Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv)
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This week, Fringe was set in our universe, with the red-headed, swaggering, alternate-universe-Olivia using dyed blonde hair and a more sober mien to impersonate our Olivia. What a terrific episode it was, with a tremendously clever game-changer of an ending.

So, from the top: Pre-credits, we saw a family tied up, held captive while three intruders sought a box in the basement. Two of the guys doing the digging unearthed it, and couldn’t resist opening what they’d been hired to find and bring back to their employer. Bad idea: They went all stiff, their eyes turned milky-white, and then they died. So did the captive family. The third intruder, however, was unharmed. With box closed, he scrammed.

Turns out these guys were hired by our old frenemy Thomas Jerome Newton, whose zesty arrogance was tamped down by Altivia, who pulled rank on the man we’ve seen lead so many intrusions upon our world: “You work for me,” she said flatly. The item stolen by Newton’s men was a component piece to the great “doomsday” machine for which Peter is the “human interface.”

After a nice little scene reminding us in the new season why we’ve enjoyed dotty old Walter in seasons past — in his lab, he was applying his genius intensity to figuring out a way to make Gene the cow spurt chocolate milk from her udders — Walter grew more serious over the question of whether Peter should be trying to work on this machine. Re-framing the argument, which until now has been driven by a suspense-movie motive (that is: we’ve got to figure this out before the bad guys do!), Walter invoked Oppenheimer and the nuclear arms race, both for the destruction it unleashed upon the world and the moral agony and guilt it instilled in those who worked on it. Peter sees the wisdom, or at least the point, of his father’s words, pausing in his labors to ask: “What if we shouldn’t be working on this thing?”

This Fringe was a good example of how far the series has come since its first season, dominated by pre-credits scare-scenarios for Fringe Division to investigate, some of which spilled over into the show’s mythology. Now, Fringe is a seamless whole (or two wholes, given the double universes, and therefore not seamless, but you know what I mean): The terrified, now dead family we saw tied up at the start of the episode, along with the mysterious death of two thieves, is compounded by something that baffles both the good guys and the bad guys: How did a third robber manage to make off with the box containing the device? Newton is mystified because he only hired the first two men; Fringe Division is perplexed every which-way… until Thief #3 shows up at Altivia’s door with the box and she discovers he’s deaf. And therefore it was the sound emitted by the contents of the box that killed the others.

This plot culminated in a scene in the subway which might have been your usual guy must disable object on the tracks before the train smashes him, but with a few nice added elements. The first was Newton’s subway interaction with a small man played by Howard Stern radio-show regular Eric the Midget Actor, who was convincingly hardboiled and who exploded like a pro. The second was Altivia having to temporarily deafen Peter by firing her gun twice, once by each ear. I’m sure there were doctors and science majors viewing that scene and cringing, but it helped liven up a familiar adventure-show trope.

The real, deeper suspense in this episode, though, was all the human interaction. I’m thinking of the scene in which Walter and Peter go to hear William Bell’s will being read. Of the way Walter in his awkward but sincere way, embraced Nina Sharpe. Of the way Bell left Nina a little bell, and wrote to her, “I was your right hand and you were mine.” (A tremendously loaded line: Obviously a reference to Nina’s right hand lost during the universe-crossover, but also opening a new question: In what way was William her right hand? My most prosaic guess is that he designed her hand, and perhaps helped her start Massive Dynamic.)

I always tell people who don’t watch Fringe that one of the best things about it is that, at its heart, it’s a very emotional story about family. (I don’t mention that no matter what any fan tells you, you really do have to plow through at least a season-and-a-half of past episodes to understand what’s going on.) This evening proved my point again, as Walter and Peter attempted to have “the talk” about the alt-universe-formerly-known-as-“our” Peter’s kidnapping by Walter. The realism here was acute. Both start off calmly, but soon the guilt, anger, and betrayal overtakes them. Peter says he can’t even look Walter in the eye. “You took my family, my world!” “I should never have crossed the line!” “I can’t talk about this.”

Bell left Walter an envelope containing a key and a piece of paper with one sentence: “Don’t be afraid to cross the line.” Astrid spoke for all of us when she said, “So you were the cautious one?”

The key was to a safe-deposit box, in which Walter discovered the episode’s big surprise: Bell “left me Massive Dynamic. I’m the sole shareholder.” Yowee. I want an episode that includes his first address to the staff right now.

Some observations on the fringe of this episode:

• Peter dancing with Altivia has got to be one of the most casually sexy scenes on TV in a while.

• Newton giving Altivia a guide to pop culture, yielding her response upon seeing a picture of U2 vocalist: “BON-o?”

• Walter made a fart joke upon hearing the phrase “Silent but deadly.” Or I guess I should really just say, he made a fart. Tee-hee.

• Peter saying that the longer he’s back (which, come to think of it, Altivia says is just “two days”) the “less real [the other universe] seems” — sounds as though the groundwork has been laid for Peter to come to terms with staying here without much regret. Although there’s his mom over there…

• Even though I knew she had a good reason and it was a serious moment, I still grinned at the image of Altivia putting a silencer onto her pistol to kill a deaf man.

• Classic Walter-ism: “Bacon-flavored pudding — that would surprise me.”

• Classic Peter-ism: “Walter, use your words.”

What did you think of this week’s Fringe? How would you compare it to last week’s episode, set in the other world? And what do you think Walter is going to do with Massive Dynamic?

Follow: @kentucker

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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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