In some ways, last week’s episode of “Fringe” could have served as a perfectly satisfactory Fall finale for the show. Getting the two Olivias back to their home universes could have marked the end of one block of programming and allowed things to start from there next January, when the show moves to Fridays with an episode called “Firefly.” No, that’s not a joke. No, it’s not April Fool’s. No, Whedon fans that love “Fringe” are NOT amused.

[Recap of Thursday’s (Dec. 9) “Fringe” after the break…]

But instead of choosing to put a temporary button on the show with the return of Olivia, “Fringe” chose a narrative method most often seen on cable channels of loading the penultimate episode up with seismic events and then using the following week as a time of reflection more than action. Sure, there was a case at hand, but the case in “Marionette” served only to illuminate the struggled of Olivia and Peter in this New World Order. Rather than starting back where they left off, Olivia wants to raze it to the ground.

 “She wasn’t me. How could you not see that? Now she’s everywhere…She’s taken everything.” 

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Olivia go through heartbreak on the show. Far from it. John Scott was the first, of course, back in that version of “Fringe” that hadn’t quite figured out what it was just yet. And we saw just how much she misses her mother in the first full episode Over There this year. But something about this felt different, and it’s both a testament to Anna Torv’s excellence this season and to the show giving strong emotional grounding to what’s in many ways a body snatcher story. There are plenty of ways in which this hour could have seemed silly, but Torv and “Fringe” held it down whenever it threatened to float off into the ether.

In fact, I’m tempted to overlook the case entirely (a combination of “Frankenstein” and the “Angel” episode “Waiting in the Wings,” which introduced the world to a certain Summer Glau) in favor of analyzing the episode as an exercise in post-traumatic stress disorder, displacement, and helplessness. Fun stuff, I know! But the case served primarily as a distraction: Olivia, who no longer feels comfortable in her own clothes; to Peter, still shamed by all the things he didn’t want to see upon returning from Over There; Broyles, who is haunted not only by the body of his Colonel self but the wife and children he himself does not have. Fauxlivia is gone, but her shadow still looms large.

And if I have to watch an hour of “Fringe” that either goes for the big worry (Will the universe end?) or the small one (Why wasn’t love equally reciprocated?), I’ll go for the small one every time. It’s not that the larger questions aren’t interesting: it’s just that they can’t sustain a series. What will draw people to Friday nights this January won’t be the sight of a creepy dude playing Geppetto to a ballerina Pinocchio, but the interplay between the makeshift family within Fringe Division. It’s one thing to look into the dead eyes of a reanimated dancer: it’s another to look into the heartbroken ones of Olivia Dunham.

Olivia, after all, has not really ever led her own life. Not since her time in Jacksonville, at least. The destruction of her wardrobe tonight represented the failed attempt to rend that part of her past from her life. (Her predilection for those clothes, if you recall, were “imprinted” upon her during her time there.) But at the heart of Olivia’s rage and betrayal is nothing to do with the ZFT or cortexiphan or anything related to the impending war: it has everything to do with the fact that a madman could identify in mere seconds what Peter himself could not for months. Or rather, didn’t want to see.

That’s the heart of it, right? (Pun unintended, given the first victim tonight.) And it’s a heart that the show didn’t definitively answer, which gave power to the Olivia/Peter scenes even if it didn’t exactly paint the latter in the best light. Many, myself included, was upset to learn that Peter at no time thought Fauxlivia’s actions were suspect in the least. But “Marionette” floated the notion more than once that Peter simply ignored all signs of it, chalking them up to interdimensional hangover more than Invasion of the Walternate Snatchers. When Peter tells Olivia that Fauxlivia was quicker to smile than her, he might as well have said, “I preferred that version of you.”

And thus are Olivia and Amanda intertwined, two puppets to others’ whims, propped up without their knowledge. Olivia may be alive, but isn’t doing much in the way of living. She survives with literal marks of her time Over There still on her (via a recreation of Fauxlivia’s tattoo) and the sex-stained sheets in which she unwittingly slept. All of this could be super sci-fi silliness if not for the way the show wisely demonstrated that the two worlds are not Bizarro, mirror-house images of the other. Broyles here and Broyles there aren’t terrifically different. Olivia and Fauxlivia are both the heroines of their respective tales, or at least until they were stepped into each others’ novels. Now Olivia Dunham is a broken version of Tuesday Next. (Written, of course, by Jasper Ffringe.)

This change in narrative understanding isn’t as seismic as, say, Jack Shephard realizing he was in the wrong part of his heroic journey during Seasons 4-5 of “Lost.” But if Olivia couldn’t be a prisoner Over There all season (which would have been creative death for the show), then something else had to start upon her return to give the rest of the season some added tension. Some might quibble with the soap opera aspects of the Olivia/Peter relationship, but before you hate on Petivia (which is slightly better as a fanfic than “Oliver,” you must agree), watch what ensues less from a romantic standpoint and more from one of general respect and mutual understanding. Olivia and Peter have worked together for years: if he can’t recognize her after all that time, how much can she truly trust him? And how much could he truly know her?

For now, I’ll fanwank and theorize that Peter was only starting to get interested in Olivia before going Over There at the end of Season 2, but had reservations that were wiped away when the New and Improved Olivia showed up when they all returned. That’s fairly weak sauce, to be sure, but it’s my current story and I’m sticking to it. Would I have preferred the show not approached the romantic angle at all? Perhaps, though I can’t argue with the way the actors have sold it this season. Just compare and contrast Olivia’s reaction to this with her reaction to the aforementioned John Scott’s death: due to our lack of time with Scott, coupled with Torv’s less steady hand at playing Olivia, left a long arc in which we were TOLD how much she cared for him, but never truly SAW how much. But by a simple high, jittery inflection while trying to cover up her horror over learning about Peter’s time with Fauxlivia, Torv conveyed more hurt and anguish than in the entire Scott saga.

In the end, “Fringe” takes time and care with the personal sides of these fantastical stories, a lesson rarely learned by showrunners interested in setting up five years of plot instead of five compelling characters. It’s that time and care that makes the stakes in this universe-spanning show all the more compelling, and will bring an audience with it to Fridays this January. Will it be enough to keep it on-air past Season 3? Let’s just hope there are some Nielsen boxes Over There to help pump up the numbers.

 

A few reclaimed bullets about tonight’s episode… 

*** The town in which this week’s baddie stole back Amanda’s eyes was Chelmsford, MA. Chelmsford is right next to my hometown of Lowell. Between this episode of “Fringe” and the upcoming movie “The Fighter,” the area of my youth is getting some mad representation in pop culture this month.

*** Two great Walter lines tonight: 1) “And by intimate, I mean sexual.” 2) “Do you think they possibly replaced her with a robot?” (No, Walter. She’s not Britta and this not Abed’s Stop-Motion fantasy.)

*** I liked Olivia’s need to drink as much coffee as possible after her time Over There, where coffee is scarce. Nice little touch there.

*** Anyone else get a “Pet Semetary” vibe from Walter’s story of their beloved cocker spaniel?

*** In case you missed it tonight, “Firefly Railways” was on the train at the start of the episode. Not sure if that will factor into the first episode in 2011, or if Kaylee will be the engineer on it. Guess we’ll have to wait and find out.

 *** “Marionette” featured my least favorite Season 1 storytelling technique: linking a case in the present to Walter’s research in the past. EVERY episode in Season 1 seemed to feature Walter realizing in Minute 26 that the most recent incident in The Pattern bore a striking resemblance to work he started with William Bell. Ugh.

*** Everyone enjoy the 1-minute Spring Qik promo they snuck into the show? No? Didn’t think so. Not as egregious as the pimping of the Windows Phone over on “Hawaii Five-0,” but pretty bad all the same.

 

What did you make of this final “Fringe” of 2010? Did it end this satisfactorily, or too sappily? How much did Peter know and how much did he simply ignore? And how long before Olivia is working side-by-side with the Bishop Boys again? Leave your thoughts below!