So much of “Fringe” deals with the limits that science can impose on the human mind, or, to be more specific, human will. It’s not a particularly original topic in the world of science fiction, but that doesn’t make it any less potent in this realm. Where “Fringe” deviates from the norm is showing multiple case studies on what in many ways are identical test subjects. The question isn’t “Which version of Olivia is real?” when deciding between the iteration that we followed during the first two seasons and the “Fauxlivia” that has lived a similar though obviously different path on the other side. As the Peter inside Olivia’s brain pointed out tonight: “Real is just a matter of perception.”

[Full recap of Thursday's (Oct. 7) "Fringe" after the break...]

What neither the Walternate nor this week’s antagonist (Milo Stanfield) can grasp is that calculation can only get you so far. What works out perfectly on paper often fails when put into actual practice. This is something that most rational scientists, economists, and fantasy football enthusiasts could tell you. Past performance does not completely guarantee future results. But neither Walternate nor Milo is a rational entity.

Both are driven far beyond the capacity of normal human limits, and in that void, they both make catastrophic choices. Both use the world around them as laboratories to conduct experiments. One seeks to kill people that might return him to his previously low mental acumen; one seeks to eradicate a parallel universe that may end existence as he knows it. Neither are villains in the traditional sense, but neither exactly fit into the world around them, either. Both are far too smart to be IN the world: they are forced to step back and look at variables and find the answers that no one else can see.

As a matter of perception, Walternate’s plan is to use Olivia’s biological makeup to create a way to allow people to cross over to the other side. Alterna-Broyles sees this as “defense,” but crossing over implies a level of active engagement that might, from another perspective, seem like offense. Indeed, having people like Newton and Fauxlivia on the other side already points to less of a preventative set of measures so much as a full-on assault. The Walternate, much like Milo, seeks only to preserve what he has, even if that preservation comes at great cost to others.

But the attempts to do so come with far less certainty than either would admit. A great example of where scientific rigor falls well short of predicting individual behavior? Brandon’s use of Peter’s clothing during Olivia’s brainwashing process. He thought it might stimulate whatever mechanism allows Olivia to cross over: instead, all it did was put a tiny sliver of her true self back into her overwhelmed mind. The title of the episode, “The Plateau,” refers to the point at which this Olivia will never be able to return to her previous mental identity. Instead, what it actually might refer to is the limits to which her brain can accept a false identity.

While watching the two masterminds of the Other Side work their scientific mojo tonight, I couldn’t help but think of another seminal piece of science fiction: Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series. It’s a series I reread during my time writing about “Lost,” and I think it’s even more applicable now in dealing with tonight’s episode. “Foundation” concerns the work of a mathematician, Hari Seldon, who uses mathematics to correctly predict the crumbling of the entire universe’s social order. He invents a discipline called “psychohistory,” in which he develops a way to not prevent that collapse, but rapidly increase its rebuilding by thousands of years. The only problem? Psychohistory predicts behavior by entire populations, not individuals. Partly through the series comes along a character known as The Mule, who much like Nick (introduced in Season 1 of “Fringe”) can control people’s emotions. Having been unable to predict The Mule, psychohistory seemingly fails.

I won’t spoil what happens after that in “Foundation,” but I bring this up because “Fringe” constantly asserts that scientific progress is nothing without a human component. Peter’s clothes are to Walternate what the toy horse is to Milo: both physical representations of that which is gone. That absence fuels their vindictive maths, filling up the hole in the way that a gaggle of feline companions filled Sheldon’s cold, geeky heart in tonight’s episode of “The Big Bang Theory.” But in trying to push that desire onto Olivia’s unwilling mind, Walternate fails to comprehend how emotion can triumph science, which in turn leads to Milo being unable to predict that she wouldn’t have an oxygen mask handy when that world’s version of an Amber Alert goes off. At some point, the equation simply doesn’t balance when played out in the real world.

As far as Peter/Walter appearing to Olivia on the other side…I think mileage will vary on how successfully that played. Peter’s first appearance in Hoboken was slightly jarring, but I loved seeing Walter in Bryant Hospital, and Peter’s last speech was a wonderful way to show how Olivia’s subconscious mind sees him. While both Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson were adamant in Season 2 about keeping these two from being a couple, it’s hard to deny that it’s worked out pretty damn well so far. The show’s having its amber cake and eating it too: these two aren’t REALLY together, but now we as an audience get to test drive it anyways. Pretty sneaky, “Fringe.” I don’t wanna play Connect-Four with you anytime soon.

One theory I just wanna throw out there: one of the biggest mysteries left in the “Fringe” universe concerns The Observers. We know they are from the other side, but we don’t know what “side” they are truly on, and we certainly don’t know why they are the way they are. I couldn’t help but wonder if tonight’s Milo storyline was “Fringe” laying down some groundwork for The Observers’ overall origin. In terms of social pattern recognition, there’s an eerie similarity to Milo and that mysterious group. Now, obviously, The Observers have (slightly more) social skill, but I’ll definitely be on the lookout for the Ivan Medical Group as we spend more time in this world.

 

Now for a hail of alterna bullets…

*** I dug Alterna-Astrid being stumped my Milo’s maths. She clearly wasn’t used to not being the smartest person in the world, but couldn’t emotionally respond the way she might have if not for her condition.

*** My favorite shot of the ep? Olivia looking into the mirror while talking about her sister, with the camera catching two sets of eyes in the reflection. Simple, and stunning.

*** Good to know both versions of Walter are into sensory deprivation chambers, though I’m pretty sure “Fringe” went to that well a few too many times in Season 1 to actually necessitate an on-screen revisiting.

*** Apparently in Alterna-World, everyone gets an iPad from the get go, with pens being treated with the same disdain as The McGriddle on our side.

*** I never much liked our Charlie, but Alterna-Charlie’s pretty great. Mom, can we take him home? PLEASE???? AW, MOM!

*** This week’s incomplete list of differences over there: the United States apparently was involved in a war in Aruba, Hoboken’s part of the MTA, smallpox is still a problem in North Texas, and avocados are apparently either a black market item or more expensive than caviar over here. (Speaking of smallpox, is Frank’s job as a virologist setting up a future storyline? Signs point to “More Than Likely.” That is, of course, assuming that Alterna-World has Magic 8-Balls. If not, then we win, y’all.)

What did you make of “The Plateau”? Interested in seeing more, or has your interest, well, leveled off? Leave your thoughts below!