Can hypnosis make you do something that you don’t want to do? The common assumption is no, but it’s a provocative question, because what it seems to imply is that even if to all outward appearances you are a reserved, cautious person, you may harbor deep-seated desires that can be unlocked if some mesmerizing sort crosses your path. And it’s a good question for Fringe, which is a show about how people can be reduced to impulses, like some all-too-readily programmable machine.
“Of Human Action” opens atop a Queens parking deck, where the cops have cornered two shady dudes and the teenage boy they’re accused of kidnapping. The police seem to have the situation under control, until one of the officers begins walking backwards against his will, and falls off the deck to his death, while the other takes her gun and shoots two colleagues and herself. The two shady dudes—identified by our buddies at Fringe Division as used-car salesman—get back in their vehicle and drive off with the teenager still in tow. The boy’s name? Tyler Carson, the son of a Massive Dynamic researcher.
The Fringe team tracks the fugitives to a convenience store, where one man has recently been made to pour coffee over his head and run into a glass cooler, while another has died from sticking his keys into an electrical socket. The crooks then leave a demand for two million dollars, but in the least-shocking twist ever, the authorities arrive at the drop-site only to find out that Tyler’s kidnappers aren’t kidnappers at all. They’re victims. Of Tyler.
The kid uses his mind control next on Peter, forcing him to drive to Springfield (there’s your Simpsons treasure hunt thing, I guess) so he can meet up with his absentee mother, a woman that his father said died 14 years ago. But when Tyler and Peter arrive, they discover a confused mom with a family of her own, and no real desire to have her life turned upside-down by a demanding adolescent. Tyler wants Peter to shoot his mom’s husband, but just then the FBI busts in. So Tyler orders Peter to shoot Broyles. If Peter complies, what does that mean? That he’s just a weapon, deployed by another? Or that deep down, he’s homicidal?
I have some major qualms with “Of Human Action,” starting with the performance of Cameron Monaghan as Tyler. I hate to pick on a child actor, but Monaghan’s been in the business for over a decade, so he’s earned the right to be treated like any other pro. And in this role, he was a drag, playing “rebellious teen” in a stock, wooden way, with no extra layers. Also, nobody—not even Joshua Jackson, whom I’ve come to appreciate more as an actor over the run of this show—could make the “My mind is being controlled!” scenes look anything other than goofy. It wasn’t a great night for the actors on Fringe.
And speaking of goofy, I was less than impressed with the way the team ultimately foiled Tyler (with the aid of Walter’s brainwave-disrupting gun), or with the epilogue, in which we find out that Tyler is one of a group of clones bred by Massive Dynamic for experiments in mind control. We find this out thanks to a dispatch being sent by Nina Sharp to William Bell, via whatever system they use to communicate—a system that even Nina seems to find mysterious and possibly unreliable. Although I appreciated seeing an episode that brings Massive Dynamics back into the fold and reminds us that they’re not necessarily the good guys, I’m getting a little impatient with the writers using the last three minutes to tease us with masterplot-points. I’ve never had a problem with Fringe’s reliance on self-contained episodes, but as I wrote a lot in Season One, there are ways to combine longer arcs and new-viewer-friendly stories more skillfully than Fringe has lately. (Though judging by the previews for next week’s episode, we’re about to get some movement on the mythology.)
Yet for all my griping, I was quite taken with the theme of this episode, and the motifs that writers Robert Chiappetta and Glen Whitman and director Joe Chappelle used to support it. From the tinfoil Peter Pan hats that Walter and Astrid wear (to thwart what Walter presumes to be Massive Dynamic’s mind-reading capabilities) to Tyler popping the medication that grants him his powers out of a Pez dispenser, there’s a lot in “Of Human Action” about childish things. Consider the episode’s central set-piece, which has the FBI attempting to execute Tyler’s money-drop while wearing headphones pumping white noise, mistakenly believed by Walter to drown out the mind-control. Walter gets his white-noise-generator from Peter’s boyhood teddy bear, and though it’s highly implausible that the FBI would rely on a toy rather than their own high-tech equipment, from an aesthetic standpoint there’s something effectively surreal about the scenes of FBI agents swarming to the pulse of a ratty old bear.
And, like I said, the bear fits the theme. As soon as Walter hears that Tyler’s been motherless, he reflects on his own life, and Peter’s, and it rattles him a little—especially when Tyler takes Peter from him. Maybe it’s because I’m a parent myself, but I’m especially captivated by movies and TV shows that deal with the idea of parenting as a kind of mind-control, a process of loading codes. As Walter notes, our brain is an organic computer, and can be hijacked by anybody. And though “Of Human Action” doesn’t do enough with this concept, the concept’s still inherently moving. Because there are few things some parents fear more than the inevitable moment when something overrides our programming.
-I realize that hypnosis isn’t exactly the same thing as mind-control, so the question at the top of this review may not entirely pertain. But at its core, the question is the same: Can someone make you do something that you don’t really want to do?
-Joe Chappelle deployed an odd visual motif, too: throwing crap at the camera lens.
-Walter presumes that human brains would taste like chicken.
-Massive Dynamic’s facility has 73 labs. That’s Walter’s idea of heaven.
-How many times this season has Fringe Division been ordered to stand down? (And how many times have they actually done so?)
-Tyler and Peter dine on steak at one of those upscale TV strip clubs where the dancers writhe around to ambient techno or something, as opposed to, like, Aerosmith, as they would in the real world.
-Hey, remember Kevin Corrigan? He used to play a character on this show. And Meghan Markle, too. Remember her?
-You were abducted! Of course you need crêpes!