I started writing for the TV Club back in 2008. It was the first non-book reviewing work I did for the AV Club, so I was nervous about it, and looking back on the few articles I wrote about the Cartoon Network Adult Swim line-up, that nervousness showed. Book reviews are tricky, because you're striving to match the AVC House Style. It's more professional, less chatty, and personal anecdotes are frowned upon, for obvious reasons. (The reviews are 400 words long, you really don't need to waste half of that on "I LIKE READING, OMG !?!?:)." Once you get the tone down, though, it's comforting. You're following a structure that's been in place for over a decade, and when you do it right, no one even notices you're there. It's not the same with the TV Club. Recaps need to be informative and well-written, but they also benefit from a more conversational approach. I'm a critic talking about a show, but I'm also a fan initiating a discussion with other fans, and if I want people to spend the extra time it takes to read these pieces, I feel like I owe you more of myself in the work.
It was only when I started writing about The X-Files (and, eventually, Venture Bros) that I got comfortable with the format. Those first X-Files essays are often clumsy, over-stated, occasionally dismissive, maybe a little on the short side. Still, there's a passion behind them, and I take a certain pride in the fact that the work got better as it progressed. It sparked. I'm a fiction writer at heart, and in talking about episodes like "Little Green Men," I finally found a way to translate my excitement and wonder at a show that helped shape the way I approached stories into not-all-terrible critical response. I'm still working on that, and I'm not sure I'll ever get it as well as some of my favorite writers, but that I can do it at all is something I was never sure of until I revisited Mulder and Scully and their wacky weekly adventures. So I'm glad to be back. Todd listed his qualifications for talking about the show, and these are mine: without it, I wouldn't be here. (I also read an X-Files novel in high school called Skins, which was terrible. Suck it, VanDerWerff.)
Let's talk conspiracies, shall we?
When I realized the first trio of episodes I'd be facing from the show, I was a little bummed out. No crazy Devil lady, no snakes eating dudes, just a pair of mythology eps and that invisible zoo animal episode that no one remembers. (For good reason, but we'll get to that.) I forgot the fundamental rule of early X-Files, though: mythology episodes rock. The show was capable of producing great Monster-Of-The-Week entries at this point, but not always, and too many of them are still blandly impersonal, leaving Mulder and Scully on the sidelines to go through the motions while a handful of goofy setpieces hold us through to the next commercial break. Mythology eps would eventually become too convoluted and top-heavy to be effective, but at one time, they were the primary reason to watch the show. They had scale, they were often terrifying, and they had immediate and deeply personal consequences for our heroes.
"Colony" and "End Game" is season two X-Files in top form. It's a two-parter, so I'm going to treat it as one long episode, with the same grade for both—although the cliff-hanger at the end of "Colony" is just a marvel, so don't worry, that'll come up. Watching it again now, I was impressed at how well Carter and his writers balance the plausibility against the weird-shit factor. Not everything here makes complete logical sense, and you leave with a whole lot of questions unanswered, but at this point in the series, that's actually a bonus. Green goo, deadly gases, Brian Thompson stabbing middle-aged bald men, these are scenes that skate up to the edge of crazy but have just enough internal cause-and-effect to hold together. Different people tell us different reasons (and note how cleverly the show is already playing explanations against itself, offering a series of contradictory justifications that serve to make the danger somehow more real), and Mulder chases his tail around and around, his willingness screwing him over again and again. And Scully tries to make sense of something that's never going to fit in a report.
We get a cold open (ha!) with Mulder half-frozen and near dead, being rushed to an army base via helicopter for medical treatment. Scully arrives just as the doctors are putting Mulder into a warm bath, and she insists that the cold is the only thing keeping him alive. The head physician scoffs at this, and that's when Mulder's vitals drop. Flash-forward beginnings can be overly revealing; as an attempt to generate immediate suspense by cutting to the "good parts," they change the way we watch an episode, and not always for the better. Everything in the story becomes a potential piece of that final puzzle, and knowing that the main threat is still to come means all the dangers before it lose their edge. If this open hadn't worked, we would've spent "Colony" and "End Game" expecting something major to happen every time Mulder put on his coat (no mittens? You fool!), and then be being disappointed by clearly temperate weather.
It does work, though, and that's mostly because it doesn't get resolved by until the final minutes of "End Game," by which point I'd nearly forgotten about it entirely. Mulder being in desperate danger also fits in with one of the most effective parts of these episodes, the escalation of nightmarish certainties. People have always praised Twin Peaks for its ability to contrast terrifying oddness against the comparative normalcy of small town life, but I think X-Files is really the one to get that balance down; Peaks was bone deep bizarre, because Lynch's idea of "good" has always been a sort of Norman Rockwell-on-absinthe concept, whereas the X-Files starts with the procedural comforts of government bureaucracy and wears them down. Mulder and Scully investigate like good FBI agents. They interview witnesses, study reports, do autopsies, and they follow clues, and with each step they get in further over their heads. Same happens to the audience. There are elements in these episodes that don't entirely make sense, but given Mulder's determination and Scully's practicality, those blips actually work in the story's favor, suggesting some conspiracy even we don't dare to imagine.
Coincidences abound here, like the way one of bounty hunter Brian Thompson's first victim's catches sight of him on the news, and flees the hospital where he works—only to run directly into the hunter's arms. Or the poor FBI agent who comes by the house of another victim and interrupts Thompson in the middle of his work, with dire consequences. The odds aren't great, but it fits the pattern, the sense that some force is deliberately moving pieces. My favorite comes in the increasingly elaborate series of missed calls between Mulder and Scully at the end of "Colony," which leads to that excellent cliff-hanger. Voice mail messages are left, answered, left again. Mulder tries to catch Scully at a motel, she hasn't checked in, he tries to leave a message with the clerk, the clerk's pencil breaks before he can write down the name, and Scully arrives, seconds too late. Now, I'm not sure I buy that a person, especially a hotel clerk, would forget a name so quickly, especially considering the name is "Fox Mulder," which ain't exactly "John Smith." And yet it's enough in keeping with everything else that it works despite common sense reservations.
It also doesn't hurt that the clerk's slip of mind helps lead to Scully meeting Mulder in her room, then getting a phone call, answering it, and hearing Mulder (the real one) on the other end. I'm always surprised when the show puts Scully in danger, because even at this stage in the game, I consider her more of a badass than Mulder. The traditional "heroine-as-victim" card doesn't really work on her, and I think (I hope) it's one that the series stops playing as it goes along. In this case, though, it works, because it demonstrates how clearly outclassed both agents are by this threat, and because we know that, in the end, Scully is going to have to save Mulder's ass. He comes to the rescue here, he sacrifices his "sister" to protect her, and Scully returns this trust tenfold.
Speaking of Mulder's sister, man, remember when that actually meant something? In the seasons to come, we end up with enough Samantha's to fill a clown-car, but here, the reveal is shocking, effective, and unsettling. Just the conversation Mulder has with his father after Samantha1's death is heart-breaking, because there's no comfort in it: Mr. Mulder blames his son for the death, and, worse, he blames his son for the fact that Samantha returned at all. Fox is asking questions, Fox is poking his nose where he doesn't belong, and this is the result. I was wondering why Mulder was willing to put Samantha at risk for Scully in that prisoner exchange (it's hard to feel comfortable about safety precautions when you're dealing with an ALIEN BOUNTY HUNTER), but it's obvious, really. Scully is all he has.
So, we were going to talk about conspiracies. There are all sorts of games within games at work in these two episodes; they bifurcate and split like the clones that Mulder fails again and again to save, twists and dead ends with the same face, the same plea for protection from an evil that changes forms at whim. When I wrote about "Little Green Men," I talked about Scooby Doo effect of Mulder's search: how we all want the monsters to be real sometimes, because if the monsters are real, what else might be? I think we believe in conspiracies for the same reason, because a conspiracy has a purpose. It has rules, it has limits, and it has reason behind it, however malevolent that reason might be. There's a joke in "Colony" when Scully calls Mulder on accepting the (fake) story of a (fake) CIA agent, and he says, in effect, "Oh, I changed my motto to 'Trust everyone,' didn't I tell you?" He can laugh, but the sad paradox of Mulder's quest is that you can't want to believe and trust no one. He's angry when he discovers the multiple Samanthas, and realizes he'd been conned, and he claims he'll wash his hands of the whole scene, but we know it's a lie. In the end, despite near death, despite all the set-backs, he still has the faith to go on searching. He believes, he'll follow any lie no matter how outlandish, because maybe, just maybe, he might find that final thread that will give his life meaning. And we watch, hoping the same might be true for ourselves.
Grade: A (both)
- How awesome is Skinner? His fight with Mr. X in the elevator in Mulder's building is one of the season's great moments. I'm sure Todd or I will talk about him more in the weeks to come, but he's really terrific.
- Oh Mr. X, you are such a grumpy man. Deservedly so, really. He even delivers Marxs Brothers-esque punchlines like he wants to hit someone: "How was the opera?" "Wonderful, I've never slept better."
- Scully: "And ultimately, it was science that saved Agent Mulder's life." Damn straight. Point for science!
And then this happened.
I remembered the invisible elephant, and since I still remember the first X-Files episode I missed during the original run ("The Field Where I Died"), I know I've seen this. I didn't have a lot of the details, though, and I went in hoping it'd be something about a mad scientist messing around with zoo animals. (We need more mad scientists on this show, really.) This hope was mistaken. Instead, we get some vague silliness about alien conservationists, the guy from The Last Starfighter gets killed with a cattle prod, and Mulder interviewing a gorilla. None of these are as fun as they should be.
If I sound dispirited, well, I am. "Symmetry" isn't terrible, but it is mediocre, and coming off the high of the previous episodes, it's a disappointment. The hook isn't bad: an invisible elephant creates havoc, killing a guy and busting up some property, before turning visible again and dying. This doesn't fill me with as much excitement as it must've done for my younger self, but invisible wild animals? That could be terrifying. Also cheap, because with the proper Foley effects and willing actors, you can get a lot of mileage out of unseen attackers. Just the scene where the road crew worker gets mangled is freaky, and that's a pre-credits teaser. Imagine what you could do with invisible tigers, or lions, or bears. (Oh my.)
Yet "Symmetry" choses to ignore this potentially thrilling b-movie premise in favor of a lot of heavy-handed talk about the rights of animals. The invisibility turns out to be just some kind of bizarre side effect, and it's only really used again effectively when a animal rights activist gets mauled. Instead, we're supposed to be more concerned about how no inmate at the Fairfield Zoo has ever brought a pregnancy to term, and how Willa Ambrose, the person in charge of the animals at the zoo, is fighting a custody battle to save a sign-language spouting gorilla named Sophie from being deported. None of these incidents ever really connect. There's some ugly footage of zoo workers abusing their charges, and Lance Guest (playing Kyle, the head of the W.A.O., a group of "animal freedom terrorists") gives statistics and horror stories about mistreatment, and I guess we're supposed to marvel how man's inhumanity towards beast, but it all plays out pretty rote.
So, Mulder has some theories about what's happening, Scully is skeptical (I love her explanation for how the elephant could've gone unseen earlier. Yeah, sure, it was the lighting), and Mulder turns to Sophie to try and prove his point. I really don't have anything to say about that, which is sort of my issue with the episode overall. It's hilarious that he's interrogating a gorilla, sure. (I can't be the only one who wondered if Sophie had a cameo in Trading Places, right?) That she confirms his suspicions? Also kind of hilarious. But there's no tension here. There's no great concern for Sophie's well-being, and while her death is sad, it doesn't justify forty minutes of meandering. Willa's half-baked back-story, her personal connection to Kyle, these all seem thrown in at the last minute to try and create an illusion of depth.
It doesn't help that this is yet another episode in which Mulder and Scully do a lot of running around, to precious little result. They do ensure that Willa gets arrested for her crime in the end, but they know roughly the same about the invisible animals as they did at the start of the episode. Mulder gives some voice-over about how our destruction of the natural world might possibly have negative repercussions, but that's not enough to hold this together. (Also not enough, Sophie's final words: "Man save man." Thanks a lot.) Making our heroes passive observers can work on The X-Files (it worked last week, as a matter of fact), but only in episodes with a strong enough storyline to keep us as invested in solving the case as Mulder and Scully are. This was forgettable, and under-baked; not terrible enough to be a complete failure, but forgettable enough that I had to work to write even this much about it.
- I will give "Symmetry" this much: Scully participating in an elephant autopsy was a moment of genius.
- I can't decide which came first, writing-wise: the invisible elephant teaser, or Sophie. Probably the former, but there was this weird trend in the nineties for stories about apes that could communicate via sign-language.
- The Lone Gunmen cameo here was so pointless that even the characters were commenting on how pointless it was. I like the LG, but c'mon.
- Next week, Todd returns for "Dod Kalm," "Humbug," and "The Calusari."