Fringe‘s ambitious third season concludes tonight. What happens to Peter, Olivia, Walter and the rest on “The Day We Died”? Can the Fringe Division save the future? Where is Gene the Cow?

It goes without saying that his review will contain MAJOR SPOILERS for the third season of Fringe – as well as the season finale. Read on at your own risk.

When last we saw Fringe, the team had accessed the powered-on machine in an effort to shut it down and halt the universal incursions tearing the eastern seaboard apart. Peter entered the machine… and was inexplicably transported 15 years into the future.

Tonight,, we discovered that Peter’s actions in the previous episode destroyed the other universe. Even worse, the destruction caused a seesaw effect, and the primary universe is likewise collapsing. Walter is imprisoned after a public trial and Walternate (who crossed over before the cataclysm) is on the lamb.

As if that wasn’t enough, a group of terrorists called the End of Day-ers (who are better at killing than naming, clearly) are intentionally hastening the end of the world. Guest star Brad Dourif (Deadwood) plays their leader Moreau, while Emily Meade plays Ella, Olivia’s grown-up niece who has joined Fringe division.

Fringe has a better track record than most shows for maintaining a consistent and compelling story arc across multiple seasons, and the Season 3 finale does not break the cycle. At the same time, the show plays with established science fiction conventions while combining its myriad elements to form something new.

Unfortunately, the best way to describe the finale is incomplete. It is a cliffhanger in the purest sense of the word: there will be no resolution, and in many ways no satisfaction, until the promised fourth season. This is even more true now than it was last year – it is, in essence, only one half of a two-hour episode.

That said, what story and developments are there should thrill Fringe fans. Having a glimpse at a possible future wherein the FBI battles wormholes worldwide and we finally see Peter and Olivia in the committed relationship that’s been building for years is very gratifying. The subtleties connecting past and future, like Ella and the tweaked props, are lots of fun.

And just because the story is incomplete doesn’t mean that it won’t take you for a ride. There are moments in the finale that will literally drop your jaw, even if the writers use some old sci-fi tricks to soften the blow. And in typical Abrams fashion, the new developments will leave us guessing until the fall.

The payoff for the final episode is clearly what the producers and writers have been waiting for all season (and almost certainly longer) opening up a new dimension for the show to explore. I wish they could have done a little more exploring in the present (so to speak) but to say I’m excited is an understatement.

One unfortunate realization: there is a distinct lack of the alternate universe in the finale. This is understandable, what with it being blown up and all, but the alternate Fringe team had developed into a deserving set of characters in their own right – characters that are sadly underutilized here. With the exception of Walternate, there’s almost no developments from “over there.”

Standout performances include John Noble’s menacing Walternate and Meade’s eager Ella. The rest of the players perform dutifully but briefly – largely because there’s very little going on outside of the core cast.

I would have liked to see more of Dourif’s character – the fleeting glimpses of his terrorist cell are not nearly enough to build up a sense of genuine fear or dread, unlike previous bad guy Jared Harris. There isn’t even a decent motivation established for their actions.

Production values equal or surpass previous Fringe efforts, with predictable results. The scenes of wormholes and Amber quarantines are fun and fit the general feel of the show, and the subtle aging makeup is well done. The excellent establishing scene from the end of “The Last Sam Weiss” is enough to carry the audience into the future.

One rather dour omission is the show’s quirky humor, which is nowhere to be seen. There’s a lot of ground to cover in the script in just roughly 4o minutes, so it’s not unexpected, but a few more of Walter’s non-sequiturs or a bit more of Peter’s sarcasm would not have gone amiss.

The last few seconds of the finale set up the core conflict for next season and bring back some observant old friends. The major shock moments and puzzling end to this part of the story will keep fans itching for a fresh batch of Fringe, even if some are irked that so few of the questions asked this year are answered.

If you’ve been following Fringe diligently, you’ve no doubt liked some episodes of season three (much) less than others. That said, “The Day We Died” will not be one of those episodes. Considering the well-founded fears of Fringe‘s cancellation, the decision to stick with a cliffhanger ending was at least as “gutsy” as the one to renew the series.

What did you think of the Fringe season 3 finale? Where do you think the show will go next season.

Fringe will return to Fox in the fall of 2011.