“Improbable” (season 9, episode 13; originally aired 4/7/2002)

In which God is Burt Reynolds

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

If you need to find an actor to play God, there are worse choices than Burt Reynolds. Actually, there are far worse choices, particularly if you leave any actors trained by the Royal Shakespearean Company out of things. The God of “Improbable” is the God (or God-like figure) that turns up in a lot of American folk tales and popular stories. He’s a bit of a rapscallion, and he doesn’t mind a naughty or winking aside that acknowledges his basic humanity. But He’s also a really good guy, someone who just wants to make sure that people do their best to be good and kind to each other. In many ways, this version of God is similar to how America tends to see itself: basically fun-loving and omnipotent but with a softer side. And if you’re going to cast someone to play that version of America, that good guy with the big swingin’ dick, I mean, c’mon. It has to be Burt Reynolds, right?

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There’s not a lot to “Improbable.” I watched it while my wife was driving us somewhere, and she remarked once it was over that it felt like a full third of the episode was musical montages, which meant she had no real sense of what was going on. That’s kind of true, even if the sequences scored to the jazzy Italian music aren’t strictly montages. (The final one, in fact, more or less seems to be there just to give Chris Carter a chance to film a musical sequence.) There’s not a lot of story information conveyed in these, and they’re mostly there to coast off of how cool it is to have Reynolds swaggering around while the music plays on the soundtrack. And I’m not going to lie: It’s pretty fucking cool. But if you were going to sit down and describe what this episode was about to someone, you’d almost certainly get waylaid by the presence of the big guest star. Even now, it’s been just a couple of hours since I watched it, and I’m remembering that the X-File isn’t actually our Lord and savior Burt Reynolds but, rather, a numerology obsessed serial killer named Wayno.

I’m interested by the way that Carter—who wrote and directed this one—chooses to make this episode one of the season’s goofier ones, while also more or less understanding how horrifying Wayno would be if he existed in our reality. Carter mostly gets around this by keeping Wayno’s killings offscreen, a choice that doesn’t really work as well as he might hope, but it’s always implicit in the story that this guy is a warped and twisted individual who needs to be stopped. What’s fascinating to me about all of this is that Burt (as the character was apparently referred to in the script) can’t keep Wayno from doing what he does. All he can do is point to the patterns that are laid out in front of everybody to grab onto and hope that somebody—other than Wayno, of course—figures it all out. There’s a weary exasperation to this episode that fits well with the season’s late-period form.

“Improbable” feels like much of this season’s attempts to get the audience on board with the character of Monica Reyes. Like most of those other episodes, I don’t know if it really works, but I find the character more approachable when the show plays her for humor than when it’s trying to get us involved in her mystical, spiritual side. In particular, I liked having the show toss her and Scully into a story together, as the two played well off of each other, and I loved that sequence where Reyes, having discerned that there’s a serial killer via the use of numerology then having had Scully realize the killer’s victims all share the same bruising pattern, is asked by others at the FBI what they should be looking for when hunting down the madman. At this point, she launches into a bunch of numerology crap, and everybody stares at her. It’s the kind of thing Mulder used to do, but when he did it, it always had the pitched frenzy of the conspiracy thriller. When Reyes does it, it’s much gentler, much more funny, and I think that’s the right card to play. To run for a long while without its original two agents, X-Files would have had to find a tone that would have worked with the new agents. I think “Improbable” comes close, and it’s the most I’ve ever liked Reyes on the show.

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Much of that, however, might come from the guest stars. I’ll have more to say about Reynolds in a bit, so let’s talk first about Ellen Greene and Ray McKinnon, who also bolster this episode substantially. As Vicki, the numerology expert whose path ends up unfortunately crossing with Wayno, Greene has a small part, but she makes it count. The victims on this show that it tries to get us interested in are hit and miss, but Greene gives Vicki the feel of a woman who’s been at this a long time but still hasn’t graduated out of her tiny office. She’s a fun little character, and when her time comes, it’s surprising how much the show makes it count. Meanwhile, McKinnon, perhaps better known these days for Deadwood and creating Rectify, takes a rather thankless role—the serial killer attempting to complete his “pattern”—and imbues it with a surprising amount of life, especially when he’s playing off Reynolds.

But the reason to watch this episode is to see Burt Reynolds play God, then see what the show does with the idea of God walking among His creations, begging them at length not to do any stupid shit but always knowing they will. The scene that sells me on “Improbable” every time is the one where Reyes, Scully, and Burt/God play checkers in that parking garage. It’s never quite explained why He’s there. Ostensibly, He wants to play checkers with a friend. But I like to think of it as the one time He’s able to intervene, because there are two women there who are capable of listening to Him. It would be nice to believe there’s some sort of underlying pattern to everything, a system of numbers and figures that would allow the world to make sense. In many ways, that’s an idea that works perfectly with The X-Files, and I love the way these sequences reduce all of fate and free will not to an eternal struggle but to a symbiosis. We have the free will to realize where fate is taking us, and then, maybe, we’ll figure out how to change it.

If “Improbable” does something beautifully, then it’s engage with this point of its own philosophy. Early in the episode, God tells Wayno that the secret to three card monte is to “make better choices,” and it’s not hard to see all of the time He spends getting Scully and Reyes to see what’s really happening as Him giving them a little shove until they, too, can look more fully at the truth before them. The episode replaces “The Truth Is Out There” with the Italian for “God Loves You,” and, ultimately, that’s what love is in the world of The X-Files: poking and prodding at someone until they stop lying to themselves about what’s really going on.

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Stray observations:

  • I normally don’t really abide by the convention of capitalizing pronouns that refer to God, but when He’s played by Burt Reynolds, I’ll make an exception.
  • My major complaint with the episode is that Doggett just sort of randomly saves the day at the end. I get that he spotted something in the killer’s pattern that nobody else did (i.e. that the number could be a nine just as easily as a six), but it really felt like a deus ex machina. And if you’re going to have one of those in this episode (which would be totally appropriate!), you’ve got the real article right there.
  • The final shot of the village that lays out to reveal Burt/God’s face is rather lovely. Good work by the special effects team at a time when it wasn’t always doing its best work (as we’ll see in the next episode).
  • Another joke I liked: The FBI profilers tell Doggett whom he should be looking for, and it’s the same description that every major serial killer in the United States has ever had. Start looking!
  • I am not enough of an expert in numerology to know if the results for Doggett and Scully are correct, but I particularly liked Scully’s and like to think it was foreshadowing Gillian Anderson leaving the show in a potential 10th or 11th season.

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“Scary Monsters” (season 9, episode 14; originally aired 4/14/2002)

In which I made this

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

The fan surrogate character is a tricky one to make work on a television show. It’s easy to see why a long-running show would enjoy having a character pop up who can allow the series to poke a little fun at the fanbase’s obsession with the program. But it’s also easy to have this tip over into the show seeming like it’s being downright hostile to the people who kept it on the air in the first place. “Scary Monsters” is a lot of things—and most notably among those a mess—but in the character of Leyla Harrison, it feels like the show went back to the well once too often and didn’t return with anything remarkably worthwhile. Leyla, who first appeared in season eight’s “Alone,” is Mulder and Scully’s biggest fan, and where she was a good fan in “Alone,” simply using her love for the two to be reverential, she’s a “bad” fan in “Scary Monsters,” where she mostly just complains about being stuck with Reyes and Doggett, instead of her beloved original pairing.

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It’s easy to see why the writers would use Leyla to tweak the fanbase in such a way, but before we get to all of that (and the show’s ultimate hypocrisy in that regard), we have to look at the facts of “Scary Monsters’” production. See, “Scary Monsters” was the episode during which the cast and crew of The X-Files found out they had been canceled. To be sure, it likely would have been possible to read the writing on the wall for most of the ninth season—which had ratings struggles—but The X-Files was such an institution at that point that it wouldn’t have been inconceivable for the show to run for another couple of seasons, even if it seemed to be running on fumes. Instead, Fox backed its new, hot drama, 24, and at least the network gave Carter and company a chance to craft a wrap-up story by announcing the end early. (It was also likely a mutual decision, as Carter seemed largely tired of doing the show at that point, while Fox was understandably reluctant to do it with anyone else.)

Now, suggesting that the cancellation led directly to the way Leyla acts in this episode would be inaccurate. After all, the script for this episode was written well before production, and even if the writers would have seen the writing on the wall as well as anyone, they wouldn’t have known so specifically as to turn this one into a direct hit at the show’s end. (In its own way, however, the show would do this in its last ever monster-of-the-week episode.) But to hear episode writer Thomas Schnauz tell it, “Scary Monsters” was written in a bit of a blind panic, so it wasn’t unthinkable that the episode would have some of the general sentiment of the room at the time creep in to what was going on within it. And the writers surely would have known how much the ratings had tapered off, and they surely would have gone seeking out what had caused that. And the easiest people to look at were the fans, particularly the ones who didn’t love Doggett and Reyes as much as Mulder and Scully, no matter the fact these fans were the ones still watching. So they lashed out.

What’s a little ridiculous about this is something that I pointed out back when writing about “Trust No 1”: The show itself is still weirdly obsessed with Mulder and Scully, to the degree that whenever it pays more attention to Doggett and Reyes, it often feels like it has to make a meta-comment about the whole thing. If “Improbable” was an attempt to improve the Reyes character by softening her just a tad with some humor, then “Scary Monsters” is an attempt to make Doggett seem like just as much of a hero as Mulder was, by having his skepticism be the only thing that can save the team stranded up in that mountain home. The problem with this is that it sometimes seems this is all the show has been doing with Doggett for two seasons. It constantly reminds the audience that he’s just as cool as Mulder ever was, all the while refusing too often to just let him be his own guy (when he’s a pretty solid character in his own right).

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“Scary Monsters” is engaged with the series’ history in other ways, too. For one thing, the idea of the “monster of the week” is almost literally the, well, monster of the week this week, as pretty much anything little Tommy Conlon can imagine up can be hallucinated by others. (He mostly uses this to come up with giant bugs, which isn’t wry self-commentary but probably should be.) Leyla, of course, is intimately familiar with the history of Mulder and Scully and even references “DPO” directly, while Doggett eventually shows he’s become familiar with the history of his former partner and her former partner by bringing up “Field Trip.” Hell, when the kid shows Reyes his pictures, he says, “I made this,” and the oldest scary story in the book is the monster under the bed, which this episode makes quite literal. (And by making Tommy the true culprit, the show feels even more engaged with an older strain in horror, that of the evil child.) There are a lot of fun Easter eggs here, if you’re willing to dig around for them a bit, but Easter eggs do not an episode make. Neither does the mystery, which feels depressingly rote.

Ultimately, what brings “Scary Monsters” down isn’t that it’s too mean to fans (while refusing to engage with the show’s own Mulder obsession) or even that it’s too self-involved. The late-period episode that plays around with a show’s entire history is a standard in series that run this long, and this could have been a good one with a little tweaking. No, ultimately, the problem is that this scenario just isn’t interesting enough. The characters are stranded in the middle of nowhere, with a creature (or creatures) that could kill them at any time. The true culprit is someone you won’t expect right away. The details of the deaths—people killing themselves to get at something they believe is inside of them, say—are gruesome. The whole formula feels tired and wheezy at this point, and when we started the episode, my wife (who’d never seen it before) guessed just about everything that was going to happen in the plot within the first five minutes. The audience didn’t connect with Doggett and Reyes not because it was too attached to Mulder and Scully. No, the audience didn’t connect with Doggett and Reyes because it was longing for a time when the show didn’t seem like it was repeating its greatest hits over and over again.

Stray observations:

  • My wife’s question: If Tommy is only making people imagine that they’re infested with bugs, then how does he disable the agents’ car? I think it’s theoretically possible for them to think the car was hurt by the bug, but wouldn’t it still run? He can’t make them hallucinate that the car won’t start, right?
  • There are some pretty good ghoulish laughs in this episode. I especially liked when Scully was about to autopsy the cat that Gabe brought to her door in the middle of the night, using her kitchen tools and wearing an apron that read “Something Smells GOOOOOD.”
  • I did like the snowbound setting of this one, and it made me wonder why the show didn’t do more stories where the characters were trapped by a snowstorm. It made me wonder if an episode where Scully and Mulder went full Shining could have been a lot of fun. Can’t you see Mulder having a brief Jack Torrance episode? Except you know that Scully would know just how to bring him back from the brink, unlike Wendy.

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Next week: Just four weeks left! Zack finds out whatever happened to the Lone Gunmen in “Jump The Shark,” then finds out what’s up with “William.”