February 10th, 2009
If there was ever any question about which J.J. Abrams show Fringe was trying to be, “Ability” sealed the deal.
For those who didn’t have the pleasure of seeing Abrams’ second major foray into television, Alias, this episode played out much like that series. At a certain point, Sydney Bristow walked into a residence during a mission (serving as a spy) and saw a puzzle lying scattered on a table. Within a few seconds, she was suddenly (and subconsciously) completing the puzzle before her, instinctively creating the tower that the pieces created. While I won’t spoil the actual reason why Sydney was able to complete the task, let’s just say that it was some sort of test project, and that there was a reason why she became a spy.
Ultimately, “Ability” is trying to do the same for Olivia Dunham, giving her a reason to be so intricately linked to this mysterious scientific conspiracy that is currently unfolding. Catapulting the mysterious and creepy Mr. Jones back into our main narrative, we learn some very important things in this episode, things that will go a very long way to allowing the series (upon its return in April) to expand into ideas that have laid dormant since the pilot or have yet to even be uncovered. The result is, if not the cleanest episode since the show first entered into this type of territory with “The Arrival,” then certainly the one that has felt the most expansive.
We are presented with two basic mysteries in this episode, both of which have some fairly substantial ramifications. First, presuming that Olivia was amongst the test subjects for this drug, what has it done to her system and has it actually in any way made her ideal for this type of unit? On top of this, how much do people like Broyles know about this, and to what extent has it played a role in her ascent within the FBI. Secondly, Walter realizes in the episode’s final scene that the ZFT manuscript was written on his own typewriter, and immediately we wonder whether or not her had a hand in writing it and whether his memory gaps are leaving out a particular radical period.
In the end, though, the two questions are answered by one name: Massive Dynamic, and more particularly William Bell. I will bet you money that it was Bell who wrote that manuscript using Walter’s typewriter, and that Bell’s research did not stop in 1983 as he claims it did. Ever since the pilot, there has been something about William Bell that makes him out to be this series’ Arvin Sloane: in fact, considering the later season evolution of that Alias character, the parallel becomes even more logical (even if that period of Alias should be ignored systematically when considering the show’s quality or potential). The fact that he shared that space with Arthur has always been problematic in a way, in that we’ve never met Bell and that Nina Sharpe has always stood in for him in negotiations with Massive Dynamic. The idea that he was the one who wrote that manuscript, that he is not only fueling the market for dangerous scientific weapons but also serving as its inspiration, is a really interesting twist that I am looking forward to see come to fruitition.
There’s a lot of theories going around about multiple realities (it’s in the manuscript) and the idea that Walter did in fact write those things within one of those other universes, but I find that inherently more problematic. It’s one thing to make Walter complicit in the accident that had him institutionalized, but it’s quite another to create this season that he is responsible for the militant reasoning of these people. As it is, there’s always been a disconnect with the character, who seems to have been the one responsible for making groundbreaking strides in all of these fringe science arenas that is now being used against defenseless humans. In his altered mental state, however, Walter seems to rationalize this, his desire for coffee cake or his details on figuring things out while on the toilet, is in many ways a coping mechanism for the actual harsh reality that is constantly staring him in the face. We’ve even had hints that Peter is in some way an experiment, and that Walter’s strange relationship with him could be him hiding the deeper meaning of their shared past.
You can tell that I haven’t written about Fringe in a while, because I do have a lot to say. The show has been solid since returning after American Idol, somewhat more confident in its abilities. Last week, tying off the John Scott plot for the time being opened the show up to stories like this one, opportunities for them to really question what we know about these people. The Walter side of things was actually quite vague, shoved in at the end, compared to the further attempts to spark interest in Anna Torv’s fairly lifeless character of Olivia Dunham. Torv has yet to really “bring it” to the role, a problem that I’m not sure is fixed by making the character have the power to stare really hard at things while scrunching her forehead.
I’m being facetious largely because the storyline is really, at this point, a giant hoax. The scene with Peter and Olivia is very weird because all of a sudden Peter is this believer, ignoring Olivia’s fairly logical argument of “Mr. Jones is highly manipulative and a little crazy, of course he’d have this set up” and instead saying that she really did disable that bomb using only her mind to turn off the tiny light bulbs. Me, I’d more likely believe that Nina Sharpe’s phone call was part of the plan, designed to put it in Olivia’s head that she had in fact done that on her own, and that maybe that test never actually existed. The show has created a bureacuracy where we’ve pretty much been told not to trust anyone, and like with Alias there’s always that chance of someone playing both sides. The manuscript is really the first tangible allegiance we’ve been able to see, everything else serving as shadowy CIA divisions (shades of Alias) or terrorist groups that are now gaining new focus with the presence of this document.
For this reason, the presence of Harris, the bureaucrat with a grudge against Olivia, is even more problematic: as Alan Sepinwall has quite rightly pointed out, he is a total straw man, who now finds himself operating on a show where there is a much more philosophical grounding to the threats being perpetrated and where the show has a chance to start to question people’s motives. But Harris is so one-note, so ill-equipped to operate in that kind of environment, that he’ll only be dragging things down from this point forward (not that he hasn’t been dragging them down already).
And the show is going beyond that point, and I have to wonder at what point it will be willing to reel things back in. For those who don’t know, the story of Alias’ rise and fall is largely defined by the prophecy of one Milo Rambaldi, another document wherein there was grave ramifications for all of their missions and for the life of the show’s heroine in particular. There, too, there were sketches of Sydney, apparently drawn by Rambaldi, that accompanied the apocalyptic message about the planet. The show ultimately got bogged down in this idea, feeling like everything had to relate back to some sort of grand scheme and in particular to this character. It’s always dangerous, and was something that even Abrams felt went too far and made the show incomprehensible for even its more ardent supporters.
Clearly, FOX doesn’t want that to happen: behind American Idol Fringe is getting some solid numbers and has potential to extend its life for many seasons, and moving too far away from a “case of the week” format takes it too far away from what is considered marketable within this current television climate. I just hope that they realize that there is a lot of potential in these ideas, a lot to be found within them for new material that specifically deals with these characters, but that rushing into it or letting it take over the show could become messy very quickly. Overally, “Ability” feels like the right first step: now we just need to wait and see where they go from here. Considering that there’s apparently 9 more puzzles in the box that Olivia achieved, methinks that there’s at least a recurring, and if I may say so very Rambaldi-esque, set of cases in the near future.
- More than any other episode so far, the actual plot of this one really didn’t factor in: the rather gross illness, caused by touching $2 bills, took two lives, and was used as a threat to place pressure on Olivia’s puzzle-solving abilities. I will give them some credit, though, when Olivia’s attempt to save the second victim (Noah Bean, so annoying on Damages) went horribly awry – that was a fun and honestly unexpected moment, even if fun is an odd word to use for a scene where someone died a horrible and gruesome death.
- Seriously, though: as long as he timed the lights to go out at the end of the countdown, and as long as he held out on the location long enough, Mr. Jones would easily be able to use this as a trick to convince Olivia of her chosen one-ness. Olivia would totally have stared at that thing for three hours – best episode ever? I think so.
- Some great Walter-isms in this one, whether it was his lathering of the cow’s teats or his constant craving for coffee cake that drove every one of his sentences. The show even let Peter in on the action a little, playing around with Walter’s time travel device and being generally more useful than usual. Funny and useful: two good adjectives for supporting players on a show like this one. Sorry Astrid – you’ll get to be one of them in time, I’m sure. You too, Charlie.
- Fun fact: even though this episode is actually a bit of a gamechanger for the show, none of the show’s major creative forces had any hand in writing it. Strange, no?