Within the world of Fringe, Peter Bishop no longer exists. We saw him blink out of existence at the end of the third season finale, flickering before our eyes as two universes forgot all about him. Nature, of course, abhors a vacuum, so time and space rush to fill the void left behind when an item is plucked out of the timestream.
What does all of this have to do with Season Four of Fringe? I'm glad you asked. (PLEASE DO NOT REPRODUCE THIS REVIEW IN FULL ON ANY WEBSITES, BLOGS, MESSAGE BOARDS, OR SIMILAR.) The season opener ("Neither Here Nor There") contains a rather ordinary procedural plot, but it also reintroduces us to the two universes, and to changes that have occurred as a result of Peter's non-existence. Some of these changes are slight, and some are rather large. The dead walk again as the living, memories are altered, personalities shifted as a result of Peter not being in the mix since the series began.
Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) is colder, more distance, less prone to smiling, and still grieving over the boyfriend she lost in the first Fringe case in the pilot. Walter Bishop (John Noble) is emotionally and psychologically untethered, lacking a connection that can anchor his fractured mind; he's now a virtual recluse, a man scared of his own shadow who can't leave the lab, much less venture out into the world. (Peter did more than take Walter out of St. Clare's; he gave Walter a purpose and acted as a life preserver in more ways than one, allowing Walter to explore the outside world anew.) Astrid (Jasika Nicole) is now in the field alongside Olivia, not forced to serve as Walter's primary caregiver and nursemaid in the lab setting. (Look for a particularly hilarious anatomical reference in the first episode back.)
And then there's Lincoln Lee (Seth Gabel).
Lincoln is still the nerdy FBI agent that we met previously on this side of the universal divide, but he doesn't remember the team nor their previous interaction. When a bizarre Fringe investigation drags him into their world, he acts as the audience's introduction (or, for veterans, reintroduction) to the backstory and thrust of the series. The case itself, as I suggested before, feels a bit been-there-done-that within the immense possibility of the show, connecting to an earlier conceit within the series and taking it into a new direction. (Yes, I'm being deliberately vague here.)
But it's the second episode of the season ("One Night in October") that brilliantly showcases what Fringe is capable of: emotionally resonant stories with sci-fi trappings that are intensely character-driven explorations of the human heart. This is very much the case with the largely Over There-set installment which finds the Fringe Division attempting to entrap a vicious serial killer (John Pyper-Ferguson, in a fantastic and gripping dual role) whose methods for spreading death are rather unique, yet also connect to the wider philosophical issues at play here. Are we the sum of our experiences? Do our choices define us? Can we remember when those memories are cruelly ripped away from us?
Peter Bishop does not exist.
We know this to be true, just as we know that the Observers feel that he has served his purpose and the timeline has been corrected. Yet, there is no Fringe without the younger Bishop, and Peter lingers in the, well, fringes beween here and not-here. But his interaction with the makeshift family that comprises the team had long-lasting ramifications for all of them. If they can't remember him, if he never truly existed, how have their lives changed? And why do all of them feel an emptiness where there shouldn't be one? There's a Peter-sized hole in the world, and no amount of gumdrops or creepy cases will change that, even if Walter and the others can't recall just why they feel quite so sad.
What follows in "One Day in October" is a beautiful exploration of memory, loss, choices, and divergent paths in the woods, one that informs not only the case at hand (an intensely creepy and profoundly unsettling one) but also the characters of Olivia and Walter, and their dark counterparts. Olivia and Fauxlivia have an intriguing moment of exchange that reveals just how much the universe has changed without Peter in it... and all of the actors do a phenomenal job creating new iterations of the characters we've come to know and love thus far.
Watch Torv's body language as Fauxlivia, slouched and loose, the timbre of her voice altered, and then see how rigid and unbending she is as Olivia. Noble does a staggering job (how has this man not been nominated for an Emmy already?) as the even more broken Walter Bishop, bringing a scared petulance to his routine, a terror that his fragile grasp on reality is slipping away further still. (There's also a hell of an homage to a certain 1980s commercial that is quite clever.) Gabel is great as the two versions of Lincoln; one sheltered and naive, the other headstrong and edgy. And it's great to see Nicole's Astrid in the field for a change; for far too long, she's been stuck in the lab. (I am curious to see just what happened to Blair Brown's Nina, but she's not in either episode, sadly.)
The installment also shows the uneasy alliance between Over Here and Over There, and how this dynamic will play out throughout the season. An opportunity for cooperation presents its own dangers. To catch a thief, it often takes a thief, it's said. And to catch a killer, it might require the same. Or at the very least, the killer's dimensional twin, who is a mild-mannered psychology professor. Do they share the same dark impulses? Why did their lives go in such opposite trajectories? And what will their crossing paths do to one another?
All in all, it's a fantastic start to the season for Fringe, in particular that second episode, which utilizes a real alchemy which which to test our characters in unexpected and tantalizing ways. While Peter Bishop may not exist (at least not in the sense that we've come to understand thus far), his presence is felt in intriguing and powerful ways. And so too is this season's first few episodes, which will linger with you well beyond the closing credits.
Season Four of Fringe launches this Friday evening at 9 pm ET/PT on Fox.