"Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man" (season 4, episode 7)
In which "Life is like a box of chocolates. A cheap, thoughtless, perfunctory gift that nobody ever asks for. Unreturnable because all you get back is another box of chocolates. So you're stuck with this undefinable whipped mint crap that you mindlessly wolf down when there's nothing else left to eat. Sure, once in a while there's a peanut butter cup or an English toffee. But they're gone too fast and the taste is … fleeting. So, you end up with nothing but broken bits filled with hardened jelly and teeth-shattering nuts. And if you're desperate enough to eat those, all you've got left is an empty box filled with useless brown paper wrappers." - Raoul Bloodworth
For nearly four seasons now, The X-Files has been spreading the news that something very bad is happening. The men in power have plans, and they are willing to go to any lengths to ensure those plans are executed, even if that means bumping off civilians, covering the truth, and cozening with alien forces. They have lied, cheated, manipulated, murdered, obfuscated, inveigled, and denied the facts, and through it all there has been one individual, one particular bastard, standing at the edge of every curtain, whispering the words that got the trigger pulled. He is nameless. You can call him the Cancer Man, the Morley Man, the Cigarette Smoking Man, but while all of these titles are true, none of them get to the heart of the matter. That is his power. He knows who you are, but to you, he's just the smoke in the back of the room, grimacing slightly, bull-dog face a wrinkled map of a past that we can only dream of.
"Musings Of A Cigarette Smoking Man" pissed some fans off, I guess. I didn't know this until someone brought it up in the comments section—unlike Todd, my X-Files fandom never had much to do with the Internet. The only people I ever talked to about the show were either my dad, my sister, or that one friend I had who watched it. From this highly inaccurate polling group, I can tell you that my dad wasn't a fan of the episode (he didn't like it when the show got too off topic), and that's all I got, at least from people who weren't me. (Not sure my sister or my friend watched it. Maybe they were out that night? Maybe—together? Dun-dun-DUNNNNNN.) As for myself, I wasn't entirely sure what to make of "Musings." I'm still not. As far as I can remember, this is the first episode where Mulder never makes an appearance (outside of a couple of lines delivered off-screen). Scully only appears via a clip from the pilot—from her very first scene, in fact. The tone is strange, initially deadly serious, but increasingly goofy, as more outlandish possibilities are raised, culminating finally in the monologue quoted above. What we see here contradicts other information we've heard about the conspiracies, and the idea that CSM is directly responsible for the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr. is bizarre.
I love this episode, though, and watching it now, I still do. I'm a sucker for off-format episodes, because they project a sense of creative ingenuity and freedom, whether they're good or not, and because they expand the world of the show. We don't really learn anything immediately relevant about CSM in "Musings"; it's been obvious from the start that the character was a key figure in the show's cabal of shadows, and knowing that he may (or may not) have killed at least two very important public figures isn't really a surprise. We don't learn anything more about the colonization project, about CSM's role in it, or about what plans he has for Mulder or if he really is Mulder's father. All we really learn is that he's been pulling the strings for a long time, and that despite being arguably the most powerful man in the country, he can't get a story published. That's enough, though.
One thing I didn't realize when I first watched this—or else I forgot about it—is that none of this is canon. The episode starts with CSM setting up some eavesdropping gear in an abandoned building. We quickly learn that Mulder, Scully, and the Lone Gunmen are are across the street and that Frohoke has a story to tell about Cancer Man. Most of the episode is a visualization of Frohike's narrative, apart from a handful of scenes set in the present to remind us that CSM is listening and that he has a sniper rifle in case he doesn't like what he hears. At the end of the episode, Frohike admits (in a line that is fairly easy to miss, considering its importance) that everything he's just said came from stories in a magazine he subscribes to; this is both a joke about Frohike subscribing to a porno mag (when CSM finally gets his work in print, the only place that will accept it is Roman A Clef, an especially sleazy Hustler style mag that, to add insult to stick injury, changes the end of his work), as well as a nod to fans to let us know that none of what we've seen is meant to be taken verbatim. That CSM is hanging outside the offices of the Lone Gunmen waiting to pull a trigger means it isn't all lies, but most of what we hear is filtered through CSM's own attempts to fictionalize his past. The facts are irrelevant; it's the spirit that matters.
It's the spirit that gets to me, the humanization of a character who, until this episode, was mostly just an amalgamation of every paranoid fear about government power. Sure, he had a relationship with the Mulders (Mulder's dad has a brief cameo here, bragging to a young, non-cigarette smoking CSM that his son's first word was "JFK," which is not, in fact, a word, but whatever—CSM also holds on to the picture of Mulder's wife and kid), and he may have shtupped Mrs. Mulder. Sure, he had cancer, and he could be insecure and afraid of his position, but this is the first time we're asked to find some sympathy for the devil, the first time we're asked to see everything that's happened from his perspective.
It's fascinating, because we don't really get the reveal of what's going on inside his head till near the very end. The stoicism that defines the character in nearly all of his earlier appearances is on display here as well; his younger self says he doesn't like movies and doesn't smoke, but after he's recruited to shoot the President, he takes up both. Which means what, exactly? In the next chapter, he assassinates Martin Luther King, Jr. after the man makes potentially dangerous comments about communism. CSM says he admires MLK so much, he'll do the job himself. So he has a certain warrior's dignity to him, and already he's writing those stories and getting those rejection letters. Already he's a villain, but there's something tragic in him as well; it's just that, we don't really understand what he was before all this happened or what's driving him to act now, beyond a sense of duty. All we need are a few extra pieces.
Those arrive in the final two parts of the episode: William B. Davis, the "real" CSM, takes over the role in the flashbacks (Chris Owens plays the younger version), and we see him dealing awkwardly with his staff, rejecting their attempts to invite him over for Christmas, right after a staff meeting full of paranoid in-jokes (apparently, CSM controlled the Olympics, refused to allowed the Buffalo Bills to win a Super Bowl in his lifetime, and occasionally got direct phone calls from Saddam Hussein), and trying to quit smoking. The Evil Russian Empire has finally collapsed, which means CSM has won his battle to defeat the evil Reds … but what now? Deep Throat makes a cameo appearance here, as the two men face their first direct contact with an alien life-form. CSM talks Deep Throat into shooting the creature, even though "A living EBE could advance Bill Mulder's project by decades." CSM takes up smoking again. Next chapter, he listens in to the first few scenes of The X-Files, smiling.
What does any of this mean? There is a point here, and it's not just making fun of a line from Forrest Gump. We've known for a long time now why Mulder does what he does; his quest to uncover the reality behind the fiction, the web of plotting and plans that have controlled his life from the start, is both the noble dream of a hero and the desperate scramble of modern man to find meaning in life. Conspiracy nuts exist because we want to believe coincidence and catastrophe make sense. It stands to reason, then, that the actual conspirators would go about their work for much the same reason. CSM gets his cause when he shoots JFK; it's not a cause he truly believes in (he starts smoking after he pulls the trigger, because cigarettes are a great way to let God know you wouldn't mind dying, but you just don't want to point the gun at your own head), but, as Frohike says, he feels like he has no choice. He does what he does because it gives him a purpose, because it builds a world that he can live in, if not exactly be happy in. He allows Mulder to continue his work; he smiles when Scully and Fox hit it off, maybe because he's happy to have the X-Files contained—but maybe it's just another version of those cigarettes, another route to slow death. He can't stop himself, and he will cling to life desperately if need be. But if someone were to take the decision out of his hands …
And as for the stories? That's the best part. A man who's spent his life creating history can't get work writing fiction. He's like a movie critic with a trunk full of rejected screenplays. "Raoul Bloodworth" and his ridiculous tales are CSM's attempts to achieve the control he can't ever have in his real life, to express himself, to be human in a way his work will never allow him. Yes, this doesn't always fit smoothly into the rest of the show's mythology (but Frohike's comment pretty much takes that concern off the table). Yes, maybe using the two of the most infamous assassinations in recent history was a little obvious (yet isn't the iconic nature of JFK and MLK's deaths part of the point here?). And yes, removing the helmet of The X-Files' Darth Vader to reveal the insecure Anakin underneath is arguably undercutting his impact in later episodes. It works, though. By this point in a show's run, either you give your villains a little breathing room or else you risk them becoming stale caricatures. "Musings" is great because it transforms CSM from a living ghost into the walking dead—still horrifying, still dangerous, but pitiable just the same.
- The episode is split into four parts: "Part I: 'Things really did go well in Dealey Plaza,'" "Part II: 'Just down the road aways from Graceland'", "Part III: 'The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year'", and "Part IV: The X-Files."
- This is definitely a funny episode, although the humor is very slow-burn; the first two sections, especially, it's impossible to tell just how much you're supposed to take what's happening seriously. There are a lot of ponderous speeches about responsibility and honor and so forth. It could be the whole episode is a parody on the notion of conspiracy theories, especially CSM's conversation with his staff later in the episode, but while I think that's part of what's going on here, I don't think I would enjoy the episode nearly as much if I thought there wasn't a strain of melancholy running through the absurdity.
- "I could kill you whenever I please. But not today."
"Blood Relatives" (season 1, episode 7)
In which dearly beloved are gathered together to get through this thing called life, and then the killing starts
Holy crap! It's an episode of Millennium with an actual mystery! Sure, it's grim as ever, but there's an actual, pretty effective fake-out here in regards to the killer's identity. And while the show continues its commitment to black and white morality, at least we're treated to some shades of gray here. There's a guy in "Blood Relatives" with a screwed up past and an addiction to visiting the funerals of strangers for emotional support, and he hasn't killed anyone. Oh sure, we spend a good portion of the episode thinking he's guilty, and the final shot, which shows him back to his old tricks with the Obituary column, is wonderfully ambiguous, but for once, the show allows us a character who's still on the fence between the Good and Evil Whackjob Psycho Land. The dialogue is as thudding as ever, but there are times when it isn't, and for once, I was actually interested to see how the story would play out.
Even weirder, Catherine is moderately important to the plot; she's actually the first member of the Black family called in on the case. After a woman is killed at her son's funeral, our old buddy Bletch gives Catherine a ring to ask for her help in dealing with the dead woman's obviously distraught family. Her daughter (who introduced Mom to her murderer in the cold open—at least, that's what we're supposed to think) is too busy hating herself to be of much use, and the father is just so angry about everything that he curses Bletch out no matter what the officer asks him. So Catherine does her best, but she quickly realizes there's more going on here than just an incredibly ugly coincidence and tells Bletch that he might want to see what Frank's up to.
Catherine stays at the edges for most of the rest of the episode, chatting with Frank about the horrors of the world and so forth. (God, does anybody in this universe ever do casual conversation? Even when they're just being friendly, they sound like people ready for the ground to open up under their feet at any moment) One of the major thematic points of this episode is the question of how much a person is affected by their childhood. James Dickerson's mother abandoned him because he represented a time in her life she couldn't bear to live with anymore. Because of that abandonment, James turned to petty crime and now spends his off-hours visiting funerals for strangers, pretending to know the deceased in order to snag just a few moments of precious warmth from the bereaved. He's hollow, desperately so, and there's no indication in the episode that he'll ever be anything but hollow; going by Catherine's comments, this is a failure of the system to protect the lost, but, as a couple characters mention, there's the Kitten Model to consider. The first two weeks of a cat's life define the rest of its existence—if it's loved and protected and cared for, it will be domesticated, but if it's left on its own, it turns feral. That's a pretty brutal concept to apply to human life, especially considering that most cats aren't capable of reading obituaries, let alone finding the proper clothes for one. But this is Millennium, where doom is inevitable and salvation, arbitrary.
Philosophically, "Relatives" was intriguing but as heavy-handed as the show always is. I'm getting tired of the ponderous dialog that occurs whenever two characters decide to discuss the "meaning" behind all that's happening. Every time Lance Henriksen is alone with his family, his love and happiness are right there on his face. We don't need him to say how his family is everything to him (something which he seems to say every week, as though we might forget it). I appreciate the attempts to deal with weightier topics head on, but there's a thudding, monotonous regularity to these discussions. "Gosh, the world is horrible, isn't it?" "Yes, the evil is always out there." "I'm scared of that evil." "Because it's always out there?" "Yes. And because it is evil." "Yes." "Thank god for the people we love." "Although even they aren't completely safe from the evil." "Because evil is everywhere." "Yes. Because it is evil." And on, and on. This doesn't qualify as characterization, because it's generic (we understand that Frank has concerns about the darkness of the world, but in Millennium, every character who isn't part of that darkness has those concerns), and it's not particularly illuminating either.
What gives me hope (apart from the show's continuing hypnotic hold over me) is that when "Relatives" isn't mired down in the muck, it's quite solid. James Dickerson makes an excellent patsy, and for once, the show's grindingly predictable perspective on the world worked to its advantage; Dickerson appears guilty partly because he's conveniently nearby when the murders occur, and partly because at this point, we've been trained to accept that anyone who's morally questionable is capable of violent action. I think the fake-out would've worked fine on a different series, but it gets a boost here because nothing we've seen so far would lead us to believe that Millennium was interested (or, hell, capable) of tricking us. Even better, James relationship with the real killer, Connor, fits in neatly with some of the reasons that made James such an obvious suspect. Connor, who runs the halfway house for parolees where James is living, has a dominating relationship with the younger man; in his way, Connor is just as needy as the other, only instead of trying to glean some emotional support in a positive way (and I'd argue that James' attempts at connection are positive, even if his methods are off-putting; he's not harming anyone, just trying to be part of a world where people miss you when you're gone), he browbeats James into a friendship, constantly reminding the poor kid how much he needs Connor to survive. The need for connection drives and corrupts both men's lives. Only Connor is just a little crazier, and when he realizes what James is doing, he follows, and starts killing the mourners James meets.
It's odd to say for an episode dealing with funerals, grief, and the desperate desire to be held by a stranger, but "Relatives" has a light touch. It's never exactly funny (I think Frank's "A thousand points of darkness" was supposed to be a joke, but it's not really knee-slapper), but the claustrophobic, choking-on-its-own-contempt-for-the-world vibe that so many episodes have is gone here. Both James and Connor are well-developed and recognizably human, and the two kill sequences we get are shocking without being exploitative. The second one is very good, in particular. It takes place in daylight, in the open air. A woman befriends James at a funeral, he makes some lies up about the deceased, she takes him to a nearby lake where he claims to've gone fishing with the dead guy, he hugs her but takes it too far, and after he walks off, an unseen force knocks her in the lake and drowns her. In just the space of two scenes, we get a clear sense of the victim as a person, and even better, we don't feel as though she's targeted because she's a woman. I'm not sure how to explain exactly why this makes it a better sequence, but it does.
Contrast it, anyway, with the episode's climax. James is arrested for the murders, and he confesses after his mother arrives at the jail and, in effect, abandons him again. Connor won't have this, so he tracks Mom to her home and assaults her—right after she strips down to take a bath. So we get plenty of shots of her half-naked for no damn good reason before Connor makes his move. It's the sort of thing that's been done a thousand times before, and yes, the sight of the potential victim at her most vulnerable should theoretically heighten the sense of danger, but it doesn't. At least, not anymore. (Honestly, I think the last time this set-up worked for me was Psycho.) Here, it's just a reminder of the show's inability to separate its lofty goals from its willingness to take the cheapest shots. "Relatives" proves that Millennium is capable of better; it just needs to try a little harder.
- Connor carves "Stop Looking" on the stomach of his second victim. I realize this provides Frank with a crucial clue, but it feels almost like it was included because, hey, psychos like carving words in dead people.
- Speaking of the second victim: She's discovered by a fisherman who hears the assault, comes over to see if anyone had caught a big fish, and finds a body instead. This doesn't work in a couple of ways: 1.) Connor drowns the girl, drags the body out of the water, carves the message in her stomach, and then leaves before James comes back, finds the body himself. How far away was the fisherman? That's at least a half hour's worth of time. 2.) All right, maybe I have the time wrong, but one thing I don't get at all: The fisherman hears the sound, investigates, finds the body, calls the cops. But he leaves the body in the water. I understand not wanted to tamper with a crime scene, but how in the hell would he know for sure she was dead?
- "I know you had to go in there. Because of who you are." Note to writers: do not write like this.
- Next week, Todd revisits the black oil blues in "Tunguska," and spends some more time with Catherine Black in "The Well-Worn Lock."