“Patient X” (season 5, episode 13; originally aired 3/1/1998)
In which Mulder doesn’t believe in aliens, Scully sorta does, and cats and dogs become best friends.
The problem with breaking the status quo on a TV series is that your audience is always going to know in the back of its head that the status quo isn’t really broken. Now, obviously, I’m not saying the status quo should never change. That would be boring, and the best TV shows poke and prod at the limits of the central setup to see what can happen. But changes to the status quo usually work best when they push the characters and reveal new things about them. And one of the biggest problems with the generally enjoyable “Patient X” is that the episode hinges on the question the writers of The X-Files tried to make the central one of season five: Do we really believe that Mulder could lose his belief in the all-consuming alien conspiracy, his defining faith? And do we really believe that Scully could find herself dabbling with belief in these crazy notions?
And look: I enjoyed most of “Patient X.” This two-parter is the one where the mythology gets moving again, after chasing its own tail throughout much of season four and reaching a sort of climax in the opening episodes of season five. The Syndicate spends a scene talking about timetables and the plans of the aliens, stuff that hints at the ominous endgame here. We meet new, important characters in Cassandra and Jeffrey Spender, a multiple abductee confined to a wheelchair and an FBI agent who’d really rather Mulder and Scully not be talking to his mother, honestly. We learn that there’s yet another alien faction, composed of strange, faceless men with no eyes or mouths, and we see Krycek playing some sort of long con (or is it?) on the Syndicate. Plus, we get those horrifying images of mass gatherings of abductees that then turn into mass immolations, carried out by the faceless men. It’s a good, old-fashioned, “Look at all these new toys!” mythology episode, of the sort we haven’t seen since season three, and even if the mythology is too top-heavy at this point, I retain a lot of affection for it.
To be frank, I’m not sure these two episodes needed to be a two-parter. I’m watching “The Red And The Black” as I write this, and it’s a lot more action-packed. If you could combine these two episodes into one hour, it would be one of the best hours of season five, no question. But as a two-parter, the first half is just a little logy, moving at a pace that was even a little slow for the late ‘90s. This is an episode where a bunch of dudes without faces are burning people to death, and no one can quite figure out why, and there’s simply no urgency to it until Cassandra and Scully are in danger at the end. With the Cigarette Smoking Man dead, the show lacks a single, defining villain, so this episode tries to use a lot of amorphous concepts, also bringing back long-time heels Krycek and Well Manicured Man. This leaves things feeling a little scattered, in ways that might have been sharpened with shorter running time.
But there’s still a lot to like here. I’m a sucker for any scene where the Syndicate gets together in a room and talks about the things that are about to happen in cryptic fashion, and this episode has one of the better examples of the form, as everybody tries to figure out just what the fuck Krycek is up to. (We know that it somehow involves him finding the one guy who was witness to the mass slaying in Kazakhstan, seemingly infecting him with the black oil, then sewing his eyes shut. Apparently, this is all to test some sort of vaccine Krycek developed in his spare time with a My First Vaccination Development kit he purchased at a Kazakhstani K-mart.) It’s also an episode that offers plenty of great moments for Gillian Anderson to emote, particularly as she relates to Cassandra. Veronica Cartwright is a lot of fun as Cassandra (she was Emmy-nominated for her work), and she and Anderson make for a good team in their handful of scenes together. Plus, for as often as the show plays with the abduction trope, it’s still a damn good trope, and the scenes with lots and lots of people gathered to be taken up into the sky are always eerie.
If there’s a larger problem here, then, it’s Mulder, whose arc from belief to skepticism back to belief (to which we know he must return) has felt sort of arbitrary all season long, particularly since he’s still willing to believe in all kinds of other crazy shit. It seems sort of silly that he’d be totally fine with mad scientist genetic experimentation, descendents of the Ponce de Leon expedition who ended up evolving into super forest predators, and somebody with the power to control trees or something but draw the line at alien visitation and abductions, particularly since within the world of The X-Files, he’s got far more evidence for anything involving aliens than he does anything of those other things. Duchovny does a good job playing the bored cynicism of someone who’s lost his faith and has no patience for anyone who won’t get on board with his new theories, but the whole thing very much feels like the writers vamping for time while trying to make their way to the movie.
The biggest complaint usually leveled against this arc is the simple fact that we in the audience have seen enough in other scenes to know that the aliens really are around and experimenting on humans and doing stuff. I don’t think this is necessarily a problem, honestly. With a stronger, better-defined arc (one that likely would have run through the whole season), Mulder’s turn toward disbelief could have defined both his character and everybody else’s, building to a scenario where everything around him was falling apart, and we realized that his need to believe in this new theory was just as much driven by his desire to believe in a giant conspiracy as the alien theories were. (“The Red And The Black,” without spoiling too much, plays around with these ideas and is a stronger episode for it.) But because the story only really pops up in the mythology episodes, it feels grossly truncated. Mulder wasn’t sure he believed in little green men anymore back in “Post-Modern Prometheus.” Now, he’s angrily detracting others’ reports of abductions at some sort of UFO conference.
The question isn’t whether these character arcs are at all believable to the audience—TV can often use the audience’s greater knowledge of the full picture to help it stay a few steps ahead of the characters (see also: Lost). The question is whether they reveal interesting new things about the characters in the process. And I’m not sure this arc does. (Again, outside of some of the intriguing notions raised in “The Red And The Black.”) Mulder used to believe in this stuff; now, he doesn’t. It’s like the show flipped a switch and reversed its central character paradigm, simply because it could. And maybe that was the reason for doing so. Certainly by this point in the show’s run, Anderson and Duchovny would have been looking for new angles to play on their characters, and certainly the writers would have wanted to explore new permutations of what they could do. But without the time necessary to really explore this arc, it feels so abrupt that it hardly registers. It makes us more aware that the show is simply fucking around with its formula because it’s not nothing better to do.
But, hey, “Patient X” isn’t a bad episode by any means. Indeed, it’s quite a good one by post-season three mythology episode standards. It’s always fun to watch Krycek play his games, and the way he mercilessly toys with the poor Kazakh kid marks him as even more of a heel than he was before. And while I’m not entirely sure I buy his love match with Marita—or the way that Marita’s been used on the show in general—I very much enjoy the scene where she realizes she’s in way over her head as the kid appears outside the phone booth, oil dribbling out of his eyes. The best thing about the mythology episodes is that they really draw on the entirety of the show’s increasingly massive ensemble of recurring characters, and this one doesn’t even turn to staples like Skinner or the Lone Gunmen. Instead, the character roster expands ever outward, bringing in old friends (like Dr. Werber, who was in the pilot but then didn’t appear again until this episode) and introducing new characters like the enjoyably single-minded Agent Spender. (I know a lot of fans hate Spender, largely because he was seen at one time as the start of the show’s shift toward introducing replacements for Mulder and Scully, but I generally don’t mind him at all.)
Plus, it’s a very nicely directed episode, though one would expect nothing less from Kim Manners. That slow crane down onto the group on the bridge at the end is a beautiful shot, and Manners captures the wonder and awe in that group when the UFO appears above them, thrilling everyone. This is a show that always worked best when the threats were both wondrous and terrifying, and both the mass abductee gatherings and the faceless men give a sense of both sides of that coin. The script, by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz, has its ponderous, pretentious moments—like that opening monologue!—but it does most everything it needs to do well, including a very solid scene between Mulder and Scully that should be ridiculous (since the two are discussing how they’ve more or less switched positions entirely) but wins viewers over through sly humor and the actors’ performances.
And finally, the episode just feels epic, in a way the mythology episodes do at their best. There’s the international sweep of some of the messier season four mythology episodes, but the scattered feel coheres at the end, as nearly everyone comes together on the Eastern seaboard. And there are the stunning setpieces that marked the mythology episodes at their best and a strong sense that the audience will more or less put the pieces together when, say, Cassandra starts marking a constellation on her window with her fingerprints. The central emotional story is a little muddled and unconvincing, sure, but it’s more than made up for by the fact that the show again feels like it’s moving with something like a purpose.
- The burning man effects in this episode are very well done, the sorts of stunts you rarely see done on TV, even today.
- Doesn’t it always seem like everywhere Krycek goes is dank and horrifying? He goes from a dank gulag to a dank ship in this episode, and I have to assume he’s spreading seediness everywhere he goes.
- So I cheated and went ahead to next week’s episode because I couldn’t remember how the cliffhanger resolves, and I was even more impressed with the direction of that one. In addition, I’m fairly impressed by how the show paid off the Mulder arc, even if the whole ride there was bumpy.
“The Mikado” (season 2, episode 13; originally aired 2/6/1998)
In which Frank Black once again encounters the Zodi… er… Avatar serial killer.
The Zodiac killer is the American Jack the Ripper. His ability to lack detection, to evade capture, makes him seem almost supernatural. Actually, let me back up there. There are plenty of serial killers that evade capture all over the world. Where Zodiac managed to make himself immortal, to transcend being an unsolved mystery and become a crucial part of West Coast myth, was by making himself as much like a comic book supervillain as possible. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m suggesting the deaths of five people (or possibly more) are something silly or seemingly out of fiction, but the fact that Zodiac wore a hood for one of his killings and sent crazy ciphers to the local newspaper gave him a definite sense of somehow being unreal, a fictional character who had somehow stepped into San Francisco. And then he disappeared, with many trying to pin other murders on him and others trying to find suspects. But for all intents and purposes, he slid back into the pages of whatever fiction he wandered out of. (Plus, like Jack did for the London of his time, Zodiac neatly encapsulates this country’s own worst fears about itself in the ‘60s and ‘70s, which certainly helps his status.)
“The Mikado” is the one episode of Millennium’s second season that focuses on Frank and the Group pursuing a serial killer. It’s also one of the strongest episodes of the season, despite the first 15 minutes being absolutely lousy with lots of goofy, “The Internet is evil and is changing everything we know to be true about life!” moments. (It doesn’t help that Frank keeps barking about how he can’t work when he’s not out there in the real world, using his real senses. He can’t feel things through those wires!) But once the show starts unleashing its own spin on the Zodiac mythology—a spin that is virtually identical to reality in nearly every way—the episode takes off, becoming something creepy and strange and wonderful. If Frank had spent all of season two stalking Avatar, even if I think the show is stronger as a weird blend of religious conspiracy and mystical oddness, that would have been a show I would have watched excitedly. Sometimes, reality makes the best fiction.
What’s interesting is that this episode is very nearly a bottle episode. The events are largely confined to one room until the final 10 minutes or so, and even the stuff that steps outside before that point—like the cold open with the teenagers happening across the gruesome Web site at the center of the episode—takes place in a small, enclosed space. The show had been doing some pretty budget-busting things over the past few episodes, so this was likely a way to cut costs, and I don’t think Frank leaves the Group’s computer room until the very end, when he races off to San Francisco to find Avatar on his own. The fact that Frank and Peter are, in effect, trapped gives the episode an added sense of urgency, and the episode also comes up with a fantastic way to have a ticking clock that feels like a new spin on that hoary old device.
Three teenagers stumble upon a weird Web site while on the look for Internet pornography. (In the heady days of 1998, you could only find porn by searching for “naked girls.”) One of the three heard about this cool new site from some guy on a “chat room for perverts,” and once the boys pull it up, they see a woman bound to a chair, a number on the wall behind her, a Web site counter ticking away in the bottom right corner of the screen. The image refreshes every so often, as the computer dings away, and once the number at the bottom matches the number painted on the wall, a robed figure comes up behind the bound woman and slits her throat. The boys freak out and hit print screen, just before the Web site disappears completely. Their printout becomes the one thing Peter and Frank have to go on in their investigation.
From there, it’s a quick dive into terror over the role of the Internet in the world of 1998, of the sort we haven’t seen since, well, since “Kill Switch” on X-Files. Now, I can’t really blame the show for some of this. The wonder and awe that Brian expresses when the Web site starts redirecting IP addresses is definitely goofy, but, sure, I could see someone being enthralled by that in 1998. And if we’re being honest, the portrayal of the Internet here (thanks to Michael Perry’s script) is fairly accurate for the time. The Webcam isn’t showing a live stream, just a succession of still images. The counter at the bottom of the site seems to be the same one that was at the bottom of every Geocities page at the time. And the sense that the Web could contain just about anything you could think of fits the time as well, when randomly searching Yahoo would turn up obsessive, homegrown sites focused on whatever tiny little topic the author was most interested in.
No, the weirdness here stems from the general anxiety present in the world in 1998: What if the Internet was just a way to let the bad people get closer to you, indeed, to come into your very home via a computer? Today, in a world where we’ve lived with the Internet as a daily presence for nearly 20 years, this all seems kind of silly, but the show takes the idea so seriously that the opening of the episode often seems much too paranoid, in a way that never quite gels. But it’s all the setup for the abrupt turn into serial killer madness after the first third. As soon as Avatar gets involved, things go nuts in a good way, with Frank and Peter frantically trying to decode the ciphers he sends, Brian helping them discover the minute variations between ciphers (that resolve, somehow, into a sound file of The Mikado, which is used marvelously throughout the hour), and the ticking clock of the Web site hits turning into something that offers dramatic propulsion and a subtle commentary on the weird voyeurism that was all the rage on the Web at that time (and still is now, all too often).
No, what makes “The Mikado” work is that it takes the basic trappings of a Millennium episode from the first season, then runs them through the second season’s more mystical, supernatural bent. Nothing supernatural happens in this episode, but the weirdness is still ramped up about as far as it can go. Avatar, like Zodiac, SEEMS supernatural, even if he’s not, and the use of The Mikado gives him an even creepier edge. (The real Zodiac briefly quoted The Mikado in one of his letters.) And there are lots of other great little touches here, like that scene where Frank’s “gift” is transformed into mere words, words that end with him beginning to speak as the killer in the first person, seriously terrifying Brian. And the episode’s climax, with Frank meeting Avatar but having him escape—again via means that seem almost unearthly—is one of the best in the entire series’ run, with that great moment where Peter and Brian see Frank exit the Webcam frame… only to have Avatar enter it seconds later. Michael Perry has always been a strong TV writer, and this episode marks another example of him creating twisty, intriguing narratives. It’s an example of how the show might have gone, had it decided to continue with the serial killer stuff in its second season, an intriguing (and satisfying) example of a road not taken.
- It appears that the story the boys are reading at the very beginning of the episode is a piece of Space: Above And Beyond-esque fanfic. It’s not ACTUALLY for that show, but it shares enough in common with that show to be a nice, winking nod to Glen Morgan and James Wong’s earlier series.
- Lance Henriksen is very, very good in this episode (as is Terry O’Quinn), but the scene where he rants about how he can’t feel anything through THE WIRES is kind of silly.
- Man, are San Francisco police officers that big of dicks? What’s amusing to me is that they’re ultimately proved more or less right, as the trailer where Avatar’s been hanging out is in Oakland. (And, what’s more, I kind of wish the show had left more ambiguous the idea that Avatar didn’t die in the explosion, since the shot where he pulls the robe down over the dead man is more than enough for us to infer that on our own.)
Next week: Zack sees just how Scully gets out of this one with “The Red And The Black,” then meets more killers of the week in “The Pest House.”