“The Rain King” (season 6, episode 8; originally aired 1/10/1999)
In which it can’t rain all the time
After a brief foray into (semi) horror with last week’s “Terms Of Endearment,” The X-Files is back in FunLand with “The Rain King,” a soppy, sappy, relentlessly adorable story about unspoken devotion, everlasting friendship, and unstable weather patterns. How you take it depends on your level of tolerance for this stuff; I spent much of the episode rolling my eyes, but I’ll admit to being at least somewhat won over by the ending. It’s hard to stay too mad at an hour of television which is so determined to make sure everybody finds the end of their personal rainbow.
If I can play the Grinch for a moment, though: when did this show decide to start filming in the land of sunshine and lemon drops? (I guess moving from Vancouver had more consequences than I realized.) In earlier seasons, the more light hearted episodes worked in part because they were rule-proving exceptions. A sudden turn into comedy offered a brief respite from Mulder and Scully’s normally horrific and murderous world, a ray of unexpected light in a dark and doom-laden reality. The contrast made the jokes funnier, because you knew, deep down, that this couldn’t last for long; sooner or later, the monsters would return, and then people would start dying again. You can’t have comedy (or drama) without stakes, after all. Just as important, the happy endings didn’t come across as saccharine because of how often things didn’t end happily. For most of the first half of its existence, The X-Files dealt in tragedy, where the best anyone could hope for was a return to the tenuous status quo. Every once in a while, it was nice to see the heroes get what they really wanted.
Now, though, it seems like every week everything is made of hugs and good news. That’s not entirely true, of course; the mythology episode that opened the season didn’t end well, and “Drive” and “Terms Of Endearment” were pretty major bummers for at least some people. (Although the latter did manage to bring an innocent woman out of a coma and give a demon her fondest wish, so there’s that.) But “Triangle,” “Dreamland,” and “How The Ghosts Stole Christmas” all conclude with winks and smiles, and “The Rain King”’s conclusion seems designed to out awww them all. It’s too much. None of these episodes are outright bad, but so many of them bunched together at the start of the season sets a tone that makes each successive happy episode seem just a little too familiar. There needs to be darkness to balance out the bright, to make the victories seem important. It’s like Mulder and Scully got transferred to the Hallmark Department.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the show has also started leaning far too heavily on jokes about the Mulder/Scully relationship. In “The Rain King,” they’re mistaken for a couple numerous times, and at least two characters go to great lengths to explain how amazed tehy are that Fox and Dana aren’t going at it. The first few times this happened (in earlier episodes), it was a cute way to tweak fans’ noses and simultaneously acknowledge that, yes, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are both very attractive people with a lot of chemistry, so at some point somebody might have mentioned sex. Now, though, it’s twee and overbearing, and painfully indicative of the writers’ unwillingness to affect permanent change. (Another example of this: the way that Mulder and Scully being ordered off the X-Files has in no way impacted their ability to work on X-Files.) I have no problem with Mulder and Scully as a couple (Sculder? Mully? I’ll let myself out); I used to, but these days, it makes perfect sense to me that they’d be together, mainly because it seems like they’ve been together since roughly the second episode of the first season. But this endless tee-hee teasing is neither funny nor illuminating.
Now that I’ve got all that off my chest, I don’t hate “The Rain King.” As much as I’d love a return to some good old-fashioned monster hunting, the episode’s essential sweetness has enough snarky asides from our heroes (especially from Scully, who spends most of the hour having her patience tried) that it never goes completely off the rails. A lot of the humor comes from “Boy, these hicks sure are dumb” style jokes, like the way Kroner’s mayor greets the agents at the local airport (a dirt field) with welcoming committee of one (baton twirler). But none of those jokes come across as mean-spirited. Even Daryl (Clayton Rohner), the con-man and asshole whose antics are what get Mulder interested in the case, comes out okay in the end. Jeffrey Bell’s script manages a decent twist, by first setting you up to believe that Shelia (Victoria Jackson) is the one responsible for Kroner, Kansas’s aberrant weather; it’s not astonishing when Holman Hardt (David Manis), the shy meteorologist with a lifelong crush on Shelia, is actually behind everything, but it at least means the episode never seriously drags. Manis and Jackson are both charming in their roles, and it’s a pleasure to see Mulder finally get a chance to talk to one of the “freaks” he’s been hunting his whole life. His inability to give helpful dating advice is a good gag (made better by Scully’s reaction), and when Holman finally does express his true feelings, and Shelia (with some prompting from Scully) reciprocates, it’s rather nice.
At least, it’s nice so long as you forget that Mulder has devoted decades to finding demonstrable proof of paranormal phenomenon, finally has a legitimate connection on his hands, and doesn’t seem all that interested in doing anything with it. Sure, you can justify that through plot (Holman is a powerful guy, and I doubt he’d want to be exposed as a weather wizard), and you can say that complaining about Mulder’s apparent indifference to his discovery is to miss the spirit of the episode, which, sure, I’ll buy both of those. I’ll even buy that Mulder himself has changed; having Scully in his life has probably made him at least a little more sane and a little less Ahab. But it would’ve been nice for Fox to have some purpose here, beyond telling Holman the obvious and serving (briefly and absurdly) as the target of Shelia’s misplaced affections. “The Rain King” is gently amusing, but at times it borders on that overly twee independent movie vibe that so many first-time directors fall prey to, a kind of Coen Brothers lite. All those hail-shaped hearts and friendly clouds need something to keep them grounded, and given how easily everything works out in the end, there’s little in the way of stakes or risk here. If “The Rain King” had popped up in an earlier season, it might have been viewed as a cock-eyed classic, a rare respite of levity in an otherwise horrific universe. Placed here, it’s like trying to get to the bottom of a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. It never stops being delicious, but at some point, you start to wonder if you’re gonna throw up.
- Scully’s conversation with Shelia about the true importance of friendship in a relationship is fine piece of acting from Anderson, who once again spends a little too much of the episode on the sidelines. It’s also one of the few attempts at a nod towards a Mulder/Scully hook-up that doesn’t seem tired; Scully’s just saying that you can know someone for a long time, and then suddenly you see them in a new way. She’s trying to convince Shelia to give Holman a chance, but she’s also, of course, describing how she and Mulder may end up—friends for so long, and then, one day…
- Mulder, trying to outwit Scullt: “How many scapegoats lease office space?” A lot, I’m guessing.
- Holman Hardt. Whole-man Heart. Ahhhhh.
- “He wants dating advice. From me. … Scully? Are you there?” “I heard you.”
- When Daryl learns that Shelia is in love with Mulder, he takes a swing at the hapless FBI agent. Shelia’s “No, Daryl! Not his face!” may be my favorite joke in the episode.
“Human Essence” (season 3, episode 8; originally aired 12/11/1998)
In which oh well whatever nevermind
This is boring, and no one should have to watch it.
All right, all right, I suppose you want some kind of “review.” Since, odds are, few of you reading this have ever seen the episode in question—or, if you have, you’ve forgotten it the same way you forget the patterns of white noise you sometimes see on your TV screen late at night—here’s a summary: Emma has a cousin in Canada named Tamra (the illegitimate child of somebody; there’s little effort made to clarify their relationship) who’s a drug addict. One night, Tamra’s friend takes some bad drugs, gets white eyes and a weird skin condition. Then some drug dealers show up and throw her out of the building. Tamra freaks out, and sends a letter to Tamra asking for help, along with a sample of the drug her friend was using. Here’s where it gets stupid: Emma opens the envelope, tastes the drug, and is immediately put on leave for failing a drug test at work. I guess we can assume that harshness of the penalty is connected with Emma’s refusal to join the Millennium Group, or some sort of generic government cover-up thing (the latter explanation is sort of justified by the episode’s final twist). So she goes up to Vancouver to try and figure things out, does a terrible job of it, and nearly gets herself killed. Frank follows her, the two question Tamra, there’s a lot of talk about drugs, and yada yada yada, the American government was using an undercover agent in the Chinese mob to test out an experimental drug that mixed heroin with a synthetic hormone. Tamra is saved, the undercover agent dies, and Emma gets her job back. Frank is still angry. Fin.
“Human Essence” is not, so far as I can tell, egregiously offensive. It’s not riddled with plot holes, and it’s not particularly exploitative; there’s drug use and addicts, but they’re presented as victims, and the halfway house that Tamra tries to go straight in looks like a decent place. The problem is that, as mentioned, this is a boring episode. It’s a pointless episode, and it plays like a sub-sub-sub-par X-Files knock-off. Nothing in this has anything really to do with the show’s usual goals. There are no muttering sex offenders or serial killers, no heated Biblical rhetoric, and no mention of the Millennium group and it’s dark plans for the world. The twist about a government cover-up is rote, the sort of thing that was required of TV shows from a certain time period, and the story never gets beyond a pair of freaky contact lenses and some fake face lumps. A coroner tells a story about how the kids these days are all looking to see the monster or turn into the monster or whatever, like it’s some kind of amazing high, and that’s the only attempt at a thematic justification for what happens. The laced drugs make people look weird. That’s it. They aren’t stronger or psychotic; when Tamra is forcibly injected with the stuff, she just curls into a ball and cries.
Like I said, this often plays like a weak X-Files script, but at least if this was The X-Files, we’d have Mulder and Scully’s banter to keep us going. Emma remains a character so unimpressive that I often forget she’s on the show until I sit down to review an episode. She spends most “Human Essence” getting tossed around, beaten up, and failing; she leaves the bureau without bothering to fight the trumped up charges against her, goes looking for Tamra in the clumsiest possible way, attacks a pair of drug dealers and gets her butt kicked, and then manages to sit out the entire climax, leaving Frank to do the dirty work of actually rescuing the cousin who started this whole mess. And Frank… Ugh. I remember noticing something odd about their relationship in an earlier episode, and this one confirms it: he’s basically playing Emma’s pissy, judgemental dad, badgering her about her choices and, worse, stalking her to another country because—well, I don’t really know. Emma-centric episodes have yet to find a way to give Frank a reason to hang around, apart from the obvious fact that he’s the nominal star of the series. Earlier seasons of the show made more out of Frank’s home life, and his on-going quest with and against the Millennium group. Now he’s just mentoring the hell out of poor Emma, because I guess Jordan has to sleep sometime.
The pacing is sluggish, and the dialogue is often hilariously awful. Take this exchange:
Emma: Every day of that girl’s life is a gamble.
Frank: And now your life is becoming part of the stakes.
Swear to god, nobody put on sunglasses at the end of that exchange, but I was waiting for it. (Not that anyone would wear sunglasses on Millennium. Who’d want to block out the few rays of sunlight that break through the gloom?) The whole episode is like that, littered with thuddingly obvious lines and weird, out of character slang. (Emma is worried Tamra’s fears are just a “case of the yips.” I didn’t know Tamra pitched for the Red Sox.) This show has struggled through patches of darkness so aggressive they border on self-parody, misery porn that exists only to give the same boring stories (a bad man kills some people, and a good man stops him) some texture. Todd and I have both criticized episodes in the past for wallowing in the muck, but there are moments in “Human Essence” when I found myself wishing for a demon or an angel or some lousy poetry or a blood red room, anything to give me something to talk about. But there’s nothing. I hope Frank Black’s adventures get more compelling soon, because “Human Essence” is worse than over-the-top or bombastic. It’s simply null space: a show without a soul.
- The drug Tamra sends Emma is “80 percent pure street grade heroin.” That must be some street.
- “So the rights we’re protecting, we don’t even have ourselves.” Emma, keeping it real.
- It was funny to hear Emma talking about getting an envelope full of white powder and immediately tasting the powder. That would play differently now.
Next week: Todd watches Skinner under pressure in “S.R. 819,” and hopefully suffers more than I did with “Omerta.”