Fringe: The Comprehensive Mythology Episode Guide to the Best Drama on TV

by Amy Yen

In case you are wondering, yes, this is where I’m going to pretend like the World Series didn’t happen. Think of it like the denial stage of grief, although, after it was all over, I did anger & depression together, like a misery cocktail of doom & despair. Ugh. And on top of everything, Game 7 pre-empted Fringe. Seriously? Kick me when I’m down already.

In preparation of the show coming back this week after what has been a two-week hiatus, I thought I’d do a post about how people—& by people, I mean the majority of the American television viewing public, since they spend their time watching NCIS & terrible VH1 reality shows—can catch up on Fringe, which they should, because it is, in fact, the best drama on TV.

I say this, but I’m aware that Fringe is a particularly hard show to get caught up on. Worse than Lost even. At least when you’re watching Lost, even when it’s meandering around throwing out questions that will never be answered, you don’t usually know that what you’re watching isn’t really important. The main problem with Fringe is, throughout most of its run, it’s insisted on trying to stay somewhat accessible to casual viewers, which means a solid half of its episodes, maybe more, are of the standalone monster-of-the-week variety, where you can tune in randomly & be able to mostly follow what’s going on. And while those episodes are fun to watch, as fun even as most X-Files standalones, when you’re trying to get caught up on 3+ seasons of an extremely dense mythology, they feel like treading water.

So, when I lent my co-worker my Fringe DVDs, I eventually also provided him a guide of mythology episodes, the ones you really need to watch to understand the core story of Fringe, the real reason it’s such a great show. If you’re going through it for the first time trying to catch up to the live episodes, I would recommend watching these first, then going back & watching the monster-of-the-weeks over the summer when you have more time to sit around & be grossed out by mole-rat babies & mutant fungi.

PS: I really liked this post, which does something similar. Her “things you should know about Fringe” are especially good.

Warning: This episode guide contains minor spoilers. Click More to read on.

Update [01.27.13]: Updated through end of series! Of 100 total episodes, I ended up recommending 55. 55 essential episodes to getting the gist of Fringe. I’d love to hear if someone tries to watch the series using this guide & what your experience is like. If you do, please drop me a comment! Thanks again for reading.

Season 1 (10 episodes recommended)

1.1 Pilot: This is one of those pilots that actually gets better retroactively. It is not on the level of either Lost or Alias, two of JJ Abrams’ other shows, which rank among the best pilots in the history of television. But the pilot for Fringe does set up a few important recurring plot devices, like the tank & Olivia sharing consciousness with John Scott, as well the all-important character dynamics between the main trio (Olivia, Walter & Peter). Also, it begins Fringe’s grand tradition of delightfully disgusting cold opens with the gross-out image to end all gross-out images.

1.4 The Arrival: The original Observer episode. Which gets cooler when you realize it’s not the first time you’ve seen the Observer & he has, in fact, been there all along. This also begins a pattern (no pun intended) with Fringe in which the fourth episode of each season is a crucial mythology episode.

1.7 In Which We Meet Mr. Jones: Just what it says on the tin. David Robert Jones is the main villain in season 1 & is the driving force that sets the events of the series into motion.

1.10 Safe: In addition to just being an excellent episode, it significantly moves forward both the Mr. Jones storyline & the John Scott lingering subplot.

1.11 Bound: More in the Mr. Jones arc, also features another spectacular gross-out in the case-of-the-week.

1.14 Ability: Although we don’t really know it at the time, the climax of this episode is a vitally important turning point for Olivia’s character. Pay particular attention to the circumstances of the climax. It will become important in approximately 50 episodes.

1.15 Inner Child*: If you read this episode guide when I first posted it, you know this episode was not included originally. I had to go back & add it after it proved to be significant…but not until season 5. (This show is amazing.) Anyway, remember the child in question, he’ll turn up again. If you are patient.

1.17 Bad Dreams: Besides being Akiva Goldsman’s first episode (he will go on to write & direct many of the show’s most critical episodes with showrunners Joel Wyman & Jeff Pinkner), this is a major Cortexiphan episode, which is crucial part of Olivia’s character. We also meet Nick Lane, who will recur in various forms in a few more episodes.

1.19 The Road Not Taken: Together with the finale, this episode sets up the central mythology element of the show, the parallel universes. We even get our first glimpse of the other side.

1.20 There’s More Than One of Everything: Leonard Nimoy makes his first appearance & this episode features two of the best reveals you’ll ever see in a season finale. Everyone remembers the second one, but it’s actually the first that is more important: we learn the Big Secret behind who Peter really is.

Season 2 (10 episodes)

2.1 A New Day in an Old Town: Features possibly the coolest cold open in the show’s history. A lot of time is spent on Olivia’s time on the other side, but since she can’t remember any of it, it’s mostly just set up. More importantly, the shapeshifters are introduced, they drive a lot of the action in the first half of season 2. We also see the quantum-entangled typewriter for the first time, which is a key plot device.

2.4 Momentum Deferred: An incredible episode on several levels, the only shame is that you had to sit through two standalones to get to it. We learn what Olivia learned on the other side, the subplot involving Charlie is resolved & we see Thomas Jerome Newton, the main season 2 villain, for the first time.

2.8 August: Another Observer episode, notable in that we learn there’s more than one of them too. Not so much important for what actually happens in the episode, but for what we learn about the Observers’ purpose.

2.10 Grey Matters: One of those episodes (there are many) that make you really, really hate Emmy voters for ignoring John Noble. This story both fleshes out the holes in Walter’s backstory & moves the other universe story forward in a big way.

2.15 Jacksonville: An important story for the other universe story, Olivia’s Cortexiphan backstory & Peter’s backstory, this is the set-up episode for the remainder of the season. (PS: While I’m only going to include the most important mythology episodes here, pretty much every episode in season 2 from here on out is worth watching on the first run. They include probably my two favorite standalone stories, White Tulip & Northwest Passage.)

2.16 Peter: If you ask most fans what they consider the single best episode of Fringe, probably 90% of them would say this episode. A story that takes place almost entirely in a flashback, we learn the full truth about what happened to Walter & Peter, what happened to Nina Sharp‘s arm & how the Observer is in the middle of everything even more than we originally thought. Also, we get to see the incredibly awesome 80s-style credit sequence for the first time.

2.18 White Tulip**: If you read my top 5 standalone episodes, you’ll recognize this as my top pick. So you know this is in essence a self-contained story. However, the white tulip in question–its meaning & the way it appears at the end of this episode–went on to become very important not only to the show all the way until the end (literally) but to the fanbase itself.

2.19 The Man From the Other Side: As you would expect, this episode is about a man from the other side. Two of them, actually.

2.22/23 Over There, Parts 1 & 2: We spend almost an entire two hours on the other side, from here on out dubbed the red-verse (due to the new credit sequence). We meet the alternate Fringe team, including scar-faced alt-Charlie & Lincoln Lee, who will go on to become one of the most compelling characters on the show. We also see the red-verse’s amber quarantine for the first time, spend some quality time with William Bell & get our first glimpse of the doomsday machine, which is a plot device that drives much of season 3. We end on a classic Fringe twist, & man, it’s a good one.

Season 3 (12 episodes)

3.1 Olivia: This episode sets up the format for the first part of season 3, which alternates episodes between the red-verse & blue-verse. As with the end of season 2, pretty much every episode in this arc is worth watching on the first run. We also meet Henry the cab driver for the first time & he’s as awesome as you’d expect from someone played by Andre Royo from The Wire.

3.4 Do Shapeshifters Dream of Electric Sheep?: As the title suggests, this is a shapeshifter episode & we do learn quite a bit about them, including just how far they’ve infiltrated the blue-verse & how to get information out of them. This will all become important later.

3.8 Entrada: The culmination of the Olivia/Fauxlivia storyline, this episode spectacularly jumps between the two universes. Also, the doomsday machine subplot takes another turn.

3.9 Marionette: This is actually essentially a standalone, but has a lot of emotional ramifications that are pretty important for the development of both Peter & Olivia. Plus, as standalones go, it’s a pretty compelling one.

3.10 The Firefly: Besides the title being a cheeky little acknowledgment to the show’s move to the Friday Night Death Slot, this is another Observer episode, which both shows how even the smallest changes made by Walter to the timeline affected things in the past & also how far the Observers are willing to go to correct things.  Also, Christopher Lloyd is awesome.

3.13 Immortality: We visit the red-verse again for the first time since Entrada & find out an important development about Fauxlivia’s time on our side. Also, even more gross than usual monster-of-the-week visuals.

3.14 6B: This episode deals with the potential for tears in the fabric of the blue-verse & the morality of dealing with it the way the red-verse did. There’s also some movement on the Peter-Olivia emotional subplot, which is ultimately important to the end of the season.

3.15 Subject 13: Another fantastic 80s flashback episode. Never mind the fact that nobody apparently remembers any of this happening (I’m actually pretty sure this will all get explained later), this story goes a long way to flesh out a few things we already kind of peripherally knew about, like Olivia’s first time crossing over to the other side & how her powers are triggered. It also features two of the most impressive child actor castings I’ve ever seen. (Seriously, they nailed it.)

3.18 Bloodline: The last real red-verse story of the season sets into motion Walternate’s evil plan involving the doomsday machine. It’s also the episode in which Lincoln Lee worms his way permanently into our collective hearts.

3.20 6:02 AM EST: Primarily a set-up episode for the finale, it also features the re-emergence of Sam Weiss, who is an important figure but who I have yet to mention because he has sneakily thus far primarily appeared in several of the non-mythology episodes of season 2.

3.21 The Last Sam Weiss: We learn more about our friend Sam & his connection to the doomsday machine & the First People, which is a concept introduced in some of the non-mythology episodes this season (which goes to show even the non-mythology episode of Fringe often turn out to be important to the mythology in the end). Remember what I said about the climax to “Ability,” all the way back in season 1? This is where it comes up again.

3.22 The Day We Died: Fringe pulls a X-Men Days of Future Past/Heroes Five Years Gone kind of thing, then finishes on the most controversial cliffhanger thus far.

Season 4 (12 episodes)

4.1 Neither Here Nor There: This episode sets up a brand new timeline that may or may not last, but it’s fun spotting the differences, at least for a while. Everything’s all different, except for that Lincoln Lee is still awesome, even in the blue-verse. (PS: I’m not including 4.2 One Night in October because it is essentially a standalone, but it’s pretty much universally regarded as one of the best standalones ever, so you should probably watch it first run.)

4.4 Subject 9: Another Cortexiphan episode, this time in the adjusted timeline, but it’s really all about what happens in the last five minutes.

4.5 Novation: Finally, some movement on the Peter arc. Also, another shapeshifter 2.0 story. (PS: After debating with myself, I’m not going to officially include 4.6 And Those We’ve Left Behind, because technically, it’s a standalone. But it’s both a particularly brilliant standalone [so much so that it makes my list of Top 5 Standalone Episodes] and it does have some development on the Peter front. Particularly, there is an assumption made at the end of the episode that carries consequences through most of the season.)

4.8/9 Back to Where You’ve Never Been/Enemy of My Enemy: This unofficial two-parter is a rare season 4 red-verse adventure. It (re)introduces our Big Bad (or so we assume) for the season, who turns out to be our old friend David Robert Jones from season 1. Also, September (The Observer, original recipe) makes a significant appearance, mostly just to freak Olivia out.

4.12 Welcome to Westfield: This is kind of a classic mythalone episode: it has huge mythology ramifications, but the self-contained story is terrific. We get some idea of DRJ’s endgame and a big twist in the Peter arc.

4.14 The End of All Things: We learn who the Observers are! Really! Also, we learn the importance of something — or rather, someone — who was wiped out with the timeline shift at the end of season 3. There is also a demonstration of the extent of Olivia’s Cortexiphan-aided power, which will be increasingly important later in the season, and yet another call-back to the climax of season 1’s “Ability.”

4.17 Everything In Its Right Place: Possibly my favorite episode of the season is a Lincoln-centric red-verse story that barely features any of the original three Fringe team. Huh. This is a shapeshifter episode, but we also learn exactly what the bridge (and in turn, the doomsday machine) has been doing to the red-verse, which becomes important later. Also, Wyman and Pinkner break our collective hearts.

4.19 Letters of Transit: The traditionally weird episode 19 is a flashforward into a dystopian future in which the Observers have taken over the world and the Fringe team is nowhere to be found. Henry Ian Cusick makes a welcome appearance and we meet a very important young female blonde Fringe agent. All indications are that we will be revisiting this future in season 5.

4.20 Worlds Apart: We get to see the Cortexiphan kids again, but the real news is the end of the longest ongoing storyline on the entire series.

4.21/22 Brave New World, Parts 1 & 2: The Fringe team has to save the world from what turns out to be an entirely different Big Bad than we thought. We also see September’s prophecies play out, both of them. No real cliffhanger this season, since when September tells us, “They’re coming,” we already know who he means.

Season 5 (11 episodes)

5.1 Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11: We pick up the final season in 2036, directly after “Letters of Transit,” in yet another Fringe reset. The whole gang (mostly) is back together, plus one (the very important young female blonde Fringe agent from “Letters,” who remains very important). (PS: Due to the shortened episode order of the final season, almost every episode is going to end up being relevant to the overall mythology in some way, but some more than others. For the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to stick to the ones that are most crucial.)

5.2 In Absentia: We set up the scavenger-hunt-esque plot device that is the framing device of the entire season. This episode also returns the “home base” of the show to Walter’s familiar lab at Harvard, as it should be.

5.4 The Bullet That Saved the World: A surprise death early in the season sets everything else into motion. Also, this episode title could have two possible meanings…discuss among yourselves. (Double-also: keep your eye out for a yet another “Ability” callback. That episode has turned out to be a goldmine of fun for this mythology guide.)

5.5 An Origin Story: Peter & Olivia deal with said surprise death in wildly different ways. Peter’s way sets off an intriguing arc.

5.6 Through the Looking Glass & What Walter Found There: Amazingly, because of this episode, I’m going to have to go back & add an episode* to my season 1 recommendations because, not for the first time with Fringe, an episode we thought was standalone turns out to not be. So you may want to go back & watch 1.15 “Inner Child” if you skipped it the first time around. (Sorry, my bad.) We also get another mention of a mysterious figure named Donald, who was introduced in 5.3, one of the more standalone-y of this season’s episodes, who will become increasingly important as we keep going.

5.8 The Human Kind: I had a hard time with this one because I honestly think the previous episode, “Five-Twenty-Ten,” is the stronger episode, but this is the one that has the more significant plot development. Like I said, in reality, you should probably watch all of the final season episodes because there’s too much story left to have real throwaway episodes now. Anyway, Peter’s arc is resolved here, somewhat anticlimactically.

5.9 Black Blotter: Kind of this season’s traditionally weird installment that usually airs episode 19 (but this season won’t make it that long so it goes here), this time involving another one of Walter’s crazy acid trips, complete with jarring animation sequence. Further development on the inner child & Donald fronts, plus we revisit two characters we’ve seen before, one in a random not-cameo that I’m about 90% sure is simply an Easter egg for loyal viewers.

5.10 Anomaly XB-6783746: We find out who Donald is. Also, an old friend goes out & goes out big.

5.11 The Boy Must Live: The boy in question, first mentioned in “Peter” way back in season 2, is not who we’ve been led to believe all this time. We meet Donald properly & he downloads a whole lot of exposition for us. We also get one last glimpse of the deprivation tank, which was such an important plot device back in season 1.

5.12 Liberty: Hooray! As I had hoped, we get to visit the red-verse one last time to check in with old friends Fauxlivia & Lincoln Lee & see how the last 20+ years have gone for them.

5.13 An Enemy of Fate: And here we are, the grand finale. Basically, if you haven’t been watching at least the episodes in this guide, you’re kind of up a creek this episode. There are tearful goodbyes to long-running character relationships, an extended homage to all the terrifyingly disgusting ways people have been killed in this series and a final image that is poignant & perfect…but only if you saw one very specific season 2 episode (2.18 “White Tulip”), which I will now I have to add to this guide.** Go figure, Fringe.

And that’s it! It’s over! I hope you’ve enjoyed Fringe as much as I have & I hope you found this guide in some way useful. I’d love to hear your feedback below.

PS: Don’t forget to check out my top 5 standalone Fringe episodes for some installments that may not be crucial to the overall mythology of the show, but are nonetheless excellent examples of why the show is so good.


31 Responses

  1. I think you covered the bases (not a World Series pun) on key mythos episodes pretty well. I might tweak it a little bit to the left or right… but you’ve got them, for the most part.

    One thing I will mention is that the senior creative staff (Pinkner and Wyman) have already issued the heads-up… many of the things that you saw in the stand-alones have a tremendous chance of surfacing again and becoming very important, aka. mythology-relevant, this season, and for however long the series continues past Season Four. So – new viewers – catch the key eps, as recommended above, but don’t wait for Summer to go after the early stand-alones… they may become mythos sooner, rather than later. i.e. Jan-May, 2012

    • Good point. I think Fringe more than most series balances standalones & mytharc episodes very well, so that most standalones do move the mythology forward, even if it’s just a little bit. My feeling is the best experience is probably still to watch the episodes in order, but for someone trying to catch up on the fly, I think this is an interesting experiment.

      Thanks for your comment!

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  3. This is super helpful – thank you! I gave up on Fringe at the end of season one, but heard good things and we’re going back through using this as a guide.

    • I’m so glad to hear that! I think Fringe is a great show, but I definitely recognize how challenging it is to get through if you don’t know which episodes really matter. I hope you can get caught up before the season starts!

      Thanks for your comment!

  4. Thank you so much for writing this guide. I help co-host the Sci Fi Watcher podcast and we’ve been using your guide for the past 3 weeks to get caught up with Fringe before the season 5 premiere next week. We’re also giving Seasons 1-3 on DVD. Here’s our page with more info

    • Hi Bryan!
      So glad the guide was helpful to you! I’m definitely going to check out your podcast too…you seem to cover a lot of the shows I love. Thanks for the link-back & the comment.


  5. I think I would add The Same Old Story to that list, as the pilot itself doesn’t really completely set up the ongoing nature of the working relationship between Walter, Peter, and the FBI.

    • That’s interesting b/c I always think of that as a classic standalone story but it does have one major recurring element, the accelerated pregnancy that comes back into play in season 3 when Fauxlivia’s pregnancy storyarc is resolved in one episode. I always thought that was an especially clever callback.

      Thanks for your comment, David!

  6. […] Fringe: The Comprehensive Mythology Episode Guide to the Best Drama on TV […]

  7. thank you for your guide on allowing me to explore Fringe by watching the key episodes.

    I will eventually buy the complete series boxset and view every episode but you have been a really big help and I am a huge Fringe fan now.

  8. Fantastic! I hate standalome episodes, and by that I give up on seeing FRINGE. But with your guide I’m in this moment entering in the 3rd season, and loving the show. People, with this guide you will feel like you didn’t lose any relevant part in the main story.
    Thank you so much, and I hope you continue doing this fantastic job with other series.

    • Thanks so much Rudolph! I’m so glad to hear it. I think you are just hitting the peak of the show too, so I’m excited for you! Am happy to hear any suggestions for future series also.

      Thanks again for your comment.

  9. Hi Amy! Thanks so much for this guide. I basically used it to watch the show from scratch in late January while I was sick with the flu. I found most of season one and two unwatchable until Peter, however. After that, I thought it got pretty good. In fact, I watched every episode of season three and most of season four and all of season five! I thought season four, however, was weaker than seasons three and five.

    • Thanks for the comment Wayne! I’d probably agree with you, although season 4 had some brilliant episodes. In retrospect, I think the show was at its creative peak in early season 3.

      I’m glad you liked the guide. Thanks again!

  10. S4E15? Why isn’t in the list?

    • I think I debated on that one.I just went back & looked at the summary & I think you’re right, there’s a good case for it to be included, particularly in the S4 Peter arc. Thanks for the comment!

  11. Oddly enough I love this show but am not particularly fond of the myth arc. Like many science fiction shows (at least to me) the series truly shines in the Monster of the Week (or standalone) episodes… A trend I found throughout some of my favorite other sci-fi series’ (i.e. X-Files and Farscape). I truly love your guide because it allows me to skip the myth arc episodes and watch the episodes I most enjoy.. Also your brief synopsis of every myth arc episode (as well as the, “last week on Fringe…” sections at the beginnings of episodes) gave me as much insight into the myth arc as I was comfortable with. Thanks

    • Hi TK, that’s so funny! Well, I’m glad it was helpful to you in that way & I definitely agree that Fringe did have some of the best monster-of-the-week episodes on TV. Thanks for the comment!

  12. thx you for the list which one result usefull to own some time .
    in fact most of the episode are not usefull to follow the real storyline.
    And they are poor , boring and begin to give m ae bad opinion of the serie. And then i looked for some list like your’s. as “things you should know about Fringe” nice but incompleted ( until season 2)
    THe truth is that , following the principal episode constitute a good serie but the episode witch no constitute the storyline of the caracter are realy bull shit .
    Thx for your contribution.

  13. I used this list to go through the series for the third time, not wanting to put the time into 100 episodes. Thanks for compiling, i found it very helpful. The only thing i might suggest is adding ‘6955 kHz’ and ‘The Box’ from season 3, Those episodes contain some important plot points in my opinion. It’s hard though, some episodes are essentially stand-alones, but then have big reveals or whatever at the very end of the episode. All in all though this guide is pretty straight on. I appreciate the effort, thanks again.

    • Thanks for your comment Jarod! Glad you found it helpful. I’ll definitely have to go back & rewatch those two episodes to see if they should be included. Thanks!

  14. […] total episodes, I ended up recommending 55. 55 essential episodes to getting the gist of Fringe. Fringe: The Comprehensive Mythology Episode Guide to the Best Drama on TV | Amy in Wonderland by Amy… Reply With […]

  15. Great resource!! Many thanks!

  16. Awesome guide! I would suggest however that people watch all of season 5 it’s almost a standalone season in itself with some awesome insights on the whole show 🙂

  17. Thank you very much !!!

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