Can you pinpoint the moment your life changed? Can you narrow it down to a single day, after which things that could have gone one way went inextricably the other? It’s something many of us think about in retrospective. Me? I think about how not traveling from Boston to New York City back in 2003 meant I probably wouldn’t have ever met the person to whom I am now married. There’s no way to predict what would have happened had I not taken the Greyhound bus that night, but it’s still fascinating to think about the road not taken all the same. “One Night in October,” tonight’s often stunning episode of “Fringe,” shows what happens when the road not taken intertwines with the one you’re on. And what follows is the show at its empathetic best.

 

Indeed, having the forensic psychologist brought in to solve the serial killings of his version “Over There” use “empathy” as his primary tool makes sense. That’s the same tool employed by “Fringe” itself. Other sci-fi shows might have come up with this plot, only to have Over Here John McClellan join forces with his darker half once on ambered land. It’s a testament to the open heart of this show that not only did Over Here John seek to heal the nightmare version of himself, but that his attempts to do so didn’t make me wretch from soupy melodrama. Nothing about this should have worked, and yet most of it worked like gangbusters.

Immediately after last week’s season premiere aired, I started to think about the narrative possibilities inherent with the ability to cross over between worlds more easily. What could the show do with that? How could it affect weekly cases? Luckily, it seems as if the writers of the show wanted to explore that as quickly as possible, and came out of the gate with a strong case that sheds lights on the major theme of this season: co-existence. That both sides have a truce doesn’t mean that both sides have trust. Where “empathy” becomes so important is bridging the gap between truth and trust, forming the type of bridge that The Doomsday Machine building physically represents. Both Fringe divisions have information on the other side. But what they lack is understanding. That difference is crucial, vital, and at the heart of this season.

Now, we still have The Peter Problem on our hands here. Broyles’ speech about certain people leaving imprints on our soul marked the type of anvilicious dialogue that brought “Neither Here Nor There” down. We get it, “Fringe”: Marjory’s influence on John mirrors the influence Peter had on Olivia, Walter, and countless others. That Peter’s sacrifice led to the two worlds being able to interact more is a positive from a practicality side. But it’s still a problem the show still has to solve, when it could simply be enjoying the almost limitless possibilities that the show’s new structure allows.

After all, in looking at The Tale of Two Johns, we see how two different reactions to a single event at age ten changed the lives of each man forever. Neither can undo that decision, but Over Here John manages to make Over There John literally see and feel what he missed. But that doesn’t literally change reality: it just gives Over There John a sense of peace before putting a bullet in his brain. We’re talking about levels of understanding and empathy, not rewriting a timeline. It’s one thing to remove Marjory from Over Here John’s memory. It’s another thing to remove Peter Bishop from reality.

The seismic changes that Peter’s disappearance caused are written into a brand new timeline, one in which Fauxlivia never had a child, Colonel Broyles never died, and Olivia Dunham didn’t merely wound her stepfather but straight up killed him. When Peter returns, will those actions be undone? Should they be undone? Will these characters incorporate the memories of the old timeline, but still live in the new one? There’s speculative sci-fi that allows for the examination of human morality in ways normal drama cannot. That was half of “One Night in October,” and it was fantastically brilliant. There’s also speculative sci-fi that sometimes is better left discussed in a dorm room at 3 a.m. after ingesting some happy pills from Walter Bishop’s stash. I’m worried all the Peter Bishop stuff is falling into the latter category.

That’s sad on multiple levels. First of all, this should have been a pantheon episode of “Fringe.” And for those that don’t mind the Peter Bishop storyline, it probably was akin to “White Tulip” for you. So not getting to fully fall in love with this episode bummed me out. But it’s also sad that the show has such a strong, clear, simple through line for this season (empathy triumphing over science through the forced interaction of these two universes) that is unnecessarily complicated by Peter’s removal. That narrative step opens up a lot of theoretical possibilities, but Lord does it also apply a ton of practical pressures.* That’s what I meant above about the different levels of speculative sci-fi. It’s not necessarily that one is better than the other, but sometimes not all of them are fit for every medium. And solving the Peter problem may be too complicated by half to pull off when all is said and done.

* Here’s the point where I lay down my weekly caveat: I’m rooting for this Peter problem to work out, and am actively hoping that the resolution to this makes all my worrying seem silly. I also hope they resolve this storyline quickly, as I fear this is the final season and would like to see the return of the characters I’ve loved for three seasons return as soon as possible for the final stretch of the run.

 

Until we see how Peter’s storyline plays out, everything I say about the show might as well have an asterisk like the one deployed in the previous paragraph. If Peter Bishop were lost and gone forever, “One Night in October” would be the gauntlet thrown down in the new world order of “Fringe.” On many levels, I’m glad he’s not gone forever. But I’m still not convinced he had to disappear in the first place. Still, compared with last week’s subpar premiere, “October” shows there’s still plenty of strength left in this show. Much of tonight’s episode featured “Fringe” at its best. Hopefully, when Peter returns, the show will be at full strength again as well. Much like Over There John needed to see Marjory in order to fully understand, I need to see Peter again to reach a full understanding of where this is all going. Let’s hope I don’t want to put a bullet in my own brain when that happens.

 

Some more thoughts about tonight’s episode:

 

*** Here’s hoping Lincoln Lee stays with the Fringe time on both sides when things get course-corrected. Seth Gabel is fun to watch in both worlds, and I look forward to Walter calling him the names of various ex-Presidents going forth. Ad yet, poor Lincoln: Olivia won’t consider him date-worthy in either universe. Sadness.

*** John McLennan’s excitement to join up with Olivia reminded me a lot of Juliet Burke joining up with Mittelos Biosciences back in “Lost.” There was a mixture of eagerness and real darkness to both decisions.

*** I could watch Anna Torv play Fauxlivia 24 hours a day. She carries that version in a confident, playful, sarcastic way, yet still conveys moments of real emotion. Watching the two Olivias play off each other could have seemed gimmicky, but is working well so far.

*** It’s good to know that erasing Peter didn’t erase Olivia’s photographic memory. Having her instinctively remember the numbers in the picture of John’s dad was subtle and in-character. Fauxlivia couldn’t help but be a little jealous at the big brain on her doppelganger.

*** Nice shout-out to those old Memorex ads, with Walter Bishop seeking to drown out his potential dementia via Mozart. (Me? I go for some Silversun Pickups these days.)

If you think interdepartmental office politics are tough, try interdimensional office politics. Everything seems tense but working between the two sides now, but we all know that won’t last long.

*** Over There Charlie married Bug Lady! All together now: awwwww.

*** I don’t watch “Dexter,” but I imagine a lot of you who do saw traces of that show in the McLennan storyline tonight. I’ll leave it to you to tease out similarities/differences there.

*** Anvilicious Moment of the Week: Olivia: "He's not even my type!" Astrid: "Did you ever think your type doesn't exist?" CLANG!

 

What did you think of “One Night in October”? A step up from the premiere, or a continuation of what’s already awesome in your eyes? Does the prospect of the new intercutting between the worlds excite you? How many episodes without Peter will you be able to stand before your patience will wear thin? Sound off below!