Fringe: “Grey Matters”

Random Access Memory

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2009 by Sarah Stegall

Thursdays on Fox at 9/8 E/C
“Grey Matters”

Written by Jack Stentz & Ashley Miller
Directed by  Jeannot Szwarc

After last week’s diet of worms, I was extremely wary of what this week of Fringe would be–more gore? More slime? More desecration of the human form in the name of entertainment? On the surface, the answer would seem to be yes, but in fact the difference between last week’s unwatchable regurgitation and this week’s jaw-dropper can be summed up in one word: please. During the opening sequence of “Grey Matters”, we see a team of black-suited men performing ad hoc brain surgery on a conscious, awake patient in a non-surgical setting. At one point, the “surgeon” asks his patient to do something, and he says, “Please”. Finding themselves about to be interrupted, he is forced to leave his patient before completely closing the incision, and apologizes. From a purely logical standpoint, we can call his actions callous, selfish, cold and dehumanizing–he is using this poor man for terrible purposes, and has ruined his life once already. On the other hand, the use of common, ordinary terms of courtesy add just enough humanity to this scene to make it bearable. These are matters of nuance, and may not play the same way to everyone, but subtlety is better than clumsiness, and throwing a squid in my face (last week) is clumsy.

“Grey Matter” hinges on two things: a dark secret in Walter’s past, and the return of Thomas Jerome Newton (Sebastian Roche, 24). We’ve been zeroing in on Walter’s secret all season–we know it has to do with Peter, and a door that Walter once opened into The Other Side. Newton, whom we saw being resurrected a few weeks ago, is now revealed to be an operative of that Other Side, now revived and seeking to discover how to unlock that door again. To this end, he and his team are systematically tracking down an apparently random assortment of mental patients and performing clandestine surgery on them, which in every case seems to miraculously cure them of profound mental pathologies. Of course, on Fringe, nothing is ever random, and eventually Olivia and her team discover the links.

It is literally a jigsaw puzzle. Three of the patients have had parts of their brains removed–except the parts removed were not parts of their brains. Say what? A long and tortuous investigation reveals that, years ago, someone cut out pieces of Walter Bishop’s brain and stored those pieces in the brains of other humans, because brain matter would die if removed from the environment of a human brain. Those pieces of Walter’s brain were unable to assimilate into the host brain, and caused the “voices”, “false memories” and other “symptoms” of mental illness that got their hosts locked up in the rubber rooms. As a concept, I found this breathtakingly original and believable, imbued with all the horrifying fascination of a train wreck involving UFOs. Storing living brain tissue in a host brain? Transplanting pieces of it at will? This is the kind of science fiction that really engages my attention–science “fiction” which may be only days in our future. Who knows whether a technological breakthrough of this nature is not occurring at this moment in some lab somewhere, and this is a possible abuse of a life-saving technology we may be seeing next year? And yet, in a sense, it’s an old story: Celtic mythology has one or two stories of sorcerers who hid their hearts in remote locations to protect themselves from attack. When the hidden heart is found, secrets are revealed.

The most amazing climax comes when Newton and his agents kidnap Walter and wire him up to the retrieved pieces of his own brain. Apparently there is not enough time to actually  re-implant them, so a Frankenstein-type rig is applied to let Walter, who is all too willing to comply, access his old memories. The experiment is briefly successful, and for one very chilling moment we get Walter as he once was–cold, ruthless, calculating, manipulative. He is every bit the Mad Scientist devoid of compassion that he has been described as, in the past. In this state, he can remember how to open that door, and Newton questions him. Does he get the information he wants, before Olivia and Peter arrive? We are not told directly, but it makes sense that Newton does. This is an ongoing story that won’t be derailed by having Walter simply not remember something. As the recovered brain tissue dies, Walter begins to die as well. Newton, cornered by Olivia, bargains with her–the antidote that will save Walter for Newton’s freedom. Olivia agrees, Walter is saved, and we get a tender hug between Peter and Walter.

As usual, there are hints that all we see is not all there is to see. Who is the mysterious Dr. Paris who originally did all the brain surgery? In one of Walter’s memories, we see him on the operating table being comforted by William Bell (Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek). Is it only coincidence that Nimoy once played a character named Paris (Mission: Impossible)? Could Bell be the mysterious Dr. Paris himself? Sebastian Roche’s character Thomas Jerome Newton is a character from the Walter Tevis novel, The Man Who Fell To Earth, later made into a David Bowie movie.  (Bowie’s birth name is David Robert Jones, which is also the name of the bad guy played by Jared Harris in Season One.)  One of the mental patients who was carrying a piece of Walter in his head was named Stuart Gordon–is it mere coincidence that this is the name of the writer/director who created Re-Animator, a film about reviving the dead? I’m waiting for a reference to author Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) to pop up.

Now that the series is on holiday hiatus, it’s time for a quick overview of the second season so far. We’ve come a long way from the start-and-stop first year. Walter is less childish and more pathetic, in a good way. He used to be as amusing as he was annoying, but now I feel real sympathy for him, while wary of his possibly evil past. Peter Bishop has done a 180 degree turnaround from his initial introduction, when he was cynical, hard, unsympathetic. Now he has transformed not only into a team player but a full partner with Olivia. I loved his quiet assurance to Olivia that “you’re not in this alone”.  I have enjoyed watching him learn to love Walter. And Olivia Dunham is a much better character when she’s not mooning over her lost love, John Scott. She’s more human this year, whether because she came back with a limp or because Anna Torv has warmed up in the role. This season she has brought depth and nuance to the character of Olivia.

It’s clear that the Walter Bishop story is coming to weigh more and more heavily in this series. Whereas he was originally an adjunct lab rat whose work was ancillary to the FBI gruntwork, now the stories refer more and more frequently not only to his past but to his present. In this present, Walter has become a lovable and loving father, who will sacrifice everything for his son. It took more than brain surgery to cause Walter to change from the cold and ruthless man who experimented on children, including his own son, to the wry, wounded, pained and funny parent he is now. Once again my hat is off to John Noble, who outshines every other actor in SF this season.

Fringe is clearly taking a page out of The X-Files in more than just the content of the casework. There is an evolving “mythology” involving Massive Dynamics, William Bell, the Other Side, and so forth. This kind of extended storytelling has virtues and drawbacks: while we love the long, drawn out con and the salting of “clues” through a series of stories, there is a limit to the audience’s patience. Many critics are lambasting JJ Abrams and his crew for drawing things out too long, frustrating the audience. I completely understand this point of view, while acknowledging that Abrams and his people are doing a superb balancing job. The “standalone” episodes are just as intriguing as the “mythology” episodes, and provide a nice emotional break, a breather if you will, so that the characters and the audience can regain their breath and their equilibrium. The pace of TV rarely supports such a delicate pace, and I congratulate the writers on being able to maintain it.

Having raised its ratings a bit last week with “Snakehead”, Fringe saw a drop off from last week both in overall viewers and in the 18-49 demo, falling to a 2.3/6 share, with  6.3 million viewers overall . On this night, ABC was hardly in competition, with a slew of repeats. Bones, the lead-in to Fringe, hit a record high rating. Last week’s “Snakehead” saw a season-high rating, but this week the numbers fell: I can only conclude that viewers who tuned in to see Fringe were so turned off by “Snakehead” that they didn’t come back. I hope the writing team is taking that lesson to heart.