In which Mulder asks someone to drill a hole in his head so he can remember something
I don't really remember my childhood. I'm not sure how unusual this is. It's not blank, exactly. Sometimes I feel like I just wandered into a show midway through it's second season, still early enough to not be completely lost, but late enough that I missed all the tedious, "Let's figure out what story we're actually telling" crap. I have memories of things that happened when I was eight or ten or thirteen, but they form no coherent narrative, and many of these memories are reliant on what others have told me of that time. Like I'm reconstructing my past instead of recalling it; I sometimes get confused and realize I'm remembering things in third person. Genre fiction is full of people who wake up stripped of their past, but I think it would easier to set me adrift in my life than amnesia or a government conspiracy. Just steal my baby photos.
Unsurprisingly, Mulder has to deal with amnesia and a government conspiracy in "Demons." The plot, though complicated through effectively disorienting flashbacks and Mulder's uncertainty as to what's going on, is simple enough for this show. We'll get to the details in a second, but basically: Mulder took part in a psychiatric treatment that led to aggressive hallucinations of his pas. The treatment effectively obliterated two days worth of memories, as well as led to the deaths of three others, two of which also underwent the same process as Mulder. Mulder wakes up in hotel room, covered in blood, and unaware of any of this. All he knows is that he's in Rhode Island, and that he's probably involved in something that went south in a very bad way. So he calls Scully, and over the course of the episode, the two piece together just what happened in that missing time.
Maybe "simple" is stretching it. Typing it out like that, it doesn't sound exactly simple, to be sure, but the premise here feels familiar. That's partly because Millennium did a very similar story to this a few weeks back in "Walkabout": Frank Black took part in some experimental drug treatment, lost his mind for a bit, then had to put the pieces together. And it's also because "hero with amnesia who may have committed a horrible crime" is a standard genre plot-line. I've seen it on Star Trek, film noir, probably some Twilight Zone episodes. It's a reliable plot, because it has the hook built in, and because it provides writers with a very clear objective to determine where to go next. And even the blandest versions of this can't help but have some slight flavor of existential crisis to them. If you you lost a weekend, how certain would you be that you didn't do something awful in that lost time? And how easy would it be to convince the people closest to you of your innocence?
"Demons" largely forgoes the obvious suspicions, thankfully enough. Yes, the cops have some serious questions for Mulder, once he and Scully find a pair of bodies with bullet wounds in an abandoned house. And yes, those cops arrest Mulder once they establish that the blood on his shirt came from those bodies. But once Scully does some digging, and finds evidence of hallucinogens, it's not that difficult to get Mulder out of his cell. (It doesn't hurt that a cop who also took part in the treatment kills himself seemingly minutes after Mulder is officially incarcerated.) The blood spatter on Mulder's shirt, and the angle of the entry wounds, clear him of wrong-doing; and if that sounds a little convenient, well, maybe it is. But this episode isn't about whether or not our favorite Ahab is a killer. It's more interesting than that.
We never get an entirely clear picture of what drew Mulder here, apart from the dead woman, Amy, claiming to be an alien abductee—there's enough here to put together a basic idea of what happened, but certain details never become quite clear. Like, Dr. Goldstein's experimental memory treatment; he lies when Scully and Mulder come to see him, although Mulder realizes he's lying soon enough. Is he trying to cover up the treatments, due to the fall out? He seems surprised when he learns Amy and the cop are dead, but he could just be a good actor. We get a rough sense of why Amy and the cop killed themselves by the end, given that Mulder looked ready to go out the same way, but we don't know why Mulder was there to get his shirt covered in blood, or how he survived. Scully suggests Amy suffered from Waxman-Geschwind Syndrome (a real thing). Was this induced by the Goldstein treatments? And if it wasn't, why did the cop and Mulder have similar experiences? It'd be a stretch to think they all have the Syndrome. (And really, while the cop's involvement gives us the marvelously creepy shot of him cutting his own face out of old photos while bleeding from a hole in his forehead, there's no real reason for him to be there, beyond the fact that his death helps Scully make her case.)
Again, though, that's not what this is about. I'm a little disappointed at how "Demons" doesn't really hold up in retrospect from a story perspective, but I'm not that disappointed, because what does work here is great. The doomed cop is effectively spooky, as is the reveal that Amy had been painting pictures of the house where she died before she died. A lot of pictures, too. (Why? She and her husband and Mulder wound up there in the end. Is this where she was abducted? Is her abduction connected to Samantha's? Because… that actually makes a chilling degree of sense.) And Mulder's overwhelming memories of the past are powerfully unsettling, jumbled recollections of an argument between his parents that may or may not have ever taken place. The way those memories hit him—randomly, but so powerfully he falls to his knees, overcome by the experience—are as good a metaphor as anything about the way his past refuses to let him go, and how his pursuit of the truth threatens to obliterate the world of the present.
Really, "Demons" is about Mulder's desperate need to understand what happened to his sister, and how that need drives him to expect betrayal, because at least with betrayal, the world makes some kind of sense. He remembers his mother and father fighting; he remembers his mother shouting "Not Samantha!"; and he remembers the Cigarette Smoking Man lurking behind every door. So he goes to his mother, and starts asking all sorts of uncomfortable questions. (Including one that really should just be a symptom of his unsettled mind: "Who's my real father?") And when his mother refuses to give him the answers he believes he's entitled to, he goes back to Goldstein for another treatment, and nearly loses himself in the process.
There are potentially devastating revelations here, like the idea that Mrs. and Mr. Mulder made the choice to give up Samantha instead of Fox (actually, has this been already established? I can't remember—still, it's intense enough seeing the argument actually happen), and the possibility of Mrs. Mulder having a not entirely chilly relationship with the Cigarette Smoking Man. But there's nothing solid in the end, because after a certain point, one's determination to find the truth overwhelms whatever truth there might be. The X-Files gets a lot of justly deserved criticism for muddling its ongoing plot-lines, but it also deserves credit for being the rare show more than willing to suggest that it's central premise is fundamentally flawed. Just because the truth is out there, that doesn't mean it's worth finding; and maybe the truths we want, and the truths we need, aren't the same thing. There's a chance Mulder and Scully could defeat the Cigarette Smoking Man and his cabal, but if they ever want a chance of doing so, Mulder will need to find a way to stop looking backwards for the answers.
- Mulder makes an OJ Simpson joke. It's weird.
- Ahh, almost forgot: the suicidal cop was considered a freak on the force because he believed in extra-terrestrials. So I guess that's enough reason for him to be involved.
- "I did nothing wrong." "You put a hole in my head."
- Mulder to Scully: "I think you're right." I bet Scully really wishes she'd had a tape recorder on hand.
In Which Mulder Is Totally Like Jesus
After all the drama of "Demons," all of Mulder's mental distress, and the way that episode ends with him nearly shooting himself in the head, it's a little disconcerting that "Gesthsemane" begins with what, for all intents and purposes, appears to be Scully identifying Mulder's corpse. Okay, that's not exactly how it begins. It starts with old footage of scientists (including Carl Sagan) discussing the possibility of intelligent alien life; we don't realize till "Gethsemane" is nearly over who's watching that footage, but it works well enough to remind us from the start of the show's commitment to a premise that some very smart people have believed in over the years. And then we get Scully arriving at Mulder's apartment to find a bunch of cops milling about the place, and a body under a sheet on the living room floor. A plainclothes detective pulls back the sheet for her benefit, although we don't see the face. "It him?" he says. Scully's face does this curious half-distraught, half-disgusted twist. "Yes."
As openings go, that's not bad, and placing this episode so soon after "Demons," which ended with the state of Mulder's mental health being far from certain, gives it more impact than it might otherwise have had. And yet, I'm not completely sold. Yes, obviously it's not Mulder's body under that sheet (I don't care how much Scully's crying when she says it's him later on, I ain't buying), but I doubt anyone watching the show at this point would've really believed Mulder had finally given up all hope in his pursuit of answers and taken the bullet train to Oblivion. Which is maybe part of my problem here. So much of this episode is a slow build-up to the final moments, establishing how Mulder was pulled in by yet another possible source of proof for his theories, and how Scully, with a little bit of detective work, manages to find someone who can refute everything Mulder's spent his life believing, that it all came across as a little hollow to realize those final moments get their emotional power from an event which we know didn't take place.
That's not to say that the sight of Mulder alone in his apartment, watching old videos of science conferences as tears stream down his cheeks, isn't moving. (There's also something deeply endearing about Mulder owning such a video. It's just so adorably dorky.) It is moving, and I also like how this connects with "Demons" in a character sense; given how lost Mulder was trying to pick his way through his own past, it stands to reason he'd be particularly vulnerable to losing the one core idea in his life. He needs aliens to be real not just because it's cool, or because he has a distant, aching hope that he might see his sister again. He needs to believe it the same way some people need to believe in God, because without this, his life will have no meaning. He'll have wasted decades on chasing after someone else's shadow.
Really, looking back, this whole season has been building to this final test of Mulder's faith. Between "Paper Hearts," which gave us a real world explanation for Samantha's disappearance; "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man," which undermined the show's biggest villain by turning him into a pathetic, lonely nerd; and "Never Again," which showed Mulder at his most selfish, and reminding us that people have lives outside of his craziness; well, you could say this is a show that's stumbled, intentionally or not, into it's own sort of existential crisis. Even something as goofy and light as "Small Potatoes" can't help picking at just what the hell is wrong with our hero, why such a good-looking guy with so much going for him would waste his time obsessing over tabloid headlines. The X-Files has been willing to poke holes in itself for quite some time, and "Gethsemane" feels like a possible logical end-point for that poking, the final statement that we've been waiting for. A shadowy government operative sits Mulder down and says, Yes, all this ridiculous stuff is a lie, created by the government to allow them to continue the free-reign they had during the Cold War, and here's how they did it. It's the punchline we've been waiting years to hear.
And yet, that punchline isn't all that more probable than the alien conspiracy, when you think about it. For one, that's an awful lot of money and time spent creating a lie that maybe ten percent of the population really believes in. (I think? I mean, yes, plenty of people have heard of abductions and I'm sure many of them have a vague sense that it could be possible, but as a cover for the "real" truth, the effectiveness is questionable. Unless Mulder is, like, the only person in the world who might've stopped these guys.) For another, while it sounds like this is a more "realistic" version of events, it's actually asking us to believe in an even more complicated conspiracy, a conspiracy created largely to give the illusion of another conspiracy, and, well, that's sort of ridiculous. Not only are they hiding the truth, they're hiding it with a lie that they have to make sure is just possible to ferret out. Never too obvious, because that would give the game away, but never completely hidden, because then, people like Mulder might lose the scent.
That's fairly ridiculous, and we've seen too much at this point on the show to really believe that all of this is made up, anyway. Maybe that's my problem with this ep—I finally realized that the answer we've been toeing around all season, the answer that, though painful and bleak (especially in the light of Scully's cancer diagnosis), would've been incredibly moving, is simply impossible. If The X-Files really had decided to make its core mystery one giant Scooby-Do adventure, it would've pissed off a lot of fans, but from a dramatic perspective, it would've given these first four seasons of the show a powerful unity, channeling so much of the mythology's dead ends and dropped leads into a rich statement on how we struggle for meaning in our lives, and how bad men can pervert that struggle for their own ends. The problem is, there've been too many scenes of shape-changing bounty hunters and mystical alien healers to really let this idea play out know in any real way.
When it was just a theme in individual episodes, that was fine. Given the anthology-nature of this series, we've been trained to accept a certain disparate quality between eps, which makes it possible for writers like Darin Morgan to poke holes in the premise while Chris Carter keeps laying down more cement. But to try and bring that hole-poking into the central mythology, to introduce here as though it's a question of practical suspense, as opposed to a meta-textual criticism of the series' core ideas, that won't work. Hearing Scully talk to her superiors about her supposed belief that Mulder had been led astray in the same psuedo-poetic speak that Carter has used throughout the show to describe the heavens above has the affect of diminishing that criticism to just another plot point. Yes, yes, it would be awful if all this alien stuff was made up, and there's probably something broken inside Mulder if he needs it to be real this badly, but that's okay—it turns out it really was real after all.
I suppose there's a chance that the season 5 premiere will try to have its cake and eat it too, and play up the ambiguity of what that lone agent told Mulder in his apartment. It doesn't matter, though. Trying to balance possible truths while maintaining the plausibility of both is incredibly difficult to pull off on a long-running show, and after dabbling in existentialism for so long in season 4, "Gethsemane" comes down on the only side of the fence it really could. Everything here has a ring of familiarity to it: Scully testifying to a government committee; Mulder seeing first hand the proof he needs, and then having that proof rudely stripped away; Scully covering for Mulder, because he's off somewhere doing magic things. Or being dead, ha-ha. Hell, we saw all of this early in this season. The repetition is getting old, no matter how cool the lighting is, or how much we see of that alien corpse. It's not terrible, and there are scenes here I liked quite a lot. But "Gethsemane" confirms what I should've known long ago. When it comes to doubt, The X-Files is willing to spend only so much time in the garden before it gets back to telling us what it thinks we want to hear.
- Or maybe I'm just getting sick of Carter's prose. It sounds like he's getting paid by the word.
- Got a bit distracted by other things, but one of the parts of "Gethsemane" I did like was how it dealt with Scully's cancer. Well, I liked that the cancer was mentioned again, and the horrible idea that Scully shares with Mulder late in the ep: "He said that the men behind this hoax, behind these lies, gave me this disease to make you believe." It's like she's been turned into set dressing. I'm less a fan of how Scully's family is handling her disease. I get that the show is trying to create drama by playing up the contrast between what her family wants and what Mulder needs, but the Scullys seem a relentlessly nagging, selfish bunch. Scully's big brother, Bill, gives her a lecture on how her behavior is affecting their mother. Seriously? Mrs. Scully is a grown woman, and Dana is dying. I think she deserves a little space. (Although she probably should've told her whole family she's ill by now. The last thing we need is to her to turn into Laura Linney.)
- The opening credits slogan this week is, appropriately enough, "Believe the lie."