Fringe: an episode roadmap for beginners

Is JJ Abrams' Fringe on your must-watch list but you quite don't have time for all 100 episodes? Here's some guidance...

Is there a popular show you’d really like to watch but you just don’t have time to wade through years of it all at once? Do you just want to know why that one character keeps turning up on Tumblr? Do the fans all tell you ‘season one is a bit iffy but stick with it, it gets great!’, leaving you with absolutely zero desire ever to watch the boring/silly/just plain weird season one? Then our episode roadmap features are for you.

In these articles, we’ll outline routes through popular TV shows focusing on particular characters, story arcs or episode types. Are you really into the Klingon episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation? Do you want to get the overall gist of the aliens arc on The X-Files? Or perhaps you’d rather avoid aliens and watch the highlights of their Monsters of the Week? Do you just want to know who that guy dressed like Constantine is? In these articles, we’ll provide you with a series of routes through long-running shows designed for new viewers so that you can tailor your journey through the very best TV has to offer. While skipping most of season one. It gets better.

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N.B. Since part of the aim of these articles is to encourage new viewers, spoilers will be kept to a minimum. However, be aware that due to the nature of the piece, certain elements of world-building, bad guy-revelation, late character arrivals etc. will be spoiled, and looking at the details of one suggested ‘route’ may spoil another.

A few words before we start

Let’s get something clear before we start here; Fringe is a heavily serialised show. In order to follow every development of the mytharc and understand every detail, to see it slowly developing over five years’ of story-telling and to catch all the subtleties of how these characters and their relationships to each other change and grow, you will need to watch every single episode, in order. Every episode includes some reference to or small development of the overall story arc – even in season one, when this aspect took more of a backseat to monsters of the week – so if you skip anything, there will be things that won’t entirely make sense, or you won’t have seen develop. If you are a person who needs to see every detail as it unfolds without spoilers, there are no short-cuts on this one.

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Having said that, if you’re happy to be a little more flexible, there’s no reason not to enjoy the show in a more limited form (your humble correspondent here, for example, started with season two and caught up on season one later). If you’re willing to fill in some gaps using the wonders of the Internet and the Previously Ons, and happy to allow some references or bits of character development to go over your head as long as you can follow the main story, then there’s no reason not to focus on those aspects of the show that interest you the most rather than slogging your way through the whole 100 hours. (We’d also recommend, as a possible third option, following your preferred Route through Season One to get a taste of the show and then watching every episode from season two or three onwards, as the show gets more serialized as it goes on).

Fringe Route 1: The Arc Plot

Fringe started out its life as, shall we say, a show that owed a substantial debt to The X-Files, but quickly became so much more than that as its arc plot kicked in. The very nature of that arc plot wasn’t revealed until the end of season one, so for our first ‘route’, we’ve focused on just the main arc-based episodes with very little commentary. Reading later ‘routes’ will spoil elements of the arc plot, so if you’re a spoiler-phobe with limited time, stick to Route 1 and don’t look at the rest!

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Season One:

Pilot

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The Arrival

In Which We Meet Mr Jones

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Safe/Bound

Ability

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Inner Child

Bad Dreams

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The Road Not Taken

There’s More Than One Of Everything

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Add The Transformation for significant character development, and elements that would be followed up on later in the series.

Season Two:

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A New Day In The Old Town

Momentum Deferred

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August

Grey Matters

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Jacksonville

Peter

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Olivia. In The Lab. With The Revolver.

The Man From The Other Side

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Northwest Passage

Over There Parts 1&2

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Add Night Of Desirable Objects for a significant character introduction in a monster of the week episode, and White Tulip for important character development and in order to understand the significance of elements of the finale.

Season Three:

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Olivia

The Box

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Amber 31422

6955 kHz

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The Abducted

Entrada

Reciprocity

Bloodline

6:02 AM EST/The Last Sam Weiss/The Day We Died

Add 6B and Subject 13 for episodes based on the ongoing story but in which the major developments centre on characters and relationships rather than plot, and Stowaway and Lysergic Acid Diethylamide for the reappearance of a significant character.

Season Four:

Neither Here Nor There

Subject 9

Novation

Back To Where You’ve Never Been

Enemy Of My Enemy

The End Of All Things

A Short Story About Love

Nothing As It Seems

Letters Of Transit

Worlds Apart

Brave New World Parts 1&2

Add A Better Human Being to fill in details of the arc plot delivered alongside a monster of the week story.

Season Five:

All of it.

On the brink of cancellation, Fringe was given a 13-episode fifth season to wrap up the plot arc and get it to a syndication-friendly 100 episodes. For this final, abbreviated, season, the show went completely serialized, and cut out monster of the week episodes all together, so to follow the arc plot in its entirety, with all its twists and turns, you do need to watch all of the final season.

Fringe Route 2: Olivia/Peter

The lead character in Fringe is Anna Torv’s Agent Olivia Dunham, a character so reserved some fans were critical of Torv’s acting until she got the chance to branch out at the end of Season Two and everyone realised her quiet demeanour was a deliberate choice. Olivia’s character followed a couple of significant arcs over the course of the show, most covered by Routes 1 and 4 – since she is the lead, those elements of the arc plot that don’t centre on Walter and Peter are generally focused on her.

However, wherever a show is led by an attractive woman and an attractive man, sexual tension will surely follow. Unlike its inspiration, the Fringe team made a clear decision relatively early on to go with it, and by the third and fourth seasons, the Olivia/Peter relationship itself was as much a driving force in the arc plot as anything else. These, then, are the episodes to watch if you’re an old romantic in search of a love story that crosses the boundaries of time, space, death and reality.

Season One:

Pilot

Ability

The Unresolved Sexual Tension between Peter and Olivia grows slowly over the course of season one, but is rarely the object of the plot. Familiarise yourself with the series set-up with the Pilot, and watch AbIIility for early indications of Peter’s influence on Olivia. Add II for the always reliable ‘one of our leads has been captured and the other is extremely concerned’ trope, and The Road Not Taken and There’s More Than One Of Everything for the set-up to A New Day In The Old Town.

Season Two:

A New Day In The Old Town

What Lies Below

Jacksonville

Peter

Over There Parts 1&2

After some more build-up in A New Day In The Old Town and What Lies Below, the sub-text starts to become the text in Jacksonville. Peter is about the relationship between Walter and Peter more than Olivia and Peter, but it is essential to understanding their relationship in the back half of season two. Plus it’s just a truly stunning episode of television. Add The Man From The Other Side and Northwest Passage for context for Over There.

Season Three:

Do Shapeshifters Dream Of Electric Sheep?

Amber 31422

The Abducted

Entrada

Marionette

Concentrate And Ask Again

6B

Subject 13

Lysergic Acid Diethylamide

6:02 AM EST/The Last Sam Weiss/The Day We Died

Season Three is where the romantic story starts to become inextricably entangled with the arc plot, so we won’t add much more detail here other than to note that Marionette is brilliant and devastating, and 6B is the one you want if you’re after something a bit more cuddly. Add Olivia for more context on Olivia’s story in the first part of season three, and The Box for more context on Peter’s. Add Stowaway for the set-up to Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, and Bloodline for the set-up to 6:02 AM EST/The Last Sam Weiss/The Day We Died.

Season Four:

Subject 9

Welcome To Westfield

A Better Human Being

The End Of All Things

A Short Story About Love

Brave New World Parts 1&2

Any kind of commentary will inevitably spoil things at this point. Add Neither Here Nor There for the season’s set-up, and Novation and Wallflower for more general character/relationship development. Add Letters Of Transit for set-up for season five.

Season Five:

Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11

The Bullet That Saved The World

An Origin Story

The Human Kind

An Enemy Of Fate

Note that season five is completely serialized, so much of the plot won’t make sense unless you watch all of it.

Fringe Route 3: Walter/Peter

At the heart of Fringe is a complex, often painful, relationship between father and son (rather like the father/daughter relationship at the heart of Alias, or the complex father/son relationships at the heart of films like Star Trek II; The Wrath of Khan, which influenced both JJ Abrams’ Star Trek films so strongly, and Star Wars… JJ, is there something you’d like to talk about?). Many of the show’s most powerful episodes focused on the fraught relationship between Walter and Peter.

Some of these are also highly significant arc-plot stories, but this route focuses only on those that are especially meaningful in terms of exploring the Walter/Peter relationship – fill in the gaps from the Previously Ons, or see Route 1 for the main arc plot.

Season One:

Pilot

The Arrival

There’s More Than One Of Everything

The Pilot introduces Peter, Walter and their relationship, The Arrival develops the relationship while introducing some major plot elements, and There’s More Than One Of Everything reveals what will be the core of their story for the rest of the show. Add Inner Child for a line you probably won’t notice first time round but takes on greater significance on a re-watch, and The Road Not Taken for some more context on There’s More Than One Of Everything.

Season Two:

Grey Matters

What Lies Below

Jacksonville

Peter

White Tulip

The Man From The Other Side

Brown Betty

Northwest Passage

Over There Parts 1&2

To explain the significance of most of these episodes would be to spoil them, so we won’t. If any of these could be skipped it would probably be What Lies Below, but we like the slow build towards the revelations of Peter of which it forms a part. Brown Betty is entirely unconnected to the overall story arc, being a high-concept musical fantasy episode, but it’s a nice exploration of Walter’s state of mind and a fun hour. Add A New Day In The Old Town for some Season Two set-up and Of Human Action for some more parental angst on Walter’s part and thematic resonances.

Season Three:

The Firefly

Reciprocity

Subject 13

6:02 AM EST/The Last Sam Weiss/The Day We Died

Details redacted for spoilers, but The Firefly features a beautiful guest performance by Christopher Lloyd. Add The Box and Entrada for some more context on events in early season three, 6B for context on Subject 13, and Os for more thematic resonances.

Season Four:

Alone In The World

Subject 9

Novation

Back To Where You’ve Never Been

Enemy Of My Enemy

Forced Perspective

Worlds Apart

Details redacted for spoilers. Add Welcome To Westfield for more character development, and A Better Human Being, The End Of All Things and A Short Story About Love for more context on the arc plot and how it relates to the characters’ relationships. Add Letters of Transit for some Season Five set-up.

Season Five:

Black Blotter

An Enemy Of Fate

Note that season five is completely serialized, so much of it may not make sense out of context.

Fringe Route 4: The Red Universe

If you’ve got this far, then hopefully you’re not too worried about some general spoilers, because this is a big one: much of Fringe revolves around the relationship between two parallel universes. ‘Our’ universe is usually known as the Blue Universe, after the blue-toned title card, with the parallel dimension indicated by a red title card and therefore known as the Red Universe (we won’t explain the Amber Universe here, which is another issue all together). If parallel universes are your bag, or if you find yourself drawn to the quite different (rather livelier in some ways) characters of the Red Universe, these are the episodes to watch.

Season One:

The Road Not Taken

There’s More Than One Of Everything

The existence of a parallel universe was, initially, something of a surprise introduced at the end of season one. Add the Pilot if you want to familiarise yourself with the show’s set-up and characters first.

Season Two:

A New Day In The Old Town

Momentum Deferred

Jacksonville

Peter

The Man From The Other Side

Over There Parts 1&2

The revelations of Jacksonville and Peter are basically the centre of the whole series, while after seeing glimpses and hints from The Road Not Taken onwards, Over There gives us our first real look at the Red Universe. Add Grey Matters for more context and development on the Red Universe plot, and Northwest Passage for the build-up to Over There.

Season Three:

Olivia

The Plateau

Amber 31422

The Abducted

Entrada

Immortality

Bloodline

6:02 AM EST/The Last Sam Weiss/The Day We Died

Season Three is the best season for Red Universe fans, with episodes in the early part of the season divided equally between the Red and Blue universes, and in The Plateau we even get a largely stand-alone Red Universe episode. Add 6B and Subject 13 for further small glimpses of the Red Universe, and Lysergic Acid Diethylamide for an imagined version of it. Add Stowaway for the introduction of an originally Red Universe character’s Blue Universe counterpart.

Season Four:

Neither Here Nor There

One Night In October

Back To Where You’ve Never Been

Enemy Of My Enemy

Making Angels

Everything In Its Right Place

The Consultant

Worlds Apart

Season Four is another good season for Red Universe fans, and the contrast between the Red Universe characters and those in the prime universe also provides Astrid with her one, excellent, day in the limelight in Making Angels.

Season Five:

Liberty

Note that, since Season Five is completely serialized, much of it won’t make sense unless you watch every episode, plus Letters Of Transit from Season Four. However, if you’re really mainly interested in the Red Universe, Liberty is a nice final look at that universe and those characters.

Fringe Route 5: Best of the Rest – Top Monsters of the Week

Does that huge list of essential arc plot episodes in Route 1 put you off? Are you unbothered by spoilers, and just happy to see a good short story unfold? Then these are the episodes for you. These are the best episodes Fringe has to offer that focus on a one-off, monster of the week story. Be aware that elements of the arc plot may be referred to frequently, and that the background to these episodes may involve elements of character relationships and world-building that may be a bit confusing if you don’t know the arc plot, and that will certainly spoil it. However, the central plot of these episodes will make sense by itself and they offer a fine selection of individual hours of television.

Season One:

Season One’s strongest episodes tend to be arc-based, but Charlie Francis’ day in the limelight in Unleashed is worth a look for Kirk Acevedo fans.

Season Two:

Of Human Action

Unearthed

White Tulip

Brown Betty

Unearthed actually belongs in Season One but was aired in the middle of Season Two, so paradoxically it may make more sense to those who only watch highlights of the Monster of the Week episodes. Of Human Action is the purest stand-alone story here, and combines action and plot turns nicely. White Tulip heavily features the arc plot in its character work and won’t have the same impact when viewed in isolation, but the main plot of the episode is self-contained and well worth a look. Brown Betty is the first of several format-bending, experimental episodes; it shows us a whimsical musical fairy tale concocted by Walter to entertain Olivia’s niece. Although framed by the arc plot, it’s a lovely, sweet story by itself. Add What Lies Below for some nice character work between the leads that hints at the arc plot, but the main story stands alone (though you may find yourself wanting to watch the arc plot to follow up on the hints provided!).

Season Three:

The Plateau

The Abducted

Marionette

Watching The Plateau in isolation might be a rather confusing experience, but the main plot of the episode is an effective stand-alone piece (it’s just the setting and characters that might throw you a bit…). The Abducted will be similarly puzzling, but is one of Broyles’ best episodes and a moving story. Marionette, while heavily featuring character work relating to the arc plot, offers the first really stand-alone story of the season (and a brilliantly creepy one at that). Lysergic Acid Diethylamide is not a monster of the week story and follows on directly from earlier instalments (especially Stowaway), but you may want to give it a look if you’re interested in format-bending episodes, as it’s partly animated.

Season Four:

And Those We’ve Left Behind

Forced Perspective

Making Angels

And Those We’ve Left Behind is one of Fringe’s best and most moving episodes, and although the relationships between the main characters have been shaken up by the arc plot, the primary story stands alone completely. Forced Perspective blends arc plot elements into a largely stand-alone story. Making Angels requires some knowledge of the arc plot to understand the set-up, but again the basic story is a monster of the week story, and it’s a must for Astrid fans.

Season Five:

Black Blotter

As you will have gathered by now, there are no Monster of the Week episodes in Season Five. However, if you enjoy Fringe’s more experimental episodes, Black Blotter is another nice entry into the canon and once again features animated elements, though be aware you’ll have no idea what’s going on if you don’t watch the rest of the season (plus Season Four’s Letters Of Transit).