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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 “The No-Brainer", which originally aired on January 27th, 2009.
After delivering a rather heavy storyline that required two episodes to tell Fringe allows the audience to catch their breath with “The No-Brainer”, a fun yet simple episode that marks a return to the “mystery of the week” format that fueled the first third of season 1. I’ve criticized the show for leaning too heavily on this form of storytelling in the past, but here it makes for a nice break and gives us a chance to process everything that happened in “Safe” and “Bound”. Good storytelling requires disciplined pacing, and the show runners wisely resist the temptation to overindulge its audience without making this episode feel like pointless filler.
The plot of “The No-Brainer” is rather basic: someone is using a computer program to murder people. While last week’s episode first had to address Olivia’s kidnapping this week we’re immediately introduced to the scientific mystery, as teenager Gregory Wiles chats with a friend over the Internet before clicking on a pop-up menu that ends up killing him. When rewatching old shows (it’s disturbing to consider something made in 2009 “old”) it’s important to maintain a sense of temporal context, especially when considering technology. Very little of what happens on Fringe doesn’t involve computers and science, but it’s surprising how contemporary the show feels a decade later. In 2018 we’ve evolved from AOL Messenger and MySpace to texting and Twitter, but the basic concept of using the Internet to communicate with others hasn’t changed.
The actual death scene is very The Ring-like, with a ghosty hand reaching out from the screen which melts the young man’s brain. The Naomi Watts horror film aired in 2002, just five years before “The No-Brainer”, so I have to assume this sequence was at least partially-inspired by the movie. As always, the Fringe team is called in and Walter gets to work on identifying the root of the problem, while Olivia interviews Luke Dempsey, a friend of the victim who was chatting with him the evening of his death.
It isn’t long before a second victim turns up, this time a car salesman with no obvious connections to Wiles. In both cases the victim's computer had been left with destroyed hard drives, and while no specific details are available Astrid is able to determine that each computer had recently downloaded a large unidentified file. Peter takes the hard drives to a computer guy that he knows who tells him that the contents on the discs aren’t even entirely made up of computer code. Even more troubling is that he’s able to figure out where the latest copy of the program has been sent to: Olivia’s apartment.
In a fantastically-tense action sequence Olivia races home, where we see her niece innocently using the Internet to color a pony. The pop up appears and just like every other naturally-curious child she clicks the link, and as her aunt violently navigates traffic the creepy image sequence plays on the laptop. Olivia is able to snatch the computer away before the movie can play through to completion, and while her niece is a bit dazed her brain remains in solid form. She takes note that her computer’s webcam was activated the whole time, meaning that someone was remotely watching.
We get a third victim who turns out to be Luke Dempsey’s stepfather, providing a connection between two of the murders. From here they’re able to ascertain that Gregory Wiles’ father had worked with Luke’s father but had fired him, driving them to bring the young man in for questioning. When he refuses to cooperate Olivia decides to let Luke go so they can follow him since she believes he will lead them to his father, who is now their main suspect.
Her hunch works perfectly, and soon Olivia finds herself in the den of Brian Dempsey, who has been exacting revenge for perceived wrongs done against him by killing the loved ones of his enemies. Brian gets the drop on her but chooses suicide over capture, shooting himself in the head after watching a few seconds of his masterpiece computer program. Clearly they didn’t intend it at the time, but Brian is such a perfect metaphor for contemporary social media, where the majority of behavior is fueled by revenge and is ultimately self-destructive.
There’s a nice subplot centered around the Bishops, driven by a college student that died in Walter’s lab many years ago. Throughout the episode Peter receives communications from an unknown person who turns out to be the student’s mother, who desperately wants to speak to Walter. Peter refuses to comply in an attempt to protect his father, not unlike Luke Dempsey has throughout the episode. No matter how despicably our family members might act it’s human nature to want to protect them from pain and danger, a point that Olivia drives home to Peter. At the episode’s end he finally allows the woman to speak to his father, and it turns out that all she wanted was some closure. John Nobel delivers yet another memorable moment as Walter’s childlike demeanor evaporates the second he realizes who the woman is, forcing him to once again revisit the sins of his past.
While “The No-Brainer” doesn’t do much to advance Fringe’s main story thread, it does deliver enough character development to satisfy. Peter in particular has some interesting moments in this chapter, not only do we get to witness his overprotective nature when it comes to his father but we also get a hint of a potential romance between him and Olivia’s sister Rachel.
Observer Sighting: On the sidewalk as Olivia races home to save her niece.