'Fringe' Mystery Finale: We've solved it! PLUS: John Noble, Joshua Jackson talk cliffhanger, renewal and more
“It’s radical. It could wipe clean the entire slate of Fringe.”
So said Joshua Jackson in an interview with EW.com a few weeks ago about the season finale of the Fox sci-fi series. It was a bold claim, and hard to appreciate without knowing what was going to happen in “The Day We Died.” But now we know. SPOILER ALERT FOR THE DVR SET! The finale was part Crisis On Infinite Earths and part “Days of Future Past” with a touch of A Christmas Carol (“Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come” section): After activating the so-called “doomsday machine” engineered (allegedly) by a sophisticated primordial culture known as The First People, Peter Bishop (Jackson) was allowed to observe a key passage of his life 15 years in the future. How? We were encouraged to believe that 2026 Walter (John Noble) had developed the means to draw 2011 Peter’s consciousness into the future via “brain porting” (one of several curious new fringe science words included in the show’s credit sequence; also see: Desmond Hume from Lost) so Past Peter could realize that choosing to use the doomsday machine to destroy the “over there” parallel world would produce a bleak, terminal future for the “over here” world. I think. (For a full recap, check out Ken Tucker’s blow-by-blow summary and ace analysis.)
Past Peter must have been encouraged by some aspects of 2026, including the fact that his future self was happily married to Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), now the boss of Fringe division. But everything else kinda sucked. The “over here” world was falling apart — eating itself up via an outbreak of reality crunching-sucking wormholes. Were these catastrophic anomalies truly the consequence of Walter’s parallel world-hopping work? Or was his mirror world twin Walternate the real culprit? Why did Broyles (Lance Reddick), now a senator, have a milky cybernetic eye? What happened to him and Peter in Detroit? So many questions — and they may never be answered, because after all, this was a future to be destroyed, not fulfilled, especially after Walternate revealed himself to be the mastermind behind a terrorist group determined to hasten reality’s demise, even more so after he shot Olivia in the head. Walter had an epiphany: The “doomsday machine” wasn’t created by some mythical race to obliterate parallel worlds. It was created by Walter, in the 2026 future, as a means to potentially save both worlds, and sent by Walter back in time via wormhole. (Yep: the paradox logic is wonky. For now, let’s roll with it.)
Armed with this knowledge, Past Peter’s consciousness returned to his proper temporal moment : 2011, strapped into the “doomsday machine.” We were encouraged to believe that instead of choosing to destroy the “over there” world, Peter did something different: He created a bridge between the two universes that brought his fathers (Walter and Walternate) and his lovers (Olivia and Bolivia) together in one spot. With everyone together in the same room, Peter challenged the two Walters to stop fighting and use their combined brilliance to figure out a way to save both worlds. Peter might have said more — but then he mysteriously vanished. And then those left behind looked at each other as if Peter’s disappearance was no big deal. Why? Because according to The Observers, they had forgotten all about him. From their perspective, Peter Bishop never existed.
So… what happened? It appears as if all of history was rebooted, not just the span of time between 2011-2026, and in the restructuring of reality, Peter was deleted from it. My theory? I think Peter’s last speech included a suspicious detail that is probably The Key To Everything. Here’s the epic final line, with the conspicuous detail in bold:
PETER: Walter! I understand what the machine does! I know what it’s capable of! And I know where it came from. … The First People. The First People are us — you, most specifically. And maybe Ella [Olivia’s niece] and Astrid — I don’t know. I don’t know who it was who took the machine back through time. But I know something else: I have seen doomsday. And it is worse than anything you can possibly imagine. This isn’t a war that can be won. Our two worlds are inextricable. If one side dies, we all die. So I’ve torn holes in both the universes. And they lead here, to this room — a bridge — so we can begin the work together to fix…
It makes sense that a team of people accompanied the machine back in time. After all, someone had to create a support system to hide and protect the machine, as well as produce the fake mythology filled with clues for The Tribe of Sam Weiss to collect and protect over the years and for Peter and co. to decipher in the present. I think these quantum leapers will turn out to be… a team of Peter Bishop clones, led by the real Peter Bishop himself. I suspect that when their work was complete, the real Peter Bishop was put into suspended animation. He’ll be discovered in the season 4 premiere by the Walters and the Olivias, who’ll need to find him and awaken him to finish the process of quantum engineering a new universe that blends the best of both parallel worlds and complete a massive reboot of Fringe was we know it. My corroborating clues? The name of the terrorist in the season finale: Moreau. As in Dr. Moreau of The Island of Dr. Moreau, who bred a new species of man (or is that animal) via genetic engineering. Also: Did you happen catch the final three words in the credit sequence? One of them was a fringe science term, written in bold: “BIOSUSPENSION.” (Or: suspended animation.) But the other two words weren’t fringe science terms at all, and they were so faint, you had to hit the pause button to see them: “WATER” and “HOPE.”
Conclusion: Anyone here know their comic books well enough to remember how Marvel brought Jean Grey back to life after killing her in X-Men #137? We learned that Jean Grey wasn’t dead at all, and that the real Jean Grey was sleeping in suspended animation in the waters off the coast of New York City. And so I suspect that when Team Fringe goes searching for Peter Bishop next season, they’ll find him very close to their Liberty Island HQ, slumbering in a “biosuspension” cocoon like Sleeping Beauty. But which of his princesses will succeed in kissing him awake: Olivia, the woman he loves, or Bolivia, the mother of his child? (Whatever happened to that kid, anyway?)
But enough of me. What did the stars of Fringe think of the season finale? John Noble tells EW.com that he enjoyed the twists and turns of a dreamy, trippy tale that forced Walter and Walternate “to perhaps negotiate a truce and put heir minds together” via a “very inventive intervention by Peter, who basically took control of destiny and forced his two fathers to look each other in the eye, as if telling them: Sort it out, gentlemen.’” Jackson says he liked the role-reversal represented by the finale. “You had Peter wracked with guilt over the circumstances tied to the decision he made [to activate The First People’s so-called “doomsday” machine] and clinging to hope that there might be some way out. I can’t have made a cosmically bad decision! There must be some way to put this right! Which is fascinating, because that’s basically been Walter for as long as we’ve known him,” says Jackson. “So I loved how Peter ceases to be so stubborn when it comes to Walter, comes to understand him and even begins to see things the way he does.”
But the time-jumping reality-rebooting cosmic reconciliation that was “The Day We Died” was still a few episodes away when we sat down with “the Bishop boys” late last month. They spilled some beans about the finale – too many for even our spoiler-friendly sensibilities. We don’t hold it against them, though. It was almost impossible for the actors to speak intelligently about Fringe’s critically acclaimed third season without speaking frankly about a finale that had left them energized about the show’s future. Example: In discussing the potential ramifications of the cliffhanger, Jackson and Noble admitted that they had mixed feelings about the season’s Peter & Olivia/Bolivia love triangle.
JACKSON: [Romance] is inevitable when you have a man and a woman in leading roles on a TV show, but I do feel it was a distraction from the central story of the show. It was interesting, especially in the larger context of the season’s doppelganger idea. It was also really good for Olivia’s character, because it continued to feed one of her animating features – that she’s consistently disappointed and betrayed by the people close to her. In retrospect, it feels necessary to get us together. … But what’s central to the show is the communal fate of our core characters, not the individual strands that link them. The ‘broken family’ dynamic we hammered out in season one, that to me is where the show lives best, this bizarro Father Knows Best. … I feel the romantic portion of this show is now over so we can spend more time being Fringe again.
“The romantic element needed to be done,” says Noble. “But where we leave off, we can go any number of ways, and I like that we’re moving on.” Jackson adds that Fringe could even opt to leave behind any number of unresolved bits given the way “The Day We Died” ended, from the loopy love triangle to the Peter/Bolivia love child. In fact, both actors are glad the finale didn’t even try to deal with that latter bit of business. “That’s a five episode story arc, not 10 minutes at the end of a season,” says Noble. Adds Jackson: “We bought ourselves the ability to not pay those things off without cheating the audience. It’s genius.”
“Genius,” Noble agreed.
The actors were clear, though: They are extremely proud of a season that has been almost universally praised by critics and fans and has generated Emmy buzz. “I like to think that the show really came into its own at the end of the first season and that it was really strong throughout the second season,” Says Jackson. “But in terms of pure storytelling, the introduction of the parallel world did take us to a new level. The currency of TV is that if you watch a show for long enough, you just become invested in their well being. But here in season 3, we asked the audience to immediately become invested in an alternate world and a group of characters that looked like characters they knew and loved but weren’t. That was incredibly ballsy I think.”
“It was a risky and audacious year, from the parallel world storytelling to going into a cartoon,” says Noble, referring an episode entitled “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide” that saw Peter and Walter beam into Olivia’s brain and become reformatted into animated caricatures of themselves. The episode culminated a weird-even-for-Fringe arc that required Anna Torv to do a sustained impression of Leonard Nimoy, as Olivia’s mind had been taken over by the consciousness of the Star Trek icon’s character, William Bell. Noble recalls Torv calling him after getting the first script in this storyline and asking for advice on how to play Nimoy. “It was a very bold performance,” Noble says of his co-star. “I think the solutions she came up with – taking the essence of the man, playing with the eyebrows, simulating the voice — were really smart. We had a lot of fun doing it.” As for Jackson, “fun” isn’t the word that comes to mind when it came pretending to moon over a woman who was suddenly talking and eyebrow-cocking like Spock. “I found it so creepy,” he says. “In the episodes, you see I can barely look at her. I think it ended up being a good way to play Peter’s reaction to Olivia, but it was born out of the fact that when that voice came out of her, I was like: ‘Oh, that’s just wrong!’”
Noble had his own tricky acting challenge this season: Not just playing frazzled, humbled egghead Walter Bishop, but playing his “over there” double, Walternate, who served as the season’s chief antagonist. “On paper, he looked like a two dimensional villain,” says Noble. “The challenge was to make him a fully fleshed out character, albeit a very driven one, and the writers gave me sufficient room to humanize Walternate. He’s a villain, but I understand why he is. And they gave him some scenes — with his lover, with his wife — that showed his vulnerability. He became a very satisfying character to play.”
What will next season bring? The Bishop Boys say they have no clue. Noble: “The finale set up the storytelling for next season —but what will the story be? TBD. It’s up in the air.” Jackson: “More than any other finale we’ve done, the season finale has given us more possibilities for new directions than any other year.” The one thing they know for certain is that there will be a next year. Last December, Fox moved Fringe to Friday nights after struggling to compete and hold viewers on Thursday night. Fans worried that the shift was a precursor to cancellation, given Friday night has a rep for being a graveyard for Fox’s sci-fi series. (See: Firefly, The Sarah Connor Chronicles.) Did the cast feel similarly anxious?
JACKSON: I think we were more nervous than we had ever been.
NOBLE: I don’t know, Josh. I was actually quietly confident. I recognize there was a lot of anxiety around it. But right from the beginning, I thought Friday was a good move. I thought we had to attack the negative perception of Friday nights and put an end to the negative talk – and with some clever promotion, we did. It worked. I felt like Friday night was a night we could own and I believe it’s a place where we can grow.
JACKSON: Then let me put it like this: I was more nervous than I had ever been about the pick-up of the show. The decline in viewership was heading in the wrong direction. I don’t like to be a ratings watcher, and I can’t affect it, anyway. It’s not like I can say: ‘Well, that was my 2 share acting, this week, I’m going to give it my 3 share acting!’ It’s not germane to our creative discussion – unless you’re right on the bubble and thinking: I wonder if I will have a job next year? Of course, once the show got picked up, we don’t have to worry about it anymore… or at least for another year.
Let’s worry about that later. Right now, let’s just enjoy the afterglow… of finale-microwaved brains that melted out of our ears and pooled into radioactive mush at our feet. Which is to say: Thank you, Fringe, for the year’s best mindfrak…
But this isn’t goodbye! Not yet! Do you have a post-finale question for Fringe exec producers Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman? Post them in the message boards below. I’ll be chatting with them in the next couple days and will put your burning inquiries before them. Come back on (Fringe) Friday for the answers.