“The Post-Modern Prometheus” (season 5, episode 5)
In which it’s alive.
A dream I keep having (and I know sharing your dreams is the lowest form of discourse, so I’ll keep this brief):
I’m back in the town where I went to college, a solid, small Midwestern city, filled with brick buildings and tree-lined avenues. For some reason, everyone I’ve ever met has been gathered in some sort of amphitheatre, like we’re coming up on the end of a long-running TV show, and the producers have brought everybody back for one final bow. But as the night stretches on and I see more and more faces of people I haven’t seen in years, I start to realize something: Not everybody is here. And so I take leave of my friends to find everybody else. I board a train (because in my dreams, I always travel by train, for some reason), and we head west, deeper into the past, toward a camp I attended as a teenager. Along the way, I find more and more people, some I’ve forgotten about but remember the faces of, tucked away in some small corner of my brain. And then, inevitably, before I get to the source, to the beginning, the dream stops.
And I wake up lacking.
For whatever reason, I’ve always had a hard time with the notion that people can’t hang on to each other forever. I’m not even talking about death here. Death has always struck me as an inevitability it’s not worth worrying about. I’m talking about the fact that to make anything of your life, you have to, necessarily, leave a good number of people behind (or they will leave you behind). I grew up in a small town where I knew everybody in my graduating class as well as I knew anyone I’d ever meet, but now, those people are all very far away from me, both physically and emotionally. Could I call on them if I were back in South Dakota? Probably, but it wouldn’t be the same. Eventually, you have to move on, and that leaves little gaps, little holes that, if you’re lucky, get filled by new people. If you’re lucky, you meet someone to spend your life with. Maybe you have some kids. And you have your parents until they die. But that’s about it. That’s really all you can count on. And so, if you’re like me, you hang on too tightly, even if it’s only on a subconscious train.
For this reason, I’ve always had an odd affection for small-town stories, particularly on television, where the people of the small town inevitably become a kind of surrogate family for each other and, arguably, for us. I could write a 5,000-word essay about the latest Parks & Recreation, roughly similar to my writing about the second season finale of Deadwood, simply because it’s one of the best examples I’ve seen of a show using the small-town form to capture just what’s so seductive about living in a community where everybody knows everybody and at least professes to care for them. (In real life, this is not always the case.) The fantasy is, in many ways, more potent than the reality. And even though it breaks a lot of my preferred methods of handling a small-town story, “The Post-Modern Prometheus” is such a wonderful expression of this particular idea that it’s always been one of my four or five favorite X-Files episodes, hands-down. But it wasn’t until watching the episode again recently, in a spate of time when I was having the dream over and over, that I realized why. But we’ll get to that.
“The Post-Modern Prometheus” is a weird mash-up of a bunch of things Chris Carter (who wrote and directed and received Emmy nominations for both) found interesting, including genetic engineering, Frankenstein (as both novel and movie), the old Universal horror movies, comic books, meta-fiction, and sympathetic monsters. It is, roughly, a very direct adaptation of Frankenstein, but it’s been skewed to make sense in modern times, and it’s been tossed into the middle of a broad example of the X-Files comedic type. But like all of the best X-Files episodes, there’s a deep sense of loss in the middle of “Prometheus,” a sense of loss that manifests in the fact that Mulder can’t find a happy ending to the story without purposefully asking the writer to concoct one for him, an ending that’s probably not even real. Loss and loneliness were the twin emotional engines that drove The X-Files, whether it was a grand example like Mulder losing his sister (or briefly his partner) to dark forces or something far subtler like the teenager who gets his heart broken in “Jose Chung’s.” Even on the broadest possible level, the show is, in some ways, about the loss of regionalized myths, replaced by an all-consuming national myth.
Mulder and Scully—well, specifically, Mulder—have been called to a small town in the middle of nowhere, a small town that may as well be a Hollywood small town, for how it seems to consist entirely of small town types and standing sets on the studio backlot. (Like all of these episodes from the show’s first half, it was filmed in Vancouver on location, so the show’s ability to evoke standing sets in actual places is kind of impressive.) The reason they’ve been called is an unexpected pregnancy. Shaineh Berkowitz discovered an intruder in her house one night, a horrifying, lumpy-headed kind of monster. She passed out—perhaps because of drugs pumped into the air—and when she woke up three days later, she was pregnant. But that’s not the weird part. The same thing happened to her 17 years ago, resulting in her son Izzy. And even THAT’S not the weird part. Because after that event, Shaineh had a tubal ligation. She shouldn’t be able to get pregnant. Yet here she is. She’s thinking aliens. Mulder says he’s not sure he believes in that anymore.
From there, Carter piles on the silliness and the story elements. He’s got a comic book written about a local, legendary creature. He’s got a mad scientist. He’s got a scene where Mulder and Scully have a conversation, and the same extra is raking leaves over each of their shoulders (a marvelous joke on TV’s tendency to shoot everything in a long succession of close-ups). But he’s also got a story that’s positively filled with the kinds of things I usually hate. For one thing, this is a story that is entirely about women getting pregnant when someone invades their house and uses a knockout gas to get them to fall asleep. And even if the monster and his “father” don’t actually, physically rape the women, they still DO rape them by artificially impregnating them with hybrid creatures. (And why are so many of the great X-Files comedy episodes ones that feature rape? Obviously, there’s this one and “Small Potatoes,” but also, if you think about it, “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” features implied rape as a plot point as well. Granted, this is a show obsessed with body horror, but it’s still weird.)
Even more troubling to me, however, is the fact that literally every member of this little town is portrayed in as condescending a fashion as possible. These aren’t characters so much as they’re types, but Carter, crucially, doesn’t seem to REALIZE this. He’s got Scully spouting nonsense about how people in the middle of the country see fit to pattern their lives after Jerry Springer and tabloid covers, and outside of the Berkowitzes—who have a certain kind of idiotic dignity—and the monster and his father, the show doesn’t really bother to contradict this. Carter has fun playing around with the idea of a mad scientist living in these people’s midst, and John O’Hurley, then best known for playing J. Peterman on Seinfeld, is a marvelous choice for the plot. There’s a scene where he has a conversation with Mulder and Scully about his experiments, and EVERY LINE is punctuated with thunder and lightning, and it’s basically the X-Files version of the Simpsons rake gag, where it goes on so long that it becomes tiring and then wildly funny again by the end. But where Carter understands very specifically what he’s doing, comedically, with the mad scientist, the other townspeople are often portrayed as, “Gosh, aren’t people in the middle of the country weird?”
Again, he sort of gets away with it because of the Berkowitzes. And to a degree, he has to do this to make scenes like the one where the town forms a mob bearing pitchforks and torches believable (and that scene is necessary for him to really get the Frankenstein story right). But The X-Files was always a show that was at its best when it was celebrating how weird and wild the United States can be, how it’s a big, strange place where the only things odder than the monsters hiding in the night were the people terrorized by those monsters, who were idiosyncratic oddballs. (This may have been the influence of Glen Morgan and James Wong, who are pulling many of the same tricks over on Millennium at present.)
In “Prometheus,” Mulder tells Scully that she was right, and she says, “That these people can be reduced to cultural stereotypes?” and the show doesn’t really call her on it. There’s a discomfiting sense that Carter views the entire middle of the country (or maybe even America or humanity in general) as thick-headed lummoxes who can be led to just about any conclusion and tend to behave as giant collectives that don’t really think through their actions. And maybe he’s right about that. Certainly there are plenty of examples of this in human history. But it’s still a little disconcerting to be asked to laugh at the lunkheaded idiots without really questioning that reaction (as the comedic scripts by Darin Morgan and Vince Gilligan always ask us to do, “War Of The Coprophages” and “Bad Blood” being good examples).
And yet “Prometheus” just WORKS. Part of it is the fact that the Frankenstein tale has such a momentum to it that Carter can’t go wrong as he clings to it and shoves it into the typical X-Files formula. (Really, it’s a wonder the show didn’t do more ultra-specific riffs on classic horror tales after this one.) There’s a kind of wonderful purity to Mulder and Scully coming to town and thinking they’ve stumbled upon a silly joke, perpetuated to sell a comic book, then coming to find, as time goes on, that there really is a monster here, but he’s not the monster at all. It’s an old, old story, but by shoving all of its components into the X-Files formula, Carter finds something vaguely new in it. There’s the usual pretentious Carter-babble, but there’s also that wonderful sense you get sometimes watching The X-Files, the sense that what’s hiding under the bed is stranger than you’d ever be able to imagine.
Another significant factor in making the episode work is how deftly it blends its twin influences of Universal horror movies and comic books. One of the strengths of The X-Files—indeed, one of the things I respond to in television in general—is the fact that it could do all KINDS of different episodes, call on all KINDS of influences, and this might be the episode in the show’s run that went the farthest afield of what the show normally did. The black and white cinematography is gorgeous. Carter’s shot selection and editing rhythms nicely pay homage both to the stronger directorial moments on The X-Files—particularly Kim Manners’ direction of season four’s “Home,” which Carter pays terrific homage to in the teaser—but they also frame everything like a comic book panel or like an old monster movie. In particular, the confrontation between the monster’s father and O’Hurley (who is later revealed to be the old man’s son) is gloriously filmed, the final betrayal of the son killing the father shot entirely in shadow for extra heightened terror. (The use of songs by Cher, of all people, is exceptional as well.) Even better, the actors, including Duchovny and Anderson (both of whom are positively luminous in black and white), get into this spirit. The episode’s general condescension toward its characters is easier to swallow when couched in this sense of everything in the episode being an homage.
And then there’s that core, that emotional core of longing and loneliness. I’m not, by nature, someone who strongly desires to see Mulder and Scully get together. I dig on Carter’s idea that the two are a kind of perfect, platonic partnership, a duet where the two people so perfectly complete each other that to have sex would be sort of unnecessary. But one of the things that drives the show, I think, is that so many of the people Mulder and Scully meet—monsters and normal folks both—are people who lack that essential other half, people who are constantly searching out something compatible and not finding it. Now, in many episodes, this leads them to kill, but in “Prometheus,” it leads an old man, no matter how unethically and immorally and haphazardly, to create, to try to build something better, even as he always fails. Strictly speaking, the idea that this old man created most of the town (in an attempt to find a mate for his son) by impregnating women with farm animal/human hybrids is completely ridiculous and repulsive if you think about it too much. The episode’s attempt to let the monster off the hook when he admits to everything he did—but NOT to killing his dad—shouldn’t work because you can’t believe the townspeople would just be OK with this, no matter how gullible.
But the episode gets away with it for two reasons. One is that sense of loneliness. No matter what happens, the monster will never find a mate. His father doesn’t know what he’s doing, and the two of them will inevitably be caught. (It makes no sense that they aren’t caught anyway, what with their covering these houses in giant exterminator canvases, but the episode takes on such a fairy tale sense at times that it largely gets away with it.) And the monster, like monsters since the dawn of time, is an easily made scapegoat for whatever anyone wants to blame on him. Sure, he might be a fun local legend and the basis of a comic book, but once he actually steps into the light, well, he’s hideous. The most distasteful aspects of the episode are covered in the sense of a father loving his son and not really knowing what else to DO for him. The son lives in a basement and can’t show his face at night. He loves Cher and peanut butter. He’s a monster, but if only he could find his own Mulder, his own Scully, he might not feel so monstrous.
And the episode owns up to the horror of what these men did. The mad scientist is arrested for the old man’s murder, but the old man pays with his life, and the monster is arrested as well. Even if everyone can sort of understand his motives, he’s STILL guilty of invading houses and impregnating women against their wills. And that’s illegal. He’s carted off to jail (or perhaps a federal prison, since I think he goes off with Mulder and Scully), and that’s that. In attempting to stave off isolation, these men only invented further isolation for themselves. “Prometheus” is an episode that starts out as a goof and ends up becoming deeply sad and weirdly horrific, a story where everyone is cruel to each other, almost as a matter of course.
Except, of course, that it sort of DOESN’T end that way.
The monster’s about to go off to prison, sitting in the back of a car, head hung in shame. But Mulder isn’t satisfied by that. The monster’s supposed to escape imprisonment. He’s supposed to run off into the night to seek his mate. The monster can’t die, because the monster, no matter how well developed as a character, is about something more elemental, something more pure. And so Mulder asks to speak to the writer, who just so happens to be Izzy Berkowitz, who’s written a comic book about the monster after all. And off a shot of Izzy, the episode abandons logic and reality and, for lack of a better word, transcends.
I should note that none of this really happens. The townspeople don’t come together and attend a Cher concert. She doesn’t really perform “Walking In Memphis” for the monster and dance with him. Mulder and Scully don’t really dance together at the end. Shaineh and the scientist’s wife don’t really go on Jerry Springer to express how much they love their little Mutatos. (These babies are often taken as evidence that the monster physically raped the women, and we should find all of this horrifying, but they’re in a fictional construct, presented as evidence that the experiment the old man could never get right has finally WORKED, and the monster will have a companion. It’s clumsy, but it’s meant to be part of a happy ending that never happens.) The show hasn’t just left the reality of this episode; it’s left reality, period. We’re not in the realm of fiction but in the realm of meta-fiction, the only place where a truly happy ending can occur, outside of Heaven, I guess, because the fiction is constantly commenting on its unlikeliness. And even though it’s theoretically a happy ending, it’s also very sad, empty in its own way. Because Mulder and Scully—all smiles for what must be the first time ever—are just a drawing in a comic book. And the book is shut, and we can’t get into it, no matter how much we might want to.
But one of the aims of writing, in addition to reflecting the world as you see it, is to perfect the world as you want it. And here we circle back to the beginning, both of this piece and of The X-Files. I don’t know what, exactly, Carter and his writers experienced in their lives, but the show often seems an elaborate attempt to combat a crippling loneliness, to fill in gaps that shouldn’t have been opened up in the past. And even though none of this happens, the end of “Prometheus” is one of the most beautiful expressions I’ve seen of this desire to recreate the world, to build something better of it, that I’ve ever seen. The monster doesn’t have to move on. He’s surrounded by people who, no matter how absurdly, love him. He’s seeing Cher—LIVE! It doesn’t really happen, but it’s all, ultimately, fiction, and if someone writes it and it comes alive for enough people, then it does. And he doesn’t have to be alone.
Because don’t we all sort of hope this? Don’t we hope that we’ll get to the end, lying on our deathbeds or facing down the firing squad or tucked in the back of a car to go spend life in prison, and get a reprieve? Don’t we hope that someone will turn to the writer and ask for something better, even for just a little while? And then maybe we’ll all get in a chain of cars—or maybe a train?—and head through the flat, Midwestern afternoon toward a better place, a better day. And we’ll open the doors to the club, and everyone we’ve ever known or cared about will be there, and for just a moment, we’ll all have a single, perfect moment of happiness.
And then, maybe, we’ll be able to look up and face what inevitably comes next.
“A Single Blade Of Grass” (season 2, episode 5)
In which the Native Americans are plotting your death (unless you’re one of them).
Let’s get this out of the way first: This is one weird-ass episode of television. It’s one of a handful I hadn’t seen before re-embarking on season two, and I’d heard it had a pretty bad reputation, so I mostly didn’t feel bad about missing it. And, yeah, I can see where that reputation comes from. It’s yet another adventure in weird, Native American mysticism from the folks at 1013 Productions, and this one comes complete with, uh, a secret tribe of Native Americans that gathers in the basement of a hotel in New York City and feeds people rattlesnake venom, then buries their bodies in construction sites. So, yeah, there’s plenty to object to here, if you’re the kind to object. Not only is it not politically correct, but it makes pretty much no fucking sense whatsoever.
But it’s just so grandly strange that I kind of love it all the same. This is an episode that concludes with four buffalo having a stampede through the streets of New York and features a coroner dancing around to the Squirrel Nut Zippers. I know that Zack and I have spent every week so far this season talking about how this is a show where its ambitions outstrip its execution, and we continue to enjoy it because of those ambitions. I’m hopeful that this will change (probably as soon as next week), and I feel a little strange giving a high grade to an episode like this one, which is, again, pretty nonsensical on a lot of levels. But if someone were going to make a show directly pitched at ALL of my interests, well, season two of Millennium comes pretty damn close.
Let’s see if we can’t figure out what the hell is going on here. The aforementioned SECRET TRIBE is meeting in the basement of a hotel, where they feed a young man rattlesnake venom. Naturally enough, he dies, though the tribe apparently hopes he’ll impart some wisdom to them (from visions!) before he does. When he doesn’t, they bury him at a local construction site where many of them work, but it just so happens that a woman is excavating Native American artifacts from that very site. Thus, she stumbles upon the body of the young man, and the police call in Frank Black, and we’re off to the races. As soon as Frank arrives, the weirdness starts coming in waves.
What’s interesting about this is that the episode doesn’t really bother to do the traditional Millennium mystery thing. Frank pretty quickly figures everything out, particularly since his visions seem to be returning and he’s able to catch weird glimpses of the world beyond. (In general, I prefer this handling of the visions to season one’s idea that he was just such a good criminal profiler that he could see what the criminal did or whatever.) He follows the clues he gets to that hotel basement, which is now cleared out, and with the help of the archaeologist, who’s actually a really solid guest character, he figures out that the various tribal symbols decorating the walls are from all sorts of different tribes, though there seems to be particular interest paid to the Hopi.
At the same time, Frank decides to go and be obnoxious to the Native Americans, showing up at their preferred gambling den to win cash (presumably using his extrasensory gifts). But who should be there but Floyd Red Crow Westerman, better known as Albert Hosteen, known here as—literally—“Old Indian,” who tells the other tribe members that Frank is “the one,” which is apparently some guy given such prophetic gifts that he will help the tribe find the way forward into the new age after white people come to an end. (The first line of the episode is “Do not tell the white people about this,” which is kind of awesome, all things considered.) Anyway, the tribe becomes obsessed with feeding Frank the venom, since he will apparently see a vision of the apocalypse of the white people, which will lead to the resurgence of the Native Americans and the buffalo. So that’s their goal, I guess.
Frank and the archaeologist, meanwhile, are going over some of the evidence they’ve collected, even as Frank’s talking out some of the visions he’s had. The archaeologist sees how filled they are with Native American imagery, and the two come to a conclusion: The tribe is formed from members of a sixth Iroquois tribe that had members within the other five that were split apart. Members of this tribe have infiltrated all of the other tribes, but now, prophecy is demanding they reunite, preparing for “another culture’s apocalypse” (a chilling phrase Lance Henriksen tosses off like it’s no big deal). They need Frank to drink the venom so he can open a door to the spirit world and tell them the way to go forward.
What I like about this setup is that it gets us really invested in the death of the hero. If Frank drinks the venom, he’ll die, of course, but we really WANT him to drink the venom, because we want to know what he’ll see if he pierces the veil between this world and the next. So the episode is asking us to root for killing off the main character, which is an odd position for us to be in. Naturally enough, the script (the first from Millennium’s solid team of Erin Maher and Kay Reindl) figures out a way to have its cake and eat it too. Frank drinks the venom and sees a vision of the buffalo returning and the tribe splitting apart but then reuniting, but he’s also rescued by the archaeologist, who uses his earlier vision to figure out that the tribe has taken him down into the sewers. Presumably, he’s fed anti-venom, and that’s that.
Another nice thing here is that his vision comes true, but it comes IMMEDIATELY true. The tribe IS split up, because they’re all taken to jail, where they’ll presumably be kept from each other. The buffalo DO return, when four escape from a rodeo that’s passing through town and thunder through the streets, pursued by clowns. The look on the face of tribal leader Joe Reynard as he realizes that the prophecy IS true, but in the most prosaic way possible, is fantastic. There’s nothing he can do, very likely. The world that drove his people out, that pushed them onto reservations beginning 200 years ago, is so entrenched that it can’t be wiped from the face of the Earth, no matter how much he might like. And yet Frank DOES say that the tribe reunites. Perhaps there is something even darker in the future, something more horrible that is coming.
Typing all of the above out, I realize even more how little logical sense this episode makes. There are plot holes galore, of the sorts that always arise when you have secret organizations within larger organizations. But, like the best episodes of this show, it makes a kind of dream sense, following its own weird, nightmare logic. And the central idea of the episode, which involves the idea that white people will pay for what they did to Native Americans, even if it takes centuries to come to pass, is a good one. I’m not usually a huge fan of dramatizations of white, liberal guilt, which usually turn into storylines where white people are nice to the other races, and Utopia follows, but I like that this episode digs into its seedy underbelly, which insists that we must pay for the awful things our ancestors did. Any good apocalypse story has the sense that we always had it coming, and this episode definitely finds a good reason for us to be wiped from the face of the Earth.
So if “A Single Blade Of Grass” has both logic problems and problems with its portrayal of Native Americans (who ARE, ultimately, just seen as lying in wait to destroy an entire culture, after all), it survives because of its hazy insistence on playing all of this as a low-grade nightmare, the kind of dream that builds its scary so slowly that you don’t realize you’re in a nightmare until it’s too late. REAL nightmares, the kind where you’re being pursued by a monster or something, are fairly easy to snap out of once you’re an adult because you abruptly find yourself realizing you must be in a dream. The best nightmares, then, start in reality, but then get steadily and steadily weirder and more disturbing. It’s hard to call “A Single Blade Of Grass” an unqualified success, but in its attempts to portray the nightmare of a justified apocalypse, it hits all the right buttons all the same.
- Reindl writes a terrific, frequently updated blog, which you can find here. My understanding is that she got her big break because she (and Maher) were writing out how THEY would have written various Millennium episodes differently on a message board in season one, and Carter saw their take and preferred it to the one the show had used.
- I don’t know if the show’s budget was that much lower or what, but this is the second episode so far this season that ONLY features Henriksen and no other regular or recurring players. It’s kind of cool, actually. You couldn’t get away with a cast that minimal today.
- The show’s sense that these people have lives outside of their contact with Frank continues, especially thanks to the Squirrel Nut Zippers lady and the archaeologist, who’s a really smart, competent character who should have come back at least once. (Did she? I can’t remember.)
- I do like the more oblique use of the visions, offering up symbols and hints, instead of direct clues. I don’t like the shitty CGI used in them.
- "Why? You like to ruin picnics?"
Next week: Zack watches Scully’s latest personal crisis in “Christmas Carol” (an episode I was really anticipating back in the day, based solely on its name), then celebrates a completely different holiday with one of the best Millennium episodes ever, “The Curse Of Frank Black.”