“Invocation” (season 8, episode 5; originally aired 12/3/2000)
In which a lost little boy comes home but stays lost...
Five episodes in with a new leading man, so I guess it’s time Doggett got the customary Tragic Backstory, huh? Not that it’s really needed. A large part of Faux Mulder’s charm is his fundamental stolidity, a character with no obvious agenda outside the basic need to restore law and order and get his man. (Or woman. Or whatever.) After seven seasons on the air, both Scully and her missing partner are laden with history, some of it rich, some of it less so, and while that history generally works to their benefit, it can also be a trap for the writers. Each week, in addition to coming up with a new threat, they need to keep in mind all the other threats, and everything else that has happened, just as those of us watching try to, and figure out a way for it to have some kind of dramatic impact. The past can enrich a scene, but it can also drag it down under the weight of expectations and familiarity. Oh hey, Mulder’s whinging about his sister again. Let it go, man!
Kidding, but—not entirely kidding. So while Doggett represents a lot of risk (namely, it’s hard to convince a fanbase to accept a new lead, let alone a lead who’s replacing one of the franchise’s cornerstones), he’s also a tremendous opportunity. So far, everyone involved has made the right choices to keep that opportunity alive, starting from casting Robert Patrick and working on down. He’s determined and unrelenting, but he’s also not humorless; he’s super competent, but in a way that’s defined by his perspective on the world. (ie, when faced with the inexplicable, he acts like a cop and focuses on what he knows) He’s skeptical, but less in the “my entire philosophy depends me on me being able to prove you wrong” way than a kind of “come on, for real?”, which is a pretty sane reaction. His arguments with Scully have slight edge to them, but he never comes across as combative, and the dynamic is subtly different than the Scully/Mulder back and forth from the shows first two seasons, even after you take into account the swapped ideologies. The more I watch of season eight, the more it seems like he’s the only character who could’ve possibly filled in for Mulder’s absence; less a replacement than a different take on a story we’ve been watching for years.
The fact that he has a tragedy in his past doesn’t really change this, but it does push the character in ways that undermine some of his strongest traits. Done well, that undermining can be invaluable; Scully’s Catholicism, rather than detracting from her skepticism, enriched her outlook and helped make her one of the more gratifyingly complex women on television. “Invocation” doesn’t do the same for Doggett (as a dude; I mean, it would be odd if he was a woman suddenly, although I think we could all role with that), and the episode gets points for keeping things largely low-key. A quick check on Wikipedia explained what was going on in the scene where Doggett pulls a picture of a smiling boy out of his wallet, but I’m fairly certain Doggett never lays down a monologue about what’s driving him, not even after the (largely pointless) psychic lays whammy on him about dark energy. Which means we’ll have to wait another episode or two at least to get the secret of [REDACTED]. Still, it’s disappointing to see him doing the cop-on-the-edge shtick so early on. It’s not disastrous, but he cuts corners here and there in ways that don’t add much to the story apart from underlining Doggett’s investment in solving the case goes beyond basic professionalism. It’s an unnecessary touch, one that diminishes much of what makes him so compelling in the first place.
Apart from that, “Invocation” is the sort of enjoyable hour that works better in the moment than it does in retrospect. The hook is a good one: a little boy disappears from a fairground, only to reappear ten years later without any sign of aging or any change whatsoever. Mrs. Underwood (Kim Greist) is understandably overjoyed to have her son back, but something’s wrong, and it’s not just the boy’s miraculously stasis. Billy (played by Kyle and Ryan Pepi) won’t talk, and he’s got this ugly obsession with his brother, Josh (Colton James), an obsession that leads to him stabbing a blood covered knife into Josh’s bad in the night. Josh is unhurt, but while the blood on the knife matches Billy’s, he has no obvious injuries either. Meanwhile, Doggett is, ah, dogging Ronald Prunell (Rodney Eastmen), the closest thing to a suspect the police had for the original kidnapping, which leads Ronald to dig up a set of skeletal remains in the forest. What the hell is going on?
The answer is, probably less than you’re imagining. At least it was for me. Episodes like this work best when everything is still up in the air, and any situation becomes possible for building tension. Billy’s glower is unsettling because nothing around him makes sense; the idea that missing child could reappear and somehow turn out to be a threat to the people who’ve suffered his absence the most is horrifying, especially when that threat seems to be targeting the only sane child they have left. The story is heavy with portent while managing to stay mysterious for most of its running time, which is pretty crucial, because when the actual answer is revealed—sort of—it’s a bit of a dud. Billy is some kind of ghost who came back from the dead to save his brother from being kidnapped and murdered by the same bad guy who kidnapped and murdered him all those years ago; or else the brother was irrelevant, and he really just wanted to get revenge.
It’s the slightest of explanations given for what we just watched, and it’s barely even that; one gets the sense that Scully’s “Look, the other kid is saved, let’s just be cool with that” is the message we’re suppose to take from everything. But it’s not enough. Generally speaking, when it comes to the inexplicable, the less you try and pin down with logic, the better you’ll be, but here, the “eh, it happened” isn’t really satisfying. So it’s possible for ghosts to pass medical tests now? (Funny how as soon as Mulder disappears, actual proof of the supernatural starts popping up.) Why was Billy so visibly angry all the time? What exactly was the relationship between Ronald and the real kidnapper? I mean, it’s not impossible come up with a justification for some of this—maybe Billy was just upset because hey, he died under horrible circumstances, and there his brother is, all happy and loved. The real kidnapper was an abusive prick, and Ronald was terrified of him. But it all comes across as too cursory, too implied. It’s great to suggest more than state, but there needs to be some kind of clarity, especially for a story that spends most of its time setting you up to assume its going one way, only to zigzag in the final minutes.
Basically, then, this is an okay entry that’s kept from being completely forgettable by some memorable shots (the image of Billy going into his brother’s room with a large knife is striking as hell), and some decent Scully/Dogett banter. Well, it’s not banter so much as arguing with inside voices (mostly), but the dynamic is sound, and the novelty of seeing Scully propose batshit theories hasn’t completely worn off yet. As for Doggett’s Tragic Past, we’ll have to wait and see. Patrick is a good enough actor to do well by the material he’s given, so it could work. But given how hard the show has tried in other respects to distance its new leading man from its old one, did we really need another sad tale of lost children?
- It’s a great moment, but I’m not sure the scene where Linda shows up at the school to pick up Josh and finds all the teachers and staff waiting for her makes sense. Do they all recognize little Billy on sight? It’s been ten years. (I guess he couldn’t have been there that long, since no one’s called the cops. Then again, you’d probably want the mom to make an ID before you got law enforcement involved.)
- Kim Greist, aka the not perfect part of Brazil! She’s fine here, in a pretty thankless role.
- All that stuff about a weird symbol, and it’s just an ugly logo on a horse trailer. Al loves his Blair Witch Project fan art, I guess.
“Redrum” (season 8, episode 6; originally aired 12/10/2000)
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Another example of an episode that starts off strong, only to fumble when it comes to the follow through, “Redrum” is stronger than “Invocation” for two main reasons: 1. the time travel conceit, while not as fully explored as it might have been, is appealing simple; and 2. Joe Morton. The script is a guest-star showcase, keeping Doggett and Scully to the sidelines for most of the running time, and while that’s an odd choice given how new Doggett still is to the show’s world, Morton’s presence more than makes up for it. Never a showy actor, Morton makes Martin Wells, a lawyer accused of murdering his wife, the calm, desperate center of an absurd situation, and his performances helps to get over the script’s rougher spots. He makes all of this make sense, even if it doesn’t really, and that alone elevates the episode.
And really, the premise is nifty. As The X-Files gets older, it becomes harder and harder for the writers to come up with ideas that aren’t variations on older concepts. “Redrum” doesn’t entirely escape that curse, at times coming across like a riff on “Monday,” the Groundhog Day-esque bank robbery episode from season six. But the comparison isn’t exact, and more importantly, the way Wells (cute last name) travels through time is novel enough that the idea stands on its own. The problem with mixing and matching old concepts isn’t so much repetition as its muddled storytelling, once striking concepts reduced to bland, over-microwaved leftovers; it’s a problem that’s especially true for a show as dependent on its fresh story concepts as this one is. So “Redrum” gains ground simply by seeming to give us a concept that hasn’t been done to death before. Time travel isn’t really an idea that the series could regularly support, but in this limited context, it works just fine. This isn’t a repeatable incident. It’s a hiccup, a quirk of fate, and the greater focus is on what Wells can do with it.
Unfortunately, that’s where “Redrum” breaks down a bit. The set-up is excellent; he wakes up in a cell without any idea of what’s going on, gets shot, and then wakes up again the day before, still not quite getting it. The way Wells’ confusion is mirrored in the way episode itself unfolds is clever, and also establishes what few rules there are very early in. The downside is that once it finally becomes clear what’s happening, the story behind the time travel isn’t anywhere near as compelling as the time travel itself. That would be hard to do; mundane explanations rarely, if ever, top the fantastical. This isn’t even an “explanation,” really, just the unfolding of the mystery of who really killed Wells’s wife, and why, and how the murderer’s motive reflects some of the guilt back on Wells himself. The time jumping itself is just this thing that happened—either it’s a message from a higher power, a chance for Wells to redeem a past mistake, or else its just a fantastic coincidence.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but given the murder case this whole thing revolves around, certain issues are unavoidably raised. For one, the sequence of events doesn’t make a huge amount of sense even outside the whole temporal dislocation. Danny Trejo plays Cesar Okompo, the real killer; Wells finds out late in the episode (when he’s traveled back to Tuesday, the day after the murder) that Cesar wanted revenge for his brother Hector, who Wells sent to jail on a third strike by withholding exculpatory evidence. Hector hanged himself in his cell before all of this craziness went down, and now Cesar wants revenge, having terrorized the Wells’ nanny into getting him access to the family’s apartment. In the original timeline, Hector kills Vickie and frames Wells, Wells is arrested, arraigned, and then, while he’s being transferred to a different prison, he’s shot by his father-in-law. That last bit is more plot necessity than well-established character; we barely know the father-in-law in any way, and while that’s justifiable by the confines of the narrative structure, it makes the death from the cold open seem more like an event created for suspense than anything truly necessary. After all, Wells is already in danger of losing his wife and his freedom. Getting shot, especially by an emotional wreck while he’s supposed to be under guard, is a bit much. (The episode goes to great lengths to emphasize the importance of that moment, though; it might be that we’re supposed to view the close up of Scully’s watch as a sign that death was when Wells started traveling backward. At the start of the episode, he’s already going backward, as he doesn’t remember anything when he wakes up in the jail cell—maybe “Redrum” begins after the original timeline came to the shooting the first time.)
This is plot nitpicking, though, and that’s never really a good way to criticize something. The real truth is, while it’s smart that the script makes Wells in some way culpable for what happened, and tries to establish him as a merciless hard-ass, that reveal is never really satisfying. Because let’s face it: any other time a story like this happens, and a character who can’t remember his past keeps vehemently denying his guilt, it almost always means he’s guilty. Throughout “Redrum,” Wells gets brief glimpses of the attack that ended his wife’s life, which seems to imply that he was there when it happened. That he wasn’t is gratifying in that it subverts expectations (and hey, we all want good things to happen to Joe Morton, which made Terminator 2 especially hard to watch), but it leaves an emptiness that “withheld evidence” doesn’t entirely fill. The disconnect between Wells’s level of guilt and the events of the story make the fantastic element somehow harder to swallow; why does he get a second chance to make amends? Why now? (I mean, sure, it’s because the wife died and he got shot, but why only save their lives?) Trejo is an impressive a presence as ever, but Cesar doesn’t really make sense—a rage-filled monster willing to kill an innocent to get his revenge, but also highly articulate and able to quote court cases when needed. It’s not that this is an impossible type; it’s just, as the episode stands, he’s so sketched in that he comes across as plot spackle, there to fill holes and little else.
Still, Morton is good enough that I keep wanting to like this better. There are smart choices, even beyond the casting; the way Wells’s relationship with Doggett is slowly filled in works great, and while Scully doesn’t get to do a whole lot, her willingness to accept Wells’ utterly insane story fits in with where her character’s at. But like “Invocation,” “Redrum” really works best in the moment. It doesn’t seem quite as empty as the previous episode does in retrospect, and the shot of Wells in a jail cell at the end, having saved his wife but needing to confess his sins to Doggett in order to do so, is appropriately ironic. But it’s frustrating in retrospect how little the start of the episode matters to the final twenty minutes. The particular nature of the premise means that nothing Joe does each day can have any lasting physical effect, and while that makes for an interesting dynamic, it also means that there’s no real chance for Wells to accomplish anything until he’s out of jail. Instead of building suspense, it mostly feels like waiting around until something actually matters. But there are worse people to wait with.
- As if Morton and Trejo weren’t enough, Scandal’s Bellamy Young makes an appearance as Wells’ continually baffled lawyer.
- It’s also a weird coincidence that Cesar manages to get arrested right after he murders Vickie, but not for the murder.
Next week: Todd is off doing magic somewhere, so I’ll be looking at “Via Negativa” and spend some time with a “Surekill.”