"Mind's Eye" (season 5, episode 16, first aired: 4/19/1993)
In Which What You See Isn't Always What You Get
The fifth season of The X-Files hasn't been heavy on traditional MotW-style episodes. I'm too lazy to go through and figure out the ratio (your tax dollars at work, folks), but going by memory, I'd say maybe a third of what we've seen so far fits the standard "Mulder and Scully get a case, Mulder has a crazy theory, Scully is skeptical, MONSTERS" structure. Admittedly, about a third of what's left are mythology episodes, and we've had mythology episodes from the start. But what's left after that have been off-format oddities like "Bad Blood" and "Travelers" and "The Unusual Suspects," episodes which get no small part of their strength for subverting our expectations of what an X-Files episode is supposed to be. Todd and I have talked about the series' anthology-like elements in the past, but it seems like season five is when the writers really started getting bored with the format and wanted to screw around.
I dig that. If I knew enough about television to back up my vague suspicions, I might say that this kind of creative flailing can be as damaging for a show as it can be revitalizing, because trading in too much on an audience's understanding of that show's status quo can undermine the fabric of reality that show has labored to create. (Er, maybe it's better I don't have Todd's TV knowledge, since that sounds kind of like BS. All I mean is, you spend all your time drawing attention to the inherent flaws in your show's premise without actually fixing those flaws, people are gonna get bored when they're done laughing.) Really, though, I love season five, even while recognizing its flaws. A good flail can be a wonderful thing to watch, and while, say, "Travelers" may not live up to the coolness of its premise, and the mythology might be stuttering a bit, the looseness can also lead to an amazing energy, and the sense that anything could happen next.
Well, "anything" is what happens in "Mind's Eye," but that "anything" turns out to be a MotW episode that could've fit quite easily into any of the earlier seasons of the show. It's not a bad episode, exactly, although it's far from a great one; the only truly memorable element here is Lili Taylor's guest star turn as a blind woman who isn't exactly blind. The concept has potential, but it's not all that well thought out, and, apart from Taylor's admittedly excellent performance, no real effort to understand the effect her particular "gift" would have on a person's personality. Scully is back to her usual not-quite-convinced self, and Mulder is slinging crazy like he always does, albeit with maybe a bit less verve than usual. It's a step up from the weaker MotW eps this season (no killer trees here!), and it's nice to take a breather from all the experimenting, but without any cool scare sequences or clever twists, "Eye" becomes a little too familiar.
The story, in case you've forgotten: somebody was killed in a motel room. On the plus side, the police have a suspect in custody. That suspect was arrested at the crime scene, apparently in the process of cleaning up evidence of the crime, which doesn't look too good for her. Unfortunately (at least for the cops), the suspect also happens to be a small blind woman named Marty Glenn (Taylor), with a history of minor crime, but, as far as anyone can tell, without the ninja training or radioactive super-powers which would be required for her to lead a life of stabbing people who are bigger than she is. The detective in charge of the case brings in Mulder and Scully, because that's just what you do, and Mulder, while impressed by Marty's tenacity and determination to live a normal life despite her handicap, suspects something is up. So he puts her through a lie detector test, and notes that the only time the machine catches Marty in a lie is when she claims she didn't "see" the murder. A bunch of other stuff happens, and Mulder finally realizes that Marty does see, it's just not her eyes she's seeing with. It's the killer's. A killer who murdered her mother before Marty was even born. A killer who is also Marty's father.
That's a heavy concept. "Eye" doesn't put much effort into explaining how this could've happened; the closest we get to a reason is that Marty's dad stabbed Mom, and that the loss of blood and premature birth robbed Marty of her sight, so her senses worked hard to compensate in other ways. This is, to put it nicely, crap, without even the smattering of pseudo-science Mulder usually monologues about. I'm not saying I need hard facts, but the only reason this works at all is that Taylor is convincing in the role, and Duchovny does a good job making his lines sound more logical than they actually are. Plus, even if you take Mulder's explanation at face value, it doesn't work, because seeing what her father sees doesn't help Marty to cope without vision of her own. If anything, it would make her life far, far more difficult.
But tissue-thin justification or no, it's not a bad idea. I especially like that Taylor has been seeing through her murderous daddy's eyes for her entire life. Before re-watching this, I remembered enough of the plot to assume that the blind woman only got struck with visions when the killer set to stabbing somebody, but this is a lot more interesting. It's so interesting, really, that I'm not convinced the episode pulls it off. It does a fair job of trying. Marty isn't just wrongly accused of a crime here; she's spent her whole life having to deal with her father's ugly reality, and that includes the time he spent in prison--time which was so horrible for her to watch that she'll do just about anything to stop him from going back. It gives her a goal in this episode beyond just being frightened for her life when she inevitably becomes the killer's final target. In fact, when Marty's dad does come to pay her a visit, she goes proactive, knocking unconscious the detective who'd been sent along with her to her apartment for protection, stealing the cop's gun, and shooting good old Pa herself. Early in the episode, we learn that Marty's led a troubled life, and, given that she's grown up with Horrible Bastard TV running 24-7 in her brain, it's amazing she isn't more of a wreck than she appears to be here.
That's one of the problems right there. This is probably a nerdy criticism to make, but I don't really understand why Marty isn't completely insane. I think it's possible for someone to have coped with her affliction (which, again, certain side-benefits aside would make life far harder than simply being blind), but not when they've been dealing with it from the moment they were born. Sight is arguably our most dominant sense, and Baby Marty would've been dealing with visions that had no bearing on her own life before she'd have a chance to start establishing her place in the world. I can't imagine the effect it would have, and maybe it wouldn't be that horrendous. Maybe someone could live as Marty does. But despite Taylor's best efforts, "Eye" just doesn't indicate it has thought through its premise as much as it should. Given what a striking premise it is, that's a shame.
I'm not sure what else there is to say about this one, really. Marty's efforts to try and stop her father from killing again were clever--well, it was the one effort, really, but the idea of her seeing what was happening, then using her one phone call in jail to call the bar her father was at to try and scare him off assaulting a blond, was clever. And the connection between Marty and Mulder over the course of the episode is deftly done. I don't want to read too much into it, but given "Eye"'s placement in the season, you can read something in the way Mulder comes around to suspecting something's not quite right with the situation, and then how quietly determined he is to prove Marty's innocence. Sure, Mulder's always been determined, but after the shake-up of his faith earlier, you could say this is him finally coming back to the light. Or just the show reverting to its regular routine. (The latter seems more likely.) Either way, the last scene, between Mulder and Marty in her cell as she calmly awaits going off to jail for killing her dad, is effectively sentimental. For once, and X-File ends in neither triumph nor tragedy. It's just a woman who made her choice, and is willing to pay the price for it.
Still, this won't make my top twenty list of favorite episodes. "Eye" has some interesting ideas, and a great actress, but it can't quite pull them together into anything hugely memorable. It's not the worst we've seen this season, but if we're going to go back to old routine, maybe we need to add a few new steps.
- A plot nitpick: Marty's dad has a signature move to his murders. He used this move on Marty's mom. You'd think the cops would've looked into this before Mulder does, when they were checking on Marty's background. It's also odd that nobody (not even Scully, although I could be misremembering) suggests that Marty could be working with an accomplice. Wouldn't that be the most logical explanation?
- Best non-Mulder/Marty exchange in the episode may be when the detective investigating the case accuses Mulder of being skeptical. Mulder's reaction is great ("Pfft. Skeptical."), and it also feeds into my "Mulder coming back into the fold" theory.
- "I hate the way you see me."
- And a great call-back: "Well, you're lucky he wasn't a fan of the Ice Capades."
"Roosters" (season 2, episode 16, first aired: 3/13/1998)
In Which There Are Nazis, and Frank Hates Those Guys
I watched this twice. I don't usually do that for reviews, because I don't have the time to, but I was so excited after watching "Owls" over the weekend that I went straight into "Roosters," without bothering to take notes. Then I watched it again a couple days later, so I could take notes. And even after that, I'm still not sure I unpacked everything correctly. Which isn't too surprising, considering how much there is to unpack. There's always a danger when a story tries to throw out this much back-story and mythology all at once, that it will overwhelm the viewer to the point where any narrative momentum dies on the vine. "Roosters" suffers a little from that, I'd say. It lacks the wild momentum of "Owls," and a large chunk of the episode is given over to characters delivering epic monologues explaining what's going on. The Old Man shows up again, only to die at the hands of the Nazi stooge who murdered Johnston at the end of "Owls," and it's sort of a big deal, and it sort of isn't. But while "Roosters" isn't an entirely satisfying pay-off, it still works well, giving us a better sense of where our main characters stand, and re-establishing Peter's friendships with Frank and Lara in a way that sets the direction for the rest of the season.
So--last week, Frank went all Taxi Driver on the guys doing surveillance outside his house ("Are you looking for me? I'm the only one here!"). I love the little smile of fury Henriksen gets on his face here, just to show you he's this close to crazy. Frank's journey this season shouldn't work as well as it does, given how much at odds it stands with the first season, and how much of it seems to happen seemingly at random, but Henriksen makes it work, and his shift from "calm voice of reason" to "grumpy misanthrope" has given him much more to work with. Where the character originally felt almost too perfectly wise, now, he has an edge that helps balance all the wacky conspiracies and prophesying going on around him. There are scenes in "Roosters" where it seems like Frank is about thirty seconds away from walking out of the room, or that the only reason he's sticking around is that the bad guys have just irritated him so damn much he doesn't want to give them the satisfaction. It helps sell Peter's utter sincerity and spiritual agony, because it adds a certain level of ambiguity. All this Owl and Rooster talk is more than a little silly, but by both committing to it completely and having a leading man who isn't entirely convinced, Millennium helps bridge the credibility gap.
The guys in front of Frank's house weren't from the Millennium group. It turns out there's another party struggling for power as we approach the end of days, the Odessa group, the ones who are responsible for Johnston's death, and the ones who gave Catherine a new job in order to get closer to Frank. These people are, of course, Nazis, because at this point in the show, who the hell else can you bring in to serve as outside villains--Freemasons? The Knights Templar? Genre fiction has gotten so much out of Hitler's love of occult memorabilia that it seems only inevitable that some descendant of the Third Reich show up here, all creepy and stabbing and villainous. Frank starts putting together pieces based off the painting he saw in Claire Knight's office, and the black and white newsreel footage that strikes him every time he starts poking around Aerotech, but it isn't until the Old Man arrives that everything becomes clear.
After getting fired last week by increasingly paranoid Peter (who believed she'd been recruited by Johnston to work with the Owls), Lara is still poking around the reports of Johnston's death. She discovers that Peter requested special infrared photographs taken of Johnston's corpse, and that those photos have been removed form the case file, something which Group Elder Philip Baker Hall isn't too happy about. There are a couple scenes in "Roosters" which cut back and forth between two different conversations; in the first, Peter is trying to explain himself to the Group Elder, while Catherine demands Frank finally give her some answers about what he's gotten her and their daughter involved with. It's a clever way to draw parallels between characters, and give the dialog scenes an extra visual punch, and it works especially well later in the episode, when we cut between Frank and The Old Man giving exposition to do different people. There's sense of momentum here that these scenes might've struggled to create on their own, as though a whole group of people who were once at odds with each other are being pulled together in the fact of a greater foe.
But I was talking about Lara, right? She discovers there are photos missing from the case file, and then she goes to light a cigarette, and the gets apocalyptic visions off the match flame. Which is just going to happen, I guess. (Johnston isn't hugely important in this episode, but if I'm remembering "Owls" correctly, the photos Peter ordered and pulled showed the lightning bolt insignia branded onto Johnston's neck by Helmut's ring.) A knock on her door awakens her from her trance, and, in a particularly Lynchian moment, Lara peers through the peephole in her front door and sees the Old Man waiting outside.
I kept getting Lynch vibes throughout "Roosters," like when we see the Nazi stooge (Helmut Gunsche, played by an imposing Bob Dawson) visiting his superior's home. The superior lives in a nice lake-front house that has all the trappings of warmth and respectability, and also a bloody Nazi flag in a frame on the wall. "Roosters" never quite reaches the fever pitch of terror that Lynch's most unsettling work can achieve, but it does a great job of mixing the banality with the strikingly evil, in a way that should be silly (that big Nazi flag hanging in a rec room is cartoonishly evil, so ridiculously brazen that you almost expect to see Hitler's head in a jar on the desk nearby), but is in fact deeply unsettling because it isn't silly. One of Millennium's greatest successes in its second season is its ability to invest a sense of real world consequences in the most absurd concepts. I mean, we have people straight-facedly and very grimly discussing the philosophical struggles of a group called "Owls" and a group called "Roosters," and it works, for the most part. X-Files took some risks with its alien abductions and government conspiracies, but at least there, it based its mythology off of existent paranoia and urban legend. Millennium started with millennial fears, then pulled in Biblical prophesy, and then decided, screw it, we're going all in, and this is the result.
There are so many threads here that it's not surprising a few come away under-developed. Catherine's new job at Aerotech, and her increased suspicions that not everything is what it seems to be, probably suffers the most, largely because the show has struggled with how much autonomy to give her character from the start. The scene where she finally calls Frank on all his evasions and denials is a good one, I think. Plenty of shows try and do this sort of "wife of the hero gets mad because he keeps doing heroic things" confrontation, and it often serves as a narrative roadblock, a sort of eat-your-vegetables moment that keeps us from all the fun action. Here, though, the edge in Megan Gallagher's voice makes her anger and desperation feel more than just an obligation. Frank really has been behaving strangely, and he really has been keeping her in the dark on a lot of things. Even better, this leads to a scene late in the episode when Frank actually does come clean on just about everything. Moments of honesty are often the high points of great drama, especially when they feel earned, as this one does. My only criticism is, as I said, Catherine's time at Aerotech seems so abrupt as to've been almost shoe-horned in. Sure, there's the great, creepy scene when she learns that the guy who tried to tell her the truth of what's going on has been killed, but despite Odessa's involvement in all this, it feels like a lot of effort for very little return.
By the end of "Roosters," the Millennium group has regained its commitment, and Peter has blown up the bad Nazi guy--which is great and all, but man, for Nazis, you'd think they'd put up a bit more of a fight. Maybe that's the point, though. The Old Man shows up on Lara's door, and she takes him to Frank, and he lays out the situation for them, basically saying, "The group is lost, but we've got to get our shit together fast." While Frank is trying to figure out what's going on with Catherine and her new creepy boss (the scene where Frank casually throws out some racial invective to set Knight's fascistdar pinging is a lot of fun), Lara takes the Old Man to Frank's old house, where he sleeps in the basement after telling Lara the history of how Odessa got started. Then Helmut shows up and stabs him where he lies. It's not so much that the Odessa group is all powerful; once Millennium gets back on track, they're able to arrest Knight and destroy the rest without much strain. It's more that the stakes here are so high that the good guys can't afford to get distracted by bickering among themselves. In the end, the Old Man accomplishes what he set out to accomplish, as his death reminds Peter where his true commitments lie, and what really pulls all of these characters together. For all its plots and counterplots, you can really view "Owls"/"Roosters" as a sort of emergency drill for our heroes, a test of their response to an external threat before the real danger arrives. As it stands, they come out okay, but they've still got some work to do.
- Apparently the Old Man lost a ton of weight after dying, or else the mummy that the group burns and buries is someone else's corpse.
- Man, Terry O'Quinn is just terrific. It's so great to see him get more to do this season than in the first, and his portrayal of an acolyte struggling with the demands and doubts of his faith does as much for Millennium as Henriksen's work. (It's also an undeniable set up for his work on Lost.)
- Funny how the Old Man sees a vision while struggling with Helmut. It seems fairly certain that the Old Man would've lost the fight in any case, but the vision does come at a really inconvenient moment for him.
- Oh, and the Group Elder winds up with the real piece of the cross in the end. Which is nice for him.
Next week: Todd gets a dose of that old time religion in "All Souls," and is tempted by the call of the "Siren."