TV Rewind: Fringe's Most Powerful Story Was Its Beautiful and Complex Father/Son Relationship

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TV Rewind: <i>Fringe</i>'s Most Powerful Story Was Its Beautiful and Complex Father/Son Relationship

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:


The FOX series Fringe initially premiered in 2008 as something of an X-Files replacement: The story of an FBI agent named Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) who tries to solve seemingly impossible and often freakishly bizarre cases with an oddball team of researchers that include scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble), his equally brilliant son Peter (Joshua Jackson), and their assistant Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole). Its largely unremarkable first season unfolds roughly how you might expect a slightly paranormal procedural to go, but as the series abandoned its case-of-the-week format for more serialized storytelling, Fringe undoubtedly grew into one of the most original science fiction shows in television history, delving into the kind of rich philosophical and moral questions that this genre was made to explore.

Fringe ultimately came into its own by explicitly embracing everything that made it so darn weird: The ridiculously complicated plots that almost defy explanation to anyone who hasn’t seen the show before, the time travel, the alternate universes, the multiple versions of the same characters, the creepy Observers with their surprisingly stylish fedoras. This is a show that required its viewers to put in rather a lot of work to enjoy, so much so that it eventually became downright hostile to new fans, which probably explains its perennially low ratings. But Fringe ultimately paid off that dedication in spades through the sort of rich character dynamics and satisfying long-term arcs that took several years of storytelling to build their conclusions.

It also featured one of television’s all-time great science fiction love stories. And no, I don’t mean Peter and Olivia, the tortured romantic duo at the center of things who suffered through not just will they /won’t they tension, but the arrival of an evil Olivia doppelgänger from a parallel world and the death of their daughter in a timeline that was later erased. (Just go with it; Fringe is truly so hard to explain sometimes.) Though Peter and Olivia’s story is undoubtedly moving—and Torv and Jackson have the sort of blazing chemistry that makes a star-crossed love of this scope feel utterly believable—their relationship isn’t actually the most important one on this show.

At its heart, Fringe is a cosmic-sized tale about forgiveness, love, and hope in spite of all things, and nowhere are those themes better expressed than in the relationship between LSD enthusiast and occasional mad scientist Walter and his estranged son Peter. When Fringe begins, the two haven’t seen each other for the better part of two decades; Walter’s been a patient in a mental institution and Peter’s been lost, living a nomadic, broken life of various intelligent failures. But Olivia’s need for a relative to check Walter out of the asylum brings the two back together, and puts their messy, fractured father-son relationship center-stage.

Over the course of the series’ five seasons, Walter and Peter’s road to rebuilding and repairing their bond takes many unexpected turns. We learn that this Peter is actually from a parallel universe, stolen by Walter after he was so torn apart by the loss of his own son that he ripped a hole in reality itself in order to save a different version. And as our Walter does his best to make up for a lifetime of mistakes, we see a different Walter—dubbed Walternate—in that second reality become a potentially world-killing monster, largely as a result of being robbed of the son he once loved.

The Bishops’ journey is fraught with questions of forgiveness and who deserves second chances, as well as evidence that real growth and change are possible no matter how difficult it may initially seem. Walter is both sympathetic and reprehensible by turns, and his series-long struggle with mental illness reflects his frustration at losing control over his once brilliant mind. Peter loves and resents his father in nearly equal measure, and Fringe never judges him for his often conflicting feelings, or for the time it takes him to process them.

In the end, Peter and Walter’s relationship is not just beautiful to watch, but manages to feel quietly revolutionary at the same time. Over a hundred episodes spread across five seasons, their often agonizingly slow journey takes them from reluctant coworkers to uneasy friends and, finally, a family rebuilt from the ashes of their initial relationship. True, it’s difficult going at times—both men possess an unerring ability to be painfully cruel to one another when they want to be—but there’s little in genre television today that feels as emotionally satisfying as the moment when Peter calls Walter “Dad” for the first time. Except perhaps the first time he tells him “I love you.” (Pack tissues, is all I’m saying.)

Television often struggles to accurately portray the depth and complexity of father and son relationships, largely because far too many series are afraid to allow their male characters to display real weakness or cathartic emotion. Fringe makes Walter and Peter’s relationship so compelling by fully leaning into the messy, often diametrically opposed feelings that exist between them, allowing them to play out to their natural and often ugly cry-inducing ends. Peter can loathe his father’s choices even as he finds himself drawn to the broken man trying to make amends, while Walter can regret the mistakes he’s made with his son, without ever once wishing he hadn’t stolen this extra time they’ve had together.

Scripture asks us to believe that love, in its purest sense, is powerful enough to forgive all things, endure all things, and believe all things. Walter’s love for his son is so fierce that it almost leads him to destroy the world, yet ultimately boundless enough that it is also the reason he sacrifices himself to save it, and to give Peter a chance at his best future.

The story of Fringe, quite literally, only exists because of Walter and Peter, and it’s why this relationship is so powerful to watch unfold even now, almost fifteen years after it first aired. Still a very favorite thing, after all this time.

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Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

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