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The Glass Heart: Dancing with Brown Betty on Fringe

"Death seems to follow you around." - Philip Broyles

This week's episode of Fringe ("Brown Betty"), written by Jeff Pinkner, J.H. Wyman, and Akiva Goldsman and directed by Seith Mann, offered a look into the mind of Walter Bishop, via the noir-tinged fairy tale he told Olivia's young niece Ella. It's a mind that's been increasingly affected by major feelings of guilt and regret about what he had done to a young Peter Bishop, the man that he raised as his son but whom he stole from his alternate universe counterpart.

It was a bit of a break from the increasingly mythology-heavy episodes of late, which have adding in some newly swirling mysteries (who is the Secretary?) to Fringe's already complex and emotional plot. Rather than see the team battle shapeshifters or freaky fringe scientists, this episode turned the focus inwards, forcing the team to examine their own fears and dreams.

While Olivia continued to search for the missing Peter, Walter turned from labeling everything in the lab (from sulfuric acid to Red Vines) to entertain Ella (and Astrid) with a marijuana-scented story that fused together film noir and classic musicals, two of his mother's favorite genres.

While the plot worked on an altogether escapist level (it is, after all, one gigantic pot-fueled dream), there were some subtleties laced throughout Walter's story that revealed his own complicity in his fate: his need to create, to push the boundaries of science, and the knowledge that doing so would bring forth the creation of so many wonderful things (bubblegum, flannel pajamas, rainbows)... and also some deadly ones.

It's a truth that hits home for Walter. His inventions were forged on the stolen dreams of children, just as Walter Bishop and William Bell had stolen the childhoods of so many of their young patients. The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions. And for all of his talk about saving the world, both the real Walter Bishop and the fictional one damned two worlds in the process because of his hubris and because of his broken heart.

Peter's glass heart provided the impetus for the action as Walter set in motion a complicated dance that led private investigator Olivia Dunham on the path of the missing Peter, who had reclaimed his stolen heart. The heart itself, part steampunk and part ultra-modern, represented both the humanistic drive mechanism and also the will to live. (The men's quest for their heart also reminded me, in an off-hand way, of Rose Walker's quest to find her missing heart in Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman." But that's just me.)

Along the way, we had singing detectives (thank you, Lance Reddick and Anna Torv), singing corpses, and singing scientists (Walter putting on a little Tears for Fears), as well as some classic noir tropes: the damsel in distress who isn't quite as innocent as she appears, the long-suffering gal Friday (Astrid, here cast as the plucky Esther Figglesworth), the black hatted thugs (the Observers), a close brush with death (Olivia getting thrown into the ocean in a box), and the appearance of something akin to true love (Olivia and Peter, united, but only in Ella's alternate ending).

I'm still not entirely sure why the writers felt the need to fuse together both noir and musical, two radically different genres, into one single episode, other than the fact that--as previously mentioned--Walter's mother loved both and Walter's synapses were firing at an altogether different rate. But while it was great to see Reddick, Torv, John Noble, and Jasika Nicole sing, I almost wish that we had just stuck with the noir underpinnings here and saw them through to the end.

However, I did love the fact that Olivia and Peter did finally find happiness together, exchanging their differences to dance together in Ella's version of a happy ending, one where people can cast off their fears and complications for an interaction far more simple than snappy banter. Likewise, only a child would think of something as simple and magical as the act of sharing a single heart: snapping it in two, not to break it forever, but to allow both Walter and Peter to continue their lives, bonded by the glass heart.

In the real world, such endings are far more rare. Peter does leave with his heart and breaks Walter's in the process. Olivia never does locate Peter Bishop and the father and son never have a tete-a-tete (or coeur-a-coeur) about their shared destinies. There is no happily ever after, not for these three. Meanwhile, an Observer (August) lurks nearby, noting that Peter has not returned home and that Walter did not follow his warning...

What did you think of "Brown Betty"? Did it work for you as an individual episode and within the context of the larger second season? Can't get "Candyman" out of your head? Discuss.

Next week on Fringe ("Northwest Passage"), Peter teams up with a local law enforcement official, Sheriff Mathis (guest star Martha Plimpton), on a serial murder investigation with ties to Newton; Walter copes with the possibility of being sent back to St. Claire's; someone from the "other side" pays a visit.

Comments

Hadley said…
After a string of really strong episodes this one fell flat. I liked the idea but the tone was all over the place. Was it supposed to be a noir story? Or a musical? (I think they should have just stuck with the noir.)

Also, sometimes the actors seemed to be portraying a more "noir" version of their character while, at other times, it just seemed like they were being their "normal" selves.

Overall, the episode didn't really move the story forward and, if it was meant to be a glimpse inside of Walter's brain, it didn't really reveal anything new. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I'd had some Brown Betty first...
Anonymous said…
"Fell flat?" This was one of my favorite episodes of television all year. This gave me about as much joy as an average Lost episode (which is saying a lot). There's not one thing I didn't LOVE about this episode. Whimsy (if done right) is a form of entertainment. And Olivia's singing was so beautiful.
Eric said…
I agree with Hadley. It was fun at first but then I got bored as it went on. Why do it now when there's only a few eps left this season? Could have done without it.
Unknown said…
I had low expectations going into this episode, and came away pleasantly surprised.

I loved how Walter wove his feelings, along with some metaphors based on actual facts, into his story. How sad it was that Peter “stole his heart.” Then we learn that Walter, while intending good with his inventions, was in fact a villain because his process actually hurt children (ref. Olivia and the other children in Jacksonville, FL). I believe the real Walter’s pursuit of science was done with intentions for good, but so many of Walter’s discoveries were eventually used for evil purposes. Thus he sees himself at the end as a villain who will die from a broken heart.

I absolutely loved how Ella took Walter’s depressing ending and turned it into a happy one. I hope her ending is eventually reflected in reality for Walter and Peter.

It was definitely an unusual episode, but an interesting journey through some of Walter’s thoughts and feelings. Since I enjoy character development – especially with characters I care about like Walter, I enjoyed this episode as a one-time departure from the norm.
Tempest said…
As I mentioned previously, I love noir so I was predisposed to love the episode. I did enjoy this outing, and I'm trying to decide if the way the music was incorporated was good or bad in terms of the story. It didn't always feel organic, but, since this is Walter's mind we're in, the shifts in tone may be intentional. As a viewer, I'm disappointed they're wasn't a little more of the music. Really guys, that's all the cool Lance Reddick I get singing and playing piano??? Teases. Anyhoo, I also loved Ella's matter-of-fact interaction with "Uncle Walter" as she feeds the cow and corrects Walter's ending. Loved the singing corpses ("still working on the harmony"), the polka-dot cow, the use of cell phones, Peter and Olivia's noir characters and ineractions, Esther Figglesworth, and all that absolutely gorgeous red lipstick. I thought this was a nice, fun pause after so much emotional turmoil. (However, I do understand other folks concerns about this one.)
wackiland said…
You can thank the lovely folks at FOX for the musical aspect of the episode - they took it to the producers as part of "Fox Rocks" week - where every show is supposed to integrate music in some way or another.
Elliot said…
It was wonderful! I love film noir, and these characters are perfect for it, I'd love to see them use this convention again. This was a great way to investigate the emotional sides of these characters other than anger, and it did forward the story (Peter's heart is a power source/!? is that why Newton is killing to get to him next week?).

And since this was one of the multiples of 4, it was dealing directly with the mythology--just not blatantly.
Page48 said…
Always cute watching the druggies when they're connecting with the kids.

FOX Theme Night out of the way, now back (hopefully) to business.
Ally said…
I enjoyed the episode, but I wanted it to be better. Also, how do you have Michael Cerveris on the episode and not have him sing!
Unknown said…
I hate musical episodes of any kind -- I can't even watch South Park when they do a musical one. Probably due to the kids watching too many Disney movies, but I feel the need to FF whenever ANYONE starts singing!

So, this week, I watched about 10 minutes of Fringe and gave up. Only episode I have not watched in its entirety...

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