“Kill Switch” (season 5, episode 11)
In which the Internet comes alive (and has record album sales)
Remember 1998? Remember people freaking out about how the Internet was going to reach into all of our lives and change them utterly? Well, those people were right, right? Except the whole thing where reducing all human contact to electronic contact didn’t end up being a bad thing because we’re social animals, and we found ourselves seeking out the people we met online in real life. I’ve made far more friends online since I first got the Internet (in probably 1997) than I have offline. The first time I ever talked to the girl I would marry was online (although, to be fair, we met through a mutual friend, so the Internet terror people would find our match acceptable, I have to imagine). And when I moved to broad, isolating Southern California, I found people to hang out with online before I was really able to bond with my co-workers and fellow apartment denizens. The Internet didn’t remove human interaction in favor of finding your own tribe in virtual space; it made it easier to find your own tribe in the real world too.
“Kill Switch” is defiantly of the “The Internet will ruin our lives!” era without really being OF it. Sure, it’s got a killer computer virus that’s been evolving online and can take over DOD satellites to fire plasma beams at locations it believes the woman giving chase to it to be hiding. But it’s also a story where that woman eventually finds a kind of literal paradise within the labyrinthine walls of the Internet, a story where she essentially becomes immortal (and, in her first action, bugs the Lone Gunmen, of course). In many ways, it feels very, very dated, very much an episode about virtual reality and the Internet from the late ‘90s, but it overcomes that datedness by being just a ton of fun. Even with a guest star who could have been cast (and conceived) better, this is one of the more exciting, fast-paced X-Files episodes, and it’s a nice respite after a long string of solemn episodes with good intentions and outright duds.
If you were to ask most X-Files fans in the ‘90s whose writing style would better mesh with the show, they likely would have said Stephen King. I mean, it seems logical, right? And yet “Chinga” is a messy, messy hour of TV, one that Zack did a very good job of delineating the problems with last week. On the other hand, William Gibson’s cyberpunk milieu wouldn’t necessarily seem to be the best fit for The X-Files, particularly since it needs to take place a week or so into the future, rather than in the present. We’ve talked a lot here about how The X-Files essentially functions as a way to collect old legends and monster stories before they’re lost, an anthology of American horror before the mass culture smoothed away the rough edges. And, thus, the monsters tend to be of the past. Even if they’re posited as a new evolution of humanity or something, they’re built on old, musty archetypes. But the monster in “Kill Switch” is emphatically of a few years from now. (In many ways, it would fit in much better on The X-Files’ most obvious successor, Fringe.) That probably should unbalance this episode and rip it to shreds, but Gibson and co-writer Tom Maddox somehow keep the whole ball of wax tumbling along.
Now, if you’re paying attention, this is the third episode in a row written primarily by someone who wasn’t on staff at the show at the time of production. They’ve been directed by the regular crew, but the writing staff seems to have been more focused on the movie or taking the month off or something. And that led to “Schizogeny,” one of the worst episodes the show ever did, and “Chinga,” an episode that can’t decide whether it’s a Stephen King episode of The X-Files or an homage to the idea of a Stephen King episode of The X-Files. But “Kill Switch” weirdly benefits from the lack of staff oversight. (And as I say that, please know that I’m certain Chris Carter and the show’s other writers worked out this story with Gibson and Maddox and gave final approval to the script. But, at the same time, it feels like something that snuck by them while they weren’t looking.) I recently interviewed Community creator Dan Harmon, and one of the things he said in that interview is that good TV often sneaks on the air because no one up the chain from the writers is paying attention, as they’re distracted elsewhere. I wouldn’t call “Kill Switch” great TV or anything, but it’s very entertaining TV, and it’s entertaining in a way The X-Files rarely was.
Gibson and Maddox set things up with a doozy straight off the bat. A bunch of drug dealers (and federal marshals) are called to a seemingly abandoned diner in the middle of Washington, D.C., even as a man there is feverishly working on something on a laptop held together with duct tape. He gets to the point where all he needs to do is hit “enter” to release whatever he’s got onto the ‘net when the doors burst open to reveal the marshals… and every other person in the place—drug dealers all!—pulls out a gun and there’s the blare of gunfire. It’s a stylish, fun opening, and it immediately sets up a host of questions (who’s the voice on the phone? what’s the man doing with his laptop?), all of which will be answered somewhat unsatisfactorily, if you pause to think about them. Fortunately, “Kill Switch” doesn’t really give you much time to think.
“Kill Switch” is a rare example of an X-Files episode that works, even though it tries to do too much. Over the course of the hour, Gibson and Maddox keep introducing idea after idea, and all of these ideas could be the basis for a single hour of this show (or a cyberpunk offshoot). But rather than overcrowding the episode, the ideas all bounce off of each other and create a sort of wonder at the idea of the Internet being a kind of wild frontier, where new life forms can gallop along and evolve inside of RVs parked behind abandoned chicken farms in Fairfax, Virginia. Now, of course, this whole idea seems preposterous (a computer virus evolving in its natural habitat? please), but that naivete is also a part of the episode’s charm. There was a time we really thought all of this stuff could happen!
In fairly short order, the episode cycles through all of these ideas (and I’m certain I’m forgetting a couple): There’s a computer virus that can control DOD satellites and use them to track down those who would eradicate it, then fire weapons at them. Said virus can also track just about anyone to anywhere (using the phone network, natch) and has all sorts of tricksy ways of identifying its enemies. It can use the Internet to build itself a perfect habitat. There’s a countermeasure virus that a computer genius (who invented the original virus) was building to dismantle the original, embedded on a CD with a copy of the song “Twilight Time.” The virus has built a virtual reality world, catered to the whims of whomever falls into it, designed to extract information. The virus was apparently built initially to allow people to download their consciousnesses into computers, and Invisigoth (the woman tracking the virus) was working to download herself. All this and more!
Again, it should be too much. It almost is. When the virtual reality world popped up, I initially scoffed, simply because this is the sort of premise you’d build an entire episode of the show around (and, indeed, the show would many, many times in its sixth season), but the episode won me over with the idea that all that’s needed to get the answers out of Mulder is a squadron of sexy nurses and the threat of virtual amputation. (Also, he has a fistfight with Scully.) And, really, all of these ideas are the same idea at a base level, which is one of the ideas that’s always animated the work of Gibson: We’ve eliminated the actual frontiers and explored all of them, but now we’ve invented a brand new frontier, one that we can keep expanding indefinitely. Again, it’s not the world’s most X-Files-y idea, but the episode is having too much fun for you to worry about all of that.
If there’s an issue here, it’s that Kristin Lehman is not the greatest casting choice for Invisigoth. It’s entirely possible that this role as scripted would be impossible for anyone to play. It’s also entirely possible that the further we get from 1998, the less this seems like a believable character and the more it seems like the old stereotype of the computer hacker’s dream girl, a touchy hot chick with raccoon makeup around her eyes and a wizardly way with a keyboard. Gibson can make this kind of character work on the page, but it’s much harder to embody on screen without seeming stupid, and Lehman (who’s currently stranded in another very stupid plotline on The Killing) isn’t up to the challenge. Invisigoth, who’s essentially a third lead here, seems less like a scared kid being stalked by an all-powerful computer virus and more like a snotty tour guide to the wonders of the worldwide Web.
But this doesn’t matter for two reasons. First, this episode is propulsive as an episode of this show can get. There are plenty of logical problems and plot holes you’ll probably think of after you’re done watching the episode, but in the moment, things are moving so quickly that it doesn’t matter. Gibson and Maddox pace the action sequences well and space them apart perfectly. Plus, there are plenty of explosions that are among the most impressive the show had pulled off to that point. And Gibson and Maddox are similarly good at dropping in revelations and intriguing tidbits whenever things seem like they might be about to flag. For instance, the inevitable scene where Mulder and Scully investigate the diner crime scene is enlivened by the idea that the real target here was that man with the computer and that he’s a Silicon Valley legend who simply disappeared right before cashing in. That’s a guy worth building a mystery around, and Gibson and Maddox are smart about putting their chips on the table at the right time.
And the second reason is even better. I’m a sucker for a good Scully episode, and this is one of the best in season five. Where Mulder gets trapped by an evil A.I. and vivisected by sexy virtual nurses, Scully drops plenty of skeptical bon mots and great one-liners (I loved her crack about whether the guy Invisigoth was looking for played bass) as she’s forced to hang out with Invisigoth, then gradually comes around to her new companion’s way of thinking. Plus, inside of Mulder’s fantasies, she beats up a bunch of nurses, then angrily demands he tell her if they have the kill switch. It’s a hysterical moment to have Scully storm in and start delivering roundhouse kicks, and the show makes the most out of it. Hell, she kills a robot by shooting it. AND she gets to save Mulder. This is the proactive, sarcastic Scully we love best, and it’s a relief to see her after so many episodes of somberness from her.
So, yes, this is an episode from that era when the Internet seemed almost more terrifying than promising. But it’s also an episode amazed and excited by the possibilities such an online world would present to us. And I wonder as I watch this if Gibson and Maddox would have predicted that after 13 years, the Internet would be perhaps the most important thing in many people’s day to day lives but would mostly be used by people to do the sorts of stuff they used to do in real life. Would the citizens of 1998 be pleased that the Internet didn’t turn into a lawless wasteland? Or would they be sad that instead of a paradise, we built a giant strip mall?
- I’m vaguely amazed that Gibson and Maddox were able to create such an exciting episode when the whole time, I found myself wondering if Mulder and Scully could take out the virus simply by firing a bullet into the T3 waystation. (In general, it’s not a good idea to have a villain that can be defeated by pulling the plug. But this episode makes it work.)
- The Lone Gunmen pop up, which mostly made me wish Gibson had written a Lone Gunmen episode or two.
- Gibson, of course, is well known within the world of science fiction, but Maddox has also had some success in the world of cyberpunk, including publishing a novel, Halo. I’ve always wondered just who in the writing partnership had the solid understanding of TV episode structure that Stephen King apparently lacked, and I’d love to hear more about the writing process on this episode.
- Great moment: Scully interrupts that irritating, blaring alarm by shooting it.
- The Kill Switch can apparently call people and get them exactly where it needs them to be to kill its own creator. That’s not just a powerful computer virus; that’s a borderline OMNIPOTENT computer virus, and if the episode has a single greatest problem, it’s that the virus never displays that level of thoughtful malevolence again.
“Goodbye, Charlie” (season 2, episode 11)
In which Frank and Lara get topical.
Speaking of dated episodes…
I don’t know that calling “Goodbye, Charlie” a dated episode is entirely fair, since I’m sure somebody out there is still having the old debate over whether we should permit assisted suicide in the case of terminally ill patients. But it certainly seems less pressing in 2011 than it probably did in 1997, when Dr. Jack Kevorkian was still just a few years in the past and was much more on viewers’ minds, almost certainly. And yet even as I think about it, I’m pretty sure the assisted suicide debate was mostly put to bed in 1997, when this episode aired (as part of a double bill with “Midnight Of The Century”!). So it’s never immediately clear just why this episode felt the need to tackle the issue again, in a way that occasionally seems heavy-handed, when it’s not seeming weird, goofy, or downright ghoulish.
And yet I really enjoyed “Goodbye, Charlie.” In this case, the guest star enhances what could have been a terribly written part, taking an idea that seems stupid on its face—a man who helps people with terminal illnesses die by duct taping their mouths shut and performing karaoke songs as they slip away—and making it simultaneously amusing and poignant. Nearly all of the credit for making this episode work goes to guest star Tucker Smallwood, who’d worked with Glen Morgan and James Wong on Space: Above And Beyond (he’s identified here as a former Marine, in a nod to that show) and in their X-Files episode “Home.” Smallwood makes his character, Steven Kiley, nee Ellsworth Beedle, an intriguing enigma. When Frank says at the end that the Group wanted Kiley looked into because they wanted to know if he was from Heaven or Hell, it’s a clunky way of saying, “Assisted suicide: Good or bad?” but thanks to Smallwood’s performance, Frank’s question seems deeply intriguing where it might have made me roll my eyes with any other actor.
If nothing else, “Goodbye, Charlie” suggests just how Millennium could have abandoned the religious prophecy angle and, instead, became a kind of freewheeling crime story anthology. Even though this episode has very little in the way of supernatural elements, outside of one of Frank’s typically strange visions that somehow give him a great deal of insight, the crime solving here seems twistier and more interesting than it does on most similar crime procedurals currently on the air. For starters, there’s that central question of just how Kiley knows which victims to target and just how he seems to know about illnesses they’ve never told anyone about. And there’s also the question of whether what he’s doing is really murder, if he’s helping people who ask him to help them. Sure, the latter question was one TV had beaten into the ground in the ‘90s, but at least it’s something to build an episode around other than a vague proclamation about how evil is all around us.
The series is also continuing its sly use of humor. Look at how the episode begins: Kiley is helping a man inject the chemicals that will stop his heart when the time comes. We figure we’re in for a standard Kevorkian type of story, when the camera pulls back to reveal that the man has his hand duct taped around something and his mouth taped shut. And then Kiley picks up a microphone and begins to sing along with a karaoke version of “Seasons In The Sun”? That’s an idea that’s so bizarre that it skips past horrifying and becomes weirdly, darkly funny. This is also an episode that has Frank visit a crisis counselor as part of his investigation and pretty much just has him outline things from his own life as his reason to be in “crisis” and an episode that ends with Frank cruising off into the night to the strains of Bobby Darin.
What’s interesting is that the story here is pretty straightforward. Sure, there are the trappings of end times portentiousness. Frank and Lara are both sent an invitation to investigate the case that leads to Kiley in the most enigmatic way possible, and we have Frank’s final proclamation about the Group’s interest. And of course there’s the business with the walnuts being taped inside the dead people’s mouths (the walnut being a symbol of prophecy to the Greeks). But everything that Kiley does—including knowing about how these people have terminal illnesses they’ve never told anyone about—has a logical and rational explanation, and the episode ends up siding with that explanation. Plus, the plot proceeds fairly naturally from point A to point B. Sure, we make stops in abandoned hospital morgues and the like, but this is pretty much a story about Frank and Lara confronting a man who helps people kill themselves and realizing that the truth is more complicated than either would like to admit. (And, for what it’s worth, the reversal that Lara’s open to assisted suicide but would never kill herself and Frank is the exact opposite feels too neat.)
And that’s why it’s hard to do a lot of plot summary here. Frank and Lara become aware of a bad guy. They catch him. They don’t have anything to hold him on, so he gets away and facilitates one final crime, helping a bunch of people kill themselves. But when the time comes for him to kill himself (he has leukemia, see), he simply can’t do it, and he leaves a note saying it wasn’t his choice. There’s a final scene where Frank explains the moral of the story and ties it in to the larger picture, and that’s a wrap. Yet at the same time, there’s a lot of lovely thematic stuff here, like that scene where Kiley and Frank talk about how there is no death, only alive and “elsewhere,” then segue to discussion of how Bobby Darin chose to stop treatment for problems with his heart, knowing he would die. Isn’t that the same thing as what Kiley’s doing? Is he just helping people who have years of pain ahead of them avoid that pain? If you’re going to die in a year or so, what’s wrong with speeding the process up?
And, yes, these are questions that have been grappled with by television time and again, but there’s a surprising complexity to “Goodbye, Charlie” that makes it feel less like a ripped-from-the-headlines thing and more like a lovely little short story that just happens to be set in the Millennium universe. The series, which was steeped in stained-glass representations of good and evil for so long, is now open to the idea of a killer who is perhaps doing an unequivocal wrong but is also someone who possesses a great deal of tenderness and empathy for those he’s helping cross over to “elsewhere.” Kiley’s a good character not just because Smallwood plays him so well but because the series fully understands there’s no good answer to Frank’s final heaven or hell query. It’s possible to do bad things in good ways and vice versa. You may call Kiley a murderer, but you can never say he doesn’t care, and that makes him a fascinatingly enigmatic character, on a show that too rarely had use for enigmas. Or put another way: Notice just how much the use of “Seasons In The Sun” changes over the course of the episode. At the beginning, it’s a ghoulish way to provoke dark laughter. At the end, it’s a man trying to help people ease through the hardest transition of all the only way he knows how. That’s good character work, and it’s what makes “Goodbye, Charlie” worth a watch, even today.
- Why not an A, then? Well, a few reasons. The first is that this story doesn’t sit entirely comfortably within the Millennium canon. And I know that part of the reason for that is because the series was still trying to figure out just what it was at that point in the run, but it still feels like this is rather far afield of what they normally do. Plus, the use of Frank’s visions here feels much lazier than usual, and is one of the worst examples of the show using his visions as a way to avoid having him do much detective work.
- The other issue I have is that Lara, as conceived as a character, still bugs. I hate her little “Here’s my thing” catchphrase, I hate most of her jokes, and I don’t much like her blasé demeanor. I remember liking her more as the season goes on, but right now, she feels like a collection of tics, rather than a character. (SPOILER ALERT: Though I did find her views on suicide fascinating, given the dark places her character goes.)
- Do you think the Millennium production staff just had a standard set of abandoned hospital sets they wheeled out whenever needed? It seems like the show turned to that sort of setting early and often.
Next week: Well, Zack’s taking next week off, so…
In two weeks: It’s time for Rashomon, X-Files style, with “Bad Blood.” Then, Zack and Frank Black hit Alaska in “Luminary.” We’ll see you again June 11. In the meantime, why not consider dropping in on one of our other TV Club Classic features launching next week? We know you’ll miss us, but there’s plenty of fun to be had!