves us with hope that, once again, the Bishops will be enemies of fate (and the universe). 

Speaking to Blastr shortly before the finale aired, showrunner J.H. Wyman shared this sentiment about writing the finale: "I wanted very much to have a viewer, a fan, watch it and sort of go to bed and wake up the next morning and get ready for work and get in the car and drive and think about the show and think about the characters that they've loved for so long and actually are able to imagine what they're doing now. To give them a sense of completeness, like, 'Okay, I know they're okay somewhere. I know what's going on. I can imagine them.' Because to me, then they'll live forever."

Mr. Wyman should consider them immortal. 


- Fringe
- J.H. Wyman

Written by: mcpherson
Jan 25th, 2013, 11:43 am

Images courtesy of FOX and


Message Posted On Jul 21st, 2013, 4:35 am
I agree with the Mr. Anonymous. The Observers were still created, but with more emphatic emotions. Whether this is true or not, it is the way my mind wants to remember this show. I NEED the first 3 seasons to really happen, even though I know this is all fiction. I had to come up with a different solution for the last season of LOST too, because the whole purgatory idea was ridiculous!
Fringe Geek

Message Posted On Feb 1st, 2013, 9:19 pm
All of your thoughts are very interesting, but here's my theory... Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong. The facts: *September saved Peter *Peter is "important" to the Observers *The Observers did not erase Peter- the machine did *The Observers come from one of many possible futures. My opinion: *There is no such thing as a paradox. When you leave your point in time, you exist outside of time. If you go back in time and kill your grandfather, YOU will continue to exist, but if you go back to the future, you will find that you don't exist. *Multiple timelines do not exist So, based on all of that, here is what I think. (You can draw a timeline and follow this if you want.) Everything the Observers did was to insure that they came into existence.(This may be conflicted by the fact that Observers are only supposed to observe. Maybe that is just what we think? Maybe the Observers sent September back, knowing that he would disrupt things?)First, September saved Peter. This is because he made a mistake and Peter was too important to die. Why was Peter important? The machine. When in the machine, Peter glimpses into the future. There are no Observers. That means that Peter was important so that he could avoid a future that would not lead to Observers. He was the only one who could do so because of the DNA interface. By the way, Peter could see a vision of the future because it existed out of time.(A video?) The Observers did not KNOW that Peter would then disappear from time. I think his disappearance is not because of the Observers. It is because the machine, by design or not, drew energy from Peter's past (and future?) selves. What remained of him was scattered throughout time. Because of Olivia's love/Cortexiphan mix, she was able to slowly bring him back. The presence of the other Cortexiphan child may have also led to full materialization. Olivia was probably also causing Walter's visions. Anyway, Olivia's Cortexiphan would have been no help if September had fully erased Peter. He probably did erase him not because he had emotions. The other Observers obviously did not know he would do that. They probably did not expect it because they either thought the curiosity that caused September to make the first mistake was different from emotions or they had no idea that he had emotions. With that mistake (of not erasing Peter), September prevented the Observers. However, Fringe goes on to tell the story of exactly how that happened. Peter's emotional effect on Walter motivated him to make a world saving plan. As part of this plan, Walter went into the future to prevent the evolution of Observers. Since paradoxes do not exist, Walter prevented something from happening without erasing his ability to do so. As far as the other characters are concerned, none of the Observer future ever happened. The Observers that traveled before 2015 still exist because they exist outside of time. Since Walter sent the letter before 2015, it still exists. *Note: When Peter uses the machine, it re-writes the future AND the past. Walter now thinks his son died in Reiden lake, while his son was actually used as an energy source. The future where Peter used the machine never existed, just like Walter preventing the Observers never happened. However, since the machine time traveled, the effects still happened. The final timeline: *Peter was not saved because he disappeared and Walter saved himself. *Walter was sad about Peter, so Olivia was not comforted as a child by Peter or Walter. Thus, she killed her step dad and was emotionally stunted. Walter was sad and never got happiness back.(Yet) *In the beginning of the show, David Robert Jones probably worked for Bell. However, Peter unknowingly prevented Bell's plans (which were probably slightly different and differently motivated at this time.) When Peter erased himself, Bell's plans became different and were allowed to continue. *Olivia brought Peter back *Walter was convinced by "Asberid" to accept Peter as a son. He eventually became happy. *Olivia used Cortexiphan to remember her Peter-altered self. Could she be getting it from the machine or Peter? She also used her Cortexiphan to half disintegrate Jones later. *The Fringe team defeated Bell by killing Olivia, which caused Fringe events to end once and for all. For some reason, this did not happen before. Maybe the plan was not fully stopped before? *Olivia had a daughter and Fauxlivia did NOT have a son. *Walter disappeared in 2015. We can assume... *Everyone lived a happy and normal life We can hope... *Walter did not mess up the future What I want to know: *Why did closing the bridge allow healing to stop and not reverse? It occurs to me that it may be because the bridge closed, while the holes Peter created with the machine remained. *What happened to Bell? He disappeared with the bell, but was alive in amber in the future. Did Nimoy just retire? !!! I hope this helped people and did not have any holes. I will now go re-watch episodes of Fringe. !!!

Message Posted On Jan 30th, 2013, 3:15 am
Short and simple...Observers just became Observers after the time reset. They now have emotions and never try to conquer the human maybe in the new timeline September did indeed visit Walternate and stop him from finding the cure and thus the preceding events of Walter crossing over...etc etc happen up to 2015 but this time instead of an invasion by heartless Observers nothing happens and Walter just disappears of the planet from the current timeline

Message Posted On Jan 26th, 2013, 10:13 pm
Since the whole of history had been rewritten multiple times by the sending of the machine back 250 mya, saying that you can't erase something that has already been erased makes absolutely no sense at all.
Jenny (jenrn1970)

Message Posted On Jan 26th, 2013, 4:11 pm
Aside from all the time travel, time paradoxes, timelines, etc, I have found that in rewatching season 4 I just really enjoy seeing a different version of our main characters. Simply, here's our Olivia feeling she has a hole in her life. A hole she felt she would be able to fill joining the Fringe division. Here is Walter still very much similar to his initial freeing from St. Claires in the blue verse. And finally, the introduction of essentially an Alt-Lincoln but our Lincoln in this universe. I love seeing the progression of Peter back into existence. I love the progression of Peter's re-establishment in the lives of Olivia and Walter. Think of that beautiful scene between Elizabeth and Walter with her begging Walter to help this 'version' of their son. Think of Olivia recovering her memories but Peter's fear of again betraying his 'Olivia'. And then September telling him that she is his Olivia. And also the establishment of a better Walternate. Because Peter no longer existed in this timeline there was no revelation for him that Walter kidnapped his son and therefore he did not devolve into this very bitter and malicious character. And finally LIncoln dying in the red verse but living on in our Lincoln crossing over being there for Fauxlivia and eventually being family for her. There were some wonderful episodes in season 4. Yes, it was disheartening for fans with the erasing of Peter but for those who stuck with it the payoff was beautiful and so very poignant. The fact that love concurs all is such a dream of a concept and so beautiful to hang on to and hope for. That's my defense of season 4 and why I enjoy it. I remember very clearly feeling very disheartened with it because we lost that family of Olivia, Walter and Peter, but it did come back and in retrospect there's a lot of beauty in it. Honestly now I cannot see it being done in a much different way. I still haven't rewatched the finale and I'm not sure when I'll be ready. I think I'll have to sit and completely rewatch season 5 before watching it again. Fringe finally ending was so sad but in a way freeing because we so hated the thought of it looming ahead. Now that it's over there is a void. There's definitely a void. But soon I'm sure we'll all be plotting new adventures.
R. T.

Message Posted On Jan 25th, 2013, 10:12 pm
While I give the author props for trying to come up with a fitting theory, I have to say it does not follow the logic of causality. When you talk time-travel and paradoxes, you must also talk causality. In actuality there was an original (pre-show) timeline. (I'll henceforth call it the white timeline)This White timeline ran from the big bang, all the way until 2609. In this White timeline the Observers sent back a group of 12 but the rest of their kind stayed behind It was this very fact that had allowed their future to continually exist regardless of any changes to timelines. Thanks to "The Observer Effect" which states that anytime a process is observed the act of observing it inadvertently changes the process from its original intended results. The group of 12 just being in the past created a new set of events (AKA timeline). One of those events was September distracting Walternate. This gave birth to what was known as the blue/red timeline from season 1-3 that we saw. As a result of the Observer effect this timeline's future had become a corrupted future. (Destruction of Red, Blue future dying in 2026, loop, lather, rinse, repeat as necessary, etc...) Therefore it had to be reset, allowing the 2167 origin point to be able to happen, so that the entirety of Observer-kind could come over without ceasing to exist due to no origin point. So once Peter chose balance, they went back to the zero event (Reiden Lake circa 1985) and let Peter drown, thus causing time to reset from that point onward and creating the amber timeline. In 2015 of the amber timeline the Observers invaded. Fast forward to 2036 the Fringe team sent Walter and Michael into the future 2167 of the white timeline. Let me explain; It was because they used the Observer shipping corridor to time-travel, that they got to the Observers original timeline (because it was obviously attached to the original timeline where the Observers home-base was) but in 2167 AD (thanks to the beacons and the higher mathematical formulas) instead of 2609. It was in this known past of the Observers (2167)that Walter created a significant change to the point of preventing the origin of the Observers. This erased them from existence. It worked on the future of the white timeline, so it negated all the previous interaction of the Observers effectively making all the other timelines cease to exist. What we are witnessing at the end is the 2015 of the original pre-show timeline (white timeline), that had zero Observer interaction. well until after 2167 that is, keep reading... Everything from 2167 onward will be new to history. (Observers won't be created now, but maybe some other more Michael-esque beings will be) This is why Walter would be a paradox. He would be here in our era happily doing what Walter does, then poof! He will vanish to the future (2167) because he'd already done it from a previous timeline. So the universe will stick him there to live out his plan. BUT... Even though it negates all the previous timelines, those timelines are still VERY much important to the eventual origin of the New Michael-esque beings in the final timeline's future. Without the other timelines, and the Fringe team doing what it was they did, then Michael would never make his way to that 2167 point in time, to create the New Beings, and they would still be battling the Bald Baddies as we speak. So basically it all happened, so that it might not ever have to happen again. Almost like a big giant time-loop with many timelines inside of it. This is the only theory I can come up with that remotely explains everything, and follows a logical series of cause and effect events that we saw throughout the show.

Message Posted On Jan 25th, 2013, 3:26 pm
The Observers were in fact created, but with more emphatic emotions...and the final reset did only happen from 2015. So, we can say that everything that occurred in the season 4 timeline was the same at the end. I think the "new" Observers interfered in the same way the Original 12 did with the events in the series.

Message Posted On Jan 25th, 2013, 2:22 pm
Just imagine all the line breaks in that post, they were there when I typed it !

Message Posted On Jan 25th, 2013, 2:20 pm
My thoughts on the mechanics of the timeline reset. If assume for the moment that we are not talking about a quantum multiverse model here where every decision creates a different universe, and we stick with the two universes we know about. When Walter and Michael go to the future they reset everything from 2015 onwards. This means of course the Observers are not created, but my theory is that they only disappear from 2015 onwards as that is the reset point we see. That allows everything to take place as before, but the observers in 2015 are a paradox and like Walter they will simply cease to exist. I have a big, big theory that the plan September / Donald and Walter came up with involves a lot more than what we saw. I would say that for everything to happen as it did they would have to be responsible for originally creating the red verse, with the purpose of getting Walter to know about it by Peter's illness and death and also allowing Michael to be rescued at the right point. They would also have to be responsible for the first people machine which I think would have created the red verse in the first place. That leads me on to Bell, I think Bell either knew of the Observer plans or was worked out why the red verse was created. My theory is that the end of season 4 was Bell's attempt to avoid the observer invasion by restarting creation. The reason for the 4th season reset would possibly have been Bell's interference with the plan needed the adjustment. Sorry for the long theory and I hope it makes some sense ! By the way, as I mentioned on Twitter, the Fringe poster I created can be seen at -

Message Posted On Jan 25th, 2013, 2:08 pm
Wow interesting theory. Confused more than ever. My theory is that the Peter and Olivia we see at the end of the series are from another TL. Its up to us to imagine how red Peter and blue Olivia met but one can imagine that they new enlightened Observers made it so they did meet. The thing with your theory is that Peter popped back into existence because of Olivia and Walter's love wouldn't let him go. That is based on their lives in S1-3 which depended on September's interference. So wouldn't all of this be erased with the absence of this September?
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