The X-Files: "The Field Where I Died" (Season 4, Episode 5)
In Which Mulder Takes A Trip Down Memory Lane
We form our lives out of rituals. I mean, that was what The Unbearable Lightness Of Being was all about, right? Most everything in our day-to-day existence is non-essential, but in order to create meaning out of uncertainty and doubt, we build routines. Certain outfits for certain days, always eat the smallest slice of pizza first. Call Mom Sundays. Sleep on the left side of the bed. Television is one of those rituals, made easier because the networks dictate when our favorite series air. DVR and Hulu and all that illegal downloading have changed things, obviously, but there's still something to be said for the thrill of settling in ever Sunday night to catch the latest Mad Men, or plopping down for a two hour block of NBC comedy Thursday night. For every week you tune in, it feels almost like you're building a relationship. A one-sided, unhealthy-if-taken-too-far relationship, but it's something, at least.
I mention this because "The Field Where I Died" is about past life experiences, and I'd argue that the past life theory is an end-point expression of our fondness for ritual. Imagining that our souls have been on this planet countless times before this current iteration is, in a mystical, kind of goofy way, a spiritual cousin to putting your right shoe on first; it's establishing a precedent, an illusion of permanence to help carry us through our darker moments. If I've done this a thousand times, that's a thousand moments connected in a chain that brings me to now, a chain which makes me something more than a collection of impulses and regrets. And if I've lived before, if I was once a citizen of ancient Greece, or if I fought and died in the Civil War, that's even better than a chain. That's a history, and it's a history that means when I die, I won't be gone forever. That's what the need for permanence is, really: the hope that if we make our mark in the world deeply enough, that when we close our eyes, we're not gone completely.
I also mention rituals because growing up, The X-Files is the first show I can remember making a real effort to watch. There were other shows I enjoyed, but X-Files was the first where I came in on the ground floor, and that was important to me. It made me feel like I had an greater investment in the show, like I was a part of its success in some small way, and I think, if the Internet had been around back then (okay, if I'd had access to the Internet back then), I would've been involved with online fan communities. I missed a couple episodes (weirdly enough, I never actually saw "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'" until I watched it before Todd's review), but it was always accidental. "The Field Where I Died" is the first episode where I sat down, excited, saw the first five minutes, and decided, "Screw it, I'm going to go read."
Watching it now, I'm not sure what turned me off so suddenly in the cold open, because it's not like it's anything we haven't seen before. Mulder's standing in a field, staring intently at a pair of old photographs. He's also doing the narration, and yeah, it's somewhat purple, but if I was turned off by purple narration, I would've given up on this show sometime in the first season. It's not _bad_ narration, either. There's something terribly sad about this, about the expression on Mulder's face, and his mournful (if somewhat difficult to parse) voice over. Cold opens on the show are usually either stalk-and-kill scenes, or else sideways references to the mythology plot. This is obscure and direct at the same time. It marks a different kind of episode.
I'd like to think, then, that I at least lasted through past that opening scene, through the title sequence, and at least some of the way into the storyline proper. I hope I wasn't that impatient as a teenager. But this is definitely a weird ep, and it's not the sort of weirdness I'd expect from the show. The plot isn't that unusual: a joint raid by the ATF and the FBI on the Temple of the Seven Stars in Tennessee yields up the David Koresh-like Vernon Ephesian (Michael Massee), his six wives, and a cult of the devoted. Unfortunately, it does not turn up the illegal weapons the authorities were looking for, and because of their X-Files experience, Mulder and Scully are asked to help in the investigation to try and locate the missing weapons. (Ephesian is a religious nut, and Fox is a master profiler, after all.) Things get strange when Mulder feels an intense connection both with the land on which the Temple is built, and one of Ephesian's wives, Melissa (Kristen Cloke, last seen around these parts on Space: Above And Beyond). An interrogation with Melissa reveals that she suffers from apparent multiple personality disorder, reverting to the persona of "Sydney," an old man who sounds a bit like Billy Crystal doing Vaudeville, under stress. Mulder believes this "Sydney" (who is also the informant who tipped off the FBI to the guns) is one of Melissa's past lives, and he insists they bring her back to the compound to try and get Melissa to speak more freely. Scully doesn't really buy it, but she agrees that Melissa may be the key to finding the stashed weapons; and seeing as how the authorities can only hold Ephesian for so long, the clock is ticking.
All right, so it's not straightforward exactly, but none of this is that unusual for the show. We've had women with strange abilities, we've had Mulder going off the rails on a tangent while working under other orders, and we've seen Mulder and Scully fight before on just how to approach a given case. What makes "Field" odd is the approach. There are no flashbacks here, no shots of Mulder or Melissa reliving their past experiences. The only real camera effects in the episode is the weird, Vertigo-esque shot when Mulder and Melissa see a particular window that looks out over the field. Everything relies on music and performance to sell the idea. There are a number of long conversations here, and monologues, and a certain sustained intensity of emotion. I can't remember exactly, but if I had to guess, I'd say the reason I bailed was that I found the episode much too self-serious and ponderous. There are only a few jokes here (although Scully's reference to the Fluke Man two-thirds of the way through the hour is hilarious), and it's a storyline that only works if you're willing to take it entirely at face value. If you think past life experiences are ridiculous, if you find Melissa's personality switches laughable, well, you aren't going to find much comfort here.
So, having sat through the whole episode now, how well does it work? Pretty well, actually. Whatever mood I was in when I ditched the last time, this time I was able to appreciate "Field"'s striking mood, and how its intensity builds to a tragic climax. We've had our share of sadness on this show in the past, and Melissa's death doesn't match, say, the loss of Scully's sister in terms of emotional weight, but that finale does have a thudding, awful inevitability that makes it difficult to forget. The episode's lack of humor, if you're willing to go along with the vibe, makes it easier to go along with the monologues. Cloke is a strong actress, and her multiple-personality shtick is fearless and committed; it's also inherently absurd, and if we'd had more Scully and Mulder banter here, ala "Home," it would've been nearly impossible to watch her work without snickering. But there is no banter, so it's possible to believe, if only for a little while, that she and Mulder really might be some kind of soul mates.
"Field" isn't perfect. I admire its ambitions, and respond to its most effective sequences, but certain doubts remain. The big problem here is Mulder. Now, I have no problem believing that Mulder would go in for past life experiences. I'm fairly sure he's mentioned them in passing on the show before (is this our first official "past life" episode? I can't remember), and he tends to grab on to any crazy theory, at least until it tries to bite his face off. Besides, Mulder is a conspiracy nut, and conspiracy nuts are all about finding reasons for everything, connections that run below the surface, justifying all death and despair through the implication of a larger network of intellect. Past lives basically provide you with a connection that can transcend time and space, making it possible to believe that history itself is just the same souls pairing off in endless iterations. Of course he'd dig that.
I just don't quite buy how immediately and completely he commits himself to Melissa and their shared past. "Field" rests nearly all of its power on the strength of that relationship, and really, the only tool it has to help us get there are the shots of Mulder and Melissa looking through that strange window and having themselves a moment. It's not unbelievable enough so that the story falls apart or anything, but the episode would've worked better if it had tried to find some way to tell the same story, but leave Mulder some room to ease in to his belief. Or at least give us some room to follow him. As is, it's too easy to detach from his experience here, and this is an ep that really requires you to believe along with him. It's like we're missing just one scene that reminds us why Mulder is so vulnerable here, one scene that would make his, well, possession more justified.
Overall, though, there's a lot to appreciate about "Field." I rolled my eyes when Mulder called in a hypnotist to try and access Melissa's past life experiences, but it's a great scene, and Mulder's own regression is some of the best work Duchovny's done on the series. And that finale, with Mulder arriving just a few seconds too late to stop Melissa from joining her cult's mass suicide, is haunting. The episode isn't quite good enough for the conclusion to be as devastating as it should be (it's too easy to remember that next week, Mulder and Scully will be running after some new monster, and Mulder's sudden crushing existential angst will be forgotten), but it works enough to qualify as a moderate success. You have to be willing to go along for the ride, and back when this first aired, I wasn't. I won't say I'm sorry I missed it, but I am glad that I finally got the chance to come back.
- Anyone else find it a little silly that Mulder immediately goes to "PAST LIFE" when Melissa starts talking in funny voices? I guess he was inclined to think that because he already had his own experience, but it's one the few beats in "Field" when I had to work extra hard to accept what was happening.
- Nice touch that one of Melissa's alternate identities was the informant the FBI was looking for.
- It never occurred to me before, but I think one of the show's best known catch-phrases, "I want to believe," is wrong, at least in Mulder's case. The better phrasing would be, "I need to believe."
Millennium: "522666" (Season 1, episode 5)
In Which KABOOM
Early in "522666," Frank and a Fed named Jack Pierson (Sam Anderson, aka Bernard from Lost, among other things) are investigating a crime scene. Well, it's not the actual crime scene, where a bomb exploded in restaurant, killing patrons and staff and making the evening news. Frank and Jack are across the street on the third level of a parking garage. Nothing exploded here, and the only obvious connection to the crime is that the level looks directly onto the other building. If somebody had wanted to see the explosion, and if that someone had had a very good idea of when the explosion would occur, there's a spot that would make an excellent vantage point, close enough to see everything, but not so close as to be in direct danger. (Although there is some danger, which is probably part of why the observer chose this spot.) Frank, being who he is, already has a suspicion that the bomber watched his handiwork in action, and he finds a few butted out cigarettes on the garage's floor to confirm his suspicion. Then Jack finds a wadded tissue full of the bomber's semen in a nearby trashcan.
And really, what could I possibly add to that?
Todd hit Millennium's big problem last week, pointing out that the show's one-note approach to mystery and character development (all is misery or ideal) limits the kind of stories it can tell. It also limits just how much I can write in terms of criticism, because there's only so many times I can say, "This was grim, Lance Henriksen was great, I wish they'd lighten up a bit." "522666" starts out well enough, with a cold open that introduces us to the bomber first hanging in a bar, watching people and imagining how they'd look in if they blew up; then placing a call to 911, and leaving the "522666" message; then hanging out in that parking garage (thankfully, we're spared the sight of him experiencing his "release"). Finally, we cut to the Black family, peaceful as ever. Frank catches a report of the bombing on the evening news, and we see (though Frank doesn't realize this yet) that the bomber is masquerading as a concerned citizen, helping the victims of his own attack.
That's intriguing enough to hook me for the rest of the ep, because it's a slight twist on an angle we've already seen. We're familiar with killers who like to watch what happens to their victims, but seeing this guy apparently creating crises so he can help resolve them? That has potential. The best parts of "522666" are focused on what drives this man, and on Frank's efforts to track him down and keep him from killing again. The killer himself isn't hugely charismatic or compelling, but his motives are striking, and the relationship that develops between him and Frank is decent drama. I'm not a huge fan of riffs on how the modern psychopath is driven to crime because he (or she) just wants to be famous, but it's something a little better than, "He's messed up and hates women," at least.
The episode falters when it tries to bring Catherine in. While her presence here is more organic than it has been in previous episodes, it's still melodramatic and tedious. She calls Frank in the middle of his investigation because he hasn't called home in a while, and she's worried. Why hasn't he called home? Are we supposed to think that once he becomes involved in a case, he loses himself in it? I can buy that, given his history of mental problems, but it unfortunately turns Catherine into that always popular television figure, the Nagging Wife Who Gets In The Way Of Her Husband's Important Work. Not only does she call him on the cell phone he's using to keep in touch with the killer (which, obviously, she had no reason to know anything about), she also calls while Frank and the others are on a sting to draw the bad guy out, nearly upsetting the whole approach, and also inadvertently giving the bad guy her name.
I understand that one of the key points of the series is contrasting the sleazy despair of Frank's job with the idyllic warmth of his home life, but I gotta tell you, the home life isn't looking so great to me so far. Every time we see Frank and Catherine together for more than a few seconds, they act like people caught in the middle of the world's longest funeral. They smile, but those are pained smiles, and unless we find out later in the season that Catherine is a lemon-sucking addict, I'm having a hard time viewing her as the bestest hope of mankind, or whatever the hell she's supposed to be. I suppose the real problem is that I just don't buy into Carter's version of morality and the nature of evil. Like I said in my last time through, I find the show weirdly addictive so far, but I spent some parts of "522666" really wishing they'd up the oddness factor. I mean, say what you want to about Seven, but at least the murders were grotesquely fascinating. This show is just a lot of wallowing in misery we've seen before.
But hey, the stuff with Frank and bomber was well constructed, and seeing Frank first getting rescued by the bomber at the scene of his last attack, and then seeing Frank recognize the bomber on TV—that was exciting. As was Frank's final confrontation with the man. I'm not sure I entirely buy Frank's speech about the bomber actually getting what he wanted to in the end—it's another riff on Seven, but in Seven, the ending felt controlled and implacable. Here, the bomber may be remembered, but it's not like he's created some malevolent work of art. He's just a sad bastard who killed so he could feel special for a while, and now he's dead. I wish more stories about fame-hungry monsters would remember that last bit. Just because you get your name on the evening news doesn't mean you're still breathing.
- I guess anytime anything big and nasty goes down, Frank expects a call from the Millennium group? This doesn't immediately seem like his kind of case; while we know that it's a single individual responsible, bombings are more often than not the work of terrorist groups. So I'm not really sure why Frank started packing the instant he saw the news.
- The work done to trap the bomber via cell phone is something I've seen before on other cop shows, but it's enjoyable here. "522666" was at its best when it stuck to standard cop show formula, really.
- For the record, I really like Seven. It's a style-over-substance movie, but oh that style!
Next week: Todd takes a trip to the "Sanguinarium" and explains the religious significance of "Kingdom Come."