The X-Files: "Home"/ Millennium: "Gehenna"
C+

The X-Files: "Home"/ Millennium: "Gehenna"

"Home" (season 4, episode 2)

In which Mulder and Scully come across a spooky house and a family with some ... interesting ideas on keeping the bloodline going.

I grew up in a town that started out with 900-some people when I was a youth and kept going down from there. It was quite literally in the middle of nowhere, one of those towns placed in the middle of a pasture by the railroad and then largely forgotten about when the railroad closed up shop. (The old train tracks still run across the middle of Main Street, though they haven't been used in years.) All around the town were oceans of prairie, dotted by farmhouses, many of which had been abandoned after those living there found the isolation of life in South Dakota too much to bear (or after their farms went bankrupt). And yet if you went far enough out into the countryside, you'd find people who had pushed this far out because they simply wanted the absolute minimum of human interaction, people who put signs up on their farms warning that trespassers would be shot or collected the no-longer-used outbuildings from old farms and set them up in an abandoned cow pasture in some semblance of a small town, though an empty one, consisting almost entirely of chicken coops. If you got to talking with these people, they were almost always friendly but terse, able to interact with people but wanting that interaction to end. But it's not hard to imagine someone looking at this setup - the small vestiges of civilization bumping up against people who wanted nothing to do with it - and taking that extra turn into outright horror.

"Home" is only 14 years old, but it feels of a different era entirely. It would be enormously hard for any television show to produce an episode like "Home" now, and I'm not sure why that is. I suspect that part of it is the fact that small towns like this now have much more connection to the modern world. My little town didn't get the Internet until 1998 and consistent cell phone service until a couple of years ago, but that's already beginning to change it. People can telecommute from that town to work in the Twin Cities, now, where that wouldn't have been possible even five years ago. And all around the country, it's like this. If you go for a drive in even the most isolated parts of the nation, you're still connected to the rest of the nation. "Home," like the Peacock family, is a remnant. Like so many X-Files tales, it's both a sterling example of a certain kind of horror tale and a last gasp effort within the subgenre, a sort of sad farewell to a weird America that was rapidly smoothing itself out.

"Home" is the first episode of four written by the returning Glen Morgan and James Wong. Morgan and Wong had left to create and run Space: Above and Beyond (about which more in a bit), but Fox had canceled the show, deciding its expense wasn't worth the potential upward swing in ratings in season two as fans converted more to their cause. (In the mid-90s, this was easier to do with genre shows; it certainly helped The X-Files.) They came back to write four episodes, and every single one of those episodes is a notable break with the form the show had established up until that point. Some of them don't really work. (Though I am a somewhat perverse fan of "The Field Where I Died," I accept that its hokey mysticism is not terribly well managed.) But at least one - and maybe another - are among the finest episodes the show produced, a reminder that it could do brutal, scary episodes at a time when it was crossing over into a mainstream hit. ("Home," for all of its horrifying ideas, pulled in just under 19 million viewers, a number that would land it near the top of the Nielsen heap nowadays.) "Home" is that episode, unquestionably one of the top ten hours the series ever produced, even if it was greeted with shock and bafflement at the time of its first airing.

The setup Morgan and Wong exploit is a simple one: the creepy house in the middle of nowhere at the edge of a small town, filled by a family that doesn't want anything to do with anyone who might disrupt them. This is, basically, the show's Texas Chainsaw Massacre episode. Morgan and Wong were fantastic at taking old horror movie templates and updating them for the show's universe, as they did when they turned The Thing into "Ice" and any number of '80s Satanism chillers into "Die Hand Die Verletzt." This works because Morgan and Wong understand both what makes the show work and what makes those old horror movies work, and they understand where the two intersect. "Home" is somehow both a creepy house horror movie and an episode of The X-Files. That the two exist comfortably next to each other is proof that the show's template was so elastic as to incorporate almost anything the producers could throw at it, but it's also proof that the weirdness and wildness of America was becoming almost commonplace. Before, you had to be road tripping through the great wilderness of Texas to run across a family of chainsaw-wielding freaks. Now, Mulder and Scully could pop in and out of a small town to hang out with the inbred sideshow in a few days' time.

Two touches set "Home" apart from other episodes. One is uniquely Morgan and Wong, and that's the episode's sense of grim humor. The two were not as originally or spontaneously funny as Glen Morgan's brother, Darin, but they had a terrific sense of when, exactly, a dark wisecrack would lighten the mood just enough to allow for another plunge into utter terror. One of the common fan complaints against the episode when it first aired is that Mulder and Scully's jokes destroy any mood the episode had built up to that point, but the jokes actually enhance the mood. By now, we know that Mulder and Scully stare directly into the face of awful, awful things and find a way to keep going on. Here, the jokes serve that purpose. It certainly helps that nearly every line intended to be funny is actually funny. It provides a necessary tension breaker in moments where the episode needs it.

And why does the episode need those tension breaking moments? Certainly much of that is due to Morgan and Wong's script, but this is also unquestionably the finest episode of The X-Files from the point of view of direction. Kim Manners took Morgan and Wong's script and made it into one of the most cinematic episodes in television history. He proves himself equally at ease with the gentle domesticity of small town life (particularly in a small town with a sheriff named Andy Taylor) as he does with the chilling horror sequences, and the killing of the Taylors is one of the great, nearly wordless sequences the medium has ever produced. It's, as much as anything else, a clash of societies writ small, with great directorial flourishes like that zoom in on the lock that remains open, the careful tilts up from the looming headlights of the Peacock's stolen car, or the way the camera simply takes in Mrs. Taylor's fingers just coming into contact with the pool of her husband's oozing blood before the Peacocks overturn the bed to find her lying there. Manners (with considerable assist from the editing team and director of photography) found a way in this sequence to distill the essence of that nightmare where someone is in your house, but you can't find them, and he even manages to include a slight rumination on the word "home." Does it mean what the Peacocks have in their insular, closed-off world? Or the quiet, pleasant life of the Taylors, all cozy porches and quiet moments together? Or does it mean what Mulder and Scully have, a life spent endlessly on the road, building a home in each new city?

And yet there's a sense of intense melancholy pervading "Home." Just before he's killed, Sheriff Taylor sits on his front step and looks out over the little town, talking about how he wants to take one last look before it all goes away, and it seems almost as much a sense of the death of the great, weird America that The X-Files so obsessively chronicled, the sub-communities within the larger community that were both separate from it and a part of it. The Peacocks have existed separately from the rest of the country since the Civil War, but the encroachment of the modern world has finally reached their door, and they react in the only way they know how: by lashing out. "Home" is spine-tingling, terrifying television, but it's also something that's harder to pin down. Mulder and Scully are our heroes, but they also represent the world that threatens to homogenize all of that weirdness. The eldest Peacock and his mother escape at episode's end, to continue the Peacock way of life, but the abandoned country roads and weird little byways that they thrived on at one time are disappearing now. The world is better, but it is no longer as unknowable.

Grade: A

Stray observations:

  • This comment is a big ol' spoiler, so if you haven't watched the rest of the series, turn away now. Is all of the talk about Scully being a mother in this episode meant to foreshadow the turn her character takes in the mythology in the next two seasons (and, of course, over the final three seasons)? Or is that just a case of the show getting lucky?
  • Mulder and Scully in the pig pen is one of my favorite all-time interactions between the two. Scully attempting to move the pigs by saying "Baa ram ewe!" and Mulder's bafflement at same never fails to make me laugh.
  • "Home" has become somewhat legendary, and this is because of how Fox treated the episode, airing it just one time (with copious parental advisory warnings) and then burying it for quite some time, never rerunning it in the traditional fashion. I do wonder, however, if this was intentional, an attempt to take a very, very scary and unsettling episode and make it seem more scary and unsettling than it actually was.
  • I'm not sure how much the notion that all three Peacocks are the father of the malformed baby actually adds to the episode. It helps make it more obviously an X-File, but I don't know that it was a needed plot addition.
  • This just might be the darkest episode in the history of the series. I love that shot of Mrs. Peacock under the bed, only a thin slit of light falling across her eyes.
  • All of this time, I've thought it was Johnny Mathis singing "Wonderful, Wonderful" as the brothers went out for their killin', but it turns out it was just a skillfully executed cover version, something I only realized after listening to the original a few times before watching "Home" again to hype myself up for it. (And that song, like Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man," is now one that I can only think of as ominous and terrifying.)
  • "Mulder, if you had to deal without a cell phone for five minutes, you'd lapse into catatonic schizophrenia."
  • "Just as long as the brutal infanticide doesn't weigh into your decision."

"Gehenna" (season 1, episode 2)

In which Frank Black goes to San Francisco to catch a serial killer and ends up chasing down evil itself.

Millennium is the first post-Sept. 11 show.

Naturally, this is literally impossible, since the show ran from 1996 until 1999, its end predating the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center by two years, but it's also fitting, given the show's obsession with prophecy and religious extremism. What's remarkable is that it's a show that feels intrinsically of the 1990s in a way that its predecessor, The X-Files, does not, but it's also a show that feels ahead of its time. The dread and shadowy fear and sense that the world held several cloaked and mysterious evils for well-to-do Americans are all of a piece with feelings of the early 2000s. This show is one of the most notorious flops in TV history, but it's also a show that probably would have been a monster hit had it debuted just five years later. If this had been on the CBS schedule of 2003, it would be entering its eighth season now, and we'd all be tired of it. In some ways, it feels more influential than The X-Files.

One of the reasons that I agitated to add coverage of Millennium to The X-Files is because it's one of the biggest flops in TV history. The show, obviously, lasted for three seasons, and the second season actually had moments of striking genius in it. But it mostly lasted three years because Fox needed to keep Chris Carter happy. The ratings could not live up to the massive number the pilot drew, nor could they live up to The X-Files. It's certainly not a bad show. A little portentious here and there,  a little awkwardly dark here and there, a little too enamored of its own cleverness in other places. But for the most part, it's well-constructed and well-acted, and it certainly conforms in almost every way to the vision of what a quality TV drama - particularly a dark one - was supposed to be in the mid-90s. So it's not a show that's an utter failure. But it's a show like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, where a celebrated TV creator discovered that his bag of tricks proved more limiting than initially thought.

"Gehenna" suggests both the successes of Millennium's approach (and Chris Carter's approach, more generally) and the problems with it. Briefly, The X-Files was a show based around a central conflict between science and belief, empirical skepticism and unquestioning belief. This is a fairly easy idea to build a narrative around, even if on TV, it will tend toward the believers every time (usually, whatever they believe in is more interesting than boring old reality). Millennium, however, is built around two different ideas: the omnipresence and unkillable nature of raw evil and the philosophical conflict between black-and-white morality and moral relativism. Frank's wife, Catherine, is supposed to represent the latter, as seen in a scene in this episode where she and Frank talk about the true nature of evil after Frank has been doing some research in the Bible. Out in the field, Frank sees the facts of evil every day, of the idea that some people are just irredeemable and that the evils they do are like a dangerous cloud that closes over them. In her job as a social worker, Catherine comes to believe that evil can be averted, that people who come from bad circumstances will sometimes do bad things, and we can head those bad things off at the pass by treating them well.

This is, of course, an old, old debate (and it also boils down to some of the differences between traditional American liberal and conservative positions on crime prevention), but it's a debate that's enormously hard to dramatize. In particular, Catherine is basically uninvolved in any of these storylines and has more value to the show as a symbol of everything Frank longs to hold on to, as opposed to someone who can forcefully explain her point of view (like Scully on The X-Files). Attempts to inject Catherine into the narrative - like an act that ends with a shadowy presence outside her front door who's ultimately revealed to just be ... Bob Bletcher - are often laughable. She sometimes just seems to be there because Carter thought he needed a female in the cast and because he thought he'd give the moral relativists a say.

But here's the thing: Carter really, really believes that evil is a dark, unstoppable force outside of humanity, that sometimes swoops in and takes control of our souls. He's a New Age mystic at heart, but he's one who simultaneously tosses in a medieval Christian understanding of good and evil. The world is less an actual place where people play out roles in their own personal dramas and more a land full of symbols that occasionally come into conflict with each other. Frank lives in a Yellow House and is a Man Driven to Expel Evil. His wife is a Good Woman. His child is an Innocent. It's like Carter saw Silence of the Lambs and The Exorcist in rapid succession and decided that the way to make both films better was to take the subject matter of the first and wed it to the primal symbology of the latter.

Theoretically, this should be right up my alley. I love obscure Biblical esoterica, as this episode dabbles in. I greatly enjoy end of the world type stuff, as this series dabbles in. But something about it lacks the raw immediacy of The X-Files. I think it's because this is an inherently goofy concept that Carter tries to take seriously. It's for this reason that the show's best season is its second, when showrunners Glen Morgan and James Wong realize that the central concept of the show is goofy and should be played in an over-the-top, baroque fashion. The greatest failing of "Gehenna" is that it's almost completely crippled by this bout of self-seriousness. There are some fantastic scenes - the interrogation scene of the kid who might have died, for one - but there's basically no understanding that the idea of a man descending from the sky in night vision goggles and appearing to some as a demon and/or the ultimate manifestation of evil might look just the slightest bit strange.

Again, Millennium isn't a terrible show. It's just a show that can't help but suffer when compared to The X-Files. When I look at "Home," one of the darkest hours of The X-Files, and compare it to "Gehenna," one of the darkest hours of television up until that point, period, I can't help but wonder if that dour sense is what ended up shooting the show in the foot, even as it produced some pretty great hours of TV. "Home" is scary and horrifying and filled with people doing awful things to each other, but it always maintains an edge of gallows humor. "Gehenna" is scary and horrifying and filled with people doing awful things to each other, but it thinks it's deeply profound. And that mixture is usually something that will sink a show.

Grade: C+

Stray observations:

  • I promise in the weeks to come to examine these episodes in more detail. Season one of Millennium is hit-and-miss, but the hits are very, very strong. And season two, while also problematic in spots, is some sort of daffy genius. But for now, I wanted to take a look at just what didn't make the show work.
  • This episode has one of the goofiest "let's restate the premise of the show" scenes I've ever seen, when that neighbor comes over to talk with Frank and says basically everything the pilot established in the space of a sentence or two.
  • I always forget how many troubled genre shows Terry O'Quinn was on before he landed Lost. Alias, at least, wasn't troubled when he was on it, but that show also never figured out how to use Terry O'Quinn.
  • I agree with Zack that the show shouldn't have been as vague about Frank's gifts. If he's actually psychic, it allows the show to be set in a universe just off to the side of ours. Instead, it tries too hard to make Frank's world our world, even though everyone's obsessed with the end of the world.
  • Then again, everybody kind of WAS obsessed with the end of the world in the '90s. Remember Y2K?
  • I do love Chris Carter's knowledge of obscure secret knowledge, like when the Millennium Group members start talking about that pyramid and the calculations for the end of the world. I like to imagine that he bought every book in the occult section of Long Beach's sadly departed Acres of Books and read them obsessively.
  • One thing I already like about this show: Its sense of ritual.

And now, some thoughts on Space: Above and Beyond:

I know that I was going to review the final seven episodes of this series in the last X-Files post of the summer, but, obviously, that plan fell by the wayside. I don't know that I have time to write up all seven one by one here, but I generally liked them, especially the season finale, which had a surprising amount of guts, what with the reveal of the Chigs and the way the gang spoiled the mission plans to the alien they didn't know was a Chig and the way that a surprising number of people were killed or tossed into impossible situations. This was gutsy television, and maybe it was gutsy because it knew there was no way it would be coming back, but that doesn't mean it's not still terrifically exciting. The other episodes run the gamut from the weird - the very, very '90s rooted episode where everybody heads out for some R'n'R and ends up hanging out with Coolio and David Duchovny - to the surprisingly heartfelt "Dear Earth," with one of the best Dear John scenes I've seen. When I started Space: Above and Beyond, I hoped I could get on board its small, cultish bandwagon. I'm not really there, but I do think the show was a good one and deserved more of a chance than it got.

Next week: Zack takes a look at The X-Files uneasy attempt to tell a story about race relations with "Teliko," then examines Morgan and Wong's first Millennium episode with "Dead Letters."

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