“Emily” (season 5, episode 7)
In which the conspiracy (or the status quo) always wins.
When I was 25, I lost my father.
Here’s where it gets tricky. My father—by which I mean the man who raised me—is alive and well and probably sleeping as I write this. He’ll get up in the morning and work in his shop, getting ready for the rapidly approaching spring planting season (if, indeed, it isn’t already upon him). The man who died was my biological father, a man I had never met and now will never meet, unless the afterlife turns out to be a thing. When I found out the news, it was in an e-mail, an e-mail that mostly linked to the obituary and said, “I’m sorry,” because there’s no good way to discuss that situation. It’s not like there are Hallmark cards for it. I got up from my desk at work and walked all the way out to my car in the parking lot, hot California sun beating down, then drove across town to pick up my wife. And only then did I cry, and less for him, who I didn’t know, but more for the death of possibility, the death of the idea that I would meet him and get to ask him a few questions. And I had known his name for a few years but didn’t do much to find him because it was a common one. It was, in a real way, my fault.
So when I say that I don’t totally buy “Emily” or, for that matter, “Christmas Carol,” even though I like large portions of them, it’s coming from that place. I totally get what Dana Scully is going through here. She thought she could never have a child, but here, now, is a child that is apparently hers, created by men performing horrific experiments but very much drawn from her own genetic material. The episode wants to be about the fact that the raw material of the X-Files usually involves stuff that provokes horror but is also sometimes about stuff that provokes wonder. “I Want To Believe” is, ultimately, an optimistic motto, and it can work on a personal scale. Scully wants to believe that she can pick up with Emily like no time was left off, that she can simply raise this little girl as if it had been handed to her by her alien captors at the end of the abduction. But, of course, it’s not that simple.
In a way, I understand the corner the writers of The X-Files painted themselves into here. To kill Emily at the end skews awfully closely to misery porn, to a storyline that exists solely to have something bad happen to the characters so we can watch them get emotional about it. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of misery porn, and most of the Scully storyline skews dangerously close to it anyway. Gillian Anderson is a good enough actress to pull it off, but this is a woman who survived an alien abduction AND cancer. You’d think the show would let up on her for a little while, at least. And yet the show couldn’t very well let Emily LIVE. She’s a special needs child, who would need Scully far more than Scully could possibly provide for her. To abruptly give Scully a little girl, a lasting, more positive effect from her abduction, could have been INTERESTING, but it would have been harder to do, say, the upcoming episode where she does battle with a killer doll when you’re constantly wondering if the nanny’s doing all right by the kid. The show wants to be about how Scully has everything she wants, then has it taken from her and realizes there’s still some value in that, but it gets lost in its own convolutions.
The problem, I think, is that the show doesn’t trust itself to do a second completely emotional hourin a row. “Christmas Carol,” if nothing else, is a beautifully evocative portrayal of Scully’s attempts to move past all of the death that’s surrounded her since she joined the X-Files. It actually began life as an attempt to do a Scully-centric riff on the Dickens tale, and though it eventually evolved away from that, you can still sense the melancholy and regret throughout that hour, the sense that at the holidays, the dead are only an inch away from us at all times, if we could just tune into their frequency. (I’m a sucker for stories featuring phone calls from the dead, which are one of my favorite types of ghost story.) It’s a new, more blatantly emotional key for The X-Files to play in, and it mostly works, even if I’d quibble around the edges of the story. “Emily,” however, wants to be season five’s “Memento Mori.” You’ve got overwrought Scully monologues, Mulder chasing down conspiracy phantoms, and a plotline where Scully stands in a hospital and looks sad a lot. It’s true what they say about diminishing returns.
It’s not that all of this is terrible or anything. I quite like most of the Scully scenes, and I do think that Anderson found some of the raw sense of hope and loss that comes from having a possibility you thought closed off to you abruptly come back to life. (Reportedly, she thought her performance in these episodes wasn’t very good, since she found it hard to form a bond with a little girl Scully had just met. Admittedly, it’s a hard emotion to grasp hold of, the sense of mourning something that you didn’t even consider worth mourning before you realized you lost it, but I think she does an adequate job with it, even if the script doesn’t do her many favors.) And I really like the last 10 minutes of the episode, when Emily has slipped into a coma and the Mulder story dovetails with the Scully story more thoroughly. Sure, this is hitting a lot of beats we’ve seen the show hit before—oh, no, the conspirators are using people as lab rats!—but Emily or, more accurately, what she represents, puts much more of a human face on it than the show usually bothers to offer, like Scully getting cancer or the two teenagers in “Jose Chung’s” offered stronger emotional ties to the weirdness going on around them.
And that’s where “Emily” ultimately flounders for me. Where “Christmas Carol” is all about Scully’s connection to her dead sister and all of the things the X-Files have taken from her (both time-tested themes within the show’s universe), “Emily” is about everybody getting really worked up over a little girl we’ve just met. For the recent ‘80s drama primer I wrote, I watched a lot of shows from that era, and I had forgotten how even the acclaimed shows from back then would feature lots of guest stars who pop up, are insanely important to the main characters, then disappear and are never heard from again. Even a fairly serialized show like Cagney & Lacey would have a case of the week, where the officers would save a child or something, see something of themselves in that child, then never mention the child again. In some ways, “Emily” feels like this, and that’s disappointing because the mythology, if it has nothing else, still has WEIGHT at this point, the sense that terrible things have been happening for years and need to be stopped. In a way, “Christmas Carol”/”Emily” reminds me of the Max Fenig two-parter from season four, but that episode relied on our affection for a character we’d already met in telling its standalone tales of the alien overlords. Emily is a cipher, a character more interesting for what she represents than in and of herself.
And, yes, that’s partially because she’s just a little girl, and little girls on TV are rarely interesting as anything more than symbols of innocence lost or a hoped-for life or what have you (just talk to Frank Black over on Millennium). But it’s also because the story started out in a more or less interesting place—Scully meets a little girl who reminds her both of everything she’s lost and everything she could gain—then goes through the motions. The most interesting material here is Scully wanting to adopt Emily, but it’s also the material you realize will have very little bearing outside of these episodes. As mentioned before, she simply can’t adopt a little girl, even if that girl is her flesh and blood. And the Mulder storyline is basically just his storyline from “Memento Mori” all over again, only his rage is all reheated leftovers. The show (or Duchovny, at least) might have done something interesting and found a parallel between Emily and Samantha—a girl created by the conspiracy for nefarious purposes contrasted with a girl taken by them for same—but it doesn’t really bother with it. It’s just the usual mishmash of experiments, weird shape-shifters, and unethical medicine (this time involving old people giving birth to babies, featuring a nice bit of misdirection). But there’s a rote quality to it all. Mulder follows aliens around. He gets fooled by a shape-shifter late in the hour because the plot requires him to do so. He learns some stuff he already expected was happening, but we’re supposed to find it more involving because we know all about the human toll now.
But we don’t, not really. When Scully opens that coffin at the end and finds only sand, it’s supposed to be a sad reminder of the fact that the conspiracy takes so much, but we don’t really need it. The X-Files is a show that often survives being fairly heavyhanded, but this episode needed a touch that was much lighter, a touch that really made you feel how Mulder and Scully had fallen for this kid and were going to do anything to make the world safe for her and punish the people who had brought her into existence as a kind of walking, talking Petri dish. Emily doesn’t work as a character, but she also doesn’t really work as a symbol. Anderson, God love her, is playing the emotion of losing something you didn’t know you had to lose. She gets that Emily, ultimately, was sand, slipping away from Scully before she had a change to grab hold. But everybody else plays it like she was a solid statue, made of clay, that simply got misplaced somewhere along the way.
Losing something you didn’t know was yours to lose hurts almost more than losing something you were well aware would be taken from you someday, simply because you never expect it. The grief here stays buried because no one’s quite sure how to react, quite sure how to mourn something that exists now only in stories and dreams. I only know my biological father now through the things others tell me about him, and that will never be the same as actually sitting and talking with him, even for an hour. The “Christmas Carol”/”Emily” two-parter is strongest when it grabs hold of this notion. But it’s at its weakest when it turns into just another episode of The X-Files.
- For whatever reason, the Frohike/Mulder banter really got on my nerves in this episode. Every time the show tried to build up a good, tragic head of steam, there’d be some goofy little scene like this to undercut everything else. I don’t like misery porn a whole lot, but at least commit to it.
- Add Dr. Calderon to the increasingly belabored list of experimenters and alien malcontents working around the edges of the conspiracy for various weird reasons. At least he has a cool British accent.
- I do like that opening dream sequence. The imagery is beautiful, even if the monologue is overwrought. It could have been much more powerful without the dialogue.
- Despite the fact that this two-parter contains plenty of great moments, I’d still kill to see the Scully-centric Dickens riff. That, Stephen King’s Night Of The Living Dead spin, and the Morgan/Wong Lincoln’s ghost episode are the three lost X-Files episodes I’d most want to see.
- Emily watches that Little Louie show in the hospital. I couldn’t place the movie the old people were watching.
- Man, you’d think Scully and Mulder would really have caught on to the shape-shifters’ shape-shifty ways by now, but they seem flummoxed by them every time.
- And, finally, it’s not a Scully-centric episode if we don’t know that Bill Scully is a super dick. He even makes sure his wife has her baby in time to TORMENT SCULLY AT HER OWN ALIEN-HUMAN HYBRID DAUGHTER’S FUNERAL. What a dick!
“19:19” (season 2, episode 7)
In which the Lord works in mysterious ways.
I don’t know if you’ve ever gotten sucked down into the world of Bible prophecy (I’m actually going to take a flyer here and say that you probably haven’t), but it’s an all-encompassing kind of place. One of the reasons season two of Millennium works so much better than season one, even though it has gotten so much weirder, is that it’s found the lifeblood of the series by borrowing the X-Files conceit of having an ongoing mythology, only replacing it with the oldest ongoing mythology of them all: the attempts by Christians to read every single event that happens in the world as fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.
When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the world of prophecy, by the men who attempted to spin everything that happened as emblematic of something written about in Revelation or Daniel, and even though I was skeptic enough to know it was tosh, I still enjoyed a program called This Week In Bible Prophecy, wherein two brothers sat together on a public access copy of a TV news set and tried to tie everything in the world into the tales of Gog, Magog, and the Beast with seven heads. In particular, I remember a segment wherein troll dolls—troll dolls!—were said to be a harbinger of the Antichrist’s arrival. For whatever reason, the ‘90s, with the year 2000 approaching, were ripe for this sort of stuff. (I tuned into one of the few remaining Bible prophecy shows a few nights ago, and it was mostly about how Obama’s a secret Muslim. It made me sad to see how little effort was being put into the wild conspiracy theories nowadays.)
“19:19” is alternately wildly ambitious, thrilling, and kind of awful. It has one of the worst closing lines I’ve ever heard in anything ever (something that basically amounts to the gloomy Frank Black version of singing “I believe the children are our future”), and the whole thing seems like it takes place in some sort of weird alternate universe version of Fargo, written by people with a far worse sense of nuance than the Coen brothers. But it’s also got at least two or three really terrifically cool scenes, awesome ideas all over the place, and a sense that pretty much anything could happen. I realize that describes just about every episode this season so far (outside of the wonderful, very tight “Curse Of Frank Black”), and I also realize that at some point, this is all going to have to start making sense or else it will be a lot of ambition in service of little execution. But I’m (mostly) along for the ride.
Let’s start with the central problem with the episode: It means to be a ticking time bomb sort of scenario, but there’s little to no urgency. After the teaser, we see Frank and Peter attempting to find a bunch of missing schoolchildren in a small town in Oklahoma. (At one point, Frank says that every school-aged child was on the bus that was taken, and even if Broken Bow is the smallest town to have a school of its own in the country, it’s still a preposterous notion, since there are only 18 kids on the damn bus.) Right away, there should be a sense of urgency from all of the missing children, but episode writers Glen Morgan and James Wong don’t really instill that sense at all.
Sure, Sheriff Cayce is deeply frustrated because his little girl Jessica is on that bus, and sure, the kidnapper seems particularly diabolical, but there’s little palpable sense of the imminent threat. It’s as if Morgan and Wong sense this as well, because they keep tossing new threats into the midst of everything, from a vision of an atomic bomb exploding to an imminent tornado (that takes its sweet time in arriving) to the kidnapper’s accomplice filling in the air holes letting the kidnapped children breathe. All of these things should ramp up the tension, but the episode remains fairly easygoing. Put another way: I kept being surprised when characters would say the kids had been gone for such a small amount of time, simply because the episode seemed to take place over several days. (The tornado, for instance, is said to becoming any moment now but doesn’t arrive until the next morning. Even if you account for the fact that the tornado is basically a stand-in for God, it sure seems pokey.)
The other problem with “19:19” is that it’s meant to be an episode that builds up to a helluva twist: The children have been spirited away and locked beneath the ground by a crazy man who watches all of the news and attempts to plug it into various Biblical formulae that explain how the world will end. He’s done so because he says one will be the peacemaker, the child who will grow up into the man or woman who will end World War 3 and, presumably, thwart the plans of God and the Devil for one last apocalyptic showdown, carried out through human proxies. He’s waiting for a sign from God that one of these children is the peacemaker, and once he gets it, he’ll let them all go, since the chosen one is in that number. If he doesn’t get the sign, well, it doesn’t matter if the kids die because the child the world NEEDS isn’t in that bunch.
You can probably see the twist coming already: The man is right. The tornado that comes was going to crush the schoolhouse the kids would have been sitting in (suggesting that, perhaps, God really didn’t want anyone getting in the way of His plans for Armageddon, which is a wonderfully creepy thought and in keeping with this show’s mythology about angels and demons); instead, it rips the top off the crate the kids are in, thus giving them air and leading them to safety. It’s the sign the man was looking for, and he walks out into the middle of it and is spirited away to parts unknown, perhaps offering himself up as a substitute sacrifice.
Now, the “the crazy man was right all along!” twist is one of those things that’s been used and abused since the invention of twist endings, but I rather liked this one here for the undercurrent of menace. Plus, it’s not all that often that you see a show about a radical fundamentalist Christian who wants to PREVENT Armageddon, getting in the way of God’s plans. The last five minutes or so of this episode are a pretty terrific brew (outside of that last line), and the twist packs a real punch, even if you can see it coming from the second our “villain” starts ranting about Gog and Magog. Yet at the same time, the build-up to that twist means that much of the early part of the episode is spent laying the groundwork for that twist, which leads to some of the sogginess in the pacing.
But I liked plenty of other little scenes here, like that one where the man (whom I may as well give the name of Matthew Prine) rants about how wars occur in the past, how they’re just the natural build-up from events that have already happened. If you can see the events beforehand, you can keep those things from happening and, thus, keep the wars from happening. But since there’s no built-in incentive system for this, we continue to work our way into wars that will seem easily preventable to our grandchildren. Really, I like just about everything featuring Prine, who has a damaged certitude, a terrifying sense of right and wrong and a sense of where he stands within that dialectic. It could be a standard “crazy Christian” portrayal, but Christian Hoff makes him a distinctive character, and Morgan and Wong’s script quickly follows suit. (I wish I could say the same for his accomplice, who mostly seems to be there to turn murderous when the script needs an antagonist.) In addition, the episode returns Lara Means to the show, and while she doesn’t completely work as a character (I don’t like some of the gruff, “tough girl” dialogue the show gives to her), I like how she helps Peter and Frank puzzle the case out. There’s a real sense here of the team coming together to execute a foolproof plan that makes the last act or two really sing.
But for every moment around the edges that works (and I’ll add, here, that moment where Frank realizes there’s going to be a message from the kidnapper on the radio because even he knows the pop standard playing isn’t on the top 40), there’s another moment that seems oddly puzzling. Broken Bow doesn’t really make sense as a setting, and I don’t like the character of Sheriff Cayce, who’s supposed to be a lawman in over his head, who should probably step down for this case but JUST CAN’T. The actor plays him as kind of a backwoods goober, and even though the script tries to give him a little dignity, the performance really robs him of that. Similarly, nearly every scene with the saintly children and their saintly bus driver is either howlingly bad or just plain boring, especially when little Jessica underlines the theme of the episode by talking about how it’s not what you’ve done, but what you plan to do. When the episode focuses on the delicate negotiations between the Group and Prine, particularly in its latter half, it more or less works. When it focuses on ANYTHING ELSE or tries to ramp up the tension via outside means, it mostly doesn’t.
But, as with other episodes this season, there’s enough here that works and enough places where the writers are just tossing crazy ideas at the wall that I’ll kind of go with it. Any episode where we pull up out of a hole in the ground at the bottom of which a saintly bus driver is being tortured to give up the name of the child who DIDN’T go to school today, and the hole then dissolves into a swirling coffee cup gets points just for sheer oddness, and the episode also drops tons of tantalizing hints about the Group’s true purposes, like that scene where Peter smilingly says that they keep track of everybody in the country who buys a Bible or other specialty Christian books (the Bible prophecy shows were RIGHT!). And the scene with the tornado, as mentioned, is a doozy. I just wish that this episode had really hit the ground running from the first, rather than moseying along, and I also wish that one of these episodes would eventually make every idea in its head come together, instead of seeming like a random collection of interesting facts and cool knowledge, like one of those old Reader’s Digest “fun facts” compendiums, assembled into TV episode form.
- Jessica and the Sheriff’s last name, of course, is probably a reference to Edgar Cayce, the famed psychic, who saw all sorts of terrible things to come in the last days. Why can’t anyone ever see that things are just gonna keep getting more and more awesome?
- If you’ve never watched the Jack Van Impe Show, I highly recommend it, even if Obama seems to have sent Jack even further off the deep end. It’s one of those kinds of “only in America” TV programs, issuing from a weird station in Michigan and seemingly designed and programmed by space aliens.
- I recommend pausing the video to see what Prine has written all over his floor at the opening. It’s like a textbook sample of Things People Were Worried About In The ‘90s.
Next week: Zack heads off to visit his old buddy Robert “Pusher” Modell in “Kitsunegari,” then plays Raiders Of The Lost Ark with Frank Black in “The Hand Of St. Sebastian.”