November 05, 2010 at 05:14 AM EDT

As soon as Fringe introduced the notion of its alternate universe containing areas where people are encased in amber to prevent further disruption to its universe, it was inevitable that there would be a story line — or as proved to be the case this week, an entire episode, entitled “Amber 31422” — devoted to the novel technique.

Early on, we saw two guys break into an amber-alerted area. Using a “home-made laser knife” (jeez — me, I have trouble installing winter storm windows), they broke into a quarantine zone to free someone who’d been preserved in the dark-yellow stuff. (Outside, amidst wreaths and memorials to those similarly entrapped, there was a prominent sign: “Resin Is Wrong” — more proof that a chunk of the Earth 2 populace is not on-board with what the government is doing to control their world’s steady degradation.)

The theft of an ambered body, and the discovery of one of the thieves who was freshly caught in amber himself, brought out Fringe Division troops, including a late-to-the-scene Olivia (Lincoln Lee chided her about taking that congested, five-o’clock-shadowed “Nixon Parkway” to work). There followed some wedged-in Earth 2 history, as the Fringe team looked at an Alt-iPad playing video of the history of the Central Manhattan Sinkhole from 1989, one of the first “micro-black-holes… isolated tears in the fabric of our universe.” This couldn’t have been news to Lincoln, Charlie, and the gang, but it gave viewers a chance to remember Fringe history after the mind-wipe of our world’s World Series.

Olivia had been detained not by the Nixon Parkway, but by a couple of brain-messing encounters. One was with Walternate, who asked if he and his science-henchman Brandonite could conduct a series of experiments on her. Because, Walternate says, “Their Olivia can travel between worlds safely [and] you may be able to do the same.” Which is to say, this Olivia, our brain-washed Olivia, is the Olivia who can travel between worlds safely, and Walternate wants time to tinker with her to try and figure out that ability. And Olivia also had another visit from The Peter That Lives In Her Head, who told her, “You’re not their Olivia.” Sometimes O. must feel like she’s living in The United States of Tara.

The illegal amber liberation was the week’s Fringe Division case — a nicely emotional story about twin brothers, one a criminal, the other an accountant (no jokes about what’s the difference, please), who exchanged identities. The innocent brother was trapped in amber for years (he’d gone to the crime site to convince his brother to stop but was himself ambered), and we learned that amber places one in a state not merely of suspended animation but also suspended cogitation: You keep thinking the same thought you had when you became immobile in the stuff, which in Matthew Rose’s case was worry for his family. Meanwhile, the criminal brother, Joshua Rose, had been living freely as Matthew, until the guilt became too much to bear (one was left to imagine how he handled day-to-day interactions living with Matthew’s bitter, grieving wife).

This plot was the action-engine of the episode. Fringe Division went to the amber crime site (“If I get ambered, just leave me in there,” says lovably worldweary Charlie), they  interviewed Matthew/Joshua. Olivia deduces that there’s been a switch, with a helpful prod from The Peter That Lives In Her Head. By the end, in one of those moving comments on the bonds of family that Fringe does so well, Joshua deliberately commits an amber-warranting crime to get himself encased, to save his brother further pain: “You’re the only person alive who survived a quarantine,” Joshua tells Matthew. “They’ll never stop experimenting on you” to discover why. In a very nice touch, Olivia goes to Matthew near the conclusion, lets him know she knows what went on, and also assures him that as far as she’s concerned, the case is closed, because there’s a higher good, a more moral outcome, than the law enforced by Fringe Division.

All this, and we haven’t even gotten at the really juicy part of the hour — Fringe is the gift that keeps on giving twice. Walternate meets with Broyles and tells him the theory behind his development of amber and that people can be revived. This sets off alarm bells (if not William Bell) with Broyles, who immediately recognizes that there would be a “reaction akin to revolt” if citizens found out amber “victims” could be resuscitated. Walternate delivers a key pronouncement that’s part-justification, part-arrogance: “Nature doesn’t recognize good and evil. Nature only recognizes balance and imbalance. I intend to restore balance to our world, whatever it takes.” (Emphasis mine.)

Olivia, agreeing to be experimented upon (unlike her youthful, shameful exploitation during the Cortexiphan trials), enters the sensory deprivation tank loaded to the gills with “psychotropic drugs.” Walternate confirmed his ruthless ambition when he commanded Brandonite to increase the dosages. “Only those who risk going too far find out how far they can go,” rumbles Walternate portentously — whatta fascist maroon!

Sure enough, the drugs mixed with the Cortexiphan in Olivia’s brain and she shimmered back to “our” world, and came back: “It worked — you crossed over!” says Walternate triumphant. Later, Olivia, after a chat with The Peter That, Etc., will re-enter the tank and realize where she is — an Earth 1 souvenir shop — and places a birthday call to her dear niece. (Pretty crafty the way the producers and Fox edited this moment in the episode’s teaser to make you think she might be calling Peter, right?) After this second trip, however, she lied to Walternate and told him nothing happened. (Did he believe her? My own guess is… not really for one second.)

Here’s the thing, though. I may have called him fascistic up there a minute ago, but Fringe is by now so finely-honed that I can also take the opposite position: This Secretary of Defense Walter Bishop, brilliant scientist, really is working diligently to save his Earth. Another thing. This episode’s use of Olivia, Charlie, and Lincoln made them seem so likable, so ready to kick butt while cracking wise, that I was sorta reminded of another group of sci-fi teammates: Firefly‘s. And finally, Anna Torv’s acting — the way Olivia’s shifting thoughts, fears, and barely-grasped memories played across her face — was once again superb.

So, another enthralling episode, one that furthers what will be the mission for the second half of the season. As the Fox promos put it, “The journey home is about to begin.”

What did you think of this week’s return of Fringe? Topics open for further discussion: The pills Olivia was popping, and whether the alternate-Astrid (Astridoid?) gives out info a little too avidly. (The wide-eyed blankness of the way Jasika Nicole plays her makes me think her character is displaying an almost Asperger’s-like acuity and intensity.)

And finally, some Fringe fringe:

• That Joshua, he is one smart cookie, coming up with a “negative matter ring.” Makes you wonder how much tech the Earth 2 citizenry is engaged in.

• Cary Grant, not Humphrey Bogart, starred in The Maltese Falcon on Earth B. (Lincoln Lee: “Like Cary Grant said, the stuff that dreams are made of… “)

• The latest Olivia in the tank scenes more closely resembled than ever before the ones in the movie various Fringe producers have cited as an inspiration, Ken Russell’s Altered States (which co-starred Blair Brown).

• Olivia’s visions of Peter talking to her are similar to the chats John Scott used to drop into her memory-hole to deliver in the first season; since she has/had strong romantic feelings for both men, it’s not foolish to think that this is more proof that Olivia’s extra-sensory powers are triggered by strong emotions (ardor, fear).

• The Observer appears over Col. Broyles’ shoulder as part of the Fringe team prepares to enter the subway late in the episode.

• I want an Earth 2 Fringe Division ball cap, don’t you? I would switch places with the alternate version of myself (Rek Cutnek?) and risk deteriorating my molecules to retrieve one.

Twitter: @kentucker

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