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TV Review: Fringe – “Grey Matters”

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It’s pretty awesome to be treated to mid-season mini-finales; it forces networks to work really hard to make sure that, after the sometimes really long winter hiatus, viewers are going to come back for more. Supernatural really worked their last show, and so did Fringe. As mentioned in the last couple of reviews, Fringe episodes are becoming better and better, and it bode quite well for this episode. And boy, did the Fringe team deliver.

Already, for the second week in a row, the opening is quite gruesome, which makes me wonder if the producers are upping the icky factor in a bid to grow into the show’s potentiality. Once again we are taken into a psychiatric institution – a running theme in Fringe, it seems. It’s a good thing Walter Bishop is a fictional character; I felt quite bad for him, once again taken into a place he’d much rather forget about.

Guard: Are you’re Dr. Bishop?
Walter: Yes. And I’m perfectly sane.

At said psychiatric hospital, we meet with Joseph Slater, who, in the opening scene of this episode, was undergoing a rather gruesome brain surgery in his room, courtesy of the mysterious ‘omega boss’ Olivia Dunham was warned about by William Bell and the very goons that found his head and connected back to a body.

We soon come to discover that Joseph Slater has been cured of schizophrenia – which, by the way, is impossible. And Fringe Division figures out that apparently frozen heads to just get up and go places, as the identify the intruder who performed pro bono surgery on Joseph Slater as Thomas Newton, one of the frozen heads that were stolen.

Just to complicate matters a little more, we also soon discover that Joseph Slater isn’t the only one whose psychiatric disorder is miraculously healed, and all of these miraculous recoveries are correlated with the presence of a scar on each person’s scalp. Odd, to say the least.

Fringe Division soon figures out that each of these patients had foreign brain tissue implanted in their brains; someone was basically using them as a storage container. And soon, we figure out whose brain tissue was being stored: Walter Bishop’s.

Wanting to bring the other dimension Peter into this world after this world’s Peter passed away, Walter created a door that also opened the way for a possible invasion, as William Bell warned Olivia Dunham about last season. To keep the information safe, Walter Bishop’s hippocampus was removed, as per William Bell’s suggestion, but, it seems, with Walter Bishop’s consent, and placed for safekeeping in our three miraculously healed psychiatric patients. But now Thomas Newton needs that information; he took back the pieces of Walter Bishop’s brain tissue and, using an apparatus that seems to detect the brain’s electromagnetic field, is ‘fitting’ the pieces’ to electric impulses within Walter Bishop’s brain’s impulses, thus temporarily restoring his brain back to normal.

And the change is startling. Walter Bishop goes from caring, adorable and loving to cold, aloof, and arrogant, the scientist he used to be, the one who lost everything, including his son.

I couldn’t help but wonder at the ethical implications of this kind of surgery, were it to really exist. I think we can all agree that the specifics of Walter Bishop’s situation are out of bounds unethical, in that no one should ever be implanted without consent. But the actual surgery that was performed on him really piqued my curiosity. What if this was used as a way to punish criminals? What if we had the technology to actually pinpoint areas of the brain with specific memories related to a crime, to something said criminal has repeatedly done, and remove it, as a way of protecting the public and as a way of punishing the person? In the case of Walter Bishop, for example, he was, by all accounts, not the nicest of people nor the most ethical of scientists before his memory was removed. What if he had strayed too far, hurt many people with his inventions, and as punishment, had had the memories related to his scientific experiments removed? It would save others from falling prey to Walter Bishop while at the same time punishing him in the worse way possible.

It might sound like an extreme way of punishing people – a little like the death penalty, if you think about it – and it also would affect society negatively: on the one hand, we’d lose a brilliant mind whose discoveries could also be used for the greater good, and on the other hand, we would be creating a ward of the state, someone who needs a guardian and will not be able to contribute as much as he used to, if at all (were the surgery to go very wrong).

This, of course, is an extreme discussion, since the technology doesn’t exist and even if it did, such an application would take a lot of time and reflection, but in the immediate, we can think of other similar situations in which the state imposes such a radical solution. For one, we have the death penalty, and another would be the often suggested but as yet instituted castration as a punishment for rape/sexual abuse.

We also find out another detail about the other world, that a sort of plague, called ‘the Blight’, has killed all the trees in that world. It seems like perhaps they unbalanced science and religion even more than we did; for all their scientific knowledge and advancement, they were neither able to respect their environment, nor were they able to create a race of people that, even if polite, use people against their will as implant-safes, causing them and their loved ones harm. Perhaps our world isn’t that bad after all – or perhaps we are heading that way, too.

Which makes me wonder: is there another parallel world in which religion took over and everyone is an extremist? And are we lucky to be living in the world which seems to be striking a balance? It would be an interesting theory, would it not?

On a totally different subject, once again, this episode showed what an awesome shot Olivia Dunham is; one shot sent the bullet went through the window of the driver’s side and killed him immediately, and one shot sent the bullet straight into the middle of the other man’s forehead. Pretty awesome – and I wonder if this can actually be done in real life, even by the world’s best marksman?

Then again, this is Fringe. Olivia Dunham having supernatural shooting skills shouldn’t surprise me. And it does helps us understand a little more about why she feels like she is alone, since not many people can hope to equate her skills. Thus she feels like she carries the burden of solving this entire, erm, mess alone.

Olivia: How can I fight what I don’t understand?

Peter: Olivia, this isn’t just your fight.

Which made the little interaction with Thomas Newton all the more interesting, when he says to her (after having given her the sequence of antitoxins), "And Olivia – now I know how weak you are."

I agree with Broyles in that this definitely does not make Olivia weak, but rather, that it makes her stronger. She isn’t letting the job get in the way of the most important things in life; perhaps, like I mentioned above, this is the reason why the other world is suffering from the Blight, and perhaps this is why, at the end, our world is going to win the war.

Walter’s roller coaster of a ride during this episode also begs to be mentioned. First was his initial stress at being back into a psychiatric hospital. Then was Thomas Newton showing him a picture of a child-sized coffin, which reminded him of Peter’s death (cue distress) and finally, to seeing pieces of his own brain dying – in short, it was quite a downer of a week for the poor man.

Walter: It’s my brain tissue, Peter. It’s dying. Whatever was in there, I’m going to lose forever.

And however polite Thomas Newton is, the fact that he is willing to be so cruel to Walter in the name of getting the information about the door is terrible.

As the show is becoming a lot tighter in its writing, and the plotlines seem to all fit, I can’t help but wonder at a couple of things which I think are hints rather than mistakes.

First off, is Walter’s nervousness at doing the MRI related to claustrophobia (he mentions he’s not claustrophobic, but isn’t that what a claustrophobic person would say?), to an anxiousness related to having our fears confirmed (which is what Walter says is the reason for his nervousness), or rather, to guilt? After all, it has been repeated time and again that Walter knows more than he lets on.

Second of all, who took the microchip out of Walter’s neck? I have the impression it was Walter; or he took it out himself, or he told his abductors about it, knowing that they would remove it, thus making him untraceable by Peter and the rest of Fringe team.

Thirdly, as Thomas Newton was explaining to him what they were trying to do, i.e. find the old neural connections to hook his brain pieces back in, Walter's expression wasn’t quite as innocent as we would think it would be. He seemed almost happy, as if things were going according to plan.

The other interesting detail is that, at the end of this episode, we find out that the person who performed this surgery on Walter Bishop, with his apparent though reluctant consent, is William Bell, who is supposed to have been the only person who knows what happened to the brain tissue. And so the question now is: how did Thomas Newton find out about this? Or, more importantly, how did his two now dead goons find out about where he was (i.e. that he was a frozen head)? Like Broyles tells Olivia, with every answered question, there are many more that are then asked.

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About Sahar

  • teyweoe

    Of course, you don’t BOTHER to put down ANYTHING peter does in this episode. This whole review nothing but Olivia and Walter. I hate these two and I hate you.

  • Lol! teyweoe, thanks for the laugh, this is the most hilarious comment I have ever read.

  • Flo

    First of all, happy new year to you Sahar! Best wishes for 2010, health, success and all.

    I don’t have much more to say about this episode, you covered everything in your review.

    Olivia’s amazing skills at shooting made me think about Scully’s in “The X-Files”. She was a great shooter too. Remember when she shoots Mulder, easily finding his shoulder’s area, in the night, without a lot of light and while Mulder was bending over Krycek?

    Anyway, FBI agents are trained to gun fight and with the adrenaline I suppose you can do amazing things! And I agree with you and Broyles, Olivia is not weak.

    Back to the main story, a lot was discovered but like you said, it begs more questions. Who or what exactly is Thomas Newton and how did he know about the brain tissue? Who does he work for? This is really intriguing. I really wonder what will be Newton next move.
    All of this looks more and more like a chess game.

    As for Walter, Olivia is right, without his whole brain, he is a better person. The way he acts when he recovers his brain tissue is indeed colder but at the same time it was this man who in a gesture of desperation built a door to retrieve his son. So as cold and arrogant as he apparently was he also was capable of love. I think he always was socially inept. Now, he still has difficulties in this area but he tries to be a better father.

    All in all it was a very interesting episode, full of developments. Good rhythm.

  • Happy New Year to you too, Flo! Always nice to read your comments – you have very interesting insights. Have you noticed how what you tell me always influences my future reviews?

    I never really noticed Scully’s shooting skills. I distinctly remember the scene where she shoots Mulder (it was in Season 2’s Anasazi, if I am not mistaken) but… perhaps because it wasn’t really an important element of the show, it never stood out to me.

    Walter Bishop being a better person without pieces of his brain really tickled my imagination. Perhaps it’s because I recently reread 1984… But I couldn’t help but wonder (and shudder) and the thought of a society in which brain excisions would be performed to ensure ‘good community life’.

    Lesson of the day: I shouldn’t read 1984 before going to bed 😉

  • Flo

    As incredible and shameful as it sounds, I must admit I never read 1984! I know, I know don’t shoot!

    The brain excisions for “community service” is really a scary thought. But like you wrote in your review, in a society where some people wonder if chemical castration would be a good idea for rapists, who knows? It is an interesting thought.

    Yes, scully shooting Mulder is in season two’s finale “Anasazi”.

    Thanks for the kind words. I don’t really notice my influence on your reviews though. Probably because it is not a purpose of my comments. I mean, I find your reviews interesting and I just want to share my views on the episodes. Glad you find my insights useful, it’s always nice to know your own comments are appreciated 🙂