Fringe: “Brown Betty”

Fringe Noir

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Stegall

Tuesdays on Fox at 9/8 E/C

“Brown Betty”

Written by Jeff Pinkner & J.H. Wyman & Akiva Goldsman
Directed by Seth Mann

“Must be nice to know who you are, to know your place in the world… I thought I did. I thought I knew who I was.” —Peter Bishop

Only Walter Bishop could tell this story. Only a child could understand it. In one of the oddest departures from convention yet, this episode of Fringe enters a truly alternate universe, one of Walter’s contriving. Having just ingested a cannabis concoction he calls “Brown Betty”, Walter Bishop begins to tell a story to Olivia Dunham’s niece, Ella (Lily Pilblad, Death 4 Told), while waiting for someone to track down his missing son. As the tale unfolds, we see that in Walter’s head, the world is a hallucinogenic Dashiell Hammet/Raymond Chandler detective story, with a Miles Davis soundtrack. Oh, sign me up!

The “story” is Walter’s way of working through Peter’s disappearance, his rejection of his father. Private investigator Olivia Dunham, on the verge of retirement, specializes in cases involving broken hearts. She’s hired by a woman who looks exactly like her sister, Rachel (Ari Graynor, American Dad) to find Peter Bishop; in short order, Rachel turns up dead, missing her heart. At the crime scene, Olivia meets Lt. Broyles, who warns her to let the big boys play this one out. She snags a piece of evidence on the way out, which leads her to Walter.

At this point, we cross from film noir into dark fantasy, as Walter enters his own story. As he sees himself, he’s a gentle genius devoted to inventing things like hugs, bubble gum, and rainbows. And singing corpses. Truly one of the strangest moments on recent television was the triple chorus of the recently dead singing “Candyman”. I haven’t seen anything that weird since the zombie chorus line in Thriller, not even on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. The only thing that could top the singing corpses was Walter conducting the singing corpses.

“If I don’t get my heart back, I’ll die.” —Walter Bishop

At this point, real life started seeping through, albeit in subconscious ways, making it clear that Walter lacks as much self-awareness in his stories as he does in real life. He tells PI Dunham that Peter was only his lab assistant, denies that they are related, and says their matching last names is only a coincidence. He says Peter has stolen his (artificial) heart, and he will die if he does not get it back. This Willy Wonka type genius is narcissistic, self-absorbed, and pathetic. Is this how Walter sees himself? Or is he unconsciously revealing more of himself than he realizes in this story?

Olivia confronts Nina Sharpe of Massive Dynamics, which looks remarkably the same as it does in real life, save for the rotary phone on Nina’s desk. Distrustful of Nina, Olivia follows her home and sees her talking to a black-and-white cartoon of William Bell on the alternate-universe viewer Walter invented in “Peter”. The Observer, who in this story is a Watcher, captures her and tries to drown her. At the last moment, Peter saves her.

“He steals children’s dreams, and replaces them with nightmares.” —Peter Bishop

He fills Olivia in on Walter’s true nature—mad genius—and shows him the glass heart in his own chest, the heart he had given Walter because he admired him so much. Disillusioned, he has taken it back. There is some low-level flirtation, moments which show us both the real and the fantasy Peter and Olivia, and some quiet trust building between them. There is an immediate bond between them, and Peter shows that he “gets” Olivia like nobody else.

“But who cares for you?” —Peter Bishop

Then the Watchers crash through the doors, and we are treated to a fight scene right out of a Western bar brawl. Olivia throws punches like John Wayne, bounces men off walls, and retrieves one of the Watchers’ sonic weapons. When it’s over, she finds that the Watchers have completed their mission—they have stolen back the glass heart. In one of the more bizarre romantic scenes in recent memory, she inserts batteries into Peter’s chest to keep him alive for awhile. There is just enough meta in this scene, just enough self-consciousness in the storytelling, to balance out the fantasy aspects of this relationship. I kept telling myself that this was Walter’s version of Peter and Olivia—nowhere was there the shy hesitation of the real Peter Bishop, the cool reserve of the real Olivia Dunham.

“I knew you’d be a good dancer.” —Peter Bishop

Since this is Walter’s story, Peter is the hero who rescues the princess; since this is Peter, he does it with a sardonic smile. The Peter Bishop of this story is tough but sweet, with a killer smile and the cool self-confidence of Marlowe himself. Joshua Jackson was picture-perfect in the rolled-up sleeves, well-chewed matchstick, and vest of the Forties. Even better, he’s got the attitude—insouciance, rebellion, a world-weary cynicism. Olivia is also a Chandleresque heroine—tough on the outside, soft as butter on the inside, a sucker for a sob story. When they confront Walter, who has the glass heart again, she stands by unmoved as Walter pleads to keep it. Peter refuses, with a basilisk stare that would freeze the Burning Bush. They stalk out.

“I can make up for all the harm I’ve done.” —Walter Bishop

Ella is having none of it. Back in the “real” lab, she chastises Walter for his poor understanding of story convention, and rewrites the ending. Peter relents, and literally breaks his heart in two. According to Ella, it is so powerful and magical a heart that it suffices for both him and Walter. Everyone gets what he wants, and Peter waltzes Olivia around the lab as Walter sings “Candyman” again. Hope, as always, comes from the innocent who, although she may not realize the stakes involved, has the unerring eye for emotional truth. Peter is still missing, Olivia is hiding a broken heart, Walter is still crushed by guilt, but now there is hope again.

There was enough allegory in this story to satisfy Geoffrey Chaucer: Walter depends on Peter’s heart, Peter gives his heart to his father, Olivia heals Peter’s broken heart. Peter says “I’m dying”, and I didn’t even realize it was a reference to Alternate Peter until later. Walter sees himself as a benign cripple; he sees Olivia as powerful and cool and as sexy as Cate Blanchett playing Katherine Hepburn. Walter sees his son’s charm but not his strength; he sees Olivia’s strength but not her vulnerability.

I loved the new look we got at secondary characters: Lance Reddick was absolutely born to play a Chandler cop like Lt. Broyles; he’s got the menace, the voice, the delivery, the stone cold stare, and he can wear the hell out of a fedora. Also, he’s a very good singer; it comes as no surprise that he is a professionally trained musician. Jasika Nicole, also professionally trained in music, got to show off her chops in a verse out of A Chorus Line. And we got Anna Torv’s breathless, whispered interpretation of “For Once in My Life”, a touching and vulnerable moment. There was just enough music, and just enough dance, to season this story without overburdening it. I had only three minor nitpicks: I wanted to hear Joshua Jackson sing, and I could not believe that an episode about a heart of glass made no reference to Blondie. Most of all, I must protest that overlooking the Tony Award winning musical talents of Michael Cerveris (the Observer) was downright tragic. His role as Observer is absolutely perfect for making him a literal Greek chorus.

I was so entranced by fedoras and trench coats, Olivia in red lipstick and Broyles on the keyboard, that it took me a while to realize just how strange a universe Walter has conjured for his story about missing and broken hearts. This odd world encompasses cell phones and flashbulbs, laptop computers made out of wood, Polaroids and rocket fins on cars. Nina Sharpe has both a computer and a rotary dial phone on her desk. Directory Assistance gives out addresses. Massive Dynamics develops quantum lasers but its employees are dressed like William Powell in a Forties film noir. I love it that one of the things this Walter has invented is a color polka-dotted cow.

Episodes like this—deliberately edgy and whimsical, casting aside the concrete conventions of television storytelling—are a huge gamble for a series. Having spent months and years building characters the audience invests heavily in, a story like this one risks undercutting all that work. It can look like the writers are mocking their own work, and by extension mocking the audience that loves that work. It’s never wise to insult your own fans. But if there’s a show on television that can stand up to this weird change of perspective, it’s Fringe. This is a show that can add a glaze of stylish eccentricity and get away with it. What would be a gimmick on most other shows fits well with the fantastic universe that is Walter’s lab, Brown Betty or no. Not only was it entertaining, but it moved the storyline forward on some important emotional fronts, as the characters deal with Peter’s disappearance in ways that protect them, but reveal as well.

One thing is for sure: I can totally understand now why Walter never told bedtime stories to his son. Peter would have grown up seriously warped.

Fringe fell five percent from last week to a 2.0 adult rating, pulling 5.8 million viewers. I don’t know that this episode will help the overall ratings for the series, but it was a welcome tension-breaker in an intense story arc. Knowing that the show has been renewed may have given the writers the green-light for a daring experiment; if so, I’ll consider it a successful gamble.