Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv)
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Dedicated to putting emotion, humanity, and a sense of real-world history into the fantasy-show genre, Fringe went into its winter-season finale with a tremendously moving, startling episode. The hour began by adhering to its pleasing formula: one gross-out scare before the first commercial break. In this case, a man caught in what was thought to be an earthquake-rattled building was discovered by our heroes to suddenly possess many more than four limbs, plus an extra face protruding from his chest. That the face(s) belonged to Jim True-Frost — Prez Pryzbylewski from The Wire and therefore enjoying a brief reunion with his Wire co-star Lance Reddick here — only added to the striking oddness.

Walter quickly sussed out that what had occurred was actually the exchange of this entire building with another one of equal mass from Fringe‘s alternate universe. How’d Walter divine that? By asking the wounded True-Frost what buildings were struck on 9/11. “The Pentagon and the White House,” the victim gasped. And as we know from Fringe‘s first-season finale, in the other world, the Twin Towers never fell, so this version of Jim True-Frost was a smooshed-together version of his Earth-One and Earth-Two selves. Plus, he was working, Walter also noticed, on blueprints labeled “New Pentagon.”

Yes, Walter is becoming more and more the lucid explainer: his often-comic fog is lifting, and John Noble is modulating into this new-ish Walter with grace and restraint.

Based on his earlier research, Walter predicted that another earth-rumbling building-exchange is imminent. So the plot was then set in action-mode: How to find out which structure in Manhattan would be affected next? The answer lay in Olivia. Literally, inside her Cortexiphan-flooded brain. Walter repeated the experiment he and William Bell performed in the 1980s on a group of 30 children including Olivia, who was the only subject who was able to discern this other dimension, the energy-mass, which to Olivia gives off a “glimmer.”

“We gave you the ability!” said Walter in his usual tremulous, trying-to-be-upbeat manner. But this week, what results is not comic relief.

Peter uttered a grim reproach: “Illegal drug trials on children — don’t make that sound like charity work.”

Later Walter faced a similar charge from Olivia. He protested, “We were trying to make you more than you were!”

Olivia, enraged: “I was a defenseless child!”

As violated as she felt she’d been, Olivia also hoped to stave off a building-exchange that could kill many people. So she sat in a chair that looked a little like Topher’s mind-wipe throne from Dollhouse, her brain subjected to a Cortexiphan-drip. Pretty soon, she was driving a speeding car, headed to a glimmering building to save the day.

But as in the best episodes of Fringe — and this was indeed one of its finest hours, written by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz, and directed by Charles Beeson — there was increased dread over what is to come as we and the show’s heroes get ever closer to passing more permanently than Olivia has into the alternate universe that threatens to make everything go (if I may use a technical term) ker-blooey.

In a lesser series, the threat of cataclysm would be a familiar sci-fi convention. But for Fringe, the danger is rendered on a most personal level. True to the countercultural era that inspired Walter and “Belly” to conduct their freewheeling research, the personal is political, as we used to say. I was a bit worried that by bringing Olivia together with her little-girl, alt-universe self, adult-Olivia would be infantilized, rendered weak, and in need of saving by Walter and Peter. Instead, as Walter said, the very fear that little-Olivia experienced has resulted in adult-Olivia’s empowering anger and bravery.

The hour even avoided what the past few episodes have been (dismayingly, to me) building toward — a Peter-Olivia smooch — by having Olivia realize that the fright that drives her into Peter’s arms is precisely the emotion she can use to defeat the forces of evil.

And, oh yes: To see Peter as he truly is — a glimmering Peter, a Peter from another planet, but innocent of his own fate. Walter begs, “Olivia, please don’t tell him,” the genius brought low with a mixture of shame and a bursting love for his son. We knew this was coming. We just didn’t know it was going to be so powerful.

I cannot wait until Fringe returns from its eight-week break.

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Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv)
Joshua Jackson, Anna Torv, and John Noble star in J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi drama
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