Fringe Fringe

We've been waiting all season — some I would imagine rather impatiently — for the worlds to collide on Fringe, and it finally happened in the last moments of the most recent (Nov. 18) episode, which is where this week's pivotal and please-don't-miss-it installment picks up.

To watch the awesome teaser, go here.

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Once again, we see Peter, lying contentedly in bed with the dastardly alt-world Faux-livia, getting a wake-up call from an eyewitness passing on a message from the real Olivia during her all-too-temporary visit back to Earth: "I just saw a woman disappear in front of my eyes. ... She's trapped in the other universe." Roll credits as the red and blue tones keep shifting back and forth, a dimension-hopping pattern that will continue throughout the gripping hour that follows, as the dueling Olivias embark on a treacherous and suspenseful path to seek passage back home. The journey comes at a heavy price for at least one character, and oh the baggage that will need to be sorted out upon landing.

This is Fringe at its finest, with tense action grounded in an emotional urgency, and the stakes couldn't be higher as the parallel universes prepare for war. It's the story Fringe spent its first two seasons building toward. Which is why I've been baffled by some viewers and critics reacting impatiently to the structure of the first third of this season, during which eight-week period we've bounced back and forth between worlds watching the real and alt-Olivia pursuing cases while the larger agenda (which our Walter coins a hilarious new term for this week) looms around them and everyone in their orbit.

Anna Torv has really raised her game this season in the dual role: as a confused and unnerved Heroic Olivia in the alt-world, where the conniving Walternate (John Noble also doing remarkable double duty) has embedded false memories in her head while plotting how best to mine her special universe-traveling gifts; and as an infiltrating imposter in our world, she's sly and scary. Should Peter at the very least have smelled a rat (or a mole) earlier on, as Faux-livia pursues a headlong seduction? Maybe, but I've enjoyed the sustained tension of this story line and am glad the show's creators were fully able to play out a conflict so crucial to this show's mythology.

Whether you've succumbed or resisted — or, judging by the ratings on Thursdays this season (in one of the week's toughest time periods), merely fallen away from the Fringe fold — this week's episode provides terrific payoffs along with a few tremendously hair-raising situations. Now is a superb time to check back in on one of network TV's few challenging and rewarding fantasy thrillers.

As it turns out, Olivia's perils are nothing compared to the challenges awaiting Fringe in the new year. After an original episode next week, the show goes on hiatus until the end of January (Jan. 28), when it returns in a hell not unlike the sinkhole vortex we see threatening the alt-world's East River in this week's episode. I'm talking a Friday night time period, which has been a form of living death for Fox since The X-Files was plucked from that purgatory to become a hit on Sundays back in the mid-'90s.

Before we prematurely write Fringe's obituary, it's worth noting that this is a fairly well-established show whose creative vitals are still strong. Fox executives note that its DVR playback numbers are robust, which counts for something. And many in the media like it — Fringe was just spotlighted on the cover of TV Guide's Sci-Fi Preview — and we aren't likely to let it stay unnoticed in its new period. Plus, expectations will be so low that if Fringe holds on to a fair percentage of its loyal Thursday audience, it will be seen as a win. Lots of ifs in this speculation, of course, and the fretful hand-wringing among fans is genuine as Fringe heads into the fringes of Fox's schedule.

For now, though, all that really matters is watching this week's powerful episode — from the edge of your seat.

Fringe airs Thursday, 9/8c, on Fox