“Fringe” recap: Grey Matters

By Stacey Harrison

© 2009 Fox Broadcasting Co. Credit: Liane Hentscher/FOX
© 2009 Fox Broadcasting Co. Credit: Liane Hentscher/FOX

You can always tell when you’re in for a mythology episode or a standalone episode by the “previously on Fringe” segments. If you see a scene from the pilot, setting up the premise of the show, then Pattern junkies are probably OK to skip the next hour. If you’re seeing Leonard Nimoy, and severed heads being reattached to bodies, then you might want to pay close attention.

The guy whose head they stole from a cryogenic factory and reattached to his body — the supposed leader of some other-dimensional group — is up and running. He’s heading up a break-in at a mental hospital where he’s either retrieving something vital to his sinister purposes from the brain of a wide-awake patient or reenacting a scene from Hannibal. You know the one. Olivia and the Bishop boys come in to investigate (an orderly was also shot and killed during the escape), and they learn that Slater has been cooped up for 14 years and been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Which always begs the question: Are there any other kind of schizophrenics?

But what’s interesting here is that despite leaving him with the back half of his head peeled away, the intruders seemed to have helped Mr. Slater. As Peter puts it, they “drove him sane,” taking away all his symptoms and erratic behaviors, while apparently having done nothing to his brain. We know they pulled something out, something that did not look organic, but our heroes don’t. Walter asks to see footage of Slater in his previous condition, and what they see is a blank-eyes man constantly mumbling something about a little girl in a red dress who lives across the street and grows chrysanthemums in her window sill. He gets violent whenever anyone contradicts his story.

When they visit the new and improved Slater, he’s as calm and clear-eyed as he was crazed and vacant before. He doesn’t remember much about the intruders, but remembers feeling as though he had just undergone a spring cleaning of the mind. Walter, whose 17 years in a mental institution are never far from his thoughts, takes an intense interest in Slater’s transformation. A look at the surveillance tape of the break-in provides a brief glimpse at the face of the do-it-yourself brain surgeon, and it’s a face Olivia recognizes. She scans the list of frozen heads she’s been investigating the past two months and matches it to one Thomas Jerome Newton, about whom nothing is known.

Walter goes through Slater’s medical file and, with the help of Astrid, uncovers that Slater’s doctor at the time of his institutionalization, Dr. Simon Paris, had given him an indefinite drug prescription — the same one he gave to two other patients. Olivia and Peter track down one of the patients, Mrs. Crampton, who reports a similar phenomenon, having suffered from OCD related to the number 28 for 14 years before suddenly waking up and feeling just fine. Peter checks her head and finds a fresh scar from what looks like a surgical laser, even though Mrs. Crampton has no memory of a break-in or surgical procedure. She reveals that Dr. Paris recommended she go to the institution for postpartum depression, and then her OCD developed before she could be released. Dr. Paris’ other patient has a similar story, having been treated for something relatively minor, then developing extreme symptoms before having them magically disappear 14 years later. This guy, Stuart Gordon, thought he was actor Sydney Greenstreet and was constantly quoting lines from Casablanca.

Walter does some more noodling and concludes that since the patients were all on seemingly useless anti-rejection drugs only given to people who had undergone organ transplant, that they might have had some foreign brain tissue implanted in their heads. Why would someone do that? Well, you can remove brain tissue but can only keep it alive for a few hours, unless it’s somewhere getting electrical impulses. You know, like in someone else’s brain. But the host brains were unable to properly process the new information, causing their odd symptoms to surface. Once they’re removed, then the stress also vanishes. Sounds like we’re on to something, and then the kind of twist usually reserved for the end of the episodes emerges: In looking for information on Dr. Paris, Slater’s mental institution finds that he visited Walter six times during his 17 years at St. Claire’s. Peter checks Walter’s head and, sure enough, finds a scar.

So it’s logical to think that the brain-tissue hunters will be going after Walter next, right? They get him off to an MRI to do a scan and it reveals something surprising. Walter didn’t have tissue implanted, he had it removed. Peter quickly matches up Walter’s brain scan with the other three patients and finds that it’s Walter’s brain tissue that was being implanted. Memories are stored in there, memories of how to open the portal to the other dimension, and that’s what Newton and his crew are after. But in order to retrieve the memories, they need to implant them in a brain that can read them. Walter’s.

While Astrid is out fetching Walter’s this-helps-me-come-down-from-Valium album, he’s taken by Newton. Peter tries to track him down using the transponder chip Walter implanted in himself, but traces it to the sink of a public bathroom, where it’s been removed. Under interrogation by Newton, Walter is shown images to try to get his mind to recall the memories they want. They are images of Peter playing, and eventually of a coffin. Yikes. But the connection isn’t strong enough, they need the proper context.

The live version of Peter solves the mystery of where Walter is being held by remembering the different obsessions of the other patients. The girl in the red dress across the street refers to a neighbor from Peter’s childhood. Her name was Sydney and she lived at 2828 Green Street. Bravo. The old house is also where Walter came up with the idea of how to open the door to another dimension, and that’s where Newton has taken him to try and recreate the memory.

When they reconnect him, Walter flashes back to a bit of his previous self, which means John Noble gets to channel a little bit of Denethor into our kindly wacko doctor. By the time Olivia and Peter arrive at the scene (How come Astrid never comes along for this part?), the bad guys are packing up, ready to go. Olivia gives chase, and takes a couple of them down, with her well-aimed bullets exposing that silvery blood. She apprehends Newton, but something comes up before she can take him in. Newton has given Walter a neurotoxin that will kill him within minutes unless they administer the antidote — a series of injections from colored syringes for which only Newton knows the correct sequence. He says if Olivia gives him her phone and sprints into the house, letting him get away, he’ll give her the correct sequence. She struggles with it, knowing Walter will die if she doesn’t comply. She does, and Walter is saved, but Newton leaves her with this chilling message: “Now I know how weak you are.”

Olivia beats herself up over making an emotional choice, saving Walter’s life instead of bringing Newton in, but Broyles tells her she made a rational one. Having Walter around is more important to the overall war than winning this particular battle was.

Loved the episode, but once the whole brain-removal, memory implanting storyline was revealed, I couldn’t help but ask, wouldn’t a simple interrogation have sufficed? Why remove Walter’s memory in the first place, if you wanted to retrieve the knowledge? I mean, I’m happy to go along with Fringe’s leaps of science, but leaps of logic are harder to stomach. Well, some of those concerns are addressed in the coda, which is a flashback for Walter of when he had the memories removed initially. Dr. Paris turns out to be none other than William Bell (Or is William Bell simply this side’s version of Dr. Paris?), and he explains to Walter that what he’s done in figuring out how to open the door between dimensions is just too dangerous for him to remember. But should they ever need the knowledge again, he’ll store it somewhere only he can find it.

OK, fine. But hey, Billy, ever hear of keeping notes? Surely a piece of paper or a computer program could be hidden more effectively — and without institutionalizing three innocent people — than going around and cutting people’s brains up. And what if those people had died in all these years? What would happen to the tissue then? I dunno, should I give Fringe the benefit of the doubt here, that they’ll explain all this? Or is this just a plot hole we’ll all have to laugh off in service to the thrill of the chase?

Odds and ends:

— The dude playing Slater (Jeff Perry) also played Thatcher Grey, Meredith’s dad on Grey’s Anatomy. Here on Fringe, he turns up in an episode called “Grey Matters.” Hmmm …

— “And you’re Dr. Bishop?” “Yes. And I’m perfectly sane.”

— Before his MRI, Walter orders up a nice batch of Valium. “I’ll have 50 milligrams, please.” “That’s quite a high dosage.” “I have quite a high tolerance.”

— It was nice to see a scientist other than Walter treated as something besides a quack. I’m all for Walter being a mad genius, but he shouldn’t always be the world’s smartest man.

— “In theory, he shouldn’t be able to, but in theory, he should still be a frozen head.”

— Peter references Walter having put in the GPS chip “last week” when he got lost. So the Fringe adventures are happening in real time, eh?

— During his interrogation, Walter reminisces about his first organic chemistry class, when he and his lab partner would sit in the back and sniff the benzine fumes. Sounds about right. He also notices that the house he’s in looks familiar, and Newton tells him that it also exists in his dimension, but that the trees are gone, along with the grass, because of something called The Blight. I get the feeling we’ll be hearing more of that.

— The director of this episode was Jeannot Szwarc, who also directed Jaws 2, Somewhere in Time, Supergirl and Santa Claus: The Movie. Just thought that was neat.