Saturday, February 5, 2011

TV Episode Review: Fringe "Concentrate and Ask Again"

This week’s Fringe was another pendulum swing in tone, this time back towards (relative) light heartedness and wonder, with a bit of important master plot stuff thrown in just to spice up the proceedings.  It wasn’t an entirely joyous romp by any stretch—Simon Phillips is one of the most tragic characters we’ve met this season, another poor victim from Walter and Bell’s cortexophan experiments—but it offered a lot more humor, a few moments of geeky pleasure for the most devoted fans, and even the rarest of teases, Anna Torv letting her hair down, putting on red lipstick, and slipping into a beautiful dress.  Peter didn’t look too bad with his bow tie untied either (Hey, I’m married, not dead!).  The season continues to do a nice job of balancing very interesting developments in the ongoing war between the two universes (universi?) while finding the time to explore all sorts of nooks and crannies in the odd, complex “Fringe Universe” which encapsulates them both.

This episode wasted no time peeking into one of the most promising nooks of all when Nina enters Bell’s old office and, after walking past all sorts of odd trinkets from antiquity and a stack of interesting book titles (love that Bell was a follower of Dr. Spock’s child development work—must have come in handy), she opens his safe (bearing a Massive Dynamic logo that might represent copyright infringement of Game Cube’s logo) to find inside a copy of The First People as well as a red toy car and photos of a very young Bell with Walter and a young woman.  I won’t try to guess at the meanings of anything in the treasure trove of Bell’s long-untouched office or the contents of his safe, but the camera was certainly careful in lingering in several places and making sure we got plenty of good looks at the book titles and knick-knacks that he kept.  Feel free to speculate on the meaning of any or all in the comments section—I’m never good at that stuff but I love when somebody else points it out to me.   

Nina compares his copy of the book with several others in various languages, each with a different author, and deduces very quickly that they were all written by the same man, one Sam Weiss, better known to me as “hey, the guy from the bowling alley!”  She goes to see him and their conversation puts quite the finishing touches on the bare framework of what we already knew.  It’s common knowledge that the device seems particularly attuned to Peter, but Sam reveals that it can be a “tool of creation or a weapon of destruction” which is entirely determined by what frequency Peter is “vibrating” at, which in turn is apparently determined by which Olivia he ends up being in love with, which seems awfully strange but nevertheless represents a new level of intrigue for the troubled relationship that Peter and Olivia are struggling to repair.  It also makes mind reader Simon Phillips’s one-line note to Olivia, “He still has feelings for her,” a particularly terrifying revelation for the show to end on.  It was a gut wrenching sentence on a purely emotional level, and it piles on top of last week’s troubles with Peter yet another one—his loyalties could eventually slip towards the universe which he actually belongs to, which, you know, I have to be honest, I just don’t like Olivia as a redhead, but to each his own.  At any rate, it makes for some heightened tension regarding Peter and our Olivia’s relationship moving forward.

That’s saying quite a bit considering that, even prior to Simon’s revelation, this episode offered some really troubling and difficult moments between the two of them.  In fact, Olivia even gets advice about Peter from a fairly unlikely source in Nina, who says her worst mistake with Bell was never speaking openly about their relationship.  She encourages Olivia to ask Peter again about what’s going on, especially since Olivia fears that Peter might have genuine feelings for Fauxlivia precisely because of the ways she’s different:  She wasn’t tested on as a child, doesn’t keep people at arm’s length, and “she even wears a dress sometimes” (at least that one gets crossed off the list of differences by the end of the episode).  Olivia’s opportunity to “ask again” comes up when Peter brings her a coffee just the way she—the wrong she—likes it.  Olivia doesn’t bring it up right away, but the look on her face says it all.  When she does confront it Peter insists that he thought the differences she had were changes he had brought about, which, though possibly dishonest, is a reasonable enough assumption for a person in a relationship to make, and indeed hope to see.  It makes Simon’s message at the end of the episode that much more devastating.

All of this and I haven’t even gotten into the episode’s main premise this week, which was really just so-so:  An air-dispersed, government designed toxin that dissolves all the bone in the body, resulting in fairly unbelievable looking special effects and corpses (Fringe rarely messes this stuff up, but this just didn’t work).  The rest is a by-the-Fringe numbers chase; the team’s best source of information is knocked into a conveniently permanent coma and so Simon Phillips must enter the picture as Walter’s 1,000,003rd way of retrieving memories or information stuck in inconveniently unresponsive brains.  Simon is a horrible wreck to behold, as the presence of anyone besides other cortexophan patients causes unbelievable pain and nausea as their thoughts flood his brain.  His willingness to help them is brought about in the usual Fringe way, with one of the team’s members pointing out that “a lot of people will die if you don’t,” which works, but is becoming a bit rote at this point.  At any rate, he extracts the necessary information—that there’s a big party for Congressman Thorn that night at a museum—and the team learns that the toxin will be released en-masse by the remaining terrorists at the event.

This all seems like the setup for a wonderful finale, especially since last week’s trailer teased us with a lot of shots of Olivia and Peter dressed up for the ball, and seemed like it would largely take place at the gala event.  Disappointingly, the proceedings at the museum feel rushed and lacking in any real dramatic tension.  Simon literally bumps into one terrorist who Olivia quickly dispatches (I love that she finds some place under that dress to keep her gun) and then Olivia puts the perfect shot—instant paralysis—through the other’s neck just in time to stop him from getting to the congressman.  The entire sequence just seemed a bit under-polished, and it didn’t help that main players like Peter (why is he even in a tux?) and Walter are pushed entirely to the sidelines when they could’ve lent a hand in securing suspects.  

However forgettable the climax, the episode still offered a lot to like leading up to it.  Walter’s unintentional sense of humor is back in full force this week as he gets nauseous from passing gas inside his biohazard suit and clocks Peter in the arm in an impromptu game of “Slug Bug” on the side of the road, which gets great reactions from both Peter and Olivia (such genuine reactions that I almost wonder whether John Noble ad-libbed the moment).  The lighter moments were welcome after last week’s intense and darker direction, and this week’s thematic developments about the nature of human relationships were also an interesting change of pace.  Olivia finds something of a soul mate in Simon (not in the romantic sense), who also feels that he’s damaged beyond the point where anyone could care for him.  Olivia doesn’t seem to realize that her advice to him to not feel like he’s unlovable is advice she needs to take herself, but Simon offers something else to her that runs counter to Nina’s advice:  That we are not supposed to know everything everyone else is thinking.  Simon means this in the most painfully literal sense as he’s physically overwhelmed by the thoughts of others, but this is sort of a beautiful revelation at a thematic level as well:  Peter seems to be trying to care about Olivia and repair the relationship, but Olivia can’t get past a need to know everything that he thinks about her and about Fauxlivia.  And on top of that, she has read Fauxlivia’s computer diary in order to know all of her thoughts as well—it’s a compulsion she can’t resist, and she seems to fail to see the ways in which it damages her relationships.  It’s an interesting irony that through the same destructive acts of Walter and Bell, two very different people were created:  One who never wants to know anyone else’s thoughts again, and one who can’t let go of the need to know exactly what those closest to her are thinking.  

Redemption has yet to seem like an inevitable outcome for Olivia or for Walter, but tonight’s cathartic talks between Olivia and a fellow cortexophan victim seemed like a push in that direction—it means something to know that despite whatever “damage” or imperfection each of us carries, there are always people in the world who can love and care for us, if we can first learn to recognize the value in ourselves.  Cheers to Fringe for not stating it as cheesily as I just did.
Overall Rating: 8.4/10

Great Quotes, Interesting Moments, What Not and Occasionally What-have-you:

Walter wonders, “Why would anyone kill a scientist, what did we ever do?”  Peter’s response is perfect:  “Really?”

Peter is right:  bonus points for the creepy factor of the baby-doll toxin delivery system.  

More of Walter/Bell’s back story:  They tried to create a system to immunize people without their knowledge.  Also, they worked for Nixon until he became a biological warfare-monger.

The whole back story with the military guys having boneless babies just wasn’t working for me.  I’m not too critical of the pseudoscience on the show, especially when it goes in fun/clever directions, but how does a fetus develop for seven months without an ultrasound detecting the curious absence of a skeleton?

I love that Walter runs out of gas but his biggest concern is that Peter brings his wallet because Walter is starving.

Walter’s face as Simon reads his mind is heartbreaking—he continues to suffer mightily with the knowledge that there are so many people out there who he has caused to suffer.

Simon points out that the tall bodyguard at the party thinks Olivia is hot.  I assume the short one is gay?

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