"Detour" (Season 5, Episode 4)
In Which Mulder and Scully Take a Left Turn At Albuquerque, And Meet Some (sort of) Invisible Men
Have you ever gone for a walk in the woods? Serious question—I'm from New England, we have, like, trees and leaves and all that crap just lying around everywhere. So I sometimes make the mistake of assuming everyone is familiar with what it feels like to go on a long walk in the woods and come to a quiet place and just stop. It's not like a city street or a town or a suburban neighborhood. You can find times in populated areas when it feels like you're the only living person around; it can be tricky, but it's not impossible, and I've had plenty of late night jogs or early morning perambulations (which, dammit, is a word everyone should use whenever possible) surrounded by dark homes and empty businesses. But being in the woods, especially deep in the woods, is different, because it's like… Well, cities and towns and neighborhoods, those were designed by humans to fit humans. When it comes to nature, it's the other way around: We should be designed to fit it. And we aren't anymore, not really. Being in a forest now, for most of us, is like being an alien in our own backyard.
"Detour" takes a break from the E.T. paranoia and government conspiracies, with a straightforward monster of the week episode that delivers everything I want in a solid X-Files episode. Todd and I have both talked (at length) about how this show can be like an anthology series; it's designed to allow all sorts of writers to tell all sorts of stories without breaking the basic format. One of the reasons this is so cool is that it means we can have all kinds of different great episodes. There are excellent mythology arcs that give us a stronger connection to the show's world; there are brutal, hilarious deconstructions of the series' main tropes; there are heart-breaking character pieces that remind us why all of this matters (or maybe why it doesn't matter at all, in the end). And there's something like "Detour," which reminds me a little of "Pusher" from the third season. Not because they share plot details or thematic concerns, but because both are terrific examples of the Platonic ideal of an X-Files standalone episode to me. Funny, well-paced, and thrilling, they don't try and break new ground, but they don't have to.
In no particular order, here are some thoughts on why this comes together so nicely:
1. The Cold Open: Well, all right, I suppose starting with this one is some kind of order. Anyway, this is not the best cold open I've ever seen on the show. It's predictable, in its way; the moment you see two guys hanging out in the woods with no one else around, you know they're both extremely poor insurance risks. I'm not sure what the first horror movie/show was to introduce this gag (Jaws may be the most famous example of it I can think of off the top of my head, but I'm sure it was around before that), but I'd imagine most genre fans by now are familiar with the convention: To introduce us to the main threat and to hook us into the story with a good scare, we start with some random characters getting stalked and killed. This helps convince us that the danger is real and also is a good way to get some murdering done before your main characters arrive. You can't just bump off your leads all willy nilly at the start of the picture, after all. The two surveyors who get ganked before the X-Files credits roll aren't all that compelling, and I doubt anyone is surprised how quickly they exit, stage left. Plus, they seem weirdly redundant, since the first scene of the episode post-credits is another stalk scene. But since that scene (which has a father and son out hunting and being hunted in return) is what largely gets Mulder and Scully involved, and since neither father or son are actually killed, the surveyors serve the important purpose of letting us know right off that the MotW is not screwing around. Plus, hey, tradition can be fun.
2. The Monster of the Week: Another reason to dig that cold open? The first shot of this week's threat—two red eyes in a face seemingly buried in the ground—is really, really freaky. And that freakiness never lets up. Mulder eventually theorizes that the "monsters" are forest natives fighting back against the encroachment of civilization, the last two descendants of the men of Ponce De Leon who came to this country centuries ago, searching for the Fountain of Youth. As with many of the show's best monsters, it's easy to pity the threat here as well as fear it; they're dying out, and their land is being taken away, and all they want is to be at peace and steal a kid they can raise as their own. They've adapted to their environment so well that they're functionally invisible; you may see a blurry movement or a hint of features poking out of the mud but almost never before it's too late. When I was a kid, the "camouflage" explanation bored me, because there wasn't anything particularly supernatural about it. (I guess you could argue that De Leon and his men found the Fountain?) And as explanations go, it's not the most mind-blowing one. But it's straightforward and believable in its way, and it gives us just enough justification of what we're seeing to satisfy, without over-explaining it or getting buried under inconsistencies.
Because really, these monsters are so nifty looking, they don't need a clever background to be memorable. The effects work in "Detour" can occasionally look a little hokey or ridiculous; I watched this with my roommate, and he snickered at more than a few shots. But he still enjoyed the episode, and I think the snickering didn't really detract from the tension. Goofy effects in horror can often be more unsettling than the less goofy, because we're presented with the absurd and told to accept it as a credible threat. This doesn't always work (see any random low budget sci-fi flick from the '50s for proof), but here, the way the Mothmen (as Mulder calls them, sort of) keep popping up out of fallen trees or bushes, glaring, grim faces mixed into the foliage, creates a constant feeling of uneasiness. Practically, we understand soon enough that they're just blending in well. But emotionally, it's like the forest itself has come to life or like the shadows in the hall or under the bed grew eyes to find you and arms to grab you. The contrast here is just effortlessly striking, all the way up to that absolutely stellar final shot: Mulder and Scully leaving a motel room, while something lurks under the bed, just missing its chance for revenge.
3. The Structure: I really need to find a better word for this. But "Detour" is put together so well and so unobtrusively that it'd be a shame not to mention it. Again, we're going back to the show's roots here: There's the initial crime(s) that bring our heroes onto the case, an escalation, and then Mulder and Scully put themselves directly into danger for the episode's second half. They're accompanied by others, but those others are quickly and efficiently eliminated, until it's just our heroes, alone against an implacable enemy. Eventually, the crime that started all of this is resolved (Scully finds the hole where the bodies are buried; surprisingly, the missing dad isn't dead yet), and the status quo is somewhat restored. But the threat is still out there, waiting, and angry. The crisis has passed, but the danger never really goes away completely.
I think I've laid out this description half a dozen times before in these reviews (apparently, some buried part of me still desperately yearns to write an X-Files spec script), but there's a reason we keep coming back to it: It works. "Detour" never really feels tired or rote, even when we know roughly what will happen next. Once Mulder and Scully are off in the woods with Guest Characters A (Michelle) and B (Jeff), we know that Jeff and Michelle are going to be taken out of the picture at some point, but we don't know when, and that knowledge doesn't make it any less scary to see Mulder and Scully once again stuck in the wilderness at night, over-matched and exhausted. And that last, brief scare sequence when Mulder realizes that Scully could still be a target, caught me off guard. It doesn't build like many of the show's other "Scully is in danger!" moments, which is for the best, really; it's just Mulder realizing that maybe it's time they left well enough alone, just this once. If The X-Files was always willing to throw a curveball at its viewers when the mood took it, the show also knew the importance of giving us the familiar to hold onto every now and again. Sometimes I think that's what I want most in a TV show: risk and exploration mixed with a healthy respect for comfort food.
4. Mulder and Scully: Another reason The X-Files was able to go as far afield as it sometimes did: The show's core relationship was remarkably strong. We've seen the dark side of Mulder and Scully's partnership before, and in the "Redux" two-parter that started this season, we got a sense of the deep emotional commitment that keeps them together. In "Detour," we get to see them at their most warmly playful and charming. There's a bit of deep conversation here, in that late night forest chat, and Scully does occasionally get an "Oh lord, here we go again" look in her eyes. But while sometimes the show can make it impossible to view the two's partnership as anything but a depressingly dysfunctional relationship between an arrogant obsessive and a passive, daddy-pleasing bodyguard, there's none of that unpleasantness here.
From the beginning, we're on their side. The title of the episode comes from the fact that Mulder and Scully are hitching a ride with another pair of FBI agents, and Mulder jumps at a chance to investigate the MotW case when they come up against a road block. The other two agents are blandly hilarious, going off on the importance of team-building exercises and how much they learned from building a tower together. It's a dead-on parody of the banal stupidity that most real government workers must have to face every day, and when Mulder feels from it, you can't blame him. Not even Scully can blame him. More than anything, "Detour" is aware of how, as grim and dangerous as it can be, the X-Files is at heart about the joys of finding monsters in your closet, of turning weather balloons into UFOs, of pretending that Mother Nature has an army of invisible assassins eager to avenge her slow death. There are a lot of wonderful, warm moments between our heroes in "Detour": Scully's attempt at seduction (?) via wine and cheese is incredibly charming, and the two's conversation in the forest is sweet, even if it is an echo of the rock-chat in "Quagmire." (Actually, I wouldn't mind if "chatting in the dark" became a regular occurrence on the show.) But I think it's those first few minutes, when Mulder practically flees into the woods and Scully trails behind him, smiling that very-nearly-a-smile, that I like the best. It's a sunny day, and there are dragons outside. Time to play hooky from the school of reality.
- I can see the temptation to keep the chipper FBI duo around the entire episode. Mulder's eye-rolling and sarcasm is pretty hilarious, as are Scully's attempts to keep the peace. But I think "Detour" does well to lose them so quickly. They come back in the end for a good joke, but we didn't need them around the whole time, badgering our heroes about protocol.
- "I couldn't believe how hard it was not to use the word 'but'!"
- When Mulder bolts from the car, Mike, the chipper FBI guy, says, "Where's he going?" Scully's pained look is amazing.
- "Try any of that 'Tailhook' crap on me, Scully, and I'll kick your ass." (Hey, does anybody remember Tailhook anymore?)
- "My dad and I were Indian guides. I know these things."
- I could quote the entire night-time forest conversation here, because it's all great, but this is probably the exchange I remember best: "You ever thought seriously about dying?" "Once when I was at the Ice Capades."
- Oh, and Scully singing "Joy To the World." If you don't watch this episode and fall a little bit in love with Scully, I don't think I want to know you.
"Monster" (Season 2, Episode 4)
In Which A Little Girl Is Bad And Awful, But Frank Does Not Break Her Face
After the draggy muddle that was "Sense and Antisense," it's nice to see "Monster" back in familiar, MWA-HA-HA territory from the start. By which I mean, we open with a quote from Shakespeare's Henry the VI, Part 2: "First thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." And then we cut to Mrs. Penny's Daycare, where Penny Plott is reading the story of Henny Penny (aka Chicken Little, aka "The sky is falling!") to a group of spell-bound toddlers. A storm rages outside, and the camera jerks from the children's spellbound faces to some moody exterior shots, slowly panning over a playground that looks like it belongs in Leatherface's backyard. There's a forgotten plastic doll lying in a dead bush. Of course there is.
Like the other episodes we've seen of season two, "Monster" has impressive ambition, and again, like those other episodes, it doesn't entirely work. It's too possible to see the strings being pulled here, as Glen Morgan and James Wong try to tie in the witch hunt against poor Penny with Frank's relationship with his own daughter, while at the same time introducing a new character, Lara Means (Kristen Cloke, last seen on these pages in my review of "The Field Where I Died" and Todd's coverage of Space: Above and Beyond), whose connection to the Millennium Group and angelic visions will obviously have large implications in the weeks to come. None of the ideas here are inherently bad, but trying to handle so many of them at once means that individual threads can get overwhelmed. I spent most of the first half of the episode trying to figure out exactly what crisis had precipitated Frank's involvement in the case. It got easier to follow once the townsfolk were mobbing around Penny's Daycare, screaming and burning fences, but I wonder if the episode wouldn't have benefited from being just a little more traditional, at least at first.
Or maybe not. Because while the crash of Biblical apocrypha against child abuse paranoia against Bad Seed brats against marital distress against lynching logic is difficult to parse precisely and means that every so often while watching all of this I just start laughing and have to have a lie down, well, it also leads to one of what I'm coming to recognize as the second season's singular effect. The fever dream madness of all of this, like if a tinfoil-wearing homeless person stumbled across a magical ticket that allowed him to create a full season of network television, is unique and unforgettable. And it is so, so funny. That's what struck me the most about "Monster": It's an episode about child abuse and betrayal that takes both things very seriously (so seriously that Frank has one of the most expressive monologues I've ever seen him deliver in the entire run of the show, all about his love of his daughter), while at the same time never backing down from how all absurd and laughable so much of this is. This episode hinges on a demon who poses as a five year-old girl, who bites kids in order to destroy the reputation and business of a woman named Penny Plott. It's like a children's rhyme come to malevolent life.
All right, let's try and unpack this. So kids are turning up with bite marks on their backs, and all the bitten have been attending Penny's Daycare. (Is there more of a connection here? I may have missed it.) Peter asks Frank to pay a visit Penny's, and see what's happening in the town of—wait for it—Probity. Frank is skeptical, but Peter is convinced something bad is about to happen, and he is, of course, right. Unbeknownst to Frank, the Group also sends Lara, another forensic psychologist plagued by visions of angels. Frank and Lara clash at the Daycare after Frank lies his way inside to try and get some answers, but, just like superheroes in a comic book, their initial squabbling leads to a team-up. This becomes especially important when a kid dies at the Daycare and Penny takes the blame. The townsfolk want blood, but Frank isn't convinced that Plott is behind the violence. His suspicions are pointed in other direction, at a far less likely target.
This all sounds reasonably easy to follow. I am leaving out a minor subplot which only becomes important late in the episode: Frank took Jordan to the store to buy some sneakers and got a little frustrated with her, because dear god, children can be incredibly annoying sometimes. Jordan spits up some blood later that night, and when her dentist finds a mouth injury that would've been caused by blunt force trauma, he has to report it to the authorities as a possible indication of child abuse. (This seems questionable to me, but I am not a dentist.) Catherine protests Frank's innocence, but she seems a little taken aback when Jordan mentions the "fight" from the store, and all of this happens at the worst possible time, since the demon kid who is causing all the trouble in Probity decides to break her own jaw and blame the injury on Frank.
I love that the demon kid breaks her jaw. That's hardcore, and it's definitely not a twist I saw coming. But I do have to question the steps that led us to that point. The last part of the episode becomes all about Frank trying to prove to the kid's parents (especially her mother) that he loves his daughter and would never hurt a child, and it's sort of out of left field. Henriksen sells it, but I'm not sure I needed his connection to this case to suddenly turn so personal. I appreciate that Frank is more uneasy than he was in the first season, and that the reason he and Catherine are separated is that she is unsettled by his capacity for violence and by the twisted paths the Millennium Group keeps sending him down. But her worry about the Group here seems to happen more because Morgan and Wong wanted to have someone question Peter; Catherine never seemed all that troubled by the Millennium Group before. (I'm also not a fan of the "wife tries to stop the hero from doing the thing the entire show is based on" trope, even if it's as mild as it is here.) Obviously, Frank would never hurt Jordan, and we're not supposed to think he did. But dragging him in the way "Monster" does is forced. I mean, why on Earth would Frank go up to Danielle the Demon-Kid's room alone with her? Even assuming the mom would allow it—and I guess, since she clearly doesn't like her "daughter" much, she isn't hugely protective—surely Frank would realize the potential danger, even if he didn't realize she was capable of such significant self-injury.
Crime dramas often have an unfortunate tendency to place victims under suspicion. It's not an idealogical choice, or at least not inherently. Drama thrives on subverting our expectations and turning the sufferer into an assailant is one of the easiest ways to surprise an audience. In situations dealing with crimes where victims have historically had difficulty proving their cases, this can be off-putting; I have no real interest in watching a show about someone who claims she's been raped, only to have it turn out she's a manipulative sociopath who uses accusations of sex crimes to punish those who displease her. It's not because these stories can't be done well (although I'd be hard pressed to find an example of the one I just described that isn't painfully misogynist). It's just that there's so much real world evidence going in the other direction and so much history of, say, legitimate rape victims being dismissed by a callous legal system, that it's hard to enjoy pretending it goes the other way.
The child abuse here could've played out like that. There are some awful daycares out there and some awful supposedly nice older women who are horrible to kids and get away with it because parents aren't paying the right kind of attention. Behaving as though the real social problem was parents who were overly protective could've made for some off-putting TV. (Even though parents can be psychotically over-protective. Have I mentioned how much I enjoy that the current season has largely abandoned the sex crime motif, by the way?) Instead, the episode just commits to having a literal demon posing as a child and going from there. You can pretend there's a "point" here, because Penny is unfairly persecuted, but come on. The only reason everything happens is, y'know, a demon. In the real world, if kids were getting bitten at a daycare and turning up dead, well, you'd be well in your rights to ask some pointed questions.
So yeah, this is sort of a muddled episode, but it is immensely fun to watch, because it's darkly comic and deadly serious. Lara's rant about angels opens up some interesting doors, and I look forward to seeing what's inside those rooms in a few weeks. I wish "Monster" had done a better job of focusing in; we never really get to know anything about Deputy Bill Sherman (Chris Owens, familiar around here as the younger face of the Cigarette Smoking Man), who stands up for Penny after she reminds him how she used to wipe his ass, and Gordon Roberts' attempts to use this case for his political career are raised but never amount to much. (Roberts is also familiar, as he played Robert Patrick Modell from "Pusher," among a lot of other TV roles.) But it does feel like we've taken a step forward in the season's main arc, even as the days grind down to zero. Danielle is an actual demon. We don't know what that means, exactly, and we don't know why this particular demon was hellbent on wrecking the life of a middle-aged woman. But we know the threat is real, in a way we maybe didn't before and that Frank recognizes it. We have met the Monster, and he ain't us.
- Speaking of funny, the final shot of Danielle, freshly "adopted" by a Millennium Group family and looking none too happy about it, is hilarious.
- Also hilarious: Frank's random encounter with a vibrating bed.
- When Frank and Lara go to visit Danielle, she's watching the "Help meeeee" scene from the original The Fly. She's smiling. CLEARLY EVIL.
- In case there was any doubt of Lance Henriksen's brilliance, in the episode's climactic scene, he believably talks a mother into confessing she hates her child.
Next week: Todd goes walkin' in Memphis, and takes on one of his favorite episodes with, "The Post-Modern Prometheus," before trying to find the answers of the universe in "A Single Blade of Grass."