Fringe: "Concentrate And Ask Again"
C+

Fringe: "Concentrate And Ask Again"

This week’s Fringe freak-meet would have made the writers of the old ‘60s Batman TV series smile—and then perhaps puke. After an office birthday party for Dr. Warren Blake, the doc receives an unexpected present: a hand-stitched pull-string doll with a creepy face and an even creepier recorded laugh. When the doll finishes laughing, it sprays a cloud of bluish gas in the face of Dr. Blake, just like one of Cesar Romero’s Joker-traps would have done to the caped crusader. Kooky! Then the gas makes Dr. Blake’s bones dissolve. Ick!

The exceptional grossness—and lets face it, the coolness—of this episode’s method-of-murder gave a fairly unexceptional case a much-needed kick. (If nothing else, it set up the nasty little scene later in the hour when a group of defense corporation goons step onto an elevator, find another one of those hideous dolls, and then scream their way up. Third floor: bonelessness.) Also helping out “Concentrate And Ask Again” considerably: the introduction of a previously unmet (and symbolically significant) member of The League Of Cortexiphan. But we’ll get to him in a minute.

First: the case. Using some routine FBI legwork, Agent Olivia Dunham is able to determine that the man who mailed the doll to Dr. Blake is an ex-Marine named Aaron Downey, who was seeking revenge on the doctor for his involvement in chemical trials that left Downey and two of his best mates unable to sire children with healthy bones. All three men have suffered the heartbreak of losing a kid, and all three have plans to throw some appropriate pain at the men and women responsible for their condition. But when Fringe Division finds Downey’s house, the suspect flees, gets hit by a car, and lapses into a coma before they can question him about who his partners are and what they have planned.

Enter Simon Phillips. While considering a way to extract info from the unconscious Downey, Walter remembers Simon, a former subject of his Cortexiphan trials, who was dropped from the study when he started developing the power to read minds. (Walter was worried that the boy would uncover the truth about Peter and the Earth-2 raid.) Walter, Peter, and Olivia find Simon out in the woods, where he tries to keep a buffer between himself and society, since the constant mental chatter of other people drives him batty. But because Olivia was a Cortexiphan Kid, too, she’s immune to his mind-reading, and he’s so calmed by her presence that he agrees to accompany her to Boston to peer into Downey’s head.

I’ve got big problems with multiple aspects of “Concentrate And Ask Again,” to the extent that an episode I started out enjoying a great deal began to depress me a little by the time it was done. I had to step back from the episode and consider how it fit into the larger thematic picture of the series before my mood—and my overall opinion—improved. 

First of all, as previously noted, the case itself is no great shakes. Take away the wicked bone-dissolving gas, and we’re left with three fairly generic military guys—none of whom we get to know the way we’ve come to know and sympathize with other Fringe villains—whose plans and goals are vague and whose motivations stretch plausibility. Theirs is more a “crazed loner” kind of case, not a “dedicated team of angry dudes” one.

Second of all, while I always like meeting another Cortexiphan subject, Simon felt a little shoehorned into the plot, especially given that Walter has tapped the subconsciouses of plenty of folks before without the services of a mind-reader. If Simon had to be involved with this case, it would have been preferable if his condition had been more integral to the way the story played out. Let me explain what I mean. Yes, Simon reads Downey’s mind and discovers the location of the farmland south of Boston where he and his colleagues hatch their schemes. But then Fringe Division arrives at the villains’ lair and finds news clippings about a congressman and a big circle around the name of the place where the bad guys are planning to strike—the kind of dopey clues you’d expect to find in a lesser kind of procedural show. And once Olivia and Simon show up at the formal affair where the fiends are planning to de-bone hundreds, Simon fairly easily pegs the two suspects, and Olivia fairly easily dispatches them.

Which is fine, I suppose. But imagine how much more tense and exciting this episode would’ve been if Olivia had reason to doubt Simon’s intel. What if she had drawn her gun on a man who wasn’t pointing a gun back at her or if she’d shot someone who wasn’t trying to bull past a security guard with his hand on a pressure switch? That’s what I mean when I say Simon wasn’t a factor in the way the story played out, at least as far as the case was concerned. What he added to the case was really no different than what a surveillance photo or a timely fingerprint would have added. He was a clue-delivery device, driving the action, but not the story, if you get what I’m saying.

I’m not immune to the visceral pleasures of “Concentrate And Ask Again.” I definitely noticed that Olivia looked stunning in her formal attire and looked bad-ass when she was shooting the gasser through the throat. I dug all that. Also, because I’m a big geek, I dug the presence of Simon himself. I just love the way Fringe keeps sneaking superheroes into the show, but just on the periphery, and with a real-world weight that shows like Heroes and The Cape and No Ordinary Family would have done well to study. I thought this episode did as good a job as I’ve ever seen in a TV show or a movie of conveying what it would be like to read minds. Most shows treat mind-reading like telepathy, as though we’re all projecting complete sentences out into the psyche-sphere at all times. (See: No Ordinary Family. Or better yet: Don’t.) But here Simon receives others’ thoughts in fragments of words and only gets full sentences if they’re an echo of what someone is speaking aloud. Moreover, the train of disconnected phrases makes Simon physically ill, which is a reminder of just how awful Walter and William’s experiments used to be. (Thereby answering Walter’s rhetorical question from earlier in the episode: “Why would anyone kill a scientist? What did we ever do?”)

Still, I was bothered that that writers had Peter chastise Walter again for his past transgressions, lest we at home miss the point. I also felt that as with last week, the Peter and Olivia “Can’t we get past your hurt feelings about the alternate-you?” conversations were a drag on the episode’s momentum, if only because there wasn’t much about them we hadn’t heard before. (Not that it wasn’t still touching to see Olivia self-pityingly describe Fauxlivia as “Like me, but better.”) And while we’re on the subject of overdone touchy-feely business, I haven’t even gotten to what I’m sure is going to be a lot of people’s major problem with “Concentrate And Ask Again:” the ending.

At the end of the episode, Nina Sharp completes her comparison of William Bell’s copy of The First People (found in his old office in a vault containing a toy car and some photos of William and Nina together in their youth) to other volumes of the book and comes away with a code that tells her to go see old our bowling alley sage Sam Weiss. There, Sam tells Nina that Peter’s interaction with the Walternate doomsday machine will be affected by whether he prefers Olivia or Fauxlivia more (a point driven home by a nifty shot of two bowling bolls colliding). So it’s come to this: the fate of our universe determined by factors usually contained in a junior high love note.

I have to tell you, though, the more I thought about this, the less silly it seemed. (And initially, it seemed reeeeally silly.) And the more I thought about it, the more I began to warm to this episode—even though I still think it’s problematic just on a plot-and-dialogue level. As I’ve said probably way too many times, I see Fringe as a show about a lot of different ideas, but the idea that intrigues me the most is the one that sees human bodies as biological machines, capable of the serving the same functions as electronic machines. Capable, but not always efficient. We’ve seen again and again on this show how the inherent weaknesses of bodies and brains cause foolproof plans to go horribly awry. And now, here’s Peter, a messed-up kid from Earth-2 who has mixed-up feelings about both his true home and his adopted one. Forget the “Which Olivia do you love more?” crap for a second. How is this man supposed to choose a world?

And it’s here where Simon serves a function in the story other than just a plot-driver. He’s the one who tells Olivia that, “No one should know exactly what someone else is thinking,” even though he later writes her a note about Peter that reads, ominously, “He Still Has Feelings For Her.” But “feelings” aren’t a binary yes/no, which is part of the point Simon was trying to make earlier. Reading people’s minds can make you nuts, because people change so often that their thoughts are often hard to interpret. Sometimes, even if you have your own human version of a Magic 8-Ball like Simon, the most definitive answer you can get is, “Outlook Not So Good.”

Stray observations:

  • This is one of those episodes where I really wish I didn’t have to give a grade. The grade here is really more about how badly the second half of the episode played out, even though the episode as a whole left me with a lot to consider regarding the series as a whole. I will say that I’m very interested in hearing all of you guys’ reactions. I predict polarization.
  • In William Bell’s book collection: Dr. Spock’s Baby And Child Care. Cute. (But just a Spock joke, or also a clue that Bell had a baby?)
  • In the early part of the episode, when I was still enjoying myself unreservedly, I liked the scene of Walter eating fried chicken and then squirting blue gas on the bones.
  • I would’ve liked to have seen a scene where the FBI requisitioned Olivia that dress. Do you think Broyles handled that one?
  • Slug-buggy blue.
Filed Under: TV, Fringe

More TV Club