Now that my beloved Smallville is off the air for good (don’t laugh, in spite of its terrible consistencies and occasional stupidity, it was an enjoyable hour a week for me) there are very few shows lingering that can get me excited. My reaction to many of the new shows this season is even ho-hum. Pam Am is cute but rather like an appetizer, it doesn’t seem to stick with me long after it airs. And The Secret Circle hasn’t exactly thrilled me with its emphasis on teenage sexual shenanigans and demonic possessions. Sanctuary starts up again tonight and by this time tomorrow I’ll be reeling with giddiness over our “modern” Helen Magnus whaling on John Druit in the 1800’s after her participation in a time travel accident. But… there’s always Fringe. And last Friday night’s episode (which I am sorry to say had the lowest viewing thus far from the mindless masses) was brilliant.

What this show does well is mess with our heads. At this point in time, the fans have been through a lot — we’ve discovered alternate dimensions in which our beloved characters are playing out their lives in subtle but distinctly different ways… we have learned the evil truth about the experiments that William Bell and Walter Bishop have committed on children… we have wondered at length what the truth is about the mysterious Nina Sharp… we have seen our characters lose people they love, confront versions of themselves, and at the end of last season, we watched as Peter vanished from the screen and all memories of him faded. He’s gone… but then again, this is Fringe, and no one is ever simply gone.

Admittedly, I thought the premiere episode for this season was a bit of a bomb; it had to establish too much and lost its fast pacing and brilliant characterization along the way… but the second episode made me take back anything bad I have ever said about the show. (It’s a short list, since I’m kind of crazy about it.) In it, we learned that in one world, a particular man is a professor and student of criminal behaviors — and in the other universe, he is a serial killer. The two Olivias think it would be beneficial to gain the man’s expertise on his other self (without telling him the truth) and transport him to the other side to assist in their investigation. Naturally, because this is Fringe, things go bad — but an interesting situation arises in which the professor confesses that if not for one person in his life, he too would have followed that destructive path. He fights that inner instinct and voice every day.

This is a series of patterns if you stop and think about it — previous seasons have carried mini-themes such as fatherhood (both in the relationship between Walter and Peter, in Alt-Olivia and her child, and in various cases in which fathers do anything to protect their children), but this ties into an ongoing thread of intervening souls. The undercurrent here is that we are supposed to think about Peter and what a difference he has made in all their lives — by not-existing anymore, the entire team and indeed, the whole world is different. Because Peter never existed, Walter never crossed over into the other universe and stole him — rifts to tear holes in the fabric of time were never consequences of his actions… Olivia was never tested on as a child (that we know of)… and our Olivia is different from the Olivia in Peter’s world. She is happier in many ways, more confident, less restrained, because she did not have the traumatic childhood that Walter and William Bell enforced on her. She also killed her abusive stepfather… so he is no longer hanging over her head, sending her nasty Birthday wishes every year.

What Fringe does best is present us with situations in which we don’t know what we want to happen, because it wins us over in some way so that we would regret it all being undone. First, we dealt with the other universe and the belief that to save “our” world, it had to be destroyed. That was all well and good… until we stepped into the other universe and came to like the people there. Then we couldn’t rest easy with its destruction. We were set up to hate Alt-Olivia but then saw a different side of her with Peter and after her child was born. (Okay, so a lot of people still hate Alt-Olivia… I never hated her; how could I hate a different, spunkier version of Olivia?) Now we are being presented with the ultimate quandary — we miss Peter (or do we?). But without Peter, our Olivia has had a better, in many ways less traumatic life and as a result she is… different.

One person can change everything. For that child fleeing an abusive father upset because he had discovered his son’s brutal tendencies, the meeting of a compassionate woman who loved him and taught him right from wrong helped his inner serial killer not come out. Without her, his life would have been much different. It is a rare opportunity to see how life could change based on one decision, a split second that might have prevented you from meeting the person that changed your life. The brilliance of this episode is not in its creepy exploration of a lack of humanity, or in pairing two people who are the same yet different together… it’s not even showcasing the subtle but profound differences in the two Olivias… it’s the conversation in the hospital about how even though you might not remember them, some people leave a profound mark on your soul… and the twist at the end, in which memories are stolen and the future is uncertain. Will the professor retain his goodness or become just as depraved as his Other Side counterpart?

Debate has raged about whether or not a situation of this nature is even possible — do all serial killers default to their evil instincts or are there fewer serial killers out there because some people restrain the evil inside of them? How much influence can one person have over their life? Does the philosophy of right and wrong stop people whose brains are hard-wired for cruelty and violence? Our society is very much focused not on the basic premise that all men are born evil and in their sinful state unless forgiven would remain depraved, but that positive interactions and less traumatic childhood experiences could make bad people “good.” It is an attempt to explain away evil, in a denial of God. If evil doesn’t exist, then evil actions are the result of bad parenting, abuse, etc. It goes back to the eternal argument of “are serial killers born or made?” Certainly, many serial killers have had traumatic childhoods — but it must rely on more than circumstances, because many other people have been through just as traumatic of events or even worse and emerged scarred but not murderers. Two children can be born and raised in the same house, in the same environment, with the same parents — and one can turn out good, and one can turn out evil. Circumstances contribute, but they are not the cause.

Have you ever wondered what you would be like in different circumstances? What the Other Side version of you looks like? There have been many important people in my life who have forever left marks on my soul, but the one who has made the most difference is Jesus. On occasion I think about what my life would have been like without him and it is not a pretty sight. I know my tendencies toward evil. I know my weaknesses and that at times all that keeps me in check is my promise to follow Him. I know what areas of my personality He has smoothed over and where He has changed me. I know I am depraved, sinful, and not worthy of saving on my own merit, that I could never be good enough to be even called “good” in a heavenly light. But I don’t have to be. My sins have been atoned for by a blood much more precious than mine. I am who I am because of Him: still flawed, still imperfect, still prone to making mistakes… but always striving to grow more like Him.

But that doesn’t mean I am more than human, that I do not still fight those basic instincts set into my nature. I might not have to beat down an inner voice telling me to become a serial killer, but I have to constantly struggle against other forms of sin and selfishness. It does become easier the longer you stick with it, the more you rely on Him rather than your own strength, but evil isn’t just something we can kick aside and walk away from. It is in our nature. Christ chases it out of our soul, but its remnants are still in our lives, our instincts, our desires, our intentions — unless held in check. Giving our lives over to Him does not alter our genetic makeup, it simply brings us closer to what our true selves were meant to be. No Olivia is perfect — she is merely different. That is, to me, the wonder of God, that He does not conform us to one particular version of ourselves, but that we are allowed to choose who we become inside His boundaries. God is not in the business of restraining and repressing us, in taking away the things we love and making us dull — He is in the business of healing and buffing us in preparation for that day when we will be our true selves, devoid of sin.

You never know what Fringewill throw at you. All you have to do is open your eyes.