The Great X-Files Rewatch: Season Five, Part One
I wrote in my last entry (some years ago) about how season 5 was a time of increased experimentation for The X-Files. For my triumphant return to X-Files blogging, I’m going to look at two episodes that represent departures from formula and their relative success.
“The Post-Modern Prometheus,” an homage to the spectacle of comic books and 50s-style creature features, is thought by some to be one of the greatest X-Files episodes ever—and it is certainly one of the most popular—while some think it’s vastly overrated. I’ve got to say that I’m in the latter camp. It has its good points: the black-and-white cinematography is quite beautiful. I admire the absurdity of the way Cher songs feature throughout (Cher is the creature’s favorite singer, largely because Cher was such a good mother to the malformed boy in Mask, a movie much beloved by the creature). Seinfeld’s J. Peterman makes for a great villain.
It’s really quite mean-spirited, though, portraying so many bug-eyed, gap-toothed country bumpkins obsessed with getting on The Jerry Springer Show (which, as I recall, was REALLY big at the time). There’s a rampant mob mentality that culminates in an honest-to-God torch-wielding mob, and it’s all soundtracked by circus music. They might as well have just titled the episode “FREAKS!” Possibly they were going for an ironic thing—the actual malformed person is thoughtful and forthright while the regular townies are grotesque caricatures. Still, it’s unseemly.
The episode also has an uncomfortable relationship with non-consensual sex. Whether or not the creature is a monster or just a misunderstood sensitive soul is belied by his habit of impregnating unaware housewives. In season 4’s “Small Potatoes,” the agents put Eddie van Blundht (“the ‘h’ is silent!”) in jail for doing the same thing (via a different method). The Creature gets taken to a Cher concert. There is some suggestion that the entire ending of PMP is fantastical—that the Creature has, in fact, been arrested, and the romance of the creature getting a fun night out is wishful thinking. And maybe my criticism that “it’s just not plausible!” is misguided, if not in this show, at least in this episode of this show, which is so fantastical that it’s practically magical realism. But it doesn’t sit well.
Here’s another. “Chinga” is kind of an interesting episode, not especially involving, but relatively far outside the mainstream, and hugely notable because it was written by the king of horror himself, Stephen King.
It begins not unlike an episode of Murder, She Wrote and even takes place in Maine. (A shared preoccupation for Stephen King and Jessica Fletcher.) Scully has decided that she deserves a holiday and has driven up there to relax—take bubble baths and listen to classical music, apparently; however, she gets embroiled in a murder case that is happening around her. The “I can’t even get away from murder while I’m on vacation,” trope is really pretty corny for The X-Files.
There’s a certain macabre humor that permeates the episode that King is surely responsible for: the theme to the Hokey Pokey used as a chilling signal for evil to come, the climactic use of a microwave as an incendiary device, the entire “Mulder is at home in D.C. and really really bored” subplot. It’s really quite gruesome, too, with a lot of people getting speared in the head and whatnot. But there’s really no mystery involved—Scully doesn’t have to do a hell of a lot of investigating to get to the root cause of the mayhem (the doll), and why the doll is murderous is never explained. It’s really a straight-up horror episode, with an unstoppable force for evil (an unlikely one) that needs to be killed. It’s not what we (at least, I) typically watch The X-Files for.
The easy excuse is that King didn’t know the rhythms of the show—showrunner Chris Carter is also listed as a writer. My guess (and it is just a guess) is Carter had to take King’s Mulder & Scully story and shape it into an episode X-Files viewers would recognize. The one little interesting thing the episode manages to do is have Scully be the driving force behind a crackpot theory, just because Mulder is not there to fill that role. Scully tells the Maine cops they should be open to “extreme possibilities,” which is early-era X-Files code for “don’t discount that it could be a possessed, murderous doll.” Mulder has espoused this philosophy multiple times, but, to my best recollection, this is the first time Scully has done so, and she only does it in Mulder’s absence. Very interesting, and a harbinger of things to come.
There are better episodes to be found in and around early season 5, if not particularly special ones. “Detour” is mostly known as that fun, mildly goofy episode where Mulder and Scully chase a strangely aggressive creature into the Floridian Everglades and get lost. Their nature guide disappears, then the guy with the creature detector runs away, and then Mulder gets injured by the creature. So he and Scully have a cuddly campout for the night. In fact, Ms. Scully proves herself to be the ideal companion for one stranded in the wilderness: she tends to Mulder’s wounds, she is (almost) able to start a campfire with one of the bullets from her gun, and when Mulder asks her to sing to him, she does. Looking helplessly from left to right, clearly thinking, well, what else is there to do but go with it? she intones, “Jeremiah was a bullfrog…”
At the beginning of the episode, Mulder and Scully are on their way to a mandatory team building seminar, but they prove so cooperative with one another in their adventure in the Everglades that viewers are left with the satisfying feeling that those two are going to be just fine, even if they can’t build a tower out of office furniture and they prefer to skip the wine and cheese reception. Nice little standalone, with some nice work from Gillian Anderson to boot, musing to (the basically captive) Mulder about how the world looks from the other side of her remissed cancer.
Another fun one is “The Unusual Suspects,” an origin episode for the Lone Gunmen, a trio of conspiracy theorists who sometimes assist Mulder and Scully. The show flashes back to 1989 when a pre-Scully pre-X-files Mulder is still investigating violent crimes and domestic terrorism. He’s tracking a pretty blonde chemist who supposedly blew a bunch of stuff up but who bends the willing ear of Lone Gunman Byers with a story of a government frame-up that includes listening devices in hotel Bibles and a lojack implanted in her tooth.
So Byers hooks up with his future cohorts Frohike and Langley and the three of them crack some story about mind-altering drugs being disseminated amongst the innocent public in asthma inhalers. Or some such thing. Mulder is doused with the drug, strips naked and screams that THE ALIENS, THEY’RE HERE, if that appeals to you. But the story is treated as low-stakes, allowing viewers to take pleasure in the interplay of some of the show’s more enjoyable characters. Blonde Lady’s wild and apparently true rantings are the most fun kind of “not really?” conspiracy theory stories, and the episode toys with its own seriousness by casting Richard Belzer as Detective John Munch (of Homicide and Law and Order fame) as an investigating officer who tries to piece the whole story together.
Stephen King was not the only guest writer this season; episode 11, “Kill Switch,” was written by well-known sci-fi author William Gibson, who I like to think is the reason for introducing a character (later in the season) named Gibson Praise. (And to thank them for that the bastard came back and wrote a dog of an episode like season 7’s “First Person Shooter”! EW. Fail.)
But “Kill Switch,” in which a computer program attains free will and tries by various methods to murder its creators, is not bad at all—full of action, pseudoscience and improbable technology, and pulpy nightmare sequences courtesy of Mulder, who halfway through is taken hostage by a virtual reality machine. The best part is the action setpiece that opens the episode—a man sits in a diner feverishly typing on a laptop, programming or encrypting or hacking or something. Meanwhile, all around town various thugs and mercenaries receive phone calls from an electronic voice, luring them to this same diner. It turns out to be a very carefully orchestrated powder keg of wrong-place-wrong-timeness that kills the stranger in the crossfire.
They’re not all winners! In “Schizogeny,” a troubled boy may have murdered his stepfather. Or a tree may have done it. Typical horror-via-the-mundane setup, in which snaky vines and branches stab people through the heart and the wind whistling through crisp autumn leaves carries an extra bit of scare power. Some kind of message here about nature being on the side of the vulnerable. Average episode.
“Kitsunegari” is a sequel episode—it resurrects Robert Modell of season 3’s “Pusher,” which is one of my favorites. Modell, who was on his brain-damaged deathbed at the end of “Pusher,” has improbably survived for two years but remains incarcerated for his many, many murders. He is also physically and mentally incapacitated. That doesn’t stop him from escaping from prison here, or for painting “Kitsunegari” all over the walls of a murder scene. (Translated = fox hunt = i.e. Fox Mulder.)
Modell’s obsession with cerulean blue continues in this episode—the lawyer who prosecuted him is murdered by paint of that particular shade (drowned or suffocated or some combination of the two, in case you are curious).
Blue Man is the most memorable thing about this episode. Even the inevitable “Mulder may be ‘pushed’ to kill Scully” showdown is far less suspenseful or poignant than the one at the end of “Pusher.” Classic case of diminishing returns. Still, the episode features a fine guest star turn from Diana Scarwid (who I loved as Jaye’s mom on Wonderfalls and loathed as Christina Crawford in Mommie Dearest) and is better than the proverbial sock in the eye.
The Angst Spectrum
Early season five is relatively free of hardcore angst. The two-part season opener, titled “Redux” (parts one and two) involves a lot of fraught confrontations, bedside confessions, and tears, mostly in its second part, “Redux II.” Mulder’s presumptive suicide is debunked and he has to face up to how much of a pawn he’s been, playing right into the hands of all of his worst enemies. Cliffhanging off the first part and all through the second, Scully’s cancer rears its vengeful head, but is ultimately cured by the intervention of The Root of All Government Evil, Cigarette Smoking Man and his magical microchip.
As a means of convincing Mulder to believe him about the chip, CSM arranges a meeting between Mulder and his sister, Samantha, who has been missing for 25 years. The short scene between Mulder and the woman—who even Mulder can’t really believe is Samantha, despite how much he might want to believe it (and who, SPOILER, is revealed an entire season later not to be her)—is really quite touching. I always liked the actress they had playing Samantha and she’s kind of heartbreaking as Mulder reveals to her how much about her old life has been concealed from her since was taken. She thinks CSM is her father. She was told all the other Mulders were dead, and certainly none of them spent twenty years looking for her. Mulder begs her to go see their mother and she kind of croaks “Mom is…alive?” And then Samantha is snatched away again by CSM and Mulder remains at square one.
And then Scully is recovered! She sits up in her hospital bed and smiles beatifically at Skinner and Mulder as they enter the room. She’s spiritually reborn as well, having finally allowed her priest to come in and say some Hail Marys with her through the worst of it. Viewers are even allowed to feel a pang for CSM, who is dramatically gunned down at the end of the episode, clutching a picture of Mulder and Samantha in their youth, for reasons yet unknown. The man has regrets. And now he’s been taken out by his partners in crime. Is he headed somewhere he can find absolution? (SPOILER: no, he’s just going rural Canada.)
For a satisfying emotional roller coaster, I’ll give “Redux II” a solid 9.0.
(P.S. It’s a good thing “Redux II” is so satisfying, because “Redux I” is nothing special. It begins with a patented X-Files monotonous monologue, this one delivered half-assedly by Duchovny. Mulder uses an employee ID swiped off the body of the guy who’s been surveilling him to skulk around the Pentagon and try to figure things out. These Pentagonian journeyings are scored by an endless voiceover narration by Mulder explaining what he’s doing and why. Later, he meets up with Kritschgau, who talks fast and lays out years’ worth of backstory. We get helpful stock footage of A-bombs, newspaper headlines and 50s-era kids getting sprayed with DDT. On an initial view, it was edge-of-your-seat entertainment. Watching it again, after many years and careful study of The X-Files for this blog project, it’s clear what pains the director was taking to make walking and talking seem dynamic. When you already know the secrets being laid bare, there is literally nothing else going on.)
The only other angst-fest in the first half of season 5 is the episode “Christmas Carol,” and its sequel “Emily,” the pair of which aspire to be a punch to the heart. Call me a cold fish for saying this, but nahhhhh. After Scully’s touching battle with cancer, her poignant discovery that she has a biological daughter (the result of her season 2 abduction and the theft of some of her reproductive materials) and that said daughter is dying (because she’s a lab-conceived freak with jacked-up DNA) has got less emotional punch than it should. It feels like Scully has been through so much already. There’s a misdirect in the first of the two parts (“Christmas Carol”), where Scully sees the girl and thinks that she might be her dead sister Melissa’s child (who, as a reminder, was murdered in a hit meant for Scully and later reborn as one of Don Draper’s mistresses). Scully runs around getting DNA tests run and everything, and the shock in the closing minutes of the episode (“According to this, I am Emily’s mother”) is all very well done. Gillian Anderson continues to be a wonderful actress, Scully an undeniably compelling character. But, the second episode crawls along as they try to save this poor little girl’s life—while almost no headway is made on the mythology front—and it’s just a real downer, especially for Christmas. I give the two episodes a combined score of 4.8.
Looking Long Term
Better stuff is coming in the latter half of season 5. Mulder continues his migration towards skepticism and Scully continues to reevaluate her life choices as her commitment to Mulder and the X-Files begins to seem more and more fruitless.
I can’t help but feel that this first half of the season the show has been sorely lacking what we call in the TV circles a “Big Bad.” The Government was always the villain of The X-Files, but previous seasons always gave The Government a deliciously evil face in Cigarette Smoking Man and his compatriots, the likes of whom are totally absent in these episodes, after CSM is shot in the season opener. “Christmas Carol” and “Emily” are good examples of this problem in action. They are the closest thing we get to a mid-season mythology episode, but the villain is a shadowy pharmaceutical corporation working presumably on behalf of the government (using the green-blooded clone technology with which X-Files viewers are already familiar) but without the government itself or any of its representatives getting their hands narratively dirtied. No conscious connection is made, which is both kind of unusual and definitely unsatisfactory. Well, onward!
Coming up in the second half of season 5: an episode about the Red Scare, the 1950s, and the quiet, desperate pain of a man whom the U.S. government has infected with an esophageal crab. Also obsessive-compulsive vampires, blind guest stars, and the welcome returns of Krycek and Cigarette Smoking Man.
(Sorry for the X-Files hiatus. I’ll try to be better! Catch up here.)