Sunday, October 25, 2015

The X-Files - S5:E17 "All Souls"

[ S5:E16 "Mind's Eye" <<< Season 5 >>> S5:E18 "The Pine Bluff Variant" ]

Like season 3's Revelations, this is another religious episode. Frankly, I would have preferred to watch an episode titled "All Hallows" (wouldn't that have been cool?). I don't want to say that The X-Files shouldn't do religious episodes - and, by that, I of course mean the Christian religion, since I wasn't fazed by the Navajo spiritual beliefs that infused the merchandise trilogy, for example. After all, this is a show about paranormal phenomena, and the Christian mythos is rife with great story potential. Although, I think that one of its strengths may also be one of its weaknesses - which is that Christian beliefs tend to be infused with a certain gravitas - the ultimate battle between good and evil for the eternal fate of the immortal soul (for better or worse, Christianity is very hyperbolic). But take The Exorcist, for example. I don't believe in God or the devil, but I would agree with Scully that it's a great movie (albeit taken as fantasy). As a matter of fact, the devil himself has popped up in a few episodes of The X-Files (e.g., Irresistible, Die Hand die Verletzt), and they are some of my favorite freaks-of-the-week. I actually really like stories about the devil. But when God shows up, things tend to get a little too "after [Sunday] school special".

Now, the matter of Scully's faith - being a scientist and a skepticist - is frustrating in and of itself (I mean, hell, Father McCue is more skeptical than Scully is in this episode!). But one of the things that made Revelations so frustrating an episode to watch was the conflict between her faith and Mulder's atheism, which is a rare example of him being skeptical (this season's mythology episodes notwithstanding). In these episodes, I feel that Mulder is made out to be kind of an ass, just because he believes in all kinds of paranormal phenomena, but is so quick to deny anything relating to Christian spirituality. But I can only echo other reviewers' insights about how problematic the Christian dogma is in its all-encompassing exceptionalism (i.e., the way that the Christian God wages war on all other gods). You get the feeling that African vampires, Indian werewolves, and Ecuadorian animal spirits can all more or less comfortably coexist, as long as you don't pay too much attention to the regional borders between those spiritual doctrines. But the Christian God demands that they all be lies, or else tricks of the devil, for everything is either of God or of the devil, and all of it is forced to comply with the Christian framework. Which, if you think about it, is a statement about the arrogance of Christian belief itself. That isn't just ambitious, it's obnoxious!

Furthermore, in spite of Mulder's quip about the Ten Commandments in Anasazi, and his monologue at the beginning of Patient X, the belief that "the firmament" supports the heavenly kingdom of God and his angels isn't compatible with this series' main premise - the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life in space. That is, unless that life has been [mis]interpreted as God, which is a possibility that I think this series will address later on. (And, as far as that perspective is concerned, I've always been fond of the "ancient astronauts" theory, which dovetails nicely with Ezekiel's Biblical account of a close encounter with a flying saucer). As a relevant aside, The X-Files' companion show, Millenium, is simply better poised to address Christian themes on the nature of good and evil.

Nevertheless, this episode - which Scully narrates from the confessional booth - begins with a fairly exciting opener, even if the lightning effects are overdone (as with much else in this episode) - but it's not as tacky as The Post-Modern Prometheus, thankfully. A physically-handicapped girl is struck by lightning while genuflecting (I've been waiting years to use that word in a sentence!), which sets off a battle between the forces of good and evil, as well as a more metaphysical battle for those struggling with the acceptance that God would let bad things happen to good people.

This is, appropriately, a Scully-centric episode, but, while Mulder takes a back seat, his contributions are still appreciated (even if he'd rather be watching A Decade of Dirty Delinquents at the neighborhood porno theater - you and me both, Mulder). I don't mean to rain on Scully's parade - I like that she has episodes where she gets to take center stage - but I really do enjoy watching Mulder do his investigative thing. I'm glad he joins her in this episode, unlike in Christmas Carol (if he did appear in that episode briefly, as some reviewers have said, then it must have been either a forgettable or else a blink-and-you'll-miss-it scene, because I don't remember seeing him at all, and I don't usually miss details like that).

Mulder thinks it's a typical case of a bible-thumping serial killer doing the lord's dirty work - in a rather religious variation on your typical killer-stalks-young-girls setup - but the prime suspect's obsession with inverted crosses, and the fact that his religious sect may well be a Satanic cult, hints at something even more sinister. Unfortunately, the episode doesn't go in that direction. Instead, we get a fairly clichéd "ultimate battle of good and evil" religious fable, that verges on melodrama when Scully finds winglike protuberances on one victim's body during an autopsy, and begins seeing visions of Emily (yawn). Here's a challenge: write an episode of The X-Files that deals with the Christian God - and not just the devil - that manages to avoid feeling overwrought and clichéd.

It's all too contrived when the prime suspect suggests that he's actually trying to save the girls, who are being targeted by the devil - and, because of the way the episode is staged, it's not taken in a "I'm a sicko trying to justify my actions" sort of way like Mulder interprets it, but we're actually led to believe him, as Scully does. From there, there's not much suspense left, even though the episode does manage to throw in a few twists along the way (for those of us who aren't religious scholars, the story about St. Peter and the inverted cross was a nice switch-up), despite it being a fairly straightforward interpretation of an apocryphal story involving Seraphim and Nephilim (which has some nifty parallels to Mulder's beliefs, if you take some time to think about it, what with the theme of "fallen angels" - the title of a season 1 mythology episode involving a UFO crash and the search for its pilot - and the concept of hybrids - in this case, angels mating with humans).

The conclusion is ultimately unsatisfying, as we finally learn that all of Scully's guilt about doing the wrong thing was actually just her uncertainty about making the right choice, which doesn't so much reveal a humanizing character flaw (which would be the case if she had actually made a mistake - like, say, when Mulder failed to shoot the suspect in Young At Heart, while he was still a novice), as try too hard to play up Scully's virtues, by making her not just righteous, but also modest to the point of crippling self-doubt (bless me, Mother Scully!). I hate to criticize this episode too much, because, beyond my atheist criticism, it's actually a pretty decent story, and maybe even better than Revelations was. But, I guess I can't separate myself from that bias. I suppose that a more satisfying Christian episode of The X-Files for me would be one that is more critical of the faith (beyond characterizing Mulder as a stereotypical "angry atheist"). Or maybe one where Scully actually struggles to maintain her skepticism even in the face of circumstantial evidence (like she usually does).

Because I think that's the thing. If this were an episode where someone else - perhaps some one-off guest character, or even Mulder himself (as much as I love that he's an atheist) - were the one believing in the religious mumbo-jumbo, and Scully was just along for the ride, I wouldn't mind it quite so much. As I said, it's not that I can't enjoy religious fiction. It just irritates me that Scully is religious. And that's not just a black mark on her character - I can appreciate religious characters - but not only does it so wholly contradict her very characterization (not just as a scientist, but a skeptic - since some scientists can be dedicated to proving the paranormal phenomena they believe in), but it actually undermines those qualities I admire in her. I mean, ask yourself if it makes any sense at all that on a show with two leads, the skeptic and the atheist are different people. I don't begrudge the writers trying to round out Scully's character (and I don't mind Mulder and Scully switching places, as they did in the excellent episode Beyond The Sea), and contradictions of belief are only too realistic and human, but it's the sort of thing that just rubs me the wrong way, and puts me more squarely in Mulder's corner.

Memorable quotes:

Scully: As much as I have my faith, Father, I am a scientist, trained to weigh evidence. But science only teaches us how, not why.

Mulder: You got a bonafide super-crazy religious wacko on your hands.

Father Gregory: Whatever your intentions, your secular prejudices blind you from seeing what's really happening here. Two girls are dead - not by the hand of man. Unless you accept the truth of God's teachings that there is a struggle between good and evil for all souls, and that we are losing that struggle, you're but fools rushing in.

Mulder: Religion is masqueraded as the paranormal since the dawn of time to justify some of the most horrible acts in history.
Scully: I was raised to believe that God has his reasons, however mysterious.
Mulder: He may well have his reasons, but he seems to use a lot of psychotics to carry out his job orders.

(Mulder makes it sound rather bitchy - as Christians often paint atheists - but factually speaking, he's got the right of it. Consider the message, not the speaker).

Father Gregory: I'm immune to your mockery. You're not interested in the truth.
Mulder: I'm only interested in the truth!

(One thing I can say for him, Father Gregory has balls, to dare tell Mulder, of all people, that he's not interested in the truth. Let's not confuse "the word of God" for the truth here, Father).

Mulder: Scully, you don't wanna let this guy get in your head - that's the last thing you want. Sometimes the most twisted ones are the most persuasive.

Mulder: Scully, I think you're the one who's being misled. And not just willingly, but willfully. I've never seen you more vulnerable, or susceptible, or more easily manipulated.

(Mulder may be bull-headed in his atheist criticism of Scully in this episode, but he's got a point here. Scully's being no less easily manipulated than Mulder was - which you'll remember Scully chewed him out for - when Deep Throat was yanking his chain with that fabricated UFO photo in E.B.E. Scully may have the right of it in this episode, but if anybody wanted to pull one over on her, the easiest way to do it would be to appeal to her internal guilt regarding her lackadaisical faith, and her apparent savior complex. Yes, it may be true that Mulder has his own instinctual desire to save "little girls lost" as a result of the trauma caused by his sister's abduction, but in these religious episodes, it's no less true that Scully too easily believes (her barely-there reluctance little more than lip service to assuage her skeptical conscience) that she has been "chosen" to save the souls of the divine messengers of God. We all have our weaknesses - and this is apparently Scully's. Everybody loves to point out Mulder's weakness for believing in anything extraterrestrial (even as most of those things in this series turn out to be true). Just because Scully's weakness is the Christian faith doesn't mean that if somebody points that out, they're being insensitive, or motivated purely by their bias against the Christian church).

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