Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv)
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Knowing that this was the first Fringe after the alternating alternate-universe arc and the last before a winter break placed quite a burden on this week’s episode, entitled “Marionette.” But by now, the series is so sure of its tone, its surging story-telling power, that it more than met its challenges. The fringe-science case was a resonant dilly: A man is harvesting the donated organs of a dead woman he loved/loves, hoping to put her together, Franken-style, and reanimate her. In the same way as this harvester, Fringe has become exhilaratingly fearless about snatching up bits from literature, movies, pop and high culture, brazenly acknowledging their provenance, and putting them together in a unique way.

“Marionette” had a typically fine pre-credit jolt — the image of a man whose heart had been removed still alive and imploring, “Don’t let me die!” But the hour proceeded to top itself for such fun at the half-hour mark, with a shock-cut of a man with no eyes whimpering, “Please help me.” (Is Fringe doing everything good in pairs now?) Olivia was back — back at work too soon, Broyles thought, and as it turned out, he was probably right, even though he ended up quickly reinstating her.

Whereas a more ordinary show would strain to make the case of the week a “subtle” unstated metaphor for our heroes’ inner roilings, Fringe just put it right out there: Track down a romantic re-animator while Peter tries to reanimate his relationship with a shut-down Olivia. I flinched as much at the frankness of Peter’s honesty with Olivia as I did at any of the episode’s body-organ moments. “She’s much quicker with a smile… less intense… I came back for you, for us… I thought she was you, Olivia”: His admirable honesty could not help but wound her more. And her abrupt conversation-ending, “It’s fine; we’re good” — Peter felt the back-at-ya sting of that, too. This was Olivia rebuilding the walls she’s had up ever since she was experimented upon as a child in Jacksonville, not to mention (and the show didn’t) the death of her previous love, John Scott. I loved the fact that it was Astrid who got to deliver the sentiments Olivia needed to hear most, that Peter’s yearning for love and an intimate connection was “not about her” (i.e., Altivia) but “about you.”

Fringe didn’t shy away from the immense difficulty Olivia now faces. It felt right that she’d scatter clothes and bed-sheets and not want to live in her own apartment anymore, because it’s not “hers” anymore — this is how the tropes of sci-fi tell us real emotional truths about betrayal and isolation. The final scene between Olivia and Peter, in which she said with heartbreaking anguish, “I don’t want to be with you,” and, referring to her alternate self, “She’s taken everything” was played with a powerful understatement by both Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson.

The “marionette” of the episode’s title was beautifully staged, the pieced-together Amanda attached to pulleys and lifted up by the man who only wanted the depressed suicide to be happy one more time in a gruesomely renewed life. As was true in last season’s Peter Weller-starring “White Tulip,” the “bad guy” was less bad than an obsessed romantic with a brilliant intelligence that became twisted.

The final scene certainly re-animated my inner fan-boy: The sight of an Observer saying, “I have arrived” was a wonderful way to leave us in exquisite agony, awaiting Fringe‘s return on Jan. 21.

Fringe benefits:

• “It Had To Be You,” from 1924, heard in a Dixieland-style arrangement playing in Walter’s lab, was appropriate for both Olivia’s dilemma and as a description of dead, reassembled Amanda.

• Many of us couldn’t help but think of Dexter when we saw the plastic-sheeted (anti-)kill room, of course, but was it less a wink and a nod than simply a fact that this is the sort of space a person doing this kind of work would construct? Fringe doesn’t bother with winky nods, so I prefer to believe the latter.

• The train the re-animator boards is called “Firefly Railway,” and Fringe‘s first episode when it comes back will be titled “Firefly.” Coincidence? Fringe don’t need no stinkin’ coincidences!

• Laff line of the night, but with emotional weight as well: Walter wondering, “Do you think possibly they replaced her with a robot?” (If true, that would have been the second robot of the night, along with Community‘s Brittabot.)

• Walter’s “You’re a good man, Peter,” was a poignant call-back to the Greek phrase, “Be a better man than your father.”

• Walter and “Belly” did their own re-animating experiments in the mid-’70s… on Peter’s dead Cocker Spaniel. Who says Walter was a neglectful father?

What did you think of this week’s Fringe? How much are you going to miss it until its January return?

Twitter: @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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