One of the reasons overtly comedic X-Files tend to stand out so much for fans is because the show, especially in its first two seasons, is almost relentlessly grim. Mulder and Scully would hear of something horrible happening, they'd investigate it, and more people would die. Sometimes our heroes would manage to stop the monster/biological entity/science experiment gone awry. Sometimes it would stop itself. Mulder would get a little closer to the truth, only to have the evidence he needs snatched away in the final seconds, much the same way that cursed Road Runner always managed to elude Wile E. Coyote's grasp. Scully would sometimes get beat up a little, just for fun. For all its potential to change tone and style, the show stuck with this basic template for a long time. "Humbug" is a terrific episode because it's well-written and odd, but also because it exists almost in a vacuum. The sudden discovery that the series could mock itself was a revelation that made it that much harder to sit through the more tedious recursions.
"F. Emasculata" is as grim as they come, full of gore and horrible death and tragedy, but it's also a good example of why the X-Files embraced its darkness for so long: when it works (like it does here), it makes for some remarkable television. The story follows what has come to be the standard pattern for plague arcs, first showing us the danger of the disease, then slowly releasing that disease into the general population. One group has to try and track down the carriers before they infect the populace, and another group hangs back to determine just what's causing this imminent biological catastrophe. There are any number of familiar elements in this episode: escaped cons, scientists in hazmat suits, dead bystanders, Federal Marshals with itchy trigger fingers, the wife and child left behind, body bags. Lots of body bags. Plus an incinerator that makes the one in Return Of The Living Dead look positively friendly. "Emasculata" takes the expected beats, pares them down to forty-plus minutes, and adds a hint of conspiracy and paranoia. The result is a tense, gripping mini-movie that hasn't really aged at all.
A scientist studying in the rain forest gets too close to a boil on a boar corpse, and winds up with a face full of goo when the boil bursts. This is extremely icky. (The episode does not shy away from ickiness.) It's also deadly, infecting the scientist with the same sickness that killed the boar. Days later, a prisoner in maximum security, who just happens to have the same name as the now-presumably-dead scientist, gets a mysterious package. The prisoner is infected and dies, and the pair of convicts ordered to clean out his cell afterwards work out a plan to escape based on the sudden change in their routine. We immediately cut to Mulder and Scully arriving at the prison, and learn through their conversation that the two prisoners, Paul and Steve, are already gone. What do you think the odds are that the extremely dangerous criminals on the run just happen to have a dose of the Boar Boil Blues? C'mon. Guess.
I like the efficiency of the cut from the escape plan to the aftermath. "Emasculata" does an excellent job of sticking to the essentials, giving us the information we need to follow what's going on, as well as focusing on the most striking and suspenseful sequences to keep us interested. There's all sorts of goodness here, from the shots of the supposed CDC men lugging bodies and taking tests, ignoring Scully's increasingly desperate demands for information (Mulder usually gets the focus as the one searching for the Truth, but I think Scully is just as determined. I love how thoroughly outraged she is at the scientists, personally offended that anyone could ignore what, to her, is basic human decency), to Paul's increasingly ugly condition, to the bodies stacked like plastic-wrapped cordwood. Even though there's no serious concern that Paul will get away in the end—if the status quo demands that Mulder never find the answers he needs, it also requires that the world doesn't end quite yet—the manhunt for him is exciting, and the final stand-off between him and Mulder in the bus station works on a couple different levels. But I'll get to that in a second.
There are some swell guest stars in "Emasculata," like Charles Martin Smith as Dr. Osborne, whose efforts to help Scully wind up getting him killed; Smith manages to convey weak-willed guilt in a sympathetic manner, playing a character who's working for the wrong team but feels just bad enough about it that we're sad when he dies. (And how brutal is that last shot of his body?) Paul is played by John Pyper-Ferguson, who I'll always remember as Pete from The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. He doesn't get to show off his comedic skills, but he does solid work. Lastly, the Federal Marshall who leads the manhunt for the escaped convicts is Dean Norris, everybody's favorite DEA agent brother-in-law from Breaking Bad. I got a nice buzz watching him bust up an RV at the episode's midpoint.
There's the usual corruption and greed motivating all this, of course, since it wouldn't be the X-Files if it all came down to chance. "Emasculata" reinforces the necessity of Mulder and Scully's pursuit of the truth, while at the same time questioning if that pursuit can ever hope to bear fruit. Osborne explains to Scully that the "prisoner getting infected" plan was concocted by the pharmaceutical company he worked for, as a way to test out new drugs on humans without FDA approval. That two of the infected managed to escape was just bad luck. That's the problem with these conspiracies. Not only are they run by men and women of incredible arrogance and contempt for human life, they can never be as perfect as they need to be. There are always errors, mistakes, random disruptions, and the stakes the conspirators are playing for are so incredibly high that even the slightest misstep can cause misery and destruction. Our heroes need to bring them to light not just for the sake of justice, but to stop them from creating even greater catastrophes.
And yet, that final confrontation between Mulder and Paul doesn't exactly bode well, does it? I'm not talking about the sudden bullet to Paul's head, either. Mulder thinks he has some proof that someone, somewhere did somebody wrong, and he needs Paul to serve as that proof, but there's nothing Paul can give him. Even if the guy wasn't out of his mind with terror and disease, he doesn't really know anything. "What was in the package," Mulder shouts at him, as if that means something. What if Paul told him? It was just dead meat. The trick isn't knowing you're being played. The trick is figuring out the game, and it's one that Mulder still hasn't quite figured out.
- The Cigarette Smoking Man puts in an appearance here, sitting in his usual corner seat in Skinner's office.
- It's always great to see Scully go full scientist, but her methods are surprisingly reckless. The trip to the incinerator especially—if Osborne hadn't shown up when he had, she would've been the one getting the face full of bugs.
"Soft Light"/"Our Town"
In order to finish the second season as soon as possible, I'm covering four episodes this week instead of the usual three. (This is also so I can write about "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" in two weeks. If you guys think these reviews are digressive and overlong now…) In the interest of saving time, I'm going to do a compare/contrast on the pair of episodes leading into the finale. Neither are good enough to warrant much focus on their own, and both follow the Monster-Of-The-Week format closely enough to intersect at a number of points. I'm always surprised (and a little disappointed) at how procedural many of these early stories are, but at least that makes recapping the middle of the road elements a simple matter of filling in the blanks.
The Cold Open: "Soft Light" starts at a hotel in Richmond, VA, with a character who won't be staying around very long. Really, that's standard procedure by now. We hardly ever begin an episode pre-credits with a Mulder and Scully scene, instead focusing on some strange event that almost always ends up with a body count. What I like here is how bizarre that event is. "Light"'s main hook is pretty ridiculous, even for this show, relying on the audience's ignorance of "dark matter" and quantum physics to justify the implausibly impossible. Once people start trying to explain the situation, the threat gets goofy, fast. Here, though, it works all right. It's just so odd. A man is sitting in his hotel room, and he hears someone across the hall pounding on a door. He goes to look through the peephole, and sees Tony Shalhoub (at his most humorless and distraught) demanding "Morris" let him inside. Then the hall lights flicker, Shalhoub takes a couple steps backward. Defying basic principles of light refraction, Shalhoub's shadow slides underneath our victim's door, and the victim is vaporized, leaving nothing but a burnt whorl in the carpet. It's absurd, and the effects aren't all that convincing, but I can't imagine anyone seeing that and not wanting to keep watching.
Contrast that with "Our Town," which, up until its final moments, opens in the most cliched manner imaginable. A couple goes into the woods at night to make-out. Haven't we seen this before? Like, a million times, in dozens of horror movies, and even on this very series. (As someone who's actually been in the woods at night, I always question this. It can be beautiful, but there are freaky noises and insects, and it's next to impossible to find comfortable seating.) Things get better when the male half of the couple turns out to be the target of an intentional bait-and-switch. He runs into a row of flashlight beams (this is also familiar), and then gets murdered by a tall figure in a tribal mask (this is less familiar). "Our Town" generally manages its threat better than "Soft Light," but this is opening is strictly routine. The mask is a neat visual, but other than that, there's not much here.
The Threat: Speaking of… "Soft Light"'s "monster" is obvious from the start. We know Shalhoub, who plays a scientist who get hoisted by his own experiment (gasp), is the danger, and we know it's his shadow that's killing people. We also know that he's trying his best not to harm anyone, but keeps getting put into situations where either by accident or his own agency, folks get zapped. (It's interesting, actually, because I think it isn't till after the government kidnaps him later in the episode that Shalhoub starts to willingly target people.) Why this is happening isn't immediately clear, and once it's explained, it still sort of isn't. I don't mind ambiguity, but the attempt to marry such a bizarrely inexplicable phenomena with vague buzz-words just makes it look all the goofier. This is an episode that could've used a few more laughs, as well, because c'mon. It's a guy who carries around a black hole. Surely there are jokes there? (Also, the attempts at an explanation create more plot-holes. As my roommate pointed out, why does Shalhoub's shadow only affect people? And why does it only work when he's blocking the light?)
I like Shalhoub, but he's not really given much to do here beyond look increasingly desperate. It doesn't help that he looks way too much like he did in Men In Black. This is the first X-Files episode that Vince Gilligan wrote, and while he already had an interest in characters’ scientific arrogance creating unpredictable reactions, a theme that's served him well since, the ideas aren't very well-formed, and he's too beholden to the "Mulder and Scully run around, then a scene when Shalhoub accidentally melts someone, then more running around" model. I never got tired of watching characters have their molecules unzipped, and I thought we had some interesting turns in the last act, but this could've used more personality.
"Our Town" is also light on the personal touch. It's writer Frank Spotnitz second episode (he did the excellent "End Game" before this), and he manages to do more consistent work than Gilligan, but without taking nearly as many risks. "Town" takes up some cues from "Red Museum," and "Die Hand der verletzt," focusing on a small town that's been getting up to some naughtiness behind the scenes. Instead of devil worshiping, it's cannibalism. This isn't really a surprise, though it takes Mulder and Scully some time to catch up with what's happening. There are scenes in a chicken factory (the first victim we see was a federal inspector who was trying to have the plant shut-down before he got et), and some theorizing about tainted chickens, before a dredge of a local stream turns up a mess of headless skeletons. Again, we could've used more humor here. The townsfolks' personality is generated almost entirely by casting, not by script, and apart from the sheriff's bland geniality (so you know he's hiding something) and the plant manager's icy contempt (so you know he's hiding something), we don't know a lot about any of these people.
We do get some sense of what's driving the man behind the munching, Walter Chaco, and we're given just enough back-story on him to understand what's driving all the mayhem. I'm not sure I'd call a town-wide cabal of cannibals exactly plausible, but it doesn't require the disbelief suspension that "Light" entails, and there is some sense of a community behind everything. It's just not enough to be very good.
Resolution: Mulder tries to call in Mr. X in "Light," to help get Shalhoub away from the evil authorities who want to exploit him for their own purposes. Mr. X refuses, and, in one of the episode's best twists, actually turns out to actually be the authorities Mulder is so desperately trying to thwart. Mr. X is the best of Mulder's informants because he's always pissed off, he's always reluctant to provide information, and you can't ever be sure what play he's really running. If Deep Throat was a cheat code to the quest for truth, X is an walkthrough written by somebody who doesn't want to share his secrets, doesn't like you, and might not even be playing the same game. It's good to get a reminder just how dangerous he can be, and that, as much as Mulder might assume otherwise, he's not just back-up. Also, as silly as the episode often gets, that final shot, of Shalhoub stuck in a room as a light flashes on…and on…and on at him, is basically perfect. Our heroes didn't save him, or anybody. In fact, they probably made the situation worse.
"Our Town" isn't nearly as striking, and once again we get Scully-in-Peril. (What's that line from MST3K? "She must have a handle on her back for easy carrying.") At least some justice is meted out, as Walter, the sheriff, and the oily chicken factory man all get their just deserts. OCFM even gets stuck in the human equivalent of a pecking party, trampled to death by his own followers. By far my favorite aspect of the finale is Walter's desperate plea for reason to his fellow feeders. It's played completely straight, but there's something undeniably hilarious about a man trying to appeal to the inner decency of a group of murderers who've spent decades killing outsiders in order to prolong their own lives. Really, how could you possibly corrupt a faith so blatantly and irredeemably corrupt to begin with?
Neither of these was much good. Both have moments, but they're easy to forget.
- Scully's actually responsible for her and Mulder's involvement in "Soft Light," trying to help out a former student on her first case. Of course, they sort of manage to get her killed, but points for trying, anyway.
- I liked Mr. X's "I didn't kill him, Mulder." Just a little bit of guilt, but not enough to stop him from doing what he thinks needs to get done.
- Walter Chaco calls chickens "perfect creatures." I'm not sure "they're incredibly useful after you kill them" really makes something perfect.
Here we are at the end of season two. (It only took me, what, two years to get here?) That means it's time for another mythology episode, and while we're still in the happy land of I'm Sure This Will All Make Sense Someday (soon to be evacuated to I Really Hope This Comes Together Town, followed by They're Just Making This Up As They Go Ville, and concluding with Just Fucking End And Isn't That The Terminator 2 Guy Island), we're getting our first few cracks in the surface. "Anasazi" has a lot of really strong moments, some great acting work from both leads, an escalation of the major threat level, and, of course, the sudden and brutal death of Mulder's father. (KRRRRRRYYYYYCHEEEKKKK!!!) The ending cliffhanger is solid, too, and it reminded me of what it was like to see this when it first aired, knowing I'd have to wait a whole summer before I could find out just how the hell Mulder got out of that train car. I was maybe thirteen at the time, so I probably distracting myself with thoughts of boobs and robots, but it wasn't easy.
The hardest thing to do in criticism isn't to pan or praise a piece of work. It isn't even to find something interesting to say about boring art. The hardest thing (at least for me) is trying to express degree. When I say you can see the first cracks that would eventually turn mythology episodes into such a slog appear in "Anasazi," I'm not saying I didn't enjoy the hell out of the episode, or even that I think, in and of itself, it didn't work. Rather, I'm using the advantage of hindsight to try and determine what initially innocuous story developments might have laid the foundation for eventual crap. I can't quite grade this as high as, say, the "Colony"/"End Game" double feature, but if I'd been writing about the series when it originally aired, I doubt I would've had much of anything negative to say at all. So it's tricky. Do I make the effort to delineate those initial tremors, or do I just wait till things go to hell completely before I bust out the crazy theorizing?
Really, the issue here is one of expansion, which is always a difficult moment for any series. We've already successfully personalized the alien/government confusion earlier this season with Scully's abduction, so now, the choice is either to start resolving what's been established, or find a way to convince the audience that the real answers are still on their way, even if they're running a bit late. (You know how traffic gets.) Call it the Godot moment. Now, this is early enough in the X-Files run that it would've been easy to believe things could still be satisfactorily concluded, but it's troubling that instead of answering any big issues here (like oh, say, those aliens who are trying to colonize the Earth), the show only gives us new directions. We push outward, with encoded Defense Department files, a group of old guys with secrets, and some good old-fashioned Native American mysticism. Mulder keeps reaching for what's just beyond his grasp. Scully keeps struggling to make sure they both have jobs, even while her personal life is invaded even further. Ted Mosby meets a hot chick he really likes, but the Mom is actually in his Architecture class. That sort of thing.
"Anasazi" is good enough at throwing cool crap at you that it's easy to overlook the slight of hand. I'd forgotten about the gas in Mulder's apartment, and I like how raw and desperate Duchovny lets the character become, nearly alienating Scully and even going so far as to throw a punch at Skinner. (Skinner, of course, immediately hands him his ass.) At least we get a sense of some kind of end game getting played against our hero. We hear the "I don't want to create a martyr" speech (I dunno, I think I would've risked it), but for once there's a plan in motion to get Mulder out of the way for good. First they gas him, disrupt his mental state, set him on edge. Then they murder his father, and pin the crime on him. If it wasn't for Scully, this might even have worked. Mulder's first instinct at the crime scene is to wait for the authorities, which would've ended with him in jail, where it wouldn't have been too hard to get him "accidentally" shivved.
Have we already dealt with Father Mulder's involvement with the CSM? I'm not sure, but if we haven't, it's another smart twist, because it gives us even more justification as to why Mulder's been allowed to get as far into everything as he has. The CSM's development over time is one of the few aspects of the mythology that never really stops giving, and it's great to see him slowly change from a malevolent symbol of control to a flawed, even tragic character. Bringing back Krychek, even if only for a few minutes, was smart, and there's a great scene when Mulder kicks the living crap out of him, only to get shot by Scully before he can do more permanent damage. The Lone Gunmen cameo is justified and fun (I'm sure I've mentioned it before, but ha! to Mulder living in room 42). And the ending is great. First we get the train car full of dead bodies, then we get the CSM's arrival, Mulder's disappearance from the car, and the firebombing. I can hardly wait till next… um… week.
If there's so much quality here, what's my complaint? I'm not huge on the introduction of the Native American element, but I can understand it, at least. The government has been screwing people over for a very long time, after all. It's only in the follow up to this episode that things get really out there, anyway. (Although did anyone else shudder a little when that nice old man said that Mulder's coming had been foretold? I don't need another Chosen One, I really don't.) "Anasazi" doesn't entirely gel as much as I'd like, although that could be a factor of its incompleteness. But I think, if I'm honest, my biggest issue is that it's possible to sense here, at this moment, that this as far we're going to get in terms of making sense. Mulder and Scully will keep finding new sources of information, other people will get shot, indeterminate menace will ensue, but we're never going to have this end in the way it really needs to. The outward growth here is very entertaining, but it's also a bad sign, because it's not going to stop.
- Duchovny and Chris Carter (who shows up during Scully's debriefing) wrote the episode together. That makes sense, as this one gives Duchovny a lot to work with.
- Awww, remember old fashioned computer cartridges? So cute.
- "Nothing vanishes without a trace!"
- Next week, Todd will usher us into the third season with "The Blessing Way," "Paper Clip," and "D.P.O."