We've seen the next two universe-shattering episodes of Fringe!

It's been a long wait for more episodes of Fringe, after the baseball hiatus. But tonight, the wait is over — our favorite mad-science show returns, and the game has changed completely. We've seen tonight's episode and next week's episode, and here's our spoiler-free preview.

First of all, a note — when I say "spoiler-free," I mean that I'm assuming you've seen all of the episodes that have aired so far. Don't read this expecting to remain unspoiled for the first four episodes of season four. Thanks!

So I have to say the first four episodes of Fringe season four were not among my favorites. The show's been walking a tough line, trying to show us yet another new universe (or actually, two new universes, since both "Over Here" and "Over There" are different) without a viewpoint character who could comment on the differences. Longtime viewers could notice a lot of differences — Walter is more damaged and never leaves his lab, Olivia is more reserved but also seems more at peace because she killed her stepfather, Alt-Broyles is alive, Astrid has more responsibility because she's Walter's representative outside the lab, and so on.

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It was all jarring, but not terribly dynamic. The tension was between what we as the audience were familiar with, and what the show was giving us. Meanwhile, the only long-term storyline besides Peter's disappearance seemed to be the new-school shapeshifters, who only appeared in one episode and seemed kind of borked.

(A side note: I thought Peter created a tunnel between the universes so that the two universes could work together and fix the damage caused by Walter's incursions? But now that the tunnel is there, nobody seems to be doing any work on that problem at all. Maybe there's a division at Massive Dynamic hard at work on the situation.)

Anyway, the good news is, now that Peter has officially returned at the end of "Subject 9," things can start moving a bit more. First of all, Peter remembers the "original" timeline, including all the stuff we spent three seasons watching, and he's immediately able to notice the differences and comment on them. That's a bit more interesting than the audience just passively noticing "Hey, stuff is different." And it's also a lot more emotional, because Peter has this bond with his father, his lover and his friends, and they just treat him as another fringe event or security breach. (You can see Broyles starting to do that at the end of "Subject 9.")

There's immediately more of an emotional center, because Peter was at the center of all the show's relationships before. Four episodes of "these people no longer have fulfilling relationships with each other" was actually kind of unfulfilling to watch, although the interplay between Olivia and Walter in "Subject 9" was pretty great. Peter's hurt feelings and attempts to win over his alternate-timeline loved ones are a lot more interesting. Plus throwing Peter in the middle of that situation causes everybody to have complicated and intense reactions.

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Watching "Novation" and "Those We Left Behind," my only question is why the show waited four episodes to get here. I guess it gave us the slow burn of "will Walter be re-committed" as well as some Olivia-and-Fauxlivia buddy-teamup action.

And the other good thing about bringing Peter back is it seems to give the show more of a mission statement, in terms of the season's plotline. We immediately start learning more about the ramifications of Peter's disappearance, and what it means that he's back, and — surprise! — there's a whole new potentially universe-sundering threat to grapple with.

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I still don't think this season of Fringe is quite as good as a year ago, when the "two universes" storyline was going full-tilt, and the two Olivias were swapped around. But tonight's episode and next week's are a major improvement, in which storylines stop simmering and start boiling. The show starts clicking as an ensemble once again, and there's a lot more urgency to the proceedings. Too bad there are only three episodes left before the winter break — the season's eighth episode has reportedly been bounced from December to January. So the show will be going away, just as it's starting to get really good.

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