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Fringe s2e20: "Brown Betty"

REVIEWS - TV

'Weird' is normal for Fringe, but the show might be toking a little too much craziness this week...

Fringe - 'Brown Betty'

This week's "pulp-sci-fi-musical-noir" Fringe could've been a 12-car pile-up on the interstate freeway. Lets be honest, most viewers don't come back to this show week after week for some meta-fiction ala Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective or William Goldman's The Princess Bride. So who knows if writers and showrunnners Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman were smoking the same "Brown Betty" that Walter indulges in at the beginning of this episode or if they just wanted to prove that they have more to offer than machines and monsters.

In either case, they were just the right amount of clever to pull it off without drowning in pretension. Like I assumed last week, there's almost no advance in terms of plotting: Peter is missing in the beginning of the episode and he is still missing at the end. In the middle however, he is involved in some wonderful noir intrigue involving glass hearts and an evil wheelchair bound Willy Wonka.

The excuse for this narrative exercise begins with a heartbroken Walter Bishop (John Noble) who has taken refuge in a particularly strong hydroponic weed he affectionately calls "Brown Betty". Olivia arrives with Ella (Lily Pilblad) and asks he and Astrid (Jasika Nicole) to watch her while she searches for Peter. When Ella insists on hearing a story, Walter delivers a meta-fantasy that blends the fantasy world of the series with one inspired by his mother's love for the novels of Chandler and Hammett. So what we get is not classic noir so much as yet another parallel dimension version of the characters, themes, and plotlines. What's particularly clever about it is that it takes place in a timeless "story world" in which odd looking cellphones co-exist with period cars and clothing and where laptop computers present web pages that look like old time newspapers. Basically, the story fulfills whatever idea pops into Walter's head and since he's clearly been thinking about Peter, the story within the story echoes this in the form of a private-eye adventure.

The private eye here is a Veronica Lake-ish Olivia Dunham who is hired by Ella's mom Rachel (Ari Graynor) to find her lover Peter Bishop who's gone missing. She agrees to take the case in order to find out if true love exists and gets head over heels into intrigue involving a possibly mad inventor and a mysterious company called Massive Dynamic. It seems Peter worked for the mad inventor Walter Bishop but despite the same names they were not related (this is true in both story worlds). The noir Walter invents wonderful things for children like rainbows and clowns but also makes the dead sing. He claims that Peter stole his mechanical glass heart but upon finding him, Olivia learns that it was the other way around. Peter shows her a map marked with pins representing all the children the old man harmed. "One hundred and forty-seven pins. Each one represents a child injured by Walter Bishop... elephants, rainbows, licorice sticks... they come from the dreams of children. He steals children's dreams, and he replaces them with nightmares."

Before Peter can explain any more, the two are ambushed by the Watchers (The Observers in Fringe world) and Peter's heart is stolen. MIrroring Walter's game of "Operation" with Ella in the beginning of the episode, Olivia has to carefully place batteries in the open slot in order to save Peter's life. In the end, the two confront Walter with the truth but this doesn't seem like the right ending to Ella who changes it so that both Bishops can share half the heart . She says that "together they made goodness and lived happily ever after. The end."

What this framework provides is an hour of pure fun that is surprisingly involving given the meta set-up. Director Seith Mann keeps the visuals on the right side of parody and the musical numbers are all very well integrated into the action. Lance Reddick (Broyles) and Jasika Nicole surprise us with their amazing vocal talents. Reddick gets a full Casablanca moment, sitting at the piano and singing Traffic’s “Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys” while Nicole is at a job interview belting "I Hope I Get It” from A Chorus Line. Walter does some Tears for Fears ("Head over Heels") and of course “Candy Man” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory but the best moment belongs to Anna Torv and not because it's particularly well sung. When she thinks Peter has died, Olivia quietly sings an acappela version of Stevie Wonder's “For Once In My Life”. It's all the more effective since Torv doesn't sing it so much as whisper it sadly. A very nice moment that I think will give added depth to scenes in later episodes that take place in the "real" Fringe world.

Next week it's back to business though. As September says into his cell-phone device at the end of the episode, "The boy has not returned, and I do not believe Dr. Bishop remembers my warning. Yes, I am concerned, too." Good.


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