"Redux: Part 2" (Season 5, Episode 2)
In Which Scully Beats Cancer, Mulder Beats Blevins, and the Cancer Man Loses a Lung
I don't believe in God. Growing up in a small town in Maine, many of my friends came from devoutly religious families; my parents took us to church for a few years until my mother, realizing it was a lost cause that she herself wasn't all that committed to, gave up. She said she was tired of waking us up early on Sundays, and for all I know, that was the truth. So after I was eight or nine, God stopped being a specific idea, and became more of a generalized concept I didn't really shake off until I was in college. That meant I spent a lot of time as a kid hanging out with people who were way more into this stuff than I was, and that led to some uncomfortable situations. Like talking with my best pal about Jesus, and how weird Christianity could be, and him just getting so uncomfortable that he couldn't bear to talk about it openly anymore. (And I wasn't being offensive or dismissive, either. Well, maybe a little dismissive. I was kind of a dick when I was a teenager.) I didn't think they were fools for believing what they believed. I just couldn't relate to their commitment. It was like trying to talk to my dad about football.
But I wanted to believe. I wanted to be righteous, I wanted to fit into a larger community, and I wanted that sense that my life, as awkward and humiliating as it was, meant something to Someone. That was my weakest point, not because there's anything wrong with wanting to belong, but because in order for me to invest in these other belief systems, I'd have to sacrifice some key part of myself. For some people, finding the church must be tremendously rewarding, but I'm not designed that way. I remember sitting in on this kind of kiddie prayer circle with another friend once. His family was particularly devout, even by local standards, but this was a new experience for me. A pretty teenage girl read passages from the Bible, and told us about Jesus, and then asked us if any of us wanted to confess our sins. I said yes, because I wanted to be important, so we went upstairs, and after we talked for a few minutes, I started crying. My parents didn't believe in God, I told her, and we were awful people, and I wanted her to tell me that it was okay now. I wanted to be accepted, and fitting myself into someone else's idea of the Truth, despite my misgivings, seemed like the only real path left to me.
"Redux: Part 2" is not a bad way to start a season of The X-Files. Whatever reservations I may have over a three-episode story arc, this final entry does a good job of re-investing us in the show's basic ideals, returning us to a rough form of the status quo in a way that's exciting, emotionally powerful, and satisfying despite only incremental forward momentum. Yes, the Cancer Man (or the Cigarette Smoking Man, or the Marlboro Man, or Darth Mulder) is killed. Supposedly. And Mulder meets his "real" sister, and Scully's cancer goes into remission, and Section Chief Blevins, the man most visibly responsible for Scully's X-Files assignment back in the pilot, is discredited and murdered. We get a few more crumbs of information, and the name of a pharmaceutical company that may be one of the keys to all this nonsense. Mulder has faith in Skinner again. Scully's brother really doesn't like Mulder that much. And Scully has gone back to her faith, which lays some of the ground for her next big story arc.
Really, though, when you break all this down, none of this really changes much at all. Scully's cancer is "cured" in the most ambiguous, indefinite way possible. There's a chip in the de-ionized water that Mulder found (at the instruction of Cancer Man), and Scully has it implanted in the back of her neck to take the place of the chip she had removed ages ago. Her family has some serious problems with this, and while it's not hard to blame them, it's hard not resent their interference. Scully sides with Mulder at first about exploring every option, but when the chip doesn't immediately cure her, she breaks down and apologizes to her mother for turning her back on God. Anderson acts the hell out of the scene, and given what we know about the character, it's clear that this decision is an important step forward for her, a refusal to give in to the despair and alienation that Mulder's cause has inspired in them both. But it's also there so that when the cancer retreats, we don't know for sure what happened. Personally, I'm convinced it was the chip finally kicking, but the show neither confirms nor denies this conviction. On the one hand, that's a clever way of having the cake and eating it too, but it also means The X-Files remains non-committal on one of its central mysteries. Within the context of the episode, this works fine, because it allows both our heroes some measure of dignity. But it also means that we're still roughly in the same place we were years ago, because every time it looks like there's some inarguable proof of Mulder's crazy ass conspiracy theories, it slips away.
Apart from that, Cancer Man's death is the biggest "game-changer," but even if you didn't know that the character would be back in later episodes (he's even in the movie, although he'll return before then), it still wouldn't mean that much. If the CSM had died earlier on the show, that might've been important. He was the symbolic Bogeyman of the show, the threat we could pin all our suspicions and fears on. If he'd died then, that might've meant that Mulder was making some headway, that the forces he was allayed against were experiencing their own attrition to match the death of Mulder's informants. But now, the CSM is, if not a particular sympathetic character, enough of a human being that his "murder" seems like a cheap way to give us some other Bogeyman to worry about. I'm not explaining this very well; my point isn't that the Cancer Man's death doesn't make for an exciting moment. My point is more that because Mulder had made as much headway with the CSM as he does by the end of "Redux," the CSM's assassination seems less like a twist, and more like a way to bring us back to square one.
And yet, I don't really care right now, because the character beats in "Part 2" are immensely satisfying, powerful in direct, clear ways that the mythology doesn't always manage to pull off. Like Mulder's "corpse" last season, I had no real concern Scully was going to die; but her scenes in the hospital are heart-breaking regardless, because she looks so small and sick and exhausted. Her and Mulder's scenes together in this ep are some of the best we seen yet. There's no deconstructing here, no attempts by Scully to point out how bizarrely dangerous Mulder's obsessions have become. It's just two people who care desperate for each other, trying to communicate the immensity of that feeling without succumbing to it. Scully's mother and brother show up, and serve the function of all outsiders during moments like this, lecturing Mulder on the cost of his quest, and reminding him how terrible he should feel about everything. (Actually, it's just the brother, Bill, that does this. Mrs. Scully just seems too wrecked over the possible death of yet another daughter to put up much of a fight.) But for once, these accusations help to put Mulder in a more sympathetic light. Everything Bill says is basically true, but Mulder's resigned response, and his struggles to maintain the bare minimum of composure throughout the ep, make him the hero again. Bill's frustrations are understandable, but there really is more going on here than he knows, and Mulder is doing everything he can to put things right.
Which is really why I loved this episode, despite how it plays the "one step forward, two steps back" game. After the recriminations of season 4, the doubts as to Mulder's goals, the slowly growing concern that all this really is madness after all, the second part of "Redux" does a tremendous job of giving us back our faith in our heroes, and making them righteous again. And it comes down to belief, in how wanting to believe means as much as believing itself. Last week, Mulder's faith took some heavy blows. Like me, trying to provide the correct portion of guilt to a stranger so that I could be absolved; like any of us who, when lost or lonely, decide that the only way to be happy is to compromise ourselves and become what others want us to be; Mulder is offered a chance to give up, to surrender to whatever lie comes next, to become whatever others decide they need him to be. Here, Mulder, believe in aliens. Now believe in black oil. Believe in vampires, believe in mutants that can stretch and kill, believe in fluke monsters, believe in a world where reality teems with undercurrents and wonders that the rest of us only dream in. Now, stop believing in that. Give up your little green men. It's all shadow and mirrors and distraction, to hide the cold clinical lust for power that drives the vilest men to do vile deeds. There is no magic, despite what your eyes have told you, and what your heart longs to find. There's just a Cold War made by colder hearts, and you were their fool all along.
It's possible for me to imagine a version of this show where that works. It would almost certainly have a more satisfying resolution than the show we actually got. But when Mulder decides to stay true to himself here, when he refuses to fall for the next game, stands up for Skinner, and holds true to whatever small shred of self he has left—well, I'm glad to be watching this show. The aliens don't really matter, just as it doesn't matter if Scully's god is God, or just her faith in the essential meaning of her own suffering. What matters is that true belief, the best sort of belief, is the belief that takes us closer to who we want to be, to our best selves. If Scully needs God to know where she stands in the world, then that's where she belongs right now. If Mulder needs his faith in little green men, or if he needs to believe that the Samantha he meets at the diner is the Samantha, and not just one more in a long series of familiar faces, that's fine. While his obsessions can often make him seem small-minded or foolish, here, he looks like a hero, the last upright man in a world of slanting floors. I know it'll all fall apart soon enough, and that the mythology will never live up to the clarity of some of the moments we see here. But man, I love those moments. They make wanting and believing seem a little less ridiculous.
- Man, that Fat Man who leads the Syndicate (or whatever) has truly awful teeth.
- I realize this would've probably been a horrible idea, but part of me almost wishes Mulder had taken the CSM up on his offer. A whole season of Mulder trying to destroy the system within, while doing his best to keep Scully in the dark? I would watch that.
- I sometimes have a hard time connecting to Mulder's need to find his sister—I guess I'm just a horrible brother, or something—but that scene at the diner was beautiful. He looked so lost at the end. Really, Duchovny was on fire the whole episode.
- The Carter dialog worked better for me this episode than it has in a while. Not sure why.
"Beware of the Dog" (Season 2, Episode 2)
In Which Frank Gets Bitten, And Someone Has An Imitation Cappuccino
Last fall, I started covering the second season of Human Target here at the TV Club. I was very excited about this. The first season of Target had been tremendous fun, and while the show had its flaws, I was looking forward to jumping back into that world, and getting paid to do so. Besides, second seasons of decent shows are often a lot better than first seasons, because the writers and actors have had a chance to figure out what stories they want to tell the most. They've gotten feedback from critics and audiences, and while a series doesn't need to change itself to try and fit everyone's needs, an outsider's perspective (especially a bunch of outsiders) is crucial in understanding what works and what doesn't. So I was optimistic about Target, although there were caveats. The show's ratings were weak enough in the first season that it was vulnerable to tampering, and the word was, studio execs had asked for some changes. They'd even brought in a new showrunner. But hey, Target had never been a perfect show. Maybe some new creative blood was just what it needed to hit new heights.
In case you didn't follow the show, or my reviews (god, you don't read everything I write? I'm hurt, guys), Target's second season was disastrous. The new characters were at best pointless, at worst actively irritating, and while the main cast's chemistry was still strong, it was routinely hampered by sloppy plotting, clunky dialog, and a "whimsical" new tone that vacillated between hollow comedy and even more hollow drama. In trying to make the show more appealing to a broader audience, the execs and the new showrunner killed what had been good, and brought nothing worth saving into the void which followed. Such is nearly always the case with retooling. Partly that's because the changes are nearly always for the worse, and partly, it's because television is about continuity. It's about trust, and once that trust is violated, it's hard to bring people back.
So while I was looking forward to Millennium's second season, I was also, if not worried, at least curious as to how the "new" version of the show would play against the old one. I didn't have a huge emotional investment in season one. There were episodes I liked quite a lot, but many of the series' biggest concerns—serial killers, misery, despair, sexual terror, serial killers ("You mentioned serial killers twice." "I really like serial killers.")—weren't concerns I was all that interested in. I enjoyed watching Frank Black run around, sneaking peaks at the heart of darkness that underlies contemporary society, but I had a hard time getting really excited about any of it, because I couldn't connect to Frank and his adventures in a way that would keep me coming back. The goals were too poorly defined, the threat of impending doom to pervasive and muddled to really be much more than "Man, Chris Carter just doesn't like the way things are going, does he?" But at the same, I'd gotten used to what I was supposed to expect week in, week out. I was getting to the point where I could appreciate the subtle variations on formula, even when that formula often left me cold. How would it work to find the world turned on its ear?
The truth is, it's working pretty damn well so far, although there are definite growing pains. "The Beginning and the End" had me at its cold open (which struck me as the sort of open The X-Files did quite often, but while it's over-used on that show, here, it finally gave some credence to the apocalyptic vibe Carter had spent the whole first season chasing after), and I was engaged through that entire ep in a way that S1 rarely held my attention. I liked seeing Frank on edge, and while there was nothing here we hadn't seen some hint of before, there was a stronger, crazier vibe to it all, like the show's new creative force, as Glenn Morgan and James Wong decided that the only real way to show madness is to pull out all the stops. It wasn't perfect, but it promised a direction for the new season that offered something I hadn't seen on TV before, something beyond wily murderers with weird occult fetishes. It didn't all work, but it found a way to take the best parts of the first season, and ramp them up considerably.
"Beware of the Dog" continues the trend, and while it doesn't work perfectly, it's so endearingly batshit that I can't help kind of falling in love. The biggest problem here is that the show is still trying to deal with some of the relationships established in the first season that don't really fit with the new direction. Namely, Catherine, and Jordan, Frank's oasis of kindness in the desert of the world. "Dog" tries to make a big deal out of Catherine moving out of the house that the Blacks moved into at the start of the show, and how her leaving isn't just a matter of marital discord; the family unit is in danger, and given how that family unit represented All Good Things, or whatever, the loss means more than Frank having to make alimony payments. It's not a bad idea, and it's necessary to get Frank away from the safety of the home in order to push him further out on the edge of normal life. But it's happened way too fast here. As far as I can remember, Catherine and Frank were doing fine in the first season. That she would ask him to leave the house at the end of last week's episode is a little much, but it works all right. That she'd already be talking about moving in with someone (a guy named Dave, apparently?) is a little much. I understand that Morgan and Wong need to break up the marriage as quickly as possible to get to the stories they really want to tell, but it's really awkward. Which is often a problem with retooling—editing a show's reality in front of the viewer's eyes is disconcerting, no matter how deftly it's handled.
But apart from that, this was just wonderfully weird and entertaining. I didn't quite follow all of it, and I'm not sure it all actually makes sense, but Millennium often seems to be at its best when sense is a secondary consideration. An elderly couple in an RV is murdered by a pack of wild dogs inside the town limits of Bucksnort, Montana, and the Millennium group calls Frank in to investigate—even though the crime was never officially reported. In fact, Bucksnort doesn't seem to have any real law enforcement, as the locals immediately assume Frank is their new sheriff, and spend the rest of the episode referring to him as "sheriff," despite his repeated protestations to the contrary. (Note: this is never not funny.) Frank does some poking around, and meets a yuppie named Michael Beebe who recently built a house in town. Then Frank gets attacked by the dogs, and barely survives. He learns the next day, while lying unconscious as the townsfolk lay down some bizarre exposition, that there's an old man who lives in the woods who supposedly controls the dogs, and Frank goes out to meet the dude (character actor R.G. Armstrong). Then things get really weird.
I'm not sure how to unpack this, and I'm reluctant to even try for fear of making some obvious mistakes, but The Old Man (who is never named) is affiliated with the Millennium group in some way, and he understands the dogs (who are demons, I guess?), though he doesn't control them. He talks to Frank about the balance of a circle, and about how Beebe's presence upset that balance, which is why the dogs have been going so crazy lately. Good and evil also come up, and there's a lot of talk about stones with circles on them, at at one point, Frank has to stare down a dog, and the Old Man calls him "Franklin." It's the sort of almost-brilliant philosophy bullshit that always drives me up a wall, because I have a hard time resisting my natural impulse to just dismiss everything out of hand as patently ridiculous. But at the same time, it fits the off-kilter reality the show is aiming for now in ways that more direct conversation would not.
And really, it brings the best out in Frank. He seems a much more human, dynamic character this season, as opposed to the world-weary sage of season one. Last ep, he lost control. This ep, he's frightened, sad, irritated, and struggling to maintain composure in the face of a whole mess of nutters. Frank has always been the "straight man" of Millennium, the one normal center that throws the lunacy into starker contrast, but this season seems to understand that he works best when he isn't perfectly composed. It's easier to connect with him when his response to psycho dogs and irritating hicks and frustratingly opaque elderly people is roughly the same as our response would be. He's also more dynamic here, as he disregards the Old Man's pronouncement that Beebe has to die for his transgressions. Frank breaks the rules, and saves Beebe, which inspires the Old Man to join in. Sure, the yuppie loses his house, but that's a lot nicer than losing your intestines.
It's not perfect. I still don't quite get how the Millennium group and the comet and the dogs and everything quite fit, and I'm not sure I entirely believe this will all come together in the end. Plus, while the ep starts strong (with a dark humor that never makes the horror of what's happening any easier to watch), the climax in Beebe's house wasn't quite as surprising as I wanted it to be. Although the constant reveal shots of dogs wandering around in the background was great. What I'm saying is, if we're going to have lumpy, imperfect TV, let it be the kind of lumpy, imperfect TV we see here, shooting the moon with a bazooka full of rabid puppies.
- Really loving all the Millennium Group Special Doomsday Devices(tm) Frank has installed in his home. Like the screen on his computer that tells him just how many days there are left till the end of everything. (It's 826 here.)
- So, with the folks in the RV at the beginning, were they invited into town as a sacrifice to protect the locals? Also, I think they stole Scully's dog, pre-alligator.
- It's hard to tell on shows from the '90s, but I have the sneaking suspicion that Michael Beebe is gay. Even if it that wasn't the intention, I enjoyed how hilariously incongruous he was in Bucksnort.
- "My name is not Franklin." Which kind of sums up the New Frank Black—HE'S NOT GOING TO PLAY BY THEIR RULES. YAAA.
- "Is this thing loaded?" "God, I hope so."
- "There will always be another dog."
Next week: Todd takes a look at one of my favorite X-Files episodes, "Unusual Suspects," and gets down with the sickness in "Sense and Antisense."