"Bad Blood" (season 5, episode 12)
In Which Scully Says Po-Tay-To, and Mulder Says Po-Tah-To
Everyone is the main character of their own story. This is not a shocking revelation; it's a popular theme in fiction in all forms, and one of the most valuable lessons you learn as a human being is that not everyone sees the world the same way. Really, this is why we have language in the first place--if we all saw everything the same way, there'd be no real need to communicate. What always amazes me is how often we have to keep learning this, and how the knowledge can still shock on the fifth, tenth, or hundred repetition. Empathy isn't impossible, but it does require effort. It's not a process that happens automatically, especially under those stressful situations when it's most important. To say most problems of the world could be solved if we were more willing to try on everyone else's shoes is cliche. It's also probably true. But to do so would require not just respect others, but a willingness to admit that your own carefully cultivated self-image isn't as airtight as you'd like to believe, so I doubt it will be happening any time soon.
"Bad Blood" is one of my top five favorite X-Files--which isn't exactly relevant to you, but did come something as a surprise to me when I re-watched the episode for this review. I hadn't seen it years, and I remember liking it, but not being over the moon. I can't remember my exact reaction, but it probably came down to the episode being too "goofy." Because I guess I only liked my X-Files when it was wearing a tie, or something. Whatever the reason, my tastes have changed. Yes, "Bad Blood" can be goofy, but it's a good kind of goofy, the kind that pokes holes in characters in ways that just make them more lovable. This isn't an ep that tries to show how damaged Mulder is, or how wounded Scully is, or questions whether or not the conspiracy they've spent years tracking is possible to pin down. It's more about mocking our heroes in a friendly way, and pointing out that monsters are just as invested in self-image as the rest of us.
The story here is strong enough to work even in a "normal" ep: after learning about a series of cattle exsanguinations that apparently built to the murder of a tourist, Mulder and Scully head to Cheney, a small Texas town, to do some investigating, as they are wont to do. There they meet Sheriff Luke Wilson (he has a character name, but c'mon), and go about their usual routine: Mulder pokes around trying to prove his wild theory about vampires (which is correct), and Scully does autopsies, firmly in the belief that all they're dealing with is a killer who's read Dracula one too many times (this is also correct). Mulder is attacked by the killer, Scully arrives just in time to save him, and then Mulder chases his assailant--a teenage pizza delivery boy--into the woods, where he stakes him in the chest. This leads to some uncomfortable moments for both our heroes when Scully removes the kid's fake vampire teeth. But it all turns out okay in the end: the kid, Ronnie, really is a vamp, and when the local coroner removes Mulder's stake, Ronnie pops back to life. He's actually part of a community of blood-suckers (a community which includes Sheriff Luke Wilson), and when Mulder and Scully return to Cheney to investigate the disappearance of his "corpse," that community pulls together to protect one of its own. Ronnie may be an idiot, Wilson explains to Scully, but he's their idiot, and the ep ends with the vamps driving their RVs off into the night, leaving behind a pair of dazed, possibly wiser, undeniably relieved FBI agents.
It's maybe not the most dynamic of plots, and it has Mulder and Scully being even more irrelevant to the action than usual (well, maybe "irrelevant" is the wrong word, but this reminds me of a far more benevolent version of "Die Hand Die Verletzt," in which our heroes started and remained a few steps behind the main villain the whole time). The idea that all this happens because Ronnie breaks the rules of his group, that despite Mulder's initial beliefs, Ronnie's actions are actually contrary to the behavior of the modern vampire, is a good one. I always appreciate it when this show (or any show that deals with the supernatural) characterizes its monsters as well as its human characters, and while we don't really get to know much about the community Wilson eventually describes, we know enough to understand what happened. Mulder and Scully spend much of their time hunting creatures which are essentially anomalies in the social order, viruses in the system which lead to bizarre deaths--essentially, oddities which, inadvertently or not, attract attention. The X-Files are strange and seemingly inexplicable case files. They aren't "pleasant people who pay their taxes on time," and it's great to learn that maybe not every monster is incapable of adjusting their behavior in order to fit in.
Really, though, while all this is interesting, it's not why "Bad Blood" is remembered. This is a Rashomon episode, in which much of the running time is given over to either Mulder or Scully explaining their version of events. Unlike Rashomon, their accounts don't differ hugely on events--both characters would most likely agree with the summary I gave above, if for some reason they stopped being fictional and decided they wanted to read reviews of their old adventures. The differences are in the details, and "Bad Blood" gets a lot of laughs out of showing how the two leads view themselves and each other. In Scully's version, Mulder is arrogant, oblivious, and an endless trial, while Scully is the long-suffering grown-up forced to put up with his foolishness, even as she makes eye contact with the dreamy local lawman. In Mulder's version, Scully is nagging, dismissive, and close-minded, ignoring his wisdom and insight while she flirts with Cheney's buck-toothed, idiot sheriff. Both versions confirm what we'd assume about the characters and how they see each other.
Vince Gilligan's script here is very smart--I think it may be his best yet for the show--and one of the best choices he makes happens early on: Scully's version of events isn't the "true" version. I'm not sure if he ever considered doing otherwise, but surely the temptation must've been there. While her ironclad skepticism has been deservingly mocked by fans and critics alike, Scully has always appeared the more rational of the two leads. Plenty of episodes have revolved around her tempering or grounding Mulder's mad quests for the truth, and even in those episodes where Mulder's ideas aren't being directly criticized by the writers, Scully still comes off as the level-headed one, refusing to go too far afield in interpreting the facts as she sees them. So it's a relief, then, to see her here portrayed as a fallible human being, still sympathetic (both she and Mulder are very sympathetic here, which is another reason why "Bad Blood" is so great), but also a bit blinded by how she sees herself.
There's no surprise in discovering the Mulder's version of what happened paints him in a better light, but while it would've been possible to make this episode as brutal and conceptually terrifying as Rashomon really is (if there's no such thing as objective truth, how does anything mean anything?), "Bad Blood" manages to keep things light. This isn't some brutal deconstruction of the show's central relationship, and there's no sense, as there was in "Never Again," that there may be something between our heroes that is broken beyond hope of repair. Yes, Scully sees Mulder as kind of an ass. Yes, Mulder sees Scully as... unappreciative of his gifts, shall we say. But even when they're going over events in Mulder's office, there's no real fury or despair. Maybe it's because most of this is played as funny, but what really comes across here is the sense of how any long-term relationship settles into routine over time. Like any couple, romantic or otherwise, these two have formed narratives of how they fit with each other, and those narratives define how they see the rest of the world. Which can be healthy in a way--one of the reasons I think people are drawn together and stay together is that, positive or negative, we need the continuity. But it can also be limiting. After all, one of the reasons the Rashomon-style story-telling is important here is that Mulder and Scully might've put together the case faster if they weren't so busy editing events in their head to fit how they want to see themselves. Maybe if Scully hadn't been so intent on seeing the sheriff as a hunk, and Mulder hadn't been so determined to see him as a fool, they might have been a little more curious about how all this fit together.
The other reason the Rashomon-style works here is the nature of Ronnie, the pizza-boy delivery villain. His desire to be more of an "old school" vamp is what catches Mulder's eye in the first place, and that brings it back to that idea I mentioned above: we're all our own main characters. In Ronnie's case, well, he's this supernatural being who can make his eyes glow this totally bitchin' green, and he lives on blood. And yet, he's stuck in an RV park, maybe living with his parents, working as a pizza delivery guy in a Hicksville, Nowhere. That has to chafe, right? So he decides he's going to make himself over. He gets himself some solid fake fangs (and they must be damn solid, as I don't think I've ever seen a pair of real life store bought vamp teeth that could actually use to drain somebody), and practices on some cows, and then he works up his way to a tourist. He's still a pizza boy, he's still stuck in that RV, but now he's seriously going full Dracula, and that's better, right? If he can't be the hero of the story, he can at least be a better villain. Like Mulder is the noble seeker of truths in his vision of the world; or Scully is the put-open heroine, patient, sexy, bad-ass.
Like I said, you could go the despair route with this. If we're all our own main characters, then on some level, we're never going to see things the way other people see things. Right now, I'm writing a review, so I can talk about something I enjoy and get paid for it, but in my head, what I see is a brilliant novelist whose currently marking time as a critic and lowly librarian's assistant, until he finally gets the break he (so richly) deserves and gets to start creating art instead of just bullshitting about it. And maybe what you see is just the faceless name of another hipster douchebag, on top of a bunch of text that you skim through to kill half an hour on a Saturday afternoon. Our stories will probably never connect much more than they do right now, and even with the people in your life, the ones you see and talk with and touch every day, moments when the disparate narratives become shared are rare. But maybe that's not so sad, in the end. I don't argue that "Bad Blood" is trying to make some profound existential statement, but I do think there's something to be said for the pleasure we get in seeing how those separate stories collide. That's the real joy of art: the attempt to communicate your own, specific, unique, never-to-be-repeated view of the world to others. And maybe that's the most we can hope for in real life relationships: that we agree on the basic facts, and that we take pleasure in noting the discrepancies. That's how I see it, anyway.
- Yup, I know I didn't reference most of the jokes here. There are so many good ones that this review could've just been a regurgitation of the script. Personal fave moments: the cold open, the Magic Fingers, Mulder kicking the crap out of a waste basket. Oh, and Ronnie's general irritation whenever anything goes wrong.
- This episode was the first time I heard the lore about vamps being anal retentive. Very well used here.
- Funny how Mulder doesn't mention the evens of "3" from the second season. Can we just all pretend it never happened?
- "El chupacabra? No, they've got four fangs, plus they suck goats, hence the name."
- "Come on, Scully, get those little legs moving!"
- "Anyway, that was when you had your big breakthrough-whatever."
- "I just put some money in the Magic Fingers!" "I won't let it go to waste." (Another nice touch--the sound of the vibrating bed is like jackhammers in Mulder's version of the hotel room conversation.)
- "Now look, Scully, I don't want to jump to conclusions here..."
- "Well, it's obviously not a vampire." "Well, why not?" "Because they don't exist?"
- Another subtle touch--in Mulder's version, Sheriff Luke Wilson (who, lest I forget to mention, gives a good performance here) jokingly suggests bringing a vampire to Vegas to count cards, which Mulder immediately shuts down. "But that would be illegal, right?" Because in his version, Mulder is a friggin' boy scout.
- "Okay, here's something you may not know: shooting out the tires on a runaway RV is a lot harder than it looks."
- "Aw, man! What'd you have to go and do that for? You are in big trouble."
- "Scully, Mulder." "I was drugged!"
- Resurrected Ronnie tries to kill the coroner, but can't, because his fangs are gone.
- "It is... essentially exactly what happened."
"Luminary" (season 2, episode 12)
In Which Frank Goes For A Hike And Looks At The Stars
In September 1992, a group of hunters stumbled across the body of Christopher McCandless, a 24 college grad who had spent the last two years of his life wandering the United States only to die in the Alaskan wilderness. In 1996, Jon Krakauer wrote a book about McCandless called Into The Wild, trying to trace the dead man's journey through interviews with his family and the people he'd met on his travels, and the few traces he'd left behind. Eleven years later, the book was adapted into a movie of the same name, starring Emile Hirsch as McCandless, and directed by Sean Penn. Much like the book, the movie tried to understand why a financially comfortable young man with decent prospects would chose to cut ties with the so-called civilized world and journey into an unknown he couldn't truly be prepared for. Neither book nor film ever settled on an answer. He did it because he wanted to see something new, maybe, or because he was a foolish idealist who didn't realize the dangers ahead of him. He did it because he was an idiot or a sage or an immature brat. Really, the only hard certainty here is that he wandered for a while, and then he died.
But man alive, the opinions people had about all this! The book was popular, but it wasn't till the movie came out that I ever heard about McCandless, and I remember being amazed at the passionate debates that erupted in the comments thread of every AV Club article that even tangentially mentioned what had happened. Lots of folks wanted to call McCandless a moron, and lots of other folks wanted to defend him, as though McCandless's story wasn't just a minor tragedy, but a call to arms that had to be answered in the positive or negative. The movie tried a little too hard to make him out to be a saint, maybe, which may have prompted much of the discussion, but there was this almost instinctual response in all of us to just the idea of going off the grid. As though the people who thought it was stupid had to make sure everyone agreed it was stupid, because there was a serious danger of young men running away from home. Or, for the people who thought it was amazing, that McCandless's memory had to be protected from dismissive insults.
Personally, I--well, really, I don't know. I think I can understand in a general sense what drove him, and I think it was immature in one sense, but almost noble in another. It was certainly brave, and if he hadn't died, he'd probably have a book deal and an Oprah interview in the can by now. People do what they do, and while it was selfish of him to put his family through his loss, it's not like he did it to make them suffer. "Luminary," Millennium's attempt to deal with the question, comes down significantly more pro-McCandless then I might've, but it does a decent job of trying to integrate the guy's fictional analog into Frank's world. For once, we get the impression that upcoming apocalypse might not be all bad, that a new millennium is also an opportunity to strike on our own and form some new way of thinking. Alex Ventoux, nee Glaser, the stand in for McCandless in this episode, is a symbol of that possibility. Weirdly enough, so is Frank. "Luminary"'s attempt to connect the two doesn't exactly work, but it comes close, and it provides another terrific example of just how much this show is willing to stretch itself.
Frank's work has brought him further into the folds of the Millennium group, and at the start of the episode, he's called in to present himself to some of the elders. The questioning goes south quickly, and Frank storms out of the room, presumably blowing his chance to rise in the ranks. While he eventually wins back their favor (or else he never lost it in the first place; his temporary expulsion from the group may just be a test, because crazy groups like this love their fake-out tests), his brief exile means that he's on his own for much of the ep, unable to access the Millennium group's wealth of information or consult with Peter about a case. In fact, the group goes so far as to tell the law officials that Frank works with while searching for Alex that Frank is a loose cannon, which calls into question just how worthwhile this group really is. They have strange, archaic ways, opaque practices, and they question Frank's fortitude even while placing him in situations that bring out his dark side. In most stories, the wise, fighting-back-the-darkness cabal is a necessary, valuable tool for the hero. Here, I'm wondering if the Millennium group is going to wind up like the Watcher's Council in Buffy, out-dated, stultified, and ultimately pointless.
Still, Frank's increased frustration with the group's blacklisting helps give the episode an extra edge of tension. Which is good, since this doesn't follow the usual format at all. (Do Millennium episodes even have a format anymore? Beyond "Frank deals with some weird shit," I mean.) Through Catherine, Frank meets the Glasers. Their son Alex has disappeared in Alaska, and they're desperate to find him, so desperate that they'll ask for help from a criminal profiler. Frank's work wouldn't seem all that connected to their missing son, especially since he no longer has his contacts at the FBI, but he agrees to help anyway. He gets a vision in their son's room of an Aurora Borealis-type glow in the sky, decides Alex is still alive, and takes the case, despite Peter's refusal to offer assistance. I'm not sure what the group would want with this case even if Frank wasn't on the outs, though. It's a missing kid, and he wasn't murdered, and there've been no angel reports.
But then, I couldn't honestly explain to you what the group is looking for in any case. There's a lot of talk throughout "Luminary" about planets being in conjunction, about how that leads to great conflict, and about how that conflict can also inspire positive social change, like the Renaissance. Frank gets obsessed with Alex because Frank is a good guy and wants to make sure the kid is safe, but also because Alex represents a sort of rejection inspired by a desire for a new way of thinking, and Frank's problems of late--the marital discord, the demonic temptation, the cult that signs his paychecks--seeming to be pushing him toward a similar sort of rejection. Throughout the episode, everyone repeatedly tells Frank that Alex is dead, that he should just give up, but he pushes forward, past the point where even those of us in the audience think he's in the right. If this is all a test for him, than it's a test of agency, of seeing just how far he's willing to go on his own. It could be the Millennium group would be interested in Alex because his form of questing is the lighter side to the darkness the end of an era represents; and Frank's determination proves that he's just as strong a defender of good as he is smiter of evil.
It's a lot of heady stuff, to be sure, and not all of it lands. But a lot of it does. "Luminary" is a great example of how the second season's ambitions were often its greatest weakness and its great strength. It's hard to wrap the mind around all the philosophical ideas here, and some of them seem sillier than most; I'm not sure what to make of the concept that Catherine and Frank represent different planetary forces, and that one of the major motivators of their current estrangement is literally written in the stars. Catherine is so under-developed on the show that trying to present her as an avatar of some cosmic ideal feels arbitrary, especially since the conflict between the Blacks was never all that well constructed in the first place. And yet, one of the reasons "Luminary" works as well as it does is the growing rapprochement between the two characters. Even with all the foolishness about astrology, the fact that Frank and Catherine end the episode hand in hand is affecting. The emotion of it works, even if the mythology doesn't quite.
Another aspect of "Luminary" that works is the twist of Alex still being alive. I don't know how familiar audiences were with McCandless's story in 1998 when this episode originally aired; because I knew how Into the Wild turned out, I naturally assumed Alex would go the same way, and Frank would learn a valuable lesson in hubris. But even if you didn't know Wild, the body floating downstream at the start of the ep is a tip-off that there might not be a happy ending here. Yes, we're all used to fake outs on genre shows, and the conviction of the locals that Alex is dead isn't proof of anything. But the way evidence keep mounting, and the elegiac quality of the voice-overs, and just the general sense that there are bad times ahead, it's hard not to lose faith. When Frank found Alex's journal, and we learned that the narration was written by someone firmly convinced he would die, well, I assumed that was it. The kid was taking up space as a half-mangled corpse back in town, and Frank had just risked his life and wasted his time confirming what everyone else already knew.
But then Alex turns up, significantly worse for wear, but still breathing, and the twist works; it turns the melancholy despair into something like hard-earned triumph. Frank's efforts to get Alex back to the rescue plane are thrilling, and I love that he refuses to get back on that plane himself, at least the first time it's offered. Something in him has changed. He may not be the same kind of thinker Alex aspires to be, but he does find his own way. "Luminary" has its flaws. The astrology element is fairly ridiculous, and, unless I missed something, there's never any explanation for that corpse that washed down river, the one that everyone but Frank assumed was Alex. But the ep largely succeeds in continuing to challenge the wisdom of all kinds of orthodoxy, even the sort that supposedly works for good. In the final scene, Frank gets a note from Peter that he's "passed the first election." Catherine asks what it means, and Frank says, "I'm not sure it matters." He's on his own path, now, and he's old and wise enough to know what the cost might be.
- The sheriff Frank meets in Alaska is played by Brion James, who was in Blade Runner and a whole lot of other movies. Great to see him here.
- It's also slightly implausible that Alex is able to get up and walk out of the hospital as quickly as he does, but what the heck.
- Loved the shot of Frank hunkered down on the shore as the plane flies away.
Next week: Todd dives back into the mythology to meet "Patient X," and then takes in some light opera with "The Mikado."