Fringe Oral History: The Road to the Series Finale
Fringe | Photo Credits: Kharen Hill/Fox
In the final part of our farewell to Fringe, producers and cast discuss the episode that took Fox's sci-fi series in an entirely new direction: into the future. The series has always been known for its offbeat 19th episode, but its final one took the viewers on an adventure to Observer-occupied 2036, in which Peter, Astrid and Walter were freed from amber by Peter and Olivia's grown-up daughter Etta. In the race to the series finale, what's left of the team will attempt to reset time in hopes of ridding the world of Observers.
TVGuide.com talked to stars John Noble (Dr. Walter Bishop), Joshua Jackson (Peter Bishop), Anna Torv (Olivia Dunham), Jasika Nicole (Astrid Farnsworth), Lance Reddick (Phillip Broyles), Blair Brown (Nina Sharp), Seth Gabel (Lincoln Lee), series co-creator J.J. Abrams, executive producers J.H Wyman and Bryan Burk, Warner Bros. President Peter Roth and Fox's Chairman of Entertainment Kevin Reilly about the bumpy road to the series finale. This is the final installment in a four-part oral history. Check out Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
Each season, Fringe would traditionally use the 19th episode to tell a story that pushed the envelope of what a network show can be.
Josh Jackson: That's what's great about our show, is that you have the ability to go into these wild other places and the core of what's going on is still important. They're not just one-off episodes that get lost.
Lance Reddick: That's been a really neat experience. I don't know that I'll ever have an experience like that again. Probably my favorite one of the random episodes was in Season 2 with "Brown Betty." I freaked out a little bit when I found out I was going to have to play the piano and then they didn't show my fingers anyway.
John Noble: As an all-time favorite, I think the musical episode was so out of left field, that even at the time when we released it, people would go, "Oh, I don't know if I like this or not," but I did. I thought it was hilarious. I think it will go down in Fringe history. That's my favorite.
Jackson: Even though [Season 3's "Lysergic Acid Diethylamide"] wasn't a perfect episode by any stretch, I loved that we went into animation for 20 minutes on a broadcast show. "Brown Betty" was the same way. It becomes very much a part of the DNA of the show.
Reddick: Aside from "Brown Betty," my other favorite episode for myself was the LSD episode. I'm not going to say I never was high before, but LSD is a whole other thing. I remember Joel Wyman, when we were doing that, he actually showed me a piece on YouTube of a suburban housewife in the '50s, an experiment that was done. It showed her moving from the beginning of an LSD trip. That was just really cool research in finding out what that's like and trying to portray that.
Jackson: I feel [Season 4's] "Letters of Transit" is our best and most complete 19th episode, even though it's not the most far out there. My idea for last year, even though it didn't go anywhere, was to do Supermarionation. It's like, "F--- it, let's do puppets." That'll be great. But I think from a storytelling standpoint, "Letters of Transit" is the one that holds up the best, because it's the most complete.
"Letters of Transit"'s jump to 2036 signified the starting point for the fifth and final season.
Blair Brown: When we did Episode 18, we didn't know that was where it was going to go at that point. They always did something really interesting on 19, and you thought, "Well that's interesting. That's very interesting. How is this going to be?" So it was a one-off for us at the time in that sense. We didn't know where we were going.
Jackson: I didn't know. When we filmed Episode 19, it was understood that was our audition reel for a Season 5, to say, "This is the story that we'd like to tell." I think it's an interesting place to take the story.
Gabel: I was hoping that I'd get to do a 19th episode where it wasn't as vital to the show. I was hoping we'd get to have fun and maybe do a sitcom version of the show or something like that. So when they did the future, I had assumed something might happen where Lincoln would be on the other side and I had assumed that one of my characters would probably die heroically. I was just bracing myself to find out what exactly the fate of my characters was. The good thing of having two characters is that one could die and you still have a job — unless they close the bridge.
Jasika Nicole: It was just such a standalone episode. There was no context. You didn't know how they'd gotten in the amber. You just see them getting pulled out of the amber and it's just really bizarre and cool, but really weird. Then, when we found out the fifth season was going to pick up right from that chunk of time, I thought, "What the hell happened to get them to this point?"
Jackson: I'm not sure where we would have gone in a Season 5 if it had just picked up from Olivia recovering from being shot in the head.
Unfortunately, jumping to the future meant losing 20 years in the process.
Anna Torv: I was interested because I wasn't in [Episode] 19, so I didn't have any idea of what that world was like. Twenty years is a long time. I wanted a whole lot of different stuff. I wanted Olivia to have aged and to have been living there and secretly supplying her daughter with information and being very covert with helping the resistance. That would be complicated. [Laughs] That was tough to come in and try and establish this relationship and really not actually having that much time to do it.
Nicole: It was really great, but then here you are 20 years in the future and how do you relay how devastating that is? You have been robbed of 20 years. I mean that's somebody's lifetime right there. Not only are you dealing with the fact that the world has continued to go by, but also things are really messed up here.
Noble: I think it's a great way to go, because I think the greatest test of loyalty is if we're faced with a common enemy. It's like a family. If they're faced with someone on the outside that threatens the family, they will bond together. We're under incredible duress and we can't leave the lab without being in danger. So there's constant pressure, and it's tough.
Jackson: What's more important to me than the lost 20 years and discovering our characters in the new place, was by putting our characters in an uncertain environment, they learn at the same time that the audience does, which I think is a strong storytelling device because the sense of discovery can be shared between the characters and the audience.
What came from that jump to the future turned into a 13-episode long final season that played like a love letter to the fans who had stuck by the series through thick and thin.
Peter Roth: Everyone from Kevin Reilly and the network to the studio to our cast and crew felt very strongly that the way that you honor the audience that had served us so well was to say a proper farewell. Joel and J.J. and [consulting producer] Akiva Goldsman and [executive producer] Jeff Pinkner got together and arced out what would be the final 13 episodes. We presented it to Kevin Reilly and his team. It was designed essentially to say a proper farewell, to give real closure, absolute closure, to honor and to support and to say a proper farewell to the audience. It's all about that. If you love television, you have to do that. You're not always afforded that privilege in this particular case. I'll always be grateful to Fox for that, I'll always be grateful to J.J. and Joel Wyman for that.
Kevin Reilly: When they came in for the final season, and we were wrestling, I was like, "Look, just tell me you have some idea." They had cut a presentation. Well, they cut it for us, but then we showed it at Comic-Con. I was like, "That is the coolest thing ever." I think they've delivered on it.
Noble: This is the perfect life for us. Give us the 13 episodes to get out. It's a wonderful way to finish, which they've given us, and I take my hat off to Fox for doing that, because that's, like, a really big gesture. They could have taken us off, but they didn't.
Reilly: When you have something that's really good and is fan-based, you want to see it through, so this was the win-win.
Noble: Basically, we just said this is the season for the fans basically. We're serializing. We're going to acknowledge all of the past, we're going to bring it in and we're revisiting characters and thoughts and experiments that we did maybe in Season 2. The actors, I think, are really enjoying the process.
Jackson: Joel really, really, really committed himself to making sure that it was really one story. It's not 22 episodes, or 15 episodes rather this year, but it's just one story. It gives us all the opportunity to really think through where each one of our characters are and how those relationships and dynamics would have changed, and have confidence going forward that we know what's coming down the pike, as opposed to being caught off guard sometimes by the shifts and turns that the series sometimes took.
Nicole: Honestly, I was just really thankful we had four seasons. So when we found out that we did get a fifth season, it felt like it was such a gift to everybody who watched the show. This is what you get for being such genuine, sincere, consistent fans of this show. This is your payment. This is what you get for following us through different universes, different timelines, different characters, different timeslots. We were all over the place, and then I felt like the fifth season was a big thank-you to everybody who stuck with us for this long.
J.J. Abrams: Luckily, with the help of the fans and of course the network, we're allowed to go the distance and end the show appropriately and not be either rushed off the air or stuck on the air, overstaying our welcome. Fringe showed me that doing the most odd, strange and daring story lines doesn't preclude a story from being emotional and compelling and engaging. I think because the show has been true to itself, I'm very proud to be associated with the show. I feel like the commitment that the showrunners have made over the years to being the best version of the show and not being a compromised version in hopes of getting a larger audience, you really can't argue with that and I'm really grateful for what they've done in that regard.
But there was heartbreak to be had in the final season: Peter and Olivia's daughter Etta (Georgina Haig) was tragically killed soon after the family reunited.
Noble: It was horrendous, because particularly this family — Peter, Olivia, Walter and Astrid — have all had such loss. The whole series is predicated on loss -- the loss of Peter in the beginning, which was the cause of all this. To see them united as a family, coming back together, it's tragic.
Torv: I found it difficult dealing with the whole thing actually, because it was like you never got to see them mourn for their daughter anyway in the first place, and then the daughter that they're mourning for now, there wasn't really a chance, especially for Olivia, to really get to know.
Jackson: Obviously the death of their child and Walter's grandchild changed the stakes of everything, and it changed the motivation of everything going forward for all of the characters.
Noble: It's a great story to tell. There is no easy solution with how to deal with this heartbreak, but they're all bonded together because they are all that's left of the insurgency, so it's a very powerful storytelling device.
Nicole: There's no way that we can sustain this life here without people having to be sacrificed and that is a really realistic way to do the show even though it's sci-fi. Not everybody comes out of it alive, not everybody gets to be a hero and not everybody does the right thing and makes the right decision every time. We're still flawed characters living in this creepy future with these Observers.
Torv: Olivia made the decision to mourn differently this time, and to handle her grief differently and to handle it with Peter instead of them separating like they did. In that sense, I think definitely Olivia was like, "Sh--, this has happened again and I'm not going to make the same mistakes again."
There would, of course, be more death along the way to the finale. But when all is said and done, the producers hope the fans will come away from the finale with a sense of knowing that their favorite characters are still out there in the universe somewhere.
J.H. Wyman: I just wanted to make sure that two very specific criteria were filled: No 1. is that the characters end in a logical conclusion and become self-actualized. If you go back to the first episode, you might say, "Well who are these people?" I mean, Peter, "I hate my father" to "I love my father." Olivia saying, "I don't trust people" to "I do, I find strength in vulnerability now." Walter saying, "I have hubris and I've made a mistake" to "Yes, I've actually understood that I'm not a god and I have to make amends." I mean, these characters have come a long way. And No. 2, that I can leave and feel that I'm hopeful that everything happened, maybe not the way that I expected, but definitely the way that makes sense. Hope is very important to me, and I don't like to say good-byes and I didn't want to say good-bye, I just wanted to say this is the close of that chapter. I feel like that happened. I wanted to make sure that I gave them their due and I wanted to take care of the audience.
Jackson: I feel like the entire fifth season has been the closing chapter of the Fringe story and that we were able to settle so much of the story along the way. With the finale, to put the finishing touches on Fringe and leave the characters in what feels like the right place, it all feels good right now. I think that Wyman wrote the perfect ending for Peter's story over all these years. His journey from prodigal son to dedicated father and husband is complete.
Noble: You always hope for certain things to happen, but I read the first half of the finale, and I'm going, "Oh my goodness, this is really good. What's the second half going to be?" But when I saw the second half, it was just this enormous sigh of respect to start with and then relief because I think that what the writers have done is finished the episode as well as I could have dreamed, to be honest with you, for all characters, for the plot, for the nature of Fringe, the size of Fringe and the scope of it. It's a huge episode. Joel seems to have grasped all that, which is probably why we were working all night every night. But it's worth it. It's brilliant.
Torv: I hope people are satisfied and happy. I think they will be.
Nicole: I wasn't surprised by the general ending at all, actually. It seemed like there was only one way to end this story properly and beautifully. But there was one shocking moment I had when I read the final script that I did not see coming.
Noble: I was surprised that it worked out as well as I hoped it would. I shouldn't be surprised really because Joel Wyman is incredibly passionate. He lives and breathes this and he says this is the most important thing in his life that he's ever done. So you can expect that level of commitment and compassion at this point. I was very happily surprised. There are moments that we've earned over five years and the writers have given us the payoffs.
Bryan Burk: I generally feel that this is going to be a satisfying ending, both emotionally and story-wise for fans of the show.
Reilly: I hope the fans love it. I think it's pretty damn cool.
Roth: I love this ending. It will all come together in a way that I think will be very, very satisfying to the audience. I was extremely happy with the ending. I thought, this is exactly the right way for the show to end.
Noble: The final episode, I can say without reservation, is one of the best pieces of television I've ever read. I had to read it before I could say that. But Joel Wyman has pulled out all the stops and created a really masterful finale. It's written so well. I couldn't wish for a better ending to our five-year saga.
Although Fringe is not a series like Lost, which had a clear vision of Jack dying at the end, the producers did have some aspects of the finale in mind when they first started.
Abrams: We had some very big ideas and we discussed some things very early on that are in the finale. But you can't know when you begin a series what's going to happen one, two, three, four, five years from there.
Roth: To be completely truthful, what J.J. pitched to me at the beginning was very, very different from the conclusion that I think our fans will be very satisfied with, by the way. Because what J.J. did is created a world, he created characters and he created potential for storytelling. Where the story eventually goes to and how it's eventually unfolded happened over time with the natural evolution of a strong and thoughtful writing staff. It is certainly within the world of what he pitched to me in the beginning, but it also honored the process.
Wyman: At the beginning, nobody really knew what it was. There are so many great writers that came up on our ship and stayed for a while and then added great things and left, because that's the very nature of our business. Me, J.J., Bob [Orci], Alex [Kurtzman], Jeff, sometimes Akiva, sometimes some writers from our outfit, would sit around and we'd talk about, "Hey, where are we going this year?" because for me, I like to know where I'm going. I need to know what I am trying to say. What are the themes I want to deal with this year and what concerns me right now? And how can I make a metaphor for those things using our characters as instruments to tell that? That's how it's always been. So nobody really knew the end because it revealed itself to us throughout the seasons.
Abrams: Anyone who tells you that they know exactly what's going to happen in every episode is either not telling you the truth or is not open to the better idea because the better idea always comes up as you're working on the show.
Burke: Decisions that you firmly make at the beginning of a show may very easily change two episodes later. So there are things in the finale that we had discussed early on and the show has gone in the direction that we had talked about and completely in a different direction at times.
Wyman: Up until the very end, the very, very literal end, it didn't really come together until I think a week before I wrote it. I had a whole bunch of things and I'd change them. It's been a living breathing organism that's changed in so many ways.
Regardless of how the series ends, Wyman doesn't plan on going radio silent, like Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse did after the Lost finale. In other words, he's prepared to face the fans.
Wyman: I've never really spoken to Damon about that, but I'm sure he ended it on his own terms. I'm certain that he feels that the ending was appropriate. Lost was tough because you have to have an answer. This is not an answer. This is the close of the chapter of these people that you spent five years with in a world that is intriguing and mysterious. Hopefully, I and my staff have answered the questions that people wanted answered. You're never going to please everybody. I would hope that the fans feel like, "Man, these guys tried for five years and they really gave us some incredible moments and incredible things." I would love for them to say, "Hey, good for you guys. Thank you for that." If they don't like the end, there's really nothing I can do about it.
Burk: As a fan first and as a producer second, my favorite films and TV shows, more often than not, are doing things that I'm not expecting them to do. I think The Sopranos' ending, for example, while nothing like how we're going to end Fringe, was an ending that some people loved, some people despised. That's why it was such a genius ending, They left it ambiguous and left people talking. The fact that we're still talking about it years later, even right now, exemplifies why David Chase and his team went for it and they did something different.
Wyman: I have no problem with the end of Sopranos. This guy gave me years of television and this is the way he chose to end it. I can have an opinion. I can say, "Well, you know I didn't really think it was all that great," but that's not true. I actually did think that was great. I know that's maybe not the most popular answer, but I did. But at the end of the day if you asked David Chase, "Well, would you have done it different because some of the fans were frustrated?" I bet you he would say, "No." The truth is that I can only do what I believe in, and anything else would be inauthentic, and anything else would be pandering. I just had to literally say to myself, "I want to feel good about it and just to feel like it's something that would make me happy." And as long as it makes me happy that I feel that I've told the truth, I feel great.
After five years, Fringe will go off the air Friday, but the cast already said good-bye to these characters back in December when they wrapped production.
Torv: We said good-bye to different variations of our characters and different variations of the show, too, at the end of every season, so it's been a slow burn of, "See you later." But watching John's last scene, that was kind of like, "Oh." I just think John and Walter were just such a perfect fit that that brought tears to my eyes. We're never going to see that again.
Nicole: It was emotional on the last day for sure, but not so much for the role as much as for the environment in which the role existed. My last day of work was really tough just because I had to say good-bye to a family that was four years in the making.
Jackson: I'm not sure I have enough distance yet to really say. So far it feels good, the show felt like it ended on the right note and we all had a proper chance to say good-bye. I still wake up thinking I'm late for my call time. But it is sinking in a bit day by day.
Gabel: It was very bittersweet. I have definitely made some friends on this show and I know that I'll be seeing people again in the future and it definitely doesn't feel like the end. It just feels like a new beginning.
Noble: We've made life-long friendships and that's not going to go away simply because we leave the set. We have special friendships. We know each other, it's like family and we're very fond of each other.
Reddick: I felt the same way when The Wire ended. In both instances, it caught me completely by surprise how much I would miss these people that I've been working with for the last five years on the last day.
Brown: I live in New York, John lives in Australia; where will we ever meet again? And will we ever have that kind of experience with a lot of people? That's the beauty and that's the poignancy of this business, is families in the circus move on.
Noble: We've become like a family. There is an incredible amount of love that exists between these people. It's an incredible amount of affection that exists, and respect, and that's irreplaceable, and that's been honed over a very long time period of time.
Jackson: To spend five years with a shooting crew, to get into a rhythm where everybody knows the next step of the dance together almost without having to say it is a pretty rare gift. I've been lucky enough to have that gift once already in my lifetime, and that's the thing that you miss the most. Hopefully I'll work again, and when I show up for the first day of my next job, it'll be strange to not have all my dance partners with me.
Nicole: I'm never going to work with John in the same capacity that I work with right now. That's just never going to happen again. I'm never going to work with Anna or Josh in this way. That part is like, "Oh, man. That's just such a bummer." Unless maybe we're lucky enough to do a Firefly-type panel 10 years later in the future at Comic-Con, which would be pretty awesome. But they're going to be what I miss the most about the show hands-down.
The family-like bond between the cast helped to create a lot of fond memories over the years.
Nicole: Most of my fondest memories involve laughing with my castmates on set, whether it's because John Noble is being hilariously inappropriate or because I am trying to make Lance break character in a scene.
Reddick: The moment that stands out for me was a prank. I think it was the first discovery of the typewriter, where they send the messages back and forth to the other universe. Walter's always pulling out food. There's this scene where we discover this backroom of the store. In the scene, Walter pulls out a cookie and starts eating it while he's examining this device. In between takes, Josh said we should all pull out cookies during the next take and start eating them. As Walter is bending over, me and Josh and Anna, we all pulled out cookies and bent over the typewriter and looked intently as we started chewing on our cookies and John Noble lost it. None of the crew knew we were going to do it either. We just laughed and laughed and laughed. It was just one of those moments that for me epitomizes the relationship that we all shared over these five years.
Jackson: Never ad-lib eating Red Vines. You may be stuck with it for five years.
Nicole: One memory I have that takes the cake is when I was doing one of my scenes with my doppelgänger. My stand-in, whose name is Nicole, we were filming the scene where I was playing alt-Astrid and explaining to Astrid how my father passed away and was now buried in the ground. In the middle of alt-Astrid's speech as she is crying, tears started streaming down Nicole's face too. It was an incredibly sincere and special moment that we shared, and the success of those emotional Astrid scenes are owed in part to Nicole being so present and listening and responding honestly to the moments. It was such a sweet experience, but we never talked about it with each other. It was just this special bubble we existed in for a short while we mirrored each other.
Noble: I'll never forget the episode when Astrid and alt-Astrid played some scenes together. It was so beautiful to be in the room with Jasika when that happened and the feeling of support that every company member gave her. It was so touching. Those are the special moments I'll never forget.
Nicole: Walter never gets her name right. He knows what her name is. He just does it to mess with her.
Gabel: I really enjoyed the episode where Peter and Lincoln cross universes together and infiltrate the DOD on the other side. We have a bit of a bromance where we're causing trouble and having a lot of fun. I felt like it was a really fun episode to do.
Nicole: A drinking game was drink every time Astrid's on screen but doesn't say something, and you would be trashed by the end of the episode.
Noble: I was particularly proud of where Walter crossed over to the other side to steal the other Peter. It was a critical episode. I mean, it was a wonderful episode to act in. I had to go into flashbacks for that, so I had to play back in 1980. So I got to play Walter as he was before he lost his mind, when he was still married and of course, Orla Brady was brilliant as the wife. Also, it explained to the audience exactly what this whole issue was about, the fact that this man, in his grief and his hubris, shattered the laws of the universe. The whole thing about Fringe is we've been paying back ever since because of that. That's the whole story! That episode was probably the most fun as an actor.
Jackson: For whatever reason we had never taken a crew photo, so on the second-to-last night I asked [set photographer] Liane Hentscher if she would take one. Wyman gave his blessing and at the end of the very last night, just before the very last shot, after nearly 20 hours at work and having the sun come up, our now tired/ragged/ecstatic crew took their first and last photo together. The rest is all just a blur.
But the cast will always keep the memories of Fringe with them — both literally and figuratively.
Gabel: I stole lots of things. I stole little pins and badges and different things that say Fringe Division. I have one of my Lincoln Lee badges to the alternate universe. It's just pretty cool to have those mementos.
Abrams: We have these wooden blocks that we gave as a gift to the cast and crew that are like children's blocks but they have all the glyphs on them and it spells out Fringe. It's a beautiful little memento of the series.
Nicole: I got to take my director's chair-back, which is the first name-specific chair-back I have ever had in my career! So that was pretty cool. I thought about grabbing something from the lab, but I realized that no material object would ever compare to the amount of good times I have had on our show. It sounds cheesy, but my personal memories are the best memento I could take with me from this project. Well, that and the promise of future knitting dates with Anna!
Jackson: I missed the boat on that one. I was so tired on the last night and so happy to wrap I didn't think to grab anything.
Noble: I'll take a lot of memories. But really, outside of their environment, some things don't mean the same as they do in my memory. They're all very attached to the time and place. I'm going to miss the lab enormously because the lab is the heart of Fringe. I still feel like I'm going home when I walk into that set. I could walk around there and see so many things that over the years I've had to experiment with or use in experiments and it brings back so many memories.
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