Recap: 'Fringe' - 'Brown Betty'
"Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights." A line from Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep,” and potentially apt for “Fringe” as a whole. We’ve got soldiers, but these soldiers don’t come from any round table. They come through cracks in dimensions, shape shifters and scientists and other than violate the known laws of the universe in order to ensure their side wins in a war neither really understands. All the know is they have to win, even if the first shot fired was friendly in nature.
[Full recap of Thursday (April 29) night's "Fringe" after the break...]
In terms of overall quality, it’s hard to beat “Fringe” since its return to the small screen a few weeks ago. Starting with the classic episode “Peter,” the show has managed to maintain a high level of quality, balancing the episodic with the mythological, the scientific with the personal, all culminating in the inevitable yet still painful splitting up of the Bishop Boys. So, what’s a depressed father that inadvertently causes an interdimensional war to do? Spend some time inside his drug-addled, guilt-ridden, and noir-loving mind. Naturally.
The show’s concept was its central hook: what would “Fringe” look like as a musically-sprinkled Raymond Chandler novel come to life? The conceit through which this played out was solid: as a way to keep Olivia’s niece Ella entertained while she followed up on a lead to find Peter, Walter told her a story inspired by his own parents’ love of hard-boiled detective dramas and period music. Since Walter never had time to tell Peter stories of his own, it makes sense he would chose his son’s absence as the launching point for his first foray into storytelling. As such, not only was he filling in the literal absence of Peter, but he was also able to subtly (and not so subtly) work through his grief and also provide a few insights into his worldview, innermost wishes, and a surprising love for Tears for Fears’ oeuvre.
Sounds good, right? So how did it all play out? The answer: not as interesting as you might think. Things certainly LOOKED good, and I quite enjoyed the sprinkling of anachronistic technology throughout the period setting. But the world “sprinkling” kept coming to mind as I watched the scenes play out onscreen. I didn’t need a full-on steampunk noir drama to play out, but other than cellphones and computers, everything else was standard-issue costumes, décor, and transportation. A little bit more of the stylish integration employed in New Cap City over in “Caprica” would have helped, I think.
Even more of a crime? The writers of this week’s episode (Jeff Pinkner, J.H. Wyman, Akiva Goldsman) didn’t take advantage of the rich imagery and rhythms of the genre’s dialogue. Only a few exchanges sounded like anything more than lip service to the snappy, fast-paced banter that’s a hallmark of noir. Now, I’m not fully convinced Anna Torv could have played a rough-and-tough 40’ dame, but she wasn’t even given the opportunity to prove me wrong. Other than hair and makeup, there wasn’t a lot of differentiation between Present Day Dunham and P.I. Dunham in terms of dialogue, attitude, or action. (Only Lance Reddick and Blair Brown got chances to show off that pitter patter, and both nailed it. Also: can someone get Reddick a recording contact? Dude’s got PIPES.)
The story itself was almost besides the point: the search for an elusive “glass heart” was little more than a MacGuffin designed to allow Walter to work through the complicated relationships in his life. These relationships did not stop with his recently severed one with Peter, bur rather extended towards William Bell, Nina Sharp, Massive Dynamic, the Observers, and the children from the Jacksonville experiments. All these past encounters and experiences were filtered through a specific and potent combination of marijuana strains (said combo gave us the title of tonight’s episode), grief, and the board game “Operation.”
In some ways, Walter was a passive player in his own story. Noir Walter wheeled around on his electric wheelchair, inventing rainbows and directing a production of “A Cadaver Line.” He calls himself the Candy Man, which at first is whimsical but soon turns creepy. He’s the type of candy man that has a van. And into said van he lures children. And I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if 147 children (the number listed on Noir Peter’s pegboard) were the total number of children Bishop and Bell used in their experiments with cortexiphan and other such drugs.
I think fans are going to be divided over the way Walter’s brain views the relationship between Peter and Olivia. As much as Walter craved a re-opening of his relationship with Peter in the story, in many ways he seemed more concerned about the missed opportunity between those two not-so-crazy kids. I’m not fully convinced (or even partially convinced, quite frankly) that Olivia and Peter EVER need to get together, but this week’s episode was told from Walter’s perspective, and his push for them to get together in this fantasy world is consistent with his overall view towards them both.
Their coupling isn’t necessary to solidify the bond that exists in the weird family dynamic that is Olivia/Walter/Peter/Astrid, but perhaps Walter’s failing to see that is symptomatic of his ability to see the big picture while often missing exactly what’s in front of his face. As such, most of the fascination watching this episode derived from trying to interpret story decisions as mythologically applicable allegories.
Take the glass heart, representative of Peter’s “other” nature as a child of the other universe. Noir William Bell tells his business partner (and apparently lover) that the heart will stabilize the door between the two worlds. Now, as the figurative “heart” of the war between Walter Bishop and the Walternate, the glass object beating inside Peter’s chest is the energy needed to create such a door. It also resonates with The Observers’ claim that Peter Bishop has a central, powerful role to play. (His continued absence in the real world scares the bejesus out of September, the Observer that saved Peter and Walter from drowning.)
Furthermore, this small scene suggests that for a long time, Walter has feared Massive Dynamic’s exploitation of Peter to further their endgame. As Chandler writes in another part of “The Big Sleep”: "I'm a grifter. We're all grifters. So we sell each other out for a nickel." Massive Dynamic sold out for a little more than a nickel, but you can easily apply that line to Walter’s way of thinking. Maybe William Bell sold out his ideas for cash, but Walter essentially sold his soul in obtaining Peter from the other side.
So in that respect, the show offered a lot of food for thought. Unfortunately, the food came from a semi-delusional, almost completely-stoned, most definitely depressed mind. So trying to extract true interpretations of the noir material is fun but potentially misleading. As a creative way to allow Walter to process his grief before the final, three-episode push to the season finale? A fun way to spend an hour. As an authentic recreation of period film and music? Not as much. But I think my disappointment in that lies with the push from the FOX marketing department more than the execution of the hour as a stand-alone piece of entertainment.
A few more bullets about tonight’s episode:
*** Looks like someone in the writer’s room saw “Iron Man,” what with Olivia’s re-assembly of Peter’s bionic heart and all.
*** Did anyone else yell out “CRAZY DELICIOUS” when they saw the Red Vines label pop-up onscreen during Walter’s LabelThon 2010?
*** In our world, the Observers are named for months. Over there? Signs of the zodiac. Which must mean they are CYLONS. OK, not really. I’m just trying things on for size.
*** I suppose most of this episode would have seemed more organic had we actually see Olivia’s sister or niece at any point this season. I feel like they have maybe appeared once or twice, but the fact that it’s this hard for me to remember the last time I saw them is not a good sign. They didn’t add anything to the first season of the show, and while Ella was admirably non-annoying in the role of 1987 Fred Savage, it was still jarring that she was re-inserted into the show and excited to see “Uncle Walter.”
*** “All you’ve done is eat all my snacks and tell me weird stuff.” Sounds like a few conversations from my college days.
What did you think about tonight’s narrative experiment? Did it work for you, or did you wish they just started the real search in earnest right away?
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