By Ken Tucker
Updated April 30, 2010 at 01:13 PM EDT
Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv)
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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”?

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Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv)


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