"Kaddish" (Season 4, Episode 15)
In Which Tradition! Takes Its Toll
Despite her diagnosis in "Memento Mori," there is no overt reference to Scully's cancer in "Kaddish." She seems healthy enough here, and there are no hospital visits, no murderous doctors, no deals made in shadowy rooms. Conceptually, this episode follows the MotW structure that's been an established part of the series since the first season. Unfortunate, unexplained events occur; Mulder and Scully are called in to investigate; they run around a bit while more unfortunate events unfolds, Mulder jabbers some crazy theories which Scully tries, unsuccessfully, to dismiss (honestly, her "skepticism" is becoming less about applying common sense to madness, and more just arguing for arguing's sake. I like how she casually suggests that someone some "got hold" of a dead man's fingerprints to place them at a crime scene, as though that sort of thing was happening all the time); and there's a final confrontation, in which the threat is handled in some fashion, and everyone moves on without any definitive proof that anything odd happened at all, apart from the wreck of their lives. This is all so routine now that I know I've described before in these reviews. Multiple times, in fact. There are some nice touches here by the end, but apart from Scully bringing the case to Mulder's attention (which has happened before, but not very often), nothing either of our heroes do is any different than anything they might have done at any point in the show's run.
And yet the episode feel appropriate, doesn't it? It's the subject matter, partly. A Hasidic Jew is murdered by a group of White Power thugs; his fiancee brings him back to life as a golem in order to complete their engagement, but the FrankenIsaac first has to get revenge on those that did him wrong. Which is where Mulder and Scully come in. We've had dead people enacting post-mortem justice before, but this entire episode is infused with death and mourning, from the funeral that introduces us to Ariel and her father, to the hushed lighting that pervades seemingly every scene. This is not one of your wackier X-Files; there's precious little comedy to be found, outside of a few quips from Mulder. Occasionally this works to "Kaddish"'s detriment, as its take on Anti-Semitism feels airless and heavy-handed. That's not to say we could've used more of The Lighter Side Of Hate, but the villains here are as soulless as the monster that tracks them, which kills a fair bit of the drama. Still, though, the melancholy—that feeling of something precious irrevocably lost—permeates the episode's best moments, and is a tacit, but effective, reminder of Scully's predicament.
That's one of the interesting effects of shows with this kind of loose continuity; we have to do our own homework. Like the way "Never Again"'s rescheduling to run after "Leonard Betts" instead of before, "Kaddish" gains a certain amount of resonance because of context, but it's context that's only available to those of us who've been watching all along. When I hear Ariel lamenting what she's lost, and talking about the life she might've had with Isaac, I've got Scully's coughing and bloody nose playing in the back of my head. Somebody who just happened across the episode, either in reruns or as a casual fan when it first aired, would have no reason to consider any of this. It's kind of fun, in a way, like being part of a club. Heavily serialized drama requires viewers to commit for the long run, or else lose key plot details. This is more like speaking in a code that may or may not even be a code. I don't even know if the connections I'm making were intentional, but they still give an extra, somewhat ephemeral weight to every scene. Isaac becomes a golem, and a golem is "form without spirit," Mulder puts it. So I wonder what kind of golem Scully might turn into, because it isn't hard to imagine Mulder going a little crazy after she dies. Would she track down the Cancer Man for good and for all?
(Seriously, you can't tell me that wouldn't be awesome. Dark as hell, but awesome. Scully finally succumbs to the disease implanted in her by the shadow forces Mulder's been chasing his whole life. Mulder cracks up, searches over past X-Files for some way to bring her back, not caring if it's wrong, not caring what the consequences might be, and he finds this case. Sure, Scully isn't Jewish; sure, Isaac wasn't really controllable; sure, it's meddling with forces beyond comprehension. But Scully is dead, so who cares? He builds the mud-body, he says the words, invokes the symbols, and waits for news. Days pass. Reports trickle in—powerful men are found dead in their homes, strangled, security guards ignorant as to the cause. Mulder pretends to track the cases, but while he has no interest in solving them—for once, he already knows the truth—he's starting to regret his rash decision. He misses his friend, but he can't find her, and who knows how far she'll go? He comes home one night to find Cancer Man in his apartment, to beg for a clemency that is beyond Mulder's power to give. Ariel understood the customs of her people, and she was motivated by love. Love was on Mulder's mind, but it was confused with despair and hate and something akin to madness. He can't let go, whatever the cost; he's proven this a hundred times before. Senators fall, CEOs, foreign dignitaries, and somebody, somewhere, gets nervous and starts flipping switches. The war that has long been feared begins. Cancer Man hangs himself—the sort of hanging that leaves bruises all over the body and a permanent look of nicotine-stained terror on his features. Mulder hides in his apartment, watching the cable news, checking the paper, keeping the shades drawn. The Lone Gunmen are assassinated. Skinner calls, furious, and Mulder tells him to go to hell. Then bombs drop and you can hear the little gray footsteps on the streets outside, the screaming that fades into a sigh, the explosions and bursts of green and yellow light. The building shakes but does not fall. Finally, quiet, for a long time. The news stops coming in. The power goes out. And at three a.m. one endless dull morning, someone comes down the hall to Mulder's room and knocks on the door. Because of course she'd knock; even dead, she'd knock. Mulder checks through the peephole, sees a flash of red, and in the second before he opens the door, maybe some part of him wonders if it was worth it. If it was worth the end of the world to have her back. But he doesn't wonder for long.)
"Kaddish" isn't amazing, sad to say; if it was amazing, I'm not sure I would've just spent a paragraph imagining some of the grimmest X-Files fan fiction ever. Much of this episode is a bit too conventional, at least for my tastes. The Tales From The Crypt-style "justice from the beyond the grave" plot has been done so often it's hard to get too worked up watching Isaac track down and finish off his attackers, and we're never given much reason to care if he's stopped. The bad guys are, like I said, one note. Mulder and Scully's confrontation with a creep who prints delightful pamphlets like "How AIDS Was Created By The Jews" is too much like a lecture about the dangers of hate. (Check out Mulder's "one-up" moment when the creep makes a snide comment about resurrection: "A Jew pulled it off 2000 years ago," our hero says, and then he nods, like, "Aw yeah, suck on that, Mr. Hater-ade.") I don't need to sympathize with horrible racist jag-offs, but I also don't need to be told that Antisemitism is a bad thing. I'm pretty sure I can connect those dots on my own.
Social commentary on this show tends to be broad, but the timing on this one just feels odd. Are Hasidic Jews this harshly persecuted in American cities these days? I'm sure there are assholes all over, but the episode also makes it a point to mention that the police don't seem to be doing a whole lot in the wake of Isaac's death. Are Ariel and the sufferings of her people being ignored by the government, much the same way that the immigrants from "Teliko" are marginalized? I suppose there's a point to be made there, about a government so fixated on its own bizarre conspiracies that it ignores the needs of its people. Or maybe we're more interested here in how hate echoes across generations. Ariel's father, Jacob, is a Holocaust survivor (it used to seem like every Jewish person of a certain age on television was contractually obligated to be a Holocaust survivor), and his experiences made him very protective of what family he had left, sometimes to extreme degrees. So maybe this is about how acts of great horror and violence can turn people into living golems, forever driven by a dead past.
None of this feels particularly deep, though, and no matter what I might try and read into "Kaddish," it's the sort of episode that works best if you enjoy it for its style and presentation without getting too caught up in the script. The revelation that Ariel is responsible for Isaac's golem is a good one, and their final confrontation in the temple is one of the more beautiful sequences I've seen on the show. We don't really know Ariel very well, and her relationship with the dead man is more a fairy tale than anything specific enough to be invested in. Yet the last shots, of them completing their vows, of their embrace, of her rubbing off the symbol on Isaac's hand, finally ending his unlife, are haunting, and powerful. At this point in the show's run, The X-Files has gotten very good at making even the weakest scripts look cinematic on screen, and "Kaddish" (whose script is more mediocre than weak, I think) benefits greatly from this. It's also a fine twist: the Isaac golem wasn't created for revenge. It's just that evil has a way of turning us all into machines. It's a lesson Mulder would do well to learn.
- Another point in the episode's favor: we don't see the golem for a long time, and our first real glimpse of him is on grainy security video. He's actually not that monstrous looking, but the build-up makes him seem much more impressive.
- Ariel claims, "It was just a wish." A wish that had her in the cemetery at midnight, in a rainstorm, building a mud model of her dead love. I usually do not wish this hard.
"Sacrament" (Season 1, Episode 15)
In Which We Meet Frank's Brother, And Jordan May Be Psychic
This isn't an original observation, but it must suck to be related to a protagonist. Or to be married to them, or friendly with them. Generally, heroes don't die till their story ends, but a writer needs some way to convince their audience that the stakes are high. So bring out the wife or the brother or the high school chum, or the co-worker, or that guy who sits three pews down in church. Torture them, brutalize them, put a bullet in their brains, by all means, because when the wife or the buddy or the bro dies, you've got some solid drama on your hands, but you haven't killed your story. Watch enough genre shows, and it's hard not to wince when some random relative shows up on screen. It's like Chekov's damn gun in the first act. Once the emotional connection is established, sooner or later, something's bound to go off.
It doesn't take very long for that something to strike in "Sacrament." Even for a show that prides itself in its utter lack of subtlety when it comes to depicting the battle between good and evil, the cold open here is still sort of hilarious. See, Frank Black has a brother, Tom. (Has Tom been mentioned before?) Tom has a beautiful wife and a brand new baby, and the cold open shows a priest baptizing the baby, while everybody stands around looking so wholesome and happy and loving you could just go crazy. Frank serves as godfather to the child, which, in light of later events, seems like a somewhat poor choice. (The family would probably have better luck changing their names and moving out of the country.) At the post-baptism party, Tom tells Catherine some childhood memories about Frank—who, apparently, was always a saint—while Frank watches Tom's wife, Helen, chatting with a stranger. Frank goes off to check on Jordan, who's crying in another room because "He's hurting her, Daddy!" Sorrow-sense tingling, Frank runs outside, to find Tom and Helen's baby in their car, but Helen gone. All that's left of her is a spot of blood on the baby's cheek.
It doesn't get much more Millennium than that, does it. A holy ceremony, invaded by terrifying evil. A crying child. A loving family, torn apart by outside forces on a sacred day. A rite—holy water on the baby's forehead—perverted into a sacrilege—the drop of Helen's blood. And Frank Black, somehow at the center of it all, running just a few steps behind.
The whole thing is terribly melodramatic, but that's fine; this is a show that traffics in melodrama the way highways traffic in cars. Millennium has been on a gratifyingly solid run for the past few weeks, and "Sacrament" continues that run. It's an intense hour with good plotting, and sharp character dynamics, and while it's stuck in the same gear this show has always been stuck on (ie, Everything Good In This World Will Be Raped And Murdered Forever If We Cease For An Instant In Our Perpetual Vigilance), it's enjoyable to see that gear done well. For most of the running time, I wasn't sure if Helen would be rescued—I hoped she would, as the death of a sister-in-law would be may a little too much grim for the show to handle right now, but I didn't know. Given how things normally turn out on, the longer it took for them to track down the killer, the more obvious it seemed that they'd find him burying her corpse. So, thankfully, the Rule of Protagonist's Secondary Relations actually worked in favor of suspense here. If it'd been Catherine or Jordan at risk, I would've known for sure they'd come out okay. Helen, though? She's new.
Plus, it's always nice to get some more of Frank's back-story. Last week it was an old nemesis; this week, it's Tom, who seems perfectly normal, despite being related to Lance Henriksen. (I would love to be related to Lance Henriksen. I imagine you spend most of your days fighting aliens, and then you're a vampire at night.) In fact, Tom is almost a little too normal. His relationship to Frank is important for plot-reasons, because we get to see his terror and mounting frustration first hand, and because it forces Frank to work apart from the regular police investigation. (Does the reasoning work here? Bletch tells Frank to back off, because they can't use any evidence Frank finds because of his relation to the victim. I guess Frank's special status at the department would already put him on tenuous ground, legal-system-wise, but it sort of comes off like forced conflict.) Tom gets increasingly nutty as Helen remains missing, eventually busting into Frank's office, stealing info on a suspect and Frank's gun, then threatening that suspect at gunpoint. It's something we've seen before, but it's a nice moment, and it works a bit better because of Tom's connection to Frank.
Otherwise, though, Tom just seems like some guy—he looks a little like an eyeglasses model for Lenscrafters. This has the neat effect of reinforcing just how slightly-to-the-left of everything Frank really is. If he and Tom both came out of the same home, and if Tom isn't all that driven to fight crime or receive psychic flashes from serial killers, then Frank's dedication isn't a result of childhood trauma. There's a scene after Helen's abduction, as it's become more likely that she's already dead, when Tom lashes out at his brother, saying none of this would've happened if Frank hadn't been around, if they hadn't flown across the country for the baptism. It's hard to dismiss his point—Frank is deeply rooted in an ugly, ugly world, no matter how many he pains he takes to keep his homelife separate. (There's a reason people keep mentioning those photos of Catherine and Jordan in this episode.) The temptation to simply stay as far away from him as possible, family or no, must be intense. He's like some kind of Typhoid Mary, only for murder. Even his Christmas cards must bring paper cuts.
And yet that's not entirely true. A connection to Frank Black brings certain dangers, but he's also one of the only people we've seen in this world who's capable of holding those dangers back. Helen's kidnapping may not have happened without Frank around, but it's certain she never would've been rescued, if it wasn't for Frank and his connection to the Millennium group. They accomplish what the police cannot. It's funny; on any other show, when Bletch tells Frank to stay away from the case because his judgment is clouded, I would've assumed that Bletch would be proven right in the long run. This sort of storyline is often used to demonstrate a hero's fallibility, but the exact opposite happens here. Frank remains as much a saint as ever, zeroing in on the kidnapper while the police run around chasing dead ends. Tom does the heavy-lifting when it comes to the display of impaired judgment. While it's great to see the series subvert our expectations, it leaves you wondering what the drama is inside Frank's head, and what it must be like to be so steadfast. Terribly lonely, most likely.
That puts a spin on Jordan's psychic vibrations as well. Her warnings can't be dismissed as coincidence, as she has episodes during key moments during the investigation; even more distressing, the poor kid is physically ill throughout Helen's kidnapping, as though trauma to those close to her affects her so intensely that it makes her sick. (Okay, there's no "as though" about it, that's pretty much what happens.) Given what we've seen of this world, I predict dark times ahead for Jordan if she keeps suffering other people's suffering. And Frank, given what he knows and what he is, must realize this as well. It's all very symbolic, of course—innocence is vulnerable, must be protected, and so forth—but considering how Frank turned out makes you wonder if Jordan might not be headed in the same direction he took. At the end of the episode, Helen is reunited with her family, and Frank takes Jordan for a walk up the street. She's feeling much better now, but there are dark times ahead. There are always dark times ahead, and the father will have to do his best to prepare his daughter for what she'll become. She looks very small standing next to him.
- Is this the first time a Millennium episode has graded higher than an X-Files episode? If it helps, the letter grades aren't intended to be directly comparable—it's more grading each episode in the context of the rest of its own series. But it still feels a little weird.
- Wow, I didn't even get into the actual killer in this review. It was a good one, too; the image of escaping from Hell, and the fact that the main suspect was forced to do what he did to procure victims for his father, worked together very well. The scene in the hardware store is one of the most effectively creepy scenes I've seen on the show, as it never went out of its way to tell us why it was creepy. Plus, it reminded me of this:
Next: Todd spends some time chasing an invisible assassin in "Unrequited," and makes new promises with "Covenant."