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Author's Note: Having grown tired of what's currently available on TV I've decided to rewatch some of my all time favorite shows. I'm limiting myself to one episode per week in order to experience the storytelling as it was originally intended, which hopefully will preserve the thrill of having to wait a week to see what happens next. This article covers the Fringe episode “Ability", which originally aired on February 10th, 2009.
In last week’s review of “The Transformation” I mentioned the importance of Fringe moving on from the Olivia-John storyline, about how closing that chapter would allow the show to finally break free of the long prologue it's been stuck in. The show runners take full advantage of their newfound freedom in “Ability”, an episode that is able to pluck interesting threads from the show’s past while also introducing several game-changing elements to the story.
Considering how much this episode propels Fringe into the future it’s ironic that “Ability” opens with an event we’ve already witnessed, as we get a slightly-different perspective on David Robert Jones’ escape from prison. There’s nothing new to be found here, but the short sequence is effective at doing its job, which is to remind us that the show’s biggest antagonist is still part of the story. Jones has been absent the past two episodes, and while his commanding presence isn’t something viewers will forget this brief recap lends a certain gravity to the character. This guy is far more important and dangerous than any of the villain-of-the-week bad guys we’ve encountered so far.
Coming out of the credits we find ourselves at a typical newsstand in New York City, where the jovial owner makes small talk with his regular customers. A mysterious man buys a paper, paying for it with a two dollar bill that the camera devotes some extra attention to. In a scary sequence the man soon finds his eyes, nose, and mouth being sealed shut by his own skin, and with his oxygen supply cut off he quickly dies on the street. Of all the fringe events we’ve seen so far this one got under my skin the most, the idea of not only being suffocated to death but also having your senses stolen from you is a terrifying concept.
Meanwhile, in an unknown location, Jones emerges from a decompression tank looking unwell. He requests some tea and takes note of the fact that his hand is shaking as he holds his cup, making it clear to the audience that his magical escape from prison wasn’t free of consequences. It’s worth mentioning that this is something Fringe does much better than its peers, while the science found on the show is fantastical using it always comes with a cost. And it appears that the bill has come due for David Robert Jones.
Jones isn’t so sick that he can’t get around though, and in a scene reminiscent of Seven he walks into FBI headquarters and turns himself in. He refuses to speak to anyone other than Olivia, but this week the obnoxious Sanford Harris returns and refuses to meet this demand. He orders Olivia to be part of the raid on Jones’ warehouse to get her out of the office, and as the team investigates the building tragedy strikes again. A young agent finds a familiar two dollar bill in an office drawer, and soon after he handles it the warehouse is filled with his screams. He suffers the same fate as the newspaper salesman, despite Olivia’s heroic attempt to save his life.
After speaking with German officials Olivia determines that ZFT isn’t a person but a manuscript, so she asks Peter to use his underworld connections to see if he can locate a copy. This lead eventually pans out as his associate Edward Markham finds one, with the cryptic book speaking of an apocalypse caused by mankind’s misuse of science. Given all that we’ve seen on Fringe the passages shared with the audience are easy to believe. There’s also mention of parallel universes that can be traveled to but that doing so has scientific repercussions, perhaps offering an explanation to the bizarre events featured on the show.
Olivia finally gets some one on one time with Jones, who is able to take a walkie-talking, a wristwatch, and a ballpoint pen and turn it into a jamming device so they can speak privately. Jones tells Olivia that he has planned another terrorist attack, one far deadlier than what he’s already done, but that he won’t execute it if she can pass a test. Jones tells Olivia that she is a recruit because as a child she participated in a scientific experiment where something called Cortexiphan was tested. But after doing some research that reveals Massive Dynamic (who else) created the drug, but that it was only tested in Ohio where she never lived as a child, she proceeds under the assumption that Jones is lying or mistaken. He gives her a key to a storage locker, telling her that she’ll find a package within that will put her on the path before doubling over in pain. Clearly whatever is ailing Jones is getting worse at a rapid pace, which only amplifies the urgency of the situation. If this man should die there might not be any way to stop the attack he has planned, so with no time to waste Olivia leaves to investigate the locker.
The package ends up being a weird light box that instructs Olivia to try and turn all the bulbs off using only her mind. The words used in the instructions bear many similarities to the ZFT manifesto, leading the team to believe that the author either created the light box himself or one of his disciples was responsible. With time running out to prevent Jones’ latest attack, Peter and Olivia decide to trick him into thinking she passed the light box test, with Peter putting his MIT dropout eduction to good use as he rewires the device to be manually controllable.
Jones’ condition has worsened to the point where he is transported to Walter’s lab, but he’s coherent enough to bear witness to Peter and Olivia’s deception. As promised, he provides the location of the bomb he has placed, but when the team arrives Olivia discovers that the device is wired to a light box just like the one she had just used to fool Jones with. Peter tells her that they need to run, but as the bomb’s timer winds down Olivia closes her eyes in concentration, and to Peter’s surprise she is able to extinguish all the bulbs. From the very beginning Olivia Dunham has been an interesting character, but the revelation that she has some form of telekinetic ability opens the door to endless possibilities.
Jones ends up being transported to the hospital, but by the time Olivia can get there to confront him he has once again escaped. He leaves her a message painted on the wall, YOU PASSED in bold black letters. Back at home she receives a call from Nina Sharp who lets her know that Cortexiphan wasn’t just tested in Ohio, but that a small trial was also ran in Jacksonville, which is where Olivia grew up. It would appear that as a young girl Olivia was indeed exposed to the mysterious drug, and that William Bell’s creation is responsible for her newly-discovered psychic abilities.
The episodes takes us back to Walter’s lab, where the mad scientist finds himself lost within the words contained in the ZFT manuscript. The book was manually-typed, and after taking note of the fact that all the Ys have a unique ascension to them Walter decides to dust off his own typewriter to run a test. Of course the Y he types matches those found in ZFT, leaving us to wonder if it was Walter himself that composed the bizarre document.
Wow, recapping this episode makes me realize just how much Fringe was able to accomplish in just forty-two minutes here. “Ability” is arguably the best episode of the show to date, and without question the most effective at moving the story forward in a fresh, new direction. There’s so many mysteries introduced here: what are the extent of Olivia’s abilities? What role did Walter have in the creation of ZFT? Parallel universes? Where is David Robert Jones at? Fringe has occasionally teased its potential for greatness before, but this episode really amps up the show’s momentum. We’ll see if it can maintain its speed next week.
Observer Sighting: On the sidewalk outside the newsstand.