So here we are. The end of Fringe. It’s been a crazy trip through parallel universes, drugs, alternate timelines, bizarre twists, gross-out body horror and resonant emotional debris, and so its perhaps only fitting that the two final hours of Fringe, “Liberty” and “An Enemy of Fate,” revisit all of those elements…but tying them up in a way that gives ultimate precedence to the fate of three generations of the Bishop family. I’ve always contended that Fringe was foremost a character drama with the trappings of a sci-fi procedural, and so it pleases me to report that the series finale is most definitely a character affair. This might anger some who want to see the series’ mythology tied up with a pretty bow, but I’m willing to forgive stray plot holes and unanswered questions, because the finale closes the book on Olivia Dunham, Peter Bishop and Walter Bishop in a style that I found moving, poignant, and deeply satisfying.
Comparisons are inevitable between the finale of Fringe and that of Lost, which was also co-created by J.J. Abrams and spun an elaborate mythology. Full disclosure compels me to admit that I liked the finale of Lost because I enjoyed its climactic, emotional release, even though I felt the way it moved the chess pieces around to fuel that release was clunky. The Fringe closer, for my money, is better, because it has stakes that are less nebulous, and it is stronger overall at integrating character and story in the right proportions. Both shows created vivid personalities that navigated baffling, fantastical environs, but Lost downgraded some of those personalities into symbols or action figures, whereas Fringe had them be true to themselves, right to the end.
The penultimate episode, “Liberty,” is an exciting adventure, as Olivia devises a crazy scheme to rescue captured Michael from the Observer stronghold on Liberty Island (the statue is decimated, proving once again that when aliens invade Earth, the landmarks are the first to go). Walter injects Olivia with cortexiphan so that she will cross over to the parallel universe, travel to Liberty Island, and essentially slip in through the Observers’ back door. This is fun, existing as one last little espionage adventure for Olivia, and it helps dramatize the importance of Michael by seeing the lengths the group will go to get him back. Seeing Torv return as Fauxlivia (complete with gray streaks in her hair) is a treat, especially when she reprimands Lincoln Lee for staring at her double’s ass. And it’s also nice to see Lincoln again, confirming that his decision to cross over permanently to the other side was a correct one.
“Liberty” is a fine episode of Fringe, but it’s also one of those entries of an arc-driven show that seems schematic, a piece that rather dutifully connects the dots it’s supposed to, but not much more than that. It gives us important information on Michael, re-establishes Olivia as a cortexiphan subject, and gives reason for Windmark to suspect Broyles as a traitor (he leaks the info about Michael’s location), but “Liberty” feels built around those elements in a somewhat inorganic way. While I don’t object to seeing the alternate universe one more time (though last season gave them a perfect send-off), their reintroduction here feels a bit like fanservice – while there is some tension regarding Olivia’s ability to cross over with a ticking clock, not much of dramatic weight actually happens with Fauxlivia or Lincoln: they show up, lend a hand, and that’s it.
“Liberty” leads quite smoothly into the finale, “An Enemy of Fate.” While the Fringe team is out playing Hide and Seek on Liberty Island, September goes about the final steps of the master plan, meeting with December (Eugene Lipinski) to enlist his aid in their attempt to send Michael into the future. When Broyles is taken out of play by Windmark and December shows up dead, the Fringe team decides to use an Observer shipping lane as the makeshift reactor for their time-travel MacGuffin, while Windmark tries to wear down Broyles’ mental defenses. “I feel something…I believe you call it hate,” snarls Windmark. Broyles: “The feeling is mutual.” (This sequence, for what it’s worth, owes a more than a little to The Matrix, but no matter.)
There are, admittedly, few twists in the finale. Its design is not to tell a story so much as it is to complete a story, and give the characters we know and love a proper goodbye. Although we get the requisite action set pieces (including a climactic battle at Observer headquarters), the hour is largely dedicated to dialogue scenes. In the episode’s most heartfelt moment, Peter dislodges a tape from the amber that is addressed to him: it’s Walter’s goodbye to his son, which is watched with Walter. Walter, we learn, must be the one to accompany Michael to the future and vocalize what Michael represents, course-correcting history. Peter, who gradually accepts Walter’s position, embraces his father, and both Joshua Jackson and John Noble give career-high performances. (“You’re my favorite thing, Peter. My most favorite thing,” sighs Walter, and that was the point when I cried.)
The momentousness of Walter’s sacrifice is not lost on September—his newfound devotion to Michael prepares him to make a plea to take Walter’s place. But it is for naught, as September dies in the final battle, and Walter must step into wormhole with Michael, to live his remaining days in the far future, erasing the evil Observers from existence. This, at the end of the day, is Dr. Frankenstein’s redemption: pre-emptively halting an abuse of science so that his son and granddaughter may live. Walter and Peter’s final, tearful, farewell, punctuated by Peter’s silent “I love you, dad” and Chris Tilton’s haunting score, is such a perfect, lovely bookend for these two character’s oft-contentious relationship, and exploits the power television has to conclude years of continuous character evolution, and break our hearts in the process.
And so we end where we all knew we would: in a field in the year 2015, as young Henrietta runs to Peter and then…nothing. No invasion, no dystopia, no futures but the ones that Olivia, Peter and their beautiful daughter will make for themselves. And Peter arrives home and finds a letter, from Walter. And inside it? Walter’s white tulip. The sign he asked for, of forgiveness for his sins, has been transformed into a symbol of his sacrifice, and will help lend comfort to his son through the loss of his father. The question, left ambiguous, of how much Peter and Olivia remember, will be a debated for years.
“An Enemy of Fate” is also littered with thrilling moments that reward fans of the series, such as a confrontation with Windmark where Olivia marshals the remaining cortexiphan in her body to go full-on Carrie (what a great moment when she throws an SUV at him, and he teleports…too late). Walter and Astrid share a last look at Gene the cow, still frozen in amber, and Walter compliments Astrid on her beautiful name, in a beat that we all saw coming but wouldn’t have any other way. And Olivia and Peter’s final assault on the Observer compound is paved with an unleashing of biotoxins that serve as a roll call for the series’ inventory of monsters and nightmares: parasites, body slugs, the paper-cut butterflies…it’s like a compressed, Fringe-ified version of Cabin in the Woods, and just as delightful.
Fringe was a spectacular series, one that sci-fi fans were lucky to get. It started as a standard fantasy procedural, The X-Files Lite, essentially. But it soon grew and matured, like an accelerated specimen in Walter’s lab, into a bizarre and wonderful creature, becoming a meditation on fate, love, family, the choices we make and the ones that are made for us. It took advantage of low ratings to smuggle in bold material that treated its audience intelligently and with respect, all the while experimenting with what television could do. I suggest that it will be remembered fondly as a modern classic of sci-fi TV, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the ride it took me on.
My favorite moment in the finale? A tiny one, but emblematic of the series in totality. Stocking up on supplies, Walter gives Peter a rack of leftover osmium bullets, which will not just kill an Observer, but also make him float. Peter asks what purpose that serves, and Walter, using every ounce of the conviction he used to solve crimes by dropping acid, eating red vines, drinking strawberry milkshakes and rummaging in preposterous corners of pseudo-science, says three simple words. “Because it’s cool.”
Yes. Yes, it really was.