“All Souls” (season 5, episode 17; originally aired 4/26/1998)
In which God sends Scully a message by killing a bunch of people
One of the things that’s often made me uncomfortable about the idea that God controls everything that happens on Earth and often uses minor events to communicate His control to believers is the fact that it’s awfully self-centered. Had a whole bunch of bad stuff happen to you? It must be God telling you that He’s there in good times and bad. Seen a disaster somewhere else on the news? It must be God showing you that He’s in control. Can’t find your car keys? That’s probably God wanting you to stop and reconnect with Him (by asking Him to help you find your car keys). The blogs STFU, Believers and Stuff Christian Culture Likes are filled with the proprietors relating secondhand stories of how believers think God uses mundane-to-terrible events to let His followers know that they’re on His mind, and most of the time, it just makes God seem like the most passive-aggressive boyfriend ever, someone who will kill your cat so you’ll remember to love Him enough. (See also: the movie Signs.)
But at the same time, if you really believe God’s omniscient and omnipotent, how can you not think this about Him? Martin Luther famously posited the idea that by the act of creating the universe, God damned a whole bunch of people to Hell, because he knew that they would eventually exist and that they would reject Him. By creating the processes that would create them, He created a bunch of people just to torment them for eternity. For all that Luther and other Protestants might think about humans having free will, they still had an inkling of an idea that all of this was incompatible with the notion that God was up there, in charge, makin’ things happen. And in our modern age, this has morphed into the common lament that God is teaching his followers lessons or testing them or whatever your excuse of the moment might be. It’s a very me-focused version of religion, but it’s not like modern doctrines leave these people many places to go.
Inevitably, this was all I could think of at the end of “All Souls,” an occasionally too-slow episode that nonetheless gains a lot of power from being yet another Gillian Anderson potential Emmy tape in a season full of them. There’s an intriguing mystery that builds in power and horror throughout the episode, and there’s a very good villain, played by the very good Glenn Morshower. But at the end, it all boils down to the fact that Scully’s pretty sure that God sent four mentally handicapped girls with the souls of angels into her life so that he could burn out their eyes, take them to Heaven, and let her know it’s OK to let go of any residual sadness she has about the death of Emily earlier this season. (It’s all a little ambiguous, to be sure, but I choose to believe that those angel girls are back in Heaven because I’m an optimist like that.) This is a storyline that would fit more comfortably on Millennium, admittedly, but it works here thanks to Anderson, who sells the shit, once again, out of the idea that she really, really loved a girl she only knew for a couple of weeks. (Hey, genetics will do that to you.)
At first, the storyline here seems a little too ridiculous, even for this show. The working theory that a priest with some sort of demonic influence is tracking down these quadruplets who (the episode strongly hints) are angels is really, really goofy, no matter how you spin it. And the show’s attempts to come up with some sort of rationalization for this—a scientific one from Scully or a paranormal one from Mulder—feel even sillier. But then the episode gives up trying to do that and simply starts giving Scully visions of Emily and a four-faced man/monster, and it gets much, much better. It realizes that the best way to tackle these “Scully struggles with her religion” stories has always been via vaguely expressed symbols, as in the very good season three episode, “Revelations.” Scully’s Catholicism could have seemed like irony taken too far: “She’s a scientist, but she’s religious, too!” But to the credit of the writers and Anderson, all involved have always taken it with a deathly seriousness.
I mentioned that the villain here is good, and I think the way the show sneaks up to the fact that the Social Worker Starkey is actually a demon in human form is why the villain works so darn well. When he pops up in the locked room at the police station to kill Father Gregory, it’s a great, jolting moment, a nice scare in an episode that’s mostly been somber up until this point. And I love how the show allows him to go full demon there at the end, with the glowing hellfire and the shadowy horns and the way his voice distorts and warps in pitch. Morshower plays both sides of the character—the caring, avuncular social worker and the, well, hellspawn—very well, and while The X-Files was never a terribly natural fit for these kinds of stories with blatantly religious monsters, I like that it doesn’t try to give any explanation other than, “Well, we’re probably dealing with seraphim and nephilim here, so just try and keep up.”
Another thing that works well here is the choice to frame it all as Scully giving confession. It’s the kind of device that could feel hackneyed—we know something bad’s going to happen, and Scully feels responsible!—but it doesn’t because Anderson believably builds Scully’s feelings of guilt, despair, relief, and contrition throughout the episode. When the episode ends on a very stark idea—the idea that faith is sometimes just about gritting your teeth and getting on with your life—she sells the whole arc of Scully’s feelings for Emily with a handful of words and a smattering of tears. The Emily storyline has always seemed like a convenience, a way for the writers to wring some pathos out of Anderson’s performance and mark time while waiting for the movie. But that doesn’t denigrate the fact that when Anderson starts crying over this little girl, it’s like a punch in the gut.
Which all brings me back to a recurring theme of these write-ups: Dana Scully and the woman portraying her are the two biggest secret weapons this show ever had. With every season, the show seemed to relish more and more the idea of giving Anderson these big showcase episodes, and even though a lot of them seemed to consist of the writers poking the character with a stick, she always backed up whatever the writers would give her. And after she won the Emmy in season four, the writers seemed to go out of their way to give her more and more showcases in season five. (I’m not sure Mulder has a comparable showcase episode this season, though I guess “Red And The Black” comes close.) Where Mulder-centric stories tended to be more about the show’s science fiction tropes, Scully showcases tended to be much more emotional, much more about the human cost of peering into Pandora’s Box all of the time.
It’s here, I think, that it’s worth pointing out just why The X-Files remains worth covering all of these years later, why we dig deep into it week after week when so many shows just like it have fallen by the wayside (and when so many shows on right now copy it in many respects but don’t manage its cool veneer of terrific TV). The X-Files, obviously, is a fairly formulaic show. You can feel the show pushing against its boundaries quite a bit this season (and it will all but ditch them next season), and that doesn’t always result in episodes that work as well as they might. But this show worked because it imbued that formula both with a strong sense of thematic cohesion—there are things out there “they” don’t want you to know about—and because it created characters worth loving and caring about. Every single episode of this show, even the ones that don’t really work, tries to tell a lovingly detailed character story about Mulder, or Scully, or the guest stars. The best episodes somehow manage all three, but I’ll also take an episode that just digs deep into one of the three, as this one does with Scully’s issues of guilt over what happened to Emily.
And that’s why the ending—silly as it is theologically—sort of seems earned at the same time. Of course God would want to tell Scully to proceed. Of course He would contrive an elaborate scenario wherein he sent four of his angels down to Earth in the form of endangered young girls, just so he could call them back at some point and maybe teach Scully a lesson or two about letting go. And of course He would let this entire cosmic battle play out before her very eyes as a way to let her know which path to follow. Scully, you see, has become just that important. She’s not just a rational skeptic, there to give Mulder the pushes he needs. She’s become the Skeptic, the woman who stands between the mundane and the unexplained and faces down demons and doesn’t get her eyes burned out. She doesn’t know it, but she’s on the frontlines, and that’s just where He wants her.
- Glenn Morshower, of course, would go on to play Agent Aaron Pierce on 24, then pop up as Landry’s dad in one of the most ill-conceived storylines in TV drama history on Friday Night Lights. His hair is very red here, which kind of surprised me.
- The show has gotten much better about keeping its world consistent. The father that Scully meets with is the same father that she met with earlier in the season. Little details like this make it seem like all of the weirdness taking place in the show’s more standalone elements exists in the same universe.
- Mulder’s a pretty big dick in this episode, huh? When he makes the call to help out with the investigation early on, he really seems like he’d rather be tailing whatever werewolf he’s stumbled upon. (Or whatever it is he’s doing. Maybe he’s set up his own speed trap to pursue justice on the weekends.)
“Siren” (season 2, episode 17; originally aired 3/20/1998)
In which It’s A Wonderful Frank
The It’s A Wonderful Life episode is a staple of television. Back in the day, many of the old dramas went out of their way to remake lots and lots of classic movies (often ones that weren’t widely seen and could be more easily strip-mined for their basic structures), and inevitably around Christmas, someone would get the idea to remake It’s A Wonderful Life. (For whatever reason, the first episode I can think of with this conceit is the Mork & Mindy first season episode, “It’s A Wonderful Mork,” whose title sticks with me for obvious reasons.) But as time went on, it got harder and harder to do this kind of episode. The last really good one I can think of was probably the Buffy episode “The Wish,” which took the basic idea and took it to its darkly logical extremes (and didn’t imagine a world without the main character so much as a world where she’d shifted her priorities). At this point, the trope is fairly worn out.
So imagine my surprise to see an It’s A Wonderful Life episode popping up in the middle of an otherwise staid episode of Millennium that almost feels like a leftover X-Files script. Millennium has been on a pretty terrific streak lately (give or take a “Pest House”), so I don’t dislike “Siren” as much as I might have if it had popped up in the early days of season one, when it probably would have stuck out like a sore thumb. But I did find myself frequently restless throughout its running time, and I think the episode probably waited too long to reveal its central gambit: a woman who can apparently manipulate men’s thoughts to let them see what they want to see. And in Frank’s case, that’s a world where he never got involved with the Millennium Group and opened up his own private investigator shop. It’s a world where he wakes up in bed with his wife, back in the yellow house, his daughter safe and sound. It’s also a world where the darkness very quickly comes to call and everything turns to shit.
There are the standard hallmarks of the genre. We get a scene where Frank tries to talk to Peter, and Peter says he’s never seen him before in his life. We get a scene where Frank brings up the Group and Catherine says, “What’s that?” And we get a scene where we see the unintended consequences of Frank never joining the group, which appear to involve a demon killing Jordan. The episode ends with Frank rushing to find Tamara, the woman who gave him this vision, to find out if his life is better or worse off because of him joining the Group, but we already know that the vision is both the truth and a lie. Frank could have gone off on his own after leaving the FBI. Frank could have abandoned the frontlines of the battle between good and evil. But evil would have found him all the same. Though it’s cost him everything, he’s better off facing down the darkness.
And that’s a cool idea to build an episode of this show around, really, and it could have been a really integral part of the season’s build from Frank getting cast out of his paradise and gradually finding his way back to it. For Frank to accept that sometimes to get what you need, you have to give up what you want is a profound idea, and there’s a lot of thought placed into his hero’s journey in this episode. But that whole section I described above takes up only an act, an act designed to show how this mysterious woman could have apparently caused many of the man on board a ship bringing illegal immigrants to the U.S. to die from exposure to the elements. She showed them what they wanted, and they got lost in those visions, lying out in the cold night air. And they kept chasing the visions, just as Frank did, looking for a kind of clarity that was already there but they refused to see.
Again, that could be really cool within this universe, but as carried out here, it just feels like a warmed over X-Files episode, sadly. The structure of how Frank delves into this mystery is straight out of the Mulder and Scully playbook, and you have the sorts of moments when the writers (Glen Morgan and James Wong again) delve into, say, Asian mysticism for the sake of delving into Asian mysticism, or when they try to work in a topical or hot button topic to seem more timely. These were all things The X-Files leaned on a little too often in the early years, the years Morgan and Wong were around for, and it’s a little weird to see them pop up in the midst of a Millennium episode that features sequences as arresting as the one where the woman comes to the ship (in three different fashions), then sows chaos. It’s like the episode occasionally loses confidence in itself.
But there’s still plenty to like here, particularly since the show is cruising along at such a nice clip now that it’s hard for it to get too tripped up. That sequence where the three men recount three different stories of the woman’s arrival is a doozy (particularly that shot of her floating up to the boat, dressed all in red), and I liked the reveal that someone with her fingerprints was lost at sea 10 years ago, since if there’s one genre of X-Files episode that would work well on Millennium, it’s the ghost story episode. And I do like that entire act spent in a strange alternate universe, particularly the bit where Frank goes to interrogate the woman, and she’s suddenly speaking perfect English instead of an obscure Chinese dialect no one can understand.
And I also like the idea that she doesn’t have the answers Frank wishes she would, that no one really can. She can show him a kind of reality. She can show him the various paths his life could have taken—unless what she shows him really is just a lie designed to lure him into death—but she can’t give him an answer because that’s not what these visions are meant to do. Visions are always meant for interpretation, and even though Frank spends plenty of time dealing with his gift and the idea that he has this connection to a higher power (or something) that allows him to get insights into the inner workings of the world, he crucially misses the fact that he’s supposed to be figuring out what this vision means on his own. Maybe it really does mean that if he hadn’t joined the group, he’d be happier. But I’d suspect that, just like the answer in the movie this episode is based on, the real answer is a good deal darker.
- I do like the bits where Catherine and Frank are kind of working through their issues and the parts where we see them as a happy couple again. But the stuff where Catherine gets involved in the case because the writers basically need to give her something to do is fairly weak. This season has really been terrible for giving her much of anything to do but look cross.
- I do like Jordan wandering through the hospital and gawking at people. I’m pretty sure I did this as a kid, too, though I didn’t have any supernatural powers to help me pick out the people important to my family’s future.
- Oddly enough, both "Siren" and "All Souls" are directed by Allen Coulter, who would go from his work on shows like this to The Sopranos, eventually earning seven Emmy nominations, though he has yet to win. He directed a fairly similar episode to this one on Sopranos called "The Test Dream."
Next week: Zack and Mulder infiltrate a terrorist cell in “The Pine Bluff Variant,” then head off with Frank in search of an Immaculate Conception in “In Arcadia Ego.”