“Milagro”/“Bardo Thodol” S6 & 3 / E18
- B- Community Grade
“Milagro” (season 6, episode 18; originally 4/18/1999)
In which Scully meets a heartless writer...
Back before I got involved with writing about The X-Files—maybe even before I started writing for the AV Club, in those lonely days when my life had no purpose—I came across a rerun while flipping through the channels on my television set. Something about the images which flickered across the screen caught my attention; something spoke to me in the brown-gray shadows and funereal orchestrations, a dimly lit message whispered directly to the listening depths of my grasping subconscious. I allowed myself to engage with the program in a way I could not remember having done before, fully giving over to the impressions generated by the performance and scripting of another thread plucked free from life’s ragged blanket. And in the throbbing minutes of my temporary enchantment, I was set aloft to wing on flights of mercurial fancy, to probe the abyss of sky above and contemplate the myriad fantasias of the cosmos. When it was all over, my brief flight sent back to earth with the rapidity of a Icarus and his molten wings, I was left to question the meager accouterments of my unexamined existence, and ponder, as my heart beat in time to the pulsating rhythms of the spheres, just what in the fuck was that?
“Milagro” is a pretentious, self-serious, intermittently insulting chunk of television which works far better than it deserves to; the performance of John Hawkes (of Deadwood, Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene fame, along with a lot of other great shows and movies) and the absolute batshit weirdness keep this from being the write-off it probably deserves to be. But it’s still not very good, because it’s pompous, and because it treats Scully with a sort of ill-defined contempt that forces the viewer to ask some really uncomfortable questions about just what Chris Carter thinks of the co-lead of his most famous (and best) show. Admittedly, Carter didn’t come up with the story. That particular honor falls to John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz, who’ve both done good for the show in the past. But Carter did write the teleplay, and the meta element of a writer writing about a writer writing about one of his (Carter’s) best-known characters is too obvious to be ignored. It’s bad enough that poor Scully is once again relegated to victim status; even worse, the episode makes her a puppet of Hawkes’ creepy infatuation, before he gives her up upon realizing she’s already in love with Mulder.
None of this makes much sense, which is par for the course for the episode on the whole. Things pick up a bit in the final act, when an actual plot that’s more than just “creepy guy is creepy” emerges, but so much of this episode rests on the supposed poetry of Carter’s agonized prose that it’s hard to take any of it seriously. In the cold open, we see Hawkes (who we later learn is playing Phillip Padgett, which, to be fair, is a good name for a dweeby writer) alone in his apartment, staring at his typewriter. There are note cards tacked to his wall (a reference to the X-Files’ writers room), but while they offer some vague thematic material, apparently poor Phil is having a hard time getting going. So finally he bites the bullet and rips his heart out of his chest, which is really what writing is about. I don’t mean as a metaphor; I mean this is literally what you have to do to be a writer. Oh, and then you have to leave your heart floating in the downstairs furnace, but everybody knows that.
“Milagro” is full of this strangeness, and while I respect the show for committing to the premise, I have to wonder if anyone on the production staff ever realized how silly all of this is. There is no single element of the episode that acknowledges the absurdity of the premise, or the loopiness of Phil’s writing and creepy/obsessive monologues. Any fan of The X-Files is willing to put up with the occasional baroque scripting, but there are scenes in this hour which are severely cringe-inducing, most notably a pair of ill-advised voice overs in which Phil seemingly narrates a third person view of Scully’s inner monologue. It’s just awful, full of weird insinuations about her being weak and womanly, which somehow leads to Scully’s initial dislike of Phil being translated into burgeoning attraction. Maybe Phil has some kind of magic ability to influence people with the power of his laughable prose, but whatever the reason, it’s like watching someone’s fan fiction getting brought to life. Which is literally the premise (we learn later that Phil is doing all of this, including killing people via a fictional character, to catch Scully’s eye), but it’s played with such deadly, agonized seriousness that it’s perilously close to camp. There are all sorts of interesting things you could say about a man who makes up a story to woo a stranger, but this episode is fixated on the sort of vague philosophizing that always makes Carter’s monologues so goofy. At least in a mythology episode there are aliens and conspiracies and flying saucers; here, we get a guy in a hoodie who runs around showing everybody his Mola Ram impression.
The worst is what this does to Scully, who is reduced to a victim waiting to find out which handsome man will rescue her. There is some precedent for Dana being attracted to potentially dangerous or unstable men, but that attraction shouldn’t rob her of her identity. In “Never Again,” she was drawn to a stranger who just so happened to have murdered his downstairs neighbor; but that episode went to great lengths to justify her fascination as an extension of her struggling with her relationships with both her father and Mulder. Even more importantly, Scully was the one making her own decisions, aware she was probably doing something dangerous but not stopping because the danger was part of the appeal. In “Milagro,” she’s just a puppet, reduced to having her motives defined by others. Again, there’s some potentially compelling subtext in this, like in the way the came lingers on Gillian Anderson’s “muscular calves” minutes before Phil mentions them, but her lack of agency throughout the hour undercuts any commentary. She’s strangely not present, to the point where honestly don’t know if Phil’s writing influenced her, or if she was legitimately attracted to him. Ambiguity is fun, but not when it’s this non-committal.
Yet there is something strangely fascinating about all of this, enough to prevent the episode from being a complete trainwreck. Hawkes is excellent, and is one of the few actors who could sell Phil’s first monologue to Scully without coming across as unbearably creepy. The script never gives us much sense of just what kind of writer Phil is supposed to be (he mentions having a few novels published, but they weren’t popular), and Hawkes manages to find a center in a character whose obvious symbolism threatens to send him floating off into the margins. He’s interesting and nearly likable even when the script isn’t, and that holds the hour together until its final act, when a sort of plot finally develops. It turns out Phil’s obsession with Scully was somehow powerful enough to bring a character to life—Ken Naciamento, a disgraced Brazilian psychic surgeon—which lead to the heartless (ha!) murders Mulder and Scully have been tracking. Ken arrives at Phil’s door when Phil realizes Scully can never love him (she’s in love with Mulder, oooooo), and the story finally manages a good twist; at first, it seems like Ken is going to attack his creator, but then they both realize that Scully’s death is the only possible end to the book. Determined to save her, Phil brings his manuscript downstairs the incinerator, but Mulder stops him from burning the pages, giving Ken enough time to break into Mulder’s apartment and attack Scully. So Scully is a damsel in distress, but she does (sort of) save herself by firing shots at Ken; the bullets don’t harm him, but they get Mulder’s attention, which gives Phil the time to burn his book and die.
It’s not a terrible conclusion, although it doesn’t entirely save the rest of the episode. “Milagro” is sometimes hypnotic, intermittently compelling, and occasionally horrid; it has all the profundity of a late night jam session between two stoned (male, single) philosophy majors. But it’s just so disorienting that I can’t help marveling it exists.
- “She was soft, malleable, not up to her male counterparts.” -Phil, probably trying to score the world’s first narrational neg hit.
- The stare down Phil throws Scully when they bump into each other in the elevator had me thinking this was going to be some stealth commentary on the male gaze. It is not that.
- Y’know, I could see viewing this as a metaphor for how strange writers are (and we are strange), how their detached, observational approach to life sets them apart from people and makes it difficult, if not impossible, for them to form relationships. But there’s not enough of this to justify the episode; nor is there enough actual story to keep it exciting.
- It’s a different version of the same joke he made last week, but Mulder moving Scully around because she was arguing his usual position was funny.
“Bardo Thodol” (season 3, episode 18; originally aired 4/23/1999)
In which Emma gets a hand...
“Bardo Thodol” is another name for the Tibetan Book Of The Dead, which is fitting, since a character in this episode spends most of the hour dying slowly in a monastery. Cheery stuff, then, and unsurprisingly, this is not the cheeriest of Millennium episodes, supplementing the series’ normal dour tone with a few fun extras like an ice chest full of two year-olds’ hands. (Don’t worry, they were cloned.) It’s actually not terrible, and I suspect a good part of my boredom during the hour is driven by my complete lack of investment in the series at this point. There are only a handful of episodes left in this final season, and I have no sense whatsoever of what any of this is building towards. Last season built to an apocalyptic frenzy; it wasn’t always explicitly serialized, but as the finale grew closer, tension rose to an almost unbearable degree. I don’t expect this season to achieve that level of madness, but there should at least be some sense of why I’d want to watch any of this, and for the life of me, I can’t find it. The story in this entry is decently constructed, and there’s a sense at the end of some frightening revelation coming close to hand, but there’s no real urgency. Yes, the Millennium Group is doing evil things in the name of some illusory greater good, but indeterminate hints aren’t enough to generate sustaining tension. By the end of the episode, Emma tells Frank that she finally gets it, she finally realizes Peter is evil. It’d be nice if she’d clue the rest of us in.
I’m being harsh, mostly because I’m finding it had to generate any real impression from all this. And to be fair, while Emma’s storyline isn’t bad, if you can overlook the pacing issues. (Maybe I’m spoiled by modern television, but so much on this season of Millennium seems to happen with painful slowness; I can’t decide if it’s an intentional attempt to generate gravity, or just bad scripting.) She’s assigned to a detail that’s tracking down some stolen purses, and when she and her team make a raid on a boat, they find, alongside the purses, a ice-filled chest packed with six small hands. While Frank pokes around the edges of the case, eventually winding up at the monastery we saw in the cold open, Emma does some investigative work, eventually going against her supervisor’s wishes to track the hands down to a company called Emergen. Nobody knows what Emergen does, but they apparently have a lot of umbilical cords on hand—cords which they’re shipping out to hospitals. It’s all part of a nefarious Millennium Group plot, and Emma knows it, which is why she gets frustrated when she’s thwarted in her efforts by McClaren and, in a way, Peter. So she’s finally completely on Team Frank, and, on a better series, with a greater sense of urgency, that would mean something.
While all of this is going on, Frank is doing his Frank thing: getting flashes, tracking down bowl paint, and getting innocent bystanders brutally murdered. Seriously, a large chunk of his storyline revolves around a bowl with a special kind of paint designed to, as Peter puts it, reflect the true depth and richness of candlelight. Which, since we don’t use candles much anymore, may be some kind of statement about how the Millennium Group looks to control the future, and Frank and Emma need to seek the past if they want to fight back. Or not. It’s really just a bowl. A very pretty red bowl, but a bowl nonetheless.
Frank pokes around, finds that the Group is dropping bodies, and manages to discover, largely by chance, the monastery where Dr. Takahashi has gone to die during the cold open. Takahashi is in some way responsible for the crate of hands (Emma is able to identify one of them as sharing a fingerprint with the doctor), and now, everything’s gone terribly wrong; I’m assuming there’s some kind of cloning work at play here, but Takahashi’s arm is horribly disfigured, and the disease spreads over the course of the episode. He has, it seems, been working with the Millennium Group, but finally realized their true intentions, and fled in terror. “Bardo Thodol” is, in part, about seeing truth in a clouded world, and how that truth can liberate you, even if it doesn’t necessarily shut the bad guys down.
Which is a lovely thought, no question, but I’m not convinced the writers behind the series are capable of the kind of insight and deft work which can turn such an abstract revelation into compelling drama. There are moments of beauty scattered through this hour, but “scattered” is the key word; it’s briefly exciting to see the Millennium assassin arrive too late to kill his intended target, and the final scene between Frank and Emma, when she tells him she finally understands just how awul the Group really is, has the feel of a chapter closing. So maybe that’ll lead to something next week. Here, though, it’s just a nice beat in a sea of static. Early in the hour, Frank is troubled by a mysterious computer virus which occasionally spews out apocalyptic warnings (the warnings are part of what leads him to the monastery). Programs like that can be exciting when they give you sentences, but most of the time, it’s just motion struggling for purpose.
- Still, any episode which features James Hong as a Buddhist monk can’t be all bad.
- I was disappointed we never got to see Jordan’s computer game.
- I must be missing something about Emergen, right? The poster of a pregnant woman out front, the couple and single woman inside—is it a fertility clinic? An abortion clinic? And what exactly is the Group’s plans for the umbilical cords? Maybe it’s another manifestation of the virus.
- “Hey! Hey bald man!” -Emma, at Peter.
Next week: Todd checks out David Duchovny’s directing chops in “The Unnatural,” and tries to put together “Seven And One.”