“Dreamland” (season 6, episode 4; originally aired 11/29/1998)
In which Mulder has a freaky Friday
I can’t remember when I realized I wasn’t going to have a normal life. There had to have been some point, I’m sure, a moment in time when before which, I was certain I’d get a teaching degree, fall in love, get married, churn out a couple of kids, house in a nice neighborhood, barbecues, newspaper subscription, all of that; and then after that, when I understood that while some of these things were still possible, they were going to take more work than I’d ever imagined. I assume it was a process so gradual that I only recognized it in retrospect. Eventually, everyone has to come to terms with the ways the life they have differs from the life they grew up wanting, but the funny thing is, I still don’t think I’m a statistical anomaly. Unless I make an effort, I automatically assume the path I’m on is the common one. You get used to your life because it’s the only one you have, and it’s only when we encounter others that we’re forced to re-evaluate our own choices. That’s one of the reasons I love art: it’s a chance, however imperfect, to put myself in someone else’s shoes, get used to the feel, and then look back at what I left behind.
Which is sort of what happens here, although with a lot more goofiness, and without much soul searching. (At least in part one.) “Dreamland” is the first overtly comedic episode of The X-Files’ sixth season, and it won’t be the last. The cold open hints at the tone, with a set-up that’s so familiar it’s practically self-parody: Mulder and Scully are driving out to the desert, at night, so Mulder can meet one of his informants, a man who supposedly has information about clandestine military experiments with alien technology in Area 51. All that’s missing is an off-hand reference to Samantha Mulder’s abduction and we’d have some sort of Chris Carter Bingo. (Although Carter didn’t contribute to the script.) And while the episode isn’t openly snickering, Scully’s reaction to the whole escapade makes it very obvious the writers understood how goofy this is. She raises the issue of a “normal” life which serves as the thematic crux of the episode: is Mulder missing out by giving everything to his cause? Wouldn’t he be happier if he settled down, raised some rugrats, and stopped wasting his life on an endless pursuit of little gray men?
The answer we get by the end of the first half of this two-parter is a resounding No, although it’s not exactly playing fair. Before Mulder can reach his destination, a squad of army guys stops him, and Mulder comes face to face with a mid-level bureaucrat named Morris Fletcher, played by the terrific Michael McKean. There are a lot of great jokes in “Dreamland,” but the best might be the fact that Fletcher, who to all appearances could’ve swapped places with any of the dozens and dozens of anonymous men in black who have plagued Mulder since the start of the series, has a dull, irritating little life, one which our hero will get to experience first hand. After years of being thwarted, menaced, and provoked by forces he can barely begin to grasp, Mulder gets stuck on the other side of the curtain, only to find that he can’t do much, most of his co-workers are twerps, and his wife and kids are insane. He isn’t contacting a source anymore, he is the source, forced into swapping places with Fletcher via some mysterious alien machine, and instead of finding the answers to his questions, or access to limitless secrets, he’s stuck getting yelled at by strangers for forgetting the milk, and falling asleep in the living room watching porn. (Admittedly, I’m pretty sure Mulder does that last bit in his own apartment all the damn time.)
While this is going on, Fletcher, who presumably arranged the body swap (I think; I forget the second half of this story, but his nonchalant reaction to what happened suggests he was planning for it, and Mulder certainly seems to think so), is having the time of Mulder’s life. This is just an expansion on the sort of tweaking we saw in “Small Potatoes.” Mulder is a good looking guy, so Fletcher takes advantage of this to score with Kersh’s secretary. Mulder devotes his time at work to pissing off his bosses and bucking authority at every turn; Fletcher, who seems to have given his whole life to toeing the line, turns brown-noser and finger pointer with aplomb. But unlike Eddie Van Blundht, who was kind of likable in his incredibly pathetic way, Fletcher is just a dick. Instead of making fun of the ways Mulder’s fixations blind him to what’s good in his life (handsome, young, and Scully willingly spends time with him), Fletcher is a boorish, conceited ass, serving mostly to make us appreciate all the ways Mudler isn’t just a “normal” guy. The dude slaps Scully on the butt! And he calls her “Dana” all the time. Gillian Anderson’s reaction shots throughout this are hilarious, and, while it’s somewhat implausible how long it takes her to accept what’s going on, her increasing frustration over Fletcher’s antics make the padding bearable.
Still, that padding is the episode’s biggest flaw, and it shows up in the plotting as well as in the character behavior. It’s not enough that we see the general and Fletcher’s dickhead co-worker examining a crash-site where a pilot merged with a rock and another pilot is apparently speaking a Hopi dialect. We also have to have the switch explained to us later on, as well as get a scene with Mulder and the others examining a lizard that’s merged with another rock, as well as a scene where a gas station attendant is literally floored. Like Scully’s refusal to acknowledge that “Mulder” isn’t acting right, these scenes work well enough on their own, and the hour never seriously drags, but there’s a lot of repeating concepts and inelegant story-telling. Not all of the comedy lands, either. Nora Dunn does what she can with JoAnne Fletcher, Morris’s presumably long-suffering wife, but the script goes to the shrewish harpy well a few times too often; the small attempt to humanize her near the end (she really does want to make the marriage work, which, when you think about, makes Morris even more of a jerk) turns into a Viagara joke, which isn’t so hot. As is so often the case with humor, it’s a matter of taste, but I started getting bored when Mulder and Fletcher (in reflection) did a take on Duck Soup’s mirror gag. Cute enough, but the joke in the Marx Bother’s movie was that there actually was a different guy mimicking Groucho’s movements. Here, since we know Mulder’s really just seeing his reflection, there’s no tension; it’s just Duchovny acting goofy, us catching the reference, and nothing else.
That may seem nit-picky, and to be honest, for every bit that doesn’t play in the episode, there are three that do. Joanne gets to be a little much, but her immediate assumption that her husband is cheating on her with Scully made me laugh, as did Mulder’s complete and utter inability to handle the Fletcher children. (Seriously, who defaults to “plastic surgery” when trying to think of a question about a teenager’s nose?) McKean is excellent, conveying the smug satisfaction of a clever but unimaginative man who believes he’s pulled off the perfect crime. And while the padding keeps this from being an undeniable classic, it does give the episode a charming, loopy vibe that makes sure everything goes down easy. Things don’t get serious until the very end, when Fletcher turns “himself” over to the authorities as Mulder’s contact, getting Fox (in Fletcher’s body) arrested and leaving Fletcher (in Mulder’s body) free to go about his unholy quest to be a forgettable, if well-fucked, G-Man. It’s a good cliffhanger, and raises the stakes for next week’s episode, but it doesn’t entirely shake the impression that there really isn’t enough content in “Dreamland” to justify two hours. And yet, if The X-Files wants to waste my time this delightfully, who am I to complain?
- The first shot of Fletcher Morris, he’s smoking a cigarette and we can’t see his face, much like the Marlboro Man.
- The conceit of having Duchovny still play himself, even while everyone around him sees him as Fletcher, is the right choice. We’re robbed of the sight of McKean trying to do his best Mulder impression, but a lot of what’s funny about the episode is the context of seeing actors in the wrong places. And Duchovny is a terrific straight man. (He’s got this “Okay, I’m a little worried, but I’m not, y’know, concerned or anything” attitude through most of the hour which is great.)
- “Dana, wanna pick me up a pack of Morleys, please?” I love how utterly non-phased McKean acts, like asking for cigarettes from Scully is the most normal thing in the world.
- “Does Scully even sound like a woman’s name to you?” -Mulder, covering his tracks
- “That is so you. That is so Scully. Well it’s good to know that you haven’t changed. That’s comforting.” -Mulder, in times of stress, turns on his partner.
“Closure” (season 3, episode 4; originally aired 10/23/1998)
In which bad people do bad things, what a world, what a world
My first note on this episode: “Emma at a grave. Yup, this is Millennium all right.”
That’s slightly unfair—it’s not like there aren’t plenty of good shows which have opened with or used similar scenes. It’s just that this show has returned so quickly and so thoroughly to its dour roots that I find myself prepared for disappointment at even a hint of misery. There’s nothing wrong with tackling dour subjects, but in its third season, the series has taken to facing down the important questions of life—what does it all mean, what is evil, and that all time favorite, why do bad things happen to good people—as though simply raising the idea of despair would be enough to fill twenty plus hours of television. Or to put it another way, I have good news and bad news about “Closure.” The good news is that its easily the best episode of the season so far, has a terrific guest performance, and doesn’t play like a sub-par X-Files knock-off (well, mostly). The bad news is, given what’s come before it, I’m reasonably certain that this is as watchable as the season is ever going to get. This is a clear statement of purpose, unhindered by lingering plot threads or misguided notions of topicality. You watch this, you understand exactly what the creative team is trying to express, and it’s so damn bland. At least season one had some Grand Guignol flare to it.
But hey, so long as we’re here: drifter Rick Van Horn (Garrett Dillahunt, best known in these parts for his role in Raising Hope) and his friends have gone rogue, killing people left and right just because they can, and Emma requests assignment on the case before anyone realizes they have a spree killer. Emma, it seems, has a secret need to seek out the worst crimes on the same date every year, and Frank, because he needs a reason to be in this episode, gets it into his head that it’s his job to figure out why. While the Van Horn trio works their way through close encounters of various kinds, and Emma pieces together who they are and where they might be headed, Frank digs into her past, and learns that its the anniversary of Emma’s sister’s murder. (What is it about Carter and FBI agents with sibling trauma?) The sister was killed by a psychopath, and as an adult, Emma has worked to solve the problem of what drives men to take the lives of others, with, presumably, little to no success. Through sheer luck, the cops manage to arrest the lady member of Van Horn’s small gang, and Rick decides to go out in a blaze of glory, taking a bus hostage with his remaining partner, driving it to the police station, and charging a wall of armed police officers. The partner gets killed, Rick makes a run for it, and naturally ends up in Emma’s car, forcing her to abet his escape at gun-point. She manages to get the drop on him when she notices he isn’t wearing his seat-belt, and in the end, one more bad guy is dead, and no one gets the answers they want, because really, there aren’t any answers, because it’s all basically crap.
There’s no conspiracy or weird tics or occult trappings, just a lot of standard issue assholes-on-a-rampage sequences. And to the episode’s credit, these are well done, filled with the uneasy tension that comes from watching someone who could do just about anything, so long as it’s bad. If there’s a reason to watch “Closure,” it’s Garrett Dillahunt, a great actor who manages to give Van Horn just the right kind of energy to make him bearable. For this premise to work at all, you need to enjoy watching the bad guys do their thing just as much as you dread the consequences, and Dillahunt accomplishes this easily. I wouldn’t go so far as to say any of this is fun, but at it’s best, it has a feverish, mesmerizing intensity that makes it hard to look away. There’s a fine scene near the end with Van Horn hanging out with a cyclist who has no idea what he’s in for. They’re smoking up and chatting, and Van Horn decides it’s time to do the William Tell routine. The cyclist doesn’t get he’s in trouble, tries to back out, but he’s doomed, and we know it, and the way he dies—in the background of a shot, out of focus, like it doesn’t even matter—is quite cool.
So why complain? For starters, Emma remains a dull protagonist, particularly when she’s required to shoulder most of the episode’s emotional weight. The actress is fine, but the role is so one note she could have stepped whole cloth from any of a dozen paint-by-numbers crime thrillers from the eighties and nineties. All she’s lacking are the quips. It doesn’t help her cause that her motives are childishly flat—losing her sister must have been devastating, but that doesn’t make it automatically compelling drama. When the only spark of life comes from your villains, you know you’re in trouble, and so much of the episode is given up to the gloomy pessimism of the show’s first season, all sordid motels and the horrors of sex and the prevalence of thoughtless violence. Frank spends most of his time hanging out in the background, to the point where occasionally wonder just what his deal is; is he officially a consultant now? Does he just stalk Emma freelance? Most damning of all is that, apart from Dillahunt’s performance, the episode never comes up with sufficient reason to make us keep watching. There’s some suspense in seeing how the killers will end up, and their story prevents “Closure” from being a mess, but they aren’t the main characters, and after watching Emma mope her way along, and Frank be all nosy and smug, I can’t imagine wanting to see either of them in action again. I’m not really the target audience for the Criminal Minds of the world; I don’t mind violence, but I don’t find serial murder of sufficient interest on its own to warrant my attention. If this episode represents the pinnacle of Millennium’s new direction, as I suspect it does, the weeks ahead promise to be a slow, painful grind. We’ll muddle through till the end (because dammit, that is what we do), but I hope the next time my turn roles around to cover this show, I’ll have more to say than, “Eh, I’ve seen worse.”
- Van Horn and his buddy have a lady friend who makes out with both of them. Clearly, they are incredibly decadent.
- Frank gets one flash here, related to the cyclist who got shot in the head. Kind of feels like the writers wish they could forget about the flashes entirely.
Next week: Todd sees the body swap through to its inevitable conclusion in “Dreamland II,” and then sees what happens “…Thirteen Years Later.”