"El Mundo Gira" (Season 4, Episode 11)
In Which I Really Wish I'd Taken Spanish In High School Because Then I Could've Made A Funny Joke Here. Still, Goat-Sucking!
Hey, remember "Teso Dos Bichos" from last season? The episode with the killer cats, which was a lot less exciting than an episode with killer cats had any real right to be. It also dealt with American encroachment on native burial grounds, or some sort of vaguely political commentary on those lines, even though that never really came together, and in the end, the best part of the ep was probably the ridiculously goofy Cat Attack at the climax. It wasn't very good at all, is what I'm saying. The traditional MotW X-File elements were there, but the writing was scattered, sloppy, and, most painful of all, dull.
Conceptually at least, The X-Files is a procedural: every once in a while, we go down the mythology rabbit hole, but bulk of the storylines follow a simple structure. People start dying in weird ways, Mulder and Scully show up to poke around, a few more people die, Mulder has a crazy theory, Scully scoffs, there's an autopsy, there's a big confrontation that may or may not confirm Mulder's wildest speculations, and then there's a button ending that either hints that the threat isn't entirely resolved or else provides some kind of ironic/emotional commentary on what we just watched. For a show about exploring strange phenomenon, it's a little surprising how routine the format can feel. It's CSI with monsters. Which is a pretty great idea, and in some ways I'd be perfectly satisfied to get a new hour-long horror movie every week on my television, but considering the potential here and the writers involved, it's disappointing how often the writers fall back on the same familiar beats.
Which is why I kind of dig "El Mundo Gira," even if it's not really good, and even though it was written by John Shiban, who wrote "Teso," and suffers from some of the same problems that episode did. Procedural shows can do amazing things when they stick to what they know, but I'd argue that the real fun, especially once the show has a couple seasons under its belt, is when the writing team starts bucking at the restrictions and finding odd ways to comment on everyone's expectations. It's like watching the series become self-aware. Darin Morgan's brilliant work stands fine on its own, but an episode like "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'" also works beautifully as a criticism and deconstruction of the X-Files' habitual obsessions. (As I've said elsewhere, it works maybe a little too well in that regard, undercutting the obsessions to the point where it's difficult to take anything the show says about alien abduction or conspiracy seriously ever again, but it's still a damn fine piece of television.) "Paper Hearts," working on a much smaller scale, played along the same lines, taking one of the series' central assumptions and tweaking it just enough to make that assumption seem new again. The show is never going to completely break from the routine, but the risks it's willing to take because of the established success of that routine help to keep it all from getting entirely stale. There's a sense of collusion between the writers and the longterm fans: "We know you know this is ridiculous," a piece of meta dialogue is really saying, "and we kind of think it's ridiculous too."
"Gira" never hits the heights of whimsy or cynicism the X-Files can reach in its greatest hours, and it's never quite smart enough to know what to do with all its disparate pieces, but it is a lot more interesting that it initially appears to be. Two brothers are feuding over the same woman in a migrant workers camp in California. One afternoon, there's a flashing light, a yellow rain, and then the woman winds up dead, her eyes missing and the skin around her mouth shredded away. A goat lies dead next to her, so the locals start panicking about El Chupacabra, a gray monster with black eyes and a bulging forehead, who sucks goats and, one presumes, is not in a good mood. (Unless goat sucking is a lot more satisfying than it sounds.) Those who don't automatically believe in monsters assume Eladio, one of the dead woman's suitors, is responsible, but due to the bizarre nature of the crime and the so-called "Fortean Event" that precedes it, Mulder and Scully fly in, and we're off to the races.
The first half of "Gira" plays fairly straight pool. Mulder and Scully wander around, we learn about the plight of the immigrants, Mulder pairs up with local cop Ruben Blades, Scully does an autopsy, that sort of thing. And it's disappointing, too, because as soon as people start babbling about Chupacabras, I start hoping to get an actual monster; when it turns out that Eladio is actually secreting an enzyme that inspires insanely aggressive growth in whatever fungal material he touches (one poor bus driver dies from the worst case of athlete's foot in history). Well, that's all neat and sciencey and so forth, but it's no monster. Plus, while the episode goes to great lengths to try and connect the illegal aliens we see here and the ones Mulder has spent most of his life tracking down (the episode loses any pretense towards serious reflection when Blades actually literally says, "To most people, they're aliens in the true sense of the word." How does that even make sense?), that connection has no real weight to it beyond the obvious pun. The ETs who've been causing all kinds of crazy on planet Earth don't flourish because white people ignore them; they flourish because they have magical space alien powers and because they've made deals with the US government to stay hidden. They have actual power. All poor Eladio has is an unfortunate skin condition and a nasty handshake.
Yet, as the episode wears on, something strange happens. You can almost feel Shiban getting bored along with the audience. There's been some good Mulder and Scully interplay, and the fungal deaths are appropriately grotesque, but the hunt for Eladio, and the build to a confrontation between Eladio and his brother, is all numbingly rote. So it gets a little looser as it goes. The music is more playful (I doubt Shiban influenced this, but it's still worth mentioning), almost mocking Eladio's sweaty desperation. One of the elements that sets apart the show's third and fourth season for me is that the direction and tone shift from the deadly seriousness of the initial seasons to something approaching black humor. It's not always there (I don't think we're supposed to snicker at the child-killing), but even "Home" had moments that grinned in the darkness. "Gira" looks pretty neat, too, thanks to some nifty direction from Tucker Gates; there's a great shot of Eladio stumbling down a hallway that could've been just filler, but is so full of blinking shadows and gloom that it stuck in my head for the rest of the ep.
Then there's the bizarre ending. We don't see the final confrontation with Eladio and his brother, because Mulder and Scully don't see it; first, we hear an account from an immigrant who firmly believes in the Chupacabra myth, mistaking men in hazmat suits for aliens and telling the community that Eladio turned his brother into the same kind of monster he is, and the two have gone off to some special place in the sky where, presumably, the goats are always half-off. The official version Mulder and Scully tell Skinner isn't much better. Blades is dead (and his sudden shift from world-weary apathetic to someone who gives a crap about the immigrants' customs doesn't really work) in both stories, and the brothers have vanished. The fact that Scully isn't freaking out about the disappearance is odd, seeing as how earlier in the episode, she was stressing the importance of apprehending Eladio before he stumbled into a city and killed hundreds, if not thousands. I guess because they're headed back to Mexico, she doesn't care anymore?
None of this holds together well—it's mostly the appearance of deconstruction without any of the wit or pathos to mean anything—but it's entertaining to watch. Eladio's gradual transformation into a monster helps bring together the aliens/aliens connection better than any dialogue could have. (It's still the sort of way too obvious connection that requires much stronger writing than we get here to pull off, but at least the visual pun forces us to do our own homework.) And the last shot of the brothers, both now gone full Chupacabra, wandering down the highway at night, is undeniably haunting, if also undeniably silly. If we aren't going to get a classic episode, I'd prefer to get a batshit one, and, unlike "Teso's" plodding mediocrity, "Gira" actually had a few moments of spastic joy. I can't really defend it (and I'm curious to hear what others think of the episode), but it mostly won me over in the end.
- Solid Mulder/Scully banter throughout: "Purple rain?" "Yeah. Great album. Deeply flawed movie."
- "Mulder, what we've walked into here is a Mexican soap opera."
- Another positive: The actual science in the ep makes enough sense that the weird ending doesn't feel like a cheat. Apart from the sudden indifference to the brothers' whereabouts (which, hell, could be intentional commentary), we have enough information to understand what happened. Rock from the sky infected Eladio, he and his brother share a resistance to the enzyme, but it turns them into Typhoid Marys.
- "Scully, I've been thinking. I know that's dangerous, but just bear with me."
- "The truth is, nobody cares." In a better episode, that line could've been devastating.
"Weeds" (Season 1, Episode 11)
In Which There Are Decadent White Folks And A Cattle Prod, But Sadly, No Naked Mary Louise Parker
Can I brag? I knew Ed was the killer from the first scene in which we officially meet him. We were supposed to suspect Coach Burke, because he has a tragic past and because he coaches boys in Speedos, and in the World of Millennium, that's terribly suspicious. But I didn't fall for the trick. Burke was much too obvious, especially considering his insistent offers to help. No, Ed was our man from the start. His naive conviction that the kidnappings of teenage boys at Vista Verde Estates could help bring the gated community closer together was telling, but even more telling was the fact that we knew his name and kept seeing him around the edges of the episode, despite his having no direct involvement in the case. Economy of Characters and all that.
Gated communities are something I only really know about because of what I've seen on television and in the movies. Because of this, it's impossible for me to really appreciate the supposed irony of Vista Verde being targeted by a crazy person. "Gated community" is a bit like "unsinkable ship"; it's a phrase that's used in fiction only to create irony. All that security, all that protection, all that enclosed affluence and suburban blandness, that all makes for some kind of tempting target, doesn't it? It's a rule as old and as unavoidable in its way as Chekov's old saw about the gun in the first act: If there's a fence, someone has to jump it. Or, at least in the case, whatever's inside has to be that much worse than whatever's being kept out. The point being, the fence isn't really much use in the end.
A commenter last week complained that our Millennium reviews are too one note. I can't speak for Todd's work, but I'll admit that I sometimes struggle finding new things to say about this show. In my defense, that's because this isn't the sort of series that really traffics much in the new. Carter is dealing with some very old ideas, and he's dealing with them through an often frustratingly narrow focus. Given the on-going success of shows like Criminal Minds (and the movies which inspired those shows), I'm sure the general public would disagree with me, but I honestly find serial killers to be kind of dull. Oh sure, their individual idiosyncrasies hold a certain ugly fascination, and it's possible to tell amazing stories about them, but those stories need some distinctive perspective to make them stand out. Like The Silence Of The Lambs, with its Grand Guignol theatrics and possibilities for redemption; or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which taught us the valuable lesson to never fall in love with Michael Rooker, no matter how much cooler than your brother he seems. The killing itself, terrifying and miserable as it can be, isn't really enough, at least not for me. Week in, week out of sexually stunted white men with ego issues and duct tape … look, we get it. The human body is a fragile mess of meat and gristle, and there are all sorts of awful things that can be done to it. I need a little more than that.
"Weeds" does have a bit more going on, thankfully. Ed's obsession with making the sons pay for the sins of their fathers gives his crimes an added dramatic potential, in that the fathers are forced to decide just how honest they're willing to be to save their kids' lives. It also ties in with Millennium's interest in the nature of evil: what creates it and how it propagates itself. Ed's madness is obviously over the line, but his conviction that bad parents will create bad boys, well, that's not too far from the ideas about nature vs. nurture we've come across on the show before. The last episode I covered dealt with a killer who'd been inspired by trauma in his childhood to spend the rest of his life trying to force that trauma into others' lives; that's an extreme case, but it's possible to draw a line between it and what happens here. If Millennium can be said to have a Big Bad, in the same way that The X-Files has its shadowy government forces and alien plots, then society itself is the villain, a complex system whose entrenched amorality and decay churns out human monsters by the truckload. Ed goes too far and winds up becoming part of the problem, but his beliefs aren't divergent from Carter's central thesis: our sins create catastrophe, again and again and again.
On the less heavy side, the episode gets points for Ed's bizarre modus operandi. In the cold open, we see him cruising through Vista Verde, weeping at his visions of decay and rot. Then we cut to a sullen teenager's birthday party. The kid gets a dirt-bike, goes off for a ride, and Ed (we don't know the killer's identity yet, of course; I'm writing this FROM THE FUTURE) zaps him with a cattle prod a couple times before kidnapping. Next morning, the kid's mom finds a body in the kid's bed. Only it's not the missing kid but another teenage boy, and his hands are gone. The introduction to the threat on a show like this is all about trying to convey what's happening in primal terms: We meet victims and see their demise in order to convince us that the danger is real and that our gut reaction to the deaths will carry us into the episode proper. "Weeds" comes right up to the edge of being overly complex, especially since the kidnapped teen and the corpse the mom discovers don't look all that different from each other, but the oddness of it is intriguing enough to warrant the slight loss of immediate impact. And it all makes enough sense in the end, which is all that matters.
We meet a new Millennium Group consultant this week, Cheryl Andrews, aka the great CCH Pounder. She makes an excellent contrast to all the white whiteness on display. (The best and subtlest joke in the episode is her first line: "The security here is excellent, Frank. I've been stopped two times since entering the gates," delivered in a just-sarcastic-enough tone.) The acting on Millennium is a somewhat mixed bag: Henriksen is great, and Megan Gallagher is fine, but the tone often threatens to drown the rest of the cast. Occasional glimpses of personality get buried under all the seriousness, because it would seem almost selfish to be your own person when there's all this death going on. The consequences are always so dire and the despair so immediate, that it's impossible to get a feel for how most of the people we see would act if they weren't barely staving off tears. Pounder manages to put herself across quite well in her few scenes, though. I'm looking forward to seeing more of her on the show.
I'm always suspicious of storylines that try and implicate the victims along with the criminal. It makes sense dramatically, because victimhood is a passive state, and that makes it less interesting to write about. But Millennium's black-and-white morality inevitably leads to the conflation of sins, and there was a danger here that the crimes the fathers commit might make them look just as monstrous as Ed. Mr. Comstock cheats on his wife, but that doesn't mean his culpable in his son's kidnapping and torture, y'know? "Weeds" mostly manages not to go completely Old Testament on us, and obviously, the crime of the final father, a drunken hit and run that cost an eight year old his life and inspired Ed's quest for justice, deserves severe punishment. But as always with Millennium, there's the feeling that the only life worth living is one entirely free from sin, and I can't say that I buy that. It's inevitable that Mr. Comstock will feel some guilt for his part in what happened; it would've been nice if the show would admit the truth of what Frank says early in the ep, though. Someone asks what the killer wants. "He doesn't want anything. He's insane." And you know what? Despite Ed's convictions, he really, really is.
- When Frank learns that Comstock had an affair, he tells him he has to tell his wife immediately. This makes sense in the long run, since confessing his sin gets him his son back, but in the moment, it plays as hilariously insensitive.
- Hey, Land Of The Giants!
Next week: Todd hangs out with "Leonard Betts" and—wait, "Loin Like A Hunting Flame"? That's the actual episode title? Wow. Good luck on that one, buddy.