It's good to see "Fringe" return to form after last week's disappointing episode. Whereas that installment suffered from its stand-alone "Monster of the Week" format, this week is chock full of continuity goodness as it ties together strands laid out over several previous episodes and gives the overall season arc a big push forward.
We open back on Earth-1, where a group of ham radio enthusiasts -- including a crusty lighthouse operator in Maine, a young Chinese man in New York City, and a blond folksy-looking mother in New Hampshire -- eagerly IM about some kind of broadcast they've been waiting to come on. It's clear they're expecting the sequence of numbers that starts rattling over the broadcast. It is equally clear that they weren't expecting the brain-searing signal that accompanies it. There's much moaning and clutching of the head, before they snap out of it and find themselves suffering from what appears to be total memory loss.
Fun fact #1: The frequency the group was tuned into -- 6955 kHz -- is one of the most popular frequencies for pirate radio broadcasts.
Anyway, we jump to the next morning, where Peter is busying serving Alt-livia breakfast in bed. It's unclear how much time has elapsed since we saw Alt-livia seduce Peter for the first time, but from their banter about the morning paper and their easy interactions, it's pretty clear they've done this sleepover business several times before. I wonder what kind of jelly a no-good murdering man-stealing doppleganger takes with her toast. Hmm… Peter continues his campaign for boyfriend of the year by presenting Alt-livia with tickets to see U2 in concert. As you'll recall from an earlier episode this season, Alt-livia may like Patsy Cline, but she has no idea who this Bono character is. Nevertheless, she feigns excitement.
The morning snuggle fest continues and I think I'm going to claw my eyes out at the indignity of it all, but luckily it's finally interrupted by two phone calls. The first involves Walter freaking out that Peter is working on Walternate's Peter-powered universe destroyer behind his back. Peter deflects Walter's concerns, but his morning is still ruined by the second call, as Broyles summons them to investigate the ham radio memory loss victims.
The team heads up to New Hampshire to investigate the blond woman. They get up to speed on the fact that the woman was part of a group that was working on decoding a signal from a "number station." They discover two important clues. The first is a recording she made of the signal. The second is a list of people in her group, one of whom is Edward Markham, who you may recall is the proprietor of the used book store where the first copy of the ZFT manifesto was introduced way back in Season 1. Hooray, continuity!
Fun fact #2: Number stations are in fact a very real thing.
We jump to Nina Sharp's office at Massive Dynamic, where she provides more exposition about the number stations. Walter makes a lot of passive aggressive jabs at Peter about exploring technology without concern for consequences. In other news, the kettle would like you to know that the pot is black.
After Walter storms out and Peter chases after him, Alt-livia clumsily attempts to manipulate Nina into convincing Walter to relax about Peter working on the device. I can't say for sure that Nina knows something isn't right here, though she pretty much explicitly states, "Gee, this is highly out of character for you, Olivia, given that you and Walter are so close and all." Alt-livia makes crazy guilty faces at her in response.
Boy, this episode shifts locations like crazy. Before we can blink, we're with Broyles and Alt-livia as they head off to investigate the radio station that broadcasted the signal. Inside there's a surprise waiting for them: two dead bodies and one creepy floating silver box. They carefully disarm the box and discover a set of fingerprints on the outside. They ship the box off to Walter for more investigation.
Yet another jump, as we head back to the Harvard Lab, where Walter is using a wah-wah pedal to process the audio signal. He discovers that under the signal broadcasting the number, there's a pulse that is the cause of the amnesia. Peter wanders over and looks pleased, before realizing that Walter has taken advantage of the situation to dismantle Peter's work on Walternate's device. After some more fighting, Peter and Walter have a heart-to-heart of sorts. And by "heart-to-heart," I mean Peter talks while Walter just listens as he rolls a joint.
We finally meet the guilty party, one Joseph Feller (who you may recognize as Marshall from "Alias"). Joseph has creepy eyes (one blue, one black) and enjoys murder and electronics in his spare time. He's busy preparing another silver box for broadcast. We see him soldering a microchip onto a circuit board before he fires up the box.
Fun fact #3: The text on the chip is written in Polish and translates to "domain effect". Time domain effects have to do with copying a signal and then overlaying it with the original, but slightly out of phase.
If you have a fear of flying, you probably won't like what happens next, as a pilot accidentally hears the second broadcast and crashes the small plane he's flying. Oops.
Back at the lab Walter is frustrated. Astrid gets more lines of dialogue than she has in the last five episodes combined, as she attempts to help him work through his mental block.
Meanwhile, Peter and Alt-livia visit Edward Markham at his bookstore. After finding out that his former ham radio friends were memory-wiped, he panics a little. He gives them a 19th century book about "The First People," an ancient race of people who allegedly pre-date the dinosaurs. He claims they are related to the source of the number station. Markham frets about being targeted for memory erasure himself.
As they drive home, Peter flips through the book and of course just as he's ready to declare it drivel, he spots an interesting diagram. Peter asks Alt-livia to recite the number sequence from the broadcast and Alt-livia breaks out in a cold sweat, since she isn't equipped with the photographic memory power of her counterpart. However, she manages to recall enough of them for Peter to match the pattern to one printed in the diagram.
Back at Harvard, Nina and Walter chillax on the quad, as they smoke pot and reminisce about their rebellious scientific days. Awesome. Nina tries to convince Walter to let Peter continue his research. Walter quite correctly infers that Walternate's plan involves getting Peter to fix the device himself. Nina urges him to have hope that even if that's what Walternate wants, it doesn't mean it will work out the way Walternate planned.
The team gets together back in the lab for some more mythology from the book of the First People. The book explains that the First People had some kind of technology that could create a super vacuum that held the power of both creation and destruction. So ... a Dyson, then? As he tinkers with the silver box, Peter finds the soldered chip, realizes that it's military grade and therefore probably has a paper trail attached to it. He runs off to investigate. Alt-livia looks shifty and takes off abruptly as well.
Astrid stays behind and works on breaking the code with Walter. She identifies the key to breaking the code, and it involves some kind of matrix math. This is like my own personal mind-crushing signal, as I start having horrible flashbacks to the computer science class that almost destroyed me in college. No... more... matrices... ever!
It turns out that Alt-livia knows Joseph Feller, because while Olivia is stuck investigating random crimes in Earth-2, Alt-livia is naturally wrapped up in every single nefarious plot going on over in Earth-1. Joseph foolishly trusts her, because he hasn't gotten the memo yet that Alt-livia's main hobbies involve sneaking around and betraying minions who work for her. Just as the Fringe team shows up with the cops, Alt-livia shoots him and throws him out the window. The pool of mercury around the body indicates that Feller was a shapeshifter, but Peter's attempts to salvage Feller's butt-brain module are for naught -- it's trashed from the fall.
At the lab, left alone and forgotten by everyone as usual, Astrid toils away. Miraculously she has something to contribute this episode as she deciphers the code -- the numbers stand for coordinates around the globe. The closest one is in New Jersey, so the team heads off to visit the land of Snookis and Situations.
As they wait for a crew to excavate whatever is buried at the site, Alt-livia prods Peter to admit that he would sacrifice Earth-2 in order to save his own universe. However, Peter refuses to play her reindeer games, insisting that there has to be a better solution than sacrificing billions of innocent lives, one that would save both universes. Alt-livia, looking like a gigantic selfish jerk for clearly preferring the "Screw 'em, save your own" solution, isn't happy about that answer.
Meanwhile, Astrid finishes breaking the code and realizes that the last location was Milton, MA, where the first part of Walternate's device was found. She calls Alt-livia to report that it seems that Walternate's Peter-powered universe destroyer and the First People's vacuum machine are one and the same. Alt-livia thanks her but doesn't exactly translate her exact message to the Bishops. Hmm... the fact that Astrid is finally dressing sharply, has oodles of dialogue and actually contributes to the plot scares me. Usually when a former background player gets suddenly featured on a show like this, it means they're being set up for something horrible to happen. It's like when poor Amber Benson finally got a spot in the show credits for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and then they killed her off that very episode. I bet dollars to donuts that Alt-livia will attempt to eliminate Astrid at some point in the near future.
Prior to that, though, Alt-livia needs to check in with Earth-2. She returns to the Selectric 251 typewriter and reports back to Walternate that the next piece of the machine has been uncovered. Walternate instructs her to initiate Phase 2. Man, even when he's not in the scene, Walternate gives me the willies -- I credit John Noble's performance for that.
The episode surprisingly jumps back to Earth-2 for the final scene, where Olivia is in the shower. Boy, this show just keeps coming up with ways to get Anna Torv wet, doesn't it? Show producer: "Say, Anna, this next episode Olivia is going to investigate a series of mysterious murders at the local YMCA swimming pool. What size bikini do you wear?"
Olivia gets a call from Brandon, who informs her in the creepiest fashion possible that she won't need to report in for her dunk tank session anymore. She looks worried, and Petergeist pops up to stroke that fear some more, as he tells her that there's only one reason they'd cancel her sessions indefinitely: They've extracted whatever dirty scientific secrets they can from her and now she's become expendable. Petergeist urges her to escape and go back home to Earth-1 as fast as she can.
This episode was great on a lot of levels. The main mystery was sufficiently creepy, and would have worked even as a stand alone episode. There's now a strong sense of momentum, and by showing both universes you get the impression that we're finally driving towards the point where Olivia is going to return to Earth-1, where the plots will finally converge. The mythology behind the Peter-powered universe device just got a lot more interesting as well -- who are the First People? Are they related to the Observers? Are they aliens, or visitors from a future timeline? Do all the other sites marked by the signal contain pieces of the device as well? There are a lot of clues doled out here, and I suspect that this will be an episode fans will want to revisit again.
Summary: When your ham radio signal starts to make your brain hurt, maybe you should take off the damn headphones and walk away.