“all things” (season 7, episode 17; originally aired 4/9/2000)
In which Scully gets a couple days to herself, and things go insane
I would love to love “all things.” I like when this show gets weird and experimental, and I like when it leaves behind its template to do different things. Season four’s “Never Again” is one of my favorite X-Files episodes, and it’s at least vaguely similar to this one. Plus, I love the idea of a TV series as a collection of short stories that add up to something more significant, and in “all things,” it’s possible to see the kind of format-breaking hours that would make later TV dramas so satisfying and interesting. It’s not all that difficult to imagine one of the characters on Mad Men or The Sopranos or some other series spending a long weekend without the other characters, then having some sort of spiritual epiphany that will eventually be forgotten about. What I am saying is that this is an episode of television where Scully is briefly enamored of a curtain cord thunking against a wall, and I am the kind of person who loves weird bullshit TV like that.
Sadly, “all things” doesn’t really work. I kept trying to give it the benefit of the doubt while I was watching it, and it kept just doing all of these weird things that didn’t really add up. It’s the writing and directing debut of Gillian Anderson, and I admire her guts in constructing such a small-scale hour that deviates so thoroughly from the show’s formula. (Reportedly, her original script—which lacked a final act—was even less of an episode of The X-Files, and Frank Spotnitz helped her eventually pull it back into something that at least had the vague spine of an episode of this show.) But at the same time, Jesus Christ, this episode is some weird, weird bullshit. It’s the kind of thing people call “pretentious,” but I don’t know that it really aims to be anything that it has no idea how to achieve. Anderson is obviously trying to share some things that are very important to her with us, and it’s just not working.
The story is pretty basic. Mulder is going to go to England to check out some crop circles. He’s leaving Scully behind, and this is one of the few episodes where her good science sense trumps his love of the supernatural. (I like how many Scully-centric episodes act as if this is the status quo around 90 percent of the time, and the times the duo hunts down actual monsters are the rare occasions we get to see them.) After he leaves, she ends up at the hospital, where she just so happens to be drawn back into the circle of a former lover, a man who taught her in medical school, whose daughter still hates Scully in oft-hilarious fashion. (I’ve read Anderson’s original intent for this character; it doesn’t make what’s on screen any less bizarre.) Anyway, Scully and the former lover—name of Daniel Waterston—have a bunch of weird conversations that sound like no dialogue anyone would ever speak, and she eventually gets a call from Mulder to go and get some information from a woman he’s been working with. She breaks to avoid hitting a woman, thus averting a car accident. Then things get even stranger.
I realize that what I’m describing sounds far from strange. But the way it all plays out—with a weird gloss of mysticism overlaying everyday occurrences—is just so outside the norm of both this show and, uh, TV in general. And by the time Scully is dropping piles of papers in slow motion so that she can see a helpful sheet about the “heart chakra,” or when she’s entering a temple—after having followed the mysterious woman who kept her from getting into the car crash to said temple—and then having a weird vision of everything in her life flying by her eyes before she comes to with a start, the whole episode just feels like it’s completely wandered off the road and headed across open pasture. Don’t mistake this for criticism: I like that about this episode. But at the same time, all of this comes completely out of nowhere and is mostly just a message delivery system for some Buddhism.
Again, there’s nothing really wrong with this. The episode is circling around some fairly profound notions of fate and cycles and circular journeys that keep bringing us back to the same people. But it’s also expressing those notions in about as bald-faced a way as possible. There’s no attempt to hide the subtext here. No, this is mostly an episode of people just sitting around and talking about big concepts, followed by a lot of scenes where Scully walks around—occasionally to Moby—and gets into wacky coincidences that drive the story forward, rather than our favorite agent driving the story forward herself. It’s a curious story, and it might be okay if we were really digging into how Scully feels about things, or if her epiphany in the temple were treated with a little more weight, or if we really got into how Scully hurt the professor’s family back in the day, or even if we dug more deeply into the question of whether Scully should have stuck with medicine. Instead, it just sort of dawdles along, raising a lot of issues but never settling anything.
But! I can’t help but love this episode all the same. Like “The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati,” this is an episode that digs deep into all the esoteric weirdness and bizarre lack of subtext that made The X-Files one of my favorite TV shows ever made. There’s really no way to classify “all things” as anything other than a curious failure, but I still love just how weird and different it dares to be. Put another way: “Brand X,” the other episode I watched this week, is probably a “better” episode in a lot of ways, in that it tells a mostly coherent story and has strong guest performances and follows the ol’ X-Files template to a T, but I had much less fun watching it. I know the show can do an episode like that in its sleep; I don’t know that it can pull off an “all things” at this point in its run, but I enjoy watching it try all the same.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that “all things” doesn’t work, and it would be easy to be far crueler to it than I actually am. But there’s something so pure and unadorned at its center that I can’t outright hate it. I admire it for making the attempt, and I like the way that Anderson offers it to us so unadorned, as if she’s a kid handing us a handmade Valentine and asking us to love it, even though it’s kind of shoddy. I toyed around with giving this a grade in the B range, simply because I feel sort of bad picking on it, but it doesn’t really work as an episode of TV. It wants to be a poem, I guess, yet it keeps getting dragged down by the fact that it’s stuck in a formula it doesn’t want to be a part of. And so it goes.
- This episode is mostly famous for the opening, in which Mulder is revealed to be sleeping, shirtless, in Scully’s bed. What I like is that the show never really returns to that idea, instead just having Mulder talk about fate while Scully gently falls asleep beside him. Reader, you can fill in the blanks (hopefully not in horrifying fashion).
- Fun facts about the writing process from Wikipedia: Anderson’s original script for the episode only encompassed three of four acts and was 72 pages long, which was probably around 12 pages over what a full script should have been. Also, the final conversation between Daniel and Scully—probably the worst scene in the whole thing—was cut down by 10 minutes. What?!
- It’s worth pointing out that this episode is very stylish. It makes Scully’s sojourn either really cool, or something out of a perfume commercial. I can’t quite decide which.
“Brand X” (season 7, episode 18; originally aired 4/16/2000)
In which the smoke is full of bugs
In the old days of TV drama, shows would often tell stories based on old movies. This was at a time when local stations had lots of time to kill and weren’t sure how to kill it, so they’d buy packages full of old movies that nobody really cared about, then air them endlessly. This turned a few movies—It’s A Wonderful Life—into all-time classics, and it burnished the reputations of others that had started to fall into disrepair—King Kong. But for the most part, these were forgettable pictures, dusted off and given new lives for an audience of youthful, bored Baby Boomers. And when those Baby Boomers started to take over TV in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, they would break out the stories they’d seen in these movies and condense them down to hours. The movies informed the TV shows, and it allowed for lots of new episode types, at least until Hill Street Blues started turning to soaps as a new inspiration for primetime dramas.
“Brand X” is a weird throwback to this era, except it’s not using an ancient movie. It’s using a movie that had actually just been nominated for Best Picture when this episode aired. The Insider, Michael Mann’s tale of how 60 Minutes ran into gigantic trouble when it tried to air an expose of the cigarette industry, was one of the best movies of 1999, but it didn’t do so hot at the box office. Nevertheless, it was nominated for a host of Oscars, and Russell Crowe’s performance in the lead role of the cigarette company informant was so good that it bought him years of good will. (Honestly, he may have only exhausted it with Les Miserables, that’s how good his work was.) Now, “Brand X” isn’t a carbon copy of The Insider—for one thing, Mulder’s not going to expose his beetle-riddled lungs on a newsmagazine—but it has so much DNA in common with that movie that it’s odd that it aired just a few weeks after the film lost at the Oscars.
But the episode has lots in common with another red-hot entertainment property of the year 2000: Law & Order. In many ways, Law & Order and The X-Files were vaguely similar shows. They both told mostly close-ended stories, and they both got lots of mileage out of the kind of terse dialogue that had marked old detective movies and ‘70s cop shows. But where The X-Files was ripped from the headlines of Weekly World News, Law & Order was increasingly ripped from the actual headlines, a move that I think eventually doomed the show to chase more and more empty tabloid sensations. (Actually, that sort of describes X-Files, too.) Obviously, “Brand X” is an episode about the cigarette industrial complex and what the tobacco industry will do to keep its product going and keep its profits flowing. And while that also involves people being devoured alive from within via tobacco beetles, there’s a nugget of something recognizable as “real life” at the center of this episode. Put another way, if some version of this story appeared on page one of the New York Times, it would certainly be shocking, but I don’t know if it would cause the world to have to realign what it thought of as “reality” like some other X-Files.
The story itself is rather a hodge-podge of various elements that have worked in the past but feel beyond tired now, right down to Mulder coming down with the tobacco illness spread by Brand X in the last couple of acts. (Reportedly, this was so David Duchovny could spend more time prepping the upcoming “Hollywood, A.D.,” his second directorial effort for the series. It has the curious effect of giving us two Scully-centric episodes in a row, and I can’t remember the last time that was the case.) This is an episode that strives mightily to be scary, and with its central conceit—bugs devouring people from the inside—it should be terrifying to me, since I’ve had nightmares about that for years. Instead, the various prosthetics just look fairly fake, and there’s never any real menace about what might happen with this disease. Some people die, and then Mulder might die, but we know he won’t. That’s the problem with putting your protagonist in danger in the seventh season of a long-running TV show.
Another problem here is probably that the “villain,” such as it is, is far more charismatic and interesting than any of the people he might kill. As Darryl Weaver, the man who’s spreading the disease via his genetically engineered super-cigarettes, Tobin Bell has a lot of fun with the part of a man who was the only person to survive tests of said super-cigarettes, which were meant to provide all the addictiveness of smoking without the cancer-causing side effects. Unfortunately, the genetic engineering process also genetically engineered the tobacco beetles so their eggs would be spread in the smoke, and that resulted in lots of people dying because the beetles found themselves in somebody’s lungs and tried to eat their way out. Weaver quickly realizes that as the one man who didn’t die, he’s much more useful to everybody else if he’s alive, which buys him the ability to act with impunity. It’s a big stretch that he’d get to keep smoking these obviously horrific cigarettes, but beyond that, it’s kind of fun to watch him puff smoke in people’s faces, knowing he’s spreading something far worse than the smoke. Bell plays a great schemer, and there’s lots of time for him to scheme here.
Unfortunately, the rest of the episode can’t match up to its central idea or to Bell’s performance. Once Mulder’s in the hospital bed, the momentum grinds to a halt—especially as the episode then turns into an exercise in having Skinner wander around after Weaver—and the guest characters who aren’t Weaver are singularly dull. There are some nice sequences here and there, and it feels, at least, like the episode is crafting an original “monster” in the genetically engineered beetles. But the whole sense the episode gives off is of one that’s trying like hell to be relevant and exciting, but mostly just ending up telling a story that’s been told lots of times, only now there are bugs that eat you from the inside. I’m not saying The X-Files needs to be pure escapism, since many of its best episodes are about all sorts of believable human concerns, but there’s a weird desperation to dragging the tobacco industry into this episode, as if it wants to mark itself as very much of its time. “Brand X” has some good pieces and at least one great performance, but everything in it feels like too little, too late.
- The freakiest image in this thing might be Scully pulling back the tissue to reveal the lungs full of beetles in their larval stage. It’s really gross, and there’s something to it that might have made a really great episode.
- Okay, I do like when Mulder is coughing into the oxygen mask, and a beetle emerges from his mouth to saunter around in its new entrapment.
- One thing that’s very strange about this show is the way that our protagonists will often frequently catch the “killer plague of the week” (at least in the episodes about weird diseases), but seem to develop it more slowly than everybody else, only to be saved at the last minute. I did like Scully’s nicotine solution here, but it just starts to get old after a while, particularly when it’s immediately obvious how the show’s writers are giving the protagonists a “the show is about you!” bonus to all rolls.
Next week: Zack sees the good and bad of late-period X-Files with “Hollywood, A.D.” and “Fight Club.”