"Sanguinarium" (season 4, episode 6)
In which Mulder and Scully happen upon the ol' "plastic surgery outfit as a front for some serious witchcraft 'n' shit" gambit.
I was thrilled to draw the pre-Halloween outing for our little X-Files/Millennium write-ups here. If there's any season that could play up these shows, it's this one. I used to host these scary movie days in college on Oct. 31, and one of the staples of them was tossing on a great X-Files episode I happened to have on tape. One year, it was "Home." One year, it was "Post-Modern Prometheus" (yeah, yeah, yeah, I know … you all think it's awful). One year, it was some other creepy monster-of-the-week thing. And the Millennium episode, "The Curse of Frank Black," is one of my favorite Halloween episodes ever, a nice, ghoulish attempt to capture just what it is that makes the holiday such an opportunity for good spooking when you're a kid and somehow transmits that sense of good, holiday fun to adults.
When I was a kid, my mom had this calendar of faux-old American folk art, the kind of stuff that litters the Cracker Barrels of our great land, and the entries for October, November, and December colonized my brain with their depictions of small towns at the turn of the 20th century, featuring trick or treaters making merry, families gathering for turkey feasts, and small towns bedecked in wreaths and garland. "Curse of Frank Black" is one of the few TV episodes to accurately capture the feeling I felt as a kid looking at that calendar page. (Also, while we're at it, have you ever seen this guy? This is really cheesy stuff, but the part of me that likes that calendar page and that episode REALLY WANTS ONE.) To me, Halloween is less about being actively scary and more about being goodheartedly spooky, a collision of every classic monster archetype you want to think of.
But instead of something seasonally appropriate or even something vaguely fun, I drew "Sanguinarium" and "Kingdom Come."
If you sense I've been stalling (I have!), it's because the Halloween draw this year is deeply disappointing. "Sanguinarium" is one of the worst X-Files episodes ever, even if it does end up being kind of appropriate in spite of itself. "Kingdom Come" is better, but it's more interesting as an example of the show it was a part of starting to figure out where it wanted to head going forward. Neither is a great episode of television, and one is pretty actively bad. I had at least hoped that watching them on the 29th of October might make them play better, but I mostly just spent the running time hoping against hope that when I was done, TCM might be showing something not completely terrible.
Now then. "Sanguinarium."
To discuss why "Sanguinarium" is bad, we have to discuss the circumstances under which it was made. To discuss that, we have to discuss some very basic things about TV writing. Until very recently, the way to break into the TV script-writing game was to write something called a "spec script." This was where you watched a whole bunch of episodes of a particular show, outlining them to figure out that show's particular formula, then wrote your own take on the basic formula, while also not cribbing anything the show had ever done before. The trick to writing a spec was basically to write the world's greatest fan fiction. It had to be scarily plausible as an episode of the show, but not so plausible that it actually HAD been an episode of the show. It had to be a show that people in Hollywood were watching and aware of, but it couldn't be a show TOO MANY people in Hollywood were watching and aware of. In that regard, The X-Files, as a cult show with pretty good ratings and Emmy recognition, was a godsend to spec script writers, and it seems like everyone who was working in the game in one way or another in the '90s had a spec X-Files in their back pocket. (Hell, I had one, and I was 16, didn't live in LA, and sucked.) The game's changed somewhat nowadays, but spec scripts remain important, and most wannabe TV writers have one or two ready to go at a moment's notice.
Now. Spec scripts were the best way to land a job on a series, but writing a spec script of the show you wanted to write for was generally not going to work. If you wanted to work on The X-Files, you couldn't just write an X-Files. You had to write a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and hope Chris Carter a.) read it and b.) liked Deep Space Nine. And what did this lead to? Usually not a staff writing gig. Now, it would probably land you such a thing (or at least a writer's assistant job), but back then, most TV shows were in the habit of employing freelance writers, people who would come in for just one episode, but not join the staff full-time. The WGA had rules in place about how many scripts per season had to be written by freelancers (usually two), and rather than pay the fine, most shows would just bring in someone else for a few weeks to work on a script with the normal writers. Fun for all! (So far as I know, these WGA rules still exist, but shows employ fewer freelancers, though a friend of mine ended up getting a gig writing an episode of Sons of Anarchy on a freelance basis this year. I'm guessing most shows just pay the fines or buy story ideas from freelancers, then toss them to the writers at large, while giving the freelancers story credit.)
I hope you see where I'm going with this. The X-Files generally employed freelancers for a couple of episodes per year, and those episodes were inevitably among the worst of that season. The grand exception to this is when the show brought in Vince Gilligan to write a freelance episode in season three and ended up with "Pusher." "Sanguinarium" is a freelance episode of The X-Files, but it simultaneously feels like one that was written without a great deal of overview from the regular writers. (Usually at least the showrunner takes a pass at a freelance episode, to ensure it fits within the show's normal voice.) In short, "Sanguinarium" feels like somebody's spec script X-Files that just happened to be accidentally produced. The voices for the characters are too flat and on-point. The scares are both predictable and too obviously edgy (a guy peels off his face with a FORK). The story doesn't make a lot of sense and makes way more out of paranormal stuff than the show often did at that point in time. Worst of all, the dialogue is just ludicrously bad. Everything is turned up to 11, where the show usually leaves things at about a seven or an eight.
The central idea of "Sanguinarium" isn't a bad one. It's fun to watch the show dabble in the iconography of witchcraft, and blending that world with the world of the medical drama (and specifically the world of plastic surgery) is a nice way to cheekily play off the medical shows that were so popular at the time. The guest acting - as it generally was on the show at the time this episode was produced - is strong, particularly from John Juliani and Richard Beymer. And, I dunno, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson seem to be having a bit of fun with their arguments about whether it's witchcraft or just a bad sleeping pill addiction. Plus, if you're a gorehound, this is probably one of your favorite X-Files ever, with all of the disturbing depictions of plastic surgery and the blood and guts around the edges of the episode.
But at every turn, the episode is just too much. So much of the strength of The X-Files stems from the way that it suggests, rather than directly shows. Director Kim Manners tries to preserve this element of the show, but the script from freelancers Valerie and Vivian Mayhew doesn't leave him a lot of room. (The Mayhews would ride this episode to a short career writing for TV, though they seem to have mostly disappeared after the short-lived remake of The Fugitive went off the air in early 2001.) There's little way for Manners to leave anything to the imagination in the scene where Dr. Lloyd performs a horrifyingly violent liposuction, say, or the scene where Franklyn peels off his face with that fork. Blood seeps out of seemingly every frame in this episode, but not in anything like a fun way. Manners also directed the similarly heightened violence of "Home," but that script leaves him more room to play. This one is constantly looking straight at things.
Or maybe the production team decided that was the best way to confront the fact that the story here doesn't really make a lick of sense. It requires us to believe that a hospital has been infiltrated by dark warlocks and witches who are able to use their magic to perform medical miracles but also have to make the occasional blood sacrifice of a patient or a fellow coven member. The people who die in the episode? They're all born on the holiest of witches' feasts, like Roodsday or Samhain (which, I don't know if you heard, is coming up). It requires us to believe that this evil doctor is successfully able to pull off this ruse, keeping it not only from the patients, but also from many of the other doctors themselves (except for a nurse who knows what he's … y'know what? none of this makes any sense). In that case, it's easy to see why the show pushed the graphic content to the limits of what TV could show at the time, but more often than not, it just makes the episode seem cheap. This doesn't seem to be a part of the X-Files milieu. It seems foreign.
But, then, almost everything in "Sanguinarium" has that disappointing sense of foreignness. And all of those problems can be traced back to the script. Rather than suggesting great feats of witchcraft, as, say, "Die Hand Die Verletzt" did, the episode just SHOWS us a dude floating in midair. Rather than have Mulder come to a hypothesis, the episode just has him skip straight to witchcraft, while Scully is reduced to tossing off pithy asides about how the only miracles at the clinic are happening thanks to silicone. The episode reduces the two to talking heads that comment on their stated positions but don't seem to have much more to say that would suggest anything about how seeing this strangeness is affecting them. The episode captures the outward beats of The X-Files but none of its soul. Maybe it worked better on paper, but "Sanguinarium" has all of the problems of a freelancer episode without having any of the benefits of an outside perspective.
- I have a notorious aversion to the kind of gore shown in this episode. I can watch it, and it doesn't turn my stomach or anything, but when you throw lots of gore at the camera, I inevitably find it to be a way to cover up for OTHER weaknesses. Your mileage may vary.
- In the end, that brief mention of October 31 made this episode just barely appropriate for the holiday. But it's quite a stretch.
- I don't think either Mulder or Scully is written particularly WELL in this episode, but the script really misses the essential nature of Scully, reducing her to someone who just glibly tells Mulder how wrong he is over and over, someone who seems a little irritated with his wacky notions, as if the Mayhews had stopped watching the show in early season one or something. Between this and "The Field Where I Died," the 'shippers of the mid-90s must have had a pretty terrible November. (I did like Scully's line about looking for someone riding a broom wearing a pointy hat, though. Credit where it's due and all that.)
- Do you know what people will do to be beautiful? Anything, apparently! And Mulder? He'll check you out after you have the procedures done, baby.
- As far as graphicness goes, this episode must have been seen as sort of a gauntlet thrown down for the people who would later make Nip/Tuck.
"Kingdom Come" (season 1, episode 6)
In which a man tries to kill his faith by killing a bunch of reverends. Yeah, it doesn't make a lot of sense to us either.
When I was a little kid, I went to a fundamentalist Christian church. At that church, the most important thing was witnessing to unbelievers or even believers who just didn't believe hard enough (which usually boiled down to Catholics and mainline Protestants). One of the common ways to approach people to get them to believe in Jesus was to ask them whether they had a feeling of emptiness in some core part of their being, whether they felt as though they were missing something, something that would complete them in some key way. The argument we were to make was that this core element that was missing was where Jesus Christ would come into their hearts and make them whole. The idea was that after they prayed the prayer inviting him in, they would feel a rush of emotion, a sense that everything was better now, that they were complete.
It's a common idea, one that spans nearly all religions. The idea that you can say a few words or live a certain way and find fulfillment and inner peace is a tempting one, perhaps more tempting in this modern age than the idea that you can move on to another world where everyone lives in a mansion after death. But it's also a complete lie. No one's going to find permanent fulfillment via saying the right words or getting ahead at their job or meeting the right person to marry. People aren't built that way. For the most part, we always want more, and we press forward toward that "more," no matter what it is.
But the fundamentalist doesn't couch the moments when he or she feels despair or concern in those terms. To too many fundamentalists (of all stripes), feeling sad or feeling as if something is missing becomes a failure of the person, a way that that person's faith simply isn't strong enough. (The great religious blogger Stephanie Drury has written a lot about this.) This results in trying to fill in the gaps, in trying to come up with ways to be sure about everything there could possibly be, to have answers to whatever questions others might toss at your faith, to have solutions to keep the doubt and despair tamped down just so. Eventually, this all breaks down, or you get lost in it, and it becomes your whole life, to the point where there's nothing left but justification and self-deception. It's less about religion or any sort of relationship with the eternal and more about making sure you have patched over all of the holes that might lead to something that would cause you to begin to question. I haven't been in the fundamentalist tradition for over a decade now. I don't miss the religious aspect all that much, but I miss the comforting feeling of being sure, of knowing you're RIGHT. All that's left is doubt.
"Kingdom Come" is directly pitched at these questions, ultimately. It's an episode about a man who finds himself trying to lose his faith but being unable to do so. It has many of the typical Millennium problems, this early into the run - especially an overreliance on trite philosophical dialogue - but there's something pure and believable at its core that keeps the episode moving along nicely. It just might be my favorite episode of Millennium's run so far, and it's the one that the producers obviously looked to when they tried to build a more comprehensive basis for the show than just "there are serial killers, and Frank Black catches them." Millennium eventually turned into a show about serial killers AND about the uneasy role of religion in modern society. It's, on some level, a show about how we haven't really changed all that much from who we were in medieval times, even if we pretend we're smarter than that.
A man is driving cross-country, and he's killing various religious leaders. One, he burns at the stake. Another, he drowns. Frank quickly catches on to what he's doing; he's recreating various medieval tortures and carrying them out against ministers of the Christian faith for … some reason. Already, the episode figures out a better way to use Frank in this regard: He's our conduit to the secret information about religious and church history (and eventually end-times prophecy) that we wouldn't have on a normal serial-killer stalking show. The killings in Millennium fit together in a kind of nebulous pattern, a sense of the world closing in on itself and surrendering to darkness. Frank is at his best as a character when he can point out to the audience (and the other characters around him) how all of this ties into one religious tradition or another.
Even the "home life of Frank Black" stuff is marginally better in this episode, as it involves some parallels with his main case. Our villain snapped when his family died, and Frank's daughter becomes concerned with death, with the idea that her parents could die. As a storyline, this still isn't the most riveting domestic drama in history, and it's weighed down by the fact that such a small storyline pales in comparison to the world-defining events that Frank confronts out in the field. But there's a greater sense of who these people are as characters and just why Frank cares so much about them beyond the basic idea of them being his wife and kid. (They're still more valuable to the series as symbols, ultimately, but this episode defines them a little better, particularly in the scene where Catherine admits to lying to Jordan.) This is all a bit too tidy, particularly in the end, but I don't roll my eyes at all of it, and I like the small-scale start of the piece, with Jordan becoming upset when a bird snaps its neck after colliding with the yellow house's window.
But it's out in the field where the episode really works. In particular, I'm pleased at the way the show gives Frank a worthy partner in Lindsay Crouse. One of the things that Millennium apparently quickly realized was that it couldn't just have Frank out there by himself in the field, so it gave him any number of worthy partners to test his theories and push him past his limits. Crouse is one of the better examples of this type of character, and she just reminds me of how much Catherine isn't Scully in regards to giving Frank someone to work with and debate with. The scenes where the two are discussing the particulars of the crime and trying to figure out why a man would begin to murder all of these ministers are probably the episode's best.
Unfortunately, it all comes to a rather hackneyed conclusion. Our man - revealed to be Galen Calloway - goes to a church and holds the congregation hostage with explosives. Frank and the other authorities catch up to him, when Frank decides to go in to confront Calloway because he "knows what he's doing." Apparently, Calloway is trying to kill his faith in the wake of the death of his family, but he's doing a pretty piss-poor job because he's only killing its outward exemplars. Whatever he does, he can't get rid of his faith in God. This results in a pretty silly scene where Frank and Calloway talk about how faith is like an old photo album in a closet that you just like knowing you have around for when you need it. This results in Calloway pointing his gun at Frank's head, but then firing it into the sky, followed by the SWAT team descending upon him. It's all rather pushing too hard to be profound, a frequent problem with the show, and it doesn't get to meaningful so much as it gets to "kinda stupid."
But there's a central idea at the heart of "Kingdom Come," and that keeps the episode from being a total wash. Churches are less important to society than they used to be. In a way, they're very like the old photo album of Frank's speech, and very few of us attend them week to week, breaking them out at Christmas and Easter. But they're still there, and they have profound effects on those who truly believe, even as more and more of those people edge closer to death. A church can be a community and a pillar in people's lives, but it can also create a sense that things should always be good, that sadness is an aberration. That tension - between the surety of faith and the lack of surety that is Frank Black's work - would become the tension Millennium would build its best episodes on. Here is where it begins.
- I like the fact that the opening scene is set to the choir practicing what sounds like music for a Christmas mass (I really have no idea, since I'm not Catholic). It's a beautiful accompaniment to some of the horrors that the episode delves into.
- Normally, the 1013 production staff was better at making Vancouver look like many different regions, but Tacoma, Cheyenne, and Rockford all look damned similar in this episode, in a way that kind of kills some of the episode's suspense.
- If I never have to see another episode of a crime show where the investigator locks himself in with a bunch of hostages, I will be a very happy man.
- Frank's gifts clearly push more fully toward psychic abilities, rather than just some truly amazing form of criminal profiling. He really shouldn't be able to see the family burning in the fire.
- Apparently, Fox pushed this episode by a few weeks, due to the murder of a priest. There was some discussion that Fox did this just to get Millennium, which was already sagging in the ratings, more press, but who knows if that was the case?
Next week: Zack takes on one of the great goofs in X-Files history in "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man" and watches Millennium clumsily try to integrate Catherine more in "Blood Relatives."