The X-Files: “Lord Of The Flies”/“Trust No 1”

The X-Files: “Lord Of The Flies”/“Trust No 1”

“Lord Of The Flies” (season 9, episode 5; originally aired 12/16/2001)

In which Aaron Paul is here, but he doesn’t get to say “bitch”… literally

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

“Lord Of The Flies” is mostly notable now for being the episode that brought Aaron Paul into the loose orbit of X-Files executive producer Vince Gilligan. Paul, of course, would go on to be one of the most important things in Gilligan’s future series, Breaking Bad, though there’s never been any indication that Gilligan realized what a powerful actor Paul could be when he was in this episode, playing “Sky Commander Winky,” a would-be Johnny Knoxville hosting dumb exploits featuring his friends for the series’ loosely fictionalized version of if Jackass and America’s Funniest Home Videos had a baby, Dumb Ass. (What’s more, this episode was actually written by future Breaking Bad writer Thomas Schnauz.) I don’t know why Dumb Ass is two words throughout—probably to separate it from the actual thing—but there’s a potentially fun X-Files episode about some teenagers who stumble upon something horrifying while filming the process of being dumb teenagers. This, unfortunately, is not that episode.

The center of “Lord Of The Flies” is the idea that The X-Files has had lots of creepy bugs on in the past, but it’s never had an episode where flies eat people from the inside, so maybe it’s time for that. It’s meant to occupy a somewhat goofier portion of the X-Files spectrum, but the episode is largely devoid of real humor. I guess Paul’s accent—which is supposed to be a riff on California surfer dudes, I suppose—is kind of amusing, and there are some occasional laughs from Dr. Rocky, the guy who immediately becomes fixated on Scully (because who wouldn’t?). But for the most part, this is an episode that treads ground The X-Files had worn into dust already—including in its funny episodes! Indeed, the debt this episode has to “War Of The Coprophages” and “Syzygy” from season three is rather enormous, to say nothing of all of the other episodes it’s had about bugs and human hybrids.

Even worse is that this episode wastes a pretty good guest cast. Jane Lynch is here as the mother of bug boy (a bug herself, as it turns out, in the most predictable twist ever), but she’s given basically nothing to do but be stern to her son. Samaire Armstrong, one of those almost TV stars for something like 15 years now, turns up as bug boy’s crush, but her character is given no shades beyond “object of desire.” Paul is goofy and enjoyable as Winky, but the character never settles on anything because the episode seems unable to spend much time with him. Only Michael Wiseman really seems to get at the arch sensibility the episode calls for as Dr. Rocky, and Dr. Rocky is a pretty one-joke character. As bug-boy Dylan, Hank Harris isn’t bad, but it’s also seemingly the thousandth time the show has gone to the “isolated teenager is actually a monster” and “puberty is kind of a metaphor for transforming into something strange” wells throughout its run. Comedy can sometimes be found in familiarity, but “Lord Of The Flies” mostly feels tired.

This also stems from the way that the episode is just a bit overstuffed, by virtue of the design of season nine. Keeping Scully around means that the show constantly needs to find stuff for her to do, so the episode splits into three stories, which means the guest cast doesn’t get the time it might have needed to really flesh that third of the story out. Doggett and Reyes go through the usual investigation part of the story, while the kids are all trying to deal with the aftermath of the bug attack. But the episode also has to shoehorn in a story where Scully has to put up with Dr. Rocky’s unwanted affections, and it never really fits in the way the writers so clearly would like it to. A lot of what makes the X-Files comedy episodes work is the madcap energy that comes from everything floating along as quickly as possible. This makes it possible to ignore how little any of this makes sense, allowing for the comedy to flow more easily.

But there’s another big problem getting in the way here: We don’t really know Doggett and Reyes well enough to make jokes about or with them. What’s more, Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish aren’t as natural of comedic actors as David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were. All of this means that when, say, Doggett is saying that the kids who are in Dumb Ass have “crap for brains” and that must be what attracted the flies, it’s less of the sort of quip Mulder might have delivered in an offhand manner and more like he’s a really boring suburban dad lecturing his kids about why their favorite television program is stupid. Patrick reportedly didn’t quite get the episode’s humor and had to talk through it with the episode’s director, and it shows. For the most part, Doggett has been a solid addition to the show, but it turns out the one thing he can’t really play is comedy. (Reyes doesn’t get all that much to do here in the way of “humor,” which is too bad. I could have used something that endeared me to her.)

That means so much of the humor falls on Dr. Rocky and on the teenagers, and it doesn’t really work, because neither storyline is entirely sure just how sincerely we should feel about the characters. Well, Dr. Rocky is mostly a buffoon, but the relationship between Dylan and Natalie is supposed to be something that makes us feel genuine emotions, I think, and it never really gets there. Similarly, much of the parody of Jackass must have already felt dated in 2001, and the show doesn’t make much out of this possible element of parody, ultimately. It’s just another thing that becomes grist for the mill for yet another bug of the week story that’s not even particularly original. (I’ve seen some arguments online that this is a pseudo-sequel to season fives’ “Travelers,” but I don’t really buy it.)

Fortunately, the idea of being eaten alive by flies from the inside out is pretty creepy, as are the swarms of flies that appear at various points throughout the episode. That and the crackerjack guest cast are almost enough to carry this one, until Schauz’s script largely loses track of just what Dylan and his mom are supposed to be, even. Initially, they’re attracting flies, but they later seem like they’re somehow related to spiders, given all of the webbing and the weird stuff that comes out of their mouths. There are some good ideas in “Lord Of The Flies” and a couple of good gags, but for the most part, this is a stale reheating of stuff the show had already done. Like so much of season nine was, come to think of it.

Stray observations:

  • The one gag I quite liked was Rocky and Scully looking up into the sky for the big collection of insect pheromone winging their way, completely to miss Dylan coasting along on his bike behind them. A nice visual gag and some good framing from episode director Kim Manners.
  • Okay, I also liked the joke about Winky trying to sell the footage of his friend’s death to the Fox network—only to reveal he tried to sell to every network, but only Fox was interested. The X-Files was never as good at biting the hand that fed it as The Simpsons, but it could be pretty cutting when it wanted to.
  • As mentioned above, the moment when Aaron Paul almost gets to say “bitch,” then doesn’t, is tremendously disappointing to anyone making a Breaking Bad supercut.

“Trust No 1” (season 9, episode 6; originally aired 1/6/2002)

In which Mulder has an e-mail address!

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

The one time I made my way through season nine of The X-Files was after my wife gave me the complete series DVD set for Christmas one year. I didn’t pay attention to lots of the episodes because I was doing other things, and I think I might have skipped one or two that were supposed to be legendarily bad. Which is how it came to be that this was the first time I’ve ever seen “Trust No 1”—at least I think—and now that I’ve seen it, I want to disagree with you, Internet. Because this isn’t all that bad, for reasons that probably didn’t exist until just the last year. Basically, The X-Files accidentally made the very first TV episode about Edward Snowden’s America, and it made it 11 years before Snowden revealed the depths of the National Security Agency’s program to be able to spy on any American it wants at any given time. It’s an amazingly prescient piece of work, pretty much just kicked up by Patriot Act paranoia, and it’s somehow also a really strong tribute to the connection between Mulder and Scully.

This is also “Trust No 1’s” biggest problem, because it’s a little ridiculous that the show continues to be about Mulder and Scully when Doggett and Reyes are right there like that. I know that the fans and writers have far more of a connection to the former partners than they do to the new ones, but that’s partially because the show will never let anyone get too attached to the new partners when there’s a chance that Mulder might pop up somewhere. This worked in season eight, because the partners were Scully and Doggett, and it made sense that Scully was obsessed with trying to find her former partner and (current?) lover. It also worked there because it was a transitional season, where season nine is very much transitioned to the new status quo. Scully pursuing Mulder is something she would do, especially since the two have a child together. Doggett and Reyes caring this much, particularly once it’s revealed to them that the NSA is spying on everybody at every time and also might have something to do with the Super Soldiers, seems a little less plausible to me. Sidelining whatever is going on in favor of yet another quest for Mulder is a misstep.

Similarly, I just can’t get invested in the Super Soldier arc, even though we’ve now had Adam Baldwin, Terry O’Quinn, and Lucy Lawless (who must be three of the heads on someone’s Geek Rushmore) as three actors playing them. For one thing, it’s all so tenuously connected to anything in the series’ pre-existing mythology. For another thing, the idea of this unstoppable force being stopped by a rock in the ground is just kind of silly, especially once O’Quinn (whose character is literally named Shadow Man) starts gyrating around on the ground like he’s dancing for a strobe light only he can see. For yet another thing, the Super Soldiers just aren’t very scary. (As I remarked a couple of weeks ago, they’re basically another riff on the Alien Bounty Hunters.) Also, finally, it just sounds stupid whenever anyone says “Super Soldiers.” This already feels like a dead-end for the mythology, and I can’t believe we have a full season of having to hear about them.

But I actually quite liked the core of this episode, to be perfectly honest. I’ve never been someone who was all in on the romantic pairing between Scully and Mulder, having always preferred them as platonic life partners who had sex maybe once or twice then never thought about it again, but this episode does a solid job of making their connection its center without overplaying said connection. (Well, it doesn’t overplay it outside of that highly goopy teaser. But at least that has the cool footage of the NSA surveillance footage of the two from over the years of the show.) X-Files isn’t always so great at the romantic yearning, but the moments when Scully sadly e-mails Mulder to tell him that it’s not safe for him to come home and be with her and William yet are surprisingly moving. Granted, I’m saying this with a lot of caveats about overlooking the season’s weaknesses so far, but I was invested in the emotional heart of this episode, which is always key to enjoying a story like this.

That said, I was even more invested in the idea of the X-Files team stumbling upon an NSA spying campaign that must have seemed far-fetched in 2001 but in 2014 seems only a little bit beyond what the NSA is capable of. (I don’t think the agency is watching me through a camera apparently embedded in my smoke detector, but who knows?) Yes, the idea that an NSA employee and his wife would similarly be possessed of a baby with superpowers—just like William!—is pretty strange, but it’s a coincidence I’m willing to swallow when it leads to scenes like the one in Scully’s apartment where they tell her, Doggett, and Reyes all about how thoroughly they’ve been watched all along. It’s a damned creepy scene, and it doesn’t require anything like aliens or monsters to attain that effect. It’s just about a government that wants to know everything and will do whatever it can to learn that information. The scenes where NSA workers outline for Scully everything they know about her are top notch.

The X-Files was always at its best when it built its paranoid conspiracy theories off of reality, and even if the show’s writers couldn’t have had any idea of the program the NSA would build in the years to come, just setting the story in the midst of a real government agency gives it some degree of power. The only way the Super Soldiers arc is going to fly is if it can separate itself from the alien conspiracy (even if the Super Soldiers were created via some sort of alien experimentation), and by removing the Super Soldiers from connections to the old Syndicate and putting them in bed with real agencies like the NSA, the show builds itself something that could end up being of interest.

“Trust No 1” isn’t a great episode or anything, but I think it comes by its reputation a little unfairly, especially now with the benefits of time and having been accidentally right about something that would happen in the 10 years after the show went off the air. The episode loses a little something when it just becomes about yet another gunfight in yet another public place, but then we see Doggett spying the running figure of someone—is it Mulder?—and everything becomes once again about how the two people this show was always about changed the world almost solely because they met each other. That might shortchange Doggett and Reyes, sure, but it’s nice to know the show can still turn that particular engine on when it needs to.

Stray observations:

  • Did we ever find out what happened with baby Joy? Her mother seemed so intent on not giving her child over to the father, and then… nothing. Scully guesses that it was all staged for her benefit, but I don’t know that it’s ever confirmed for her.
  • I don’t know what the piece of classical music that recurs throughout the episode is, but I like it quite a bit. It’s a nice counterpoint to some of the episode’s more overwrought moments, despite classical music occasionally making things seem even more overwrought.
  • It would have been much better if there were a Terry O’Quinn-shaped hole in the side of that hill after he got sucked into the rocks at the end.
  • Does Gillian Anderson have a wrist tattoo the makeup department forgot to cover up? There’s a scene where she’s talking on the phone, and it sure seems like it, but it could be a trick of the light.
  • Do you think those e-mail addresses—apparently set up and maintained by 1013 Productions—still exist? I didn’t get a chance to e-mail them just yet. I hope they do!

Next week: Zack covers Michelle MacLaren’s directorial debut in “John Doe,” then gets “Hellbound.”

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