"Herrenvolk," Season 4, Episode 1
In Which Mulder Puts Out The Bees With Gasoline And Fails To Save Another Sister
Welcome back to the new and improved X-Files coverage. New because we stopped for a few weeks, and we're on Saturdays now; and improved because instead of three episodes a week, Todd and I will only be tackling one per entry. Er. Hey, on the plus side, we're also covering the first season of Millennium, so it's not like you're getting completely shafted.
Here we are in the fourth season, starting off with a mythology episode as is our wont, and, well, it's good. Don't get me wrong, "Herrenvolk" has some great chase sequences, pathos, horror, and death. Lots of death, actually; Jeremiah Smith gets his, and Mr. X finally pays the price for trying to live two lives at once. Mulder gets more information on the alien/human conspiracy, and Scully finds evidence that suggests that the government has been keeping tracking of each and every one of its citizens for the last fifty years. Momentous stuff indeed. Just as important, the episode lacks any of the silly mysticism that plagued last year's season premiere. No magical Native Americans or monologues full of vague, portentous imagery here, thank goodness. We don't even get narration.
Yet, I can't shake the suspicion that so much of this is just a distraction from the treading-water plotting at the episode's heart. Because, let's face it, while all those things I mentioned above happened, nothing actually happens. This is the sort of mythology episode that would ultimately give the show a bad name, as it adjusts and shifts established elements, gives us a few token new pieces of information, but makes sure to tie up any loose end that could potentially change the show's dynamic too aggressively. Last season, I said that the mythology's expansion created a potential for collapse down the road, but here, the problem isn't expansion so much as stagnation. We're stuck in Gilligan's Island mode: Mulder and Scully can find new clues, make new friends, but god forbid one of their coconut rafts ever stays afloat for more than a second or two.
Last season ended with one of the show's better cliffhangers: just as Jeremiah offers to tell all he knows to Mulder and Scully, the Bounty Hunter arrives, and he does not look pleased. (But then, even when Brian Thompson does look pleased, he doesn't.) But since this is X-Files, "Herrenvolk" doesn't open immediately with the resolution of that cliffhanger. Instead, we watch a utility guy die from a bee sting while a bunch of creepy duplicate blond kids watch. It's not a bad scene--and lord knows, I love me some creepy kids--and it's made even better by the fact that there's no hand-holding voice-over to distract us from the strangeness. The established structure for mythology episodes is to start with a kind of misdirection; the cold open is almost always a sequence that doesn't involve our main characters, focusing instead on some piece of the puzzle whose relevance won't become entirely clear until later on. This is generally effective, because it catches us off guard, and because these scenes play out like short horror films--even without the reveal about the drones and the killer bees and so forth, the utility guy's death is unsettling.
Actually, now that I think about it, pretty much every episode of the The X-Files plays out this way. It's always "cold open with the Monster of The Week," usually with some poor bastard getting offed before the theme music plays. What makes the Myth Eps different is that the MotW cold opens are setting up the danger that the rest of the hour will focus on; in the Myth Eps, the cold open is just part of a much larger whole. It works fine, and yet, there's something about it that doesn't work here. The show has reached a point in its run when we're so used to misdirection that it's become the norm, and that makes it less of a surprise. I almost think the episode would've played better if we'd opened immediately with Mulder, Scully, and Jeremiah. As is, that first scene, while helpful on a plot level (it makes Mulder's position more perilous later on, because we know what happens if he gets stung by one of the hundreds of bees floating around his head), hampers the momentum that ended last season.
There are all sorts of weird hiccups like this through the premiere. We get a well constructed chase scene in the factory, ending when Mulder manages to get the drop on the Bounty Hunter, stabbing him in the back of the neck with that needle-knife he found last season. It's one of the first times in the show that one of heroes is able to take an active hand in the mythology (usually they're just running around picking up pieces of information, or standing off to the side while an important witness is kidnapped and/or murdered), and it's immensely satisfying; after all the set-up with the blade, all of Mulder's agonized confusion, we get something dangerously close to results. For once, it seems like the good guys can make actual, positive change. For a brief second, it's possible to believe that the endless armies of obfuscation and manipulation might be stopped.
Lord knows, we can't have that! So of course, when poor Scully comes across the fallen Bounty Hunter and bends down to check for a pulse, he comes back to life. Now, yes, it's possible to justify this scene. This was Mulder's first time using the switch-needle, and while he knew to stab at the base of the neck, it's Brian Thompson, which means there's a fair bit of neck base to choose from. We don't know what race the Bounty Hunter is, so we don't know if he's exactly like the creatures he's been killing. For all we know, the murdered hybrids are created with a genetic weakness that makes them susceptible to the needle in a way that the Hunter is not. Bad things happen all the time, the psycho killer never dies the first time someone gets the drop on him, so why complain about this? That's the kind of series this is, after all. It's not Happy Sunshine Good Guys Win Hour. We're operating on conspiracy story logic, and it's natural to assume that for every step forward, we get through half a dozen back.
It's still a problem, though. It's a problem in the same way that Mr. X's death later on is a problem. It's easy to overlook these problems, because both scenes are tremendously suspenseful. Putting Scully in the hands of the ultimate bad-ass is terrifying, and it also allows us another glimpse into the cost of Mulder's desperation; he doesn't even question leaving her behind when he and Jeremiah go, doesn't even bother to call her back until the next morning. (Except I'm not sure I buy that. I can buy him deserting her, because he's done it before, and because he's whacked out on fear for his mother, but not calling for six, seven hours? And Scully doesn't try calling him? It's a small detail, but like so much of the episode, it's indicative of the straitjacket of assumption the writers are struggling with. Mulder doesn't call Scully right away, even though he left her behind to face an alien threat he's only somewhat sure is dead, because we need to have some distance between the characters.) But that unwillingness to resolve any threat permanently makes the tragic conclusion to Jeremiah a little less tragic. We've seen all this before. We knew Jeremiah was dead from the moment he told Mulder and Scully that he could explain everything. While tragedy often gains emotional weight from expected outcomes, here, the knowledge that a character is doomed, that once again the proof will be erased, makes all the noise leading up to that final moment much harder to care about. The Bounty Hunter should've died, but he didn't, so what does it matter?
Mr. X's expiration is just another side of the same coin. We learn early in the episode that the Conspiracy of Pale Men is getting suspicious about an information leak, and we also get to see their attempt to flush out the leak as it happens. That's very cool; when Mr. X tells Scully that Mulder's mother is in danger, it's the first time on the series that we know more about what's going on than he does, and that means he isn't long for the world. He's execution is appropriately shocking, and the terrific editing, with Scully telling Mulder how she thinks that X can help them right before we cut to X bleeding out as he crawls down the hallway towards Mulder's apartment, makes it one of the most memorable deaths in the series. And yet... Well, by the end of the episode, Mulder's followed X's cryptic last note ("SRSG") to the Special Representative of the Secretary General, and we meet Laurie Holden, our newest informant. X's death left an information vacuum which was filled almost immediately, and while this new contact is a little different from the others (a woman? Gasp!), her appearance here deflates the importance of X's loss. You could argue she's higher up on the governmental food chain that Deep Throat or X (although I'm not sure I buy that), or that Mulder has to have someone on the inside to help in his work, but it's still just a matter of the more things change, etc, etc.
Scully doesn't get a whole lot to do here but play catch-up; her discovery of the list of smallpox vaccinations has some weight (and it's nice to see someone actually taking the time to report the discovery to higher authorities, and her fury that they won't listen to her is well-played), but haven't we already seen how the government tracks its citizens? The thrill is gone, so to speak. It fits in with the slowly unfolding colonization plot, but it's also a lot of familiar ground reinforced. "Herrenvolk" has some amazing moments. When Jeremiah leads Mulder to the fields and he sees a clone of Samantha, no older than she was the day she was abducted, it's unsettling, and Mulder's immediate, desperate need to take her away, despite her inability to communicate, despite the obvious fact that this isn't his sister, makes sense. And her death, at least, is shocking, occurring off screen after the Bounty Hunter finally tracks Mulder down. (I suppose it's possible that the Hunter let her live, but I doubt it. "Everything dies" doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room.) For all these moments, though, for all the small amounts of information we do get, too much of this is running in place just to keep up with the moving scenery. That the episode even ends with the Cancer Man convincing the Bounty Hunter to heal Mrs. Mulder is just one step too far. I get that killing off yet another one of Mulder's relatives might've played too heavy, and it's telling that this is the first sign we get that the Cancer Man might not be entirely inhuman (I'm not buying his "Nothing's more dangerous than a man who has nothing to lose" speech). Combined with everything else, though, it's impossible to shake the sinking sensation that we're getting nowhere, slow.
- You can tell we're in Canada in the opening scene because the utility guy says "eh?"
- "Scully, I need you to do something for me." How many times has Mulder said this? It gets worse every time, somehow.
- Oh, forgot: apparently, Mulder is a key part of the colonization "equation." Just what this narrative needs, a pseudo-Chosen One element.
- The credit tag line: "Everything dies." So smiles, everything!
"Pilot," Season 1, Episode 1
In Which We Meet Frank Black, A Profiler Of Serial Killers Who Gets The Picture
I moved to the city last December, and I like it here. I like being able to walk to downtown, I like seeing new faces everyday, I like the feeling of life you get tall buildings and strangers. But it's not perfect. The apartment where I live is on top of a hill, and at the base of the hill is a gas station. The gas station is open 24 hours, and it's within easy walking distance, so more than once I've made the trip after dark, jonesing for a soda or some chips, and not wanting to bother getting in my car and driving to the supermarket. The convenience is nice. Except, something happens when I go down the hill. It's like there's some invisible line I cross halfway there, and once I cross it, everybody goes crazy. The homeless people get louder, odd men push by you shouting, arguments ring through the air like small riots. The people asking for change don't bother lying, and when you don't have anything to give them, they get pissed off. There's always a fight just about to break out. And that line isn't permanent. The other week, a trail of blood lead across the street up to my apartment door. We have locks. Sometimes, I even think they'll be enough.
Urban paranoia is nothing new. A city is just a place where all the variables come together, and not all of those variables are going to be nice. Every city has a section where decent people never go, and every city has decent people who believe those sections are spreading, endangering them, endangering their children. It's easy to overrate the dangers, because people are murdered every day, and because it's impossible to feel completely safe when you know that any crazy with enough willpower and sharp implements could do horrible things to you and the ones you love. Like any strong undercurrent in American life, plenty of artists have used this paranoia, this terror of dark alleys and grim-faced madmen, to create powerful art, but in order for it to be successful, that art has to be more than just, "Gah, sex and violence, eek! Here, have some sex and violence." You need a perspective that doesn't simply exploit the fear for cheap shots. You need something with a perspective.
Millennium definitely has a perspective. The show premiered in October, 1996, and, well, I'll let Todd provide the historical context if next week if he wants to. He's much better at that sort of thing than I am. For now, you just need to know that The X-Files had become a cultural phenomenon, and that Fox was still struggling to find a way to fill out its Friday night schedule. (By the time Millennium debuted, we'd already lost The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., Vr5, and Strange Luck.) So Fox turned to Chris Carter to catch lightning in a bottle, or however TV people talk, and gave him carte blanche to create a new show. The results would last another three seasons, before the series was officially cancelled in 1999. Watching the pilot, it's not hard to see why this never quite caught on; it lacks The X-Files' sense of humor (there's one joke in the entire episode. Seriously, I wrote it down), and Lance Henriksen, while perfectly cast and dependably amazing, doesn't have Duchovny or Anderson's photogenic charms. But in other way, this show is weirdly prescient of the crime dramas we wallow in today, the shows that tell us over and over that the world is full of bad, evil men, and that those men take advantage of society's lax attitude towards venality to prey upon the innocent.
The first episode sets the mood right out of the gate, introducing us to our Serial Killer Of The Week, a creepy guy (I suppose the "creepy" is a bit of a redundancy here) who frequents peep shows and likes to press note-cards full of French poetry to the glass. Then he says, "I want to see you dance on the blood-dimmed tide," and red stuff floods the room with the stripper, and, well, in case there was any doubt, now we know exactly what kind of show this is. The title sequence makes it even clearer; Mark Snow's theme is melancholy, resigned, and over flickering images we see "wait" "worry," and "who cares?". I'll be up front, I have a hard time with this. I don't find it upsetting, I find it hilarious and overwrought, and while that's a valid response (I wouldn't be mentioning it here if it wasn't), this show does have a surprising amount of power behind it. It's not subtle, but it would be too easy to simply spend my time poking holes in the stolid, mournful tone. Millennium requires a certain kind of effort to watch, and while it's too early to say if that effort will pay off, there's enough here that I'm willing to take the risk for now.
Because seriously, a lot of this stuff is so over the top that it's hard not to snicker. The poetry? The hallucinations? The suggestions that the killer is trying to enact a prophecy, and the intimation that the apocalyptic date four years in the future might be driving his actions? It's hard to swallow all of this. Carter apparently pitched this as "Seven in Seattle," but without Seven's flair for the grotesque and dark humor, it's easy to get overwhelmed. Seven works because it's an incredibly stylish movie that pretends it's about something, even though it really isn't; Fincher's stylistic enthusiasm takes a clever but ultimately hollow script and makes it somehow operatic, an EC horror comic turned into grand opera. This episode doesn't quite make it, so we're left with a lot of hokey symbolism (Was "The Second Coming" old hat when this aired? It's a great poem, but it's been quoted so many times as foreshadowing or mood-setting that it's nearly lost all power for me), and ugly death.
Still, like I said, there's power here. The show's voice is so intent, so uncompromising, that it's compelling even when you can't take it entirely seriously. There are things this first episode does well, too. Most pilots, especially genre show pilots, give us an origin story: X-Files partially dodged this by having Scully join Mulder, quest already in progress, but Millennium takes an extra step by making our primary vantage character, Frank Black (aka Lance Henriksen), already in the middle of doing work for the group that gives the show its name. (I guess once the Pixies split up, he had to find something to keep him busy.) The move back to Seattle marks a turning point for him and his family, but it feels like we're entering a story that's been going on for a while. Frank's Millennium contact, Peter Watts (Terry O'Quinn, who doesn't get to do a lot here beyond sporting a moustache), is new, but he's got his pattern, and when Frank gets involved with the killings, it feels natural, and not a major shift in his life.
There's also a sense that we're meeting Frank after he's been down a lot of hard road. Part of that comes from the script, and part of that comes from the casting. Henriksen has always looked old, even when he wasn't, and the lines on his face tell a story before he even opens his mouth. I've already used the word "grim" in this review, but it's impossible not to use it again here; Henriksen's matter of fact grimness, his resigned, I've seen everything and most of it bit me face sets the tone for the show, and gives a weight to all of Carter's foolish melodrama. Frank has a gift for connecting with serial killers. We see it when he views one of the killer's victims in the morgue; a quick set of flashes to what happened, lots of screaming. The profiler-who-gets-too-close is also an old story (I wonder how many times Carter watched Manhunter before making this), and Frank's explanation to his old cop buddy, Bletch, late in the episode should make it worse: "I become capability. I become the horror." It's so vague--he claims he's not psychic, but those visions were very specific. So is he getting in touch with some terrible force that drives these people? Is it insight mixed with a slight tinge of madness, or something else?
Henriksen sells the line. He sells it with simple resignation. It's the worst kind of faux-pretentious writer gibberish, and somehow, Henriksen makes it seem as matter of fact as a man explaining where he went to school. This isn't a bad hour overall, if you can get past the stuffiness. It has its share of shocking moments (like the dude with his eyes, moth, and hands sown up), and as a statement of purpose for the series, it's refreshingly unequivocal. But without Henriksen, it wouldn't work. He has a monologue three-quarters of the way through explaining to Bletch why he left the FBI, and it's one of the few times when the episode's barely restrained panic really feels fresh. We know from the minute we see them that Frank's wife and daughter are going to be liabilities, but that final envelope full of pictures is raw in a way that the strippers and coffins buried in the woods never touched. The reason we get scared is when we realize that having something means it can be lost.
- It's very subtle, but I suspect that Frank and his wife are spectacularly in love with each other. Try and spot the clues!
- "You're the guy who caught the guy." They go on to explain "the guy" is a Hannibal Lecter rip off (this show is not subtle about its rip-offs), but it would've worked better if they'd just left that line alone.
- I've been reading The Girl Who Played With Fire, and the word "Millennium" has lost all meaning for me.
- The Episode's Only Joke: Bletch, while wading through cold water up to his waist: "Oh, it's a good thing I already got a family."
- Next week, Todd comes "Home" on The X-Files, and wades in the muck with Millennium's "Gehenna."