“One Son” (season 6, episode 12; originally aired 2/14/1999)
In which the Cigarette Smoking Man loses a substantial part of his Christmas list…
There are some powerful moments in “One Son.” Like the cold open, a flashback to the night when the Syndicate first met with the aliens who were bent on colonizing Earth. The shot of a younger Cigarette Smoking Man laying a folded flag down at the feet of a mob of little gray men is one of the best images the show has ever produced, provided you can get past the hilarity of the CSM’s terrible wig. The reveal that Marita, Mulder’s former informant, is still alive and in awful shape is deeply unsettling; she explains the basics of what’s been done to her, but her red eyes and blanched skin tone suggest that she’s been through so much worse than that. The X-Files is often scariest when it’s implying, rather than flat out stating, the horrors lurking just below the surface of normal life; its mythology only really works as something just out of sight, a nightmare it’s impossible to ever wake from completely. What works in his episode is what’s visual, and what’s character-based. Mulder’s shocked realization that everything’s too late, and he’s finally lost. Cassandra’s knowledge that her very existence throws the whole human race into jeopardy. The Syndicate gathering with their families, expecting to have the children and relatives they lost earlier to the aliens finally come home—only to be surrounded by a mob of alien rebels. Then the screaming starts. Later, the pictures of burned bodies.
Oh, and the CSM (henceforth known as C.G.B. Spender) shoots his son, which is one of those twists that should be powerful and shocking, but instead stands there, shuffling its feet and trying not to make eye contact. This should be one of C.G.B. Spender’s defining moments. He’s been slowly humanized over the past couple of seasons, and, worse, made to look ineffectual and weak in the face of the Syndicate. Once the show’s main boogeyman, its most powerful symbol of the secrecy and corruption inherent in the power structures we’ve been taught to trust, he’s reduced to just another creepy old guy in a suit, snide and demanding and surprisingly difficult to kill, but nothing much to write home about. Shooting his own son for failing to live up to his expectations is hardcore, however, and, if deployed properly, would have been a great way to reinstate C.G.B. as the monstrous bastard he once was. Instead, it comes across as a rote resolution to a storyline that never had much juice. Agent Spender was a drag, and his sudden moral awakening nothing more than a convenient way to justify Mulder and Scully’s return to the X-Files. That he’d be shot seemingly moments after coming over to the light side of the Force isn’t surprising; that his dad would pull the trigger is different than having him offed by some faceless thug, but it plays as the payoff to a story arc that never passed the insinuation phase.
As is so often the case with mythology episodes at this point in the show’s run, “One Son” mixes the compelling with the absurd, and the results are, well, mixed. Every time I found myself getting ready to give up on the episode completely (like, say, the resurgence of Scully’s supposed issues with Diana Fowley), there’d be some burst of forward motion, or some freaky action sequence, to pull me back in.
Let’s see if we can unpack the plot here: Once upon a time, the Syndicate made contact with a race of alien beings who were planning to colonize Earth. Before they could wipe us out, though, the aliens needed to develop an alien-human hybrid to facilitate the colonization process. The Syndicate agreed to help them do this, on the promise that, should the aliens succeed, the group and their families would be protected; to seal the deal, the members of the Syndicate (including C.G.B. Spender and Mr. Mulder) turned over members of their families to the aliens as hostages/test subjects. This, we’re told, is what really happened to Samantha Mulder—she just missed the meeting we get a glimpse of at the beginning of the episode because Mr. Mulder was resistant to the arrangement. Now, though, two complications have arisen at roughly the same time: A faction of rebel aliens (and how is it, for all the ridiculous exposition the show has spouted over the years, nobody ever takes the time to name the damn groups?) has risen up against the other aliens, and those scientists and doctors responsible for coming up with a working human-alien hybrid finally succeeded with Cassandra Spender. Events are rapidly approaching a crisis point, and Fox Mulder and Dana Scully are the only ones can—um. Wait, I know this. Fox is Mr. Mulder’s son! He’s important, it’s right there in the title! So, ah, what does he accomplish in this episode?
Not a whole heck of a lot, actually. He and Scully shoot at a train, which is apparently the wrong train, or else it’s the right train but Cassandra and the others have a chance to escape? It’s all fairly confusing, but it does lead into that terrific sequence of the rebel aliens arriving to murder three-quarters of the show’s recurring villains. In plot terms, this means that the Syndicate was willing to give Cassandra to the aliens if it meant protecting their families (and there’s a nice touch here when Mulder realizes that, thanks to his father’s sacrifice, he doesn’t have anything to worry about; Scully, though…), but the alien rebels figured out where the meeting was, and beat the other aliens to the punch, thus setting back the colonization project for an indefinite period of time. In the end, Agent Spender urges that Mulder and Scully be put back on the X-Files, and is shot by Dad for his troubles. Also, Krychek is still at large, and it looks like the Syndicate has been shredded, although there’s enough wiggle room for a few of them to have survived.
As Todd noted in last week’s review, all this really means is that everyone gets excited and dramatic that the end is nigh—and then it basically isn’t, although it is for some people. I’m not a huge fan of review-by-summary, but I find myself struggling to keep up with who’s betraying who at this point, so I describe all this partly as a service to myself (and anyone else who’s a little foggy on the details), and partly to point out how little is actually resolved here. The aliens are still intent on colonizing the planet via the black oil, and the rebel aliens are still running around being terrifying and lighting people on fire. Which is cool, as far as that goes—I love the idea of Earth as a pawn in a fight between two baffling and otherworldly forces, neither of whom appear to give a damn about humans. (None of that “enemy of my enemy is my friend” crap in this outfit.) But that only works as background noise, in a way the series never grasps. By now, the conflict is so big that our heroes barely register in it at all, and yet we still spend four to six episodes a season watching Mulder and Scully hearing things, putting on serious expressions, and then watching Earth live to fight another day—through no effort of the show’s protagonists.
It’s not terrible television by any means, and if you love the show for its mythology, I can see this still working. Personally, I’ve about checked out on this stuff, and I’m not sure if this is just the fact that’s it’s bad drama, or a matter of taste. (Probably a bit of both.) I just can’t take any of this seriously, and it doesn’t help when various actors have to rattle through paragraphs of forced exposition via Carter’s faux-poetical bullshit. In its early seasons, The X-Files got a lot of power by taking the ridiculous seriously. Devil-worshipping school-teachers, liver-eating Stretch Armstrongs, Fluke Man, and, of course, alien abduction, all were terrifying because of how much they sounded like urban legends, jokes, scary stories for the gullible and fools. It stops being funny when there’s a hand, or worse, around your throat. (This is why the Mulder/Scully dynamic worked so well at first. Mulder’s theories always sound absurd, so, in arguing against them, Scully just gave the audience’s natural disbelief a voice, making it all the more powerful when Mulder turned out to be right.)
But this approach is only effective so long as it can make the silly stories just plausible enough that we can’t help but believe in them a little. “The Vanishing Hitchhiker” is a scary story because hey, driving alone at night is scary, and hitchhikers are already mysterious, so anything could happen, right? But give that hitchhiker a backstory, make him part of a coven that’s at war with a different group of hitchhiking ghosts, and have them struggling to gain dominion over the Earth via a special cemetery in Nebraska that has a tombstone made out of solid gold, but the only person who can access that tombstone is a little girl whose mother died in childbirth, granting her the power of second sight—well, that’s a different story completely. It could work, but it requires a completely different kind of storytelling, and at this point in its run, the only way The X-Files can expand its skillset is via self-mockery and whimsy, neither of which is much use in dealing with the mythology. In short, “One Son” has its moment, but is ultimate undone both by its refusal to come to any serious conclusions, and by the inherent limitations of the form.
- Oh yeah, Mulder realizes that Diana Fowley has been betraying him, which is something he should’ve known all along anyway. (In fact, it’s been so long since she was introduced that I just assumed he’d figured it out by now.) Mulder once again seems to think that Scully dislikes Fowley because she’s jealous, which makes him look like a dick, but at least The Lone Gunmen get a scene.
- The scene between C.G.B. and Mulder is good; the scenes between these two always are. At the very least, the visual symbolism of forces of youth fighting against a symbol of crafty, selfish age is hard to beat.
- “What the hell does that mean?”—Kersh, summing it up.
“The Sound Of Snow” (season 3, episode 12; originally aired 2/5/1999)
In which Frank sees his wife one last time…
Catherine Black was always a problem. For the first two seasons of Millennium, she was the symbol of everything Frank wanted in his life but couldn’t seem to hold onto: family, safety, normalcy, love. That’s a lot of symbolic weight for a character to bear, and while Jordan, Catherine and Frank’s daughter, never had too much trouble with it (largely because she was a little girl, and kids don’t really need to do anything to have meaning), Catherine didn’t always work. Megan Gallagher was fine in the role, and when the script gave her a purpose, she rose to the occasion well. But too often, Catherine would hang back as Frank plunged into the shadows, a worried expression on her face, her daughter’s wrist firmly in one hand. This is often a problem for genre shows—wives, who are routinely left out of the action and so naturally spend most of their screentime begging the hero to stop doing the thing we’re watching the show to see him do, are a drag.
But Catherine died at the end of the second season, her final scene one of the standouts in an episode that ranks easily among the show’s best. In the face of the supposedly world-ending plague, she chose to die alone rather than risk her daughter contracting the plague, and, as the finale ended, we saw her walking off into the woods, casting one final glance backward before leaving the show for good. It was a powerful, disturbing scene, and one which took me completely by surprise. I’d grown used to having her around as one of the show’s few constants, and her death implied there’d be a substantial dynamic change in the season to come. All to the good, right? It’s too bad the actress had to go, and too bad the writers could never figure out a way to consistently make her character work, but losing the dead weight (so to speak) is always a bold creative move.
With all the problems the third season of Millennium has had—its lack of a center, its hamfisted morbidity, the ongoing blahtastrophe that is Emma—Catherine’s absence seemed low on the list. After all, Jordan’s still around, so Frank still has something to keep him tethered to the ground. Except, while Jordan makes for an effective symbol, that’s all she really is; occasional flashes of personality aside, the girl is about as generic a “little girl” as they come, and this season has largely avoided any references to the psychic abilities she demonstrated in the past. Emma still isn’t much of a character, Peter Watts has been relegated to occasional-villain status, and most of the rest of Millennium’s supporting cast is either dead or forgotten. As imperfect as the character was, Catherine served a necessary function, and without her, the show lost a part of its soul.
“The Sound Of Snow” doesn’t bring Catherine back (that would require a level of retooling even more substantial than what we’ve already seen; they might have gotten away with it at the start of the season, but not now), but it does provide some crucial closure to her story, in addition to giving Frank (and the show) something to play that’s more complex and moving than condescension or rage.
The plot is heavy on the mysticism side, with one of the best cold opens Millennium has ever done: a woman, driving alone at night, puts on a tape cassette to keep herself company. There’s nothing but white noise on the tape, but as she listens, snow starts to fall around the car, even though repeated wide shots of the area she’s driving through show there’s no snow to be seen. Something (hail?) hits her windshield, and she stops her car, the tape still running. She gets out, and she’s in a world of snow, even though, again, in the “real” world, it’s just a light rain, if that. She walks down the road, and it starts to crack; suddenly, she isn’t on pavement anymore, but ice, and under the ice a man is drowning, beating desperate at the frozen surface above him as the woman backs away in horror. She gets back in her car, tries to drive away, but ends up parked on the wrong side of the road, terrified of something we don’t understand. As she waits, a truck comes and plows in to her, killing her instantly.
The whole thing has a bit of an X-Files feel—stranger in an innocuous setting who dies under mysterious circumstances—but the scene also has the eerie, almost spiritual vibe that Millennium often has when it deals with the supernatural. The premise of “The Sound Of Snow” could fit on either show: a woman who works for a company that makes nature-sounds recordings is sending tapes of white noise to people she finds in the phone book. She has a special ability to create recordings that will draw out a person’s hidden guilt or shame, and make them relive it in a way which, apparently, leads to their deaths. (We only see one other person die, a man who jumps out of his building in terror of a non-existent threat; he was once the building supervisor at an apartment complex which burned down, killing 11 people due to smoke detectors with dead batteries and blocked emergency exits.) The woman, Alice, is connected to the Millennium group in some way, but we never get a sense of what that connection is, and we never get a sense about her, beyond the fact that she doesn’t seem like a nice lady. (Also, she has a problem with smoking, I think.)
Honestly, that doesn’t matter. “The Sound Of Snow” never feels padded, but a good chunk of it is given over to the usual routines of the genre procedural; talking with the relatives of the deceased, following clues, arguing that the tapes don’t have anything on them. This is fine, and necessary in its way, but the real heart of the episode is that Frank gets a tape (partly thanks to the Millennium Group’s interference), and he listens to it, and remembers everything that happened at the end of last season. The show has gone to such great lengths to erase or minimize these events that it’s a shock, in the best kind of way, to see Frank reliving them, from the discovery of the plague, to the fact that he was immunized by the group, even while Jordan and Catherine were not. (And Peter’s anger here is a nice reminder that his character used to be complex.) Best of all, it leads to a return to the old house, and a return to the shack where the Blacks briefly holed up during the crisis. The third season has been rough going for the most part, and its lack of a history is one reason why. Retooling often has this effect—suddenly, everyone is slightly different, and we’re supposed to have the same emotional connection to them we always did, even though all those reasons we became invested in the first place are no longer relevant.
The past few weeks have felt like a slow return to—well, not form, exactly, but something very like form, and while I doubt the show will ever return to the giddy, lunatic heights it once reached, I’m far more optimistic after watching “The Sound Of Snow” that it can at least be watchable again, and even good. Maybe great, who knows. There’s a sincerity and heart in this hour that didn’t feel forced or trite, and the scenes of Frank struggling with his guilt allow Lance Henriksen a chance to do more than frown. And the image of him lying in the forest, dreaming he’s receiving a chance to tell his wife how much he misses her, and how hard it is for him to go one without her, go a long way toward restoring what made Frank such a strong figure in the first place. It’s a beautiful, haunting scene, at once life-affirming and desperately sad. I’m delighted to find that Millennium is still capable of grace.
- Detective Giebelhouse is back! I missed him.
- Frank’s mention of “bio-acoustic engineering” is very Mulder-ish.
- Did we have official confirmation for the plague death toll before this? I knew it was smaller than last season suggested, but this might be the first time we get a number; Giebelhouse tells Emma 80 people died.
- Frank gets some funny feedback from the new owner of the former Black home: “Don’t know how you lived with the yellow, though.”
- Frank, to Catherine: “I want to be with you. Every day I want to be with you.”
- There’s a possibility that the Millenium Group sent Frank his tape because they were hoping it might help him. I like that; they obviously still want him on their side, so it’s good to see them not being completely evil for once.
- “They gave me my wife back.”—Frank
Next week: Todd follows Mulder and Scully to Florida, where they face off against an actual, honest-to-God monster of the week in “Agua Mala,” before crossing his fingers that the Millennium upswing continues with “Antipas.”