Fringe: Seeing Double

After two weeks of throat-clearing, table-setting episodes, Fringe got down to business last night for the first half of its two-part finale that will tackle a lot of the show’s loose ends. And after handling a lot of narrative logistics in the early going, the episode rewarded us with our longest visit to the alternate universe, which held surprises about all three of Fringe’s central characters.

The Evil: The alternate-universe Fringe team (led by an auburn-haired Dunham and a not-dead Agent Charlie) responds to a “Level One” disturbance at a theater in alternate-universe New York City, only to find the body of a man covered with huge boils all over his face. Checking his wallet, they notice a $20 bill with Andrew Jackson on it — which confuses them because Martin Luther King Jr. is on their twenty.

The Determination
: The Dunham of our world — along with Walter, and three of Dunham’s fellow lab rats from Walter’s Jacksonville Cortexifan experiments — has broken through to the alternate universe to retrieve Peter, who the Observers believe will destroy the world with a mysterious machine if he remains there.

Wacky Factor: Consumed with worry over getting his son back (again), Walter wasn’t his usual animated self, so last night’s chief weirdness came from the writers’ fun tweaks of our reality in the alternate universe. Last season dropped the bombshell that in the other world the World Trade Center still stands, but now we know that, apparently, MLK was president at one point. And the Statue of Liberty is made of gold. (Or is it just shiny bronze?) And Cabbage Patch Kids remain exceptionally popular. And The West Wing is still on the air.

Paranoia Level: Pretty High. At first, we were worried that “Over There” was going to get bogged down in plot minutiae. Unlike a lot of recent episodes, you actually had to remember stuff that had happened months ago, specifically Dunham’s recent run-ins with her fellow Jacksonville test cases and the complicated relationships between Walter, William Bell, Nina Sharp, and/or the Observers. But after sorting all that out through exposition and getting Dunham and her team over to the other side, the episode really got humming — in two ways.

On one level, Fringe has been building beautifully toward this finale in order to resolve certain series-long questions. What will happen when Walter finally confronts William Bell? Will the shape-shifters destroy our world? Will Peter fulfill his frightening destiny? Will Peter ever forgive his father for lying about taking him from the alternate universe? We’ve been watching this season partly to get satisfying answers to these mysteries, and last night suggested that all of these will be in play for the pivotal final episode next week. But while that suspense powered much of the episode, the surprise was that the writers threw new twists our way that complicated those questions.

It’s been long established that the alternate universe is more technologically advanced than our world — although they do have a coffee shortage. But what was great about getting to spend time in the alternate universe is that we discovered that the Walter, Dunham, and Peter of that world are much better off than the ones in ours. Granted, our Peter died as a boy, but in brief scenes with his alternate-universe mother, it was clear that alt-Peter is really meant to be on the other side. And in contrast to our Walter, who’s a bit of a lovable loon, Walternate is a confident, assertive leader, inspired in part by having his son be stolen right out from under him. But the biggest shock was Auburn Dunham. We have often groused that Anna Torv overdoes Dunham’s pursed-lip brooding, so it was fun to watch her play Auburn Dunham as a more comfortable-in-her-own-skin woman who’s even managed to find love.

Part one of “Over There” left us with several cliffhangers — Walter’s in the hospital, Peter’s trying to figure out the machine’s schematics, while Walternate seems to have already built the doomsday device — but the most intriguing moments weren’t about story beats. We’ve been conditioned to view the alternate universe as a menace that could end our world, but if the Fringe team’s parallel-world doubles are happier, better, more fulfilled people, where does that leave the Dunham and Walter that we know? And, really, do we want Peter to come back to our world where he’s miserable? A lot of plot strands remain up in the air, but last night argued that even if the good guys win the day, our heroes may never see their lives the same way again. Sure, they may save the world, but is what they’re going back to even worth saving?

More Recaps:
The AV Club’s Noel Murray was sad “The Cortexifan All-Stars” were dispensed with so quickly but really liked the episode in general.
MTV’s Josh Wigler absolutely loves the alternate universe and wants Fringe to spend more time there.
TV Squad’s Jane Boursaw wonders what Auburn Dunham’s neck tattoo means and sings the praises of Brandon, Massive Dynamic’s nerdy scientist.
And TV Fanatic’s Agent SAHM isn’t sure we should trust William Bell.

Fringe: Seeing Double