"Død Kalm" (season 2, episode 19)
I had always remembered this episode as a stinker, one that had an interesting premise but was undercut by a go-nowhere story and absolutely atrocious makeup effects. Then, someone said in comments that this was their favorite episode of the series, which made me at least slightly more interested to check this one out again. And on another runthrough, I would say that I don't know if I can quite go as far as that commenter. The makeup effects are still ridiculous, and the story is rather lugubrious. But there's something about the episode that is rather lovely, all the same. It's an off-format hour, right when the series' writers must have been getting a little tired of the same old monsters, week after week after week, and the direction, at the least, is terrific. There's a better off-format hour coming up in the episode after this one, which might be why this one has a bit of a bad rap, but there's something charming about this hour all the same.
This is the infamous "ghost ship/rapid aging" episode. At least one of these two elements is well-handled. The ghost ship that Mulder and Scully (and assorted others) stumble upon in the far north Atlantic Ocean is haunting, one of the better settings the show came up with, and once Trondheim's ship pulls away from the ghost ship, the sense of leaky claustrophobia becomes overwhelming. There are moments in this episode when the screen is essentially pitch black, and we only have the random sound effects and pitch of Mark Snow's score to know what, exactly, we're supposed to be following. This is a supremely unsettling setting, and the gradual exploration of it is handled very well, as is the gradual uncovering of just what happened to its crew.
I also like the goofy blend of paranormal explanations and scientific theorizing here. In this way, it feels very like an episode of X-Files imitator Fringe, since much of it involves Scully and Mulder just freestyling it around various ideas of wormholes and free radicals and what have you. The two are in a death trap, and whenever the show puts them in one of those, it's usually a good recipe for action and excitement. I like the episodes of The X-Files where it's not immediately clear just what the threat is or where it stems from, and outside of some theorizing and some references to the Bermuda Triangle (a subject the show would return to in a terrific season six episode), the whole thing just ends up being a weird thing that happens to Mulder and Scully that tests their friendship and partnership. The show would do this once or twice a season, but this is a nice early example of it. (And I also like that the final explanation - it was the water! - is so nebulous but also contributes to the story so much, as Scully scrambles to find water that isn't contaminated for her and Mulder to drink.)
But it's the personal aspects of the story that make it come together in the end. Scully's final monologue about Ragnarok is, honestly, one of the best she was given in the series. The show had a penchant for over-the-top monologues that often seemed designed to show that the show's writers had gotten good scores on Reader's Digest's "It Pays to Enrich Your Word Power," and while there's some of that here, it's also a very personal story, a very well-written story of a woman who's facing down death yet another time and is more scared than she's letting on. I also liked the callback to "One Breath" in her talk with Mulder about what she learned from her abduction, and I enjoyed the way the two looked out for each other as they realized the situation they'd gotten themselves into and the fact that they probably wouldn't get out of it. I'm sure this was an episode that was heavily enjoyed by the 'shippers back in the day, and I can see why. There are moments throughout where Mulder and Scully seem less like FBI partners and more like an old married couple.
But let's talk about what keeps this episode from joining the pantheon. First of all, the makeup is almost distractingly bad. When that army of dessicated, prematurely aged corpses pops up, they look less like they've become old and more like they've been exposed to some sort of weird, alien acid. Now, because the rest of the X-Files effects look a little worse now than they did back in the day (at least the computer effects, which were good for their time but pale in comparison to what is possible now), this is less distractingly bad than it was back when the episode first aired, but it's not like the big, emotional moments are helped by Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny having to emote through what appear to be rubber Halloween masks.
While I respected the episode's decision to not have the strange adventure on board the ship have a hard and fast explanation and I occasionally like it when Mulder and Scully get in over their heads, I'm also not sure that the deus ex machina of the two being discovered at episode's end worked either. Sometimes, you need to call in an outside force, but the fact that the doctors were able to solve Mulder and Scully's condition and save the lives of both of them is just a little too convenient, as though the writers got to the end of the episode and realized that they needed to keep the two alive because they'd be on the show the next week and couldn't think of anything better.
But, y'know what? This episode works, almost in spite of itself. There are so many nice little moments here, like the two ships crunching together or Trondheim (played by a fine guest actor) drowning as the outer hull gives way. And there are some very poetic little moments sprinkled throughout the script, like Scully discussing her father's love of the sea or the dying captain's story of how he managed to make it through without dying just yet. It's a script full of lovely little moments like this, and it's a script that pauses from the constant horror the show had been serving up for several episodes in a row to just tell an unsettling, ultimately moving tale of two friends who look into the abyss and somehow don't fall.
- You know what this episode reminds me of the most? The Andromeda Strain!
- I love the occasional episodes of this show that give it an international feel. Now, obviously, Mulder and Scully are traveling to help out some Americans, but that scene in the Norwegian bar is fun.
- Nice visual moment that loses some of its power in 2010: The rusty plaque on the ship says it launched in 1991. Yeah, I could see why it would be so rusty. Oh.
- The Philadelphia Experiment is one of those things paranormal phenomena fans always got excited about that I could just never get as enthused about. And, believe me, I read every paranormal phenomena book I could find at the local library when I was a kid.
- You know things are bad when somebody starts drinking out of the toilet.
"Humbug" (season 2, episode 20)
If we're talking about writers who've influenced me the most, then Darin Morgan has to be on the list. Maybe even in the top ten somewhere. When I was an X-Files obsessed teenager, Morgan was the guy who taught me to check out who was writing which episode, just as soon as I realized that my two favorite episodes of the series so far - "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" and "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'" (which I am going to write a novel about, I warn you) - were both written by him. His way of thinking about the universe and the show he was writing for pretty much twisted my brain into knots and left me in awe of him. Everything about his episodes made me question everything I thought to be true as a teenager. Darin Morgan was the first time I ever saw someone who was doing something I wanted to do, yet also left me cognizant that there was simply no way I could ever be as good.
Morgan's reputation, which continues to be sterling among TV professionals, fans, and critics, was formed entirely by six television scripts, every one of them pretty much perfect. You can quibble with elements of "War of the Coprophages" or his Millennium scripts or even this one, but there was basically no one then (or now!) who was playing at this sort of level. Morgan is pretty much the TV equivalent of Charlie Kaufman, someone who would resurface every few years (whenever his brother Glen could lure him out) with a blisteringly funny script about the cost of living in a world of paranoia, then retreat, seemingly because he just didn't like the pace of television work. Morgan pops up as a creative consultant on any series with a serious sci-fi or horror bent, but he hasn't written a full script since Millennium's second season ended (though if you dig around, you can find an outline he wrote for the Night Stalker remake). He could probably get a pilot on the air, his reputation is so good, but he seems less interested in the business aspects of show business and more interested in just following his strange little muses all over the place.
Morgan's muses are also quite similar to those of Kaufman. Both men are obsessed with the idea that every single one of us is going to die all alone, no matter how much love there is in our lives, and both men are able to make that idea both horrifying and strangely poignant. There's a moment in "Humbug" when Scully is talking to the proprietor of a museum focusing on freak shows and other circus oddities and the proprietor tells her the sad story of the end of the famous conjoined twins duo, Chang and Eng. Chang died in his sleep, and Eng woke to find himself still joined to a dead brother. Finally, he died of fright. (This story isn't exactly accurate, but the way Morgan tells it, it sounds like the most natural thing in the world.) It's a small moment, amidst the goofy hubbub of the episode, but it gets at what Morgan is obsessed with. We are all, ultimately, going to die. And it's likely that when that time comes, we'll also be completely and utterly forgotten by all but a few.
Morgan's other obsession is weird arcana. There's not a one of his episodes that's not stuffed to the gills with trivia about some odd facet of American life and full of little stories you might find in Ripley's Believe It or Not. In this episode, of course, most of that takes the form of tales of circus folk, ranging all the way back to P.T. Barnum and incorporating the '90s sideshows run by Jim Rose (who makes an appearance here as Dr. Blockhead). Morgan has a healthy level of respect for everyone who's been tossed outside of the mainstream, and he views them with both an eye for what's funny about them and an eye for what they have in common with everyone else. Take, for instance, Michael Anderson's trailer park manager, who spends much of the episode complaining (in hilarious monologue after hilarious monologue) about how people regard him as somehow different because of his height but also proves his own point by pegging Mulder as an FBI agent. Or observe how quickly Morgan sketches in all of these people, creating an entire community of oddballs that other shows might have mocked. The little Florida town where the episode is set, then, becomes yet another terrific X-Files community.
Morgan is also deeply, deeply funny. There's not a one of his scripts - even his darker Millennium scripts - that isn't stuffed with joke after joke. "Humbug" is notable for not immediately pilling into the weird humor (something that he would have more latitude to do in his later scripts) and starting out by showing something like a usual X-Files teaser (though the gag that the Alligator Man isn't stalking his sons but is, instead, ushering them up to bed gives us a clue that this won't be the same show as we're used to). Indeed, the sense of a weird monster among the circus folk initially makes this episode feel like it might be a very special Murder, She Wrote or something, but by the time we get to that funeral sequence, where Dr. Blockhead pops out of the ground, we're clearly in some other show entirely, the only links in the continuity chain being Mulder and Scully themselves. In a way, this is a strength of the show's more episodic, more anthology-like approach. The series can get away with an episode like this and be right back to devil children and exorcism in the next week.
Morgan's scripts are also quite willing to bite the hand that feeds. There have been few TV writers who have been as caustic about the show they're working on as Morgan has been for both of the shows he's worked on. It's not even immediately clear that he hates the series or finds them beneath him or anything. He just thinks there are stupid things about the show, and he doesn't tire of pointing those stupid things out. His scripts will frequently feature gags about how handsome Mulder is ("Who would want to go through life looking like HIM?") or take apart the structure of the show and leave it in shambles or deconstruct the entire experience of watching the show (again, "Chung's," one of my ten favorite episodes of TV ever). "Humbug" probably has less of this than his other scripts, but that may be because the very idea of watching a comedic episode of The X-Files was such a weird departure at the time.
Honestly, "Humbug" may be Morgan's weakest script (the pacing at the beginning is a little logy, and the frequent detours into circus arcana are less neatly tied in to everything as future episodes would tie Morgan's obsessions in), though I haven't seen "War of the Coprophages" in quite some time. At the same time, there are few other TV writers that would come up with something as haunting and as perfectly understanding of the human condition as the final reveal of who the killer is. Throughout the episode, Lanny (Vincent Schiavelli, turning in poignant work amidst the madness) has been wandering through the plot points, occasionally making reference to his conjoined twin Leonard, kept inside a small sack around his abdomen (in a great visual gag, Lanny tries to check out Scully's breasts, and she tries to check out his twin). But, as it turns out, Leonard is able to detach from Lanny, and it's he who's been behind the killings. However, he's not malicious, Lanny says. He just resents Lanny for being the one who's taken care of him since birth, the one who's kept him from freedom (in his eyes), and he's looking for a new twin to glom on to. It's a dark moment, an almost despairing one, and when The Conundrum eats Leonard, it's the sort of thing that makes you think that was the only way the episode could end: with a grim joke.
- I like the way that Scully has to put up with being the crazy one that everyone mocks the theories of, though Mulder's "Fiji Mermaid" thing is just bizarre and one of the weaker points of the episode.
- Reportedly, Anderson really ate that roach, though there have been reports to cast doubt on this in recent years. I prefer to believe that she did eat it after all.
- Just saying "Jim-Jim, the Dog-Faced Boy" has a nice rhythm to it.
- For an episode that does a good job of developing a man covered in a puzzle tattoo who never speaks, I'm not so sure that Hepcat ever gets much definition beyond being WILD and CRAZY.
- Weren't sideshows and freak performers kind of a big deal briefly in the mid-90s? Or did I just think that because I had a subscription to Spin?
- A personal memory of this episode: Once, when I told my uncle I loved this show, he related, almost verbatim, Michael Anderson's speech to Mulder about not jumping to conclusions about people based on appearance. "Humbug" remains the only episode of the show he's ever seen, but he's seen it a large number of times, certainly more than I ever have.
- When coming up with the schedule for this series, Zack and I determined who would get what based on him taking "Clyde Bruckman" and me taking "Jose Chung's." So you'll have that to look forward to, I guess.
- "It's not a funhouse. It's a tabernacle of terror."
- "So now I carry other people's luggage."
- "Dr. Blockhead does not perform tricks. Dr. Blockhead performs astounding acts of body manipulation and pain endurance."
- "Everybody's uncle's an amateur magician."
- "He does NOT hold a doctorate."
- "We're exhuming your potato."
- "You really shouldn't complain about banalities, Scully, when your main suspect is the Human Blockhead."
- "If people knew the true price of spirituality, there'd be more atheists."
"The Calusari" (season 2, episode 21)
"The Calusari" should hold more of a special place in my heart than it does. It was the first episode of the show I ever watched, but it was also the episode of the show that scared me off of watching it for something like a year. At the time, I wasn't horrified by it. I just jumped into the episode about 10 minutes late and didn't really grasp what was going on. I figured the show was all confusing bunk that I was better off not bothering with, particularly as I had to spend so much time jumping away from the action so my parents didn't catch me watching it. Also, I had real trouble with telling narratives through cross-cutting and … a number of things, actually. So I was looking forward to watching "The Calusari," figuring I'd at least understand what the hell was going on.
And, honestly, I'm not sure I did. This is another one of those X-Files episodes where the show throws a bunch of possible theories at the audience, then seems to pick one of them and follow it, but the theory it picks never makes a lot of sense. Somehow, our murderous child is plagued by an evil twin whose soul was never separated from his, so he has to be saved by a bunch of old Romanians. The evil twin thing never makes complete sense, particularly since the nicely creepy opening scene involved what appeared to be the actual kid killing off his younger brother. I do like it when the show leaves things open to interpretation, but this episode maybe needed a little less in the way of chaos and a little more in the way of explanation.
Let's put this another way: "The Calusari" is an episode with a lot of great and spooky moments, but it's never an episode with a cohesive and scary story, so much as it's an episode where stuff pretty much just seems to happen to the characters, stuff that they shrug off pretty quickly. First, Charlie seems to be totally OK with evil (unseen) twin Michael bumping off his little brother. But then he gets more and more upset with Michael as the episode goes on. And the way the story lurches from seeming like we're seeing a ripoff of The Omen to some sort of evil, noncorporeal twin storyline feels like, well, like the writers just didn't want to rip off The Omen.
But there are some really great moments here. Scully's theorizing, for once, seems sort of like something that could happen, as she pulls out Munchausen by Proxy, which is at least a natural response to what's going on and a nice counterpoint to Mulder's "Ghosts did it!" excitement. And that opening teaser is genius, right down to the way the balloon descends to hang out over Charlie's shoulder as we look up at him from a low angle (though I doubt a kiddie train would have that much trouble stopping). X-Files was a gutsy show when it wanted to be, and killing off a baby isn't something you see on TV every day. Furthermore, I always love stories where there's a lot of crazy rituals and old men and women who warn that if they aren't allowed to complete these rituals, terrible things will happen, and there's plenty of this throughout this hour. Also, the final exorcism sequence, while obviously owing a lot to the sequence in The Exorcist, is nicely handled, and the way Mulder's face goes from passive observer to being sort of freaked out that he's ACTUALLY SEEING something pretty damn paranormal is a nice choice by Duchovny.
At the same time, I'm not sure everything hangs together. The references to the guys being able to create something out of nothing never has an adequate payoff. Neither do the chickens, which just kind of come out of nowhere, kill Grandma, and then leave. I wanted more backstory about the Calusari and about the grandma, and I just didn't get it. Grandma seems kind of crazy, as though she just accused everyone of being the devil and got lucky this time, and then she's able to pull it over to get her Romanian friends over to handle all of this. And then Charlie's mom also has a firm command over magic ritual? What? It's a messy, chaotic story that could have been much better developed, and too many things that happen in it seem to be happening just because the writers thought it would be cool if they happened. It's a long string of cool moments, then, without a good deal of stuff holding them together in between. There's also a good deal of theorizing about the nature of "evil," which feels like one of those things the show would do from time to time, without really having a coherent reason for doing so. If Hitler was somehow doing what he was doing because of an evil ghost twin, well, I guess that explains SOMEthing, but I'm not sure the random references to real life evils belonged in the episode either.
This is also an episode where Mulder and Scully are mostly just tourists through the story, seeing a bunch of crazy stuff and then mostly seeming to forget about it. Now, there are good episodes like that (as I mentioned two weeks ago, "Die Hand, Die Verletzt" fits this template), but it's awfully hard to do a good one where the two are sidelined too much. And, honestly, "Calusari" has the two of them several steps behind the old Romanian dudes too often. Instead of wanting to follow the characters I usually come to the show to see, I wanted to spend more time with them and see them face down assorted ultimate evils, ghost twins, and anything else they could find. But, alas. It was not to be.
Yet there's a propulsion to "The Calusari" that keeps it from being a complete waste. Weaker episodes of The X-Files, particularly ones that toss so much information at the audience, have a tendency to feel really disjointed. "The Calusari" does feel that way, but the fact that the story is always galloping forward at a breakneck pace makes it easier to ignore just how often the show changes its focus. It helps that every act has at least one really great setpiece, like when the father gets chewed up by the garage door opener or when the social worker comes to see Charlie and ends up in a scene from The Exorcist. When I saw "The Calusari" at the age of 14, I didn't really understand what I was seeing. I don't blame me for feeling that way, but I do think if I had let go of wanting everything to make concrete sense, I could have found some enjoyment in the moments.
- Mulder and Scully seem awfully unconcerned about the fact that there was a dead toddler that kicked off this case. Mulder, in fact, seems sort of happy about this REALLY COOL new case he's been handed, where a two year old was lured onto some train tracks by a death balloon. Nice one, Mulder.
- Your '90s reminder of the week: That technician who enhances the photo for our intrepid duo has some amusingly archaic software, even by the standards of "This is TV, so our software can cure cancer" software. If this were CSI: New York, Gary Sinise would have had a good look at that amorphous blob of electromagnetism's driver's license.
- I'm also amused that the technician apparently knows so much about paranormal phenomena. He seems kind of like a character the show was trying to turn into another recurring player for when things got dull.
- More Scully in peril. I remember this motif being used less often as the series went on. But could that start soon, please?
- Man, that is just the worst hospital ever, if the Calusari are able to get through that whole, loud ritual without anyone even sticking their head in to see if Charlie would like some ice to suck on.
Next week: Zack takes you to the end of season two, as the series makes one of its many visits to prison in "F. Emasculata," a young freelancer named Vince Gilligan turns in his first script for the show with "Soft Light," there's some cannibalism in "Our Town," and Mulder gets the ultimate cliffhanger in "Anasazi."