Review: Fringe, Season 2, Episode 20: Brown Betty
This is the most impossible review I have had to do in a long while.
After last week’s interview with Fringe’s executive producers, Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman, I have become the most paranoid of fans. I can’t help but wonder if every single little thing is a clue and have developed what I have dubbed “trigger-pause-finger” syndrome. In short, this is a syndrome defined by automatic, uncontrollable, and repeated pausing of an episode to the tune of 100 to 200 pauses an hour.
And since this episode is delving into Walter’s psyche, a convoluted place to begin with, and that Walter just had to smoke marijuana before telling Ella his story, well… it’s no surprise that I developed this syndrome.
Peter has disappeared and Walter is depressed. Rather unsurprisingly, he seeks comfort in some Brown Betty, a marijuana mixture of chronic Supernova and Afghani Kush. Walter is still on a high when Ella comes to the lab for a visit and asks “Uncle Walter” to tell her a story. And so Walter comes up with a story that is part fantasy, part noir, and part musical, is heavily dipped in fringe science but also sprinkled with interesting information, with the entire thing wrapped in a cloud of marijuana.
This episode serves as a unique character development piece, as we are given hints of Walter’s perception of himself (his movements limited by the confines of a wheelchair in the story just like in real life his thoughts are limited by the confines of his injured brain) and his work (taking dreams from children and replacing them for nightmares to create goodness for the world in the story just like in real life he erased childhood memories from the CortexiKids). This self-loathing has pierced through previously, but never as clearly as in this episode. We also get some interesting insights into how Walter perceives some of the individuals he has come into contact with in the last two years.
I was expecting this episode to be quite the Easter egg hunt, partly because of little objects hidden in scenes, but mostly because the musical is, as described by the executive producers of the show, “a metaphor within a metaphor”. And as Walter himself tells Ella twice in this episode, “in this story, things are not as they seem”. But I didn’t see any signs of the glyphs. Then again, I was so focused on making out the various metaphors that it’s quite probable that I missed them all.
There was one little thing I noticed which I’m not certain meant anything. Did anyone else see the Glass Man poster in Rachel’s apartment? I didn’t find any reference to a movie named so, but two other rather obvious references immediately popped in my head, both of which are related.
First is the character in Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain who is nicknamed “Glass Man” because of the condition he suffers from (brittle bone disease). It’s a condition that Elijah Price also suffers from in M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable. This reminds me of Walter’s rather fragile psyche. I also found it interesting in that Unbreakable is “a study on the dimensions of comic books”, exploring the “analogies between the real world and the mythology of superheroes”).
Thankfully, the Observer was easy to spot in this episode; we all clearly saw September waiting across the street from the Bishops’ near the end of the episode and watched while Astrid walked Walter back home. As for the glyphs, they spelled ‘heart’, which, during the weekly Fringe Twitter Party, Bastian almost immediately guessed after the first glyph aired. And speaking of Twitter, Lola was very happy to mark the return of Brandon, and nearly fainted when he winked at Olivia.
The lovely Lily Pilblad returned to Fringe to reprise her role as Ella. I loved the interaction between her character and Walter; it’s always interesting to watch a child’s reaction to a childish man. Her calling him uncle is adorable, and her frustration at his inability to play Operation clearly showed her to be Olivia’s niece.
This episode also marks the return of Gene, and boy, what a Gene did Walter’s mind treat us to!
Walter has, in the past, used his emotional fragility to either manipulate a situation to suit himself or to avoid these situations altogether. Having that in mind, I couldn’t help but wonder at the presence of the bong: is Walter once again hiding behind his less mature side or is he actually paralyzed by his heartache and unable to function without some form of numbing?
His reasons for labeling everything in the lab are probably a lot more complex than they appear. On the one hand, hot on the heels of last episode’s “A well ordered house is the sign of a well ordered mind”, Walter told Astrid that “It’s important to take control of one’s life”, especially since Peter is gone and, in Walter’s mind, he isn’t coming back.
By the same token, he might have decided to label everything in the lab so that everything in his little world is as clearly identified as he wished everything in his life could be; most importantly, if his role in the Cortexiphan trials was bad or good. If only life were that easy, Walter, we’d all be really happy.
The first song of the episode was “Roundabout” by Yes. Unsurprisingly, the lyrics to the song mention roundabouts, i.e. circular traffic intersections around which cars travel in what can seem to the untrained eye like chaos. Could it be that Walter sees his role in the Cortexiphan trials and the events of the Pattern as a roundabout around which events and occurrences move in seeming chaos while obeying a certain set of rules? It would fit his self-aggrandizing view of himself as described in “Jacksonville.”
Or perhaps the reason why the episode opened on this song is simpler: it was released in the 1970s, before Peter was born, probably at a time in Walter’s life where things were simpler, a time when he and Bell were doing LSD and catching their first glimpses of the alternate universe. It might also be a hint that however crazy the plot in “Brown Betty” might get, it is going to have to do with Fringe’s mythology, albeit in a roundabout way.
Since Fringe is all about perception, I thought it important to check out how marijuana influenced Walter’s perception, and, subsequently, with which filter we the audience are meant to view this episode. When smoked, marijuana affects the smoker immediately; the effects last from one to three hours depending on the person’s metabolism. This means that although the beginning of Walter’s story was heavily influenced by the Brown Betty he had just smoked, the ending is probably a lot more authentic.
For obvious reasons, I smiled when I read that the topmost short-term effects are distorted perception (sight, sound, touch, and time). Another short-term effect of marijuana of particular importance to us is trouble with thinking and problem-solving.
The types of marijuana that Walter used to create his mixture include chronic supernova and Afghani kush. Nothing particularly stood out to me about these strains, and I have no idea as to why Walter called it Brown Betty.
After playing a disastrous game of Operation, Ella asked Walter for a story. Walter demurred, telling Ella that he didn’t have experience telling stories: “I’m sure Mrs. Bishop did, but … No, I never told Peter stories. I was always too busy with my work.” What a contrast, again, with the fathering Walter did in “Peter”, taking the time to patiently teach Peter 1.0 how to twirl a coin down the length of his knuckles. And what a contrast, to have Walter call his wife “Mrs. Bishop” rather than “his mother” or “Elizabeth”. It might be that it’s more conventional, telling a child about “Mrs. Bishop” rather than “Elizabeth”, or perhaps it was done on purpose to underline the distance that guilt had put between Walter and Elizabeth.
Ella insists and Walter caves, putting together a story based on some of his mother’s favourites genres. And so the story starts, with Detective Dunham pouring herself a drink right after Rachel lets herself into her office. It either means that Walter, too, has noticed Olivia’s propensity of late for alcohol.
The second song of the episode comes courtesy of Walter, singing “Head over Heels” by Tears for Fears. Obviously, he sang the part of the song that was most apt to the episode: “Something happens and I’m head over heels/I never find out till I’m head over heels/Something happens and I’m head over heels/Ah don’t take my heart/Don’t break my heart/Don’t throw it away”. But it wasn’t the singing itself that made the scene as much as Walter’s dancing, Ella’s face and Astrid’s tart “what the school kids must have done to you.” Ella’s subsequent “maybe you should teach me algebra” was a cherry on top of an already great scene.
Astrid is a comforting and grounding presence in this episode, a contrast to Walter’s childish and hyper behaviour; this consolidates her quiet yet increasingly important role in Fringe. I wonder if that’s why Walter gave her the name of “Esther” in his story, since in the Bible, Esther is a young Hebrew woman married to the Persian King Ahasuerus who risked her life to save her people. Is this choice of a name also prophetic of Astrid’s role in coming episode of Fringe?
It was a nice touch to have Esther, fired by Detective Dunham that very same morning, looking for a job at a mental institution. It was also interesting with regard to what that implies about Walter’s perception of Astrid. I also found Detective Dunham owing Esther six months back pay was an amusing reference to her paycheck not being quite right in “White Tulip”.
Esther’s comment about Detective Dunham only answering calls “when it’s important or when she gets lost” was also reflective of Olivia’s real life personality as witnessed day to day by Walter; she seeks to do everything she can herself and only leans on others for help or support when she has been backed into a corner (much like with Peter in “Jacksonville”).
Dunham’s reaction to the pain of Esther’s ministrations reminded me of Olivia’s reaction to the emotional pain of finding out John Scott could be a traitor, way back in season one — remote, tucked away behind a high and thick wall of strength that nothing seemed to be able to get through.
Walter’s story takes Detective Dunham to a crime scene (a very nice butcher knife sticking out from a fat victim’s back) to look for Lieutenant Broyles. If Walter’s opinion of Broyles is reflected in the role he gave him, then it isn’t very high, as Walter describes him as a high people in a low place and an officer who planted evidence on a crime scene to get a promotion. While we know that the real Broyles knows a lot more than he lets on and has the most infuriating habit of giving information to Olivia after she has gone above and beyond the call of duty to get it, we never really had an excuse to think of him as being dirty or tainted. Why does Walter think so lowly of him to cast him as such in Ella’s tale?
Lance Reddick’s rendition of “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” by Traffic was beautiful, and I loved the fact that he accompanied himself on the piano. His character sang these three lines from the song: “And you just can’t escape from the sound/Don’t worry too much, it’ll happen to you/We were children once, playing with toys”. Could this be a forewarning that, just like with Peter, more of Walter’s past decisions are going to catch up to him? Or perhaps that Olivia and the rest of the CortexiKids won’t be able to escape the call that they were told to wait for, and they shouldn’t worry if, like Nick Lane in a previous episode, they don’t hear it, because it will come?
There is another part of the song that rings a little too close to what has been happening in Fringe: “And the man in the suit has just bought a new car/From the profit he’s made on your dreams/But today you just read that the man was shot dead/By a gun that didn’t make any noise/But it wasn’t the bullet that laid him to rest/’Twas the low spark of high-heeled boys.” Although this wasn’t sung by Broyles (shucks), it does make me wonder if, again, this is a premonition of sorts — that someone is going to try to take a shot at Bell, who made such a profit out of these children’s suffering.
The singing corpses make me laugh every single time. It really is the most ridiculously funny thing ever, and, in my opinion, is a great moment in this episode, all the more because of the contrast between the goriness of the autopsied corpses and the innocent song they are singing. “Why not bring a little life to the dead, I say,” says Walter.
Again, this could be a hint as to how Walter sees himself – or rather, how he used to see himself, as a Candy Man inventing things that bring joy and happiness to make the world a better place, able to bring joy to even the most morbid of situations. Superficially an amusing image, it becomes a little disturbing when one delves a little further and figures out that it’s a reflection of Walter’s ego, the one that got him to ignore Carla’s advice back in 1985.
The focus on the topic of broken hearts started early on in the episode with Walter going for the “broken heart” while playing Operation with Ella (a game which was previously featured on Fringe, namely in “The No-Brainer”).
I can’t help but wonder: why a glass heart? On the one hand, this being a fairy tale, I can’t help but think of Cinderella’s glass slipper – but it makes no sense. On the other hand, it makes me think of the proverb: “he who lives in glass houses should not throw stones”. While Walter’s deeds are certainly not devoid of inappropriateness, neither are Peter’s; granted the latter was a victim of the former’s deeds, but could Peter honestly say he wouldn’t have done the exact same thing, had he faced same set of circumstances? And could it be that this realization is what will bring father and son back together?
If it wasn’t obvious before, it’s now clear: Walter trusts Nina Sharp as much as Olivia does, i.e. not at all. Walter’s story had Nina Sharp and William Bell also looking for the glass heart as a source of energy to open a stable door between the universes at the cost of Walter’s life, reminiscent of David Newton Jones shooting Nina to get access the energy source in her arm at the end of season one. It makes me wonder if that energy source was yet another one of Walter’s inventions.
Speaking of Bell, two things were particularly interesting about his scene with Nina. First, Nina was using the same window Walter used to see into the alternate universe, and yet when you look carefully at the image of Bell, you can see the tops of a city skyline behind him, complete with high-rises. Either it means that, at that location in the alternate universe, there is a high-rise rather than a house, either the window is being used in the story in other ways than it can work – supposedly.
The other interesting thing is that the Bell Nina is talking to is totally animated. Coming hot on the hells of Leonard Nimoy announcing his retirement, this could be a hint as to what is waiting for us come season three — more digital-through-the-window Bell.
Peter’s quest to retrieve his broken heart is of course a pretty easy analogy to see right through. Unsurprisingly, it was sprinkled with various references to previous episodes of Fringe. Namely, the number 147 made another appearance, which is the number of passengers Flight 627 was carrying in the show’s pilot and the number of children that, in the story, Walter injured to create one of his goodness. It makes me wonder if the list of CortexiKids is going to increase to 147. After all, we found out in “Olivia. In the Lab. With the Revolver.” that on top of the kids involved in the Jacksonville trials, there were at least another 30 children involved in a trial held in Worcester. Perhaps the fact that Walter’s story involved 147 hurt children implies that he knew about Worcester and that he knows – or at least, knew, before his grey matter was removed – that about more trials.
Walter has been very enthusiastic for quite some time about Peter and Olivia’s relationship going to the next level (and had probably dusted off his purple suit by now). This remains something he still wants by the way he tells his story and has Detective Dunham sing Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life” to him after a bit of “Reverse Operation” (placing batteries inside him without touching the edges rather than taking a piece out). Anna Torv delivered it well, in a low, throaty moan that made the moment all the more poignant when we realise that this is what Walter wanted for his son but doesn’t believe can happen anymore – yet another dream shattered and another reason for him to loathe himself.
That the Peter in the story was willing to give Walter his heart, and therefore sacrifice his life is also a pretty easy metaphor for the fact that the real Peter gave up a life of wandering to stay with his father in Boston. By the same token, that he turned away from his boss was a reflection of the same way Walter sees his son turning away from him. It also brings back the very same ethical dilemma the show has been wrestling with since it first aired: until what cost is doing good still good?
Walter’s ending to the story is, as Ella puts it, terrible. Of course Ella doesn’t understand that it only reflects the depth of Walter’s guilt as well as the depth with which he loathes himself. Only that could make him believe that a devoted lab assistant willing to sacrifice his own life for that of a man he so admired could simply turn away.
It’s also a touching plea, spoken for the first time since the beginning of the series; for, while we have seen Walter wrestle with his guilt and indirectly ask for forgiveness by trying to right the wrongs his past work, it never came out like this, when Walter says, “Walter: Peter. I never meant to hurt anyone. I never… I can change, you’ll see. I can make up for all the harm I’ve done…”
No wonder storytelling is one of the art forms used as a form of therapy.
Ella’s ending is, of course, much better: “And Peter looked inside Walter’s eyes and realised there was still goodness inside. So Peter took his special heart, and with all his might, he split it in two. And the heart was so magical that it still worked. And together they make goodness, and they lived happily ever after”. It’s an ending that Walter obviously wants to believe in. I wonder if this quite simply means that Peter is going to find a way of being the son to two fathers, i.e. sharing his heart with Walter and Walternate?
Right after Walter finishes his story, Olivia walks back in; she still hasn’t located Peter. They all go home, with Astrid taking Walter home. September is watching from across the street and calls someone: “The boy has not returned. And I do not believe Dr. Bishop remembers my warning … yes, I am concerned, too.”
Which obviously sent my head spinning – again. What warning? Was it when September told Walter that Peter is significant? Was there something said in the diner, when September and Walter met, that we are not privy to? Or did September tell Walter something at the lake house that we haven’t quite zeroed in on yet?
There is so much I am certain I have missed; and yet, as I sit here, mulling it all over, I have to admit that for once, they got me. I have no certainty about anything whatsoever about anything new from this episode.
But that’s okay; I’ll just keep humming “Candy Man” until Thursday and hope that the episode “Northwest Passage” is going to be a lot more enlightening than “Brown Betty” was. Hopefully Walter won’t be smoking anything.
In Walter’s story, Rachel’s real name is Kelsey, which is an Old English name meaning “victorious ship”. That name came from a word meaning “fierce” or “brave”.
Why did Walter give September the name “Mr. Gemini” in his story, rather than “Mr. Virgo” or “Mr. Libra”, which are the two astrological signs for the month of September?