“Schizogeny” (season 5, episode 9)
In which M. Night Shyamalan, regretfully, gets some ideas.
“Schizogeny” just might be the very worst episode of The X-Files. A part of me wants to think that some season one—“Space,” maybe?—or season nine hour is worse, and that’s why I’m hedging my bets with the D- here. The show was at least at a point where it was at the full heights of its directorial powers, and there are some lovely shots here, particularly one of Mulder running around a house in a foggy evening, coat billowing behind him. But the fact that the show was pretty much solid all the way through at this point makes “Schizogeny” even more disappointing. The show shouldn’t have let something THIS crappy get on the air at this point in its run. Season five is for resting on your laurels and growing too comfortable with average, sure, but doing something this bad? That’s more of a season seven or eight kind of thing. Because this thing is BAAAAAAAAD.
As with “Sanguinarium,” the last outright stinker I had to review for this feature, the episode was penned by a team of freelancers, in this case Jessica Scott and Mike Wollaeger, who would parlay this gig into work on a handful of other science fiction series (and if you want to know more about the role of freelancers in '90s TV, click the "Sanguinarium" link above). Wollaeger seems to have mostly dropped off the map since the early 2000s, while Scott has written a bunch of kids TV. And far be it from me to cast aspersions on their other work based on this episode. It’s a tough thing coming onto an established hit show and having to come up with ideas that will work as episodes of that show, and it’s a tough thing to adapt the show’s voice so thoroughly that it seems like you’ve been a part of it from the first. (No less a writer than Vince Gilligan managed this trick in season three, but he had the head start of a previous X-Files freelance assignment.) I get the pressures involved. But man, I’m surprised people hired these two again based on this.
Right from the start, the tone is off. Well, the cold open isn’t terrible, as these things go. A man is terrorizing a teenage boy—his stepson, as it turns out—and making him march outside to finish digging a giant hole he had apparently been tasked to dig earlier. The boy shakes his shovel in the man’s general direction, then takes off into the woods. As his stepfather pursues, the man is drawn down into the mud, unable to fight whatever is sucking him downward. When the boy’s mother comes upon the two, she’s shocked to see her son hovering over her husband, and it sure seems like he’s killed his wicked stepfather, but the positioning of the shot is so obvious that it seems like it’s covering up the fact that the kid was trying to save his stepdad and was just as freaked out about this “living mud” thing as his stepfather was. It’s not exactly elegant, but it gets the job done. Fair enough.
But right away in the next scene, we’re stuck dicking around with a Mulder who seems oddly callous, seeing the 12 pounds of mud Scully’s dug out of stepdad’s stomach and lungs. "Is it possible he took the term mud pie literally?" he says, and it’s such a howlingly bad line that David Duchovny seems intent on milking every bit of awfulness out of it, his deadpan curiously enlivened by it. (Later, when he comes across a desiccated corpse with tree roots sticking out of it in the wall of someone’s cellar, he’ll say, "Talk about puttin' down roots,” and the guy seems incredibly embarrassed.) The show doesn’t even really bother to make this a proper X-File. While there are mysterious circumstances surrounding the death—the involvement of the boy, who seems unlikely to have pulled this off on his own, even with a pre-dug hole; the fact that stepdad was buried standing up and awfully quickly—the show doesn’t really bother with them. The overriding sense is that this is an X-File because the show is called The X-Files.
From there, we head off into the rural Michigan wilderness to meet with the most uninspiring troupe of guest actors the show might have ever assembled. We’ve got stepkid, whose name is Bobby and whom Chad Lindberg occasionally plays with an incredibly terrible accent. We’ve got his crush, Lisa, played by Lisa Baiocchi, who at least seems to be trying somewhat. We’ve got a mysteriously accented man who wanders around with a hatchet and babbles about the trees. And then we’ve got the thing linking all of these people together, the counselor Karin, played by Sarah-Jane Redmond, who was remarkably effective as Lucy Butler on Millennium but is given something that’s not quite a character to play here and doesn’t rise to the challenge. When the final act involves Karin and Bobby facing off, with Mulder getting trapped by a root as well, it’s hard to care about any of it. You almost want all of them to get dragged down into the mud, then have the next episode begin with Mulder striding into his FBI office to the shocked expression of Scully, with him saying, “What? I get one restore.”
Anyway, in case you couldn’t guess, Karin is the bad guy here, and it’s the way in which she’s a bad guy that ultimately dooms this mess. Karin, see, was terrorized by her father as a young girl (he’s the corpse we met in her cellar), and somehow, this gave her POWER OVER TREES. There are some hints as to how this is possible and there are occasional nods in the general direction of why all of this could be happening and Karin’s dad being a “very bad man” who damaged the trees or something, but for the most part, the show just blithely doesn’t even bother to explain why this might be happening. At least “Sanguinarium” tried to explain its Satanic worship bullshit. One imagines Scott and Wollaeger came up with “Trees kill people,” realized how dramatically uninteresting that was—but not before offhandedly mentioning the concept to best pal M. Night Shyamalan, who stored it away in his “to use someday” file—then tried to come up with a human antagonist but KEEP the tree thing. It works about as well as you’d imagine.
But here’s the thing: The more Scott and Wollaeger try to continue explaining this and tie it into the idea of child abuse, the less it attains any of the power or tragedy they want it to have. Instead, it just becomes very, very funny. Karin has been having her various clients relive her trauma with her own father, thus giving them the idea their parents were hurting them, thus giving her and the trees license to kill. Why? Not really explained. Just supposed to be a deep sign of how much she’s hurting. (At one point, Mulder turns to Scully and says, “I think she’s the killer AND the victim,” and you can see Duchovny already bailing just as soon as his contract’s up in season seven. Yes, I’m saying “Schizogeny” singlehandedly chased him from the show.) And this abrupt shift into being a powerful examination of the long-lasting legacy of child abuse on its victims (with killer trees!) just continues, with the show doubling down both on the plant mayhem AND the lessons about how much abuse hurts the abused.
Damaged teenagers (or adults damaged as children) were sort of the stock-in-trade of The X-Files for a while, but “Schizogeny” does none of these characters any favors. It treats them all as weird tree puppets in a half-realized piece of X-Files fan-fiction (complete with obligatory “Mulder flirts with Scully” moment when he asks if she’s turned on by him climbing a tree). By the time our weirdly accented groundskeeper has chopped off Karin’s head with an axe, sending both pieces of her body sinking into the mud, you won’t just be wondering why you decided to watch this episode; you’ll be wondering why you decided to watch a show that could produce an episode this bad, period. The buck ultimately stops with Chris Carter on this series, and that he allowed an episode this bad to get on the air this late in the show’s run is a sign of just how lackadaisical he could be with this show. It’s not even like this is a failure with interesting ideas or bold concepts; it’s a failure that takes all of the usual X-Files nonsense and spins it around in completely uninteresting ways. (It even has a ponderous closing narration from Mulder, for God’s sake.) I’m sure someone finds something to enjoy in “Schizogeny,” but for me, it’s likely the series’ low point.
- I had a friend who was insisting that season five was her favorite season of them all and the show’s most consistent. I sort of boggled at that, being a season three man, myself, but when I went to look at the episodes in this season, I could sort of see where she was coming from, what with the way the first five and last five are all solid and the way “Bad Blood” is a classic and the way even “Christmas Carol” and “Kill Switch” have their moments. But that stretch from “Emily” to “Chinga”? That’s as bad as this show ever got, and that’s in one of the seasons generally accepted to be “good.”
- Mulder even gets the “ich bin ein Berliner” thing wrong in this episode. You’d think he’s at least know that was an urban legend (though so far as I know, he never had much of an interest in the Kennedy conspiracies).
- Most ridiculous thing about Karin: Sometimes, she talks in a lowered version of her own voice, meant to be her “father.” But they didn’t ask Redmond to just do this practically on set. They’ve actually pitched down her voice, so that she sounds like a vengeful ghost, but a really stupid, not particularly terrifying vengeful ghost.
“Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense” (season 2, episode 9)
In which Jose Chung is right about pretty much everything.
It’s natural to think that if you could simply be happy all of the time, everything would be so much better. Pain, sadness, misery, anger, bitterness… it’s so easy for all of them to overwhelm us, to make us into someone we don’t even recognize and wash us over with darkness and bile, until we feel more controlled by them than we feel in control of ourselves. The paradox, of course, is that we need these feelings to ever be truly happy. Just as God can’t be God without the devil, happiness doesn’t feel like happiness unless you know its rough opposites. Yet we keep trying to banish that darkness and smile away the pain, whether we use belief systems or life philosophies or sheer force of will to grin until we’re feeling better, dammit. And there’s some psychological basis for the idea that if you just keep trying to control your mood, you’ll eventually be able to, that by pretending to be happy, you’ll actually become happy. But that can’t work forever, can it? I dunno. I’d never trust someone who was always smiling. I’d assume they were trying to keep something REALLY dark at bay.
At times, “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense” feels like Darin Morgan, who’d been away from TV for about 18 months at that point, simply defragging his brain, getting all of the ideas he’d been saving up since his last teleplay, X-Files classic “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” out into the open. The first 15 minutes or so of this episode have a rushed, breathless quality to them, as though Morgan’s afraid the Fox executives will burst on set in the midst of all of this and shut down production. There are ideas aplenty, but they’re not really adding up to anything more than Morgan’s usual cleverness. He’s having fun, and he’s tossing out some pretty goofy satire of Scientology, but it’s not really resonating, not like any of his X-Files scripts did. Even his wackiest episode there—“War Of The Coprophages”—had quite a bit going on in regards to questions of what it means to get caught up in a craze. Here, it just feels like Morgan, who had an Emmy and pretty much everybody in TV begging to bring him on as a staff writer at that point, is fucking around for a while while he still can.
But “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense” sneaks up on you over the course of its 45-minute running time. It’s unquestionably Morgan’s messiest script to this point (and this is a guy who’s pretty much known for throwing every single idea he can think of into a script, as if he’s afraid they’ll leak out of his brain if he doesn’t get them out on paper). But it’s also one of the strongest Millennium episodes to date, largely because it points out some of the show’s ridiculousness, has a good laugh about it, then pushes ever deeper into Morgan’s favorite theme: The most mysterious thing on Earth is other people, and the sooner you realize that fact, the sooner you can make peace with your own mortality and stop chasing phantoms. It’s a grim theme, admittedly, but Morgan always makes it seem somehow playful and vaguely hopeful.
“Doomsday Defense” combines elements of all of Morgan’s previous scripts, but the most obvious one is Jose Chung himself. Where he was simply an audience surrogate in his X-Files episode, someone to help us untangle the threads of the complicated story there, here, he’s a full-blown part of the action, hopping on board with Frank and Peter when he learns that what Frank does isn’t so very different from writing a novel, really. There are times when this episode threatens to turn into the “Darin Morgan pontificates about the world of the late ‘90s via his mouthpiece, Jose Chung” episode, and there’s a LOT of Chung here (and I say this as someone who really likes the character). But Charles Nelson Reilly is so playful, and the episode has such a spirited core that it’s hard to hold any of this against the script. It’s a little preachy here and there, maybe, but it’s also exceedingly clever and possessed of two or three bravura sequences where you sort of stop thinking about this too much and just sit back and enjoy.
Chung crosses paths with Frank because he recently visited with someone hailing from the religion of Selfosophy, started by Onan Goopta, a hard-boiled crime fiction writer who wasn’t very good and was a rough contemporary of Chung’s when the two were just starting out. The man who visited him (a nicely unhinged Patrick Fabian, who would go on to guest star in pretty much everything in 10 years time) has wound up dead, electrocuted, and Chung concocts an elaborate scenario about how the man was visited by a Selfosophy Psycho, a man who questioned him using an Onan-o-Graph, which is a lie detector (with a cassette player!). The tape player malfunctioned, and our first man was electrocuted. The Psycho beat a hasty retreat, and now he lies in wait, hoping to strike again, ideally at Chung himself, whose short story about Selfosophy in the back pages of pornographic Playpen magazine has so angered selfosophists that there may be a target on Chung’s head.
Now, I think Morgan’s gravest error here probably involves overcomplicating the plot unnecessarily. He soon groups the Psycho together with a Nostradamus Nut, a long-haired man with a pickaxe who wanders the city, killing first his girlfriend’s professor, then his girlfriend, then Chung himself (who ends the episode dead, which is too bad). The shift into the stuff about Nostradamus feels too abrupt and poorly motivated, and Morgan doesn’t have the same affection for mocking end-times prophecy as he did Selfosophy. He’ll make fun of Frank and Peter, sure, but he doesn’t get the same joy he got out of mocking Mulder back on X-Files. Morgan scripts almost always pick apart the various flaws of whatever show he happens to be writing on (I would have loved to have seen what he might have done on the first season of Fringe had he actually written a script), but Millennium is still a show in search of a hard formula, and that makes it harder for him to pick it apart. (He’ll be much more successful in his other Millennium script later this season.)
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a lot of fun on the way toward his conclusion. I like the way that Chung turns into, basically, Clyde Bruckman, predicting not only his own death but the deaths of others, simply by coming up with the story he thinks would be most interesting. And I love the episode’s constant self-referentiality, the idea that this is all a story taking place in someone’s head somewhere. The hero of Goopta’s early crime fiction was a freelance forensic profiler, wandering the country and solving crimes. Chung dismisses this idea as ridiculous, and we agree with him, until we realize that, hey, that’s pretty much Frank’s job description, too. Chung comes along with Frank on his investigation, and wouldn’t you know it, just making up the killers’ motivations seems to work pretty well, suggesting that Chung almost willed the man who will later kill him into existence, a form of literary suicide.
Later, in the episode’s best sequence, Chung’s novel—now incorporating one Frederick Blork—dissolves into Frank sitting in his room writing up a criminal profile, which dissolves into the Psycho sitting in a coffee shop and writing a terrible, terrible screenplay version of one of Goopta’s novels, which then wraps back around to Chung. It’s a moment that threatens to drown itself in meta-commentary, but it somehow evades that fate, largely thanks to the sly little jokes here about how Chung and Frank reach the same basic conclusions but only Chung is truly honest about his methods or the truly inspired Psycho line, “My writing is so much better since I got this new software!” (Truly the motto of everyone who’s ever spent hundreds upon hundreds of dollars for Final Draft.) But there’s also the overriding sense here that writing and murder are kind of the same thing: It’s all about taking control over people and making them what you would rather they be. Granted, one of those two acts is carried out on fictional people (and is thus socially acceptable), but when you’re in the heat of the moment, it can FEEL like violating someone.
The episode chugs along nicely in this gear for most of the running time. Unlike “From Outer Space,” it never finds a closing moment that powerfully ties all of these ideas together, and the double fakeout of the Psycho racing off, only to be followed by the Nut, feels a little cheap. There’s a scene where Frank bursts in to investigate a crime, only he’s actually imagining himself as the hero of one of Goopta’s novels, and it’s very funny, sure, particularly to see Lance Henriksen with such ridiculous hair, but I’m not really sure it adds anything beyond Morgan getting to show off how clever he is (and, well, getting to see Lance Henriksen with ridiculous hair). Similarly, a scene where Frank and Chung bond over the fact that they’re both impermanent, that everybody thinks they live in the most significant times ever and never actually does, is very well written, but it feels shipped in from another episode entirely, as does Chung’s closing monologue about how the millennium will be another 1,000 years of the same old crap (and, as it turns out, he’s right).
The problem, then, is that this is an episode about the Selfosophy Psycho grafted onto an episode about the Nostradamus Nut. I like both of these episodes, and I like Chung’s role in both of them (particularly his role in the Nostradamus episode), but I don’t know that they naturally fit together. The Nostradamus stuff feels like Morgan mocking the show for its interest in end times prophecy and its dark and dour mood with random serial killers popping out of the bushes in every direction. (Though, really, Morgan’s most trenchant criticism of the series arrives in a single word that Giebelhouse keeps using when Frank turns up: “millenniumistic.”) The Selfosophy stuff feels more like Morgan really having a lot to say about Scientology (or most controlling religions and belief systems) that think the world is better if you can eliminate misery entirely. Again, there’s lots of good stuff in both episodes, but the very act of combining them gives both of them short shrift simultaneously. When Chung makes his heartfelt plea to the Psycho to let him wallow in misery in peace, it feels about as unearned as when Chung talks about the same old crap.
On the other hand, this is the first time I’ve ever seen this episode. I’ve been saving this Morgan episode for years, having seen all of his others (though now I have two whole episodes of Tower Prep waiting for me!). So I’ve lived with those and parsed out their intricacies and figured out exactly how I feel about them. And the first time I saw, say, “War Of The Coprophages,” I didn’t think it was awesome as I do now. So there’s every likelihood that this episode will grow on me in much the same way. It’s certainly one of the best Millennium episodes to this point, and it’s certainly the funniest hour of the show so far, the kind of hour that nicely deflates some of the pomposity built up until this point. Yet it’s also hard to see it as anything other than a goof. A well-executed goof, yes, but nothing more.
- I also didn’t bother writing down quotes, even though there are a host of hilarious ones in the episode. Feel free to turn comments into a quote party, if you like.
- Do we ever learn just how the Fabian character died? Are we meant to take Chung’s hypothesis at face value, since every other prediction he made ended up being accurate?
- I dunno. It’s just WEIRD to have Lance Henriksen smiling so much.
- Great sight gag: David Duchovny is the movie star whose embrace of Selfosophy has advanced his career to the point of superstardom.
- Another X-Files-related gag: The hospital where Goopta convalesces is named after producer Frank Spotnitz.
- While I love the random shot of whatever Reilly film that is in the opening monologue, the whole thing goes on a bit long and is fairly self-indulgent.
- So far as I know, Megan Gallagher doesn’t turn up in Morgan’s other Millennium script either. Considering how well he wrote for Gillian Anderson on X-Files, it’s disappointing that he has just as little of an idea of what to do with Catherine as anyone else on this show. (Then again, he seems less interested in what to do with Frank here than he is in basically turning Chung into the protagonist.)
Next week: Zack checks in with his ol’ pal Stephen King for “Chinga,” then watches the strangely moving Millennium Christmas episode, “Midnight Of The Century.”