'Fringe' recap: 'Brown Betty,' and Watching the detectives

Fringe has been so good lately that the news that it would program a musical number in keeping with Fox’s theme-week had me ready to be irritated, and parodies of hardboiled detective fiction rarely work well on TV.

So I give Fringe a lot of credit for pulling off this hour so cleverly. The episode title, “Brown Betty,” took its name from Walter’s own marijuana blend, which he was inhaling to the strains of Yes’ “Roundabout” at the start of the episode. (The music fit the era in which a younger Walter might have been doing his heaviest pot-smoking and told us right upfront, this hour is going to come at the show’s usual mythology in a roundabout way.)

I’ll divvy up the episode by separating it from its framing device. In the Fringe here-and-now, here’s basically all that happened: Olivia dropped off her niece Ella (Ella and mom Rachel, where have you been, kiddos?) at the lab for Walter and Astrid to babysit while she looks for Peter. Later, Olivia returns to say she’s had no luck finding Peter, whom we know fled the scene last week. The Observer is seen, in the final moments, watching Walter and saying into his alt-phone that “the boy” is still missing and that Walter “doesn’t remember my warning.”

The bulk of the episode was a story Walter made up for Ella, part-kiddie-tale, part-dope-musing. Saying that his mother loved the fiction of Chandler and Hammett, he told a film noir tale shot in burnished sepia tones by director Seith Mann. Olivia was here a private eye hired by Rachel to find a missing Peter (this was a nice way to remind us that the show’s real romance has been between the dating Peter and Rachel, not Peter and Olivia).

Olivia, who appears in a fetching Veronica Lake ‘do, visits a fedora-topped “Lt. Broyles” (Lance Reddick, in a Casablanca-ish piano-bar scene, singing beautifully) and asks his help. Doesn’t Broyles’ help always, even in a Walter’s imagination, always lead to Nina Sharp? Sharp reminds Olivia that Peter’s a con man, not to be trusted. Of course, neither can she, as we see when Nina communicates with a William Bell on a big screen. (This looked like a CGI version of Leonard Nimoy, but his voice was either mimicked uncannily or Nimoy recorded these few lines, including, “We can finally be together again, my love.” That Nina, she really figures heavily in the emotions of everyone, doesn’t she?)

Increasing the urgency in what could have otherwise become a cute period fantasy was the notion that Walter’s “glass heart” has been stolen, that he’ll die soon if he doesn’t get it back, and Peter has it. This noir Walter (Noiwalter?) is in a wheelchair and flanked by Gene, the cow, sporting bright-colored spots. Noiwalter claims to have invented bubble-gum, flannel pyjamas, and other comforting things (as opposed to the “evil” things Peter and Olivia have accused him of doing in “real” life) and he sings “The Candyman” with a few swingin’ corpses. (The hour was really more Dennis Potter/Singing Detective than Chandler/Hammett, ultimately.)

In Walter’s tale, the Observers are the Watchers, who have their rayguns set to Burn Through Flesh; one of them puts snoopy Olivia in a wooden box and throws her in some water. She’s rescued by Peter, who tells her, no, that’s his glass heart — Walter stole it from him. He opens up his gaping chest to prove it. The hour climaxes with a reverse of the hour’s opening scene (Walter playing the game “Operation” with Ella) by having Olivia delicately placing batteries inside Peter until he regains his heart.

During that scene, as Peter recovers slowly, Olivia sings “For Once In My Life,” the hit made famous by Stevie Wonder. It was both sentimental and moving, all the more so for the way Anna Torv didn’t try for a full-throated, American Idol-style wail, but rather the sort of wracked-sob moan that was appropriate for the moment.

Noiwalter also needed the heart, and in a neat bit of symbolism, the glass heart is broken into two pieces that both regenerate fully, so that Peter and Noiwalter can live happily ever after… at least that’s Ella’s version of the show, when she insisted on a cheerful ending.

Final random thoughts:

–The episode, written by Jeff Pinkner, J.H. Wyman, and Akiva Goldsman, flirted with preciousness by almost mixing genres — the if-I-only-had-a-heart stuff from The Wizard Of Oz might have clashed with Raymond Chandler, but I thought they pulled off the conceit.

–Olivia breaking that car’s tail light to make it easy to follow was a nice Chinatown reference.

–It’s always good to see the smart, ambitious Massive Dynamic lab tech Brandon pop up to make cogent points.

–I assume calling the Observers “Watchers” was a hat-tip to the Marvel Comics characters those baldies resemble.

–Jasika Nicole (Astrid) has a terrific, powerful singing voice.

What did you think of “Brown Betty”?

Follow @kentucker


Comments (194 total) Add your comment
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  • itsanhonor

    Ken, I completely agree that the creative team deserves credit for the way they pulled off the episode. That being said, as cute as the story was, it still felt like a distraction from the main plot lines, and I thought the music was an even bigger distraction on top of it since it was usually only done for a few verses (although I agree the singing itself wasn’t bad). Does anyone know if the Fringe writers originally intended for this kind of a “trip” episode or was this more out of necessity because of the “Fox Rocks” mandate.

    • Niix Starkyller

      Loved it. That is all.

      • Zeddicus zu’l zorander

        WOW – what a show, I too was weary of a musical episode but they pulled it off beautifully tying together the main story of the show with the noir story – AND Broyles should consider singing more often – HE WAS AMAZING.

    • blargg

      i don’t disagree with any of your points, and yet i just felt like the hour was kind of stupid. and YET…

      …this show has some of the best acting on tv, and john noble is probably the BEST actor on tv right now. i hadn’t even realized how good he was until the scenes in the fairy-tale. in those scenes, he’s the same walter except that he has a normal person’s mental clarity. without even saying any lines, his face throughout the whole two seasons has perfectly and subtly communicated his insanity, so that it seems like it’s just how the actor is…then he has scenes like this where that inner turmoil would be out of place, and just as effortlessly he comes across as quite clear and normal. name me one other actor who could pull that performance arc off.

      …maybe terry o’quinn?

      • MK

        Or Michael Emerson, but I agree. Noble is an underappreciated gem!

      • Strepsi

        Yes, but Emerson has had Emmy love. JOHN NOBLE FOR BEST ACTOR IN A DRAMA EMMY. (They can show the Flashback episode where he kidnaps Peter as his reel, it was stand-alone and brilliant Sci-Fi)

    • Nihilistic

      It was god-awful. You people should be watching Glee instead of Fringe if you found this even remotely entertaining. Myself, I was cringing the entire episode and imagining how bad the reviews would be the next day. And they were bad…for every site except this one. Ken Tucker gets it wrong again, shocker of the year.

      • mari

        what crawled up your a**? fringe should never be mentioned in the same sentence as glee. they are two VERY DIFFERENT shows. this, singing ep, is a one-time deal. i think tucker “liked” it because he was expecting it to be super bad and it wasn’t. his expectations were so low (for this particular ep) it was easy to meet them.

      • rob

        I agree. Horrible episode. What the hell were they thinking?

      • DGH

        Get over yourself dude it makes you look pathetic.

      • Insight

        You’re missing the whole point of the episode. They were depicting Walter’s emotions for what happened with Peter through a CHILDREN’S STORY- Of course it’s going to seem quirky, but that’s what makes Fringe such a good show. Get off your high horse and learn to give credit where credit is due.

      • justin

        This episode was amazing, mostly because they didn’t try to overdue the whole “musical” idea. The kept it noir and edgy, just like Fringe is supposed to be. Every character definitely shined in this episode, especially Jasika, who can definitely sing! So you need to get lost with your bullcrap, nihilistic! Stick with Glee if you like Glee, douche, and leave Fringe alone.

      • Strepsi

        You were cringing the entire episode? You should have been watching “Fringe” but maybe you were watching the alternative universe version, CRINGE.

      • Angela M

        You keep comparing this episode to “Glee,” which I don’t get. The two have nothing in common, with or without singing as a storytelling element.

        Culturally, with its noir elements, music, and textbook “Fringe” strangeness, this episode had far more in common with “The Singing Detective” than with broad, big lines of “Glee.” The story was as odd and lovely, even as a parable, as anything “Fringe” has ever done.

        I’m just curious why someone who claims to be a fan of the show is so outraged, angry and offended at its rather quiet and understated foray into mixing genres. But to each his own.

    • Melinda

      Wanted to hate it – but, couldn’t help but love it. Damm, but this show just gets to you.

      • ANgel

        Agree! It was like a big analogy of Walter’s feelings of his son leaving. I love Walter: He is hilarious!

  • Betsy

    Great episode…was a bit leary at first about the ‘musical’ theme but they pulled it off. What was the Observer’s warning?

    • Lacey

      “The boy is important, he must live” The boy meaning Peter.

    • angel

      I had the same question.

  • Nic.

    My favorite parts were Jasika Nicole singing and Olivia breaking the glass heart in two. A really good episode :) I also liked how they were able to blend the modern technology (cell phones) with the noir style.

    • Bobby’s Robot

      I was waiting for most of the episode for someone to sing Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”. Also, having Tony-winning musical theatre star Michael Cerveris (The Observer) not sing seemsd like kind of a waste.

  • Abraham

    Incredibly clever. The writing was awesome. I like when a show can veer slightly off the traveled path and mythology, and give us an entertaining and loaded look into a characters mind. I wanna taste this “Brown Betty” also. Also, I agree with you Ken in saying that Olivia’s rendition of “For Once In My Life” was very touching, and it was classy not blaring it at full volume. That really fit the vibe of this episode. Cheers to you Fringe. You are awesome.

    • Nihilistic

      You people are all idiots. This was a throwaway episode, one that I’m sure everyone who had anything to do with it is going to pretend never happened. It was god-awful, hit all the wrong notes and was so campy that I felt like I was watching Glee instead of my favorite GROWN-UP show on television. I felt hoodwinked and bamboozled by a show that is SO much smarter than what this garbage portended and I’m glad at least the other sites got it right and called this one correctly: it was a complete trainwreck.

      • Olah

        So because people like something you don’t like makes them idiots? Now THAT’S grown-up.

      • captain obvious

        A complete waste of an hour! other than the fact that 2 of the actors can actually sing-nothing to see here- a complete throw away episode. dull as dishwater

      • mcl

        Agreed.
        I thought it was an awful episode. And I love this show.

      • Jay

        Nihilist, huh? That must be exhausting.

      • Nihilistic

        An absolute throw-away episode. And after such a brilliant ep last week! What did we do to deserve this complete and utter dreck? I’ve been a loyal Fringe viewer from the very beginning and I cannot comprehend how they ever allowed this episode to see the light of day

      • justin

        You’re an idiot, dude.

      • J

        Geez Louise, dude, lighten up! It was one episode! Is your life over? Can you POSSIBLY carry on? Oh, the HUMANITY!!!! Puh-lease. Calm down and grow up. Sounds like plenty of people enjoyed it as a one-off lark, and if you didn’t like it, DEAL. It’s not like they’re rebooting the show permanently. Goodness gracious.

      • Angela M

        Poor Nihilistic. I mean, I get that you hated it, but ranting away about it in multiple message threads starts looking like it’s less about “Fringe” and more about your own issues. As for your insistence that this episode being “widely” panned aside from Tucker, um, no. TV Guide posted raves about the episode, as did TWOP, TVSquad, and IGN (7.8/10).

        For myself, I loved it, and thought that the writers (as always this season) achieved a nice balance between characters, styles, and even genres, and I loved what this episode had to say about Walter’s view of himself. The musical moments were all either hilarious or lovely, but I do wish they’d let Blair Brown and Michael Cerveris have even a line or two of sung dialogue, as both are superb singers. Otherwise, I loved it (and I was honestly really skeptical when I first heard about it). It was quirky, funny, haunting, and completely memorable–kudos to the show.

      • RA

        Hey Nihilistic, I enjoy your posts much more when I pretend they are being spoken by Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons. But, I mostly just feel sorry for you for being so lame.

      • Dave

        Oh, for f***’s sake, take a Valium, have your mommy get you some milk and cookies, take a little nap, and GET OVER IT! So sorry your supposed favorite show did something out of the ordinary and didn’t clear it through you first. And despite your childish rants, nihilistic, this was a fine episode.

    • Niix Starkyller

      I’d tell you to lighten up but, well … your name.

    • Daxx

      I also wanted to hate this. You usually don’t pull this stuff until much later in a series run. I was unaware of the “theme” going on, but was impressed with what the writers did with the lame edict. I particularly liked how all of the time periods were mixed up, with the 40’s noir mixing with the 60’s cars and modern devices like cell phones and Plasma screens. I applaud them for just going with it without trying to explain or make excuses. It was much more enjoyable if you we watching it with Betty.

    • Susan

      Enjoyed the entire thing. As ken said, given that the network demanded that it bring in certain elements, it had great imagination and brilliance. And yest despite the confines, it managed to keep in the humor, the fringe science and address character and story development within the context of the series. It was in no way a throwaway episode. It could have easily gone down the “none of this counts it was all a dream” thing, but it didn’t. And Joshua and Anna’s chemistry just continues to meld. I liked the 40’s feel with the modern tech. I liked all the little film homages. I was amused that Walter claimed to have invented hugs. A very good episode of Fringe that worked on almost every level considering the confines.

    • Marilyn

      I don’t understand why people get so bent out of shape about trying something different. I thought the storytelling aspect of the episode was wonderful. I think John Noble is a phenomenal actor and is the heart and soul of this show. As someone pointed out above, the nuances of his facial expressions (that are subtle, not overdone) make him an unparalleled character.

      I especially loved the 1940s feel and I thought for the most part the music added to it and I was pleasantly surprised with how well many of the characters sang.

      There were so many little details that made this episode a treat and they still found a way to advance the story. I’d give it a solid A.

  • M

    I DVR’ed this episode and fell asleep four or five times during it. Took me almost 90 minutes to get through the episode. I did it though!

    That should tell you what I thought of the episode. BORING.

    • Mike

      Sounds like you actually have a sleeping disorder, mate. You might want to see a doctor about that. As you move on in life, the inability to stay awake for 42 minutes, even if something isn’t interesting for you, spells nothing but trouble with classes, meetings at work, your kid’s recitals, and dinner with your mother-in-law. . .

      • travisdogg

        LOL!

      • Cat

        *dies* thanks for that.

    • Gandalf47

      Maybe if you watch it when you are AWAKE, it might seem less boring, since you have to pay attention to follow the story. I was fully alert and engaged (notwithstanding my own “Brown Betty” substitute), and found myself rewinding to pick up on clever details and homages that I might have otherwise missed. Actually, the episode was extremely intelligently written and, since it was apparently mandated by Fox that they do such an episode, they made the best of it, giving it a uniquely Fringelike quality (i.e. mixing time periods with inappropriate technology and making clever references to the film noir genre. My theory is that most of you who didn’t like it, didn’t get it, since many of you most likely have never even seen a black and white movie, let along be familiar with that whole genre of films.

      Last week’s episode ended on such a gut-wrenching note, I was teary-eyed at the end, being a father myself and feeling Walter’s excruciating pain in “losing” Peter for the second time. This episode was a whimsical bridge which put a slightly less painful spin on the masterful story line, and, especially with Ella insisting upon a “happy” ending. The metaphorical breaking of the glass heart into two hearts, allowing both Walter and Peter to survive, paves the way for (hopefully – a reconciliation between a father and son who have just come to know each other after many years of estrangement based on Walter’s totally-understandable and totally selfish actions (from a father’s perspective – if you are not one, you just can’t get it – of doing ANYTHING to have his dead son back, even if it may destroy the fabric of the multiple universes).

      When I read beforehand that this was going to be musically-oriented show, I immediately decided not to waste my valuable viewing time watching it. I am a purist, and I don’t like when they mess with a good premise (like airing episodes out of sequence, which I abhor). Since my DVR is set to automatically record first-run Fringe episodes, I turned it on and got sucked in by the opening scene of Walter toking his “Brown Betty” and listening to “Roundabout”, which then morphed into Walter telling Ella the story, which was quite profound if you paid close attention.

      Now that Lost is concluding, and Fast Forward is flailing, Fringe is my sole source of highly intelligent, scientifically-based, well written and acted fantasy drama. A show that both entertains, educates, and hypothesizes different possibilities, in the tradition of Lost, but in its own unique fashion. Fringe’s potential is endless, since time travel, and multi-dimensional universes allows for an infinite number of possibilities. As long as the writing remains as strong as it has been, the cast will take care of the rest. I hope this show is on for many years to come, in this dimension or any other.

      • Bob

        Love b&w movies (William Powell is my hero).

        Did not like this episode.

        It was well crafted, but a well crafted illusion lacks substance…just like this episode.

        Awake and sober btw.

  • Hollywoodaholic

    Lt. Daniels singing Traffic’s “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” worth the show alone.

    • Cris

      Agreed! I was thrilled to see Traffic make an appearance. And oh man do I wish I had that on vinyl!

  • TAH

    Just a correction. Walter said that HIS mother loved the stories of Chandler and Hammett, not Peter’s mother. He said that Peter’s mother may have told him stories, but he didn’t because he was always working.

    • Ken Tucker

      You’re right; thanks.

  • Browngurl

    This episode was quirky, odd– even more than usual, but that is exactly what makes Fringe work. Definitely unexpected and yet it still fit into the storyline. I’m not gonna touch the Brown Betty. Walter is such a G!

  • Dan

    I thought the episode was really well done. Pulling something like that off had to be tricky. Not my favorite Fringe episode, but a nice breather before what I sure is going to be a wild last 3 episodes. Also, I sort of got the feel that maybe the writers had been planning the whole 40s detective/film noir episode all along and ended up having to throw in a few musical parts to please the FOX suits and “FOX Rocks” sweep stunt.

  • thelittlegipper

    Good review. I too was worried about how the team would make this work — somehow, they did. Just a reminder: Peter and Rachel aren’t (probably never were) dating. Walter used that as a plot device which Ella tried to correct. Eh, minor stuff. Thanks for the review.

    • Amy Leigh

      Yeah, I was thinking the same thing about Peter/Rachel. I don’t consider them a romance at all since they maybe went out once and that was all we ever heard of it again.

  • Chris

    This episode was ambitious. I’ll give it that. Definitely not one of the stronger episodes, but it seems like they had to abide by Fox and put something out, and all things considered, they pulled it off. I consider it a nice big exhale before we plunge into what appear to be 3 very intense episodes to end the season.

  • Rush

    If someone tested psychotropic drugs and brainwashing on you as a child, kept a cow in his lab, and is someone who gets joy from examining corpses, would you pick that person to babysit your niece?

    • Q

      She didn’t – she picked Astrid, which was clearly noted.

      • Rush

        She left her with both of them. “Here kid. Stay in this lab where we dissect embryonic corpses from an alternative universe. Have fun, and stay away from the Brown Betty.” Still love the show, just think this is funny.

      • Q

        When Olivia came in, and explained the story, Walter said something to the effect of, “you want me to watch her?” Astrid gave him a LOOK, and replied, “I think she meant ME.”

  • frogman

    Any time a show does a musical, it is just too corny. Anyone remember how bad the Cher episode was on the X-Files way back when? This wasn’t much different. You’re better off just not airing an episode if you’re just looking to kill a week

    • harley quinn

      What? That was one of my favorite X Files episodes! Anyway, I enjoyed it, if only because it allowed the audience to be Ella, getting spun a yarn from the Brown Betty addled mind of Walter. Had to laugh then at the anachronistic modern technology (cell phones, computers) amidst the 40’s noir.

      • Nic.

        That’s one of my favorite X-Files episodes, too :)

      • Livia

        Whoa, I LOVED that episode, especially when she sang “Walking in Memphis”! A classic episode!

    • Q

      You’re referring to “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” an X-Files episode that won an Emmy and is generally considered to be one of the series’ best. I don’t really understand how you could like Fringe if you didn’t like the X-Files – it is so clearly referential.

      • frogman

        geez, i guess i’m in the minority about that episode. Oh well. By the way, X-Files is my favorite show.

      • Mike

        Loved that XF episode, it was beautifully done and one of their most creative.

    • Strepsi

      That was one of the top 5 X-Files episodes ever. Sorry, frogman.

    • Bob

      Gotta go with Froggy on this one. Weak, weak episode. Did not advance the story.

      Look to BTVS’ “Once More With Feeling” to see how a musical episode can help the story flow.

      Did enjoy Broyles singing. That was about it.

  • Goober

    Walter tokin’ away to Yes-ahh, that brings back my youth! Good episode!

    • Tom

      When I heard the burblin at the beginning, I just had to laugh.

      • Wren

        OMG. Totally.

      • Ne Oublie

        Ditto!

  • Steve

    Did anyone else catch the reference about Olivia’s broken heart and a quick shot of her holding a photo of her soon to be ex Mark Valley of Human Target.

    • Nic.

      Yeah, I caught that too. That was the only part of the episode where I cringed a bit. I think they could have left that out–unless they are going to bring him back to the show somehow, which I really can’t imagine.

    • Q

      He is also her ex on the show.

      • Brigid

        Not so much her ex, more the widow equivilent.

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