"Tunguska" (season 4, episode 8)
In which Mulder goes to Russia and Scully testifies before Congress and the black oil is in the Mars rock and … it's all weirdly complicated, OK?
Just what was it about the Clinton era that made over-the-top paranoia seem to sensible to so many Americans? Whenever someone acts as though the Tea Party movement or the most virulent anti-Obama comments are somehow unprecedented, I have to point back to the mid-90s, when a surprisingly large percentage of Americans believed the president of the United States and his wife had had one of their best friends killed for vague reasons, were coming to take away their guns, or had a secret plan to usher in a new world order that would bring about the Antichrist's reign. Yeah, plenty of anti-Obama stuff has an uncomfortably racist tinge to it, but a lot of it is just the same old Clinton paranoia, reheated for our consumption. The cable news era just turns the volume so far up that it becomes impossible to ignore it. Clinton-era paranoia was restricted to talk radio, underground publications, and obscure sites on something called the Internet that not everybody had access to yet. Now, there's a whole echo chamber devoted to telling us that, sure, Obama wasn't born in Kenya but SOME people say he might have been!
In the '90s, though, that paranoia lurked more than it unfurled itself before the media's cameras. It had to find odd routes to the surface. Occasionally, it broke through in an act of shocking violence and tragedy, like the Oklahoma City bombing (an event that would become a touchstone in the works of Chris Carter). More often, though, it had to find some other way to get up into the mainstream, whether via the late-night rumblings of Coast to Coast AM, assorted attempts to reignite the conspiracy thriller at the multiplex, or a little TV show called The X-Files. To be sure, end times paranoia played into these fears, as did the fact that the United States was now the world's sole superpower and, as such, able to finally have doubts about its exceptionalism. (Without the evil Commies to compare to, some things Americans on both sides of the political aisle took for granted seemed more questionable.) But for as much as TV reporters of the time tried to credit The X-Files with driving the zeitgeist, it was never really in control. Chris Carter had just latched on to something mad and frothing in the body politic, and he was riding it as fast as he could.
I've been thinking about all of this because I'm bumping up against one of the first really unfocused mythology episodes in the show's run, an episode that's pretty good, sure, but could have stood a few more drafts to better find its focus. But I'm also bumping up against the fact that this is the point where it became incredibly clear that Carter and company had created something they didn't know how to manage and were just desperately holding on for fear of being bucked off. At the same time, I've been reading lots of old interviews with the show's creative personnel from around this time, as archived at this site (pointed out to me by faithful comment section resident Apple Jill), and all of the ones with Carter push toward this same, simple idea: The government should be questioned at all times.
To be fair, that's not exactly a controversial idea, nor one that anyone should take issue with. The purpose of an engaged citizen is to question every aspect of his country and make sure it lives up to its own standards. At the same time, it was obviously part of Carter's attempts to distance himself from the people who occupied the opposite end of this paranoid continuum. Carter was saying that questioning things was good; Timothy McVeigh (a figure that obviously troubled Carter in many ways) was saying the system was broken and needed to be burned to the ground. The problem with healthy skepticism is that if it's not watched carefully, it can tip over into paranoia, and paranoia has a tendency to approach everything as though it were concealing secrets. Sometimes, the suicide of the president's friend is just a suicide, and sometimes, a Mars rock that may or may not show alien life is just a piece of space junk.
There have been a lot of episodes of The X-Files that I've watched since beginning this project, but there have been few so inextricably of their time as "Tunguska." Where "Unruhe" centered on a piece of technology that has mostly disappeared in favor of an updated version and "Home" was all about the slow disappearance of regional culture in the face of the monoculture, "Tunguska" just really feels like an episode of television produced in the mid-90s. There are references to the possible alien life discovered in the Mars rock aplenty. There's a certain immediately post-Cold War paranoia about just what experimentation the Russians might still be up to in their gulags (though, to be fair, this paranoia has never really gone away in some circles). Even the government hearings Scully has to attend feel very much of the era, and Mark Snow's score is one of his clunkiest, piling on the sustained tones he was known for, then giving way to some funky electronic beats every so often (and particularly in the scene where Mulder's infected with the black oil).
Now, of course, much of this just feels silly. The Mars rock's "alien life" was revealed to be hokum (unless you're Richard C. Hoagland, I guess). Russia crumbled into dust before beginning the process of rebuilding itself. And the most any of those Congressional subcommittees could ever even attempt to pin on the president was the idea that he'd conspired to cover up getting a blow job. Furthermore, at this point, we know that we're reaching a point where the mythology begins to be less certain of itself. Back in season three, the black oil was like a disease, passing from one person to the next. But here, it seems more like a sentient being, infecting many or just whoever happens to be closest at the time. To be sure, some of these sequences are chilling, like the scientist somehow getting infected even though he's in his biohazard suit or the final infection of Mulder. But the overall sense is that of using a cool new villain to vamp for time.
The plot is similarly messy. Mulder's been getting tips from an informant, who's turned him on to a group of right-wing militia members. After taking in the militia members with the help of Scully and other agents, Mulder discovers his informant is Krycek. Krycek knows all about a certain courier who's carrying something in a diplomatic pouch and due to arrive at Dulles. If Mulder and Scully can stop him, they might be that much closer to the next piece of the puzzle. So far, so good. But after this point, the episode kind of collapses under its own weight. There's very much a sense of the show gathering all of the major X-Files players to go through the motions of a mythology episode, as that's what's expected of it in sweeps month. Cancer Man turns up, and so does Skinner, and Krycek gets a lot to do, and even Marita shows up for a scene. (Weirdly, Mulder has sexual tension with all of these people. Well, maybe not Cancer Man.)
But the mythology has always been about always driving forward to some new goal, always piecing out new bits of information. Mulder has to get on that train. Mulder has to escape his coma. Scully has to deal with the death of her sister. Here comes the black oil. The story goals are usually simple. The plot payoffs seem more complex than they actually are. Most of what we've learned about the conspiracy deals with its construction at present, and the show is not yet at a place where it can delve too deeply into the conspiracy's history, but it also can't delve into the future plans for the organization. This leaves it in a holding pattern, and instead of moving forward with another development, the show instead moves laterally. It's not a bad idea, really. Finding out how other countries, particularly the remnants of the Soviet Union, are dealing with the alien menace makes a certain amount of sense. But for the first time, Mulder feels less like he's driving the action and more like he's a messenger boy. There's a palpable sense around the midpoint of the episode that the writers have just given up with the investigation part and have said, "Fuck it! We're goin' to Russia!"
And yet, there's still lots to recommend in "Tunguska." That sequence where Krycek dangles from a balcony by one handcuffed hand and drags the courier over the edge is fraught with tension, and every time Cancer Man does anything, it's good fun and filled with portent. (His meeting with the Well Manicured Man in this episode accomplishes absolutely nothing but still feels like it's pushing somewhere.) The idea of grounding the episode in Scully's testimony before Congress is a good one, even if it doesn't really go anywhere, and the various encounters with the black oil have a certain level of spooky charm. Finally, everything with Mulder and Krycek in Russia is fun, almost in spite of itself. These two actors are having a great time running from men on horses and getting locked up in a gulag together, and as mentioned, the final scene of Mulder getting dosed with the oil is chilling (even if I already know the writers will mostly bullshit their way out of it).
And yet there's this sense of the writers losing their grip on the material all the same. "Tunguska" is a lot of fun, but it's not ground-breaking or eventful in the way every other heavy mythology episode (yes, even the sometimes maligned "Herrenvolk") has been up until this point. There's a lot of tap dancing in the hour, as though the show is unsure of where it's going and how to stretch this storyline out to an uncertain future. Reportedly, Carter always had a five year plan for the show, but he quickly realized the series would run longer than that and had to come up with other stuff to do in the meantime. In that regard, the lateral move into geopolitics made more sense than the show's later moves into making the aliens the source of all religion or whatever, but it also robbed the show of some of its urgency.
Or maybe it's just that these episodes don't work as well in the present. Right-wing anti-government paranoia has a tendency to pop up when Democratic presidents are in power, for obvious reasons. (There's also left-wing anti-government paranoia, but though Carter's an old lefty in many ways, this kind of paranoia doesn't motivate the series for some reason.) Before Clinton, this paranoia was too far underground to find its way to the surface, percolating along in subterranean caverns like the John Birch society or even the later preachings of Father Coughlin. After Clinton, this paranoia is now a proud, weird part of the American mainstream, where Glenn Beck's every utterance is news, somehow, and members of Congress can talk about the all-purpose boogeyman of "liberals" rounding up citizens to put them in internment camps. But under Clinton, paranoia was going mainstream but not yet there. Maybe, ultimately, "Tunguska" just doesn't work as well because it abandons the central idea of the conspiracy's American-ness, the idea that the American government is out there, ready to snatch you at a moment's notice and do nasty things to you, that said government has been up to this for a long, long time. The move to make the conspiracy a global one must have seemed smart at the time, but it also robs the series of something essential, of a sense that the worst monsters are the ones who purport to have our own best interests at heart.
- Seriously, it's like Mulder has serious sexual chemistry with every other character in this damn thing. I never really got the Mulder/Krycek shippers that percolated up in X-Files fandom before this episode, but the two men seem on the edge of converting their fighting into fucking in just about every scene of this episode. Hoyay indeed.
- Come to think of it, maybe a reason for my OWN X-Files fandom as a teenager was being raised in an environment where that old e-mail full of people the Clintons had had murdered was passed around as something that could very well be true. The X-Files was both a way to normalize this kind of paranoia and a way to edge away from it, as Carter always seemed to be doing after McVeigh.
- It's interesting to think about The X-Files in political terms, because it also might explain why the series was eventually canceled. Even in the much-maligned seventh and eighth seasons, the ratings for the show remained stable. Indeed, it was the number-one rated show on Fox. But in the ninth season, the ratings plunged off a cliff. Immediately preceding the ninth season? The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Suddenly, there was a very real and present enemy outside of America, and the idea of sinister forces within the government trying to bring society down felt vaguely quaint. (Weirdly, the show that most thoroughly consumed The X-Files' right-wing paranoia was 24, a show often held up as a beacon of conservative philosophy on TV, yet a show that had a huge dollop of paranoia about both the government and big business at its very core.)
- I always liked Well-Manicured Man and wish we had gotten to spend a little more time with him. The image of him watching the horses when Cancer Man comes to talk to him is a striking one.
- I know the mythology episodes are Mulder's time to shine, but, man, Scully gets less to do in this one than she normally does. She's pretty much just there to see some weird shit and to cover for her partner.
- Seriously, that repository of interviews linked to above is a treasure trove. I lost a whole evening wandering that site, and I was able to piece together so much about the show's troubled evolution post-season three.
- It's very obvious that the show's budget has increased. The action setpieces in this episode and the next one are really terrific, particularly that fight between the dangling Krycek and the man sent to kill him.
"The Well-Worn Lock" (season 1, episode 8)
In which Catherine Black gets something to do.
One of the things Chris Carter deserves respect for is the way that he lets his shows do many different kinds of episodes. The X-Files could be a monster movie one week, a conspiracy thriller the next, a slasher movie the next, and a comedy the next, so long as certain basic elements of the formula were met. Several writers on the series were able to stretch these elements to their breaking points, telling deeply personal stories or fascinatingly funny ones or just plain scary ones, and even Carter availed himself of this flexibility, turning out the non-paranormal "Irresistible" or the goofy "Post-Modern Prometheus" or the jazzy "Triangle." At first glance, Millennium would seem to be less flexible in this regard than The X-Files. There's less room for improvisation in the serial killer thriller genre, and the show's subject matter would seem to rule out anything like a lighter tone ever taking hold. Yet here we are with a Carter script for "The Well-Worn Lock," and it's basically a workplace drama about a social worker who just happens to be married to a psychic detective (or something).
In the interview archive linked to above, there's an interview with Carter where he talks about how his ideal male-female dichotomy is between two people who respect and trust each other and can talk about anything. It's a chaste romance that manifests more as friendship than anything else, and while the way he stuck to his guns infuriated millions of fans of the idea of Mulder and Scully hooking up, it also kept The X-Files' tension burbling along nicely. Millennium suffers from attempting to emulate this idea because, for one thing, Frank and Catherine are married but might as well be chaste FBI partners, and, for another, Catherine's not nearly Frank's equal in the way that Scully is Mulder's. Frank is usually out there, confronting the darkness alone, and when he pops into his house once or twice per episode to talk about how dark it is out there and how overwhelming evil is, Catherine's there to turn a sympathetic ear, but there's not really a lot she can do about it.
The thing is, I think Carter really believed his bullshit about making this show a treatise on the nature of evil, and I think he really thought that he'd be able to use Catherine's profession to confront the idea that sometimes evil isn't inborn. Sometimes, evil comes about because people have shitty lives, and if Catherine can help them just enough, well, maybe there will be hope for everything to be sunshine and gumdrops from here on out. But the thing is, we kind of know what a show about a guy hunting down serial killers looks like, and Carter does too. He was trying a lot of new things, but none of them were so far from things he and others had done previously as to feel radically different. With any Catherine episodes he tried, however, he pretty much had to invent an entirely new format of episode. There's a reason there aren't any hit dramas about social workers. For one thing, they'd have to be a lot more invested in issues of politics and class than most TV shows feel comfortable being. For another thing, they'd be incredibly depressing.
"The Well-Worn Lock" tries some interesting things with the Millennium template. There's a lot of it that just doesn't work in any way whatsoever, but the stuff that does work is searingly good and surprisingly daring for the time. It's evident that Carter wanted this show to be about more than just end times prophecies and serial killer hunting. He really did believe in this series as a way to confront some of the most terrible things people can do to one another and how those things can leave others catatonic shells (or worse). Catherine was going to be his window into this world, and Millennium all but presents her as Carter's dream girl. She's deeply invested in her work (she falls asleep at the office, leaving her husband worried). She's often really concerned with purely theoretical and metaphysical bullshit. She has a relationship with her husband, but only in the sense that the two of them have somehow conceived and had a child together. Catherine is still more symbol than character, but that symbol grows more potent in this episode, like the object of affection in a courtly romance.
"The Well-Worn Lock" features Paul Dooley as a local businessman who's well known within the community for his real-estate ventures and assorted other business deals. Immediately when we first meet him, though (watching Miracle on 34th Street, since this is Millennium's idea of a Christmas episode), we're tipped off to the fact that all is not as it seems. HIs older daughter seems to have at least a decade on his youngest daughter, and when the older daughter goes to get ice cream for everyone, she begins to freak out at the idea of leaving her younger sister with her dad. Instead of returning to find her dad covered in her sister's blood, speaking in tongues and covered in the mark of the Beast, however, she just returns to grab her sister and lock her in her room, telling her NOT to let daddy in. Then, older sister is found walking down the middle of the highway, one foot in front of the other, and it becomes obvious that this is a Catherine episode of Millennium, whatever that means.
By now, it should be obvious what's up with Dooley's character: He committed incest with one daughter, and now, he's likely to do it with the other, so she's anointed herself her sister's protector. Things get more disturbing as the episode goes on, however. That older sister? She's 32, and her younger sister is 8, and it doesn't seem likely her mother is the mother to the youngest girl. As the episode goes on, we get a sense that the mother is protecting her husband's monstrous acts, that the Dooley character seduced his OLDEST daughter, too, and that, as you may have guessed, the youngest daughter is both the sister and the daughter of the other. These moments are all disturbing, and it's surprisingly how few punches Carter pulls for the fact that Fox seems yishy about letting him actually call incest incest. There are some rapid-fire flashbacks to what happened in that room with the lock that are as horrifying as anything I've seen on TV, and they accomplish much of this through the mere power of suggestion.
And, honestly, I wish this side of Millennium had shown itself more. The idea of Catherine as this saintly figure, trying to help damaged souls find closure, isn't as immediately appealing as the idea of Frank as a lone, chivalrous knight standing against the darkness, but there's an odd beauty to it nonetheless. (In some ways, Carter's works make much more sense if viewed through an essentially medieval prism, but this one especially.) And Megan Gallagher brings it in this episode. Both she and the entirety of the guest cast sell both the monstrousness of this situation and the ways that sexual abuse can tear apart families and ruin young people for the rest of their lives. To Carter's credit, very little of this is preachy. He clearly has something he wants to show here, something he feels very deeply, and I'm impressed with the gumption it must have taken to essentially break his own template this early in the show's run and do something completely different, something that mostly works. Furthermore, he uses Frank well, here, only getting him involved when Catherine needs him and letting him play the role of supportive spouse that Catherine normally plays in the rest of the episode, and the episode's one action sequence (a chase in the woods) is gorgeously shot, all moody lighting and nighttime shadow.
Unfortunately, there's quite a bit that doesn't work here as well. Carter doesn't really know how to deal in grey areas, so the Dooley character is so obviously a monster that it beggars belief that he's avoided being captured and brought to prosecution for all of this time. He didn't just abuse one of his daughters; he abused both of them, then sired a child with the younger, a child he now appears to be ready to abuse. He didn't just create a culture of fear and secrets; he created a house where his wife was an all but silent accomplice to what happened, even though she obviously knows who the father of her granddaughter is. Carter doesn't know how to portray nuanced monsters; he knows how to portray the beasts that lurk in the dark and lunge out at us, but not the family man who harbors dark desires that spill over into behavior that shatters his children's lives. The Dooley character is no better than any other serial killer on this show or Flukeman on X-Files, and that makes it a bit laughable when Catherine has such trouble getting him prosecuted. (I'm aware that many sexual abusers and rapists get off free and easy in real life, but the Dooley character is so damned blatant about what he does that it eventually stops being horrifying and becomes preposterous.)
And, furthermore, Chris Carter should never be allowed to write courtroom drama. There's an interesting idea late in the episode, where Carter jumps five months from when the Dooley character is taken into custody after running away with his granddaughter/daughter to when the trial is just wrapping up. I like this break in the usual formula, and I like Carter's basic idea, which is to show how the process of healing from something like this could theoretically begin, as Catherine helps coach the abuse sufferer to speak up on the witness stand, prompting an outburst from her parents that leads to her father's conviction. Unfortunately, Carter has basically no idea how to stage these scenes. There's a revelation about how the young woman may have a different father than the Dooley character, but this revelation is treated as a shock, then largely dropped. The jury appears about to let Dooley go free, even though it would seem to be possible to prove that his granddaughter resulted from the union of him and his daughter and even though it seems like his other kids would have testified against him. Carter's created such a monster that he has no idea how to bring him down, and that makes the courtroom scenes have the frantic feel of someone out of their depth, just tossing ideas at the wall until something sticks.
For the most part, the writers of Millennium would shy away from the Catherine episodes as the show went on. But even though "The Well-Worn Lock" has plenty of problems, I wish they hadn't. There's something essentially true and moving at the heart of this episode, something that the Frank-centric episodes have been unable to touch on so far, and the final scene, where Catherine brings the girls the lock, allowing them a symbolic moment of throwing away their horrible past with their father (though even they must know this is only a small beginning), is genuinely touching. At all times in this episode, there's a sense of Carter both trying to push the network to let him do more about the world's more mundane evils and a sense of him trying to push the format of his show to let him do a story about normal people struggling with terrible secrets. (Try as he might, he can't avoid the scene where Frank has one of his flashes.) Maybe he just got tired of fighting this particular fight and decided to go with what he knew worked. I wish he hadn't. Frank's episodes take place on a stained glass window, where every symbol and story is chiseled in bright colors and basic shapes. Catherine's episodes have the same stilted quality, but there's also that sense of redemption peeking out of them, a sense that the darkness abates, the sun comes out, and the healing can begin.
- I've been trying to think about what a show about a social worker might look like. Obviously, it would be depressing, and you'd have to have some unrealistic wins for the social worker every once in a while. But I think a network like an FX or even the more adventurous side of TNT could turn out something interesting in this general field. I'm seeing Andre Braugher in the lead.
- Jordan continues to be the world's most elaborate prop, but I do like the scene where Catherine and Bob are talking and Frank just sits there, holding his daughter comfortingly. That's the sort of thing little kids need from time to time, but you rarely see it portrayed on TV.
- I'd feel more positive about this episode overall if it didn't have the feeling every so often of the network pulling Carter's punches. He's not allowed to come out and say that the older sister is the younger sister's mother (even though it's obvious), but he can SUGGEST it. It kneecaps some of the episode's more promising scenes.
- Carter's still piling on the portentious dialogue throughout this episode, but this line from Catherine takes the cake: "Sometimes, I think there's no light that can penetrate the darkness of where she's been." Way to just state it outright like that, Catherine!
- I think the episode lost something by not pushing the Christmas connection more. It would have given the episode a melancholy that really might have helped underscore the utter desolation at the center of these girls' lives.
- I have to say the oldest sister here is kind of useless. She misplaces her incest sufferer sister shortly after she comes to stay? Bad form!
- Caveat to the above: I know that powerful men like the Dooley character (his name is Joe Bangs, but I've been sticking with this awkward construction so long that I may as well continue) are able to pull strings to keep things like this hidden. I know that many sufferers of incest suffer in silence. I know that sexual abuse and rape are often regarded deeply irresponsibly by authorities. But, honestly, the evidence of this character's misdeeds is so blatantly obvious that the fact that he hasn't been prosecuted is deeply, deeply ridiculous. Carter lacks the subtle touch he would need to really make the Catherine episodes work, though he had writers on staff capable of it. (Honestly, I would love to have seen what Darin Morgan did with the basic idea of Catherine confronting the world's evils. Hell, I would have loved to have seen what Kay Reindl and Erin Maher would have done with that idea too.)
Next week: Zack figures out just what's up with the Russians in "Terma," then heads off to crash some gated communities in "Wide Open."