"The Red and the Black" (season 5, episode 14, originally aired: 3/8/1998)
In Which Mulder Is Blinded By The Light, But Finds What He Was Looking For
The reason The X-Files' mythology worked as well as it did for so long, even after the seams started to show (and I'd argue they've been showing off and on this whole season), is because it always felt like everything was just about to go crazy. It never really did—at least, I assume it didn't, as I've missed much of the final seasons, but I've never heard anyone refer to them as "the seasons when the The X-Files mythology finally paid off." But judging by "The Red and the Black," man, the shit is about to get real. Those aliens that've been running secret experiments with the complicity of shadowy forces behind the US government and beyond? Turns out there's a rebel alien force, and that up in outer space, the war between the rebels and the non-rebel aliens has begun in earnest. Back here on Earth, that means that the faceless men have started destroying the aliens' attempts to synthesize the perfect colonization agent, ie, abducted humans. The cabal of the wealthy and white have to decide which side to throw their weight (heh) behind, and that decision comes down to their ability to resist the black oil which features in the aliens' colonization plans. Krychek is trying to work everything out to his own benefit, which inadvertently leads to Marita getting infected with the oil and become a guinea pig for the Well Manicured Man's plans. Scully watches the non-rebel aliens interrupt a rebel burning party, saving her life, and abducting Cassandra in the process. The Cigarette Smoking Man is alive. And, for most of the time, Mulder thinks everybody else is crazy.
I'm not trying to make the plot sound ridiculous here, even though it kind of is (not a criticism), and I'm not trying to make some new comment on Mulder's season five journey, although I suppose I'll get to that eventually. What I'm saying is, we're introduced to the concept of galactic war in "Red and the Black," but we don't really see any of it. The idea is explained via a few lines of dialog—none of which come directly from the aliens or rebels themselves. The closest we get to struggle itself is roughly as close as Mulder and Scully get: a shot of the battle Scully witnesses on the bridge, and Mulder stumbling across an alien prisoner transfer that doesn't quite work out in the way it was planned. Before watching this episode, I hadn't realized that The X-Files mythology ever got this conceptually epic. I always assumed it was a bunch of creepy riffs on abduction and invasion, but this is more than that. This is Star Trek level craziness.
Only, it's not like any of it ever directly matters to our heroes. Yes, Mulder is obsessed with the truth and finding out what happened to his sister, and Scully had that whole "chip planted in her neck" problem, but the sheer scope of the conflict introduced in this episode is never more than window-dressing for dark rooms and shadowy plots. Mulder never teams up with either side of the alien war, Scully never has to fly a space ship (she totally could). The CSM is never transformed into a robot-mutant hybrid killing machine. The war in the night sky remains, by and large, just that: perpetually over our heads. You could argue that's cheating, that the show was making certain promises every time it upped the ante on the realness of its shit-getting, but, at least at this point, it works, and works brilliantly. There's something terrible and chilling about always being just on the edge of the abyss. By the end of this ep, Mulder has regained his faith, but he's no closer than he was before to the answers, and part of me wants to criticize the show for still, nearly six seasons into its run, pulling the same "nothing ever changes" crap while continuing to draw attention to its leading man's desperation. But it's so thematically fitting, just how meaningless and out of the loop Mulder is here. The climax of the episode has him screaming "No!" into a flashing white light, and firing his gun, and it doesn't matter in the slightest.
The X-Files often feels like a series that wants to embrace serialization, but is too infatuated with stand-alones to commit to a long-term relationship. Mulder's twist of faith has been a running theme through this whole season, and his return to his original beliefs by the end of this episode is a decent restatement of purpose, both for him and the show itself. But this is nowhere near as resonant or powerful as it could've been, because for every episode in which Mulder angrily turned his back on his old philosophies, there was another in which he seemed to be operating under the same logic as usual. It's not like I'm asking for a scene each week in which David Duchovny pretended to be all tortured and pissed off, and said something like, "All my life I've been searching for the truth, but the only thing I've ever found is lies!" A character arc doesn't have to be constantly explicit. But here, it's barely plicit at all, popping up a few times before it is finally concluded, for good or for ill. Often, X-Files' anthology approach can work to the series' benefit. But it also makes it difficult to get too worked up over character arcs, unless they're handled with more commitment than this one. (I dunno, maybe the writers never truly committed to it—despite making Mulder seemingly even more dickish than ever this time around—because they knew there wasn't a chance in hell it would be permanent.)
Of course, if Mulder's journey is a bit undercooked, Scully's is… also a bit undercooked. By the end of last week's episode, she'd joined up with a group of follow abductees, all obeying the orders of their implants, and while she spends the first ten minutes of "Red" not remembering anything that happened next, a trip to the hypnotist brings her memories back. In a big way, too—anyone wanting to add to their clip reel of "Gillian Anderson doing things which look suspiciously sensual when shown out of context" would be well advised to look here. (Or maybe I just have a filthy mind. I'm cool with that.) While she never comes out and says she's a believer, it's clear that she trusts her experiences, even if she had to go to a hypnotist to know what they were. Which means we have, as Todd talked about next week, a nice dichotomy between our two leads, as they briefly swap places on the ideological poles. And yet, as soon as Mulder starts wondering if he's been too quick to doubt, Scully is back on the skeptic bandwagon. It's not an incredibly dramatic transition; Agent Spender comes to see her, shows her a video of himself recounting his mother's abduction, and tells her how it's all a load of crap. She seems to agree with him, and when Mulder proposes breaking into an Air Force base (on Krychek's advice, no less), Scully has returned to her "supportive but not exactly convinced" role. Gillian Anderson makes it make enough sense to pass muster, and you could say that Scully is just retreating back to what makes her the most comfortable in a stressful situation. But it's obviously done to bring us back to the original status quo.
So is the return of the Cigarette Smoking Man, whose identity isn't revealed until the final shot of the episode. He's hiding out in Canada, pulling strings and writing letters to his son, who turns out to be (gasp!) Agent Jeffrey "Stay away from my mom!" Spender. I'm not entirely sure how this is supposed to impress us. Spender is less a character than an irritant at this point, however justified his attempts to protect his mom may be, and learning that the CSM misses him enough to mail him stories of Navajo war gods (which may or may not be subtle justifications of certain deals made with certain nefarious extraterrestrials) isn't what you'd call a major stunner. Really, the big surprise here is that the biggest bad guy to die over the show's run so far is not, in fact, dead. I wish I could remember if this shocked me at the time. I'm curious what people made of it when the episode aired. We've been given no reason to care about Agent Spender, and thus, no reason to care about who his father is, and no reason to care that CSM is calling in favors to protect him. (The Skinner line that provides this information is on the awkward side, and it also makes you wonder, seeing how he's hiding in the Canadian wilderness and passing letters on to pre-teens, just what sort of influence CSM still really has.) It plays like the return of the Joker in a Batman comic. No matter how long the absence, you figured he'd be back eventually.
All of this sounds like I'm down on "The Red and the Black," and I suppose I am from a long-view, here-are-some-fundamental-flaws-in-the-show standpoint. But as an actual episode of television, this is by and large terrific, from the cold open and final scenes in Canada which bookend the hour, to the shots of burnt bodies littering the bridge from last week, to Scully's hypnotism session, to Krycek's desperate squirming, to the renewal of Mulder's core values. It feels like a show with a purpose, which is always a struggle for the mythology, and what impresses me is how vital and exciting this all seems even knowing the criticisms I mentioned above. How many episodes have we had at this point featured the aliens snatching proof away from Mulder at the last moment? Cassandra gets abducted, and despite Veronica Cartwright's name in the opening credits, she's nowhere to be seen. Mulder can't stop the rebel alien from leaving, and, as far as I know, he barely understands what's going on anyway. Yet, he opens an X-Files on Cassandra's disappearance, which is as much as sign as we need to know he's gone back to his Spooky ways.
It works because the performances are great as always, and because the second part of this two parter rarely feels bogged down or draggy. It works because it has a scene between Krycek and Mulder, and those are always excellent, to the point where I wish the show had found some way to do more with the two of them together. It works because it's often eerie and beautiful, like the shot pictured above of the former abductees raising their hands to the sky as small bits of ash float upward. It works because it requires us to do a lot of the dot connecting ourselves, and if I often think too many of the threads here don't get as much attention as I would like, I can't fault the show for the way it ties them together by the end. Even if I'm still not intellectually convinced all that much happened (seriously the "rebel aliens," while a fine visual, are just another card stacked on top of an increasingly precarious house), emotionally, I'm satisfied. This sort of approach, this sideways, ground level view of picture that can only fully be perceived from above, makes ridiculous or convoluted storylines come off as more realistic, since we only ever get things at the edges. While we have more information than Mulder, it's still not that hard to empathize with him: hoping to find sense in a lifetime of glimpses.
- It's silly, but I always roll my eyes when Mulder starts railing about "the Truth." It's not a concrete object, for god's sake.
- The opening credits tag: "To Resist Or Serve."
- The reason the faceless aliens are faceless? They mutilate themselves to protect against the black oil.
- As mentioned, Mulder has been a bit of a dick for much of this two-parter, but it would be a little irritating to finally cave into what your friends have been telling you for years, only to have them turn around and lecture you for giving in so easily.
"The Pest House" (season 2, episode 14, originally aired: 2/27/1998)
In Which Frank Takes A Trip To The Loony Bin.
Has anyone ever done a study on the depiction of mental health professionals in genre fiction? If someone has (and I'm almost positive they have), I've never read it, but I think I've see enough shows and movies and read enough books to recognize certain basic trends. There are stories in which the psychiatrist or therapist or asylum nurse is a good person, noble, true, and committed to providing the best possible care for the damaged and lost who come into their care. (The Sopranos and Ordinary People spring immediately to mind. The head shrinkers on the various Law & Order shows also come off fairly well.) But these are in the minority. The nature of genre fiction is that the crazy person is either right and wrongfully imprisoned, or else they're evil—in which case they need to resist treatment long enough to escape and do horrible things. Exceptions aside, psychiatrists in movies are at best impotent, at worst actively corrupt, but I'd say this has as much to do with the necessity of plot as it has to do with any sort of skeptical consensus on the nature of the job. Still, it must get old if this is actually what you do for a living.
I wasn't exactly surprised, then, that Dr. Ellen Stoller (Melinda McGraw, aka Scully's dead sister), head of a sort of experimental asylum/halfway house nicknamed "The Pest House," isn't doing as good a job at healing the criminally broken as she thinks she is. Thankfully, she isn't portrayed as worse than her patients here, ala Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest; she comes off as a well-meaning and fiercely protective of her patients' rights, which in the world of Millennium (and, in fact, most cop shows), makes her naive and misguided, but not actively monstrous. It's also a relief that she doesn't have to die simply to show how misguided she really is. "Pest House" is, like many episodes of this season before it, a bit of mess, a melange of concepts which don't always taste so great together. The first part of the episode has its moments, but for a while seems to be turning into a mediocre X-Files knock-off, with Frank and Peter running six or seven steps behind what the audience has known almost from the start. But the ep gains tension as it goes, with at least one sequence which, for my money, is as tense as the series has ever been. What impresses me most about "Pest" is how it demonstrates just how effective the Millennium model can be for turning flat story hooks into something more menacing, ambiguous, and memorable. Too often, a show will throw in a layer of mystical bullshit to give a mundane arc the appearance of profundity, but here, the mystical bullshit creates an almost Lovecraftian sense of vast powers moving far beyond our heroes' reach.
The cold open had me rolling my eyes at first; there may have been a time where the "characters who reference the fact that they appear to be involved in an urban legend actually turn out to be involved in an urban legend" riff was clever or fresh, but I've seen it a dozen times by now, and there's not really much more you can do with the concept beyond "ha ha, these people are stupid, and now they are dead." But this scene, with two teenagers making out in a car on a bridge, only to get nervous when they hear scratching sounds outside, worked well, and if it's not exactly original, it was creepy and well-observed enough that I didn't care. Peter gets Frank involved in the case (the boyfriend in the couple winds up dead), and when Frank tries to dismiss it at just a joke story, Peter points out that they've been getting more of these urban legends come to life crimes in recent months. The pull of the millennium, baby—everything old is killing again.
So they head to the asylum near where the kid was murdered, because one of the patients at the asylum, an E. Jacob Woodcock, has an M.O. which matches this particular crime. And he agrees, this is his sort of kill—in fact, he literally claims ownership of what happened, except he, himself, didn't actually do it. He tells Peter and Frank that someone stole his dreams away, that he used to hear voices all the time but those voices are gone now. Frank, as common sense would dictate, assumes he's lying, and becomes suspicious of the security of an institution in which the doctors dress the same as the patients do. But of course, Woodcock is telling the truth. Someone at the House is trying to cure the more dangerous inmates by taking their evil, their sins, right out of them, through a process that never entirely becomes clear. The problem is, as another patient later explains, evil doesn't disappear. And so the someone with all those good intentions is now re-enacting the brutal crimes of the inmates he's trying so desperately to cure, as well as leaving those inmates hollow, despondent shells of who they used to be.
We never explicitly see the process the happening, but I'd guess "Pest House," with all its talk of consumption and digestion, is referencing the concept of sin-eating, in a which a person, via ceremony, would consume the sins of a household in their meat and drink. It's a cool idea, only nobody ever explicitly discusses that's what's happening—I'll be completely honest here, and admit that I didn't even make the sin-eater connection till just now. (In my defense, I never watched the 2003 movie The Order, which starred Heath Ledger as a terrible sexy sin-consumption expert. So clearly, I'm behind on my research.) And, come to think of it, that also fits in with Frank and Peter's conversations about old ideas coming back to haunt them. Sin-eating is a bit longer in the tooth as concepts go than the Man With The Hook, but maybe the end of the millennium means a certain portion of dark magic is restored to the world, and empty myths and cliches have been rendered increasingly potent.
One of the problems with "Pest" is one that's pretty common to genre stories: once we see Woodcock explaining what happened to him, we in the audience know that Woodcock himself didn't kill the boy. But Frank doesn't realize what's happening, and he still doesn't realize it when the Sin-eater takes the murder out of a large guy named Bear, and rips apart a young couple on the road. While Frank is doing his best to rile Bear up, and figure out how asylum security could be so poor that it could allow a patient to escape, commit homicide in the same way he'd been committing it back when he was a free man, and then sneak back inside with no one the wiser. (It doesn't help that Bear had been locked away the day before after assaulting a fellow patient.) Peter eventually realizes what's going on, and in his defense, it is such a strange idea that it's probably not the first thing that would spring to anyone's mind, but still, it makes for frustrating viewing. It can be fun to be ahead of the hero, especially if there's some suspense as to whether or not said hero will recognize the true danger in time, but here, it's mostly tedious.
Still, it does lead to the best scene of the ep, when Frank realizes Dr. Stoller is in danger, and runs out of of the hospital just in time to see her driving away with someone crouched behind the back seat of her car. It's a great, shocking moment (I think I yelled at my TV when it happened), and the sequence which follows, with Frank trying to catch up with the doctor in his own car, flashing his lights at her to indicate something is wrong, works well. The urban legend re-enactment does wonders for the suspense here, because we're seeing characters we've become invested in locked into a story in a fairly logical way. I actually wasn't sure if Ellen was going to make it out of the car alive. She does (thanks to an incredibly level-headed and sharp gas station attendant, who gets murdered later for his pains), and she and Frank head back to the asylum, walking right into the middle of the final confrontation between Eddie, the nice orderly who really just wants to help everyone, and Purdue, the psychopath who isn't very happy that someone stole his dreams.
"Pest" gets better as it goes along, and while I have some questions on the logistics of the finale (how did Eddie get back to the hospital before Frank and Ellen?), it managed to turn a so-so episode into something a lot more memorable. There are big ideas here, about whether or not the criminally insane have a right to their insanity, about what cost we should be willing to pay to heal people, and about whether or not the deeply disturbed can ever be "healed" in any meaningful way. Really, there are too many ideas to explore any of them with anything approaching depth, and I do wish we'd gotten more of a sense of who Eddie was, and how he did what he did. We never see him eating anyone's sins, and it's unclear at the end if he was supposed to be some sort of supernatural entity or just a guy who got so upset seeing someone else assaulted that he simply cracked. (I suppose the fact that he changed form briefly when attacking Ellen during the climax could indicate he was an angel or a demon, but it could also just be that all the evil he consumed made him physically unstable.) But I was impressed at how the episode pulled together. It starts as an iffy X-Files knock off, but the Millennium's mythology made it something else by the end. It's one of the surer scenes of a successful series: the ability to take iffy subject matter, and make it scream.
- Went back and forth on the grade, but that shot of Frank watching helplessly as Ellen drove away is incredible. Made up for a lot of the episode's weaker spots.
- I totally forgot about the dismembered hand in the cafeteria food. I'm not sure why Eddie brought the hand back; it almost seems like we just needed a scene for Ellen to look like an idiot.
- Nice seeing McGraw again, even if all she really has to do here is act self-righteous, then scared.
- "Killing Edward was the sanest thing I ever did."
Next week: Todd checks in on Kolchak with "Travelers," and gets caught up in some Millennium group intrigue with "Owls."