“Elegy” (season 4, episode 22)
In which autistic people are magic.
I love ghost stories. They’re my favorite horror subgenre, all wrapped up in regret and misery and fear of what’s in the past and doesn’t dare speak its name. After a long adolescence spent obsessed with paranormal shit, “true” ghost stories are about the only things that I still check in on every so often (usually right around Halloween). I know it’s bunk. I know there are no such thing as ghosts. But I still love listening to EVP’s, watching all of the random ghost videos on YouTube, giving myself a good chill by reading sites online where people post their own encounters with what they believe to be the great beyond. And yet The X-Files never really did a great ghost episode. Heck, television itself seems bereft of really good ghost stories, despite the seeming fact that a scripted show about haunted house investigators would be a potential gold mine. (Of the many failed attempts, UPN’s short-lived Haunted came closest.) So when I realized “Elegy,” one of the very few X-Files episodes I’ve never seen, was about ghosts—in a way—I was ready for something awesome.
Instead, I got something that was alternately deeply moving and really, really stupid. It’s easy to forget, now that we live in a world where seemingly every show has a character with borderline Asperger’s syndrome, but at one time, autism was seen in film and on TV as something very close to magic. The paranormal activity of the week mostly centers on an autistic man named Harold, a man who can remember every single bowling score at the local bowling alley he frequents (going so far as to hole out a small space in the back in which to keep his scorecards) and also, uh, see the dead at the instant of their own deaths. Somehow, this ability spreads out to other people in Harold’s immediate vicinity, including his best friend the bowling alley manager and Scully herself. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
Now, every show on TV, seemingly, has done its riff on One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. One of the things TV shows—especially dramas—did in the early days of the medium was perform an endless stream of riffs on old films, classic or not classic. Sure, this ended up being derivative much of the time, but it also meant that shows had an endless well of story ideas, if the formula ever got too soft. It could also be a great test of how creative the writers were at warping ideas to fit within their formulas. And this meant that movies with a unique setting became TV writer catnip. That’s where Cuckoo’s Nest comes in. A movie set in a mental ward full of patients who are alternately funny and tragic? A movie where the sensitive issue of mental illness is dealt with largely through incredibly strained symbolism? (Keep in mind I generally like this movie, but its particular combination of elements probably shouldn’t be handled by people who are not Jack Nicholson and/or Milos Forman.) Well, that’s a TV script gold mine, full of fun stuff to play around with and the vague pretense of being “serious.” Which is why the idea of a Cuckoo’s Nest episode has become so popular since 1975.
The biggest problem with “Elegy” is that its portrayal of mental illness is offensive at worst and just plain idiotic at best. The second biggest problem is that the central issue of whodunit makes absolutely no goddamn sense, unless you conclude that writer John Shiban decided he simply had to conform to the Cuckoo’s Nest model as much as possible. (I’m starting to remember why I disliked his scripts so much as a young X-Files fan.) The portrayal of Harold, as mentioned, is ridiculous, and the other patients at the psychiatric hospital fare no better. For one thing, the idea of the magical mentally handicapped person (or its closely related cousin, the saintly physically disabled person) is just the most cringe-worthy of clichés—it’s felled even a writer like Stephen King, who usually grows stronger from how many clichés he can toss into a book—and because we only get to know Harold for a very short while, he doesn’t get to be anything BUT a magical mentally handicapped person. But then you get to the part where the episode explains the crimes, and it utterly falls apart.
Let me explain: The portrayal of Howard is idiotic, but it stays on the right side of offensive for most of the run-time. But then Scully abruptly realizes that the evil nurse—yes, the evil nurse—is the one who’s responsible for the killings, because she was taking Harold’s pills or something and trying to eliminate the beautiful love he had from his life OR SOMETHING (I think I’m going to say that a lot in this piece) and take away his happiness. I swear I’m not making this up. She goes from a nobody character to Nurse Ratched in about five seconds, simply because Shiban needs a villain and didn’t bother to build up any of the other characters. He can’t make it another patient, nor can he make it one of the more caring psychiatric hospital workers, nor can he make it one of the random folks from the bowling alley, who are all good, salt of the earth folk.
This brings us to the third huge problem with this episode: It’s too full of crazy ideas. You’ve got the psychiatric hospital, full of patients and doctors and nurses. You’ve got the bowling alley, full of workers and bowlers. You’ve got the beautiful girls, all ghostly and unable to talk. You’ve got Scully’s cancer, menacing and unknowable. You’ve got the idea of an autistic man keeping such perfect track of scores at a bowling alley that he builds a connection to the bowling alley’s dead OR SOMETHING. You’ve got frickin’ GHOSTS or haints or wights or whatever you want to call them. And you’ve got an old-fashioned murder mystery supposedly underpinning all of this. It’s just TOO MUCH.
Plenty of it would have made a great basis for an X-Files episode—the depiction of the bowling alley as a kind of mundane time travel, a way to step into a bygone era without anything so out of the ordinary as opening a door—but all of it smashed together creates a script that inspires whiplash. There are great, great X-Files episodes that toss this many ideas together, but most of them are written by Darin Morgan or Vince Gilligan. Those two were able to keep 50 different plates spinning and then provide the one piece of information that made everything instantly crystallize. The other writers—Shiban chief among them—were always better off when they did fairly straightforward creature features, monster of the week episodes that didn’t try too much or too hard. As such, Shiban’s script for this one tries a bunch of tones—weirdly campy comedy, grim melancholy, slasher film—while succeeding at none of them.
And yet I’m keeping this on the “pass” side of our mystical A.V. Club B-/C+ line. Why? Well, it all comes down to a series of beautiful little scenes that let you see the weight of everything Scully’s been carrying around with her. As mentioned, up until the climax, this is an episode with enough good stuff to overlook some of its more ridiculous elements, and so much of that good stuff runs straight through Gillian Anderson and her remarkably raw performance as Dana Scully. The writers often seem to have forgotten that Scully has cancer, but Anderson never has, and I like the way she clings to variations on the phrase “I’m fine” as a way of warding off further illness. She’s not fine, not really. She’s seeing ghosts in the bathroom and ghosts in her back seat and weird signs of the darkness waiting for her in what could be weeks. She’s succumbing, and she knows it, but she presses on. Because she has to. Because that’s who she is.
Simplify “Elegy” just a bit—cut it down, say, to Scully in the psychiatric ward with the ghosts haunting her and Mulder consulting by phone—and you have an all-time classic, an episode that forces her to confront her own mortality with the most direct symbol of that mortality (something Mulder rather clumsily points out). As it is, the Scully scenes—including a visit to her favorite therapist!—are just enough to grant this episode a raw emotionality it doesn’t really deserve. After the ludicrous, far too grim finale (which also features Harold collapsing in an alley and dying of respiratory failure!), Mulder takes Scully aside and tries to find out if she’s OK. She says she’s fine one last time, and she heads out to her car. She’s crying, realizing how un-fine she is, when she sees Harold in the back seat (with completely unnecessary musical stinger). She turns and he’s gone. The thing I love about ghost stories is the same thing that lends an unearned power to “Elegy.” Nothing is ever really gone. The past echoes, in ways only a few—maybe those close to death themselves—can hear. And even when you no longer believe in ghosts, you can still believe in being haunted.
- I really do feel like a bowling alley would make a great setting for a classic X-Files episode. A psychiatric ward probably would, too. Let’s write fan fiction, everybody!
- Is this little arc where Scully’s cancer slowly gets worse in non-mythology episodes the closest The X-Files ever came to genuine serialization of a particular storyline? At least until the later seasons (where the various hunts for Mulder became driving plots)?
- It’s worth pointing out that while Anderson is wonderful here, David Duchovny matches her at every turn. He’s mostly just doing his Mulder thing for the episode, but when the script asks him to be concerned for his partner, he’s THERE, dammit. (My wife, an old, hardcore Scully/Mulder ‘shipper, was tearing up, and she liked the episode less than I did.)
- It strikes me that all too often as The X-Files goes along, the term “monster of the week” doesn’t really apply. Fringe’s “freak of the week” is closer, but something more like “paranormalton of the week” would be even better. Hmmm.
- "That was sloppy joe night."
“Paper Dove” (season 1, episode 22)
In which Frank gets unfortunately distracted.
Millennium has a bad habit of getting distracted. This often works to its advantage, of course. It’s unlikely that a show more firmly focused on its main character could have done something as intriguing as the examination of a family in dissolution that was “Covenant” or the crazy-ass demonic excitement of “Lamentation” and “Powers, Principalities, Thrones, and Dominions.” But the series’ unusual structure—where we often spend just as much time with the serial killer of the week as we do anyone else—creates a situation where it can be hard to really buy into what the show is selling about Frank Black: The Only Man Who Can Hold Back The Dark. Take “Paper Dove,” the first season finale and a damned odd episode to end a season on, if still an effective one. Like “Elegy” above, “Paper Dove” probably tries to do too much, but unlike “Elegy,” some of the things it tries to do are so striking that it doesn’t matter. This is the deepest the show has pulled us into a killer’s subconscious, and it is squirm-inducing in almost every way (as it should be).
Here’s the basic story, as I understand it. The Polaroid Stalker—whom I had completely forgotten about—is using his beautiful pictures to manipulate a man named Dion to kill, kill, kill. Well, that would make sense, if it weren’t for the fact that Dion is the one snapping pictures in the cold open, leading us to think HE’S the Polaroid Stalker. But he can’t be, since the actual Stalker is the one who takes Catherine at the end of the episode, and he, himself, provides Dion with a number of photos. You know what? Let’s just abandon this line of argument, and stick with this: There are two men with an unhealthy obsession with Polaroid photographs. One is the man who has been stalking the Blacks. The other is a guy who’s responsible for a number of murders that Frank ends up investigating.
The shadowy man pulling the strings—the ACTUAL Stalker—wants Dion out and killing again because Frank is in the general Maryland/Virginia/Delmarva area with his family, and he wants to keep Frank distracted long enough to do terrible things to his family. (Or so we’re led to believe.) At the same time, Frank is stumbling onto Dion’s trail, thanks to his father-in-law, who tells him all about an old friend whose son is in prison for killing his wife. Said son’s mother doesn’t think he did it. Frank starts digging and wonders if maybe the mom isn’t right. And so he starts tracking down Dion, using the media to taunt him, all the while ignoring the fact that his family is in danger, even as he finds time to get frisky with his wife (for the first time since Jordan was conceived, I have to believe). In Chris Carter shows, even the married people aren’t safe after they have sex.
All of the above is really complicated and doesn’t exactly make sense. If Frank just stumbles onto the Dion case, thanks to a random connection to family, then why the hell is the Stalker trying to manipulate events just so? (Answer: He’s evil. Shut up!) And if we’re going to do all of this crazy serial killer stuff, then why does the episode need all of the other random elements, like that scene where Frank and the police officers have a conversation about the true nature of evil for old time’s sake or the weird scenes with Dion at the home where he works as a nurse? (Answer: We’ve always got too much stuff to cram into our scripts! Shut up!) But the effect of it, all the same, is incredibly eerie, one of the most bone-chilling episodes Millennium has come up with so far.
Now, if you’re somehow watching Millennium for the first time with us and have gotten this far and haven’t skipped ahead, this paragraph is full of mild spoilers, so skip to the next one. But if you’ve seen the show before, you know that after this episode, it basically turns into a completely different show. It’s a show that’s at least related to the show that existed in season one (in that it builds on the primitive demon and angel mythology Carter and his team established here, as well as the vague sense of Biblical doom), but it’s a show that essentially feels like something else entirely. And thus, this episode is sort of an unofficial farewell to Millennium as a serial killer of the week serial, even as it tries tying all of this portentious ideas about evil in with everything else that happens. Millennium was never terribly good about bringing all of these elements together in this incarnation, but it largely gets away with it here because the serial killer at the story’s center is so perfectly drawn.
Dion is an absolute terror to spend time with. He’s like a compilation of every movie serial killer trait that Carter and company had been wanting to play with, and the episode relishes in taking him more and more into outright terrifying territory. He sits in the middle of nowhere and converses with the body of the woman he just killed, even though he’s buried her in a grave of mostly leaves. He’s constantly shot in a way that makes him seem simultaneously imposing and completely in over his head, a puppet who can walk but hasn’t realized it yet. And then the episode introduces his mother, via a series of handheld camera shots from his point-of-view, her eerie singing echoing through his house. By the time he’s wandered into the kitchen, where she’s twirling around and both belittling him and treating him like her big strong man, the episode has entered a hot mess of horrifying psychosexual confusion.
This all comes so close to not working that I’m surprised Carter and his writers were able to keep from pushing it too far over the top. Carter was always obviously inspired by the works of David Lynch and Twin Peaks, in particular, and this episode feels like the most pure homage yet, particularly in the moments where Dion and his mother share screentime. Granted, a Lynch film or series would have made this all weirder, more threatening, more dreamlike, but that Carter gets so close to the tone he’d been chasing all those years suggests that in Millennium, he might have eventually found the way to make an homage that didn’t evolve so rapidly away from homage (as X-Files did). The villain is almost the sympathetic hero here, a man twisted and tortured by a life that isn’t anything like what he expected, and the show’s ability to sympathize with him makes this a far better serial killer episode than those earlier ones, where they were all but elusive shadows tossed in Frank Black’s path.
If there’s something here that doesn’t work, it’s probably the ending, where the episode tosses in a cliffhanger almost purely because it feels obligated to have one. Sure, it’s exciting to see Frank crush that paper dove in his hand and wonder just what sort of hell he’ll dish out to the Polaroid Stalker when season two comes, but there’s also something a little empty about it. We don’t know the Stalker nearly as well as we know Dion and his mother (who’s actually appeared on screen far less than the Stalker, actually). In a way, it’s fitting that this episode brings up the Stalker for the first time in what feels like ages, because that’s an element of the show that was, the show that Millennium fitfully evolved away from. When he takes Catherine, it disappoints because it’s like the old show swallowing the new. Until the new gave way to something else entirely. But we’ll get to that.
- Dion’s mother may be one of my favorite random characters in TV history. There’s absolutely no reason for her to be there, yet the episode would be so much less without her. Having her around takes the episode up to another level of crazy.
- I’m not as fond of Catherine’s family, all of whom seem to be around solely to read her the riot act for being with Frank, for no particular reason.
- I do love that scene where Dion is angered by the news report. That seemed to happen a few times this season, and it never failed to entertain.
- Two nice musical moments: That song Dion listens to in the supermarket parking lot is the perfect shade of creepy, and the booming music near the climax is the closest Mark Snow would come to the outright operatic.
- "I don't think it's the beef."
- "A mentally retarded homosexual would like to speak to him if he has a minute."
- "The moron is going to wander far and wide through the land and kill and kill and kill." I loved this whole monologue, by the way.
Next week: Zack brings us to the end of season four of The X-Files, as Mulder faces down his “Demons,” then finds himself betrayed in “Gethsemane.”