When Fringe is at its best, it's one of the smartest shows on television. And smart doesn't just mean moving along at a nice pace with cool twists, some snappy dialogue that you quote for weeks, or some goofy symbolism. To me, smart is layered television that works on multiple levels, capturing a theme that both embraces the on-screen standalone plot and the season-long arcs, yet also transcends the pixels on the screen. "One Night in October" had more layers than a hipster in San Francisco during the summer. Or a giant onion, if you prefer boring, overused metaphors. As long as you get the point: last night's episode was deep.
The episode's case of the week was an excellent way to show off the season's unique device of integrating both universes. The lowdown: Broyles brings Olivia a case, and it's a doozy. A serial killer has murdered almost two dozen people. The twist: The case is from the other universe, which wants our universe to help out on. The double twist: They want our guys to help out by going over there. The quadruple-dog dare twist: They want Olivia to bring our version of the serial killer (who happens to be a psychologist) over to their place to see if he can profile the killer, which, for all intents and purposes, is an exact copy of himself.
What happens after that is something that would make Rod Serling's head spin so hard that it falls off, explodes, then all the pieces explode again. How would YOU react if you met a copy of yourself? A copy that reminded you of what you potentially could have become? Good guy John (a dream role well played by guest star John Pyper-Ferguson) is sedated and unknowingly brought over to the other side to bad guy John's house in what Alt-livia calls a "calculated risk." We're privy to the knowledge that John can at any time get a clue that he's not only crossed over to another universe, but that he's hunting a version of himself who happens to be a serial killer. And sure enough, it all comes down on him at once, and he's got more mental fortitude than I do because he somehow not only kept it together, but recognized that he might be the only one who can stop him(self). I would have been curled in a ball in the corner weeping for my mommy.
Setting up John against himself was brilliant because it served as a case study for dopplegangers across universes, helping us learn about how they differ. The lesson (which we've known before but beautifully illustrated here) was that copies of each other aren't fundamentally all that different, but a simple choice can lead to a very different path, which in turn can have huge consequences. John from our side was saved from becoming a serial killer because he met a compassionate woman named Margery. Other side John had no such fortune, so he kept on walking down the path that would steer him towards sucking the happy memories out of people's brains through a straw. I could watch case after case of civilians crossing universes and having their heads explode. So cool.
Now we apply that thinking to everyone else, particularly Olivia and Alt-livia. We don't know their pasts after the Peter-free reset button was pushed, so now we're left to wonder how the two came to be so different yet also the same (Olivia did admit-–in awesome matter-of-fact fashion–to killing her stepfather). And let's give a round of applause to Anna Torv, who is no longer playing just two characters. She's essentially on Olivias 3 and 4, Olivia and Alt-livia sans Peter, who are very different from the Olivia and Alt-livia who knew Peter. The new Olivia is still incredibly guarded (last week I felt she had regressed back to Season 1 Olivia and this episode supports that) and the new Alt-livia is even more mischievous than Season 3's Alt-livia. It's a joy to watch Torv bounce back and forth between the two and act against herself, and you can tell she's having a lot of fun with it. She must be on set 18 hours a day!
There was also more proof that Fringe is going for that cosmic love story when Broyles mentions that some people can leave indelible impressions on others, perhaps so great that they can last beyond memory loss (in Margery's case) or even existence (Peter). Is the Peter calling out to Walter merely an imprint? Or is there an ethereal Peter somewhere trying to break through back into existence? Is Olivia destined to be a sad puppy without Peter in her life?
The case is also representative of the dangers of mixing the universes and Season 4 as a whole. What happened when one universe (good John) collided with another universe (bad John)? Someone's brains ended up on the wall. It was a cautionary tale that bad things happen when the two sides get together, and guess what? That's what Fringe is going to be doing a whole lot of this season.
What impressed me so much about "One Night in October" was how the writers came up with a cool idea and immediately took it to the next step. It's one thing to come up with a great concept (the notion of two universes interacting with each other), it's another thing to take that concept and apply it on a personal level (through John's eyes), which the viewer can then use to better understand how things are going to work in what is destined to be a very interesting season of Fringe. "One Night in October" is thoroughly an enjoyable episode and one of the series' best.
Notes from the Other Side:
– In the advanced screener Fox sent out to the media, you can hear Peter call out for Walter when Astrid takes the needle off the record. In the broadcast version, they turned the volume down on it a lot, but if you listen VERY carefully, you can still hear it ever so faintly.
– What does the scan agents go through before going between universes do? Is it a way to sterilize them so that contaminants don't cross universes (a common sci-fi trope) or is it something more?
– I'm still waiting for new Walter to let us in on his parental history. Did he even have Peter at all? Did Peter die as a boy?
– When Peter calls out for Walter at the end, why does he say he needs help?
– Does anyone want to take it down the path that maybe these are two completely different universes that we're watching now? If the universe is infinite then there are infinite possibilities, etc., etc., run with it!
– Astrid to Olivia: "Do you ever think that maybe your type just doesn't exist?" EXACTLY!
– Does anyone else not buy the convenient memory loss of John's? Someone had to have done that Men in Black memory-erasing thing to him, right?
– How fun is it to see how things are different without Peter? Over There Broyles is still alive and Charlie is dating Bug Girl! Anything else I missed?
– Just a hunch, but I think Altern-Astrid is the computer program from Person of Interest.
– I never make an effort to find The Observer that's hidden in each episode, but think I saw him in the very last shot of Olivia as she walks off screen. He's in the background, and very blurry. Does anyone else out there look for them?
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom