"Kitsunegari" (Season 5, Episode 8)
In Which He Had To Go
I've written before about how much I dig "Pusher," the season 3 X-Files episode that first introduced to Robert Patrick Modell. I used it as a starting point for my Gateway To Geekery article about the show, and I stand by that (as much as I'm willing to stand by anything I talk about in a Gateway; I find writing those a terrifying exercise in realizing just how little I know about any of the art I love, to tell the truth), and I also reviewed it last summer, back when Todd and I first re-started this project. I gave it an A- back then, and it might've deserved the full A. I hope I didn't just blow the lid off the grading process right there. Anyway, what I'm saying is, it's a good ep, and Modell was a great MotW for the show, and so I was looking forward to re-watching "Kitsunegari," which I don't think I've seen since it first aired. The X-Files hardly ever does sequels to its non-mythology episodes (the only example I can think of is "Squeeze" and "Tooms," from the first season), and even though the last we saw of Modell, he was a zombie dying of a brain tumor in a hospital penitentiary, there's enough wiggle room to bring him back. Maybe this is a way to revitalize the mythology, by creating a sense of a larger world on the show that isn't just aliens and government conspiracies, but monsters that don't just disappear once their initial plotlines are resolved.
Or maybe it's just a sign of creative exhaustion. I can't tell you for sure, but I can't tell you that, some really great images and intense sequences aside, "Kitsunegari" isn't anywhere near as good as its predecessor. In fact, it's a best of a mess; the story repeats many of the same basic ideas from "Pusher" (like, how the hell do you catch someone who can control minds?) without adding much new to them, and Scully is at her most frustratingly skeptical and close-minded. The episode never really justifies its existence--it tries to provide us with a new angle on Modell by giving him a twin sister (they were separated at a very young age), but apart from being a ridiculously contrived twist, we never really get any sense of how Modell stands with his sister, or who she is, or how this relates to Modell's obsession with Mulder. Plus, it makes that horrible mistake that so many sequels seem to stumble over, by bringing back a great villain, and making him... less.
Here's the story: Modell escapes from the Lorton Penitentiary Hospital Ward during the cold open, and we get a quick refresher on the dangers he poses from Skinner and Mulder, which again raises the question of just how the hell you catch someone who can tell you to light yourself on fire. Except, this time around, Modell doesn't seem all that interested in killing anyone. When he breaks out of the hospital, he leaves a guard obviously brainwashed but otherwise uninjured. He does the same for the sporting goods clerk when he picks up some new clothes, and for the two cops who manage to track him down. In fact, Modell doesn't kill anybody the entire episode. He comes in contact with half a dozen or more potential victims, but the worst thing he does is give them a temporary brain freeze. The Modell of "Pusher" got off on killing, and it's hard to believe that he softened this much during his prison stay. Does a semi-comatose state and physical therapy really change a man's soul? (Actually, having seen Regarding Henry, I suppose I should already know the answer to that.)
For a while, it does look like Modell has gone back to his murderous ways; the cops find the body of a lawyer, the prosecutor who helped put Modell in prison. It's one of the episode's strongest moments, too, as the corpse is covered in blue paint. Cerulean blue paint, of course, and the man died from ingesting it, and the walls are covered in a Japanese ideogram repeated over and over, the symbol for the episode's title, which mean's "foxhunt." (I wonder what the order of events here was? Modell's sister is responsible for the death, so did she first give him the order to write on the walls, then dump paint on himself, then swallow the paint till he died? Or did he swallow the paint, and then she doused him herself and painted the walls? Or maybe Modell himself did the writing.) But Mulder wonders if something is up, and he wonders even more once he has a conversation with the dead man's widow, Linda. He points out to Scully how Linda keeps throwing painting-puns into the conversation, and how she doesn't seem as upset or frightened as she should for someone whose husband was just murdered by a serial killer. But of course, Scully dismisses Mulder's concerns, because, well, she's a Scully, and that's what Scullys do best.
That's not entirely fair, I suppose. On the surface, Scully's (and Skinner's) concerns aren't unreasonable. At one point during the hunt, Modell allows Mulder to catch up with him. The two have a chat, and we're not privy to the meat of the conversation, but once it's over, Mulder's vague doubts about the off-ness of the situation solidify into outright theories. Given Modell's abilities, and he and Mulder's history, it's not ridiculous that Scully worry that her partner's judgment might be impaired. Except the way it's handled is forced, and obviously an effort by Vince Gilligan (who wrote "Pusher") and Tim Minear to create extra obstacles for Mulder to give more substance to the plot. Mulder doesn't seem irrational or unhinged when he questions Modell's motives, or wonders if there might be more going on than meets the eye. He never suggests any course of action that would endanger anyone, and he certainly never says they should let Modell go, or ease up in the hunt. He just raises some issues, which make a fair amount of logical sense (like the whole "Modell isn't killing anyone" thing, up to and including the fact that he doesn't kill Mulder when he has the drop on him--which is ridiculous, but we'll get to that), and Scully and Skinner both freak out, to the point where Skinner orders Mulder to hand over his gun and take the day off.
Look, I doubt any of use would argue that the pursuit of someone like Modell woudn't require a certain degree of healthy paranoia, especially considering the swath he cut before they caught him the first time. But this is just Scully being obstinate to set Mulder on edge, and kill time until the inevitable final confrontation. It's been a while since I last watched "Pusher," but I don't remember Modell showing any tendency towards subtle, long-lasting manipulation before. His attacks tend to be more like sledgehammers than stilettos, centered on a single concept, and while many of them lasted after he left, it's rare that the effect isn't immediately noticeable. Like I said, Mulder uses reasoning to make his arguments, and while he is operating on a hunch to a certain degree, he doesn't indicate any of the telltale signs of internal struggle or confusion. Yes, he says "He had to go" when Scully asks him where Modell went, which is the phrase the rest of Modell's victims in the ep spout, but that's as far as it goes. A better script would've had Scully at least entertain her partner's suspicions before dismissing them (and him). She's allowed to redeem herself in the end by ultimately being the one to take Linda down, but it's an abrupt climax that ends almost before it begins. (And once again has Mulder nearly shooting Scully. Maybe Skinner was right to take his gun after all.) Then we get a "let's explain everything" chat in Skinner's office so the whole ep can conclude with a shrug.
So, it's not very well put together, is what I'm saying, and this is my least favorite version of Scully the show does, a humorless scold who only sees the truth when required to for narrative convenience. But if Scully is treated bad, at least she's consistent. Modell is turned from a pathetic, arrogant weasel into--well, I don't really know what. A victim? It's true that he spends a lot of the episode trying to tell Mulder what's going on, and that he pushes Skinner into shooting him, attempting to take the blame for the lawyer's death on himself. And while he's lying in bed at the hospital, his sister comes to see him, she kills him to put him out of his misery, but not before he warns her not to make a mistake. So he's trying to help his sister get free, while at the same time trying to convince Mulder to keep digging deeper? As well as not killing anyone, not even the cops that track him to a warehouse, even though he's shown time and again that he really likes killing cops. He's a cipher through much of the ep, which is frustrating, because he was so well-drawn in "Pusher," and because Linda isn't anywhere near up to the task of filling in the void. She's sketchily defined: we know she views Modell as a "fallen warrior," which is obviously something that he'd get off on. We know that she has a mean sense of humor, and that she likes baiting law enforcement as much as Modell did. But there's nothing to distinguish her, and her relationship with her brother is so ill-defined that I assumed they were lovers, right up to when Scully said they weren't. And this wasn't the sort of twist that blew my mind or anything. It was more like "Huh. So brain tumors are genetic?"
There is a way this could have worked, and I could sort of see making a case for it. Maybe Modell's relationship with his sister wasn't an entirely happy one. I mean, they were separated at birth, barely knew each other, so maybe she grew up just as self-centered and mean as he did, and when she found him, maybe she was less interested in who he was as a person, and more interested in what she could make out of him. What she could use him as--an inspiration, a cause to fight for, a path to follow. And maybe the reason Modell is behaving so strangely throughout the episode is that his brain really isn't working properly, and she's actually had to use her push on him to get him to escape so she can pin the murder of her husband on him. Which is still sort of baroque and clunky, but at least then, it would be possible to understand why Modell seems so confused and half-there, and why so little of what he does here gels with what we know about his character. The problem is, while it's possible to read this into the story, there isn't enough there for that reading to actually mean much beyond fan-wanking. As is, this is a well-shot ep that goes through a lot of the familiar motions of a MotW entry--weird assaults, Mulder getting suspicious, Scully doubting him (she sort of acts like her brother this whole ep, which I guess is continuity?), and a confrontation in which Mulder and Scully's trust for each other is tested, albeit in a somewhat off-kilter fashion. (Linda pushes Mulder into thinking that Scully has shot herself, and when the real Scully shows up, he sees her as Linda. It's disorienting, and not entirely in a good way.) But any thought at all reveals how little any of this makes sense, and overall, this is just a disappointingly apt example of how sequels often fail: trying to create new directions in a story that was already largely perfect already.
- Modell's death scene was nicely done--Linda "pushes" him till his heart stops. But I'm not sure this is a character I wanted to see get a peaceful end.
- "Let me take a wild stab here, and guess this is a clue."
- Really not a fan of Skinner asking for Mulder's gun. I understand how much caution is being exercised in Modell's pursuit, but come on.
"The Hand of St. Sebastian" (Season 2, Episode 8)
In Which Peter And Frank Go Grave Robbing, And An Old Friend Returns With Some Unfriendly News
I wish we still had saints, sometimes. Saints could get shit done. Looking at St. Sebastian's Wikipedia page, he did a lot of preaching, cured a woman's muteness, cured another girl's blindness, was shot full of arrows, nursed back to health by another saint, then was beaten to death and "thrown in a privy" by order of Emperor Diocletian of Rome who, apparently, wasn't a huge fan of getting harangued. He's most commonly remembered to today for the arrows; even if the name isn't familiar to you, you've almost certainly seen images of him in religious art, depicting a man stripped nearly naked, tied to a tree, stuck like a pincushion. He's not the most accomplished of saints, to be sure, but it's a striking image. It reminds us of the vulnerability of the flesh even as it seeks to strengthen our faith in the resilience of the spirit. Or something along those lines. Look, in case the fact that I had to look all of this up on Wikipedia wasn't enough of a tip off, I'm maybe not the guy to be explaining religious symbolism to anyone.
Still, I love art, and I understand the power of images and symbols, and that's really what's going on in "The Hand of St. Sebastian." For thirty episodes now, we've watched Frank Black struggle with human monsters and monster monsters, with forces beyond his control and almost certainly beyond his understanding, at the behest of the Millennium Group, whose true motives remain largely a mystery, beyond a vague notion of helping humanity survive the apocalypse. Anyone, after all of that, would be looking for something to hold onto, for some sign or proof that his efforts were pointed in the right direction. The thought that the hand of a guy who died nearly two thousand years ago for serving God might have some answers is fairly ridiculous, but it's no more ridiculous than anything else that's happened on the show. And it stops seeming silly once people start dying to protect it. If demons can taunt good men with images of the dead, whose to say what's impossible anymore? Maybe there's a decoder ring on the hand's index finger that'll help us figure out the super double secret Bible cipher.
Of course, Frank isn't the one who initially sets off on this quest: it's Peter, who till now has seemed the most stolid and reliable of Millennium believers, who needs something a little more solid than Philip Baker Hall's speeches about paths with no end. Terry O'Quinn is such a great actor that it's been easy to enjoy his presence on the show till now, but we know hardly anything about Peter as an individual. In the first season, he existed largely as a sort of Watson to Black's Holmes, always reliable, always offering support and encouragement, but while Watson had a thriving medical practice (and eventually a wife) in his personal life, it was too easy to believe that Peter basically didn't exist outside the Group. Like, when he wasn't helping Frank, maybe he was just sitting in a closet somewhere, plugging into the wall and recharging batteries. He's been more complicated this season, and while Frank eventually winds up taking center stage by the end of "Hand," at least this episode gives him the depth of a man who isn't entirely sure he's doing the right thing. He, as the saying goes, wants to believe it. But history is full of men and women who wanted and found themselves betrayed in the end.
Here, Peter's quest for answers takes him and Frank over to Germany, to follow the treads left by a Dr. Schlossburg, who's discovered a burial circle for Millennium group members from a thousand years ago. P. B. Hall (referred in the credits as "Group Elder") tells Peter not to go, but he needs something to help him understand, and he asks Frank to come along for the ride because of Frank's "gift." Which is cool, and a little freaky, if you think about it; Frank's visions apparently have no "sell-by" date on them, as he's able to see glimpses of the arrows coming at Sebastian. Maybe that's due to the intensity of faith and the iconic power of the saint's near death, and obvious being close to the body changes things, but I wonder how comfortable Frank is at walking through cemeteries. When Frank and Peter arrive overseas, they find that Schlossburg's been killed, and the police have his lab staked out. A bit of miscommunication follows, but once the cops contact the Group (who are still giving Peter their full support, even if they aren't completely happy with his current direction), they throw their support behind Peter--which is a good thing, seeing as how Peter and Frank are nearly blown up when they leave the police station.
Despite the mysticism that drives the plot here (and the show), there's something gratifyingly solid about much of "Hand," as Peter works feverishly to recover whatever Schlossburg had discovered before he died, while at the same time, creepy men in dark coats dog his and Frank's every move. It very much has the feel of a spy thriller mixed in with the kind of crazy religious paranoia the series loves so much. There's even a plot point that has Peter getting in touch with Roedecker to help discover Schlossburg's computer password. (I'm torn between liking Roedecker, and finding him over-done. It's nice to have someone on the show routinely cracking wise, but there's something annoyingly relentless about him that takes the fun out of a lot of the jokes. Then again, anyone who loves Planet of the Apes movies can't be all bad. Even if he does love Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which is the most mean-spirited of the bunch.) Much to his glee, Roedecker discovers that Schlossburg was a huge porn addict, and used the name of his favorite starlet as his password. As always in the movies and on TV, no one ever uses a random string of letters and numbers for their password, because that would be difficult.
Still, unlocking Schlossburg's computer fails to provide Peter with the information he wants, and he's about to give up completely, when Frank discovers the good doctor is still alive--apparently, Schlossburg has been logging into porn sites post-corpsification. It's the sort of plot point that I find both ridiculous and endearing, even after learning that the whole thing is a set up by the bad guys to get Peter to come to the hospital where Schlossburg is being held in protective custody, so they can murder the doctor and pin the crime on Peter. Which is even more ridiculous, frankly. The timing here is bizarre. The bad guys log into a porn site, pretending to be Schlossburg, and the next day, a woman from the porn site tries to flirt with Schlossburg while Peter and Frank are in his lab. So the villains somehow knew that Peter would be checking into the porn sites, and they knew that if they were online one day, whoever was operating the site would mention this the following day? It actually makes more sense if it's just Schlossburg being randy; at least then, there'd be no intent that needed all the pieces to come together to work out properly. (Ha, I said "come together." Also, apologies if that summary doesn't make sense. I'm having a hard [ha!] time describing why all of this is so silly.)
Peter tracks down Schlossburg and gets the information he needs, and Schlossburg exits the picture soon after, while Peter and Frank head to a peat bog where Frank sinks up to his neck in the muck, which is a pretty good visual metaphor for his history on the show thus far. They find the body they were looking for, just as the cops arrive to take Peter into custody for Schlossburg's death, and it looks bad for our heroes. But no worries--CCH Pounder has returned as Andrews, and she's shouting at everyone to get their heads on straight and release Peter. He was an assistant director at the FBI for ten years! Of course he wouldn't kill some poor defenseless German dude. Frank managed to store the body they found, and he tells Andrews to meet him at a storage facility that night. When he gets there, the bad guys chase him, and then things get twisty.
I'm not sure how I feel about Andrews turning out to be a bad guy. For one thing, I don't really understand what "being a bad guy" means in this world for non-demons. She and the others are working against the Group, and that's not good, but are they in league with the Devil? Or is there some other group that feels the Millennium folks don't have humanity's best interests at heart? As betrayals go, it's surprising, but once the surprise fades, it's hard to get all that excited about it. She's been on three episodes before this, which is enough for her to be a semi-recurring character, and yet we're given no sense as to what changed her mind, or why we should care why she did this beyond the "Oh crap, how will Frank get out of this one?" factor. (It turns out, he set her up--when she and her men open the door to the storage unit where Frank says he stashed the body, the cops pour out.) It's not a horrible reveal, but it does, unfortunately, expose one of my few problems with this season: I love the batshit insanity, but too much of that, and it becomes hollow. Enough of "Hand" is built on the solid foundation of conspiracy thrillers to hold together, but Andrews as the head villain doesn't work as well as it probably was meant to.
One of the reasons I loved "Curse of Frank Black" is that, however briefly, it gave us a sense of a status quo worth protecting: Frank hanging out, being a dad, and the world being relatively normal on the surface. "Hand" works overall, because it gives us something else to hold on to in Peter's quest for enlightenment. In all this running around and digging up bodies and friends turning into foes, the important idea is that Peter felt lost, and wanted some kind of assurance that he was making the right choices. In the end, though, despite finding what he was looking for, there no real assurances. Which is probably what the Elder was talking about when he said Peter was on a quest with no beginning, and no end. It's important to ask some questions, but in the end, you'll never get as many answers as you'd really like. In the end, it's just you, and maybe you're holding a dead guy's hand, and maybe you aren't, but what's the difference, exactly?
- Is this the first we've heard of the group fighting the "evils of the millennium" at every millennium? I like that. It makes 2000 seem a little less important.
- "You were this close to having an additional rectum."
- "This is who we are."
- If you aren't familiar with Beneath the Planet of the Apes, the scene Roedecker's watching when Peter calls is from the end of the movie, right before (SPOILER!) Charlton Heston blows up the planet. (The best part of this is that the movie was followed by three more sequels.)
Next week: Todd deals with one the X-Files' lamest monsters ever in "Schizogeny," but then gets to savor Darin Morgan's first Millennium episode, "Jose Chung's 'Doomsday Defense.'"