Monday, September 21, 2015

The X-Files - S4:E7 "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man

[ S4:E6 "Sanguinarium" <<< Season 4 >>> S4:E8 "Tunguska" ]

Spoiler Warning: As you might imagine, this review is going to be spoilerrific.

The Cigarette Smoking Man - who has been listed in the credits as the Smoking Man, and referred to as both that and Cancer Man (though more often Cancer Man) by characters on the show - has always been a crucial character for The X-Files (arguably the most important one after Mulder and Scully), going all the way back to the pilot episode, even though at that point in time he was little more than an archetype of institutional evil. Unless I am mistaken, he appeared in only a few short scenes in a confirmed three episodes throughout the first season, uttering a grand total of four words (three of which were two letters or less, not to belabor the point). Perhaps because of this relative obscurity, as well as his larger-than-life character, every little bit we saw of him in the second season was a welcome addition to his legacy. Then, I remarked that there was a point in this series when he could be considered to be too exposed, and overly humanized. He appeared quite a bit in the "merchandise trilogy" that wrapped around seasons 2 and 3 (Anasazi/The Blessing Way/Paper Clip), and his connection with Mulder's parents then, and particularly in the wraparound to seasons 3 and 4 (Talitha Cumi/Herrenvolk), have gone a long way in humanizing him; although I daresay that at this point in the series, he hasn't yet lost his edge. But this episode is certainly a major turning point for the character.

The episode opens with the Smoking Man setting up in an abandoned building with a view of the offices of The Lone Gunmen, armed with a sniper rifle, and highly sophisticated surveillance equipment. He spends the episode eavesdropping on a juicy lead Frohike shares with Mulder and Scully (neither of which who, aside from a short clip of repeated footage from the pilot episode, appear in this episode beyond a few dubbed lines - a rare first for the series), detailing the Smoking Man's classified history. Therein lies the episode's disclaimer, however, as it's not apparent how much of what we see is the Smoking Man reminiscing about his life, and how much is merely a dramatization of the unverified and admittedly sensational leads Frohike thinks he's uncovered.* Nevertheless, it's a very satisfying episode, even inasmuch as it further humanizes the main villain of the show.

The episode is divided into four chapters, three of which center around a critical assassination. The first glosses over the Smoking Man's childhood, during which his father was executed for being a Communist spy, and his mother died of lung cancer before he began to speak. He grew up an orphan, and eventually enlisted in the army, where he was friends with Bill Mulder (the Smoking Man will come to treasure a photo Bill shows him of his wife and son). At that point, we witness his recruitment (though not necessarily his initiation) into life as a political assassin. The episode brazenly suggests that the Smoking Man himself (played in his younger years by Chris Owens), was the man who shot JFK. What's more, in the second chapter, we see him responsible for the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., as well (despite respecting the man - gotta keep the commies out of America). We also see that he's gained considerable power and influence, and connections with the FBI.

The third chapter is more relevant to the themes of this series, as it depicts Deep Throat's assassination of an E.B.E. - mostly consistent with his revelations in the season 1 episode of that title - just months before the start of the series. The fourth and final chapter gives us a glimpse behind the scenes of when Scully was assigned to the X-Files project, as we'd previously seen in the pilot episode. In addition to the Smoking Man's illustrious yet ignoble career, we also get a look into his aspirations - such as his unrequited desire to be a published fiction writer (as an aside, I really liked that the Smoking Man's rejection letter contained the phrase "burn it!", which the Smoking Man notably utters in Anasazi) - and his personal struggles - namely, his addiction to cigarettes. Overall, it paints the portrait of a very important, but very lonely, man, and it depicts his work for the government - as gruesome as it is - in a relatively sympathetic manner.

The episode, written by Glen Morgan and directed by James Wong, is masterfully crafted, in such a way that we feel we've been exposed to much, and have a much better understanding of the character of the Cigarette Smoking Man, while simultaneously not really critically advancing the show's mythology - as this is not a mythology episode per se, so much as a portrait of a critical mythology-centric character. As far as experiments go, it's infinitely more successful than The Field Where I Died was. I consider it an essential episode of the series.

* Credit goes to The A.V. Club, whose review of this episode opened my eyes to a subtle but incredibly important implication made in a nearly throwaway line at the end of the episode. I didn't actually pick up on this on my own, but I believe now that we are meant to conclude that Frohike's lead - which drives the recounted events of this episode - are none other than the story the Smoking Man himself wrote up and submitted to the magazine for publication(!) - which is, presumably, the Smoking Man's dramatized and glorified account of his own life.

Memorable quotes:

Byers: Frohike's close.
Frohike: Don't use my name! What the hell's wrong with you? Now I'll have to kill you!

General Francis: You see, Captain, most people seek to control life's events in order to secure a more positive, productive, and free existence. Often, however, the objectives of others conflict with our objectives. Now, most people - common people, really - can barely manage to control their own self-centered, myopic existence. They command armies of lawyers, armed with paper weapons, attacking with spiteful, vengeful, cowardly litigation. Others operate within elephantine bureaucracies. And then, Captain, there are extraordinary men - those who must identify, comprehend, and ultimately shoulder the responsibility for not only their own existence, but their country's, and the world's as well.

Associate: I'm working on next month's Oscar nominations. Any preference?
Smoking Man: I couldn't care less. What I don't wanna see is the Bills winning the Super Bowl. As long as I'm alive, that doesn't happen.

Smoking Man: How many historic events have only the two of us witnessed together? How often did we make or change history; and our names can never grace any pages of record. No monument will ever bear our image. And yet, once again, tonight, the course of human history will be set by two unknown men, standing in the shadows.

Smoking Man: A living E.B.E. could advance Bill Mulder's project by decades.
Deep Throat: Security council resolution 1013 states any country capturing such an entity is responsible for its immediate extermination.

Deep Throat: I'm the liar. You're the killer.
Smoking Man: Your lies have killed more men in a day than I have in a lifetime. I've never killed anybody.
Deep Throat: Maybe I'm not the liar.

Smoking Man: like a box of chocolates. A cheap, thoughtless, perfunctory gift that nobody ever asks for. Unreturnable, because all you get back is another box of chocolates. So you're stuck with this...undefinable whipped mint crap that you mindlessly wolf down when there's nothing else left to eat. Sure, once in a while there's a peanut butter cup, or a...English toffee, but they're gone too fast, and the taste is fleeting. So you end up with nothing but broken bits filled with hardened jelly and teeth-shattering nuts. If you're desperate enough to eat those, all you've got left is an empty box, filled with useless, brown paper wrappings.

(This was one of my all-time favorite quotes from the series, on my first watch).

Smoking Man: I can kill you whenever I please. But not today.

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