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In this writer’s humble (and admittedly meaningless) opinion, Fringe is the best one-hour drama on television. The only show that can rival it in entertainment value, writing, and production values is The Vampire Diaries, another show that gets little respect because it found a home on a network that’s not one of the big three. Fringe has innovative story lines, a fantastic science fiction premise, a cast that deserves Emmy nominations in more than one category (but particularly for Anna Torv , who’s been portraying two subtly different women for weeks), and a committed team of writers that brings believable dialogue, evolving characters, and at least one shocking element guaranteed to make you gasp out loud. I recently wrote an article about network scheduling, and why the move to Friday nights could spell the beginning of the end for a show that deserves so much better.

I’m going to give a quick recap of the first half of season three:

Olivia (aired Sept 23, 2010): At the end of season two, Walter (John Noble), Peter (Joshua Jackson), and Broyles (Lance Reddick) returned from the alternate universe with the wrong Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv). Of course, the three men are oblivious to having been duped, and our Olivia is trapped and tortured by Walternate on the other side. Most of the episode took place in the alternate world as we learned more about their crazy tight security, and Walternate’s plans for Olivia. By the end of the episode his “treatments” began to work and she slowly began to believe she is the alternate Olivia. At the tail end of the night, Peter kisses the wrong Olivia and apparently can’t tell the difference.

The Box (aired Sept 30, 2010): The episode focused on our world, and brought the ever charming and bumbling Walter, the other Olivia toning down her vivacious personality to fit in, and Peter wrestling with how to uncover the secret behind the doomsday machine being built on the other side. The case centers around the discovery of some of the pieces of the machine being harvested on our side, and Walter and Peter’s opposing opinions on whether or not it’s important to understand what it does and how Peter fits into Walternate’s plan.

The Plateau (aired Oct 8, 2010): The episode took place on the other side, where our Olivia is slowly melting into the life of her counterpart: living with her boyfriend, joking around at the office, and getting used to having a mother again, but she doesn’t do it without mistakes. At one point her partner over there questions how much she seems to have changed since her meltdown, but dismisses his suspicions soon afterward. Walternate reveals to Broyles his reasons for studying Olivia – he believes that she has the ability to cross between worlds and he wants to find out what it is so that they can use it. In a romantic and utterly heartbreaking twist, Peter appears to Olivia in a vision and begins to plant seeds in her subconscious, little doubts that she does, in fact, belong in their world. Some more nice world building elements in this episode also, with the human experimentation that led to the degeneration of a happy, if mentally handicapped man, into a brilliant killer and the compromised air quality alert system.

Do Shapeshifters Dream of Electric Sheep? (aired Oct 14, 2010): This ended up being one of my favorite episodes of the season because of its ability to make us see the shapeshifters in a different light. The episode begins with an intense shootout after an important senator (and a friend of Broyles) is gravely injured in a car accident. When our old friend/nemesis Newton arrives to retrieve him, we know something is surely up – a suspicion confirmed when Newton shoots the man in the face and reveals that vexing mercury blood. Walter (under the influence of LSD, a vehicle I always adore on this show) suggests that since the shapeshifter lived for so long in the senator’s life that his wife may have some emotional sway over him. It works, as she speaks about their upcoming anniversary and gets emotional over not realizing when her real husband disappeared emotional areas of the shapeshifter’s brain are stimulated. In a parallel plotline, we meet Ray, a shapeshifter who has lived for years as a husband and father in the suburbs. He has a very touching scene in which he discusses monsters with his young son before going out to retrieve the chip from the senator’s body. He returns home, thinking Newton will leave him alone since the mission was accomplished, but instead is murdered. Newtown kills himself at the end of the episode, and I have to say I felt sorrow at his passing if only because he’s brought so much evil drama to the series. Peter and other Olivia take the next step in their relationship, even though Peter comments that she’s “completely different” since they returned. They sleep together, and my heart dropped into my stomach because, as a woman, I realized this action was going to be a real issue for the real Olivia when (if) she returns to her life.

Amber 31422 (aired Nov 4, 2010): Back on the other side, our Olivia and the Fringe Division team have a case centered around their practice of encasing compromised sites in amber, including any pedestrians in the immediate area. We see a man freed from the amber by two thieves, and revived from his state of suspended animation. Their Broyles begins to question the moral rightness of allowing people to think their relatives are dead, and the consequences of anyone finding out that they’re not. Testing begins on Olivia, voluntary at this point, and she’s submerged in the deprivation tank and winds up back on our side in a gift shop. After prodding from her imaginary Peter, she makes a phone call to wish her niece a happy birthday and at that moment believes she belongs in our world. It’s a fabulous moment, one that tells us she will be figuring out a way to make it home in the future. The more time we spend on the other side, the more the writers and characters are making us see that the line between good and bad, us and them, is blurry in most cases – that their world is as important to them as ours is to us. It will be an interesting thread to see carried forward.

6955 kHz (aired Nov 11, 2010): We’re given a wealth of information in this “our world” episode, including another missed clue by Peter in the face of a couple of other Olivia mistakes. She doesn’t remember a bookstore owner who previously graced the show, and she gets a little too excited about “loving U2.” The case centers on a book called “The First People,” a race that supposedly predates the dinosaurs but disappeared without a trace (to the alternate universe?) and the mysterious existence of number stations. As our F.B.I. team cracks the case, they discover that the number stations coincide with latitude and longitude coordinates that mark the locations of pieces of the doomsday machine. We also learn that other Olivia intended for our world to discover this information, and now that we have, Walternate has no further use for our Olivia. Peter in her head tells her in no uncertain terms that it’s time to go home.

The Abducted (aired Nov 18, 2010): Featuring one of the best villains of the series, this weeks the “Candyman” abducts young children and sucks away their youth. It takes place in the alternate universe, and alternate Broyles’ son was one of the perps previous victims, making the case personal for both him and his entire team. Our Olivia has connected with the alternate Broyles as easily as she bonded with our Broyles, and has earned his trust even though he is one of the few people who knows her true identity. Our Olivia solves the case by bonding with Broyles’ son, but her cover is officially blown when she tells one of the kidnapped boys that she works for the F.B.I., an organization that became extinct on the other side decades before. She knows Broyles knows, but because of everything she’s done for him and his family, he chooses to let her go. She reunites with the cab driver that has chosen to help her over there, and makes another brief appearance in the gift shop on our side before Walternate yanks her from the tank. She does get a message to the woman in the shop who, in an amazing and suspenseful moment, calls Peter and tells him she has a message from a woman named Olivia – she’s trapped in the other universe.

Entrada (aired Dec 2, 2010): Finally, alternate Olivia is busted. Still, our Olivia is now imprisoned by Walternate and needs an ally to find her way home. It doesn’t come as a surprise that she looks to Broyles, whose respect she’s earned and who has shown signs for weeks of not trusting the moral compass of Walternate and the way he plans to go about saving their world. Olivia offers him another solution – perhaps a way to save both worlds. Still, he wavers on helping her and the evil scientist on their side makes plans to send her back without her brain – which he wants to use for study. The plan is to switch bodies of similar mass; to send our Olivia in exchange for theirs, except ours would no longer be alive. Other Olivia’s laptop is used to learn more about her plans, and she’s captured before her scheduled travel back takes place. In the alternate universe, Broyles decides to help our Olivia at the last minute, and she makes it home in one piece. In a sad and somewhat surprising turn of events, they send their Broyles (very, very dead, of course) in exchange for their Olivia. The Olivia’s are back in place, but ours has some hurdles to cross before life can get back to normal.

Marionette (aired Dec 9, 2010): The most beautifully written and executed episode of television I’ve seen, maybe ever. Olivia is home, but is finding reintegrating harder than she thinks. The idea that the other Olivia took over her life, wore her clothes, worked her cases – and finally, slept in her bed with the man she thought she loved – proves too much for her to handle. Meanwhile, the case is riveting; a man is recollecting the donated organs of a woman he adored in order to bring her back to life, Frankenstein style. The scene in which he hooks her to ropes and pulleys to help her dance again is simultaneously horrifying and gut wrenching. While he does succeed in reanimating her tissue, he acknowledges that whatever he brought back, it wasn’t the girl he lost. It is, of course, a metaphor for our Olivia, who is not the same person they left behind weeks before. In a heartbreaking scene, Olivia calls Peter out for not realizing he had the wrong girl. Intellectually she understands all the reasons he didn’t, but part of her needed him to know some deeper part of her, her soul, the intangible thing that makes her her and no one else, and he didn’t. It was an emotional, perfect end to the fall season.

The show returns January 21st, in its Friday night timeslot, and I’m a mixture of curious and excited to see where they’re going to take the multiple storylines from here on out. If any of this recap intrigued you, go on Netflix or Hulu, catch up, and join us this January. They’re going to need all the viewers they can get.