Last night’s episode was called “Brown Betty,” but most of us will now forever know it as “The Musical-Noir Episode,” the one in which the writers put aside (for the most part) the show’s overriding plot strands for a goofy lark involving an imaginary, fantastical story Walter tells Dunham’s niece Ella to keep her entertained while hanging out at the lab. Amid the hard-boiled dialogue and occasional singing, there was a sense that the cast and crew had a ball stretching their wings beyond the restraints of a typical Fringe outing. But that fun didn’t always transfer to us in the audience.
The Evil: Stoned out of his gourd, Walter is assigned to baby-sit Ella while Dunham goes out looking for the runaway Peter. So he makes up a story to tell the girl that forms the basis for the hour-long episode and is populated by the show’s characters. In Walter’s tale, tough-talking private eye Dunham (decked out in fedora and trench coat) investigates a missing bionic glass heart that’s the property of the kindly inventor Walter Bishop. Without the heart, Walter will die — and he suspects that his former lab assistant Peter has stolen it.
The Determination: When “fictional” Dunham tracks down “fictional” Peter, she learns that the heart is actually his — and that “fictional” Walter is not a kindly inventor at all but, rather, someone who preys on the dreams of children, giving them nightmares in the process.
Wacky Factor: Considering that almost the entire episode was a visual representation of the story Walter was telling Ella, you couldn’t go more than a few moments without something loopy happening. Things got off to a great start, though, as we walk in on Walter enjoying a huge bong hit. And we loved that real-life Walter made his “fictional” alter ego a kindly man who went around in a motorized chair — sort of like a less tyrannical Dr. Strangelove.
Paranoia Level: Low-to-Nonexistent. When this episode’s central conceit was first announced over a month ago, the reports emphasized both its musical and gumshoe components, raising expectations that it would end up either being inspired or, at the very least, an entertaining train wreck. (Tellingly, friends who never watch Fringe tuned in for this episode in the hopes that it might be awesomely terrible.) Unfortunately, “Brown Betty” turned out to be just mediocre. Its noir elements weren’t incorporated in a really interesting way, and as for the musical numbers, they tended to be throwaway bits, save for “fictional” Dunham crooning “For Once in My Life” to the seemingly dying “fictional” Peter near the episode’s end.
If a show is going to completely throw away its usual rulebook for a fun onetime-only episode, it would be great if the writers could come up with a story as audacious as their premise. But aside from some Chinatown references, fancy threads, and mildly clever mirroring of the show’s mythology — Massive Dynamic is up to no good in this story-land world as well — “Brown Betty” wasn’t all that enjoyable because it didn’t do a great job of capturing what generally makes Fringe enjoyable.
Leaving Walter and Peter (and their emotional back and forth) mostly on the sidelines, the episode focused on Olivia, whose fictional, fedora-wearing character wasn’t terribly different from her “real” persona. Throughout the episode, Walter’s feelings for his fellow Fringe team members came through in his portrayals of them in the story he was telling, but while “fictional” Walter and “fictional” Peter reflected their contentious real-life relationship, “fictional” Olivia seemed just as fragile and chilly as her real-life counterpart. From Walter’s story, it’s clear he wants Olivia and his son to end up together, but the writers missed a great opportunity to show what he sees in the two of them as a couple.
Especially considering that Jasika Nicole (Astrid) and Lance Reddick (Broyles) shined in small parts that let them show off vocal chops and sultry attitudes they don’t get to display in a typical Fringe episode — even Joshua Jackson was allowed to reveal a warm, sexy charisma the dour Peter usually doesn’t possess — Anna Torv’s inability to let loose kept this change-of-pace episode from really taking off. To be fair, except for the Observer’s ominous arrival at the end, last night’s program felt like a tongue-in-cheek goof that one shouldn’t take too seriously. But since Fringe has been on a bit of a roll lately, you’d like to see it keep that momentum going. With not many episodes left until the season finale, there’s no time for the old song and dance.
The AV Club’s Noel Murray raves that the episode “continues Fringe’s notion of multiple realities, and that idea that Godlike creators can dart between them, looking for a way to make a messy life come out more like something from a children’s book.”
MTV’s Josh Wigler wonders if we should interpret Dunham’s sister’s “fictional” murder in the episode as a hint about her fate.
Movieline’s Lindsay Wolfe enjoyed the anachronistic mixture of forties style with modern technology but like us thought the episode was a bit of a letdown.
And TV Fanatic’s Agent SAHM loved the Broyles musical performance but was annoyed overall about how little new information we got.