"Teliko"/"Dead Letters" S4 & 1 / E3
- B- Community Grade
The X-Files: "Teliko"
In Which Mulder Takes A Bad Trip, and Scully Shoots A Pigmentation Vampire
Well, it's looks good, anyway. By now we've seen the Poor Bastard cold open dozens of times on this show ("Poor Bastard" as in "Don't get too attached to this"), but "Teliko"'s is still effective: shocking and grim and with the curious sort of subtle, mean-spirited humor that would come to define much of the show from this season on. There's nothing exactly laughable in what happens here. A passenger on a flight goes to use the restroom. He's attacked, and his attacker exits the plane, leaving the passenger's corpse behind, drained of all color, face frozen in terror. It's tightly edited, full of the kind of claustrophobic, off-putting shots that the X-Files has always used so well. (Throughout the episode, we get the occasional glimpse of the main monster hiding in places where no human being could possibly fit. It should look ridiculous, and it kind of does, but it's unsettling as well. Because absurd or not, impossible or not, the shot remains, and so we are forced to accept it.) And it's funny, like roadkill is funny, like an acid-cream-pie is funny. The monster leaves the scene of the crime with a blank look on his face, but isn't there a slight smile? Somewhere at the corners of his mouth. It's comic, but there's no relief, because the hunter is the one that's laughing.
The problem is that all these characters are African American, or just plain old African. Which isn't, or shouldn't be, a problem; just last week, that nice black sheriff and his wife were horribly murdered in "Home," and while it's possible to read racial overtones into their deaths, it's not required by the episode, and it certainly doesn't feel like they were killed because of their race. In "Teliko," though, the series is openly attempting to do a story about government cover-ups of minority deaths, as well as its usual obsessions with science vs. faith, and creepy dudes engaging in creepy, violent behavior. Theoretically this could work, and you can respect the show for trying the time-honored genre tactic of hiding real world issues behind fantastical metaphors. It's just unfortunate that the message here isn't exactly progressive. Intentionally or not, "Teliko" doesn't paint a positive picture of foreigners, with all their strange ways and customs. All the major black roles are either victims or the villain himself, and in many ways, this plays out like a horror film from the fifties--Beware The Terror From Dark Shores! (Although if it was the fifties, we'd need some white people getting attacked, because... well.)
Can I be honest? I am definitely a little uncomfortable here. It's impossible to talk about "Teliko" without bringing up the issue of race, because without that issue, this is just a standard Monster Of The Week entry; stripped of its flavor, it's "Squeeze" from all the way back in the first season, a creature who can hide just about anywhere and kills people to acquire the crucial biological material it needs for survival. (See also: "2Shy," and I'm sure at least half a dozen other episodes I can't remember right now.) You can't strip away the flavor, though. The X-Files' ability to vamp on its familiar structures is one of the reasons the show survived as long, and as well, as it did, and much of the enjoyment of these mid-series eps comes from the strange twists and adornments the writers tack on to largely predictable material. We get the occasional mind-blower, and there are, of course, the mythology arcs, but much of the week-to-week experience of watching the show is in appreciating the variations on a theme. Of course Mulder will have some crackpot theory, and of course Scully will demand a more rigorous scientific accounting of even, right up until the moment everything goes completely batshit. Of course the government will most likely try and hide the truth, of course the monster will target someone we're moderately sympathetic towards, of course the monster will end up temporarily (although generally not permanently) defeated. A long while back, I talked about how watching an episode of the The X-Files can be like listening to jazz music, because the melody is just the starting point. What matters is what you do with it.
And that means I have to talk about racial issues, and, well, hoo boy. I'm not sure I'm qualified, and I don't want to read too much into any of this. "Teliko" is really more awkward and hamfisted than outright unpleasant, its attempts to shoehorn real-world problems into a, let's face it, kind of silly story, more misguided than intentionally harmful. But that doesn't make it any easier to ignore the fact, boiled down, this is a plot about a frightening foreigner who comes into our country without any difficulties whatsoeer, a creature who can barely communicate with others and still benefits from our social systems, a creature who sprung from the tribal myths of the Dark Continent. Yeah, okay, it's not running around stealing white women out of skyscrapers, but that is some seriously tricky stuff, and it doesn't help that the episode keeps drawing attention to its own uncomfortable politics.
Then there's the fact that the only character on the show who tries to stand up for poor immigrants and defend their rights is very nearly murdered for his kindness. Carl Lumbly (who I like to think of as M.A.N.T.I.S., although he's done a tone of character work) is a social work who is assigned to help Samuel Aboah (Willie Amakye) integrate into the wonder and majesty that is America. Carl is patient, trusting, and enthusiastic in his work, and when a pair of FBI agents come around the office asking questions about Samuel, Carl goes immediately on the defensive, just like a good social worker should. He even delivers a powerful speech about how Samuel's attempts to avoid the officials stem from growing up in a country where the police routinely torture suspects to get the confessions they want. It's just too bad, then, that the person he's standing up for just happens to be a horrible monster who's murdered at least four Philadelphians in the past few months. Even worse, Carly's good nature and trust isn't just used to block Mulder and Scully's path; it puts him directly in harm's way, as he offers Samuel a ride home after the creature escapes from a hospital, and would've ended up like the Teliko's other victims if it weren't for a police officer's timely intervention.
A white police officer, by the way, just as it's the very, very white Mulder and Scully who finally manage to take the baddie out in the climax, and you see how easy it is to get lost in this stuff? All of this would be easier to dismiss if it weren't for Mulder's commentary about the government is try to keep the disapperances on the downlow, so then it's impossible not to start thinking there's some sort of political/race thing going on, especially after Mulder goes and visits an African ambassador. (An ambassador, by the way, who's so terrified by a story from his childhood that he's basically useless to anyone.) We also get more emphasis on the standard science/faith conversation between Mulder and Scully, which doesn't really play at all here. There've been monsters on this show who's origins are so blatantly supernatural that Scully's need for scientific proof turned into a fool's errand, but the Teliko is not one of those monsters. He's frightening, and he seems capable of impossible things, but there's a certain solidity in his needs and his approach to his work. He affects the pituitary gland, and he has to drug his victims in order to paralyze them long enough to let him feed. There's graspable logic in this behavior, so this really doesn't seem like a "YOU JUST NEED TO BELIEVE" situation.
Besides, Mulder's dismissal of Scully's philosophy doesn't make much sense in terms of his main goal. He wants the Truth, and he wants to share the Truth; the people who block this quest are the ones who feed the world lies based on our innate desire to accept comforting falsities. I'm pretty sure he'll need solid documentation if he wants to end the cover-ups. Just telling people "have faith that there are aliens who are intent on colonizing our planet through an exhaustive process of hybridization and have I mentioned they cloned my sister?" isn't going to get him past the tabloids. He needs Scully's documentation, no matter how much he may begrudge the effort it takes to acquire it.
Maybe "Teliko" realizes this. The final confrontation between our heroes is one of the better climaxes the show's done, and, once Samuel hits Mulder with a blow dart, it makes the smart move of putting all responsibility on Scully's shoulders. The final moments of the fight, with Mulder frantically signaling to Scully with his eyes that the creature is coming up behind her, is wonderfully tense, and also serves a nice image for their respective purposes: Mulder's crazed plunge towards the answers has a habit of leaving him stunned and shaken, unable to do much more than wince, while Scully's cooler, more measured approach means it often falls on her shoulders to interpret what her partner can only suggest, doing what needs to be done. Anyway, it's not a bad conclusion. It's just too bad so much of the episode is given over to nonsense.
- We got another appearance of Mulder's new informant. It's a curious dynamic: now that two people have been killed for leaking information, you can't help wondering when Mulder's needs will claim another victim. Which makes him almost a monster himself, come to think of it.
Millennium- "Dead Letters"
In Which There Is An Upside Down Clown, And A Man Is Troubled By A Hair-Brained Scheme
This is such a weirdly addictive series. I'm not sure why. I have problems with it--women are, so far anyway, reduced to victims or symbols of light and purity that need to be protected (or, as in the case with this episode, manipulative shrews), and the grim, mordant tone isn't anywhere near as meaningful or deep as Chris Carter seems to believe. Plus, there's something off-puttingly sordid in the premise. Instead of Monsters Of The Week, we get Serial Killers, and while there is a way to handle a serial killer that doesn't suck all joy and life out of a series, Millennium has yet to find it. And yet, I don't find it difficult to watch episodes for these write-ups, at least not so far, and after finishing last week's ep, I immediately went to "Dead Letters" without any hesitation whatsoever. I'm already curious as to what the next hour will bring, and I've been seriously considering biting the bullet and ordering the whole series on DVD. (In fact, what the hell, I just did.)
Lance Henriksen is part of this, obviously. A tremendously talented actor who was never able to translate that talent into the kind of success he really deserved, it's just great to see him center stage. Frank "Where Is My Mind" Black could've been a tiresome leading man, but Henriksen invests his world-weariness with a soothing, almost beautiful patience, and those few moments of delight he's allowed on the show (almost always centered on his wife and his daughter) are sincere instead of cloying. The rest of the cast is okay (Megan Gallagher does what she can with what she's given, and at least in "Dead Letters," her presence doesn't feel quite so extraneous), but Henriksen is what holds it together.
But he isn't everything. I think one of the reasons I'm so eager to come back is that there's something so intimately personal about the series that I can appreciate its honesty, even when I don't necessarily agree with the form that honesty takes. Todd and I have both talked about how the show feels prescient, at least in terms of the modern television landscape; its view of a world where the home is a castle that must be defended at all costs, and where every step beyond your doors risks violent, and permanent, departure, fits in well with a certain sort of procedural that's popular today. It's that paranoia of the Other, that desperate desire to find some kind of pure morality that can protect us from all threats of dissolution and harm. And yet, Millennium has an edge that even something like Law & Order: SVU lacks. The despair and misery that pervades this series is gothic; ornate; majestic. Yes, it's tremendously silly, and yes, there were plenty of times during this episode that I couldn't help laughing at the complete lack of finesse, but I also find that intensity mesmerizing. It's not art, not yet, but it is deeply personal, and any time something so personal finds its way into the mainstream, it's reason to celebrate.
Really, I gave up on resisting after that absolutely terrifying dream sequence at the start of "Dead Letters," with its bled-out colors, strange weather, and evil, evil clowns. This is flat-out Lynchian nightmare territory, and it suggests at madness and possibility that the rest of the episode can't help but fail to live up to. There's nothing else connected to the dream, beyond the reminder of Jordan's importance in Frank's world, and suggesting that she might be in danger from the forces that Frank is working so hard to combat. Yet it sets a certain tone, and the overheated main storyline--another profiler, James Horn (James Morrison, who had regular roles on Space: Above And Beyond and the later seasons of 24), loses his detachment from a case while in the middle of a difficult divorce--gains a little weight it might not otherwise have had. So far, none of the killers on this show have been outright supernatural, but the dream, and the general tone, has a way of making you wonder what really is going on here. Maybe these things that we accept as normal--damaged loners doing horrible things to people they've never met--aren't really that normal after all.
Still, while Glenn Morgan and James Wong's first episode on the show is also probably the best episode so far, and gets me even more excited for next season, we're still not entirely solid yet. The main problem here is that there's no really elegance to the writing. Characterization and plot should come across as happy accidents; we know that what we're watching was created with a purpose in mind, but the more we can pretend that all this is natural, the easier it is to fall under the story's spell. I'm not saying I need realism. The further away from realism Millennium gets, I think the better off we'll all be. But there is a lot of flat expository dialog here that really harshes my buzz, so to speak, drawing attention to themes that were already plastered across the screen in blinding red and black. It's not enough that James is on edge. He has to keep telling us he's on edge (like how he immediately thinks the killer may be motivated by "divorce"), and how important his son is to him, and how his son is a symbol of all that's good in the world, and how every time he works on a case now, he takes it personally. All of this is obvious, and the lectures wear thin. It's also unfortunate when James's ex-wife brings their son to his office. The son gets a glimpse of Jame's work, and freaks out--then James freaks out, because he's trying to protect his son from this sort of thing--then his wife freaks out because James is freaking out, and because she doesn't want their son exposed to crime scene photos. This is ridiculous. His wife knows what James does for a living, so she'd have to know that surprise visits are maybe not a good idea. It makes her look like an idiot, or worse, and it tries too hard to demonstrate the toll James's work is taking on his personal life.
I'm not quite sure how to rate the SKotW plots on the show--this one murdered nice ladies and cut them into pieces, which I'm guessing is going to happen a lot. The killer did leave messages written on strands of hair, which is unusual enough. Frank profiled him as a man who desperate wanted to be stopped, but who was angry because he believed his life might go "unnoticed." (Makes sense that he'd kill women he met, then, out of some desperate attempt to have meaning in their lives, even while he had none in his own.) In order to track him down, Frank plants a message in the paper that the killer misspelled the word "venture" on his last hair note, then he and James stake out a memorial for the killer's latest victim. They miss the bad guy's visit, but Frank determines that the killer left a pin behind, so they go through a security tape of the memorial look for anyone suspicious. So the mystery here is well-constructed, and, unsurprisingly, in the end James nearly blows everything, attacking the killer without the proper paperwork and rendering the contents of the man's murder van inadmissible in court.
There's enough evidence in other places to send the bad guy away, though; I can't decide if that's a cheat, or a low-key way of subverting cliche. I do appreciate that there's no attempt made here to blame the justice system and all its complicated rules for protecting the rights of the citizens. Too often cop shows will resort to the easy, lazy routine of blaming the the complexities of the Law for their troubles. (What's great is that people watching root for the cops, even though the laws we're rooting against are about protecting us from invasive searches and predatory police.) I'm sure we'll get to that sort of thing here eventually, but in "Dead Letters," it's James's instability that gets the blame. The Millennium group stays largely to the sidelines this episode (no Terry O'Quinn, sadly), but James's admission at the end that he wanted to join in Frank's work, and that he knows he isn't ready for it, is telling. Maybe that's why I want to keep watching, in the end: the possibility that all this muck and murder may add up to something more.
- After watching the security tape, Frank and James try and contact potential suspects. That's gotta be a fun call to get: "Hi, saw you paying your respects to a murdered nurse. You're kind of sketchy looking, so we were wondering..."
- Another big point in this episode's favor: there's never any implication that James himself is the killer. That would've been idiotic. (Although we do get a nice reversal at the end when James uses the killer's own method of entrapment to get at the guy.)
- Next week, Todd deals with "Unruhe" and "The Judge."