It might just be the impression I carry from an adolescence of sneaking to the basement to watch The X-Files and scare myself, but the best—and worst—thing about “She Was Provisional” was that it felt like an hour-long cold open for an X-Files episode. (No surprise there; Glen Morgan, who wrote some standout X-Files and Millenium episodes, is the writer and developer for Intruders.) The good news is, this isn’t a show in a hurry to explain itself; the pilot’s happy to play around with symbology, exposit amid the pines, suggest a quest for immortality, eliminate the most knowledgeable characters to make sure things stay murky, and leave the rest for later. The bad news is, it has yet to make those things particularly compelling.
In forty-five minutes, we get a veritable bingo card of setups and signposts of spooky television, capably delivered. There’s the shadowy society with supernatural leanings and complicated rituals; the uncanny child; some Illuminati television brought to you by the Bilderberg Group; the ruthless, resourceful killing machine who eliminates all witnesses until his humanity is momentarily yanked back into the socket. There are also smaller disconnects that create an atmosphere of unexplained weirdness on which our central conspiracy can rest: a bizarre response to a phone call, a moment of spacing out that heralds the worst; unexpected jazz; a little girl suddenly drowning her cat with extreme prejudice. The best of those beats get their weight from the blend of the unexplained threats bumping up against the all-too-familiar. James Frain holding up a sand dollar as a little girl hyperventilates is surreal; its supernatural danger is underscored by the inherent threat of a killer following a little girl around.
The pilot trades a lot on this – known fears operating beneath the unknown. The obvious one, of course, is the terror of realizing your body is no longer yours. (Those blown pupils do a lot of work.) There’s the terror of someone you love becoming unrecognizable, and of someone you love vanishing, and with immortality as the brass ring, we’re almost sure to come up against personal wrestling matches with mortality (Jack’s book is titled Afterlife). The one in this episode that carries the most bang for its buck is the very literal intrusion that accompanies the psychic one in the opening minutes, with the worldly break-in and assault happening alongside the detached, arcane negotiations. Amid the pile of violence in this episode, there’s some notable gendering with Donna: home invasion, pinned to the bed, silenced by two men, thrashing around as they hold her down – barely coded images of a different kind of crime. Donna didn’t last long after the Shepherds came by—women rarely do in a thriller’s cold open, no matter how long it is. But the combination of mundane and supernatural violation lingered over the rest of the episode.
That raises some questions. The inherent violation allegory of a body-snatching story is well-established, and the opening scene only serves to reinforce it; returning to that again could become a problem if the showrunners aren’t aware of the dynamics in play. Obviously this is a violent story from the off (sorry, Oz), but Intruders has set up several such challenges for itself by making all three supernatural victims so far women or girls; it kills one, another vanishes early, and another is a nine-year-old being piggybacked by a man far beyond her years. Perhaps this is all designed to set up the quest for immortality as a resonant exploration of the breakdown of women’s identities at the hands of a powerful male-driven system. (I’m not holding my breath.)
The casting seems of a piece with the rest of the show, the best of intentions with only vague reasons yet. John Simm’s been such a fixture in British TV that this hop to a American-produced show seems a belated welcome, but he brings his trademark intensity to Jack Whalen. This episode gives him little to do except track down a phone and frown at all the shenanigans, but I’m assuming you don’t hire John Simm to keep him on the edge of the action, and that we can look forward to seeing the creeped-out desperation that’s almost certainly in store for him. In the meantime, fellow Brit James Frain holds this episode together. He’s a solid choice for an interesting bad guy (if you ignore The Cape); more than willing to wrestle a little goofiness with a straight face but almost always looking for depth (also please ignore True Blood). Here he’s duly sinister and arch, but from the opening moments his detachment’s cracking, and while some of that feels like it’s just so little Madison can live another day, I do wonder if he’ll become more deeply conflicted as we go. In less immediately prepossessing work, Mira Sorvino’s Amy carries the unmistakable affect of Mira Sorvino, whose dramatic work is not heralded. Plus, at this point in our shared pop-culture experience, I’m rarely going to be impressed by a woman introduced primarily as a weight on our hero, no matter who’s playing her, and since she vanishes minutes later, it’s hard to get overly intrigued about what her return will herald.
First-episode syndrome is a common one in television, with so much still up in the air that it can be hard to get a handle on it; an uneven introduction can smooth out into a complicated series as easily as a confident pilot can lead into a flat show. While the concept has the potential to be delightfully spooky, Intruders is off to a shaky start. But despite the rapid-fire plot points and bingo-card portents, there’s still a menacing deliberation to “She Was Provisional,” a shopkeeper painstakingly rolling out the haunted painting you came to see. The major question the next few episodes will have to answer: Is it worth the slow reveal?
- Welcome to the recaps for Intruders! We’re trying out the show for a few weeks to see who’s on board for body-snatchers, Vancouver weather, and James Frain being endlessly put out that he has to keep murdering all these people.
- Bear McCreary (when does he sleep?) delivers a tense, eerie score that does half the work setting the mood; the Pacific Northwest landscape does the other half.
- I appreciate any time the sinister nature of birthday cakes is textually acknowledged.
- I also appreciated the suddenly-empty computer calendar, which was a nice mundane-uncanny beat.
- “I fear no one because fear derives from the unknown…Fear no one. Be loud.” Of all the X-Files ties in this episode, this might have been the thread that tugged hardest. Morgan loves to bring a beat through a story as a touchstone; we know we’ll be getting more What Goes Around Comes Around, but I wonder if we’ll be seeing some of this again in a different context.
- On the other hand: “You know I was never going to make detective there.” “…Not after What Happened.” I laughed out loud.
- The attempts to connect everything might come together with dogged surety, but they’re occasionally trying hard on the wrong places. Did we need poor doomed Donna to consult her bedside yearbook to believe that she knew Gary Fischer? I would have taken somebody’s word for it, I promise.
- THE CAT, THOUGH.