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.