Where were we? Right. For much of the season, the role of Big Bad was filled by David Robert Jones (Jared Harris), a ruthless, grinning baddie whose high-level calculations always put him several steps ahead of his pursuers. But it turned out that Jones was merely a cat’s paw, used by William Bell and then discarded once he’d served his purpose. (Speaking practically, Harris was also a placeholder for Nimoy, who retired from acting after the show’s first season, just in case the showrunners couldn’t convince him to return.)
Nimoy seemed, frankly, somewhat out of practice, his stiff line readings failing to put across the impish glee with which William Bell toys with the world. But his unexpected appearance served as a deliberate rhyme with the end of Fringe’s first season, where Olivia first crossed between worlds and found a grinning William Bell waiting in the other side’s intact World Trade Center.
The decision to wipe the slate (mostly) clean at the fourth season’s start was an odd one, a high-stakes gamble that took a long time to pay off. With the discovery of the other side, every actor, bar Jackson, suddenly had two roles -- their established character and their other-world counterpart -- and it quickly became apparent that the show’s cast was capable of far more than they’d been given to that point. Torv in particular blossomed as she switched off between our world’s buttoned-down, reined-in Olivia and the other side’s copper-haired free agent (sometimes called “Fauxlivia”), whose loping posture and tight outfits revealed a level of self-assurance Torv had never had occasion to display.
The juxtaposition allowed both characters to be more sharply defined, and gave Torv the chance to demonstrate some truly impressive acting chops. Even when the characters switched places, with Fauxlivia going undercover inside our universe's Fringe Division, the characters' distinct body language made it easy to tell them apart. Fauxlivia survived the timeline reboot, but Olivia, at least as we'd come to know her, did not. Torv was returned to playing Olivia as she had in the first season, like a disobedient pupil sent to cover the blackboard with repeated phrases. It took the air out of the show, and although the story eventually provided a satisfying (if scientifically squishy) return to the status quo ante, even some long-term viewers had jumped ship by then.
Here's the thing, though: At its best, "Fringe" plays the long game as well as any show of television, planting seeds that don't sprout for weeks or months and trusting its audience to recognize when they do. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that the montage that closed season four -- and would have ended the series but for Fox's late-breaking renewal -- evoked the sequences at the end of each season of "The Wire," another show where all the pieces matter.
"Fringe" has its incidental pleasures as well, chief among them John Noble's titanic performance. Walter Bishop has stabilized somewhat over the years, but he's still a borderline loon, more comfortable around corpses than most living beings. Notwithstanding dramatic (and comic) exaggeration, he's a keenly observed portrait of genius, unraveling the mysteries of the universe in one breath, obsessing over the perfect recipe for custard the next. Even years after his release from the asylum, he's capable of mistaking a passing tray of urine samples for an assortment of lemon Jello, and when he's informed of his mistake, offhandedly replying, "No thank you. I'm more peckish than thirsty."
But even the minute details of performance, or one-off moments like the scene in "Brave New World" where a reanimated corpse gets the third degree, her eyes wildly scrolling in opposite directions, are more resonant in the context of the whole. Since it became clear that the "Fringe" audience was as big as it was ever going to get, the show's creators have been bolder about playing to the crowd, letting new arrivals find their own way in rather than constantly starting from scratch. It may have cost them some casual viewers, but the show encourages obsession, and rewards it as well.