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The Ending Of Fringe Explained

Fringe is a modern classic of science fiction TV. Created by J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci, the series follows a special unit of the FBI known as the Fringe Division, which investigates abnormal cases involving "fringe science" like teleportation, reanimation, precognition, artificial intelligence, and other seemingly unbelievable phenomena. The series stars Anna Torv as FBI Agent Olivia Dunham, whose past grants her special abilities that grow throughout the series. John Noble plays super-genius Walter Bishop, the show's brain and comic relief, whose love of candy, cows, and LSD gives the show some much-needed laughs. Then there's Walter's son Peter, played by Joshua Jackson. He's sardonic, cynical, and pragmatic to a fault — and Fringe fans wouldn't have him any other way.

Like many sci-fi series, Fringe grows more and more complex with time, encompassing multiple universes, parallel dimensions, and time travel. Even ardent fans might be wondering what exactly happens at the end of the series. Not to worry: We're here to explain Fringe's ending, one strange phenomenon at a time.

Season one: The pattern

FBI Special Agent Olivia Dunham joins the Fringe Division, enlisting the help of eccentric Dr. Walter Bishop and his brilliant son, Peter. Walter was once a respected scientist, but has been locked away in a mental institution, estranged from Peter for years. Olivia convinces Peter to stay with the team as a guardian while Walter helps her with the Fringe Division's cases. Their team is assisted by the enthusiastic Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole) and overseen by Agent Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick).

After a series of strange events and weird cases they call "the Pattern" emerges, the team discovers that scientific experiments and abnormalities are happening all over the world. The experiments are tied to Massive Dynamic, a company Walter used to be a part of, run by a powerful woman named Nina Sharp (Blair Brown). Meanwhile, as the group continues to encounter more and more strange and unusual cases, a mysterious bald man in a gray suit and bowler hat known only as the Observer (Michael Cerveris) follows the team and watches their every move.

Season one: David Robert Jones and ZFT

The gang discovers that a bio-terrorist group known as ZFT is after some of Walter's old experiments. They plan to release their leader, David Robert Jones, from prison, and kidnap Olivia to recruit her for their mission. Jones informs Olivia that, as a child, she was part of experiments that Walter ran with his dead partner, William Bell. Walter injected Olivia with Cortexiphan, a nootropic drug that gave her psychokinetic powers.

The Observer takes Walter to his old family beach house where he retrieves a device that is able to close a portal to parallel universes. Olivia discovers that "the Pattern" forms a geographical spiral that centers on one location: Reiden Lake, New York. The team finds Jones there, attempting to travel to another dimension through Walter's previously invented portal. They kill Jones and assume everything is resolved. But the mystery continues, as Walter is seen alone, looking over a gravestone that reads "Peter Bishop."

When Olivia confronts Nina Sharp about Massive Dynamic, the experiments she endured, and ZFT, Nina tells Olivia to ask Walter's old partner, William Bell. Confused, Olivia finds herself exiting an elevator into Bell's office, located on an upper floor of a still-intact World Trade Center building. Olivia has traveled to another dimension.

Season two: The truth about Peter

Olivia returns to the prime dimension, but the existence of the parallel dimension changes the trajectory of Fringe entirely. Though season two follows much the same case-of-the-week procedural setup as season one, Olivia's discovery looms over every single episode.

In a series of flashbacks, the audience learns that Peter is actually from the parallel universe. Back in 1985, when Walter and Bell discovered the existence of the parallel universe, Peter was a child suffering from a mysterious illness. Walter can't save his own Peter, but he creates a cure and crosses over to the parallel universe using a portal at Reiden Lake to save that universe's Peter, also suffering from the disease.

Walter's journey causes the vial of medication to break, but with more back at his lab, Walter decides to take Peter back to the prime universe to cure him. Walter intends to return Peter to his own universe, but after their crossing, the duo falls into the frozen lake. They ware saved by the Observer, who tells Walter, "The boy must live." Walter's wife sees Peter alive and Peter grows up believing himself to be a part of the prime universe. Throughout his life, Walter has been wracked with guilt and repeatedly asks God for forgiveness in the form of a sign: A white tulip. 

Season two: Walternate, Fauxlivia, and the parallel universe

The parallel universe is much like its prime counterpart, with important exceptions:  In the parallel universe, the 9/11 attacks only destroyed the White House and the Pentagon, there are only 48 states and much of California was lost to an earthquake, sheep are extinct, and John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. are alive.

Walter's 1985 crossing has plagued the parallel universe with abnormalities known as "singularities." Olivia's alternate self, "Fauxlivia," works for their Fringe Division, responsible for investigating and containing singularities in liquid amber. "Walternate," the United States Security Czar, learns that his son is alive and sends shape-shifting human-machine hybrids to the prime dimension to begin a "great war."

Because of the abilities provided by the Cortexiphan experiments, Olivia is able to identify things affected by the other dimension. She and Peter soon learn that Peter is from the other world. "Walternate" crosses over and invites Peter back to his own universe, an invitation he takes. But the Observer, now known as September, warns Olivia and Walter that Walternate plans to use Peter to operate a strange device calibrated to his DNA that will destroy the prime universe. Peter wants no part of it, and he, Walter, and Olivia escape back to their own dimension. The season closes by revealing that Fauxlivia has taken Olivia's place, and the real Olivia is locked away in the parallel dimension.

Season three: Over there

The first half of the third season of Fringe alternates between the parallel universe and the prime universe. The prime universe opens with the original blue-tinged title sequence, while the alternate universe uses a red-tinged title sequence and location tags. This set-up provides the show with some fun options. Torv and Noble get to stretch their acting chops by playing Walternate and Fauxlivia, the alternate setting allows the show to explore interesting idiosyncrasies, and some truly wild experimentation with the medium takes place, including an animated episode in which Peter and Walter use LSD to travel through Olivia's mind.

In the prime universe, Walter, Peter, and Fauxlivia discover that Walternate's doomsday device, known as the Wave Synch Device, has an alternate form "over here," though its pieces and components are scattered. They learn that the machine was created by a long-dead race of humans known as the First People, and that it has the power to create and destroy universes. They left behind multiple manuals with instructions on how to reconstruct the device and use it.

Throughout this time, Peter and Fauxlivia grow closer and begin a romantic relationship. Peter, however, believes her to be the real Olivia.

Season three: The worlds collide

In the parallel universe, Walternate brainwashes Olivia into believing that she is Fauxlivia, and uses her abilities to conduct more Cortexiphan experiments as they prepare to use the Wave Synch Device to destroy the prime universe. Olivia soon realizes who she is and travels back to the prime world, blowing Fauxlivia's cover. Fauxlivia travels back to her own world, pregnant with Peter's baby. Walternate accelerates the baby's growth and uses his blood to start the machine.

In the prime universe, Peter, Walter, and Olivia have put together their version of the device. With both devices on their versions of Liberty Island, Peter enters the device, hoping to stop the parallel universe from destroying the prime. Instead, he has a vision of 15 years into the future. The parallel universe has been destroyed and the prime is suffering from the same anomalies that the alternate world once endured, leading to eventual destruction. Walter, Astrid, and Ella, Olivia's niece, send the device and manuals back in time through a wormhole, thus becoming, in a sense, the "First People," fulfilling a bootstrap paradox.

Instead of destroying one universe, Peter merges the two together, forming a bridge so they can work together to heal both worlds. The two Walters and the two Olivias come face to face. But as they meet each other, Peter disappears from existence, with the Observers looking on all the while.

Season four: A universe without Peter

In season four, with Peter wiped from existence, the prime universe and the parallel universe begin working together to heal both worlds. But Walter and Olivia have lingering memories of Peter, his presence appearing to them periodically even though they can't recall who he is. As Walter and Olivia continue to remember him, Peter suddenly manifests within this third reality. Peter begins working with the Fringe team again while their memories of him slowly return. During one case, September appears to them, warning Olivia that she "dies in every timeline" that he can see. In another appearance, he tells Peter that this timeline is his correct timeline and that the other Observers tried to "keep it from him."

Season four is ominous and somewhat confusing. As a result of the worlds merging, David Robert Jones, the ZFT mastermind from the first season, is still alive and working for William Bell, who is also alive. Bell wants to destroy both worlds and create a new one. He tries to use Olivia's Cortexiphan abilities to accomplish his task, but Walter shoots Olivia in the head, preventing Bell from using her. Walter pulls the bullet from her head, leaving Olivia in complete control of her Cortexiphan abilities. She heals quickly, and reveals that she and Peter are having a baby.

Season four: Setting up season five

The 19th episode of Fringe's fourth season offers up a vision of what a final season could be. "Letters of Transit" flashes forward to 2036, where the Observers have taken over the world, killed millions in a purge, and formed a totalitarian regime. FBI agents Simon Foster (Henry Ian Cusick) and Henrietta "Etta" Bishop (Georgina Haig) free Walter from an amber encasement. He explains that the Observers come from the year 2609. That far into the future, the Earth has become uninhabitable, and they've traveled back in time to take over the planet in 2015 before its environmental collapse.

Walter, Simon, and Etta successfully free Astrid and Peter from another amber encasement, though Simon has to take Peter's place in the amber. Walter successfully destroys the Massive Dynamic building, as Nina Sharp and Agent Broyles had been helping the Observers succeed. The team also finds William Bell encased in amber, and Walter chops off his hand, shocking Astrid. He tells her, "Remember what he did to Olivia." Peter then recognizes Etta as his own grown-up daughter: The bullet dangling from the necklace she wears is the one Walter pulled from Olivia's brain.

This whole episode comes into play during the season four finale, when, after Olivia reveals her pregnancy, September appears to the group with an ominous warning: "They are coming."

Season five: 2036

Peter, Olivia, and their young daughter Etta picnic on a blanket in a park one day in 2015. The Observers invade, and Etta is lost in the chaos. Shortly after the invasion, the Fringe team freezes themselves in amber, which is why Etta, a grown woman in 2036, can find and revive them all. She and Simon Foster free Walter, Astrid, Peter, and Olivia from their frozen states and get to work collecting clues that Walter left for his future self on old Betamax tapes. Walter and September had come up with a plan to defeat the Observer invasion, and his clues lead them to a number of devices, as well as a young Observer boy named Michael and a man named Donald who helped plant the tapes.

As it turns out, Donald is September. He explains that, in 2167, a Norwegian scientist invents a way of replacing negative human emotions like anger and jealousy with brain cells that increase intelligence. Many generations later, however, practically all emotions are wiped out, leaving only the Observers' extremely high intelligence. Donald has put himself through a sort of "biological reversion" to become more human. Michael, it is revealed, is Donald's "son." The Observers lack the emotions to procreate, and instead use a type of cloning to create new advanced humans. But Donald's offspring features an anomaly: The ability to possess human emotions and high intelligence. 

Season five: The finale

Donald and Walter's plan is to send Michael to 2167 to prevent the Norwegian scientist from inventing the implant that leads to the emotionless Observers. Etta is killed by the Observers, which sends Peter into a blind rage, leading to him torturing an Observer and giving himself the implant. He begins to spiral into an emotionless state, though Olivia thankfully talks him into removing it. Olivia also travels to the alternate dimension to enlist Fauxlivia and her partner, Lincoln Lee. Donald is shot by the imposing Observer forces and Olivia uses her Cortexiphan-enabled telekinetic abilities to crush the Observer leader.

In the end, Walter must sacrifice himself by traveling with Michael through the time travel device so that they do not create a time paradox. Walter and Peter share one last embrace as father and son before Walter takes Michael through the wormhole. The scene immediately shifts back to that sunny picnic day with Peter and Olivia lying in the grass as Etta plays nearby. The Observers do not come: The invasion has been prevented. When they return home, Peter finds a letter in their mailbox from Walter, containing only a simple drawing of a white tulip. 

Fringe, parents, and sacrifice

Like all great sci-fi series, Fringe isn't just about weird science, alternate universes, or time-traveling emotionless bald people. Fringe is anchored in its relationships, particularly in the relationship between parents and children. Walter and Peter's father-son bond is built on a foundation of lies and abandonment. Fauxlivia's child Henry is born as part of a scheme, but she loves him no less. Donald discovers he is capable of love when he is commanded to destroy the "anomaly" that is his son. And Olivia has to learn to trust Walter again as a father figure after learning of the experiments he has conducted. Fringe takes its fans on a wild ride through parallel universes and genetic experimentation, but at its core, it is about the complex nature of family.

It also explores the idea that destinies aren't set in stone. As Entertainment Weekly wrote in its review of the finale, "you have the will to change [destiny], even if it requires sacrifice. It's about changing fate. It's about hope." An excellent cause, no matter what time, universe, or dimension one is in.