Fringe reminds us why John Noble deserves a freaking EmmyS

Fringe has one of the best casts on television, anchored by the amazing John Noble. Last night, Noble played three versions of Walter Bishop in a single episode, with amazing fluidity and absolute demarcation. It was a virtuoso performance that reminded us just how much we love Fringe.

Spoilers ahead...

Last night's "Back to Where You've Never Been" was a purely arc-driven episode, and it gave us some hope that the show is kicking into high gear on its major storylines this season. There's not much time left, and it's becoming increasingly clear that this is the final season of Fringe, so some urgency is very welcome.

Here were the three versions of Walter that we saw last night:

Fringe reminds us why John Noble deserves a freaking EmmyS

The "original" Walter, in all his pancake-making, exhibitionist glory, in Peter's dream sequence early in the episode. Hard to believe how much we'd missed this iteration of Walter, or how startling it was to see him back as though nothing had happened. This was the cute/crazy Walter that we grew to love over the show's first three seasons.

The "new" Walter, who's messed up by the death of two Peters back in 1985. In this new timeline, Walter lost his son to a rare illness, and then he crossed over to the other universe to bring back the alternate Peter — only to have him drown in a lake.

In this episode, he gives the purest expression yet of Walter's grief and remorse over this disaster:

The water was still running in the sink. She must have come to her decision while she was watching the dishes... I knew almost immediately. Even before I found the body. The car's engine was still running. There was no note. There didn't need to be. We had just lost our only child. I should have mourned with her, even then. But instead I let her grieve alone so that I could focus on finding a way to the alternate universe to save someone else's child. My actions caused the death of my wife. Unspeakable damage to two universes. I lost my career and my sanity. All because I tried to help another Peter. I may be the only man who could help you, but I'm also the only man who cannot help you.

An almost unbearably moving scene.

And then there's the "new" Walternate, who seems at first to be the same old scheming bastard — but turns out to be something a bit different. This episode pulls a great fake-out, thanks to writer extraordinaire David Fury: For most of the episode, we really think Walternate is behind the shapeshifters, which is why he's pulling the Fringe Division off the shapeshifter investigation and shutting out his own scientists. And then we realize that Walternate is just paranoid, because he knows there are shapeshifters out there and he can't trust anybody. (And he turns out to be right: Not only Brandon, but also Broyles are compromised.)

Three versions of Walter, three approaches to the show's foundational event: Walter's kidnapping of Peter from the other universe. The original Walter still wants his son in his life, and clings to the one good thing that came out of his disastrous act. The "new" Walter was left with nothing, and sees this new Peter as a temptation to make the same mistake twice. And Walternate lost his son in a mysterious kidnapping, only to find out later that his son died in an accident afterwards. Walternate's given up on getting Peter back, and doesn't welcome him with open arms at all.

Fringe reminds us why John Noble deserves a freaking EmmyS

The main plot of the episode, of course, involves Peter trying to repeat his father's original mistake. In a sense, the "new" Walter is right that Peter is trying to commit that crime all over again. Peter is so desperate to get back to his proper universe, he's willing to punch a new hole between universes with the same device that started all the trouble back in 1985. (Although the hole, in the opera house, magically seals itself. Not sure why.) And then Peter is determined to use the Machine, which only just recently stabilized the damage to two universes, to cross to his own universe — which, for all he knows, could cause untold damage all over again.

Fringe reminds us why John Noble deserves a freaking EmmyS

Peter's selfishness in this episode is sort of staggering. He doesn't care about any one or anything in either of these universes — as he says about the ongoing hunt for shapeshifters, "It's not my fight." He no longer seems to believe that his presence in this universe will cause temporal fissures (or he doesn't mention it, anyway) — he purely just wants to get home to his loved ones, no matter what the cost. For a guy whose motto used to be "be a better man than your father," he's sure not doing a great job of it.

And meanwhile, both Olivias get some nice moments in this episode too. Olivia schemes with Lincoln to go behind Peter's back and snoop into Walternate's involvement with the shapeshifters. And then Fauxlivia gets confronted with Peter's absolute certainty that she's someone who will do the right thing, when it comes down to it. And she does, in fact, do the right thing — even though it leads her into a trap.

Fringe reminds us why John Noble deserves a freaking EmmyS

We also finally get to see the two Lincolns meet, the beginning of the Peter/Lincoln bromance, and some Lincoln-on-Lincoln bondage.

And we get to see Peter's mom — whose suicide in "our" universe is brought up early in the episode — react to meeting her son as an adult, alive and well. Peter's mom was reunited with her son before, in "Over There, Part 1," but this time we actually get to see her feelings about it. And she's the only person who seems able to rejoice, rather than panic, at the sight of a living Peter. I'm glad her character got more space, this time around.

At the end of the episode there are two big revelations: Olivia meets an apparently dying September the Observer, who tells her that every possible future involves her death. And we find out who's really behind the new, improved shapeshifters: David Robert Jones, the villain we thought we had seen the last of. (And it's unspeakably great that Fringe is giving us a real villain again, after a long stretch of misunderstood, lonely men who abused science for totally understandable reasons, and were mostly done with their crime sprees by the time the Fringe team caught them.)

All in all, this was one of the best episodes of the past year or thereabouts, mostly because of all the great character moments. This show really does have a great cast from top to bottom, and here was an episode that used all of these actors to their full potential, except maybe Anna Torv.

On the other hand, I can't really bring myself to care that much about the shapeshifter plot, which hasn't yet been given any urgency. (The suggestion that the government is being infiltrated and maybe taken over by shapeshifters is a neat one, but I'll have to see a lot more of that before I actually care.) And I also continue to find the "Peter needs to go home" plot a bit uninspiring — it's a good plot for one or two episodes, but stretched across a long arc, it's perhaps too abstract.

As I said, this is looking like Fringe's last season — and I'm not convinced the show has really been making a case lately that it deserves a fifth season. The major questions of the show (the war between universes, Peter's destiny, Walter's culpability, the Peter/Olivia/Olivia love triangle, the First People, etc.) were all resolved last year, and this season has felt a bit like a coda in some ways. This show needs more of a mission statement, if the producers want to energize people about the possibility of another year or two.

Luckily, last night's episode was a major step in the right direction, with great performances that reminded us just how much we love these characters. And maybe this season's arc is finally going to turn into something with urgency and punch to it. This show has so much potential, it seems only fair to expect a lot from it.