Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv)
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Grace be unto you and peace, Fringe admirers, Cortexi-fans, and Frewbies; the third season of the great parallel-universe saga has finally made itself manifest. The episode entitled “Olivia” was both superb and surprising. After last season’s slam-bang, two-part “Over There” finale, I expected the producers to do one of two things: offer either another sinuous sensory overload to match that finale, or a let’s-build-our-base, Beginner’s Guide to Fringe catch-up episode.

Instead, we got something different: a beautifully emotional hour with suspense, humor, and kissing. And 98 percent of it took place Over There, in the world where our Olivia is being held captive by Walternate and his minions. (I’m going to pause here to savor the first time in months that I’ve typed out the term “Walternate.” It feels mighty right.)

The night began with Olivia interviewed by an alt-world therapist who met with clinical skepticism our hero’s flat insistence that she’s being held in the bloodred world against her will, steadfastly denying that her work partners are Charlie Francis and a quite badly burned Lincoln Lee. Observing (if you’ll excuse the expression) via hidden camera was Walternate, who informed an aide (whom we know on our side as the beloved, thick-tongued lab rat Brandon, considerably spiffed-up here) that the “dosing” of Olivia with “transfer[red] memories” from Alternative Olivia wasn’t proceeding fast enough to his liking. In as close as the episode came to a bit of catch-up exposition, Walternate said in that purring yet clipped tone John Noble employs so marvelously, “We are at war with creatures who’ve damaged the very fabric of reality…. [Olivia] is equipped to move through universes…. We need her to help us understand this skill…. If not, soon there’ll be nothing left.”

After that articulate throat-clearing, it was time for a little throat-punching — specifically, Olivia feigning physical distress to break out of the lab, fight off a succession of guards, and leaping into cold night water to the island of Manhattan, but not before looking over her shoulder to reveal that she’d been held captive inside nothing less than the Statue of Liberty. Olivia then jumped into the cab of a driver played by Andre Royo, known to all sentient humans as Bubbles from The Wire. Thus begins the best taxi-ride dialogue since Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx in Michael Mann’s Collateral. Royo’s Henry Higgins (?) (Olivia as Eliza Doolittle, My Fair Lady?) thinks, initially, he’s dealing with a babbling nutcase with a big gun. He also remarks upon Olivia’s tattoo — that’s right, as a freebie with her memory transfers, she’s been given the same sort-of-star-shaped tat that Altivia has on the back of her neck. Olivia had Henry drive her to the theater where she last saw Walter, Peter, and her compatriots, only to discover the place is being glazed in amber, the alt-universe method for containing what its government terms a health risk. (That this is a controversial policy is confirmed by picketers outside the theater, carrying signs saying things like “Amber = Death.”)

Back at Fringe division, Colonel Broyles and an Agent Farnsworth sporting a black beret and camouflage fatigues are spinning out data and tracking Olivia; Lincoln and Charlie are dispatched to a gas station where Henry is filling up for the drive to Mom’s house in Tarrytown, N.Y. Olivia makes an explosive escape, adjusting her aim to miss Charlie and blow up a gas tank as a diversion. Couple things here: If Olivia is so invaluable to Walternate, why is everyone shooting at her? Do they all just have tranq guns? And while it’s nice that Olivia wasn’t shooting to kill Charlie, I’d say a gas explosion very near the poor, worm-riddled agent is quite life-threatening to Charlie, wouldn’t you?

Anyway, Olivia’s unerring aim is a giveaway. The memory transference is taking hold, because as we see in a photograph, Altivia is nothing less than an Olympic-medal-winning shooter.

Olivia had Henry take her to 18th Street and 10th Avenue, the address she knows as the location of the Massive Dynamic offices, but here, the site is a park. And not just a park, but the “Martin Luther King/Eldridge Cleaver Memorial Park,” suggesting that MLK was not assassinated, and that there came to be a kinship between the nonviolent reverend and Cleaver, the Black Panther militant and author of Soul on Ice. When I saw Farnsworth’s beret-and-camo outfit, the first thing I thought of was the Panther uniform; I wonder if there’s a connection here.

Searching for another location for help and information, Olivia gave Henry the address of her mother, who died when Olivia was 14 but who’s alive in this universe. Amy Madigan made the most of a brief appearance, conveying her pleasure and anguish at seeing Olivia, and grappling with the cry “I’m not your daughter!” by soothingly responding, “Then how did you know to come here?” We also heard Olivia say “Frank” (Altivia’s boyfriend) when she meant to say “Peter” in talking to Henry.

“The treatments are working,” Walternate said, viewing everything via omniscient technology, to Brandon, who said, “No, it was the adrenaline [of Olivia’s escape] that triggered” the implanted memories: “She’s our Olivia now,” he said, chillingly.

A bit later, Colonel Broyles asked Walternate the questions we’ve all been asking during the Fringe hiatus: “Why is she our Olivia Dunham? Why is it necessary?… You’re embedding one of them on my team and you’ve embedded my agent with them.” But with an imperious flick of the wrist, Walternate said to Broyles and us, “You’ll know soon enough.”

I think we pretty much know already: An Olivia whose body possesses all the Cortexiphan-aided abilities that she has, and an altered mind that thinks like a loyal Altivia, is a prize indeed. A super-soldier, in sci-fi and comic-book terms.

And then came the episode’s coda, as we switched for the first time back to our world. There, Peter gave a statement to a government smuggie, whose primary response after hearing Peter’s extraordinary tale of uni-hopping was “Why did you come back?” We know the answer to that: Walter; Olivia.

There was a lovely scene between Olivia (really Altivia) and Walter, who are waiting outside for Peter. Walter is chomping on Oreos. Altivia notices Walter’s shoes — Wallabees — and asks, “Are you bringing them back?”

“Where did they go?” said Walter, startled. It was a wonderful mixture of old, befuddled Walter and new, alert-to-universe-travel Walter, and he genuinely didn’t know which way Altivia’s question was pointed.

Peter emerged and kissed Ol/Altivia as the episode ends. Do you think he could tell the difference between the two women’s kisses, the firmness of their lips, the ardor in the pressure applied?

A great way to start the season, and next week: an episode set in our world. With an appearance by someone from a completely different universe: Howard Stern’s.

Some observations on the fringe of this episode:

• Security is tight-bordering-on-the-fascistic in the Alt-Universe. Not only does Henry ask Olivia for her “show me” ID before starting the meter, but the cab has (and presumably all cabs have) a built-in tracker. Big Brother Walternate is always watching.• Disease/infection is widespread over there. Olivia warns Henry he needs to update his typhus shot, and there are always those jokes Charlie has to suffer about the worms inside him.• The ad for the Glatterflug airline that appears during one of the taxi scenes is for the same airline whose 2008 flight 627 landed at Logan Airport with all its passengers dead in the pilot episode.What did you think of the Fringe season premiere?

Follow: @kentucker

Episode Recaps

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