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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The X-Files: "Unruhe"/ Millennium: "The Judge"

Illustration for article titled The X-Files: "Unruhe"/ Millennium: "The Judge"
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"Unruhe" (season 4, episode 4)

In which psychic photography cracks the case and Scully is menaced by a very, very tall man.

The best episodes of The X-Files feel like little urban fairy tales, bits and pieces of the American cultural scene that have been pulled together into a cohesive narrative of dread. And the best writer on The X-Files at crafting that kind of tale was always Vince Gilligan, who took the sorts of things you might see in everyday life and made them incredibly terrifying, when he wasn't making them sort of humorous. Once Darin Morgan and the Morgan and Wong duo left the show, Gilligan became the best writer working on the staff, hands down, and season four is kind of his coming out party, with three episodes that bear his name as the sole script credit and two mythology episodes that include his name in a team of writers. The scripts solely written by Gilligan run the gamut of X-Files episode types. This one is a supernatural/serial killer mash-up. "Paper Hearts" is an honest, emotional attempt to deal with a question at the heart of the show's mythology. And "Small Potatoes" is a rollicking comedy that picks at some of the greater inconsistencies within the series. Weirdly, I'll be covering all three of these episodes, plus Gilligan's two co-credited scripts - "Leonard Betts" and "Memento Mori." (Weep not for Zack; he gets the other three Morgan/Wong episodes, all of which are fascinating in their own way.)

"Unruhe" is significant to the history of The X-Files in another way: Though it was shot second in this season's production order, it was moved to the fourth episode to air because it was the first episode to air on Sunday nights. The show had grown into a sizable hit on Fridays (where Millennium inherited its time slot), but Fox could sense that it could create a bloc that would take on all of the other networks if it would just shift The X-Files into the 9 p.m. hour on Sundays, right after a one-hour comedy bloc consisting of The Simpsons (when it was still legitimately one of the best shows on TV) and the late, perhaps only lamented by me Thomas Haden Church vehicle Ned and Stacey. Simpsons and X-Files went on to dominate the latter half of the '90s. Ned and Stacey slunk off into the corner to lick its wounds.

"Unruhe" was chosen to lead off the show's move to Sunday nights because it was thought to be the best possible example of the show's strengths available to the network at the time. "Home" would probably alienate the hoped-for larger audience. "Teliko" was, by any measure, a pretty weak episode. "Herrenvolk" would require that larger audience to dive straight into a seasons-old conspiracy. "Unruhe," while not the finest X-Files episode ever, was the episode that looked the most like one of the show's most classic episodes. It featured a paranormal mystery on the sidelines. It featured a monster who was taking helpless women hostage. (It's only now that I realize that The X-Files always had more of a problem with damsels in distress than Millennium - which feels more responsible for the CBS procedurals with their own damsel in distress problems than The X-Files - ever did.) It featured Scully ending up in danger. It had great Vancouver location work. "Unruhe" is not up there with the best hours the show ever did, but it's a nicely nasty piece of work, a good calling card for the show to throw out there for the audience. "Here's what we usually do. Next week, Mulder's going to be crying for a woman he just met."

I don't mean to bag on "Unruhe." I had remembered this stretch of the fourth season containing a lot of unimaginative monster of the week episodes - including "Teliko," this one, and "Sanguinarium," - plus the widely derided "The Field Where I Died" (though I kinda like that one), but on a rewatch, this is one of the most solid monster of the week episodes of the fourth season. By the time season four of any show rolls around, there's a temptation to just let go of the formula entirely, because the writers (many of whom have usually been around since season one) are getting bored or fielding offers to write pilots or what have you. Season four of The X-Files contains some of the show's absolute finest hours and quite a few of those episodes are blatantly experimental. But it also contains some jaw-droppingly awful episodes, episodes where the writers were clearly phoning it in or handing out their assignments to freelancers. "Unruhe" stands alone almost entirely because it's a monster of the week episode that has some solid scares, a few laughs, and a minimal desire to rock the boat.


Actually, watching this episode now, what stands out most about "Unruhe" is how tied it is to a technology that has almost completely disappeared since the show first aired: film processing (and film cameras). When I reviewed "Home," I talked about how The X-Files feels like the last of a certain kind of breed, a way to collect local bits of folklore before they get swallowed up by a national myth. (Lone Audience discussed this at length in the comments of that piece, and his posts are worth a read.) "Home" takes place in a world where the national is becoming local, choking out that which is unique (a prescient reading in a world where even the most local of elections is becoming nationalized). But the world of "Home" only seems a couple of years removed from this one. Sure, the Internet isn't terribly prevalent, and the TV would never get that poor of reception nowadays. But Mulder and Scully have cell phones, and the small town atmosphere is mostly similar to how it is today.

"Unruhe" relies almost entirely on technology that, for all intents and purposes, doesn't even exist anymore. Southern California - where I live - is dotted with the remains of those little parking lot kiosks where you could take your film to be developed, and none of them are open anymore. Sure, Wal-mart or Walgreens will still develop your film, but even these services have largely moved on to providing glossy prints of digital camera photographs. Fringe, The X-Files' most obvious successor, couldn't do an episode like "Unruhe" because the central idea of the episode - the killer's psychic torment is so intense that it imprints itself on film - wouldn't make any sense with a digital camera. When Mulder and the FBI lab guy are playing around with the photographs on the computer, it must have seemed really cool to be able to do that sort of image manipulation back in October of 1996. Now, it just seems like Mulder is watching the first episode of You Suck at Photoshop. "Unruhe" might have just seemed like a standard-issue X-File in 1996, but it gains a weird resonance in 2010 for being so obviously of the Clinton era.


In all of this, I've failed to point out the greatest virtue of "Unruhe": It's pretty damn terrifying when it wants to be, with Gilligan playing off of a whole host of common fears. He's got the killer (who's played by the always engaging Pruitt Taylor Vince) lurking under Scully's car. He's got drugs that paralyze the person who's injected and leave them helpless and the fear of permanent brain damage. He's got a long icepick extending toward someone's nostril (their eyes right there). He's got the way Vince's eyes do that little flutter when the darkness overtakes him. He's got the fact that the guy runs around on STILTS, for God's sake. Gilligan was always The X-Files' most obviously VISUAL writer. Where Chris Carter might toss in a lugubrious monologue or Darin Morgan would go for broke on funny dialogue, Gilligan never met a mundane visual he couldn't make creepier. His talent for taking ordinary objects - like the construction stilts - and making them the stuff of nightmares or tense action sequences extends to his current series, Breaking Bad, and he never calls more attention to these devices than absolutely necessary. It's always, "Hey, that guy's on stilts. Isn't that kinda creepy?" rather than, "THE MAN ON STILTS IS A DEMON FROM HELL!!!" Zack called him the Stephen King of The X-Files on Twitter, and that's more or less accurate.

At some point, you'd think the show would have realized that putting Scully in danger was going to offer up diminishing returns, but the series continued to plug along down that path for most of its run. Scully is warmly remembered as a step in the right direction for feminist characters on TV, but it's easy to forget how damn weak the show could make her when it wanted to. Here, at least, she gets in some good dialogue with our killer (whose name is Schnauz, but who cares?) before nearly being lobotomized. Still, there's this sense that she should be stronger than she is, a sense that the show never seems to pick up on, so enamored is it of Mulder and his impossible quest. (The writers that would pick up on Scully's greatness just coincidentally happen to be the three strongest writers or teams the show would ever have - Darin Morgan, the Morgan and Wong team, and Gilligan himself, who wrote some incredible Scully episodes later on.)


Yet the reason "Unruhe" works goes back to that idea of The X-Files as an urban fairy tale. There are these beautiful princesses, see, and they keep getting taken in the night by a tall man who's very strong. The man speaks magic words in another language, words that they will repeat for the rest of their lives, after he manages to steal their souls. And when he grabs hold of you, he's able to keep you from moving. But this man didn't know he had a weakness. He was always leaving the good guys magic clues as to what he would do next. And one day, he took a princess who knew just enough to buy herself some time, until the prince was able to rush in at the last moment and save her.  It's easy to scoff at some of the more eye-rolling moments of "Unruhe," the moments when it falls prey to some of the worst cliches of The X-Files, but at a base level, Gilligan understands just how deeply this all conforms to fairy tale logic. The screams are there because the fear is primal.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • When Mulder is racing around the cemetery looking for where Scully might be held, I had to laugh to see the GIANT RV SET UP IN THE MIDDLE OF THE WOODS. Gee, I wonder where she might be? (At the same time, Gilligan was obviously already in love with the idea of RVs as a place to carry out secret crimes.)
  • Another typically Gilligan touch: The really crazy paranormal idea - the "howlers" - doesn't actually exist and is, rather, brought on by the villain's demented state of mind.
  • Things to say at your family Thanksgiving gathering: "Ich habe keine unruhe."
  • It's easy to make fun of the sequence where Mulder and the FBI guy learn how to use Photoshop together, but I like the way the episode hides all of the clues anyone will need to know to solve the puzzle within that image.
  • "Why would she stab her boyfriend through the ear? The magic was gone?"

"The Judge" (season 1, episode 4)

In which a judge takes it upon himself to rid the world of evil, using Sol Star, mayor of Deadwood.


There's a central problem for any show that wishes to cut between those who do violence and those who would catch them: There's an inherent imbalance in the action-reaction relationship between both sets of protagonists.

Let me explain. In The X-Files, we usually cut between two protagonists: Mulder and Scully and the monster of the week. Both of these groups are starring in two different TV shows. Mulder and Scully are starring in The X-Files, where they travel the country, looking to capture exotic killers and other paranormal beasties. The monster is starring in Hey, Look, I'm a Monster! where he or she seeks out new prey in every episode, eventually devouring the prey whole. (In Millennium, replace "Mulder and Scully" with "Frank Black" and "monster" with "serial killer.") The imbalance comes from the fact that the monster always has to be necessarily active - by killing more and more victims - while the heroes always have to be necessarily reactive - by catching up to the monster but not quickly enough to stop it before the end of the episode.
This can often result in the heroes becoming passive within the show that's ostensibly based on them. They're the center, but everything around them is so much more interesting because it's driving the story forward. This was a problem The X-Files wouldn't consistently hammer out until its third season, when it figured out ways to vary up its template, by having Mulder and Scully end up a few steps ahead of the monster or having the monster wander off template or having them catch the monster halfway through the episode (as in "Unruhe").


So Millennium, which borrowed heavily from The X-Files' template, found itself in its first season with this very problem: There's a killer out there, and he wants people dead. Frank Black follows along just in the killer's footsteps until he finally catches the killer at the end. Rinse. Repeat. There are two big problems with this. First off, Frank Black is already an ill-defined character. He's a thrillingly performed character, but his character traits at present seem to consist of "dour" and "possibly psychic" and "loves his family." Also, he believes in original sin or whatever. Compared to Mulder and Scully's easy (and infinitely elastic) "skeptic"/"believer" diptych, he leaves quite a bit to be desired.

The second problem comes from the fact that The X-Files, at least, could create many varied KINDS of monsters. There are even terrific episodes of the show - like "Die Hand Die Verletzt" - where Mulder and Scully mostly just stand around while the incredibly compelling monster does all the heavy lifting. On Millennium, all Frank can do, pretty much, is catch killers. That's all fine and dandy, but it's hard to vary that template up as much. There's a reason CSI took all of the visuals, the obsession with science, and the cool as ice character work from the Chris Carter series, but wedded them to a classical whodunnit type of narrative. It gave the detectives something to do and something for us to play along with. And there's a reason Millennium eventually shifted into a cross between a gloomy workplace drama and The Jack Van Impe Show.


You can sort of sense the show already bumping up against the limits of its template in "The Judge," and it gets around this by coming up with a new kind of serial killer. The titular Judge doesn't actually mete out any justice. He finds men who are already prone to violent behavior and shapes them to his needs, which means using them to kill people who have escaped justice for one reason or another. Then, he sends a body part from the victim to a family member of the person who was wronged way back when. He's not a killer, Frank notes; he's a controller, and that means it will be harder to get him on any real crimes. (Indeed, when the cops bring the Judge in, there's basically nothing they can do to him.) The Judge is a bad dude, but he associates with even worse dudes, and that means he ends up falling to the hand of John Hawkes, who feeds him to some pigs. (Hawkes, of course, would end up starring on another series with a prominent pig-feeding motif.)

Here's where the problem starts to come into play. Because Frank's our regular character - the guy we ostensibly sympathize with - we have to spend most of our time with him. But that also means that we spend much of our time watching Frank put together shit we've already figured out long ago. On The X-Files, the monsters would be doing such crazy stuff that even in the episodes where Mulder and Scully got nothing to do, Mulder could say, "I think the killer is a vampire, and here's an intriguing bit of urban folklore I'll bet you've never heard of," and the audience could say, "That's very interesting, Mulder," and Scully would say, "Science!" and we'd all be a little ashamed of how much more we wanted it to be a vampire. On Millennium, Frank says, "The killer isn't smart enough to know all of this. He's controlled by someone else," and the audience says, "Hey, the show already told us that back in act one. I'm gonna go find some Fritos."


I guess what I'm saying is that a show like this needs a value-add. The value-add for The X-Files (and Fringe) was cool paranormal stuff. The value-add for House is learning about wacky diseases you've never heard of. The value-add for CSI was seeing how science can really solve a crime. The value-add for Millennium ended up being weird bits of religious esoterica the writers had heard of in a book once. But in the early days of the series, the show hadn't yet figured out how to make itself interesting and how to make Frank someone other than a guy who just told the audience things it already knew. It was realistic that he was doing this. It was absolutely plausible that he would be this far behind the killer and figure this stuff out piecemeal. But because of our omniscient point of view, it could also be very, very boring. (Also clear in this episode is just how little the show had figured out to use Catherine, as she mostly stumbles in to say, "Hey, one of my co-workers has a client who just got a TONGUE IN A BOX. You know anything about this?" before wandering off to do lady things.)

Yet there's a way for shows like this to make themselves compelling even when the protagonists mostly spend their time playing catch-up: Get us invested in the protagonists of the other series, the one we're only dropping in on for this week. That's something The X-Files figured out early on, and it's a technique taken from the '70s cop shows that heavily influenced that show and this one. If we're invested in either the criminals - who are perhaps given recognizable motivations - or the families of the victims - who are quickly and compellingly drawn - then we have something to care about and don't mind if the regulars stand off to the side and say, "I don't know if you've noticed, but this show is about eternal darkness." We'll be happy to munch on our Fritos and hang out with the guest stars.


"The Judge" just barely saves itself through this technique. Both the Judge and Bardale are interesting characters, and the actors playing them are similarly very good. John Hawkes, of course, needs no introduction, particularly in a year when he deserves an Academy Award nomination for Winter's Bone, but he makes Bardale more than just the latest scruffy ne'er-do-well the Judge ropes into his crazy plan, and that final moment when it's revealed he's fed the Judge to the pigs is made all the more chilling for how Hawkes plays it so matter-of-factly. Marshall Bell, meanwhile, plays the Judge as a man who seems almost reasonable in his madness, a guy who's clearly teetering on the brink of insanity but doesn't bother to show that side of himself all that often. Millennium's healthy sense of how ritual makes even the oddest things seem routine serves it well here, as weird ideas like the Judge putting on a hood to speak with his new trainees seem downright commonplace in the hands of Bell and the show's writers. Bell also gives great crazy when Frank is interviewing him, and the show makes the most out of his random leaps into cackling evil.

I don't know that "The Judge" works all that well as an episode of television. It has all of the trappings of an episode of a show I would like watching, but the execution falls flat. Theoretically, a crazy man wearing a hood and telling a drifter to cut out body parts for barely explained reasons should be right up my alley, as should the fact that it all takes place in an isolated house that looks almost haunted. But in practice, it feels a lot more staid. The X-Files worked through these kinks because at its heart, it was a horror anthology with recurring characters. It could be a slasher movie one week, a creature feature the next, and a horror comedy the next. Millennium only has the one color to play with - pitch black - and in "The Judge," it's already realizing how limiting that can be. Fortunately, the show rebelled against that sense of limitation. It just took a bit to get there.


Grade: B-

Stray observations:

  • The one bit of helpful information we get from the Frank Black side of things: The death we see at the episode's beginning is the first time that one of the Judge's victims has been dead when the body part was removed. Still, in the grand scheme of things, this isn't THAT helpful to our understanding of what's going on.
  • This early in a show's run, you never know who's going to pop as a recurring player. So it seems clear that CCH Pounder - who already had an Emmy nomination for guest acting from her X-Files appearance - is here as a possible recurring player. She comes back a few times, but she's clearly not the character the writers hoped she would be. It's too bad, too, as I think a show based around Frank's intuitive crime solving and Pounder's character's more science-based approach might have worked better as a detective show than one based around Frank and … whatever Catherine was supposed to represent. (I like Catherine as a character eventually. She's just so obviously a symbol trying to gain dimension at this point in the series.)
  • Fun Millennium links: Brittany Tiplady has a Tumblr where she writes pretentious teen girl poetry. (You're welcome, America!) This fan site is so comprehensive, I'm just going to start plagiarizing it.

Next week: Zack gets two Morgan and Wong scripts with the much-maligned "The Field Where I Died" and "522666."