Welcome back, Omega Head! When last we saw the head of Thomas Jerome Newton, it was being stitched onto the body of a fresh corpse, and readied by the Earth-2 human-machine hybrids The First Wave for its terrifying mission: to open The Gate between universes and possibly destroy Earth-1. Now the Fringe episode “Grey Matters” begins with Newton performing a little impromptu brain surgery. The patient? One Joseph Slater, who's been spending time lately at the Hennington Mental Health Institute, babbling about a girl in a red dress. Newton and The First Wave peel off the back of Slater’s head, pull out a big shark-tooth-shaped grey hunk, then take off in a rush, leaving Slater in better shape than they found him—aside from the exposed brain, of course.
As the episode’s title implies, “Grey Matters” is all about brains: what gets lodged there, what gets dislodged from there, and how clever TV writers can scramble the brains of their audience by using the choicest pieces of their show’s mythology to drive an episode forward. This was, I think, the best Fringe of the season, and I’m only docking it a notch because it was less about themes and character than it was about plot. But man, what a plot.
After the open-skulled Slater gets discovered, Fringe Division is called in to figure out exactly what happened. It doesn’t take long for Olivia to recognize Newton’s face on the security cameras—because she’s been researching potential Omega Heads on her own time—or for the team to note that Slater had been admitted to Hennington by a Dr. Paris, who prescribed for Slater an odd regimen of meds identical to the cocktail he recommended for two other patients: a man who (until recently) thought he was Sydney Greenstreet, and a woman who (until recently) was obsessed with the number 28. It also doesn’t take long for Walter to notice that among the meds prescribed by Dr. Paris is a drug designed to prevent transplant recipients from rejecting their new organs. Putting the clues together, Walter deduces that all three of Paris’ patients had been carrying pieces of a human brain inside their heads. And Peter figures out that “28” “Greenstreet” and “a girl in a red dress” all relate to memories of Walter’s. Or to put it in retro sci-fi movie terms: They Smuggled Bishop’s Brain!
I said that “Grey Matters” was light on character development, but that’s not strictly true. We got another one of those in-transit heart-to-hearts that Olivia and Peter are so fond of, in which he regrets never visiting Walter when Walter was institutionalized and Olivia admits that her FBI training hasn’t prepared her to understand the motivations of evil geniuses. And we got to see more of Walter grappling with the ramifications of his mental illness. It was heartbreaking to see the jealousy Walter felt towards Slater and the others, for the way they were “freed” from their sickness with a few quick flicks of a scalpel. And it was even harder to watch Newton kidnap Walter and try to jar his memory with photos from his past—including a snapshot of Dead Peter’s tiny casket.
Why does The First Wave nab Walter? So they can re-insert those hunks of brain that had been previously scattered—hunks of brain containing Walter’s memories of how to open a portal between universes. And who cut that memory out in the first place? According to a creepy final flashback, it was none other than William Bell, working with what seemed to be Walter’s own woozy permission.
Presumably, Newton is not following orders from Bell, given that Bell previously told Olivia that he was trying to stop Omega Head. But Newton is on top of his game. After Newton debriefs the re-brained Walter, he escapes Olivia’s attempt to arrest him by poisoning Walter and trading his freedom for the antidote. As as Newton disappears into the Massachusetts ether to continue his Omega-y ways, he delivers a parting shot to Olivia: “Now I know how weak you are.” (There’s more than one way you can lodge ideas in people heads, you know.)
Olivia mopes to Broyles about her failure to bring down the potential Destroyer Of Worlds, but her boss comforts he by saying that in the coming conflict, Fringe Division is going to need the services of the man she saved. “There’s only one Walter Bishop,” Broyles says. What I liked most about this episode is that it was a much-needed sop to Fringe fans like me, who likely all cocked an eyebrow at Broyles' line and chuckled, “Don’t be so sure.”
-I too have a terrible headache and a sudden craving for chicken wings.
-I mentioned the scarcity of thematic depth in “Grey Matters,” but of course it does continue the series’ meditation on bodies as meat-machines. Heck, with the proper amounts of blood, oxygen, and electrical stimulation, you can even keep a brain alive.
-Did anyone else get kind of a Helen Mirren vibe from Dr. West? She was played by Jeannetta Arnette, who’s probably most famous for co-starring on Head Of The Class back in the day.
-Tonight’s episode was written by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz, who wrote “Momentum Deferred,” and directed by Jeannot Szwarc, one of the most prolific TV drama directors of all time. (Seriously, check the credits.)
-I was glad to see the chip in Walter’s neck come into play so soon. For a moment, I was worried Peter (or the writers) wouldn’t remember it. (Nice bit of misdirection with the chase there too.)
-Is it me or has Anna Torv has become a “g”-droppin' machine this season?
-Stray mythology: “The Blight” on Earth-2 killed the trees and grass outside the alterna-Bishop’s house.
-I guess this would be one of those “half-season finales” we hear so much about. Anyway, there’s no more Fringe until January, so I’ll see y’all then. (Unless I’m in Sundance when the show comes back, in which case someone else will see you, temporarily.)