Sunday, November 22, 2015

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.

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