A funny thing happened during the two weeks that I wasn’t around to write up Fringe: The show got good. The gooey weirdness, pulse-pounding police action and puckish wit all started to coalesce into well-written, well-paced episodes that didn’t just feel like rehashes of ideas and plots we’ve already seen. And seemingly out of nowhere, Anna Torv became a likeable heroine, no longer so painfully earnest and stilted. And even though tonight’s episode, “The No-Brainer,” was a step backward in quality from the last two, it was only a small step. The return to “just another case” after the complex, mythology-driven business of “Safe” and “Bound” was a let-down, but not an unexpected one. And for the most part, what Fringe has been getting right lately remained every bit as right.
Tonight’s Freak-Meet (and by the way, I’m thinking that term may be inadequate now to describe Fringe’s cold opens, which have gotten more varied) takes place in Springfield, where typical teen Gregory Wiles is chatting on his iPhone and listening to catchy rock music on his computer when suddenly a pop-up window appears reading “What’s That Noise?,” Greg—who’s apparently only owned a computer for a short time, and doesn't know any better—clicks the box, and is mesmerized by a Ring-esque montage of ominous images and screaming. Then a hand comes out of the screen, Videodrome-style, and liquefies Greg’s brain.
There’s something cool and subtle going on in “The No-Brainer” about the reliability of old technology and the danger of the new (a theme cross-bred with Fringe’s usual business about human bodies being used as imperfect vessels to carry biological agents and raw information). From Olivia playing a low-tech game of Operation with her niece to the old rotary telephone ringing in Walter’s lab (“I haven’t heard that sound for ages,” he pines), there were a lot of reminders in this episode of how far we’ve come, technology-wise. There was even an interesting visual cue throughout: recurring lens flares, some of which had clearly been digitally inserted. It gave the episode an “old” look, like an early ‘70s paranoid thriller.
Meanwhile, from out of a dingy, hand-wired back room, our sweaty, be-stubbled villain Brian Dempsey—a decidedly low-tech guy in appearance—has written a program so advanced that Peter’s special off-the-books expert gasps, “Some of this isn’t even computer code!” Dempsey is sending his brain-melting video package around to all of his enemies, essentially infecting them with a living computer virus, and because his victim-list is so narrowly constructed, it doesn’t take long for Olivia and company to track him down. (Even with the still-being-a-pain-in-the-ass Agent Harris demanding that she wrap up her investigation in 12 hours or less.)
My problems with “The No-Brainer” largely have to do with the familiarity of the scenario (for Fringe at least), the sketchy way it ties into the master-plot, and the blah way the story resolves. The climax is a little Scooby Doo-ish, to be frank. Olivia corners Dempsey in his lair, and Dempsey snarls, “Now my son hates me because of you!” (And that dog, presumably.) I could be wrong—and please correct me if I am—but I don’t believe the episode ever answers the main question I was asking: How did this loser create a mind bomb?
Instead, Fringe uses Dempsey and his son Luke as an example to Peter, convincing our hero that he needs to stop being so protective of Walter, and to let his dad have his own subplot. At the end of “The No-Brainer,” Walter meets with the woman who called his lab on that rotary phone (and sent a letter as well, which is very low-tech) and finds out that she’s mother of Carla Warren, the lab assistant whose fiery death sent Walter to the institution. Mrs. Warren doesn’t blame Walter; she just wants to learn more about her daughter. It’s a sweet reiteration of the idea that Walter and Peter (and Brian and Luke) need to understand each other better. But me, I wanted to hear more about that super-virus.
That said, I didn’t have a major problem with the super-virus plot being a rehash, because this is Fringe after all, and repetition is part of the concept. And I enjoyed the continued gelling of the team, with Peter feeling lighthearted enough to jauntily toss precious hard drives around, and Olivia showing more of the multivalent passion that’s become a key part of her character.
Plus, tonight’s episode had two killer sequences: the opening, and a heart-stopping race-against-time as Olivia speeds to her apartment to stop her niece from viewing Dempsey’s montage of death. I was literally yelling at my screen all through the latter scene, especially when Olivia burst into her home and didn’t stop shut her laptop right away. It’s that kind of offbeat action that has me enjoying this show more and more. I wouldn’t have said this about Fringe back in October, but I’m starting to feel like Walter does when he hears there’s a new corpse to examine: “This is the part of the day I look forward to most.”
-Thanks to Zack for filling in for me while I was otherwise disposed. Or perhaps he should thank me, since the show got on a roll while he was in charge.
-I don’t know about you, but I was expecting a creep-out ending when Olivia went to say good night to her niece. I’m glad we didn’t get one. I couldn’t have handled that. I've got a 4-year-old daughter, man.
-I liked Olivia’s response to the car salesman who enjoys strip clubs. Flashing a broad, warm smile, she says, “I’m not judging you.”
-I also liked Walter’s little joke, “Darwin’s thinking was rather… unevolved,” if only because he follows it up with a reflexive, “Thoughts? Peter?” like the college professor he still is inside.
-I bet if “weird scary glowy hand” (as my wife called it) were released as a free app on iTunes, it would be very popular.