“How The Ghosts Stole Christmas” (season 6, episode 6; originally aired 12/13/1998)
In which they don’t
The forecast says it’s going to be break ninety degrees today, so you’ll pardon me if I’m not in the mood for Yuletide cheer; it’s too hot for roasting chestnuts, and Jack Frost is dying in a gutter somewhere on Main Street. The heat makes it hard to think straight, and it puts me in a rotten mood—I’m more irritable than usual, and I tend to think the worst of the people around me. So while I may not be up for talking about Santa Claus and the joy of giving, I am in a good frame of mind to discuss “How The Ghosts Stole Christmas.” Once again, Mulder and Scully find themselves in a position to question what holds them together, and once again, they leave a crisis more closely bound together than before. At this point, even the deconstruction is a little rote; Mulder is accused of being an egomaniacal selfish ass? Check. Scully is asked why she spends so much time with someone with someone so clearly deranged? Check. If all this episode had going for it was yet another excuse to point out the dysfunctions at the heart of the series, it would be fine, but not exactly essential. But really, the ghosts who haunt our heroes don’t seriously care why Mulder is who he is, and why Scully does what she does. They just want them dead. Sounds like fun to me.
It’s probably early in the game to make grand pronouncements about this season (especially since I only have vague memories of what comes next), but if you break it down, of the six episodes we’ve seen so far, only two have really fallen under the rubric of “traditional” X-Files. The premiere was a mythology entry that reset the board for the fight against the aliens, and “Drive” was a straightforward monster of the week. But with that out of the way, we’ve had a run of off-format material, all of it (including this week) unified by a sense of experimentation and a less than serious approach to the material. At times, it feels a bit like a bunch of schoolkids staring at the clock, waiting for the last day of school before summer break to end. Which makes sense; five plus years is a long time for a series to be on the air, and honestly, all the major statements that can be made about the central premise have probably already been made. We’ve explored character relationships so intently that even commentary that used to feel subversive—like the idea that Mulder is maybe not the most healthy person in the world—is old hat. When Ed Asner (as one half of the ghostly duo that tries to drive our heroes to murder-suicide) tells Mulder that all his obsessions might just be in his head, I found myself wondering, “Is that all you got? I know this. Come on.”
Thankfully, Maurice (Asner) and Lyda (Lily Tomlin) aren’t all that interested in doing a detailed psychological break down of their targets, and neither is the episode. It’s just one of their games. “Ghosts” is scripted by Chris Carter, and he’s in “Post-Modern Prometheus” mode; this hour doesn’t share that one’s fondness for affectation and Cher impersonators, but it does have a gleeful, everybody-gets-out-okay-in-the-end vibe, and Carter has a lot of fun playing around with the haunting, and with the characters of the ghosts themselves. The set-up: Mulder drags Scully out to haunted house in Maryland on Christmas Eve. There, he tells her the story of two “star-crossed lovers” who had a murder-suicide pact in 1917 to make sure they’d be together forever. Since then, the pair have tormented any couple foolish enough to set foot inside their home, leading to at least six more deaths. Mulder is determined to see them, because that’s what Mulders do, and he wants Scully along for festivities so badly that when she tells him she has wrapping and family obligations, he steals her car keys.
It takes about fifteen minutes of episode-time before the ghosts finally show up, and Carter makes the most of it, throwing in all sorts of spooky tricks: front doors that close and lock themselves, spooky shadows, lights apparently turning themselves on, and a pair of corpses under the floor boards wearing Mulder and Scully’s clothes. Oh, and did I mention the room they can’t seem to get out of, no matter how many times they walk through the door? In a way, this all fits with the usual monster of the week set-up: Mulder wants to investigate something, Scully thinks he’s crazy, they poke around, Mulder’s not crazy, BOO!, and end credits. Except everything happens over the course of a few hours, there are no autopsies, and, apart from Scully’s brief monologue about how the idea of “ghosts” really says more about the living than the dead, there’s no effort made to explain what’s going on. And really, Mulder isn’t visiting the house because he wants to stop the spirits or get that damn proof he’s always going on about. He just wants to see something strange.
So do we, and while Mulder and Scully are as delightful as ever, this episode lives and dies on the strength of its two guest stars. Unsurprisingly, Asner and Tomlin are more than up to the task. I can’t remember the last time The X-Files gave us this close a look into the plans of the ostensible threats—maybe “Musings Of A Cigarette Smoking Man,” but even then, the CSM was, in the end, just another human being. Maurice and Lyda are spooks, spectres, etc, and at around the midpoint of the hour, there’s a subtle shift of focus, enough so that the audience starts to see the story from their point of view. They discuss their plans with each other, they kvetch about the way things are now: it used to be they had decades to work their destructive magic on a couple, now they just get a single night, kids these days, etc. Interestingly, Carter makes no attempt to show us anything about who Maurice and Lyda were when they were alive, apart from Mulder’s story. We don’t even really get an explanation as for why they’re so much older than they’re supposed to be. (The lovers in Mulder’s tale offed themselves in the bloom of youth.) Do ghosts age? Or maybe in the “real life” version, Maurice and Lyda saw themselves getting older and losing touch, and decided what the hell, it’s better to go out with a bang.
Who knows? Who cares? Asner and Tomlin fill in the blanks on their own, creating a lived in, slightly cranky relationship that’s as warm as any we’ve seen on the show. While they don’t succeed in getting Mulder and Scully to shoot each other, they don’t seem particularly broken up about it. They’re just playing around, and really, that’s the best way to view the episode on the whole. It’s a scary tale told on Christmas Eve, which always seems to be the best time for that. (As Lyda points out, “Now, who is filled with hopelessness and futility on Halloween?”) A good ghost story reminds you to value what matters the most: the people you love, and the fact that you’re still breathing. Things get scary for a while, and the sequence in which Lyda pretends to be first Mulder shooting Scully, and then Scully shooting Mulder, is terrific black comedy; the sight of Mulder and Scully dragging themselves towards the door, convinced that they’ve been fatally wounded by their partners, is appropriately bizarre. But there are no consequences, no deaths which aren’t already decades old, and in the end, Scully comes by Mulder’s apartment and they exchange gifts, as Lyda and Maurice muse over another year gone. Happy endings are rare on The X-Files. Usually the best we can hope for is a return to the status quo, but while that’s exactly what happens here, it’s rarely been so sweet and satisfying. The ghosts hold hands and fade away, while Mulder and Scully open their presents. They didn’t die this year, and that’s reason enough to celebrate.
- I feel like I’m giving Asner and Tomlin short shrift, but to stress: they are excellent, and really help to make the episode something special, mostly by just being exactly what you’d expect them to be.
- It’s great how the plan against Mulder and Scully plays out. Initially I assumed Maurice and Lyda would’ve gone for the long con, slowly destroying the two FBI agents through a concentrated campaign of psychological assault. And they do some of that, but after a few bouts of mindfuckery, they go straight to the impersonation and illusion. Which makes sense; the ghosts only have one night, there’s no room for subtlety.
- “I don’t show my hole to just anyone.” The special effects here, most notably the shots of the hole through Lyda’s stomach (ala Death Becomes Her) aren’t bad. They aren’t fantastic, but they aren’t bad.
- “A murder-suicide is all about trust.”
- Mulder is watch the end of the Alistar Sim’s A Christmas Carol, which is arguably the best movie adaptation of the book.
“Skull And Bones” (season 3, episode 6; originally aired 11/6/1998)
In which Maine is not the best place to hide a corpse
Judged on its own, this isn’t a bad episode. In fact, it has what might be my favorite scene of the season so far: poor Ed sitting in the park going quietly insane. The sequence has the loopiness the show has done so well in the past, and it had a sense of humor; it was even genuinely, enjoyable unsettling, in a way the slog through serial killers and lukewarm conspiracy never really is. The story had a few surprises, and if the resolution wasn’t airtight—was, in fact, wide open—well, the episode still had a purpose, and it did get lost in clunky media satire or immediately dated attempts at historical relevancy. “Skull And Bones” even finds a somewhat reasonable use for Emma, allowing her to poke around the edges of the Millennium Group’s grand plan while Frank stays at home and frets. None of this is exactly original, and it has problems even if you’re willing to go along with the premise, but it’s competent, and the stakes are varied and high enough to keep the episode from being just another excuse to rub our faces in misery.
Only I kind of hated “Skull And Bones,” because of it has a very specific purpose: to continue and clarify the on-going ret-con of the Millennium Group, as well as bump off a semi-recurring character off-screen. The last time we saw Cheryl Andrews (CCH Pounder) was in “The Hand Of St. Sebastian,” where she betrayed Frank and Peter and was arrested for her troubles. It was an interesting, if not entirely effective, reversal; Andrews had been a resource during the show’s first season, and her appearance in “St. Sebastian” was designed to indicate there were schisms in the group, and to intensify the threat of chaos and anarchy. Watching the episode, I thought the whole thing came out of left field, given how little we knew about Andrews, but as twists go, it at least played fair. Turning a trustworthy figure into a Judas is a standard plotting trick, and it’s not like Andrews was someone the audience had a deep emotional investment in.
We still don’t, really, but the character deserved better than this. She’s barely in the episode; there are a couple of theoretical flashbacks, Frank acts upset about her death, and that’s it. The episode is ostensibly driven by Emma’s growing horror at what happened to Andrews and the other bodies they discover in a construction site in Maine, and Andrews was chosen as one of the victims to help us connect with that horror. We knew Andrews, we’d seen her before, and CCH Pounder is a recognizable, likable presence. Her death should be upsetting. Only to get upset about it means to overlook the fact that the last we saw of her, she’d been arrested. The group had a reason to distrust her, but that reason doesn’t have anything to do with the ostensible justification for her execution that’s given in this episode. So we’re asked to care about what happened, but only if we over look a few other things that happened, and that just doesn’t work. Either she’s someone we remember, in which case we’ll spend most of the hour trying to figure out how all of this could possibly fit into what we know, or we don’t remember her, in which case she’s just a generic good guy that Millennium screwed over, which is sad, but not that sad. Why even bring her back? It’s almost like Carter and his current writing staff on the show are trying to distance themselves even further from the second season—now, they aren’t just trying to fudge the details, they’re actively pretending many of those details never even happened.
I don’t want to turn my reviews of this season into an endless litany of complaints against the show’s new direction, but man, seeing Peter looking mysterious and menacing Emma throughout the hour still rubs me the wrong way. The premise is that the group is constantly bumping off people—scientists, doctors, teachers, etc—who learn things that the group doesn’t want them to know. These deaths go almost entirely unremarked upon, except for one poor bastard named Ed who witnessed one of them, and went sort of crazy afterwards. Because of what he saw, Ed (Arye Gross) now has the ability to sift through newspaper reports of obituaries and “accidental” deaths and piece together who the group is killing and way. He sent a series of notes to the FBI describing these victims, but then stopped sending the notes for a long time, until he decides to start sending them again when someone stumbles over a skeleton in Maine. While Emma is at the dig site, fending off Peter’s philosophical advances and trying to ID the bodies, Frank tracks Ed down, initially convinced that Ed is the killer, before he starts to suspect something far darker is at work here.
To give the episode its due, “Skull And Bones” does a good job selling its main twist through suggestion. Apart from the Andrews’ flashback (which shows her performing an autopsy, learning the wrong thing—why would they even give her the damn body?—and then being executed in a stairwell for her troubles), everything about this episode is terrifying in implication, not in fact, and the sequence at the end when Emma comes to a murder house in the middle of nowhere is legitimately frightening. If this season is intent on reducing the Millennium Group to yet another cabal with seemingly limitless influence and power, there are worse ways to go about doing so. And Terry O’Quinn is, as ever, terrific at being scary when he’s trying to sound reasonable.
It’s just, well, the reason the group’s villainy was so effective last season was that it came from such a gray area. They were a cult, but they seemed so reasonable and nice at first, and while they did try and engineer a plague that would bring about the end of the world, they had personality doing it; they weren’t infallible, and the pseudo-religious trappings that kept their members in thrall helped to distinguish what they were trying to accomplish. Here, though, it’s just another bunch of assholes who think they know better, and once again, we have two heroes who recognize what’s going on and are determined to stop them, and the group does nothing. Peter offers Emma a job, and when she turns him down, he shrugs. Frank is still breathing. There’s a reason so many conspiracy movies end with the good guys getting screwed—if you want to make a conspiracy a legitimate threat, you have to follow through on their threats. But since this is an on-going series, Frank and Emma have to live to fight another day, even though there’s no good reason to do so. After all that build-up, after all the tension, it’s deflating for everything to end on a shrug. But it’s fitting, I guess.
- If I had Chris Carter’s phone number, I would call him late at night and shout a random string of numbers into the phone. Then I’d whisper “please,” and hang up. He could probably get a show out of that.
Next week: Todd hangs out with Bruce Campbell as they share “Terms Of Endearment,” and sees Frank “Through A Glass, Darkly.”