"Terma" (Season 4, Episode 9)
In Which, On Top Of Everything Else, Krycek Now Has To Worry About Richard Kimble
If I had the patience for it, I'd review this episode the way Todd reviewed some of last season's Rescue Me, on a scene by scene basis. Because at this point in the mythology episodes, the scenes don't seem to connect in precisely the way they should. The basic plot isn't that hard to follow, largely because it follows the trajectory of the end-run of nearly every mythology storyline: namely, the cover-up moves into place, articulate old men make vague, ominous pronouncements, a few people die, and there's some small hope that maybe next time, Mulder and Scully might find the proof they need to bring the conspiracy to light. But the specifics remain frustratingly elusive, and not just in the ominous way they've always seemed elusive. There are threads here that could've made for really fascinating drama, had they been given more focus. The standard complaint against the later mythology episodes is that they lost their urgency and turned into a huge muddle of vamping-for-time routines. It's like the conspiracy theories that initially drove so much of the show devolved into a belabored "Who's On First" routine before we even realized what was happening.
I think this is true, but watching "Terma," what frustrated me more than anything was that if at any point the episode had decided to focus in on one of these circular routines and actually tried to explore what was really going on, it would've been more dramatically effective than the episode we got. So instead of doing this scene by scene, let's try and break it down by plots and maybe tease together some sense of purpose from an hour that occasionally comes within spitting distance of urgency. It's the old sound and fury bit, with speeches, shocking deaths, and Krycek getting mutilated to hide the all the idiocy.
Plot 1: Scully vs. The United States Government
This is easily my least favorite of the three. "Tunguska" opened with Scully giving a speech in a congressional hearing, but because of the fractured time (another way to hide that you don't really have much story is to screw with chronology; it creates a false sense of suspense, because while the audience isn't that concerned about the individual events, the "Three days earlier" header creates an automatic mystery; we just assume there has to be some viable reason for the jumping around, even when there hardly ever is), we don't see her give her speech proper until some ways into "Terma." Congress isn't happy with all the craziness over the intercepted diplomatic pouch (the one with the rock in it), and so Scully is called on the carpet to explain where Mulder went, because that's basically her job in the mythology at this point. She was abducted, her sister was murdered, but her primary purpose is to cover for her partner, and provide reassuring, vaguely sexualized hugs when her partner returns. This is probably my least favorite version of the character, as even with all the crap that's happened to her since she joined Mulder's quest, she doesn't really feel like his equal in their pursuit of the truth. The show works best when it recognizes that it has two leads and not just a hero with a sidekick.
The government people aren't all that impressed by Scully's speechifying, and to tell the truth, neither am I. Everything she says is essentially true. There is a culture of lies, there are shadowy figures who never pay the price of responsibility for their crimes, and that turns her work into a joke. But the lines are belabored and pompous. Carter's writing often suffers from this, but at least in voice-over narration, that pomposity can sound vaguely poetic, the stylized nature of the language working to create a mood of heightened reality. (Reminds me a little of Twin Peaks, actually. The small town life on that show was never actually normal, but the airy, dreamy vibe made the moments of horror that much more striking.) Here, though, Scully comes off more than a little like a tool. It should be triumphant, frustrating moment, as our hero shakes her fist in the face of the elaborate machinations against her. Instead, I was really hoping she'd just stop talking. The congressman agreed with me, and Scully, after refusing to provide Mulder's whereabouts, gets shipped off to jail for the night. There's some time spent with the doctor who's been infected by the black cancer, but for the most part, this is a storyline that doesn't really do much we haven't seen before. Scully won't bend, Skinner is frustrated, Mulder is nowhere to be seen. Until he is. Which leads us to …
Plot 2: In Soviet Russia, Black Cancer Fucks You
In the final shots of "Tunguska," Mulder is strapped down to a cot under a sheet of chicken-wire, as the black cancer clouds his eyes. It's a great cliffhanger, and while "Terma" doesn't exactly deliver on the follow-through, it at least deals with what happened in a fairly logical way. After all, it's not like Mulder was going to get killed, although it would've been nice to see him spend some time under the influence of alien forces. (Admittedly, those of us who enjoy watching Mulder act like someone else will have the opportunity to do so soon enough.) The explanation, delivered in hushed, urgent tones from the cell next door, that the Russian government injects prisoners with the "cancer" (which we've been referring to as the "black oil," mostly because cancer generally doesn't turn you into a murder machine) in the search for an inoculation against the looming threat of alien invasion. We've seen people infected by the oil survive before (nothing can kill the Krycek), and the idea of repeated injections of the stuff is chilling enough that this resolution isn't too bad.
Another bonus of Plot 2 is that Mulder's dramatic escape from the prison camp is a pretty sweet action setpiece, even though it's somewhat embarrassing that the Russians are this horrible at security. It's strange that the one truck Mulder manages to grab, briefly kidnapping Krycek in the process, is the truck without working brakes. Unless I missed a piece of dialogue, this just seems like bad luck, and while it makes the flight down the hillside more exciting, it also smacks of the kind of random inconvenience the show so often pulls out to keep its heroes from achieving their goals. I'm not sure what would've happened if Mulder had been able to drive longer. He might not have been able to escape Russia without the help of the peasants who find him hiding under the leaves later on, and Krycek probably would've been able to escape either way. But it's a little silly.
Also silly is Mulder's dramatic entrance into Scully's hearing later on. He gives his own big speech here, and, again, it should be rousing, and maybe I've just become too inured to all this, but it mostly just made me cringe. Nothing of consequence is happening here, and there's no catharsis of Mulder facing down his enemies and sticking it to them. It's just a sort of crazy man yelling at a bunch of old guys in suits. Afterward, Mulder and Scully try and finally track down that damn rock, only it gets lost in an explosion at an oil rig. Aaand, looking at my notes, I've just realized that I'm confusing the chronology of the events myself. Mulder's speech doesn't come till after they lose the rock. So it's even more hollow than before. This is a plotline that should've been the spine of the episode, as it has always been the spine of the mythology arcs, and it has its moments. (I hope Krycek is right-handed …) But when Mulder shouts, "Why is his so hard to believe," I shouldn't be snickering.
Plot 3: The Well-Manicured Man Loses A Friend
Out of everything in "Terma," the few scenes we get between the WMM and the CSM were the most potentially intriguing. One of the reasons "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man" works as well as it does is that it offers to give us a quick peak behind the curtain in Oz's palace. Too much of this, and we see the old man at the controls is a humbug and a lot of the drama is lost. But there's so much about the Cabal of Codgers we don't know, and as the conspiracy wears on, the only real place left with any secrets worth sharing is in what drives these men to behave the way they do. These aren't shadows, these are people who, at one point or another, made the decision that only they had the best interests of the country at heart and that it was necessary for them to take steps to see those interests were followed. There's a tremendous amount of potential tragedy in that, in watching good intentions corrupt and decay into cruelty. It's a shame we only get to peek around the edges.
A old Russian assassin is called back to duty to fly over to the United States and murder a friendly lady doctor. (Who just happens to be on good terms with the WMM, if you know what I mean, and I mean sex.) See, the Russians have realized that the US has been running its own experiments at inoculation, involving old people and a really unpleasant version of euthanasia, and the Russians aren't too happy about that. So Paskow, the assassin, strangles the doctor, then kills the doctor who got infected by the black cancer in "Tunguska," the one Scully was working with, and eventually on (I do not mean sex here, as far as I can tell), covering up the tracks. Really, this is what the two-parter should've been about. A nursing home full of dead people oozing black gunk? The WMM's fury over the murder of his friend? The CSM's arrogance? These are the exciting beats, whereas too much of the Mulder/Scully storyline is just running us down familiar tracks in slightly new settings. Which is, I think, the heart of the problem. These storylines are going to continue, and they're going to have some cool action beats and the occasional freaky alien or monster, but "Terma" confirms what "Tunguska" implied: Second verse, same as the first. And so on.
- All right, let me see if I can follow this. The rock with the black goo in it is a meteorite that hit Earth and caused the Tunguska Event in 1908. The black cancer inside the rock is the same as the stuff that infected characters and controlled them earlier in the show, but it's separate as well, and both our government and the Russians are studying it and trying to develop a serum that can protect people from the gunk's effects, due to the on-going threat of colonization. Although, wait, isn't our government in league with the colonizing aliens? Are they all the same aliens? Or maybe the CSM and his cronies are trying to find a way to protect themselves should the deal go south. Am I close here?
"Wide Open" (Season 1, Episode 9)
In Which We Learn That Sometimes, There Really Is A Monster In Your Closet
It's a nice house. Affluent, friendly neighborhood, and everything is wonderfully cheerful and bright in the way of well-off families on television. I'm not sure it's the sort of house that any of us could immediately connect to, but we get the signs. In the world of Millennium, this is a house full of innocents, of good people who pay their taxes, love each other, and refrain from sin. They have a security alarm system to keep them protected, because it's a scary world out there, and there are bad men and women who would think nothing of breaking into such a nice house and ruining the lives inside. Unfortunately, this family has made one key mistake: they left their doors unlocked one day. Sure, it's for good reasons: They're trying to sell this nice house, and that's difficult to do when you won't let strangers inside. It's just that, this time, a stranger who's stranger than most comes to visit. He finds a good place to hide. And that night, when it's time for bed, he stops hiding.
The cold open of this week's episode is one of the most thoroughly unsettling I've seen on the show so far, because it plays to such a simple fear: That no matter how much you protect yourself, there are always places to hide. The killer, who calls himself John Allworth (among other names), doesn't even need to do that much work to get in. He just shows up in a clean suit, and ducks into the closet in a little girl's bedroom while no one is looking. A few hours and a little luck later, he can murder Mom and Dad with impunity, only setting off their ultra-fancy security system when he's leaving the house. It's tremendously creepy, and it got under my skin in a way that a lot of the death on the series hasn't. After all, I've got closets in my apartment, too.
Generally speaking, "Wide Open" was solid stuff. The killer was allowed just enough screen-time to be a compelling threat, and his motivations were grounded in understandable psychology, but the episode never really felt like it was about him. On a show like this, given that Frank is pretty much always Frank and that he rarely has a personal connection to the work he does (beyond, "Oh god, I must stop this evil before it can ever touch my perfect family!"), there must be a strong temptation to put more of the focus onto the killers. This can work if the killer is interesting enough, but Allworth, while tragic in his way, would never have been sympathetic enough to hold our attention that long. While the trauma he experienced as a child (he watched his aunt and uncle tortured and murdered) is horrific, there's a smugness to his adult behavior which cuts down on the pathos and is also curiously refreshing. This isn't a cool monster, and while he's tragic in the conceptual sense, it's hard to feel that much pity for him.
That helps give the episode overall a stronger sense of purpose: This bastard has to be stopped. One of the problems with Millennium's ultra-grim worldview is that its suffocating despondency can make it difficult to root for our hero's success. Sure, we think, Frank will probably figure this one out eventually, but so what? Who cares? There are always a dozen more psychos waiting to step in and carve people up. Here, because the killer's method of attack is so clearly monstrous, it feels like we've been given actual stakes, with the clear knowledge that the world will be a better place once he's out of it.
It doesn't hurt that Frank does some actual, entertaining detective work here. He gets the usual flashes—interesting how his flashes mimic the flashes the killer sees when he finds the house he wants to invade—but most of what he does is patient decoding and deductive reasoning. He's able to find a picture of the killer on the video the killer sends of his first murders, and then, while he's arguing to Catherine that they need to show the picture to Patricia, the girl Allworth left behind, he realizes that involving Patricia is what the bad guy has wanted all along. Patricia didn't "escape," she was allowed to live because Allworth is re-enacting trauma from his own past, and attempting to punish the living for what was done to him as a child. We're all conditioned to expect scenes of police officers interrogating children, because that makes for heart-rending drama; it seemed obvious that, sooner or later, the case would hinge on getting Patricia to relive the worst experience of her life. That this doesn't happen is legitimately surprising and also makes perfect sense, and it's satisfying to see Frank actually realizing this, as opposed to just wandering behind the killer like Morgan Freeman in Seven, cataloging the horror but unable to speed it towards its conclusion.
As always, the episode has its rough patches. The attempts at comic relief from that one cop don't really work. I agree that the show could use more gallows humor, but this guy's delivery (and, in his defense, the lines themselves) aren't funny or humanizing. It's still impossible to get a read on just who Frank is, which is frustrating, seeing as how he's the lead on the show and we're well into the first season. Henriksen is great, and he brings a certain distracted nobility to the role that manages to cover over a lot of the rough patches. But I still have no idea what drives him, or who he is as a character, beyond a generic representation of Chris Carter's idea of heroism. The show is still too engaged in trying to deal with the Big Ideas that drive it. I'm all for thematic depth, but we need distinctive personalities or else the drama is lost, buried under nebulous concepts and streams of portentous tomfoolery.
"Wide" has a few conversations about how evil propagates itself, how killers are made, not born, but as always with this show, the philosophical discussions are more interesting in concept than they are in practice. Nothing that Frank or Bletch or Catherine say is as effective as Patricia's fear, or the drawings she makes after the attack—furious crayon scrawls with tormented stick figures. There's no language for that sort of feeling, and to the episode's credit, it acknowledges this. Even as Patricia goes to her new foster home (good people, we're assured, but for a while, anyway, good is probably going to be an irrelevant quality for the girl), Catherine sobs in the room she left behind, and as the Blacks embrace, then leave the room, the camera cuts to Patricia's drawings plastered on the wall. There are red x's on those drawings, much like the red X the killer painted on the porch of the families he killed. It's a wordless, endless scream of connection between two lost souls, one corrupted forever, the other still hanging over the precipice.
- Whoa, were Frank and Catherine actually flirting for a minute there? Their marriage is coming perilously close to having actual sexual tension.
- I love how lazy the killer is with his fake names. Travis Bickle is from Taxi Driver, and the other two are meaningless.
- Wow, it's amazing how much you can learn from a person's handwriting, isn't it? Admittedly, Glynn Turman does make a convincing case. (These days, Turman is recognizable to most TV fans as Mayor Royce from The Wire, but he'll always be the doomed biology teacher from Gremlins in my heart. Or the hero of a pretty good New Twilight Zone episode based on the Harlan Ellison short story, "Paladin of the Lost Hour.")
- Patricia Highsmith, eh? Try as I might, I can't find connections to Strangers On A Train or The Talented Mr. Ripley in this episode, but still, nice nod.
Next week: Todd cuts out some "Paper Hearts," and wonders why nobody ever talks about the E Street Shuffle in "The Wild and the Innocent."