Fringe: “Concentrate and Ask Again”

Boneless in Boston


Fox Network, Fridays, 9 PM

“Concentrate and Ask Again”

Written by Graham Roland & Matthew Pitts

Directed by Dennis Smith

“Why would anyone ever kill a scientist? What did we ever do?” — Walter

In Ray Bradbury’s classic SF short story, “Skeleton”, a neurotic hypochondriac is convinced his bones are at war with him. Unfortunately, the “doctor” he consults provides the perfect remedy by removing all his bones, leaving our man on the floor, a mewling bag of flesh. In an opening sequence of this episode of Fringe, a scientist Warren Black (Paul Jarrett, Smallville) is opening birthday presents in his office. One of them has no return address and is oversized; ignoring everything we’ve learned from the Unabomber and the anthrax scare, he opens it and gets a puff of blue powder in the face from a creepy little doll inside. Within moments he, too, is lying boneless on the floor of his office. Now that’s a dynamite opening scene. Walter finds this condition as fascinating as we’d expect, and hurries back to his lab to conduct tests on the remaining powder. The Fringe team believes the powder to be of military origin, and start tracing the sender.

“He blamed him for Maddy’s death.” – Mrs. Downey

Our first suspect is Aaron Downey (Todd Scott, Supernatural), an ex-Marine who blames the private military research firm for the death of his daughter, who died in utero because she had no skeleton. It turns out there are three guys who fit this profile, all of them former soldiers who volunteered for a private military research project, one which left them unable to sire healthy children. In fact, all of their unborn children die because they lack a skeleton. It doesn’t take long for the team to realize that anyone else involved in sponsoring this research will be targeted. They find Downey but he is hit by a car while trying to escape, and the doctors assure the team he will never be able to speak again. There’s no way to interrogate him – except that Walter, naturally, has an upside-down and cockeyed way to do this. What I found most interesting in Walter’s reaction was not that he knew a way to accomplish their goal, but he clearly realized that it would involve inflicting pain on someone, and this disturbs Walter. Walter has not been known in the past for his compassion, and will probably reap the consequences of his past heinous behavior for the rest of his life. It is good to see him developing a conscience. The irony is that Walter is now part of a team defending scientists whose research recalls his own: experimenting on human subjects, damaging them and then abandoning them, and refusing to deal with the consequences. To make a right one wrong, he must wrong someone else. For Walter, there are no good choices in this world.

“It’s refreshing not to be able to read your mind.” — Simon

It turns out that one of Walter’s former test subjects, Simon Philips (Omid Abtahi, The Mentalist) lives nearby; during Walter’s experiments with children, Simon developed the ability to hear people’s thoughts. Simon, who lives deep in the woods in an attempt to tune out the cacophony of thoughts around him, resists the team’s plea for help. However, he cannot hear Olivia, who was also treated with Cortexiphan, and grudgingly trusts her. Despite the pain and suffering it causes him, Simon manages to read Downey’s mind, and provide them with the clues they need to forestall the very public de-boning of a Senator at a public gathering. Olivia must go undercover in fire-engine red lipstick and a ball gown, accessorized by a silenced handgun; she kills both remaining suspects with pinpoint targeting before they can detonate a device. When did Olivia learn to shoot like FauxLivia?

“No one should know exactly what someone else is thinking.” – Simon

Simon, like Sookie Stackhouse in the True Blood series, is a telepath. I always find this idea intriguing, perhaps because it’s a perfect metaphor for a society in which privacy is evaporating like snow in a heat wave. Even if we aren’t posting our most ephemeral moments on Facebook and Twitter, there is always the pervasive, uneasy fear that Someone is eavesdropping. Every cop show on TV shows us ubiquitous surveillance, the ability of law enforcement to access our private records, phone calls, credit card history, medical records.  Perhaps in the future, we will all seek fifteen minutes of obscurity rather than fame. This story gets into our heads in even subtler ways – by forging connections with other events. Both the package-delivery story and the public-event scenarios are drawn from recent headlines: the first recalls Ted Kaczynski’s targeting of scientists in his Unabomber attacks, and the second the all too recent attack in Arizona on Congresswoman Giffords. This lent a creepier aspect to the storyline than might have been present when it was written; the parallels between the real-life attack in Arizona and the make-believe setup onscreen were downright sinister. Once again I find the connections between TV and real life disturbing, wondering how much of what we see as reality is distorted by our gluttonous consumption of television.

“He still has feelings for her.” – Simon

One side effect of Simon’s mind reading is that, though he can’t read Olivia’s mind, he can read Peter’s. Even as Peter is assuring Olivia that his feelings for FauxLivia were actually his feelings for Olivia, she finds it hard to trust this. I’ll admit that it’s not the kind of issue covered in women’s advice magazines; I have yet to see a Cosmo cover story on “What to do when your boyfriend sleeps with your doppelganger?”. Nevertheless, last week we saw some forward movement on this line between Peter and Olivia, and this week it felt as if everything was going backward. Forward, backward, forward, backward – this is a very boring dance. I’d much rather have seen more development of the revelation that Peter is a part-time assassin. This storyline involving notes passed around in study hall is unworthy of a couple of adults nearing their thirties.

Sam: That device can either be used as a tool of creation or a weapon of destruction. It depends on your point of view, and Peter Bishop is uniquely tuned to operate it. Whatever frequency Peter’s vibrating at will determine how the machine reacts.

Nina: And what determines Peter’s frequency?

Sam: It depends on his state of mind, which in turn will depend on who he ends up with – Olivia from here, or Olivia from Over There. Whichever one he chooses, it will be her universe that survives.

Well, there we have it: the outline for the remainder of this season. Nina Sharpe finally figures out that the author’s names on the First People books are anagrams for Sam Weiss (Kevin Corrigan, Medium) , her bowling-alley guru. Sam, who appears to spend all of his time pushing a broom around and dispensing timeless wisdom, here proves to be a veritable Obi-Wan of obscure information. I would much rather have had that entire scene expanded into an episode of its own, rather than spend screen time watching Peter and Olivia practice avoidance dances. What bothers me most is that the show seems to be spending more and more time on this soap opera, and less and less time on the gee-whiz aspects of science and science fiction that make it unique. If I want a love story, there are plenty to choose from on TV these days. What I was hoping for, what I’m still here for, is the wow factor.

Fringe fell to a 1.6 rating in the adult 18-49 demographic, down 16% from the last two showings. That pans out to 4.3 million viewers. It is beginning to look like the real Doomsday Machine may be fueled by Nielsens.