First, some bona fides.
The X-Files is pretty much the reason I'm a TV fan, critic, or aficionado. Before it, I hadn't seen a lot of TV outside of classic sitcoms and Picket Fences (a drama I was weirdly obsessed with). After it, I thought the medium was capable of great things, and I was obsessed with seeing it pull those great things off. I had an X-Files poster hanging in my high school bedroom and wore a T-shirt advertising the show at my small-town high school where only one other teacher even knew what the hell I was talking about. I bought all of the episode guides and read them so obsessively that even now I can recall whole minute details about episodes I haven't seen in over a decade. (I was reading over Zack's final recap for this series from 2008, for the episode "Red Museum," and nonchalantly thought to myself, "Well, the reason the episode is oddly structured is because it was supposed to be a Picket Fences crossover." MOST PEOPLE DON'T KNOW THIS POINTLESS CRAP.)
When the first movie didn't come to the closest movie theater - over 40 miles away! - I made a special trip to one over 90 miles away just to see the thing. I used to spend long nights as a teenager writing pretty terrible television pilots that were essentially straight high school dramas with weirdness creeping around the edges, simply because I couldn't stop thinking about the show long enough to write honestly about my own life. My longest-lasting high school girlfriend (who lived in another town entirely) and I got together in large part because we both liked the show. (She also introduced me to The Sopranos, so there's that.)When my parents wouldn't let me tell people in the chat rooms I checked out when we first got the Internet my real name, I told them my name was, ugh, Fox. It got into my blood in a way that very few shows have since, a perfect combination of who I was at the time and what I wanted out of my entertainment.
I was hard core for this show. I memorized the names of the writers and directors and production team members and had a pretty good sense of what it would mean that, say, Frank Spotnitz was writing an episode and not Vince Gilligan. I still remember the first episode I ever saw of the show - "The Calusari" - and the weird sense that this was a show made just for me, even as I put the show down and didn't pick it up again until late season three (the second episode I saw was "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'" about which more later this summer). The dorkiest of my senior pictures - and it is a sign of my trust in you that I am telling you of this at all - featured me standing in front of a wall plastered with quotes I found influential and one of them was from The X-Files.
So, yeah, when people started agitating for more coverage of this show in the post announcing the TV Club Classic summer schedule, Zack Handlen and I felt your pain. And we decided to tag team the show, getting through the rest of season two and all of season three this summer, one Sunday at a time. (And we find it somehow fitting that the write-ups of the show have moved from Fridays to Sundays.) And if the feature goes over well and you guys keep checking it out, we'll hopefully be here for many summers to come (perhaps even with thoughts on other shows produced by Chris Carter and his ever-expanding band of TV writers).
But I picked a good trio of episodes to come in on, because they remind me that when The X-Files was at its best, it was very good at being many different kinds of shows, depending on which episode you watched that week, including everything from sweetly nostalgic monster stories to outright terrifying episodes unlike little else that had been on TV to that time or has been on since. Or they could be outright awful, as a swing for the fences turned into an outright dud. Somehow, I pulled three very different episodes, including two smashing ones, and it's been fun to rewatch them and see how they have and haven't dated. Starting with …
"Irresistible" (Season 2, Episode 13)
One of the things largely unremarked upon in the past decade or so is how directly CBS' crime dramas are straight ripoffs of The X-Files without the paranormal elements. Virtually everything about CSI, which became the template for everything CBS made thereafter, was borrowed from The X-Files, from the muted lighting to the obsession with flashy science to the gallows humor. Watching a show like Criminal Minds today is like watching an episode of The X-Files sans humor and anything else that originally made this show appealing. And watching "Irresistible" is like watching an episode of a CBS drama a decade earlier, only done better.
In some ways, "Irresistible," one of Chris Carter's periodic attempts to really push both director David Nutter and star Gillian Anderson, feels like a dry run for what he would do on Millennium. It's one of the few episodes of The X-Files where there's no good argument for paranormal forces at play, and despite some kinda goofy moments when head villain Donnie Pfaster seems to shapeshift, what makes it so terrifying is its restraint. This episode was originally going to make Pfaster a necrophiliac, but Fox wasn't cool with that, so he instead became a man who was obsessed with women's hair and fingernails and was eventually willing to kill for them, which is somehow much, much creepier.
There's a lot of happenstance involved in the storytelling here, but I'm largely OK with that, as the things that grow out of that happenstance are well worth watching. The reasons that bring Mulder and Scully to Minneapolis (portrayed here - and unintentionally hilariously so - as something only a few steps above Mayberry) right before Donnie just happens to start killing people are pretty sketchy. The way Donnie just happens to see Scully in the jail and just has to have a little of that red, red hair (and, really, who can blame him?) is similarly strained. And I might have liked it a little better if Scully's escape from Donnie didn't end with her wimping out at the last moment so Mulder could save the day (a very '90s affectation that is the thing that feels, weirdly, the most dated about this episode). Furthermore, the shape-shifting is pretty silly, almost feeling like an attempt to make sure something vaguely paranormal is in the episode so the fans don't get bored with what is ultimately a very good episode. (My obsessive X-Files brain keeps reminding me that the victims of Jeffrey Dahmer really did say he shape-shifted, and Carter based these moments on that, but it still feels like one element too many in the horror brew here.)
But, as mentioned, most of what we get here is very, very good indeed. For starters, Donnie, as portrayed by Nick Chinlund (who would reprise the role in a much later episode of the show) is the perfect embodiment of a man who is not necessarily suspicious but is still just off enough to clue in anyone he talks to for more than a minute that he's not quite right. When it's doing legitimately creepy episodes like this one, The X-Files is at its best if it can capture that feeling of racing past the spooky old house with the guy who only comes out once per week to collect his mail, hoping he doesn't catch you. "Irresistible" captures that in spades, starting with Chinlund's performance but building to the way we see the inside of his apartment or the way his mother's house - where he keeps Scully imprisoned - looms in the frame like something out of a John Carpenter movie.
Bruce Weitz as the FBI agent who brings Mulder and Scully to Minnesota is a little broad for the part he's asked to play, but he and David Duchovny are basically asked to play supporting roles to Anderson here anyway. (It is always nice to see Mulder break out his legitimate crime solving skills in profiling the still uncaught Pfaster here, however.) One of the things that's been easiest to forget about this show over the years is, I think, how the acting in it was always top-notch, right down to the day players, and how Anderson anchored the show with her growing sense that the world she knew was sliding more and more off-kilter. It became cliche for Carter to put Scully in danger - hell, it was already cliche here - especially since she was usually so good at taking care of herself and since it was hard to wring legitimate suspense out of the scenario. But damned if it didn't still work at some level. As much as Mulder is the show's sense of purpose, Scully is its heart, and any time she's in danger, it feels like the show itself is about to be stabbed through the heart.
"Irresistible" is very much of a period where the show is testing just how elastic its premise is, just how far it can push the monster of the week stuff. As time pulls farther and farther away from the show's time on the airwaves, the monster of the week stuff tends to hold up better than the big myth-arc episodes (though the myth-arc episodes from the second and third seasons are pretty good), and part of the reason for that is the fact that the show pushed itself in these season two episodes, realizing it could be a serial killer thriller (something the show returned to a few times) or a monster movie or an outright comedy. It's often hard for horror, especially TV horror, to maintain its punch over time, but "Irresistible" is still legitimately scary, a sign of a show that was pushing itself in new and interesting directions.
- Signs of the times: Scully says she's going to "modem" evidence over to Mulder on her brief sojourn to D.C. Agent Bochs attacks the keyboard of that computer like he's never used a keyboard in his life.
- Mark Snow's score has been stuck in my head for the last 15 years, I think. That said, it's unsettling to realize just how over-present it is in this show, especially when it's so deliberately minimalist. There are points in this episode where it becomes almost laughable how much the show leans on it.
- The X-Files really benefited from entering the public consciousness roughly around the same time the Internet did. Watching it again has reminded me of the many hours I spent happily trolling fan reviews and forums. In particular, it reminded me of how much I enjoyed the work of Autumn Tysko and Sarah Stegall at the time, and I link to both as a reminder of fan reaction to the show at the time. Also, if you look around these posts long enough, you'll eventually find some of my earliest critical writing on TV. It's not very good.
- Minneapolis: Where you can't get any cops out on a weekend night, but there's a flourishing red light district.
- Seeing this episode reminded me of how fans used to try to work out the timeline the show takes place in. Scully has time to take what seems like a full week's trip back to D.C. while Mulder stays on in Minneapolis. Right.
- I do believe that the Vikings receiver catching that pass is Cris Carter. Heh.
"Die Hand Die Verletzt" (Season 2, Episode 14)
This is a good example of the show heading in a different direction but still largely feeling like the same show. Where "Irresistible" was legitimately unsettling and creepy, "Die Hand" is good, old-fashioned FUN creepy. Most of this is so implausible that Mulder seems briefly confused as to how it could be happening, and while Mulder and Scully eventually just become passengers in the story, shuttled from event to event, the events they're visiting are mostly fun and well-acted by a very good cast of guest stars (including the creepy sister from season two of 24 and James VanderBeek's ex-wife). This is an X-Files take on occult weirdness, and it pulls off all of the expected story beats with aplomb.
The tone for this episode is set ably by the pre-credits teaser. The PTA is talking about their concern over the fact that the drama instructor is planning to have his kids perform Jesus Christ, Superstar, a work the members aren't horribly comfortable with their kids performing. (If he wants to attract youth, they suggest, he could try Grease or Annie, even if Grease has the F word.) Then, in a neat inversion of what the show has been setting up, they light red candles and begin to pray to the lords of darkness, the camera pulling back until all we can see is a glowing light creeping around the edges of a closed door, suggesting as much as showing.
"Die Hand" uses doors very well. There's the door at the beginning. There's the door Mrs. Paddock locks herself behind when she kills others. There's the door to the basement Mr. Ausbury is locked in, the one that clicks open and permits a snake to enter and devour him. There's that name - Paddock - which means an enclosure. There's the whole notion of opening a door to another world and letting an ancient evil into our own. All of these doors, all somehow unable to keep evil at bay. Yep, we're in a monster movie, and the monsters aren't going to let a little wood stand in the way of devouring us whole.
I remember not thinking very much of "Die Hand, Die Verletzt" when it first aired or on subsequent viewings as a teen, but on this viewing, I very much felt it get under my skin in that good, goosebumpy way. I suspect what I was reacting to as a teenager is exactly what I liked about the episode now. Mulder and Scully, usually so on top of things, are largely unable to fight back against the dark forces at work in this town, and that means that they get caught up in them and are nearly sacrificed themselves.
Now, the notion that Mulder and Scully could be slaughtered in what appears to be a locker room shower is ridiculous (though the frenzy the PTA attacks them with is well done), but it also feels like a logical culmination of everything that's come before in this episode. I mean, for God's sake, there was a pig fetus that came to life and screamed at a girl. There was that surprisingly well-acted confession of Satanic misdoings from Shannon. There was the way Mrs. Paddock's eyes shifted into those of a snake. Sacrificial showers? I'll roll with it, even if I never once bought that Mulder and Scully were going to be killed and hoped they had found their own way out of the predicament (or were at least heading toward one before Mrs. Paddock took over).
The best notion in this episode is one that comes up in the very final shot. Mulder and Scully, drenched from their time in the shower and freaked out by the way the PTA members fell victim to a murder-suicide that was far from self-inflicted, stand alone in the biology lab, the lights of the school abruptly coming back on to reveal the humdrum normality of the lab under fluorescent lights. Scratched across the blackboard behind them are the words "GOODBYE. IT'S BEEN NICE WORKING WITH YOU." in a neat cursive, and the final sick joke of the episode becomes clear. Mulder and Scully were pawns, yes, but pawns of an emissary of the Devil himself, who used them to push the PTA against each other, the better to rid himself of these unfaithful servants. (Technically, these are writer-producers Glen Morgan and James Wong's final words to the crew of the show, but they double nicely.) It's rare that Mulder and Scully completely get played, but they do here, and it makes the episode an even better sick joke.
Morgan and Wong, who may have been the most important producers in the show's history not named Chris Carter, are famous for writing episodes I like to call "Halloween episodes," the kinds of shows that you could pop in in late October and find the perfect accompaniment to the rattling branches outside. "Squeeze" and "Tooms" are theirs, and so is this one and season four's "Home." The two left the show for a time after this episode, heading off to produce the short-lived Space: Above and Beyond (which Zack and I may try to work short recaps of into the season three write-ups, though we are not superhuman) and returning in season four to both work on this and Millennium. But I can't think of a better farewell episode than "Die Hand," which combines all of the things the two love into one big stew. There's the sick sense of humor. There are the outright left turns into demented darkness. There are the horrifying visuals. And there's always the sense that the darkness is only barely kept at bay, that even Mulder and Scully would be powerless should it be unleashed and sweep across the land.
- I was legitimately surprised by how much I enjoyed this episode this time around. A lot of the credit is due to the guest cast, which somehow walks the line between goofy and spooky exceptionally well. Every time I think the PTA characters are too broad, Morgan and Wong undercut them nicely with a nasty moment or two.
- Sign of the times: Scully seems excited that more information on Satanic cults can be found on the Internet.
- I remember when we watched this episode on video (from those three-packs of six episodes Fox used to put out every so often, which I purchased religiously), this episode wigged my sister out for at least a few days.
- I was not paying close enough attention to my DVD to know if the old messages of support for the San Diego Chargers in Morgan and Wong's writing credit names still exist.
- It's possible this episode is just directly up my alley. With my religious upbringing, the threat of murderous Satanic cults was always on the breath of assorted speakers that came to my podunk fundamentalist church.
"Fresh Bones" (season 2, episode 15)
I had a memory of this episode being absolutely execrable, but now that I look at it, it's merely standard-variety mediocre. It's actually a pretty good episode of television, combining some spooky ideas with some contemplation of the cost of having a refugee community in a nation that isn't sure it wants to deal with that problem just yet, on both the refugees and those tasked to watch over them. There are - again - solid guest star performances and nice work from Duchovny and Anderson. There's even a creeping sense of paranoia of the government locking a bunch of people up and making them disappear that feels downright prescient. As an episode of television, this is a cut above most of what was on the tube at the time. As an episode of The X-Files, though, it's a bit of a mess.
Let's start with the veritable panoply of great, creepy images. Someone's fingers coming out of Scully's bloodied hand and grabbing for her throat. Wharton trapped in the casket beneath the earth at the end (a personal top horror of mine). The writhing bowl of maggot breakfast cereal. The weird chaos of the entire final confrontation in the cemetery. That shot of the corpse in Mulder's hotel room tub, surrounded by blood. There's a great feeling of grand Guignol to this episode, a bloody sense that anything could happen, and it would all be terrifying yet make a twisted kind of sense. I'm not sure the horror plot completely hangs together here, as the conflict that brews between Wharton and Beauvais feels just a little too complicated to ever make complete sense. But it's certainly filled with arresting images.
I think the problem here stems from just trying to cram too much in to the episode. It ends up feeling a little shallow when it should be digging deeper and deeper. Voodoo is a potentially good idea for an X-Files episode. Zombies are a potentially good idea for an X-Files episode. The clash between refugees with different folk religions and the American military is a potentially good idea for an X-Files episode. But all three of them in the same episode ends up making everything that happens feel like we don't ever get to spend enough time in the midst of it. The best X-Files episodes linger in mood. "Fresh Bones" never takes a spare moment to really let the tension seep into your bones.
I can see how the producers got to this point. Zombies are one of the classic monster types that X-Files hadn't gotten to just yet, and zombies lead pretty easily to voodoo, if you're not going to go the George Romero route. From there, it's a hop, skip, and a jump to Haiti, and when Americans think of Haiti (at least in the '90s), they often think of Haitian refugees. It's a combination of elements that seems like it should fit together perfectly, and they certainly fit together logically. But all three of them deserve some amount of attention paid to them, and with the attempt to graft on the usual Mulder and Scully investigation scenes and the scenes detailing the conflict between Wharton and Beauvais, the episode ends up feeling overstuffed, too full of things that should add up to a cohesive whole but never do.
It's not for lack of trying, either. "Fresh Bones" even brings in the elusive Mr. X to talk at Mulder about how the government is going to disappear the whole camp. The show usually only brings in Mulder and Scully's informants when it wants us to pay particular attention to a story point, whether that's because it will come up again in the mythology or because the show is really trying to say something. It really does seem like "Fresh Bones" would like to be a more political episode of The X-Files, but with all of the competition between the political stuff and the voodoo stuff, the episode ends up feeling like it can't decide what it wants to be. Everything here, as mentioned, has the potential to be a great episode. But the parts are greater than the whole, and that feels unbalanced.
Leave it to the guest cast, then, to really make some of this work better than it has any right to. Daniel Benzali gives Wharton just the right notes of authoritative menace, a note he played to perfection on Murder One. Internet favorite Callum Keith Rennie has one of his earlier roles here as a decidedly odd groundskeeper. The lesser known Bruce Young makes Beauvais into a figure of mystery and suspicion. Hell, you even have Curtis from 24 (Roger Cross) growling in a tiny supporting role. In the years since it went off the air, not a lot has been written about how one of the things that made The X-Files work was its ability to immediately create people you cared about and cast just the right actors to play them. The base and camp on "Fresh Bones" feels like a nicely realized community, and that's impressive for such an overstuffed episode.
Still, the biggest problems here are the lack of focus and the chaotic pacing. The episode rumbles along in first gear for about three-quarters of its running time and then abruptly shifts into high gear at the end, moving toward an apocalyptic finish that doesn't feel wholly earned. There's good stuff in "Fresh Bones," but the bulk of the episode disappoints. There are the seeds for four or five really great episodes here, but the show instead stuffs all of those seeds in the same episode and seems disappointed when nothing comes out of them.
- Mulder chasing the weird ghost child thing and finding only a cat down onto the docks is a pretty nicely filmed sequence.
- Props to Anderson, who really sold her freakout in the car after Mulder wanders off into the cemetery.
- Things The X-Files has trouble doing: Making Vancouver look like the South, particularly when everyone's breath is clearly visible.
Next week on The X-Files: Zack Handlen returns, and so do the aliens. It's time for "Colony" and "End Game." Also, "Fearful Symmetry," which tries to make the zoo scary.