Fringe Ending Explained: How The Timeline Changes & What White Tulip Means

Six years later, many fans are still scratching their heads over the ending to Fox's mystery science fiction series, Fringe - here's exactly how the finale played out and what every detail means. Created by the superstar trio of J. J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, Fringe premiered in 2008 with the premise of a procedural FBI show that investigated inexplicable cases on the very fringes of fictional science. The dysfunctional central trio of Olivia (Anna Torv), Peter (Joshua Jackson) and Walter (John Noble) boasted a natural and compelling chemistry and were complimented by an impressive roster of supporting characters.

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Fringe originally utilized a largely episodic structure, with the "case of the week" format driving forward development between the core cast. Over time, however, Fringe became more serialized in nature, increasingly delving into long-term mysteries and convoluted story arcs. By the time Fringe reached season 5, the episodic structure had all but vanished, replaced with one season-long struggle against the Observers. Fortunately for fans, Fringe went into its fifth and final season knowing that the end was nigh, and this allowed the series to deliver a proper conclusion.

Related: 5 Things Fringe Did Better Than X-Files (& 5 Things X-Files Did Better)

When discussion turns to TV endings that satisfied fans, Fringe is often unfairly overlooked. Despite the positive reception, however, Fringe's ending was predictably ambiguous and the implications of those final scenes remain a topic of debate even today. Here's everything that happened in the final episode of Fringe.

Fringe Season 5 Was A Completely Different Show

Joshua Jackson as Peter, Jasika Nicole as Astrid and Georgina Haig as Etta in Fringe

The premise to Fringe's final season was set up via the season 4 episode, "Letters In Transit," which depicted a dystopian future Earth ruled by the Observers. Originally devised as mysterious ageless men that would appear during key historical moments, the Observers were eventually revealed as mankind's next evolutionary step, albeit one made via the use of genetic manipulation and advanced technological implants. The Observers had sacrificed the emotional capabilities of their brains to attain higher intelligence, allowing them to develop the ability to travel through time, but also making them incredibly difficult to talk to at parties.

By the 27th century, Earth had become uninhabitable for the Observers, so the follicly-challenged race decide to invade the year 2015, a time prior to their own creation and the Earth's degradation. Thanks to their advanced technology and super-intelligence, the Observers easily take over Earth, establishing a dictatorship that subjugates the present-day humans. In response, Walter encased the Fringe team in amber to protect them from capture, hoping to one day be freed and resume the fight against these time-travelling invaders.

Walt's wish comes true in 2036, when Peter and Olivia's grown-up daughter, Etta, finds and releases the original 2015 Fringe group. Walt reveals that he and September, a friendly Observer on the side of mankind, developed a plan to undo the events of the past 20 years, but Walt is captured and subjected to a brutal mind probe that deletes the plan from his memory. Thankfully, Walter had the foresight to prepare videotapes that would help guide the Fringe team in carrying out this elusive plan, and the bulk of Fringe season 5 sees Olivia and co. gradually assembling the components needed to defeat the Observers.

How The Fringe Team Defeated The Observers

In developing their plan, September revealed the existence of his biological "son" - a boy created not by standard reproduction, but via the Observers' genetic experiments. Unlike most Observer children, however, September's son was labelled an anomaly and scheduled for destruction. Beginning to succumb to human emotions, September secretly saved his child by hiding him in the past, and this is where the Fringe team first encounter the boy in season 1's "Inner Child." No one (perhaps not even Fringe's writing team) knew the significance of the youngster at the time.

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The child observer, now named Michael, is reintroduced in Fringe season 5 as a key part of Walter and September's plan. In transpires that Michael was deemed an anomaly because his intelligence surpassed that of the other Observers, but the boy still retained his human emotions, and the revelation that such a balance could be achieved threatened the very existence of the Observer race. Walter's master plan involved sending Michael into the future, to the very point where the experiments into intelligence-enhancement began, and offering Michael to those scientists as proof that emotion needn't be sacrificed in order to achieve improved intellectual abilities. Theoretically, this would prevent the Observers from ever being created, and the 2015 invasion would never occur.

This plan presented several issues. Firstly, Michael's inability to speak meant that a scientific type would need to travel with him in order to explain his significance to the scientists of the future. Secondly, Michael and his guardian wouldn't be able to return to their own timeline, since this would create a paradox that might bring the Observers back into being.

During Fringe's climactic scene, the team fight to allow Michael and September through a wormhole into the future, but September is shot and Walter steps in to take his place. Their jump successfully prevents the Observers' creation, and wipes Walter out of existence from 2015 onward, since he cannot exist in the happy-ending present day if the happy-ending present day hinges on the actions of Walter's alternate future self.

Walter's Fate And The Significance Of The White Tulip


Fringe ends with Peter receiving a letter from his father, a drawing of a white tulip, and a look of recognition sparks across his face. But while Walter was able to leave his son one final message, viewers were left with questions, most of which revolved around the mechanics of Fringe's timeline-altering ending.

Related: 10 Great TV Shows That Rewrite Time And Reality

Firstly, the white tulip itself was clearly sent by Walter in advance of his noble sacrifice, but how could this letter still exist if the Observer timeline was erased? Fringe is quite specific in stating that the timeline reset only occurs from the moment of the 2015 invasion, with everything before that playing out exactly the way it already had. Since Walter and September were planning for the Observer invasion long before the villains arrived, it makes sense that the white tulip could've been sent during this early preparation period, and wouldn't have been affected by the 2015 reset. Fringe isn't clear on why nothing prior to this date is altered, other than because it would decimate the entire timeline of the show, and the logic does require a leap on the audience's part.

The white tulip itself caused some confusion, and its meaning is certainly ambiguous. On a basic level, the message is designed to push Peter into visiting Walter's lab in 2015, where he will find his father missing (having been erased from the timeline) and discover a pre-prepared video explaining the situation. However, the symbol first appeared in the season 2 episode, "White Tulip." In this story, Walter meets a man attempting to travel back in time to save his wife from a car accident and explains to him that after defying nature to bring the alternate Peter to his own world, he sought a symbol of forgiveness from the universe - a white tulip. After hearing the story, the scientist sends Walter this very symbol as a way of thanks.

The return of this image in Fringe's finale could be interpreted as a similar message to Peter. Walter is perhaps telling his son not to feel any guilt after discovering his father's fate, or may simply be reaffirming his belief that, despite causing plenty of trouble, saving Peter from the alternate universe was the best thing Walter ever did.

A further point of contention among Fringe fans is figuring out exactly who remembers what, and this has been helpfully broken down by producer, David Fury. As far as Olivia, Peter and everyone else are concerned, everything up until the end of season 4 happens as usual; they will simply wake up one day to find that Walter is no longer present in their world. From Walter's perspective, he and Michael remember everything, including the dystopian future timeline. Walter's reality takes him through to season 4 as planned, before spending 20 years in amber, and then travelling into the 22nd century with Michael. To correct the paradox of Walter's existence in this future period, the universe responds by erasing him from 2015, the point of divergence.

More: Fringe Season 5 Death: What Did You Think?

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