"Never Again" (Season 4, Episode 13)
In Which Scully Has Adventures, And Mulder Goes To Graceland
I don't think I've ever hated Mulder quite like I hated him in the last scene of this week's episode. The show's mocked him before, it's poked holes in his arrogance and in his obsessive quest for the truth, and it's implicitly criticized the cost that quest has on him and the people close to him. But "Never Again" shows him at his absolute worst, and it's even more damning because his behavior here isn't that unusual. This isn't a Darin Morgan moment. We aren't deconstructing some of The X-Files core values in order to see them in a new light. It's just Mulder casually joking about Scully's recent experiences. Well, maybe "casually" isn't the right word. There's a sullen, little boy ignored feel to his dialogue at the end, and more than a fair bit of condescension as well. "Congratulations for making a personal appearance in the X-Files for the second time," he tells his partner. That moment, the gulf between them is made clear, and potentially irreparable: Scully has a life, but for Mulder, it's all just statistics.
As Scully herself says, though, "Never Again" isn't really about Mulder. Which is probably why he comes off so badly here. When Mulder's hunt for the truth is center focus, or when he's pursuing some bizarre monster, it's easy to overlook his character flaws, because he's basically the only person in his world who could do what he does. Shift that focus just left of center, though, and he's a spoiled ass. "Again" is a terrific episode for a lot of reasons: It's off-format in a way that feels perfectly organic with everything that's come before, it gives us a chance to see Scully acting like a person for once and not just the idealized mother/lover figure she so often is, and it's wonderfully directed, full of the stylish, clever touches that have come to define the series in its third and fourth season. (It's hard to think of another show from this time that looked so effortlessly cinematic as The X-Files.) It's also excellent because it finds a way to criticize Mulder without exaggerating his behavior in any way. He's still trying to be sympathetic here, and he's still charming. His self-absorption can't be dismissed as a gag. It's just in his nature.
Much the same way that Scully's attraction to authority figures is part of hers. After last week's big twist, it'd be easy to see Scully's behavior here, her attempts to reject Mulder's requests and her brief romance with a potentially dangerous stranger, as a response to the death sentence she hasn't quite finished reading. Given the order the episodes aired, it's nearly impossible not to see the final scene of "Betts," the blood stain on the pillow, as informing everything that happens here. But there's no mention of an illness, and Scully never coughs or appears physically drained. (Obviously not, seeing as how this was originally supposed to air before any hint of a cancer scare.) Ascribing her motivations to some sort of desperate need to spit in the face of mortality would be selling the character, and the episode, short. The issues "Again" raises, about the traps we fall into and about how awareness of those traps doesn't mean we can escape them, are ideas that would be relevant to the character whatever her health condition.
The episode points out the darker co-dependency of the Scully-Mulder dynamic, which is something that's existed from the very first season. The show has mocked the alien conspiracy theories before, but I can think of few starker examples than the exchange which starts the show (post-title sequence). Mulder is talking with an informant in front of the Vietnam Memorial, but we don't see him, or the informant. We see Scully, standing in the background, bored out of her mind. The boredom is funny enough, but what's really striking is the slightly lost look on her face, the one that seems to inspire her to wander off to the wall, read some of the names, and pick a rose petal off a dying flower. She's probably thinking about her father, which connects to her monologue later in the episode about her issues with the demanding men in her life. It's a scene of deep loneliness, made all the more effective because it's asking us to empathize with one lead at the cost of our admiration for another. Mostly, The X-Files is from Mulder's perspective, but here, we're siding with Scully. The informant's story is ridiculous, and spending a cold night lurking by the names of the dead, just to chase down another empty absurdity, can't be satisfying.
That's another thing I appreciate about "Again": It lets Scully be flawed. Generally, Mulder's the screw-up, even we aren't resenting his mistakes. He rushes in without thinking, he gets in over his head, and he's so righteous he sometimes forgets that just being right won't keep you from getting killed. Scully hangs back, and she cleans up the mess. Sometimes she gets threatened herself, but as the series has progressed, it's become more and more obvious that Scully is the grown-up in this partnership. There's nothing wrong with that balance, provided its acknowledged, and the show has done a decent job of never letting either character completely off the hook for their complicity in the dysfunction. But there's something a little one-note in always letting Scully be the ideal. Sure, her skepticism means she's nearly always wrong in terms of the facts of whatever case their investigating (which is funny, seeing as how the main reason a person would become a skeptic is that skeptics are nearly always right), but her solid, unshakable professionalism makes her a little too perfect. There's gotta be a reason she's sticking around in the X-Files, right? And it can't just be that she really wants to discover what all that black oil crap is about.
Here, we see Scully being impulsive, reckless, and far more human than we usually see her. Her relationship with Edward Jerse (Rodney Rowland, another Space: Above And Beyond alumnus) is doomed from the start, of course. Before they've even met, Ed's murdered someone, driven by the disembodied voice of Jodie Foster to near madness; worse, Ed's fury is based off a recent divorce and the emasculation and self-loathing that divorce inspired in him. Women bring out the worst in him, and seeing as how Scully is a woman and everything ... But their pairing off makes sense, and it doesn't rely on Ed's over-powering charisma or some weird chemical influence to work. He's obviously attracted to Scully from the moment he sees her (and who could blame him?), but his overtures are clumsy. He's not so inept as to be completely off-putting, but he's a long way from a smooth operator, which is why Scully allows herself to be seduced. It's startling how well their interactions work, how it makes sense that Scully would be drawn to Ed's awkward, fumbling honesty. We know he's dangerous, but she only gets a few hints of that, and those hints just add to the attraction. Justifying Scully's decision to get involved with a stranger is tricky business, but "Again" makes it work, because she's clearly trying to break old patterns. (I'm assuming Rowland's a looker, too.)
"Again" is also strangely structured for a X-Files episode; we've talked before about how the show is basically an anthology series with a small recurring cast and occasional serialized elements, but most episodes still follow a standard form. "Again" junks that form. Mulder's gone for most of the running time, and given the strained relations between the two, we don't get as many back-and-forth phone calls as we usually get in episodes when the leads are apart. Ed is the Monster of the Week, but while his circumstances have the trappings of an X-File, there's no core idea, like "man made of cancer" or "stretchy dude." He's just a deeply screwed up guy who gets a tattoo. Sure, the tattoo has a special kind of ink that's known to cause hallucinations, but as Mulder says at the end, there's not enough in his bloodstream to justify what he's hearing. This is the closest we've come to a non-paranormal episode since, what, "Irresistible"? Sure, Jodie Foster's voice-over is super creepy, and the direction is stylish enough that the episode feels of a piece with everything else, but, well, a friend of mine dismisses "Again" as an "erotic thriller knock-off," and while I disagree about the quality, plot-wise, he's not that far off.
Then why does this work so well? Giving Scully a chance to vent some of her frustrations about her life is an important step, for one. One of the strengths of The X-Files is its willingness to unabashedly criticize its core values, and it's hard to imagine the show ever getting much darker than this one does in its final scene. Mulder's inability to understand that Scully has a life outside of him, that final, brief shot, of the two seated, Mulder behind his desk, Scully a few feet away, and all the empty space around them. These are supposed to be our heroes. This isn't a Sopranos or a Breaking Bad. We're supposed to root for Mulder to find the Truth and for Scully to be at his side when he does without feeling guilty about the moral compromises they made to get what they want. But whatever happens for the rest of the show, this is the part of the truth of their connection, the broken psychology that binds them together. The real monster of "Again" is the way our need to connect with others makes us vulnerable, how sometimes it seems like the only response to that vulnerability, the only way to be safe, is blind, senseless rage. Scully, as always the sanest person in a world made of crazy, doesn't have that recourse. So she's left with an unshakable comprehension of exactly the position she's in and with no way to change it. Never again, indeed.
- How amazing is that long shot when Ed attacks his downstairs neighbor? The camera pulls back from the closed door, we hear her screaming (nice apartment building, by the way), we back down the hall, then to the stairs, and into the furnace room.
- Scully gets her own ink here, Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail, a symbol of infinity which seems perfectly appropriate to her character. And good lord, the scene where she gets the tattoo is, well, really hot.
- Why doesn't Scully have a damn desk?
- "We're going in an endless line. Two steps forward, three steps back. While my own life is standing still."
- "Not everything is about you, Mulder. This is my life." "Yes, but it's ..." That final exchange is so slight, and yet it's so impossible to shake off. There's something so mundane about it, no aliens or government conspiracies required. Mulder's inability to realize that there are priorities outside of his is such an ordinary monstrosity. We've all known people like that; we've all been people like that. And we've all been like Scully, sitting on the other side, unable to leave.
"Force Majeure" (Season 1, Episode 13)
In Which We Enter The Realm Of The Truly Bizarre
Well, that was different.
"Force Majeure" is like nothing else we've seen on the show this far. There's no sexually tormented serial killer, although young women do die. There's no ponderous rush of Bible quotes, no debating over the true nature of evil, no cops decrying the sad state of modern morality. For once, we have an episode that's more driven by plot than by theme, and, even better, that plot is sort of kind of pretty much batshit insane. While Chris Carter's authorial hand has never been in question, this is the first episode that seems to belong in the same universe as The X-Files, albeit on a slightly different planet. "Force" plays like a mythology episode, with Frank Black and Peter Watts as less eye-friendly stand ins for Mulder and Scully, and that's generally a good thing. The episode is just odd enough to be distinctive (Carter is wearing his Lynch on his sleeve even more than usual), and, beyond the pleasure of the series finally stretching its legs, it's nice to have a storyline that doesn't just exist to lecture us about how we're all going to Hell.
So here we are, 13 episodes into the first season, and does anybody really know what the hell the Millennium Group is? Or what Frank is doing with them, beyond a desire to stop bad people from doing bad things? One of the things that made The X-Files so successful in the early going is that by setting the main characters in the context of the FBI, it gave audiences something solid to hold onto. Whatever craziness Mulder was poking around in, however often the Cigarette Smoking Man lurked in the background, we had a clear sense of everything being backgrounded by a clear reality. Reports had to be filed, laws followed, badges presented. If you want to show society breaking down, you have to show us how it looks while the machinery still works, because otherwise, there are no real stakes.
So far, Millennium hasn't been doing a very good job with this. Oh sure, we all know that Frank has a wonderful home life, a loving wife, and a charming daughter and that these are all in danger from the horrible awfulness of the outside world. But the machinery that powers the series is still frustratingly ill-defined. Unpleasantness occurs, Frank shows up, wanders around a bit, hangs with the cops, and, eventually, stops the unpleasantness. He's more a superhero or a ghost than an understandable character, and while mystery is fine and Lance Henriksen remains fascinating to watch, we need something more than just abstract concepts of "Good!" and "Not good!" to hold onto. We know the Black family, we know Bletch, and we've met some of the Group, but they form no cohesive whole, and none of the relationships have much depth beyond simply reacting to current circumstances. Frank and Catherine love each other. Bletch is kind of sarcastic. Peter is ... well, he has a mustache, and he's Terry O'Quinn.
"Force" doesn't entirely fix this, but it does provide a crucial missing element: it gives the show a purpose. We've already heard vague comments the about the potential of the end of the world at the start of the next century, but this is the first episode to focus exclusively on those concerns, giving us more history with the Group and showing that there are other forces preparing for the year 2000. We get a new character, Dennis Hoffman (a nicely restrained Brad Dourif), and we get a potential future threat in the shape of the planetary alignments on May 5, 2000. Most important, we get a sense that there is a crisis that Frank will have to deal with that's more specific than just "social moral decay." And as crises go, this is pretty massive. I'm not sure that psychic impressions would do much good in the face of the end of the world.
Not all of this quite works yet, but it doesn't really need to. "Force's" biggest boon is accomplished in the opening five minutes. Instead of the usual serial killer freakshow, we start with a seemingly disconnected pair of scenes. A woman tells an old man in an iron lung, "Papa, it's begun." Then we cut to a college campus, where a sudden freak storm, complete with hail, forces a group of students to take shelter under a building's overhang. One of the students, who we'll later learn is named Maura, sees a friend, Lauren, crossing the quad. The friend is smiling, but she seems ... off. Lauren asks Maura for her lit cigarette. When Maura complies, Lauren bursts into flame.
It gets weirder form there. Frank gets involved with the case after Catherine is called in to deal with Lauren's grieving (adoptive) parents, and while he's investigating, someone keeps preceding him every step of the way. When they finally meet, that someone, Dennis, has a lot to say about the planetary alignment, about the model of the solar system in Lauren's room. He claims he's part of the Millennium Group, but Peter says he's more a fanboy than anything else; when he found out the group existed, Dennis tried to force his way in, but they politely passed on his kind of crazy. Only now, it looks like he might not have been that far off.
Also, did I mention there are clones? Well, not clones, identical twins who are separated by seven years. (Although there's not a whole lot of effort to age or de-age the actress, Kristi Angus, who plays most of the twins. Which actually makes everything seem even more surreal, so that's fine.) That old guy in the iron lung, he knows about the upcoming doomsday scenario, and he decided to create a race of super-smart kids to take over the world after civilization crumbles. He spread his children all over the US, but now he's dying, and they aren't very happy about it. Or something. Honestly, I'm still not entirely sure why Lauren, then Lauren's younger sister, Carlin, kill themselves. It sounds like they were upset to hear that the "1000 days have begun," but isn't that the whole point of their existence? Maybe they were broken up over the old guy's impending death. Or maybe they're terrified about losing all their non-cult-based friends and family. It's hard to tell, as Angus isn't the most expressive actress in the world. (In her defense, she's not given much to work with.)
"Force" was a lot of fun to watch, though, even if it didn't entirely come together. The script is Carter and company's usual hodepodge of crackpot theory and weird extemporization, but it's a huge relief to shift away, even for a week, from the grind of heavy-handed murder parties that define so much of the series. And whether or not it all makes sense, there's enough fantastic imagery at work here that I simply don't care. The twins are a wonderfully innocent/creepy image (although what the hell is it about Carter and identicals? I'm tempted to make some sad joke about his love of repeating himself, but I won't), and the two suicides are missing the ugly, exploitive quality that the series too often uses. Dennis, sneaking away on the bus of girls so he can join in their reindeer games? Even though we don't get to know him that well, it's a great scene. The best, though, is the old man in the iron lung. The rasping noises of the machine; his bulging, perpetually shocked expression; his voice, just on the other side of shrill. This is absurd, eerie perfection. It doesn't need to make sense. Nightmares rarely do.
- "Your daughters are crying down there." One of the problems of this episode is that it's never entirely clear what the extent of the old man's crimes is, but Frank's line is direct enough that the crimes become almost irrelevant. The old man is responsible for the pain and suffering of those he created, and that makes him guilty.
- The last scene, when we find out that Jordan has been accepted to a great school, and that she's "home free until 2010," is a little blunt, but necessary. With all the absurdity that drives the episode, it's nice to have a final reminder that there are some potentially very real consequences for Frank and his family.
In two weeks: Happy Christmas! We'll be off next week due to the holiday, but look for us in the New Year, when Todd sees Scully get some very bad news in "Memento Mori," and walks down "The Thin White Line."