By Ken Tucker
September 17, 2009 at 12:00 PM EDT

When we last left Fringe, we were with Olivia Dunham in an alternate universe where, in the season finale’s most striking image, the Twin Towers were still standing. This wasn’t a flash-back or a flash-forward, it was a different dimension — what the folks at Fringe call an “over there.”

In last night’s second-season premiere [as good a place as any to insert a SPOILER ALERT IF YOU DIDN’T WATCH FRINGE YET], Olivia came hurtling back into our universe, but with only vague memories and a feeling of urgency: “There’s something I have to do.” (No one does frantic yet determined worry on current TV better than Anna Torv.)

The episode, co-written by J.J. Abrams and Akiva Goldsman and directed by Goldsman, did a very good job with difficult, multiple tasks: Reintroducing the characters to newbies, reminding us where Olivia’s been even if she doesn’t remember, and implanting in us the show’s new mandate going forward. Whereas last season the episodes were constructed as “Monster in the pre-credits/Fringe division gets called in to solve the case/weird s— happens/case is solved but deeper mysteries deepen,” the new season was summed up by Josh Jackson’s Peter Bishop to Lance Reddick’s Special Agt. Broyles: “From now on, we’re calling the shots; we’re done reacting.”

Yes: This is what Fringe needed to kick its pace and mythology into a higher gear. But does it need another new character? We met FBI agent Jessup (Meghan Markle), who helped Peter while Olivia was bed-bound, recovering from her inter-dimensional smoosh. At first I thought Jessup was there merely as an audience-sounding-board, someone Peter could talk to about his father and their past investigations and thus update new viewers. But by the end of the episode, Jessup was busy hacking into past Fringe case files and consulting a Bible: trying to link all this to end-times theory, or Armageddon, or the Book of Revelations, or what?

It was also clear that Jessup is needed as another field agent we can (at least for the moment) root for, as the crucial last scene involving Kirk Acevedo’s Charlie took a nasty turn.

There was a lot of stuff to please fans. There was a neat shout-out to The X-Files as Broyles was forced to appear before a Senate committee to argue that Fringe division shouldn’t be shut down. (Are we now to assume that Fringe and X-Files take place in the same universe?) (I guess not, since an episode was also playing on a TV screen.) There was also plenty of Walter Bishop at his wackiest, insisting on making Peter a birthday custard even as he examines the corpse of a body that had been sucked dry by a shape-shifter. But even this light-heartedness had a serious undercurrent: Peter said he didn’t like custard, so perhaps Walter was remembering the alt-universe Peter who did savor the stuff?

My favorite Walter scene, however, was the moment when talk of shape-shifting jostled his brilliant/addled brain to recall one of his 1960s experiments conducted with William Bell. That spaced-out hippie chick on the grainy VCR tape Walter unearthed jabbered about a “soldier… from another universe, man… he’s from a place that looks like this but it’s not here.”

Right on. This is one of my favorite ingredients in the DNA the producers are mixing into Fringe: the notion that the same countercultural era that allowed Tim Leary and Richard Alpert to mix up LSD in Harvard labs also permitted Walter and and Bell to do their own mind-expanding experiments. (Note to showrunner Jeff Pinkner: Can I play Ram Dass when he makes an inevitable cameo?)

Oh, and I almost forgot: What did you think of the electric typewriter that communicates with the “over there” typewriter? And what did you think of the Broyles-Nina Sharp smooch? Those rascals…

Did you watch Fringe? What did you think of the final scene? All theories about anything I’ve mentioned (or didn’t) are most welcome.

And be sure to check out this Fringe-able Must List video: