Sensory deprivation and psychedelic drugs: Fringe gets back to basics!

Our month of painful Fringe withdrawal ended last night with yet another outstanding episode. Is there any doubt left that this show is on its way to being one of the genre's all-time classics? Spoilers ahead.

The whole storyline where Walternate and Science Gnome brainwash Olivia into thinking she's Fauxlivia could have been painfully contrived and silly — but somehow it works, with the possible exception of the hallucinations of Peter that Olivia keeps seeing. I get that Head Peter is the only way that they can have Joshua Jackson in the episodes that take place "over there," but he's still getting a bit too bludgeony about explaining the themes of the episode.

A lot of the credit for the success of the "Olivia brainwashed to think she's Fauxlivia" storyline has to go to Anna Torv, who's really been stepping up her game this season. It's no easy task to create an Olivia who's acting perky and snarky like Fauxlivia but secretly being tormented by doubts about her identity — but Torv really pulls it off. In the past, she gave us an Olivia who was cold and stoic but occasionally let flashes of humor show through, and now she's giving us a vibrant, funny Olivia who occasionally shows her inner torment.

Sensory deprivation and psychedelic drugs: Fringe gets back to basics!

(And is it any wonder she's tormented? She has to learn to stop taking the Nixon Parkway to work!)

And I still love the byplay between Olivia, Lincoln and Charlie — she's got three boyfriends, if you count Frank. And they're so cute together. The way Lincoln and Olivia both go "awww" when Charlie says his mom made him buy her cigarettes.

So Olivia hasn't been sleeping, and she's popping a lot of pills, and she keeps seeing Head Peter, who wants to explain the plot to her, and she's freaking out about her identity. And then Walternate and Science Gnome finally reveal the reason they went to so much trouble to convince her she was the wrong Olivia — they want her to consent to some experiments on how she can move between universes.

Sensory deprivation and psychedelic drugs: Fringe gets back to basics!

Which involve Walter's old standby: a sensory deprivation tank and psychotropic meds. Too bad for Walternate that Olivia's brief trips back to "our" universe give her enough information to prove that Head Peter is telling her the truth and she's from here. (But meanwhile, Walternate and Science Gnome manage to isolate the Cortexiphan in her brain — too bad for them it needs to be administered from childhood to be effective.)

In an episode about identity crisis, it makes sense for the "A" plot to be about a case of mistaken identity as well — a guy rescues his twin brother from the "amber" that is used to seal breaches in the universe. But which brother was sealed in the amber, and which brother did the rescue? Only Olivia suspects that the twins were switched — much the same way that she and Fauxlivia were. The parallel could have seemed clumsy and forced, but the two twins were fleshed out just enough that their story felt interesting on its own. The actors playing the twins, Aaron and Shawn Ashmore, actually do a pretty great job of bringing a lot of anguish and conflicted emotions to the roles. (And I had a twinge of feeling sorry for Nicholas Brendon and his twin brother, who probably would have gotten this role in an alternate universe where Brendon's career was going better.)

And in fact, the story of the twins has more to say about the two Walters than the two Olivias. One of the twins punched holes in the fabric of the universe for personal gain, but the other twin paid the price. And the twin who got off scot free has spent the past four years living with the remorse — as Olivia correctly intuits, he's ashamed when he talks about his crimes as though they were his brother's. At the end of the episode, the "bad" twin seems almost relieved when he sacrifices himself for his brother, as if he's finally getting the punishment he deserves — which I hope isn't a foreshadowing of what happens to Walter.

Sensory deprivation and psychedelic drugs: Fringe gets back to basics!

The other fascinating thing about this episode was that we learned a lot more about the amber — and not surprisingly, it was developed by Walternate himself, back in 1989. The tears in the fabric of the universe were getting worse, and even turning into micro-black holes, so Walternate developed a chemical, Amber 31422, which could seal the breaches — and freeze the hundreds of people trapped inside in a kind of suspended animation. Most people believe the ambered are dead — we even see a helpful sign at the start of the episode saying "AMBER IS MURDER" — but they can be revived, as the Evil Twin proves. We've already seen huge protests against ambering, especially in the season opener, so Walternate's probably right that this revelation would be a huge bombshell. (And you have to wonder if, once the universe is stabilized, all of the ambered people could be returned, not a day older, to their bewildered families.)

Is it significant that the first huge breach happened at Harvard Yard, where Walternate had a lab? (Rather than over near Walternate's house in the country, where Walter crossed over?) I still suspect that Walter's not the only one to blame for this situation, but I guess we'll find out in time.

Walternate had some of his best moments ever in this episode, including the bit where he silently looks at frayed newspaper clippings about his son's abduction in a scrapbook — something he seems to have done a lot in the past. And he gets the best line ever, talking to Broyles:

Nature doesn't recognize good and evil, Philip. Nature only recognizes balance and imbalance. I intend to restore balance to our world, whatever it takes.

But as Walternate no doubt knows, restoring balance often requires tearing everything down — nothing's more balanced than a vacuum, after all. But then later in the episode, Walternate comes out with the ultimate William Bell-ism: If you don't go too far, you'll never know how far you can go. Which, of course, is the philosophy that got us into this mess in the first place.