Monday, November 30, 2015

The X-Files - S7:E13 "First Person Shooter"

[ S7:E12 "X-COPS" <<< Season 7 >>> S7:E14 "Theef" ]

If X-COPS was this series' Freddy vs. Jason, then First Person Shooter is its Jason X. One can't help thinking that if the series hadn't jumped the shark by this point, then this wouldn't be a bad place to consider the shark jumped. Taken alone, X-COPS felt like a great idea executed in a mediocre fashion, but alongside First Person Shooter, it just seems like another gimmick (although a mildly more promising one). Given how much of the rest of this season has been channeling Millennium, with the virtual reality premise, one wonders if this episode isn't a riff on Chris Carter's prematurely cancelled Harsh Realm series. I can't say for sure, as I haven't seen the series, but Chris Carter does direct this episode. At any rate, it's written by William Gibson & Tom Maddox, and it contains many of the same themes as their better, previous entry - season 5's Kill Switch. Namely, a high-tech gamer atmosphere, virtual reality, a loving treatment of the Lone Gunmen, and a kickass cybergoth female character (I liked the last one's attitude, but this one's wardrobe is incredible). Like Jason X, this episode isn't as bad as I was expecting from its reputation, but it's not exactly good, either.

The concept is salvageable - a game predicated on a virtual reality platform in which an unexpected foreign element begins killing players in real life (a sort of technological take on the manner of death we saw in Sleepless). But it develops into a cheap fx-laden cheesefest by its end, representing another failure of potential. (As an amateur game developer myself, I'm wondering why anyone would be prepared to release a game in which no one has ever beaten the second level...). But just as frustrating is the rampant sexism prevalent in the script. In truth, the "adolescent male fantasy" bit is taken a little too far - but it's just harmless fun. Worse is Scully's bitter attitude. Feminist critiques aside, Scully is a scientist - at the very least she should understand (academically, if not experientially) the effects of testosterone and the male sex drive. And I would expect more from her than to give in to social propaganda about the effects of violence in the media. But in this episode she comes off as a joyless spinster. (The look on her face in that one moment where she realizes her sexist assumptions about a man being responsible are wrong is priceless, but not enough to save her). The episode starts to drag by the end - almost like it's stalling for time - and I don't buy that these game developers are the type who would be willing to kill for the sake of their success. It takes a certain kind of monster to do that, and these people aren't it.

Memorable quotes:

Langly: Welcome to the land where silicon meets silicone.

Scully: This man's been shot.
Ivan: No! See, when somebody is shot, there's a gun involved. That is absolutely impossible, because there's no way anybody could ever get a gun past security.
Scully: What do you call this?
Ivan: A laser blaster. For wasting cyber trash.

Detective Lacoeur: Have you got something?
Mulder: Yeah. Our killer, I believe.
Detective Lacoeur: Hey, I'll put out an APB...for Frederick's of Hollywood.

Mulder: You have to admit, though, Scully, this is a pretty amazing piece of technology.
Scully: Yeah, wasted on a stupid game.
Mulder: Stupid?
Scully: Dressing up like high-tech warriors to play a futuristic version of cowboys and indians. What kind of moron gets his ya-yas out like that?
Mulder: (gleefully points to himself)
Scully: Mulder, what purpose does this game serve, except to add to a culture of violence in a country that's already out of control?
Mulder: Who says it adds to it?
Scully: You think that taking up weapons and creating gratuitous virtual mayhem has any redeeming value whatsoever? I mean, that the testosterone frenzy that it creates stops when the game does?
Mulder: Well, that's rather sexist, isn't it? I mean, maybe the game provides an outlet for certain impulses. That it fills a void in our genetic makeup that the more civilizing effects of society fail to provide for.
Scully: Well, that must be why men feel the great need to blast the crap out of stuff.

(Wow, I can't imagine how the writers could possibly have made Scully any less likable in this episode...)

Scully: They...paid you to scan your body?
Jade Blue Afterglow: You think that's the strangest thing I've been paid to do?

(Her pimp-slapping exploits in Tithonus aside, in this episode Scully is either derisive, or otherwise jealous, of a sex worker - and she doesn't come off well either way).

Mulder: I don't know about you, Scully, but I am feeling the great need to blast the crap out of something.

(Me too, Mulder. Me too).

The X-Files - S7:E12 "X-COPS"

[ S7:E11 "Closure" <<< Season 7 >>> S7:E13 "First Person Shooter" ]

It deserves to be said that whoever's idea it was (presumably Vince Gilligan, who wrote this episode) the idea of doing a crossover between The X-Files and COPS is nothing short of brilliant. Conceptually, it's as perfect a marriage as Freddy vs. Jason. That would have been true regardless of whether the episode had turned out to be good or bad or so bad it's good. But you get the feeling that, done the right way, it could be amazing. Unfortunately, I can't say that it quite manages to rise to that level, which is a little disappointing. But it's one of the more interesting experiments the show has done in its later years. And - I don't know how I didn't think of this before,'s a perfect opportunity, given the reality TV perspective, for The X-Files to do a found footage episode! Right down to the monster you never get a chance to see.

The episode opens like an episode of COPS, following a California patrolman investigating a "prowler" on the night of a full moon. They end up intersecting Mulder and Scully in the middle of an investigation into a series of monster sightings that Mulder attributes to a werewolf. (The way that Scully shuns the publicity, but Mulder relishes the opportunity to capture proof of the paranormal on camera is humorous, if entirely predictable). But as the varying reports come in throughout the night - alternately describing a werewolf, a "wasp-man", and Freddy Krueger, among other things - the form of the creature they're hunting (or that's hunting them) becomes ever harder to pin down. The only constant is the presence in its victims of mortal fear. Saying this as a fan of found footage films, truly good found footage is few and far between. This episode is not uncharacteristic, then, in its general mediocrity, and its failure to deliver on what is a solid premise. As such, I'd describe it more as a great idea than a great episode.

Memorable quotes:

Deputy Keith Wetzel: Irregardless, we're on the job, and if that makes people breathe a little easier knowing we're out there - be a little less nervous walkin' the streets at night - that's a good feeling.

(I respect the idea of "peacekeeping" officers - and I know my experience isn't universal -'s sadly ironic how naive this mindset is, given that cops often are one of the threats decent people have to watch out for on the streets. It's not entirely the cops' fault, themselves - although corruption is a real concern - but also because we live in a puritanical society that permits our lifestyles to be governed by bigoted moral standards derived from outdated religious tomes).

Deputy Keith Wetzel: We were attacked.
Sgt. Paula Duthie: By who? By gangbangers?
Deputy Keith Wetzel: Yeah, yeah. It was gangbangers.

Sgt. Paula Duthie: With all due respect, what the <BLEEP> are you talking about?

Mulder: I'd have to say that, at this point in the investigation, I'm usually a little more secure in what it is we're actually investigating. But we've had so many conflicting eyewitness reports, it's hard to ascertain what it is we're actually looking for.

Mulder: Scully, we came on this case looking for a werewolf, right?
Scully: Well, you did, that's correct.

Mulder: The camera doesn't always tell the whole story.

Scully: Well, you didn't get the proof that you wanted, Mulder. 
Mulder: Well, hey, you know, it all depends on how they edit it together.
Scully: It's gonna be a hard one to write up.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Top 15 hours of mythology (or Top 10 mytharcs)

Please see Top 24 Hours of The X-Files for an introduction to this list.

Top 15 hours of mythology 
Top 10 mytharcs

Spoiler Warning: I'm going to try to keep the spoilers light in this section, so you won't have to skip it if you haven't seen all these episodes, but if you're especially sensitive to spoilers, beware that there may be some minor ones in the following list.

#1 Fight The Future
[between Seasons 5 and 6]

Premise: Mulder and Scully become embroiled in a conspiracy to cover up the government's involvement in an alien plot to colonize the Earth.

Comments: Fight The Future is not the beginning, nor the end, of The X-Files' mythology. It may not be its single best moment, either. But, on the whole, taking into account its accessibility, and the soaring heights to which it climbs - both in terms of exposition (which is rare for this show's mythology), as well as huge action set pieces (let's see, we've got prehistoric Ice Age alien predators, an exploding building, a helicopter chase through a desert corn field, and a harrowing escape from a thawing Antarctic spacecraft), thanks to the expanded potential of the big screen format - Fight The Future deserves to be the proverbial landing page for The X-Files, mythology or otherwise.

#2: One Breath
[Season 2, Episode 8]

Premise: Mulder struggles with his dedication to the quest for the truth, when, as a consequence, Scully lies in the hospital in critical condition, inching slowly towards death.

Comments: Pound for pound, I think One Breath is the best single mythology episode of the entire series. With Scully's very life hanging in the balance, and Mulder on the verge of giving up his lifelong quest, the emotional stakes are at a fever pitch. This episode features one of my favorite scenes with the informant X, showcasing his intensity and ambiguous loyalties, as well as one of the most satisfying confrontations between Mulder and the Smoking Man, at a point when the latter was still a threatening figure shrouded in mystery.

#3 Anasazi / The Blessing Way / Paper Clip
[Season 2, Episode 25; Season 3, Episodes 1-2]

Premise: Acquisition of a top secret document puts Mulder and Scully on the run as they try to decipher clues about a government project involving human experiments into hybridization.

Comments: What I like to refer to as "the merchandise trilogy", this is a tour de force, and easily the highlight of the entire series' mythology. Coming at the end of the second season, the mythology was at a point of peak ripeness, having matured out of its early stages, while still leaving lots of room for expansion. The Syndicate is introduced for the first time, granting new layers to the shadowy conspiracy, and, having been put on the defensive, they wreak havoc throughout these episodes. There is more than one critical execution, and Mulder himself journeys dangerously close to death. By its conclusion, many questions remain unanswered, but Mulder and Scully will have scratched the surface of the conspirators' sinister plans against the American public, and Skinner will have had his opportunity to stand up to the Smoking Man, revealing the true nature of his character and loyalties once and for all.

#4 Duane Barry / Ascension
[Season 2, Episodes 5-6]

Premise: Mulder attempts to defuse a hostage situation involving an alien abductee, then races to the top of a mountain to rescue Scully from a kidnapper en route to an otherworldly rendezvous.

Comments: I debated whether to include these episodes together with One Breath (as I often like to do), since that episode resolves a major plot thread left hanging by these two episodes. But they aren't strictly an unbroken series, and while I feel that One Breath deserves a higher position on this list, I didn't feel as though the three together were good enough to beat Anasazi/The Blessing Way/Paper Clip. Nevertheless, this is an essential part of the mythology, and the clearest the series ever presents its primary theme - alien abduction. Steve Railsback lends a tortured intensity to Duane Barry, a highly memorable character, and the episodes culminate in a harrowing tram ride up a tall mountain, during which Alex Krycek reveals his duplicitous nature, and after which Scully vanishes, leaving Mulder to face the greatest loss since the childhood disappearance of his sister. Neither of them will ever be the same after this encounter.

#5 Gethsemane / Redux / Redux II
[Season 4, Episode 24; Season 5, Episodes 1-2]

Premise: While investigating an elaborate hoax, Mulder infiltrates the Department of Defense only to face the possibility that everything he's believed in has been a lie, while Scully grapples with the long-term consequences of her abduction.

Comments: The concept put forth by this series of episodes alone earns it a memorable reputation. By the end of the fourth season, the mythology had toyed extensively with the possibility that extraterrestrial phenomena might not be as out of this world as they seem. This is the culmination of that story thread, in which Mulder faces the possibility that everything he's seen and believed in for years has been an elaborate hoax, constructed to exploit a gullible public in service of obscuring the actions of a bloated military-industrial war machine. Although this twists The X-Files' regular mythology (that the government is hiding the existence of extraterrestrial life) utterly upside-down, it is perhaps the most plausible real-world explanation, and represents this series' mythology at its most cynically clever.

#6: Nisei / 731
[Season 3, Episodes 9-10]

Premise: An alien autopsy video leads Mulder to a train carrying what he believes to be a successful alien-human hybrid, while Scully learns the sobering details behind the government's secret involvement in alien abductions.

Comments: This is a thrilling pair of episodes from start to finish, with much to recommend it. Mark Snow's score is at its best. Stephen McHattie puts in a memorable guest turn as a stone-faced government assassin. X marches in unexpectedly at just the right moments to act like a badass. And the revelations - building on what has been learned in previous episodes about human testing to create hybrids, and the purpose and logistics of the government's involvement in alleged alien abductions - are damning. It's also one of those great sets of episodes where Mulder and Scully are at their best working apart, each heavily invested in their own part of the quest.

#7: Patient X / The Red and the Black
[Season 5, Episodes 13-14]

Premise: A new and unforeseen alien faction threatens to destroy the Syndicate's tenuous alliance with the alien colonists, while Mulder struggles with disbelief, and Scully finds herself a powerless pawn in the aliens' machinations.

Comments: Coming at a time in the series when Mulder was disillusioned by evidence that the alien conspiracy could all be a hoax, this episode not only marks the beginning of his turnaround, but also a point in the series when various stray threads of the mythology were finally starting to come together. The ultimate conclusion to the series' mythology may have been disappointing, but in these episodes, a satisfying resolution feels within the show's grasp - and that's exciting! This also marks the point where Krycek returns to the fore of the show's mythology, and features one of Marita Covarrubias' most memorable developments. One of the highlights of these episodes, and of the show's entire mythology, is the hypnosis scene where Scully describes with terrified wonder her close encounter with a UFO.

#8: The Erlenmeyer Flask
[Season 1, Episode 24]

Premise: Mulder risks both his life, and the cover of his informant, when he stumbles upon a secret government program designed to test the effects of extraterrestrial gene therapy on humans.

Comments: This is probably the best of Deep Throat's episodes, and the culmination of the first season's mythology. The mythology would grow and expand in later seasons, but there was a simplicity in that first season when all you got was hints that the government had had contact with aliens for years, and were involved in secret projects to salvage their technology and study their biology. As a season finale, The Erlenmeyer Flask is a thrilling episode imbued with the spirit of consequence, as demonstrated by the events of its game-changing conclusion - to an extent rarely duplicated in the series' run.

#9: Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man
[Season 4, Episode 7]

Premise: The Lone Gunmen discover a lead that promises to blow the cover off of the Smoking Man's sordid history once and for all.

Comments: I had some trouble deciding whether to count this as a mythology episode or a freak-of-the-week episode, but while the events depicted in it are probably not canon, it really works best in terms of how it fits into the series' mythology - especially the segments involving Deep Throat, and the behind-the-scenes look we get at the events of the pilot episode. Dramatized or not, this episode paints an effective portrait of the series' main villain, making him out to be a larger-than-life character, that manages to humanize him while at the same time not completely removing his fangs.

#10: Colony / End Game
[Season 2, Episodes 16-17]

Premise: A shape-shifting Alien Bounty Hunter comes to Earth to put a stop to unsanctioned cloning experiments ostensibly designed to create an alien-human hybrid.

Comments: Colony/End Game has the misfortune of being sandwiched between two of the greatest mytharcs in the series - Duane Barry/Ascension/One Breath, and Anasazi/The Blessing Way/Paper Clip. It can't help but pale in direct comparison. Plus, the fact that it appears to resolve the mystery of Samantha's disappearance so early in the series, only to snatch that answer back away from you before the episodes' end, is bound to leave you feeling a little disappointed. However, this is one mytharc that improves considerably upon multiple rewatches. It features the Alien Bounty Hunter (for the first time in the series) at his most purest - as an indestructible, shape-shifting assassin with Terminator-like determination - not marred by a complicated affiliation with various alien or human factions, as he is in later appearances. The entire feature is underscored by a plodding bass line, and builds to a thrilling climax aboard a submarine lodged in the Arctic ice.

Top 12 freak-of-the-week episodes

Please see Top 24 Hours of The X-Files for an introduction to this list.

Top 12 freak-of-the-week episodes

#12: S1:E1 "Pilot"
Written by Chris Carter
Directed by Robert Mandel

Premise: On their first case together, Mulder and Scully's investigation of a series of alleged alien abductions is frustrated by attempts at a government cover-up.

Comments: Ostensibly a mythology episode, at this early stage, relying on zero foreknowledge, the pilot works fantastically well as a standalone episode. Plus, the alien abductions that are investigated are not directly related to anything else in the mythology, so they could just as well be considered a freak-of-the-week. The X-Files would put out better and more mature episodes throughout its run, but the pilot remains a captivating introduction to both the main characters and the central themes of the show, as well as the murky atmosphere that would become a hallmark of the series.

#11: S3:E4 "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose"
Written by Darin Morgan; Directed by David Nutter

Premise: Mulder and Scully enlist the help of a cynical life insurance salesman who can foresee people's deaths, in order to track down a fortune teller killer.

Comments: Darin Morgan employs his trademark humor and skill at misdirecting the audience in this award-winning episode, while also dabbling heavily in philosophical themes relating to the debate between free will and determinism, proving that his legacy encompassed more than just the humor that other writers tried more and less successfully to imitate. In his titular character - inhabited by the venerable Peter Boyle - he creates a witty counterpoint to the flashy model of show business psychics by depicting the pessimistic pseudo-reality of a man whose psychic abilities involuntarily haunt him with precognitive visions of death. It's a fun, thoughtful, depressing, funny episode from one of the show's most celebrated writers.

#10: S3:E17 "Pusher"
Written by Vince Gilligan
Directed by Rob Bowman

Premise: Mulder engages in a battle of wits against a professional assassin with nothing to lose, and the ability to push his will onto others.

Comments: Vince Gilligan would go on to become one of the show's primary writers in the middle and later years, but this was his breakout episode, and one of his best in the serious vein. Starring Robert Wisden as a man with the ability to push his will onto others, it is as much a psychological thriller as a nihilistic character study, that builds to a nail-biting climax. Singled out as the freak-of-the-week's only worthy adversary, Mulder must find a way to face the insurmountable threat of mind control, without losing his life - or Scully's - in the process.

#9: S4:E2 "Home"
Written by Glen Morgan & James Wong
Directed by Kim Manners

Premise: Following the discovery of an infant buried alive, Mulder and Scully investigate an inbred family in a small town resistant to change.

Comments: Notorious for the fact that it required a content advisory warning for its extremely disturbing subject matter, Home is an episode whose reputation precedes it. Written by founding writers Glen Morgan & James Wong, this is the closest the series ever got to the pure horror of a slasher film. Yet, it is a cleverly written episode that effectively manages to frighten not purely due to presenting the viewer with shocking images, but largely on account of the unsettling subjects it broaches. This is ably demonstrated by the fact that this is paradoxically one of the brightest and sunniest episodes the crew ever shot in Vancouver.

#8: S3:E22 "Quagmire"
Written by Kim Newton
Directed by Kim Manners

Premise: Mulder and Scully investigate a series of deaths attributed to a stateside analog of the Loch Ness monster.

Comments: Like a mini sci-fi channel movie at its best, Quagmire strikes a comfortable balance between being a traditional freak-of-the-week episode, and one of the funnier deconstructions of the show and its characters (it's not hard to believe the rumors that an uncredited Darin Morgan assisted with the writing of the script). Nowhere is this more apparent than in the infamous scene dubbed by fans as the "conversation on the rock", in which a desperate and stranded Mulder and Scully wax philosophical while awaiting their probable demise. This is also The X-Files' best treatment of cryptozoology - a theme that was surprisingly not more prevalent in the series.

#7: S3:E14 "Grotesque"
Written by Howard Gordon
Directed by Kim Manners

Premise: A senior agent at the FBI requests Mulder's assistance in closing the case on a series of murders attributed to possession by a gargoyle, that persists even after the prime suspect is taken into custody.

Comments: As far as straightforward, dark and serious episodes go, this is one of my favorites. It has a very gothic atmosphere, appropriate to its theme of possession by the evil spirit of a gargoyle. Kurtwood Smith guest stars as one of the more memorable rivals Mulder has had at the FBI, who doesn't like his outlandish theories, but cannot deny his singular ability to solve cases. The episode mixes in a little bit of murder mystery, but is primarily a psychological thriller in which Mulder gets to show off his prowess as a criminal profiler, to a point of obsession that he risks going too far into the mind of a murderer. It has a dark palette and an oppressive atmosphere that I find just delightful.

#6: S6:E18 "Milagro"
Teleplay by Chris Carter
Story by John Shiban & Frank Spotnitz
Directed by Kim Manners

Premise: Scully becomes the target of affection for a crime novelist whose expert skill with words has an uncanny hold on reality.

Comments: For an episode from the misguidedly light-hearted sixth season to make it onto this list, you know it has to be good - and Milagro is fantastic. The episode hinges on John Hawkes' quiet intensity, in the role of a writer utterly devoted to his work. Gillian Anderson also gets a chance to shine, as her initial discomfort at the writer's unsolicited, but strangely charismatic advances slowly grows into an inexplicably magnetic attraction. The same could be said of the viewer's reaction to this episode, which is a love letter to the art of writing fiction.

#5: S2:E14 "Die Hand die Verletzt"
Written by Glen Morgan & James Wong
Directed by Kim Manners

Premise: Mulder and Scully investigate a series of deaths in a superstitious New England town that has connections to a Satanic cult.

Comments: I'm a sucker for stories about the devil, and it's a theme The X-Files approached many times throughout its run. But this episode that posits a town where Satanism is just another religion - one held by its community leaders - is my favorite. I also consider it one of the series' best examples of the standard, by-the-numbers freak-of-the-week format. Morgan & Wong's final outing before taking a temporary hiatus from the show, it manages to construct a dark atmosphere while simultaneously being downright fun. It's a great episode to watch on Halloween. There are a ton of great effects, including pillars of flame, toads raining from the sky, squealing pig fetuses, and a gigantic snake that can swallow a man whole. Plus, the idea that Satan would send an emissary to punish his own believers for their lackluster devotion serves as an appropriately frightening warning to those dabbling in the occult.

#4: S2:E22 "F. Emasculata"
Written by Chris Carter & Howard Gordon
Directed by Rob Bowman

Premise: In a corporate plot involving government conspiracy, Mulder joins the U.S. Marshals in tracking down two escaped convicts, while Scully studies the lethal disease they may be carrying into the general population.

Comments: This is an exciting and memorably gruesome episode - an edge-of-your-seat thriller that borrows much from the "outbreak scenario" playbook, while tying it to the show's central theme of government conspiracy. But rather than paint that conspiracy in black-and-white as usual, this episode takes advantage of its emergency situation premise to toy with the idea that sometimes withholding information can be for the greater good, forcing Mulder to reluctantly consider the conspirators' perspective for once. This episode is also a perfect example of how the show could ratchet suspense through two parallel storylines by splitting Mulder and Scully up, ultimately building to a delightfully pessimistic conclusion.

#3: S4:E10 "Paper Hearts"
Written by Vince Gilligan
Directed by Rob Bowman

Premise: A prophetic dream re-opens an old case, causing Mulder to question whether his sister could have been one of the unclaimed victims of an incarcerated serial killer.

Comments: This is my favorite Mulder episode, and my favorite episode penned by Vince Gilligan. Much like how Beyond The Sea shows Gillian Anderson's range, this episode does the same for David Duchovny, as an uncommonly vulnerable Mulder faces down a monster in a unique position to exploit his greatest weakness. The episode dares to posit an alternative explanation for the disappearance of Mulder's sister, but it does so with aplomb, and to fantastic dramatic effect. Tom Noonan guest stars as an incarcerated child killer, whose calculating intellect and callous disregard for the feelings of others renders him frightening even in chains. This is a grim episode, but it is The X-Files at its most deadly serious best.

#2: S1:E13 "Beyond The Sea"
Written by Glen Morgan & James Wong
Directed by David Nutter

Premise: A family tragedy puts Scully's skepticism to the test, as the agents track down a serial killer with the help of a death row inmate who claims to be psychic.

Comments: In a season when the show was still finding its footing, developing its trademark formula and atmosphere, Beyond The Sea is the first episode that really stands out. It's also the first episode that showcases Gillian Anderson's emotional range as an actress. Due to a family tragedy, the usual dynamic is flipped around, making Mulder the skeptic and Scully the believer for once. Brad Dourif puts in a memorable turn as a sympathetic villain marked for death, and haunted by his inevitable fate. I contend that this episode is every bit as good as any traditional hour released in later seasons.

Written by Darin Morgan; Directed by Rob Bowman

Premise: An acclaimed author attempts to parse the events following an alleged alien abduction for the subject of his latest novel.

Comments: Nostalgia may play some part in my high opinion of this episode, but to say that that's the sole reason I've rated it so highly would do a disservice to its quality. It is both Darin Morgan's funniest, and smartest script, deconstructing the central themes of the show - alien abductions and government conspiracies - while playing around with the idea that the truth that Mulder so desperately seeks is a subjective entity. As is characteristic of Darin Morgan's scripts, it is infused with just enough human pathos to keep it emotionally grounded, while the overall impression is one of sheer, unbridled fun. Less an example of a typical episode of The X-Files, this is what the show could look like at its very best.


Written by Frank Spotnitz
Directed by Tony Wharmby

Premise: Agent Doggett slowly loses his grip on sanity while investigating the case of a cult leader who opened his third eye and found God while walking the path of darkness.

Comments: If ever there were a late-series episode (we're talking John Doggett in place of Fox Mulder late) that deserves to make it onto a "best episodes of The X-Files" list, it would be Via Negativa. This episode is the most Lynchian the series ever got, with haunting imagery and nightmare dream sequences. It addresses the puzzling question of why a man who found God would go on a homicidal killing spree (I personally favor a Lovecraftian interpretation), and forces Doggett to confront the potential for evil that may lie dormant within.

Top 24 Hours of The X-Files

A Thanksgiving Marathon!

I'm afraid I may be jumping the gun on this feature, as I still have about two and a half seasons of the show left to watch, but I feel like it's worth going forward for two reasons. First, all reports indicate that the final seasons of the show do not live up to its earlier promise. This does not, of course, mean that there will definitely not be any episodes in the last few seasons worth putting in a favorites list, but I'm fairly confident in producing a list that favors the show in its prime years; and I can always add a footnote later, if I feel it necessary, amending my selections. A lot of good, quality episodes from the early years are going to have to be passed over, anyway, since I can only pick so many before I've filled up the list.

The second - and most important - reason I want to do this now is because it's Thanksgiving! When I was younger, and immersed in my first watch of The X-Files, I remember there being a marathon on TV (probably on FX) held on the day of Thanksgiving. The details in my memory are foggy, but I think it was a 12 hour marathon, held from noon to midnight - the best 12 episodes of the series, as voted on by fans. Events like that have excitement built right in to them! So I wanted to honor my memories of those marathons during my grand rewatch of the series, which I am currently in the midst of. And if you want to host a marathon of your own this Thanksgiving, here is a list of episodes to get you started!

(Feel free to skip ahead. The next three paragraphs describe the logistics of how I decided to split up the freak-of-the-week and mythology lists).

Now, I decided early on that I would have to separate the freak-of-the-week episodes from the mythology episodes, and do two separate lists (luckily, there are 24 hours in a day!), because there's really no easy way to do them both together, while still doing justice to those mythology episodes, and not having to split the various arcs up into their constituent parts. And because of the fundamental differences between those two kinds of episodes, I had to approach their selection in different ways. I'm going to stick to picking the Top 12 freak-of-the-week episodes, in honor of the format of the original Thanksgiving marathon.

But it wouldn't be fair to pick only 12 individual mythology episodes, since they so frequently come in two- and three-parters. You'd get to pick only about 4-6 self-contained mytharcs to fill up the 12 hours, and that just isn't enough. On the other hand, stretching the rules to pick 12 different enclosed mytharcs is a little too extensive. Since there are a lot fewer individual mytharc stories than there are standalone freak-of-the-week episodes in the series (the ratio is generally about 3 to 1), it wouldn't be fair to include a significantly greater percentage of the series' mythology episodes than its freak-of-the-week episodes (in spite of my bias towards the mythology episodes). Besides, it would kind of defeat the point of winnowing it down to just the best of the best.

So here's what I came up with. I'm still going to pick 12 freak-of-the-week episodes, but for the mythology list, I'm going to dispense with the concept of "TV hours". Each episode is about 45 minutes long (or slightly less). On TV, that amounts to an hour, after you add in commercials. But in this day and age of commercial-free Netflix binges, you can watch a 12 hour TV marathon in only about 9 hours' time. So, in addition to our Top 12 freak-of-the-week episodes, that gives us another 15 hours left in the day to watch approximately 20 more episodes, which sounds to me like a good compromise - about 8-10 mytharcs. On to the lists!

You know what, I'm going to split this into separate blog entries, for easier reading:

Top 12 freak-of-the-week episodes
Top 15 hours of mythology (or Top 10 mytharcs)


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The X-Files - S7:E11 "Closure"

[ S7:E10 "Sein und Zeit" <<< Season 7 >>> S7:E12 "X-COPS" ]

Spoiler Warning: This episode continues from last week's cliffhanger, and resolves a MAJOR element of this show's mythology. To say that there will be spoilers is an understatement.

You'll have to imagine that I am starting this review with an audible sigh, followed by a moment of silence. Not in reverence, but a confusing combination of disappointment, mixed with grief. To be fair, I think this episode resolves last week's concerning developments about as well as could be expected. It's not the disaster I was fearing; it's just not the resolution I was hoping for. Don't get me wrong - these aren't bad episodes, from an objective standpoint. An argument could even be made that this was the closure the series needed, just not the one fans wanted. And as a fan, it may take me some time to get over that.

I see this as a reflection of how this show has grown and changed over the years, especially after becoming a mainstream hit in the fourth and fifth seasons, and following the move to L.A., trailing the release of the first movie, which marked a dramatic change in the series' tone. The trouble with waiting until the end of the show to wrap up the mythology is that the show has changed over the years - its creators and actors along with it. I wanted to see the showrunners of the fourth and fifth seasons resolve the mythology, but what we got instead was the showrunners of the sixth and seventh seasons finishing it up. That they were largely the same people is beside the point. Their mindset had changed.

You can feel that, by this point in the series, everyone involved is just tired. I don't mean that they're phoning it in, necessarily, but they seem more committed to reaching that finish line already, than taking the time to properly finish the race they started so long ago. I mean, I have a hard time believing that this was what Chris Carter had in mind for the conclusion to Samantha's arc all the way back in 1993. Who knows - maybe it was. Maybe it's not that far off. But it's certainly not what I had in mind. I want Samantha to be alive. I want Mulder to snatch her from the clutches of an invading alien army on the eve of the apocalypse. I want...I want to believe that it's not over.

There's a genuine feeling of sorrow pervading this episode. But it's not the fun kind of sadness - the kind in Beyond The Sea, when Scully struggled to reveal her father's last dying message. (I guess in that episode, it was Scully's sadness you were vicariously indulging in, but here, you're as much mourning your own sadness at the conclusion to one of your favorite series). It's more of a melancholic depression. A nostalgia for time that has been spent, and that can never again be recovered. Childhood lost - whether at the hands of a serial killer, or just Father Time. It's about Mulder freeing himself from grief, but for the fans, it feels too much like falling out of love. Mulder's closure is the emotional death of the series. What point is there in investigating X-Files any more? Why was this not reserved for the series finale? I should be happy that I still have more episodes to watch, to dull the grief, but it all feels pointless now. The spirit has left the body. The thrill is truly gone.

Well, I better put myself through the motions. Setting the tone for the rest of the episode, Closure opens on the unsettling graveyard scene of last week's cliffhanger, where a group of agents are now digging up the skeletons of 24 children. This is about as macabre as the series has ever been - Paper Hearts and Emily included. But when the ghosts of those children start climbing out of their open graves, with Mulder morbidly waxing poetic in voice-over, it all spills over into the realm of melodrama. Following the title sequence - in which the phrase "The Truth Is Out There" has been replaced by "Believe To Understand" - we learn that the Santa Claus killer is up the creek without a paddle, having confessed to his crimes. But this episode isn't about him.

Which is just as well - child murderers are such an easy caricature of evil, that they seem to inspire writers to get lazy. I prefer a villain whose motivations are understandable. Recognizing within ourselves our own latent capacity for transgression is a lot more interesting than painting the portrait of someone who can be hated with impunity. On the other hand, I had hoped the show was going to flip our expectations upside-down and have the Santa Claus killer be the one responsible for the walk-in phenomenon - justifying his actions as "saving" the children rather than destroying them. Alas, it was not meant to be. And besides, neither the little girl who vanished in the last episode, nor Mulder's sister, are found among the graves.

But, if anything, we've learned by now that every time this case looks utterly hopeless, a new clue will turn up. This time, a police psychic who is familiar with the "walk-in" phenomenon offers his assistance. Mulder is usually very skeptical of psychics, but he may just be desperate enough to believe this time. The psychic explains that in walk-in cases, an "old soul" anticipates the horrible death of a child (which is visited upon the child's parents in the form of a precognitive vision), and transports the child "in starlight", never to be seen on Earth again, in order to spare them their pain and suffering. So, the little girl from last week was going to be abducted by the Santa Claus killer, but the walk-ins got to her first. The ultimate outcome is, unfortunately, that she still dies.

I actually think this "walk-in" thing - saving kids from terrible fates - is a pretty neat idea, after all. I'd love to have seen it used in a freak-of-the-week episode. I'm just not sold on using it as an explanation for Samantha's disappearance (which Mulder is still convinced of). Especially given that, as other reviewers have noted, it's basically the concept of souls ascending to heaven wrapped up in a paranormal wrapper so that Mulder can believe in it. In any case, I don't know how the psychic expects to "find" these kids, if they've disappeared off the face of the Earth. Regardless, he takes Mulder on what Scully anticipates will be a wild goose chase, in search of his starlight sister.

Scully, meanwhile, has better things to do. She hightails it back to Washington in order to have an expert analyze the tapes of Mulder's hypnosis sessions regarding Samantha's disappearance. According to the analyst, Mulder's subconscious mind had allegedly constructed the fantasy of alien abduction in order to compensate for his grief, and give him the hope of finding her, fueling his [apparently not lifelong, after all] search. To its credit, this explanation is compatible with real world critiques on the validity of memories uncovered via hypnotic regression. But for seven years on this show, the characters have lived in a world where hypnosis works. That it doesn't, all of a sudden, is rather convenient for the writers, and smacks of retcon.

Well, if hypnosis is now debunked, apparently channeling is still a credible investigative tool, as - in spite of Mulder's growing skepticism - the police psychic manages to convey a message from Mulder's recently deceased mother, leading them to an air force base, where he finds evidence that Samantha may have grown up alongside a boy with the familiar name of "Jeffrey". (Apparently, the Smoking Man was more of a family man than Agent Spender had led us to believe). At the same time, Scully searches Mulder's mother's house, and finds the charred remains of the document that called off the original search for Samantha after she'd gone missing - signed by none other than a man with the initials CGBS. (One wonders why she would have burned these papers if she was trying to tell Mulder the truth - unless it was indeed a cover-up).

The Smoking Man pays Scully one of his creepy house calls, looking a bit sick from his operation in Amor Fati. His opinion on this walk-in business should be interesting, given his part in brokering the deal to have Samantha abducted in the first place. He claims to know that Samantha is dead - that he let Mulder believer otherwise all these years as a kindness to him. He's not particularly convincing - the lying scumbag that he is - but the events of the rest of the episode corroborate his story. For his part, Mulder concludes that Samantha must have been returned to the Smoking Man after the abduction. (Boy, he must have had some clout with the aliens to not only get one of the supposed hostages back, but to steal Bill Mulder's daughter away from him in the process). The reason he called off the search for Samantha is because he already had her, and wanted it to remain a secret.

Answers are flying fast and furious now. Mulder and Scully return (together) to the air force base where Samantha allegedly grew up, and the police psychic holds a séance. The room fills with ghosts, and one of them leads Mulder to a hidden compartment containing Samantha's diary. In it, she writes about the abuse she was subjected to - government testing - over the course of several years. The diary ends shortly after she mentions running away, at the age of fourteen. The next morning, Scully does some sleuthing while Mulder sleeps one off, and tracks down the E.R. nurse who admitted a runaway matching Samantha's description back in 1979. At this point, it's starting to feel like we might find Samantha alive, after all. But, alas, the E.R. nurse admits to having a vision of Samantha's death just before her unexplained disappearance, narrowly preceding the Smoking Man's arrival at the hospital to pick her up.

And that's it. She's dead. (I guess the Alien Bounty Hunter was lying in End Game). It's the closest thing we can get to plausible confirmation of her demise, given that her body magically vanished off the face of the Earth. But, so as not to leave any lingering doubts in fan's minds, Mulder - convinced after all these years that his search has come to an end - wanders off into the woods and comes upon a ghost children's playground, where he meets and embraces the spirit of Samantha once and for all. (Boy, does she look different - and not just because she's six years older. I know it's just a casting disparity, but I can't help thinking in the back of my head, "it's not really her!"). Seriously though, this is some ridiculous The Lovely Bones kind of shit. And when Mulder says, "I'm free", at the very end of the episode, I can't help wondering if David Duchovny is really thinking, "finally, I can quit this show and move on to something else already!"

Memorable quotes:

Scully: Ed Truelove was 19 when he committed his first murder. He was working as a janitor at an elementary school when they needed someone to play Santa Claus. He never got over the feelings it aroused.

(I would take Scully to task for this baffling leap of logic, but for the fact that it's not her fault. The whole world - the writers of this episode included - suffer from this cognitive dissonance).

Mulder: You dunno how badly I wanted her to be in one of those graves. As hard as it is to admit, I wanted to find her here riding her bike like all these other kids. I guess I just want it to be over.

(Do you, Chris? Do you? But that's no excuse for not ending it right).

Psychoanalyst: There are some wounds that are just too painful ever to be reopened.
Scully: Well, this particular wound has never healed.

Base Cop: You gentlemen need to move along. I have to ask you to turn around and get back in your car. There's nothing to see here.

(You couldn't do a better job of convincing me otherwise if you put a flashing neon sign on the gate that read "secrets inside!").

Smoking Man: Got it all figured out, don't you, Agent Scully?
Scully: All but why you can't just come to the door and knock.
Smoking Man: I did that. No one answered.

Harold Pillar: We're going to need to hold hands.
Scully: What do you mean?
Harold Pillar: I'm going to try and summon their presence into the house.
Scully: Oh yay, a séance. I haven't done that since high school.

Mulder: I have this...powerful feeling, and I can't explain it, but that...this is the end of the road. That I've been brought here to learn the truth.
Scully: Are you ready for it?

(This is getting too heavy. I don't think I like this anymore).

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The X-Files - S7:E10 "Sein und Zeit"

[ S7:E9 "Signs & Wonders" <<< Season 7 >>> S7:E11 "Closure" ]

Spoiler Warning: I think this is supposed to be a mythology episode, and in any case, it's the first part of a two-parter, so beware of spoilers.

I'm having a very hard time contextualizing this episode, as I don't remember watching it before - which means we may finally be coming to the point where I originally dropped The X-Files (unless I'm just blocking this episode out of my mind). So I'm not sure how this story thread is going to be resolved, nor where it will ultimately stand in the lasting record of the show's mythology. Any comments I make in this review should be tempered by that realization. But I've been reading in interviews from around this time that this season was tentatively intended to be the show's last, hence the wrapping-up of mythology-based story threads that began in the last season (with the Syndicate's send-off in Two Fathers/One Son). Therefore, this episode, which appears to be addressing an explanation for the disappearance of Mulder's sister, could turn out to be the final resolution for that plot thread. But therein lies the problem, because instead of alien abductions or government experiments, this episode is hinting at the hokey concept of "walk-ins" (a throwaway idea from Red Museum - not one of the series' best mythology episodes).

There was a time on this show when providing a non-extraterrestrial explanation for as significant a plot point as Samantha's abduction would not have been unwelcome. Particularly in the fifth season, Chris Carter played around with the idea that the whole alien conspiracy was an elaborately constructed hoax. In fact, much of the mythology in the preceding years hinted at that possibility - with secret government experiments, human testing, classified technology, and the like. But this partly worked because it was a stall before the late game revelations that we were all waiting for. It may be true that the mythology was simply better in those stages, before the Truth was laid out on the table - because as frustrating as the unanswered questions sometimes were, they were better than being given unsatisfying answers - but no fan would have been satisfied had the series ended before detailing the specifics of Deep Throat's boast in the second episode that aliens are among us - and have been for a long, long time.

Now, Paper Hearts was a great episode. It posited an alternative possible explanation for the abduction of Mulder's sister. It was effective both because that explanation was plausible - so that the episode's very concept didn't seem silly, or inconsequential - but at the same time, you knew that it wasn't going to turn out to be the truth. It was a thrilling exercise in "what if?" You could let yourself enjoy it, because you knew that somewhere later on down the line, you would get a more emotionally satisfying explanation for Samantha's disappearance and current whereabouts - the one that the series had been hinting at since the pilot. Now, imagine if Paper Hearts had been written by Chris Carter (and Frank Spotnitz), near the intended close of the series, not as a one-off freak-of-the-week episode, but as a mytharc intending to ultimately close the X-File on Samantha Mulder. You'd be pretty frustrated, wouldn't you?

Well, that's the direction Sein und Zeit would appear to be heading in. On the other hand, it's possible that Chris Carter is just jerking us off yet again, like he's been doing since season 2's Colony/End Game, where Samantha showed up, only to be revealed to be a clone. But if he's still giving us false answers even at this late stage of the game, then I'm going to be pissed off all the same. Quite simply, this episode has written itself into a corner, and I'm very curious to see if it will be able to find a way to redeem itself in the next hour. It's kind of too bad, too, because, taken on its own - without the potentially sobering ramifications of the mythology developments - this is otherwise a pretty decent episode.

It starts with a captivating opener, which effectively captures the atmosphere of suburban home life just before things take a drastic turn for the worse. There are some quietly unsettling moments - like when the Mrs. suddenly seems possessed of the urge to write a ransom note for the kidnapping of her own daughter, still safely sleeping in her bed. Or when the man of the house gets up from watching TV (where Chris Carter bitterly - though forgivably so - plugs his prematurely-canceled Harsh Realm series) to check on his daughter, and sees a vision of her death. Then, when he leaves the room, the door slams behind him, and by the time he's able to break it down, the girl has vanished without a trace...

This isn't the first time (though it may turn out to be the last) Mulder has taken a personal interest in a case involving a young girl's abduction - for obvious reasons. He goes charging down the halls of the FBI building at three in the morning with purpose in his stride, in order to demand that Skinner put him on the case, not even yet realizing that it will turn out to be an X-File. He's not the only one interested, however. For better or worse, when a little girl goes missing, its bound to turn into a media circus. Everyone wants a piece of it, although I doubt they all care about the girl - they're just there for the story. Mulder is different, of course, although this case seems to be making him unusually contemplative, and there doesn't look to be much hope of a positive resolution.

His mother tries to contact him, apparently aware of his involvement in the case, and possibly concerned that it will lead him to some truths about Samantha's disappearance. After so many years of playing dumb, she finally seems ready to talk - like Mulder's dad was just before he was shot. If that doesn't make you feel uncomfortable, then you're probably too invested in getting answers to see the writing on the wall - like Mulder is; and like I was, watching the episode. Sure enough, Mrs. Mulder turns up dead, before she's able to spill the beans. It's an apparent suicide, but Mulder is convinced that she was executed to hide the truth; however, Scully determines that she was suffering from an incurable and disfiguring disease, and concludes that she no longer wanted to live. Once again, we are given two different plausible and contradictory explanations, without any hint as to which one is the truth (nice to meet you, Chris Carter).

Meanwhile, Mulder links the current kidnapping case to an X-File where a similar event occurred many years ago, resulting in the conviction of a mother whose son disappeared. With a little coaxing, she admits the weirdness of the case, and explains her theory involving "walk-ins", of which Mulder is convinced Samantha was one. It doesn't make a lot of sense at this stage in the story, and for once in this series, you really start to feel like Mulder is buying into the delusions of a madwoman. It's probably helped by the fact that you don't want this theory to turn out to be true, because of how unsatisfying that would be. So you're left to side with Scully, who is convinced that Mulder is taking the case too personally, and reading just what he wants to find into it.

But just when it looks like the current case will remain unsolved, the agents (with Skinner in tow for once) catch a break at the eleventh hour, and follow a clue, leading them to a creepy Santa-themed daycare where a paunchy man has been taking voyeuristic videos of children for decades. Mulder steels himself for what he thinks will be the inevitable outcome - finding his sister among those tapes - but they are interrupted by the arrival of the suspect in question. Skinner takes him down, and the episode leaves off on a stomach-turning cliffhanger in which the camera pans out to reveal a plethora of shallow graves out back. We'll have to wait until next week to see how the story is resolved - just how that happens will be of critical importance.

To be continued...

Memorable quotes:

Skinner: This is a kidnapping, Agent Mulder. A little girl snatched from her bedroom. Basic, missionary style FBI work - it's not an X-File.

Billy LaPierre: Agent Mulder, do you think they will find her?
Mulder (pensive): I hope so. Yeah. I really do.

Scully: Is it the media, or just their own morbid fascination with the killing of an innocent?

Scully: You're personalizing this case. You're identifying with your sister.
Mulder: My sister was taken by aliens. Did I say anything about aliens, Scully?

Scully: Don't go looking for something you don't wanna find.

(If this turns out to be Chris Carter's response to fans asking, "what really happened to Samantha?", I'm going to be pissed).

Mulder: Doesn't make sense. It's incomprehensible in any kind of a real world way.
Skinner: I deal in the real world, Agent Mulder.

(Of course, when Mulder says "real world", he means his real world, the world of The X-Files, which is not the same world Skinner is referring to, albeit it's the same world Skinner exists in. Once again, investigators are bending over backwards to find conventional explanations, even when they don't fit the facts, and Mulder's the only one willing to connect the dots. I've been saying this for years).

Mulder: She was trying to tell me something.
Scully: She was trying to tell you to stop. To stop looking for your sister. She was just trying to take away your pain.

(You mean our purpose. If this is your answer, Chris Carter, I'm gonna be mighty pissed. And if it's not, I'm still gonna be pissed for being jerked around this late in the game. It's a no-win scenario, as far as I can tell).

Mulder: You can't see a ghost and still hope to find her alive. Both things can't be true.

(Depressing - but a fascinating bit of psychology. It makes perfect sense).

Monday, November 23, 2015

The X-Files - S7:E9 "Signs & Wonders"

[ S7:E8 "The Amazing Maleeni" <<< Season 7 >>> S7:E10 "Sein und Zeit" ]

This is another dark and scary (particularly if you have a fear of snakes) X-File - a more traditional freak-of-the-week, that opens on a rainy night, very much recalling the days of Vancouver. Further demonstrating the alternating pattern of hits and misses in this season so far (it's amazing how seamlessly the show can switch back and forth in tone from one week to the next), this episode is vastly superior to Jeffrey Bell's last script, The Goldberg Variation. Also, as an episode dealing with religious themes, it lends more evidence to my theory that Millennium's cancellation led to an influx of "Millenniumistic" episodes in this season of The X-Files. Come to think of it, in hindsight, I wonder if the creation of a darker, grittier companion show didn't influence The X-Files' turn toward light-hearted comedy in its fifth and sixth seasons, almost as if Millennium had been siphoning out all of the grim atmosphere. Another thing that I like about this episode is that, even though it deals with Christian themes, it doesn't feel like one of Scully's faith episodes - it's just an episode where the X-File happens to involve religion (like season 1's Miracle Man), avoiding to a large extent the issues of Scully's crisis of faith, and Mulder's atheism (which is often written in less than the most sympathetic manner) - for better or worse (and I'm leaning toward better).

The episode takes place in the aptly-named Blessing, Tennessee, where people are turning up dead, the apparent result of venomous snake bites - except that the offending snakes seem to have a habit of appearing out of - and vanishing into - thin air. The supernatural elements aside, the obvious suspect is the leader of a local fundamentalist church - the Church of God With Signs & Wonders - that specializes in snake handling. There's a particularly interesting scene which juxtaposes the oratory stylings of two very different kinds of preachers preaching the same passage from the Book of Revelation. Not content to fall victim to stereotypes and formula, this episode has a few welcome twists and turns in store for the viewer. Is it a classic tale of the forces of good and evil squaring off on battlefield Earth? Or a good old-fashioned case of backwoods incest, exacerbated by fervent belief, and an uncanny ability to direct venomous serpents? This is a fun and eerie episode, with some great, creepy effects involving snakes, and a pessimistic, open ending, not unlike the one we saw in season 4's Sanguinarium, that teaches you not to judge a book by its cover. I recommend it.

Memorable quotes:

Scully: Snakes.
Mulder: Lots and lots of snakes. Very pissed-off ones, from the look of it.

Mulder: Why would anybody use poisonous snakes as a murder weapon?
Scully: Maybe it's symbolic. I mean, serpents and religion have gone hand in hand. They've represented the temptation of Eve - original sin. They've been feared and hated throughout history as they've been feared to embody Satan - to serve evil itself.
Mulder: Maybe these ones actually do.

Scully: Snake handling. Didn't learn that in catechism class.
Mulder: That's funny, I knew a couple Catholic schoolgirls who were expert at it.

(Mulder's perverted humor at its best!)

Enoch O'Connor: When the devil aims to test you, you best be ready.

Mulder: Sometimes a little intolerance can be a welcome thing. Clear-cut right and wrong, black and white, no shades of grey. You know, a society where hard and fast rules are harder and harder to come by, I think some people would appreciate that.
Scully: You're saying that you, Fox Mulder, would welcome someone telling you what to believe?
Mulder: I'm just saying that somebody offering you all the answers...can be a very powerful thing.

(Like Mulder, I ain't sayin' it's right, but this is a pretty good explanation of one of the reasons why people - perfectly fallible human beings - gravitate toward intolerant belief systems).

Mulder: She gave birth to snakes?
Believer: The devil has been cast out.

Mulder: People think the devil has horns and a tail. They're not used to looking for some kindly man who tells you what you want to hear.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The X-Files - S7:E8 "The Amazing Maleeni"

[ S7:E7 "Orison" <<< Season 7 >>> S7:E9 "Signs & Wonders" ]

Individually and in different combinations, Vince Gilligan, John Shiban, and Frank Spotnitz were among The X-Files' most prominent writers, and were responsible for many of the series' great episodes. The three of them together first formed a team in season 4 on Leonard Betts (a perfectly solid freak-of-the-week episode that has the distinction of being the most-watched in the entire series during its initial run. according to viewer ratings), and later followed that up (with Chris Carter joining them) with Memento Mori (a particularly memorable mythology episode that won Gillian Anderson an Emmy). However, they were also responsible for the subpar season 5 mytharc Christmas Carol/Emily, and, after succumbing to the comedic tone of the sixth season, Dreamland as well. The team combine their forces once again for The Amazing Maleeni, and I can tell you it's not their best episode.

A jaded carnival magician loses his head after performing to a less-than-enthusiastic audience, which turns out to be the tip of the iceberg of a plot to rob a bank, involving sleight of hand on a grand scale, (ostensibly) in order to pay off a gambling debt. On paper, this sounds like it could have been a very clever episode, but the moment Mulder and Scully come on screen, you can tell the switch has been flicked and they're in comedy mode. There is potential in the premise for a cool story about a freak who takes advantage of his unnatural abilities to amaze and astound audiences, or even a story about necromancy. But that's not what this is. The end-of-episode wrap-up that explains how the trick was pulled off tells you that this episode was likely inspired by old-timey mystery shows. But for an episode that talks about misdirection, it's not nearly as funny or clever as Darin Morgan's best scripts. Between this, and The Goldberg Variation, I can't remember the last time I've felt so disengaged while watching an episode. Even the dregs of the first season kept me interested, but in this case I just feel bored. It's not enough to indict the whole season (which has had some good episodes so far) - yet - but if this turns out to be a trend, it doesn't bode well.

Memorable quotes:

LaBonge: What's in it for me? I mean, let's say I help you out. What do I get in return?
Scully: The feeling of pride that comes from performing your civic duty?

Maleeni: The great ones always know when to leave the stage.

(Yeah, I'm coming up dry. There's a lot of jokes in this episode, but nothing truly memorable).

The X-Files - S7:E7 "Orison"

[ S7:E6 "The Goldberg Variation" <<< Season 7 >>> S7:E8 "The Amazing Maleeni" ]

Spoiler Warning: This freak-of-the-week episode features the return of a freak from an earlier episode, so some minor spoilers may follow.

Despite many of the freak-of-the-week episodes in this series concluding with open endings, sequels are few and very far between. (Last season's Dreamland doesn't count because it was actually a two-parter, and not two separate stories). Tooms set the standard in the first season, marking the return of the freak from the earlier episode Squeeze. It was generally a successful sequel, giving fans more of what they liked, no doubt helped by the fact that the concept was still fresh. It wasn't until the freak in season 3's Pusher returned in season 5 that this show featured its second "freaquel-of-the-week". Kitsunegari was a decent episode, but it felt more like an attempt to cash in on an old favorite, and may have inadvertently hurt itself by trying to break new ground, instead of sticking to what made the first episode so fun, flipping its freak inside out (not literally, mind you) in the process, and stretching consistency a little too far. Holding the record for the most time served between appearances, Orison brings back our old friend Donnie Pfaster from season 2's Irresistible.

The one thing that I felt didn't work quite so well about Irresistible was the iffy characterization of Scully. I understand that her vulnerability was an important element of the episode, but I wish they had handled it in a way that didn't feel so inconsistent with the behavior that we'd come to expect from the character. (Feeling uncomfortable about this man's crimes is one thing, but it just doesn't make sense to have Scully getting squeamish about a dead body in one episode when we see her performing autopsies with a jaded demeanor the week before and after). I'm not completely sold on the result, but Orison makes the mostly good decision to combine the themes of Irresistible with those of the religious episodes we've had since (namely, season 3's Revelations, and season 5's All Souls). It's the obvious choice, given the freak's characterization as pure evil, and it gives more meaning to the emphasis on Scully, while also making her uncharacteristic vulnerability feel like a little less of a stretch (as we've seen before, religion is her weakness - in a way that serial killers and dead bodies make no sense being).

On the other hand, I feel that this episode's main weakness is in drawing too much detail out of the hauntingly vague sketch that was Irresistible. Previously, Donnie Pfaster was simply a sociopath - a weirdo who related to women in completely the wrong way, lacking whatever moral compass would prevent him from killing a person just to satisfy his desire to collect inanimate trophies from their body. (By the way, they're still sticking to the "death fetishist" angle here. The character was originally meant to be a necrophiliac, but the Fox network didn't like that word - kind of like how Freddy Krueger was originally written to be a child molester, until it was decided that that was too taboo, so he was changed into a child killer instead - because that's much nicer, right?). But, as an example, I think they play up the whole "he eats fingers" thing a little too much here. Yeah, it's creepy, but it's like he's got this whole convoluted M.O. now, and it just feels contrived, where before it was naturally ambiguous (not that anything Donnie does is "natural", but you get my drift).

Also, in Irresistible, there were scenes in which we got flashes of different characters momentarily envisioning Donnie Pfaster as the devil - in a metaphorical way, but still completely effective to the viewer, because we get to see all that neat makeup. But here, we actually see him transform in one scene, which gives the concept too much significance. Instead of an interpretation of evil, the episode is saying that this man is literally the devil (or one of his emissaries). And while it fits the supernatural bill of The X-Files (although I don't think the original episode was hampered in any way by its lack of supernatural phenomena), I just think it's scarier if, in spite of the "evil" he commits, this is just some guy. We want there to be a reason for the bad things that happen in the world - I think that has a lot to do with what religion is about. But it's scarier to realize that sometimes there just isn't a reason. That this guy is just a freak, and some things that are so horrible that we'd attribute them to the devil are within the bounds of ordinary human nature. Isn't that much scarier?

Anyhow, Nick Chinlund does the lion's share of the work in bringing Donnie Pfaster to life, portraying him not as evil incarnate (for the most part), but rather as just a soft-spoken sociopath with little to no emotional affect. It's chillingly effective. Scott Wilson also guest stars in this episode (you might remember him as Hershel from The Walking Dead), as a prison chaplain who serves as atheist Mulder's "religious wacko" scapegoat, and who also helps Donnie Pfaster escape from prison (in a misguided attempt to square his own past sins with God by playing the Lord's executioner). Mulder and Scully are, of course, brought in to help the U.S. Marshals track Donnie Pfaster down, but not before he manages to do some damage. But while it felt natural when Pfaster got to Scully in Irresistible - she just happened to get in his way, in the course of tracking him down - now he seems to have it out for her. It doesn't completely break plausibility, but it does feel more clichéd (she was "the one who got away"). However, it does also play into the religious themes that put Scully at the center of the episode.

It builds to a suitably harrowing climax, given the unsettling nature of the previous episode this freak appeared in, and closes on a deliciously ambiguous moral dilemma. Because there are some powerful moments in this episode, you're left feeling a little disappointed that it's not better overall, unmarred by more or less minor hiccups. With a little extra push, it could have been something truly remarkable. This is Chip Johannessen's only writing credit for The X-Files, but it's worth noting that he wrote or co-wrote 13 episodes of Millennium - which is appropriate, given that I felt the original episode featuring Donnie Pfaster was something of a precursor to that other series. (One also wonders if, in addition to the coda in the episode Millennium a few weeks prior, this wasn't another opportunity for all involved to use The X-Files to do another "Millenniumistic" episode, now that Millennium had been canceled). At any rate, this is a good, dark episode, that doesn't embarrass the legacy of Irresistible, in my opinion. And it's probably my favorite "religious" episode so far, if only because of what the addition of a freak as memorable as Donnie Pfaster is able to do for it.

Memorable quotes:

U.S. Marshal: You two put this man away.
Mulder: Yeah. Someone forgot to throw away the key.

Scully: I promise you there is nothing supernatural about this man. Donnie Pfaster is just plain evil.

(Although that's what made him such a chilling villain in Irresistible, Scully says this like she's trying very hard to convince herself that it's true - but not quite buying it).

Scully: Mulder, this case doesn't bother me.

(Scully is so obviously in denial when she says this, that it almost justifies me making a lame joke about a river in Egypt. Almost).

Reverend Orison: Everything has a reason, scout. Everything on God's Earth. Every moment of every day, the devil waits for but an instant. As it is, it has always been - the devil's our eternity.

Mulder: God is a spectator, Scully. He just reads the box scores.

(Preach it, Mulder!)

Mulder: Maybe he unleashed something that he couldn't control. Maybe he thought he was opening the door of perception, but then, unwittingly, he opened the gates of Hell.

(This sounds a lot cooler than what actually happens in this episode).

Mulder: When all is said and done, there's not much mystery in murder.

Mulder: The Bible allows for vengeance.
Scully: But the law doesn't.