“Arcadia” (season 6, episode 15; originally aired 3/7/1999)
In which Mulder and Scully are married! Squeeeeeeee!
I am not, by my nature, an X-Files curmudgeon. I enjoy even the awful episodes of the show, on the level that I like just hanging out with the characters and find every episode to have at least one genuinely enjoyable scene. For the most part, my opinion on the series’ hours hews closely to the conventional wisdom. I like the good ones, love the excellent ones, and dislike the bad ones. I’ll rarely get in fights over episodes with other fans, either, if such fights are still occurring now, over a decade after the show ended. There are one or two episodes I think are not as good as some fans think they are, mostly mythology episodes, and there are a handful I find rather underrated. But for the most part, I’m a go-along-to-get-along type when it comes to this show. If you like it, I probably do, too.
The exception is “Arcadia.” And, honestly, I don’t even think the episode is bad. I think it’s a solid example of the show’s mid-period form, when it would give in to its comedic jones as often as it would its horror or dramatic jones. I just don’t think it’s great. It starts out well, and it has some really strong moments and even a few good scares. But the episode’s monster is a little hard to figure out, and it’s easy to sense that the production team wasn’t sure what to do with the idea of sentient garbage held together into a human form by an old man’s thought and mostly punted the ball down the road. Plus, the episode’s satire is overly broad and typical, of the sort that Hollywood was constantly making about life in planned communities or the suburbs in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. (Remember: The movie that won Best Picture at the Oscars for the year this episode aired in was American Beauty, Hollywood’s ultimate facile deconstruction of the ‘burbs.)
There’s a big reason many fans give this one a pass or slot it into their top 25 episodes lists: It allows us to see what it would be like if Mulder and Scully were a happily married couple and still working on the X-Files. And, yes, that’s a fun notion to play around with. The writers have fun with it. Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny have fun with it. And it’s easy to sense the fans having fun with it, too, even as it plays out. Because of how thoroughly this episode gets held up by the show’s shipping community (about which more in stray observations), it’s easy to overstate just how much playful marital banter exists between the two agents, undercover as married couple Rob and Laura Petrie. It’s only present in a handful of scenes, but it’s always playful and fun. I particularly enjoy when Mulder goes in for a kiss from his “wife” at dinner with the Shroeders and is rebuffed, as well as the bit where Mulder playfully prompts Scully to come to bed with him. It feels, for all the world, like fan service, but it’s the good kind of fan service, where everybody involved knows just how far they can push things and not go too far. (The series would step over the “too far” line in the very next season in this regard.)
It’s not that I’m an anti-shipper, someone who hopes that Mulder and Scully will never get together. Indeed, I sort of think the show might have been improved if the writers had had the two just have sex already somewhere in season three or four, just to clear the air of the sexual tension. Duchovny and Anderson have an undeniable chemistry, and while the conventional wisdom holds that getting two characters together will ruin a show irreparably, driven by a misunderstanding of what it was that ultimately brought down Moonlighting, The X-Files’ episodic structure was strong enough to have weathered such a thing, so long as the show just kept the pairing on the down-low and in the background. Think, for instance, of Mulder getting one of those late-night calls to check out a weird crime and Scully waking up next to him for an idea of how this might have worked. Yes, they’re still in love. Yes, they’re still solving crimes. Yes, the series is still going to focus on the latter. It could have been a case of the show having its cake and eating it too.
At the same time, I’m fond of Chris Carter’s initial idea for the characters as two people in a sort of chaste, courtly romance. Mulder’s quest is straight out of an epic poem anyway, what with all its unlikely twists and turns, its constant slew of archetypes for him to fight and befriend, and its underlying pure motivations and goals, so having him be accompanied by a woman with whom he shares a clear affection but no real sexual activity fits directly into that dynamic. The fact is that there are plenty of people in life with whom anyone will share some sort of spark, but that spark doesn’t always have to be sexual. Duchovny and Anderson have great sexual chemistry, yes, but they also have great friendship chemistry, and the latter is a bit underrated.
“Arcadia,” then, is basically just an excuse to have the two show off both ends of that spectrum. The fake marriage stuff allows the show to tweak the fans who are desperate to see the two get together, giving them a chance to see that post-coital world I described above. But it’s also an example of how the two put their heads together to puzzle through a seemingly unsolvable mystery: the disappearances of several people who’ve been violating rules in a planned community outside of San Diego. I think my favorite moment for the actors is when they’re pretending to be lovey-dovey for the neighbors, then immediately snap into detective mode when the neighbors leave. At least at this point in the show, sex would be a distraction for these two. The work is all that matters. (Okay, I’m also fond of the moment when Mulder doffs his shirt right in front of Scully, because it presumes an intimacy between the two exists without really commenting on it. They essentially are a married couple by this point.)
The mystery is the problem here. Right away, it’s obvious that the community members are doing some sort of weird thing to make sure they get rid of those who don’t conform to the specifications in the community rulebook, but when the reveal is made that the monster is a tulpa, a Tibetan thought-form held together by the mental abilities of community leader Gene Gogolak, and that it’s made out of garbage, the whole thing feels a little half-baked. There are a few scary moments here, like when Big Mike (a welcome Abraham Benrubi) pops up in the bedroom and shoves Scully in a closet that she might not be killed by what he terms the “ubermenscher,” but for the most part, the horror is as silly as the fake marriage stuff, though the episode doesn’t seem to play it that way.
What’s really tame here is the satire on planned communities. The idea of someone violating the rules and having something comically over-the-top and awful happen to them was already played out in early 1999, and the episode doesn’t really do very much with it otherwise. There are clever ideas here—I particularly like the idea of the owner of a Pier 1 Imports-style chain coming into possession of mystic knowledge during his travels abroad—but much of the humor in this section is meant to stem from the wacky ways that Mulder just doesn’t fit in among the Arcadia Falls residents. It’s stale, and the episode never has the satirical bite it wants in this regard. It’s possible this all could have worked with some sharper comedy, if it had followed more thoroughly from the notion of Mulder putting a pink flamingo in his front lawn and cockily intoning, “Bring it on!” Instead, we get Mulder kicking over a mailbox or playing basketball at night, then the intimation that somebody unseen is keeping an eye out for him. (It turns out to be a sewer-hiding Big Mike, which doesn’t really make much sense.) It’s perfectly within Mulder’s character, but the reactions from his neighbors don’t really work as comedy or horror.
Plus, the whole episode eventually just peters out. In the best X-Files episodes, the story of the guest characters dovetails with Mulder and Scully’s investigation, and the two are able to stop the monster, even as the lives of the guest characters are irredeemably changed in one way or another. It’s the classic cop show motif, filtered through a science fiction and horror veil. In the worst episodes, Mulder and Scully are essentially unnecessary, other than as a way for Mulder to come up with crazy theories. “Arcadia” is one of a great number of episodes that splits the difference. There’s stuff for the two to do here, but it mostly has nothing to do with solving the mystery and everything to do with playing at being married. When the monster is defeated, it’s because it killed its own creator and died when his thoughts ceased to give it life, at which point, it collapses into a heap of trash all over Mulder’s shoes. If I were a meaner critic, I’d say this was a good metaphor for the episode itself: It looks and moves like an X-Files episode, but once you think about it, it collapses into a pile of refuse, left behind by prior episodes. “Arcadia” isn’t that bad by any means, but with a stronger story to prop up what does work about the episode, it could have been an all-time classic. Without it, it’s still a pleasant diversion.
- My primary memory of “Arcadia” comes from watching it at the home of a girl I was trying to woo at the time, who was really into X-Files, even if she was already proclaiming herself “tired of” the show and more interested in Sopranos. (These were the days before DVRs, when you really had to make a choice in this sort of thing, since VCR tapes were so crummy.) However, she found this episode terrific. She was also someone who deeply wanted to see Mulder and Scully get together. Make of that what you will. (For my part, I also said the episode was terrific, because that’s what you do when you’re 18 and wooing a girl. You abandon all principle.)
- I do rather like the metaphor of having Arcadia Falls be built over an old landfill. It’s a little over-obvious, but at least nobody says, “This community is rotten to the core!” or anything of the like.
- On the other hand, having Scully say, “Is this the American dream?” to Cami Shroeder, and having Mulder just abruptly say, “Every community has its dark underbelly!” while at a pleasant dinner feels forced. This episode is saying important things.
- Those of you who follow both this and my Carnivàle reviews will likely notice a familiar face in Debra Cristofferson, who plays Lila, the bearded lady, over there and Pat here.
- The original script for this episode apparently contained no monster but, instead, a disturbed individual who took things too far. Carter asked writer Daniel Arkin to insert a monster, and the tulpa came into being. I think the original version might have worked better.
“Forcing The End” (season 3, episode 15; originally aired 3/19/1999)
In which a bunch of Jewish guys try to force the end
I’ve made no secret in my writing for this site of my fundamentalist Christian upbringing, talking about it to the point of distraction in some cases. Now, in a lot of ways, I can’t help that. Because of the way that upbringing created filters between developing me and the rest of the world, I still find it creeping into my perspective, even as I long ago left behind that form of belief. This isn’t all bad. I think it’s given me a unique perspective on certain things that other critics don’t really bring to bear—ask me about The Master sometime—but I won’t lie and say that it’s always necessary to drag it into every article I drag it into. I try to use it as little as possible.
Millennium makes that really, really, really hard. Watching an episode of this show—particularly an episode like this one, which is based on a group of Jewish acolytes attempting to bring about the end times—makes it hard not to dip back into the zealotry of my youth. The plot here dovetails with that eschatological upbringing so neatly that it’s all I can think about. (Sample opening sentence from a sermon one of my pastors preached in my youth: “We all think these are the end times, but what if they’re not?” That latter option is looking more and more likely.) Trying to divine world events to see what might be pointing toward Armageddon was a popular pastime in the churches I grew up in, and I can remember the weird glee off any threat posed to Israel at that time. Israel, see, was instrumental in all end times predictions, and if it were to be attacked by Russia (and Russia specifically) or if the residents of Jerusalem were to rebuild the temple, then the Rapture could happen, and the horrific final chapters could begin.
Let’s be clear here: None of the people preaching this message to me really wanted the Antichrist to arise, even if they firmly believed they’d be swept up into the sky before the Tribulation began. But there was still the sense that if the end times began, we had all better be ready, because that was the start of the good times. Sure, things would suck for our friends down on Earth for a few years, but they wouldn’t if we could just convert enough of them to our way of thinking in time for the Rapture, then hope that something we said stuck in the craw of those left behind, that they might carry on and fight the good fight through the seven years post-Rapture. Every single news article we read fed our urgency, because Israel was perpetually in trouble. The slightest suggestion that maybe it didn’t have to be this way would be washed away, and the short-lived peace accords between the Israelis and the Palestinians of the ‘90s were greeted with howls of rage.
“Forcing The End” is steeped in that world from a different perspective, a Jewish perspective. There’s a brief mention of Christian fundamentalists who form the complement to the Jewish fundamentalists the story centers on, in that they, too, want the Temple rebuilt in Jerusalem, but for very different reasons. But the story is given over to an obscure sect that apparently hides out below ground, attempting to raise a child in “pure” fashion, that he might be a priest in the reconstructed Temple, a priest who might greet the Messiah. (The fundamentalist Christians, of course, hold that this Messiah will be the Antichrist, which is how they fit into the story.) The man behind this plot is an embittered former soldier from the Six-Day War named Moses Gourevitch. He was angry when the war did not conclude with the destruction of the mosques that currently occupy the land where the Temple once stood, and he’s apparently decided to take matters into his own hands, to force the end, by kidnapping a pregnant woman, having her give birth to her son in a pool (that he might not be sullied by the ground), then raising the boy in such a way as to make him the perfect priest.
The common complaint against this plot is that it’s far-fetched. And that’s certainly true. It’s hard to imagine any of this actually working (in just a practical sense, not in a “bringing about the end of the world” sense, because that’s already nuts), and I almost found myself wishing that it had fallen onto Frank’s radar in a way where we didn’t instantly know what was happening. Sure, it’s weird to observe the rituals in the underground chamber through the eyes of Jeannie, the mother of the baby, and not entirely be sure what we’re dealing with. But we do know we’re dealing with some secretive cult that needs a baby for some nefarious purpose, and that means that everybody immediately takes Jeannie seriously, when she might have come off as a nutball only Frank believed in.
What I do buy here, however, is the idea that given sufficient means, some small group would try to “force the end.” This idea sounds insane to anyone not steeped in this way of thought. Who would want to end the world? But when you’re a member of a fundamentalist religion, the foremost thing you worry about is converting people to your religion. And if you can’t do it through normal means, then having the end of the world happen in such a way as to bear all of your prediction out, so you can point up at Christ descending from the sky or the Messiah descending from the Temple, and say, “See?!” would be tremendously gratifying, like the feeling you’ll get if your candidate wins the upcoming election and you can rub it in the faces of all of your friends who support the opposing party and have been posting all of that tripe you hate reading on Facebook for months and months, only magnified about a hundredfold. Being a member of a fundamentalist religion is all about moving inside of a society within a society, one that can never live up to its own standards for purity, because this is a big, messy world we live in, one that has no real room for perfection. In that event, why not try to force the end and make everybody see just how wrong they were, right before the sword of righteousness cuts them down?
Sadly, this episode just can’t work itself into that kind of fanaticism. The cult members are garden variety kooks, outside of Rachel, who breaks with them when she realizes just how far they’ll go. (She’s instrumental in making sure Jeannie gets out.) The Millennium Group approaches all of this in a very businesslike fashion, when Frank points out that what they really want is to control the end of the world themselves. Frank and Emma act like this is the sort of thing they see every day, when we know it’s really not. Even these two haven’t come up against something this audacious or goofy. By this point in the show’s run, the series was vacillating wildly between a wide variety of potential versions of itself, hoping against hope to find one that would stick. I’ve always preferred this sort of pseudo-Biblical nuttery, but it’s not hard to imagine a wider audience might have liked one of the innumerable other flavors of the show. So it kept trying, and it became a less consistent show for its troubles.
Plus, the way the case is solved just isn’t all that interesting. In the end, it comes down to Jeannie overhearing the cult members using the words “sandwich,” “subway,” and “mirror,” which seem like prompts in an improv-comedy game, not the vital clues needed to bring down a cult bent on the world’s destruction. (That Frank divines their meaning through staring really hard and using the 1999 equivalent of Google is even worse.) It’s fun to see Juliet Landau—Drusilla from Buffy The Vampire Slayer—turn up as Jeannie, but even her performance is basically reduced to lots and lots of screaming. It’s understandable why the kidnapping of her son by a cult might get her a little upset, but she’s less a character than a plot point, a bridge between Frank and Emma and the rescue of her baby. The whole episode relies on lots and lots of religious esoterica, like Frank figuring out that Jeannie must be a member of a bloodline that once contained priests back in the “Twelve Tribes” days of the Jewish people, but instead of feeling like he’s stumbling upon something, it always feels forced.
I didn’t hate “Forcing The End” at the end of the day. I can’t really recommend it, because it has a host of problems, but this particular brand of batshit insanity is what’s keeping me going in this final season of Millennium. In that final moment, when Emma corners Moses (holding the baby boy) on a rooftop, right before he boards a helicopter to take the child to Israel and his intended future, it’s not hard to lose yourself in notions of what would have happened if the plot had succeeded, if the boy had gone off into the world to bring about its end. The trick with forcing the end, with really wanting the end of the world to come, is to completely divorce yourself from earthly concerns. But as the New Testament says, being in the world but not of it is harder than it looks, and in the grim, bizarre ending of this episode, it’s not hard to imagine one of Armageddon’s heralds being brought up to end it all and realizing he can’t, just because he likes ice cream or reading or sunny days. Zealotry always fails because the world is big and messy and complicated. That it fails here just because Moses can’t hang onto a rooftop (though he hands over the baby!) ultimately seems a bit of a disappointment.
- It’s worth pointing out that the scene in which Rachel is stoned is eerily effective. Depictions of ritual punishments from bygone eras are the sorts of thing you can rarely do on TV, but Millennium always gives them the weight of their horror.
- I do like the little arc we’re building here where Emma is learning more about the actual Millennium Group through assorted contact with Watts and others. I hope it’s going somewhere.
- The opening scene of this is just a cornucopia of late ‘90s paranoia. Y2K, fears of banks collapsing… why, it’s like somebody stuck a camera in a conspiracy website of the period and made a show about it!
Next week: Zack traces the return of one of Mulder’s most important items in “Alpha,” then finds out what the hell “Saturn Dreaming Of Mercury” could possibly mean.