By Jeff Jensen
Updated November 04, 2011 at 10:00 AM EDT
Credit: Fox
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During the first three episodes of Fringe’s current season, Joshua Jackson’s Peter Bishop was a passing blip, a fleeting reflection, and a brief sound effect, sometimes all in the same episode. This is what happens when your character gets dislodged from the space-time continuum after activating a machine designed to save two parallel universes by rebooting their histories but also somehow negates your own existence. In the last episode, which aired three weeks ago (damn you, Most Exciting World Series In Years!), Jackson finally got to play Peter in the flesh again, but briefly, as the character finally returned to a world that has been defined by — but oblivious to — his absence. Tonight’s episode (Fox, 9 p.m. ET / 8 p.m. CT) gives us a whole lotta Peter, as the younger Bishop boy tries to reconnect with Walter Bishop, the father who can’t remember him, in hopes of figuring out how he got control-alt-deleted from the new timeline.

Jackson tells EW that he had no problem sitting on the sidelines to start the season. “It gave me an extra month and half off,” he jokes. “But I thought it was necessary. You need to give space to explore the effect Peter’s choice had. Otherwise, you make last season cliffhanger finale – which I thought was big, ballsy thing to do – not all that important.” We spoke with him earlier this week about tonight’s episode, which SPOILER ALERT! nourishes the season’s mystery of the new shape-shifters and drops a major bombshell about new timeline Olivia’s childhood. END SPOILER ALERT! Jackson also addresses a big picture question: Does the season’s new storytelling paradigm — exploring a new timeline and new versions of beloved characters — run the risk of alienating longtime viewers?

WARNING! If you want to remain totally spoiler free for tonight’s episode, we strongly urge you to read this interview after watching, as plot points are discussed.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The new shape-shifters — more human than machine; capable of keeping and utilizing a proverbial wardrobe of identities, not just one persona — have a lot of dramatic possibilities. And the scene in tonight’s episode when Peter spells out their potential for subterfuge got me wondering if we’re headed for another Fake Charlie situation.

JOSHUA JACKSON: Exactly. It’s a conspiracy theorist’s dream. And I also think — and I don’t know yet if we’ll go down this road — it begs other questions, too. When shape-shifters become indistinguishable from human beings, at one point does that machine reach its spiritual age? At what point does it become a person? Right now, we only deal with them as weapons that need to be stopped. We don’t talk about the humanity of the shape-shifters because they’ve been vampires, really. But when they become indistinguishable from human beings, at what point are you killing a sentient being? It sort of ties into early, early Fringe, in terms of exploring the bleeding edge of technology and the ethical implications of the god-like abilities we are giving ourselves as human beings. I think the shape-shifters give us an interesting insight into that here in season four.

In the same vein, in the last episode we got that scene with Nina Sharp talking about the potential and the dangers of nanotechnology. It seemed like the show was planting a flag, as if nanotechnology is going to be a key concern this season.

It hasn’t played out yet, but I noticed that, too. It feels to me that we’re rounding back and answering the questions that were posed at the very beginning of the show. For me, seasons two and three were about building up the family dynamic and the love affair between Olivia and Peter. Last season was also the culmination of the Peter story. His function on this team — his role in this bizarre-world family — was to make the sacrifice so they can live on. It seems like the thrust now is resetting back to the original questions of Fringe.

The new episode hits hard an idea about Walter that was central to the character in the early seasons of the show: His acute guilt for the damage his extreme science has done. How do you view the other characters? Do you see them as season 1 resets, too?

Well, I don’t think that’s the case with Olivia. I think the Olivia we’re getting here in season four is much more emotionally capable than she was in season one. Now, “Bolivia” seems pretty much the same — I don’t interact with her much — but she doesn’t seem to be too affected by the change. But Olivia is very new creature. She doesn’t seem to be as emotionally distant as season one Olivia. But Walter is recognizable to everyone, and in fact, I think he’s even more broken that the man he was in season one. The man we found in season one was still institutionalized, was medicated and forgotten by the world. But this Walter is capable enough to be out and doing something for society – which, as I see it, makes him aware of his guilt. I’m not sure Walter of season one, in the throes of his madness, was really self-conscious enough to feel that pain. Not right away. But this Walter is self-conscious of his actions and is keenly aware of the cruel twists of fate that he suffered after his son died.

Are the new versions of the characters here in this Peter-free world better off than the versions of the characters that existed in the world with Peter?

I would say at the moment we meet her, Olivia is better off. But I think in the long run [SPOILER ALERT!] she might be worse off, just for whatever it is Nina Sharp and Massive Dynamic have decided will be this poor girl’s fate. [END SPOILER.] But emotionally she seems like a more emotionally put-together person. So I would say on balance, she comes out ahead. I think Astrid also comes out ahead. She’s not stuck only being Walter’s nanny anymore. Broyles? It’s hard to tell. He’s always pretty even keeled. Lincoln Lee? Definitely suffers worse, because he wouldn’t have gotten caught up in this world if Peter had still been around. I would say Walter comes out way far behind.

There’s a curious line in tonight’s episode that presents the idea that Peter’s existence in the previous timeline was a “paradox” that never should have happened. The implication is that during the first three seasons, Fringe was presenting us with a version of history that was “wrong” and that season four gives us the “correct” version of history. It’s a provocative twist for anyone who is really invested in those first three years of the show and wants to see that timeline restored.

Yeah, I had never heard it phrased like that before, either, and it’s become a big topic of discussion creatively. It’s also the big theme of these Fringe comic books I’ve been writing lately, as well. Peter exemplifies the idea: “One of these things doesn’t belong.” Through no fault of his own, an original sin was committed on his behalf, and the only way to redress that original sin was to sacrifice himself so everyone else can move forward. He was the thing that had to go. So now Peter is as confused as everyone else as to A. Why he’s here? B. What this new ‘here’ is? C. What it means to be ‘here’? Because he senses that his presence is dangerous to the people around him, because he’s the thing that doesn’t belong.

As the season has progressed, we are learning more and more about the discrepancies between the two timelines. In tonight’s episode, we learn something really big about a character’s childhood. Will we continue to get more of these revelations?

Oh, yeah. And the one you just touched on is probably the most significant to date, and it plays out quite heavily over the course of the rest of the season. But it’s tricky. On one hand, you want to set up the framework so the audience knows what show they are watching. So one way to have done this would have been to explain everything, all the differences, right away. On the other hand, I love how these disclosures are coming in mostly organic ways. So that will continue to pop up. But from a Peter standpoint, it’s going to take him awhile to give a damn about these people, because they don’t treat him very well at the beginning. I think he’s concerned about hurting these people, because he knows something has gone wrong and he’s a danger to them. But I think there’s a little bit of self-righteousness, too. I just saved two universes, and you lock me up in a prison cell?!

When shows do reboot storytelling, they put their fans in an interesting position to care about characters that look like the characters they know and love, but are actually very different. For example: Lost put the audience in that position during its sixth season with its “Sideways world” subplot.

And by “interesting” you mean “annoying” and “kinda withholding judgment to see if you like it,” then I agree with you. Shows do put fans in that position. [Laughs.]

Did that dynamic concern you guys at all entering this season?

Yeah. There’s a huge, huge risk. The deal we make with our audience is this: “Please give us your time. We’ll try to not make you hate us while you sacrifice hours of your life — if not years of your time — that you invest in our show.” Our audience is very intense and dedicated. They keep us on the air. We have a real burden of debt to make sure we don’t screw this thing up. So while it is a huge risk to do these reset things inside of a show, I think our show softened the blow it a little bit in season three, by broaching the subject of alternates. I think if you were willing to go along with the alternate universe in season three, I think the new versions of these characters in season four are – I hope – less off-putting than they would have been without the preparation of the past few seasons.

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

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