“The Gift” (season 8, episode 11; originally aired 2/4/2001)
In which Doggett gets chewed up and spat out…
A monster is just an exaggeration of a pre-existing condition. A vampire, our hunger; a werewolf, our rage; a zombie, the death that lies encoded in each strand of our DNA. If fiction is a way for the conscious mind to cope with the shortcomings and inadequacies of the natural world—the way questions so seldom have obtainable answers—then monsters are our way of externalizing horrors we can never truly be rid of. The best monster stories are the ones that recognize this truth, the ones that find some man in the monster, and some monster in the man. It’s never as simple as running in the night from something with a cape and fangs. A great monster story realizes there are costs worse than death involved, and sometimes surviving means leaving behind a piece of your soul.
“The Gift” is a great monster story, and my favorite of what I’ve seen of the season so far. Once again Doggett and Scully are split up, but that makes sense. The focus of the case of the week involves following Mulder’s footsteps, and while both agents want to see Mulder found, Doggett’s pursuit is going to be from a different angle than Scully’s. Keeping her off screen means letting Doggett learn about Mulder without having someone leaning over his shoulder telling him what to think. It also means that Scully gets to maintain some level of secrecy. Season 8 is the first time (to my knowledge) that the show has tried to keep us in the dark about its main characters for any extended length of time, and while most of that effort is directed at Mulder, getting up to god knows what in months leading to his disappearance, Scully has her fair share of shadows. Holding her back on occasion basically forces the audience to identify more strongly with Doggett. Apart from that picture of a boy in his wallet, Doggett is the definition of an open book, and since he’s determined to track down answers to the questions we’re most interested in, he becomes, almost by default, the main protagonist.
The point being, Doggett takes the lead in “The Gift,” and while Skinner pops in for some back-up work (and the Lone Gunmen make an appearance via proto-Skype to fill in some details), this is largely a one man show. The set-up is that a few months back, Mulder was investigating a woman named Marie Hangemuhl (Natalie Radford). Marie had called her sister and told her that she (Marie) was going to be disappearing soon, so Mulder started making inquiries. There didn’t seem much worth looking into, as Marie hadn’t disappeared after all, but the townsfolk were super defensive, and Mulder has one of his theories—anyway, all we know from the cold open is that one night, Mulder showed up at the Hangemuhl’s house, noted the strange symbol painted in red on the front door, ignored the shouts and pleas of Marie and her husband, and as a terrifying monster slouched through the living room, Mulder shot—something. The rapid editing and close-ups are disconcerting, but the implication is clear almost immediately: whatever Mulder was involved in, it’s not as simple as it looks.
Enter Doggett, determined as ever to track down the truth, and refusing to take brusqueness and “I don’t want to answer anymore of your questions” for an answer. I remain infatuated with the character, and there’s something damn refreshing about how he handles the local law enforcement and the Hangemuhls. Whereas Mulder’s reliance on crazy theories always put him on the losing side of any fight with authority, Doggett is practical and thoroughly unromantic. He knows something happened when Mulder visited the town, and he knows the stories he’s getting don’t add up. So, along with Skinner, he starts pushing. There are holes in the Hangemuhls’ walls—patched and painted over, but definite holes, and quite possibly bullet holes. So Doggett breaks into Mulder’s apartment and hunts around until he finds Mulder’s ankle gun, a Walther PPK (just like James Bond). The gun just happens to be missing three bullets. (I guess Mulder never bothered to reload.) Skinner’s convinced that the main reason Doggett is pursuing the case so hard (a case that Skinner thinks is bullshit anyway, since he watched Mulder being abducted) is to help his career; if Doggett can prove Mulder isn’t an X-file, he can get back on the fast track at the Bureau. But there’s more to it than that, as the events of the rest of the episode demonstrate. Doggett may be motivated by ambition, but his primary drive is a deeply rooted sense of justice—which means he’s better suited to working X-files than his no-nonsense exterior suggests.
There’s a monster in “The Gift”: a creature out of Native American folklore called a “soul eater” who exists to consume sickness and disease. But the creature doesn’t kill. It eats the sufferer alive, and then vomits their body back up (in goo form, into an earthen mold), healthy and free of illness. The Hangemuhls’ wanted to use the soul eater to cure Marie’s end-stage renal failure; Mulder sought out the creature to deal with his brain problems. But the thing is, there’s a price, and the price isn’t just the “you get eaten alive” bit, although that can’t be fun. The soul eater exists in a condition of constant agony, burdened by the sickness of every person it helps. Once Mulder realizes this (and the flashback makes it look like he realized it at the last possible second, which must’ve been pretty awkward), he can’t go forward with the treatment. The shots he fired at the Hangemuhls were an attempt to end the soul eater’s suffering—suffering brought about by years of “normal” people exploiting the creature’s gift for their own needs.
Unfortunately, the bullets didn’t take. What makes this episode so effective isn’t just the inversion of the monster/normal person dichotomy; the show has pulled that trick before, and while it tries to play coy about the true nature of the soul eater at first, it’s not hard to recognize who the real villain is. “The Gift” is terrific because of its willingness to follow its premise through, not just in the sense of showing us Mulder was really a good guy after all, but in saying, “The creature eats people alive,” and then actually showing him (more or less) doing just that. That’s a fantastic visual, simultaneously metaphorical and agonizingly real; the horror is more complex than “run away or the bad thing will kill me.” Then there’s Doggett who, once he realizes what’s happening (and to his credit, he puts it together fast; the writers seem to have learned their lesson where skepticism is concerned), decides that he has to do what he can to protect something that is injured and suffering. In case there was any doubt left over about whether or not the character belonged on this show, when Doggett sees a creature in pain, he does what he can to protect it. He gets shot for his troubles, and dies, and the creature eats him, taking on his death. As The X-Files goes, that’s as most we can expect for a happy ending. The bad guys stay free, but they were just stupid, trying to protect their own; their punishment is watching their loved ones die, just like everybody. And the monster winds up in the ground, this time for good. Not sure how you’d wrap it, but as gifts go, the one Doggett offered wasn’t bad.
- I don’t know why, but “Hangemuhl” struck me funny, and it gets said quite a few times. Robert Patrick’s reading of it especially—felt like I was watching a Coen brothers movie for a second. (Then the monster unhinged its jaw and ate that naked lady, so I came back to my senses.)
“Medusa” (season 8, episode 12; originally aired 2/11/2001)
In which nobody gets turned to stone, dammit.
Public transit in Boston is pretty great. Maybe I’m just easily impressed; I grew up in a small town in Maine, where your best bet if you wanted to get anywhere was to wait for your mom to take you. (Or stick out a thumb, but there was always a fifty-fifty chance a murder clown would show up.) The system has its quirks—six or seven different maps, dozens upon dozens of routes, different colors, different schedules, all of those smells—but if you’re patient, and don’t panic, you can generally get where you need to go without too much trouble. On the downside, occasionally small sea creatures will leak into the tunnels, attach themselves to your skin and have a chemical reaction to your sweat that manifests as a kind of electric, flesh-eating disease. Also, there are Red Sox fans, and those people are insane.
Ha ha, I kid microscopic marine life. Nothing is as bad as a Red Sox fan. (I say this as someone who wore his Red Sox cap through the, what was it, 2008 World Series? One of those, anyway.) “Medusa” takes place largely in the tunnels of Boston Metro, which is, as one would expect, a dark, dank, spooky kind of place. Lots of shadows for beasties to hide in and what not, which is why it’s a shame that the monster Agents Doggett and Scully are trying to track down isn’t all that memorable. It’s not even all that monster-y. The series has had good luck with miniscule threats before, but the sea creatures in “Medusa” get less threatening the more we learn about them.
Which is a shame, since the premise is a good one. After the standard cold open death (transit cop is tracking a possible fare jumper, gets murdered), Scully and Doggett meet with transit authorities who quickly lay down the rules: while no one knows exactly what caused the transit cop’s death (the dude was half-eaten), Boston isn’t equipped to reroute all of its foot traffic to alternate trains. Deputy Chief Karrass (Ken Jenkins, aka Kelso from Scrubs, doing an approximation of a Boston accent) informs Scully that come hell or high water, the trains will start running at 4 pm. That leaves Doggett and his team to investigate, and find some answers, hopefully answers that don’t suggest there’s any kind of contagion involved.
So there’s a time limit, and there’s darkness, and there’s a crack team of experts working together who you just know are going to fall apart at the first sign of trouble. Admittedly, the time limit seems like an arbitrary way to add suspense to an episode which, in retrospect, doesn’t really have much tension. (No one dies after the transit cop, although Dr. Kai Bowe [Brent Sexton] loses some chunks of his arm.) Scenes of characters wandering around gloomy tunnels is going to generate atmosphere regardless of what happens next, and “Medusa” is good enough at keeping things moving that it never becomes incredibly obvious that there really isn’t much going on. Karras’s grim determination to keep the trains moving seems vaguely menacing, as though there was some deeper conspiracy between him and Lt. Bianco (Vyto Ruginis) to keep the truth covered, but there is no conspiracy. The deputy chief pushes things along and steals Scully’s bodies away because he wants to get things moving, is all. Which works fine in the moment, when you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, but in retrospect makes the whole conflict kind of empty. (I’m also fuzzy on how a puddle of medusas is a threat to a fast moving train, but it’s TV science, so I’ll accept it.)
The fun of the episode is watching Scully watch Doggett and his team (including the aforementioned Dr. Bowe, Lt. Bianco, and Penny Johnson as Dr. Hellura Lyle) slowly work through the closed off subway tunnels, finding bodies wrapped in plastic and other mysteries beside. Scully decides early on to sit this one out, and it’s a nice, subtle bit of business; she’s obviously choosing to stay away from any possible contamination because of her pregnancy, but since she’s keeping the pregnancy a secret, she doesn’t tell this to Doggett, and the episode never goes out of its way to explain her reasons. Keeping the two separate should, at least in theory, lead to some freaky Aliens-esque confrontations, with people in the thick of the fight shouting and screaming while the folks in the control room struggle to get a handle on the situation. But this never really happens. There’s a bit where Doggett gets knocked out and Scully yells at him a few times, but, like with everything else in the hour, there’s no real pay-off.
Then there is the actual threat. Again, the build is neat, especially the discovery that it’s possible to detect contaminated skin by an eerie, fluorescent glow. But once it becomes clear that the “monster” isn’t a conscious entity, and that its effects operate almost entirely on a script-needed basis, there isn’t much story left to tell. The idea that the medusas are activated by human sweat is clever, since sweating is almost impossible to control, but Doggett sweats buckets throughout the episode, with little to no adverse effect even after he gets a face full of the creatures. The climax of the episode has him zapping the creatures via the third rail just as a train full of unsuspecting commuters roars past, and it certainly looks exciting, but it’s also pretty silly. Congrats, Agent, you have defeated a puddle of goo. For your next trick, maybe we’ll let you shot a solid.
Nothing here adds up to much. A few decent ideas, and a wasted setting (how much cooler would this have been if C.H.U.D.s had shown up? I know that’s New York, but this is fiction, they can bend some rules), and not a lot else. Doggett was his reliable self, and Scully got to run around and get angry at shadowy government forces trying to obscure the truth, so it’s not a total waste. But unlike the medusas, this story never sparks.
- That is some damn fast analysis on that sea-water.
Next week: Todd gets back into the abduction business with “Per Manum” and “This Is Not Happening.”