The X-Files: "The Curse Of Frank Black" / Millennium: "Christmas Carol"

The X-Files: "The Curse Of Frank Black" / Millennium: "Christmas Carol"

"The Curse of Frank Black" (Season 2, Episode 6)

In Which Frank Haunts, Is Haunted

I used to wake up in the middle of the night and believe that I was dead. It doesn't happen anymore, at least not often. But five or six years back, when I was living alone, I didn't sleep well. Sometimes there would be dreams I wouldn't remember, and other times I would wake up around two or three am, the numbers on my alarm clock like red slashes in the darkness. I'd lie there staring at the ceiling, and I'd think, "It finally happened." At first, I'll have no idea what that means, because when I just wake up, I don't even really remember my name--I'm not Zack Handlen, struggling writer and mediocre librarian's assistant. I'm pure consciousness in an unfamiliar meat suit, and something has happened, and that's all I know, and in the seconds that follow that first realization, the truth comes to me: I've died. I'll climb out of bed and stand there, eyes adjusting to the street light out my window, and I'll feel this urge to--to what? I'm dead. Doing things is over now, and it's sort of a relief, really. This is the twist at the end of whatever movie I'd been running through, and whatever happens next, at least I don't have to be worried anymore.

This is what living alone is like. Because the worst part of those strange, mortal moments wasn't any quality of the moments themselves; in their way, they were a kind of relief, like finally getting around to a dental appointment I'd been putting off. The worst part was the queer certainty with which those moments lingered in my mind, as though this was the real truth of it, as though all those silly things I clung to like having a name or walking around talking to people or writing was just smoke and mirrors designed to distract me from an unshakable reality. Living alone doesn't make you afraid of ghosts. It makes you afraid you are a ghost, in the deep wells of the night when the rooms stretch and the empty spaces press in from all sides.

"The Curse of Frank Black" is the best episode of Millennium yet, by a long chalk. It's playful, mordant, wonderfully spooky, which is really, all you can ask for in a Halloween story. It doesn't precisely give up on the craziness that's coming to define this season, but it hones that craziness to a fine point, focusing largely on one night of Frank's life, following him as he takes his daughter trick or treating, deals with some teenagers telling ghost stories in his basement, and then gets a visit from an old acquaintance with a tempting offer. That's roughly it. There's no multi-layered plotting, not a whole lot in the way of twists, no sudden betrayals, no fresh murders to solve. There's roughly ten pages worth of dialog in the whole forty-three minutes and change, and much of it is Frank grunting, saying "Huh?" or "D'oh!" I can't think of another hour of this show that's made better use of Henriksen's face than "Curse" does, but he's given no big Emmy moments, no grand speeches, no heartfelt pleas about how much he loves his daughter. And yet he's fascinating throughout, as is the episode as a whole.

One of the reasons for that fascination is that this is an off-format ep, and those are nearly always good news. By now, we've come to expect a certain form to our weekly dose of Millennium, and even as wild as its gotten in its second season, the show has generally stuck to the structural pattern it established in season one. Yes, we don't have Bob Bletch and the police department as a home-away-from-home, but there's still the Millennium Group goading Frank on, there's still a fresh case each week to pick apart. Frank will fly into some city or town, meet up with some guest star who'll guide him through the particulars, then he'll get flashes about what's really going on. And--well, okay, I've done this kind of summary before, there's no need to get into it here, because what I'm getting at is simple enough. Millennium isn't what I'd call a procedural, but, like most hour-long dramas, it usually stays on roughly the same path. 

"Curse" doesn't, and that gives it a lot of power right from the start. There's no crime here, at least nothing fresh. We open with a shot of a black cat sitting on the stoop outside Frank's new house, and when we go inside that house, full of long shots of the emptiness and shadows riding across walls in ways that aren't precisely comforting, Frank's carving a Jack O' Lantern. As cold opens go, this isn't precisely terrifying, but it sets the stage for everything to come, because this is spooky right here. This isn't sex crimes or cults or drug loonies or serial killers. This is ghouls and goblins and demons, spooks that light candles after the wind blows them out, and turn friendly pumpkin grins into menacing growls. This is play, but there's a bite to it. That Jack looks like fun, but I wouldn't want to stick my hand inside, because I'm pretty sure nothing would happen? Pretty sure. Except...

The whole episode sticks to this tone. It's full of clever nods to itself, like the way Frank says "D'oh!" before going to pick up Jordan, who's wearing a Marge Simpson costume. (We never see Catherine except in flashback, which makes sense. If any holiday would belong to Frank alone, it's this one.) Or the hilariously elaborate robot costume Frank runs across, which could be a nod to Morgan and Wong's Space: Above and Beyond, or a wink at Henriksen's sci-fi movie past, or else just a reminder of how the whole night feels, like wandering around on an alien world. And of course, there's the 268 that haunts "Curse" for much of its running time, on the backs of football jerseys, on matchbooks, on price tags, on car stereos, on odometers, and the ACTS that sometimes accompany the numbers, leading Frank ultimately to the Bible verse, "Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?" Which leads to the episode's climax: a long monologue from Dean Winters, making Frank a special one-time offer from beyond the grave.

Look, all this end-of-the-world stuff is great. Everybody loves a good apocalypse. But it's hard to sell dramatically, because it's so big, and because shows hardly ever have the budget for the necessary scope. We keep hearing hints about a impending cosmic struggle, about how demons roam the Earth and angels from heaven send signs to the faithful, but in order for any of this to work, in order to make it more than just weirdly hilarious apocrypha and back-story, we need a central, core idea to hold on to. And "Curse" gives us that idea. At one point, Frank comes across a group of teenagers in his old house, and one of the teens is telling the others about "Frank Black" and how every Halloween, the Devil torments Frank with souls of the dead to drive him insane. Which is sort of the truth, but not entirely. The teen telling the story makes a big deal about how Bletch died in the very basement they're all in, but we never see Bletch, as specter or otherwise. 

Because there are no ghosts. Frank says this multiple times, and you could read this as simply whistling against the darkness, but I think there's more to it. Ghosts are, in their way, a symbol of hope--they imply an existence beyond this one, that there's more to life than simple quantum mechanics and hungry worms. What Frank sees up in the attic could be the spirit of a man from his childhood who died decades ago, a veteran who asked a younger Frank for hope that he might see his old dead war buddies again. But I think it's more likely that Dean Winters is actually a demon in disguise, or else an echo of a soul trapped in Hell (the living Winters committed suicide, and we all know where that leads you). We don't see Bletch because Bletch is, presumably, up in Heaven, and God (Bible quotes or otherwise) isn't in the habit of sending people back down to give comfort to those still fighting the good fight here on Earth. And that's troubling, because when Dean makes his pitch, there's no one to provide a counter-offer. He tells Frank, "You're turning into me. You're throwing eggs at your house, and people are scared of you, because you're out here alone, fighting--and for what? Sit this one out, buddy. Sit on your hands, and after its over, there will be a place for you and your family." And then he disappears, and no angel pops in to remind Frank, Hey, win one for the good guys, okay?

Like I said, living alone does strange things to your mind. And even if there's no such thing as ghosts, it becomes harder and harder to believe that you're still a part of the world, that you aren't just another monster, haunting the edges, screaming at the air. It must be difficult to stay strong under such circumstances, against an opponent that can infiltrate seemingly every aspect of your life, that can send familiar faces to torment you with guilt, when there's no sense that any of it means anything, that even if you did stay strong, you could find a happy ending somewhere. Frank does seem briefly tempted, and it's clear the strain is getting to him (vandalizing the architectural symbol of your hopes and dreams is never a good sign), but the next morning, he gets up and takes a sponge and a bucket of soapy water back to the old house, and he wipes off the dried egg gunk. That's what you do; you clean up the mess, even though you know it won't be the last mess. You get up in the morning, because that's how you prove you're still alive. 

Grade: A

Stray Observations:

  • In case I didn't make this clear, you should really watch this episode if you haven't already. It's basically delightful.
  • How cool was the demon that Frank keeps getting glimpses of? I love how unrealistic it looked--like, it could maybe be somebody in a costume. But you know it isn't. (This kind of monster design terrifies me, because it looks a little silly. I think it's because I can't immediately dismiss it as impossible.)
  • Frank, scaring the kids away: "Except if you look over here. And leave the suds." 
  • Frank, seeing some old clothes: "Now that's scary." (It sounds corny out of context, but Henriksen delivers the line well.)

"Christmas Carol" (Season 5, Episode 6)

In Which Scully Is Visited By The Ghost of Christmases Past 

Family is just the worst, isn't it? Especially around the holidays. I used to love Christmas, and I love my relatives, but as I get older, I'm finding it increasingly difficult to combine the two in a way that allows me to not go full Scrooge. And my family isn't anywhere near as irritating as the Scullys. While Mulder is off doing whatever Mulder does late December (the one brief shot of him we get in the episode, he's coming back from jogging and wearing a ridiculous hat), Dana Scully is off with her mother visiting her brother Bill, and his pregnant wife, Tara. Scully's come down from her cancer woes, so it's time the show finds her a new ongoing plotline, which means once again finding some way to pull more story out of Scully's abduction. Man, you get kidnapped by the government/aliens and get injected with a microchip and you just never hear the end of it. 

"Carol" is generally a terrific episode, and I'll get to why it's terrific in a second, but I do think it's worth noting how every time Scully gets a storyline on this show, it's always because something is being done to her. Mulder's driving focus is that he's trying to find his sister, and stop whatever terrible conspiracy is currently threatening the safety and sanity of every free person in the world. He's been drugged and beaten and so forth, but I'd argue that he's an active force in his arc, because he's the one doing the searching, he's the one that keeps forcing the government to react to him. Whereas with Scully, she just showed up for the ride, and then Duane Berry stuffed her in the trunk of his car and she's been forced to deal with the after-shocks ever since. Both our heroes on The X-Files have had to deal with the horrible enforced passivity that their circumstances can create, but only Scully seems like her life is constantly being invaded. Mulder chose his path; Scully had hers forced on her. It makes sense from a character perspective, at least at first, but it would be nice if she was given some autonomy down the road. I don't think we've ever got a "Scully gets pissed and decides to take the fight to their doorstep" scene, have we?

But put that aside for now, because really, I am honestly delighted to get another Scully-centric episode (and a two-parter, even!), especially one that doesn't end up with her looking pale and deathly in a hospital bed. While spending time with her nearest and dearest, Scully gets an anonymous phone call. The voice on the other end, a woman who refuses to identify herself, says, "She needs your help. She needs you, Dana." And while the voice doesn't provide a name, Scully recognizes it as her dead sister Melissa, which is reason enough to trace the call back to its source: the Sim household, where Mrs. Roberta Sim has apparently committed suicide. A couple hours ago, actually, and the phone at the Sim's place is off the hook, so just who was calling Scully? And why on Earth does the phantom caller want her to get involved in such an open and shut case? 

The answer to the first question is, unsurprisingly, never satisfactorily answered (at least not in this episode; I haven't seen "Emily" in years, but I don't remember Melissa showing up alive and well or anything), but the second becomes clear fairly quickly. Roberta Simm's suicide wasn't much of a suicide, and her husband isn't much of a husband. Which is bad enough, but to make matters even more complicated, they have an adopted daughter, Emily, who's just older enough to be horribly scared by all of this. Like so many kids on The X-Files, Emily is a little spooky; she doesn't say much, and whenever she pokes up in a scene, she's always staring, stone-faced, like she doesn't quite understand what language everyone's talking in. But Scully does find a picture of the little girl at a birthday party. It's a heart-breaking photo: Emily's got this huge smile on her face, and she has a cake and party favors, but she's the only one in the shot. No friends, no loving parent standing next to her. Even before her mother's death, this was a little girl alone.

She's also a little girl familiar, and when Scully starts poking around, she discovers a startling connection: in addition to looking astonishingly similar to Melissa at a similar age, Emily shares DNA code with Scully's dead sister, which leads Scully to believe that Melissa may have had a secret baby which she put up for adoption. (I love how the similarity is revealed. Throughout the episode, Scully has dreams of events from various points of her childhood. In the first dream--the best of the lot, or at least the most unsettling--lil Scully hides a rabbit in a lunchbox, only to learn the ugly lesson that rabbits do not survive long without food or air. After lil Scully checks on the corpse, she sees a little girl watching her from the basement stairs. Since we've only seen Emily before this, and the little girl on the stairs is played by the same actress, I assumed that we were seeing Emily was already invading Scully's dreams. But the girl on the stairs was actually Melissa, a fact we don't learn until we find out later on how similar the two children looked. It's not a huge plot point or anything, but it's a trippy, eerie beat that helps add to the sense throughout the episode of inter-connection, that Scully's somehow now involved with a conspiracy even more vast than Mulder's, only, hopefully, more benevolent.) So of course Scully gets drawn into the case, especially after she gets another phone call from beyond the grave, and of course it turns out that things are not as they seem. Roberta was drugged when she died, and while there's some indication that she'd ingested the sedatives herself, Scully isn't buying it. A second autopsy shows a small needle prick on Roberta's heel where the meds were injected. But who would want to kill her? And who are those strange men that keep following her husband, Marshall Sim, around? 

While Scully gets to the bottom of it all, she also has to fight off her family's constant interrogations. On the one hand, this a clever reversal of Scully's usual position; for once, she's the believer, having to constantly fend off the skepticism of others in order to get to what she knows in her heart is the real truth. (There's a lot of talk about just what the skeptic/believer dynamic really means, and how frustrating it can be when it doesn't allow characters to learn and change over time, but I think it comes down to the simple fact that in genre fiction, the believer is nearly always right. The hero is the one who questions conventional wisdom, who won't be satisfied with simple answers, and the skeptic--ie, the person with the common sense to accept what would invariably be the truth 99 times out of 100--has to be a close-minded idiot.) Gillian Anderson does her usual terrific work here, and it's great to see her basically kicking ass and taking names.

But on the other hand, man, I can't stand her brother Bill, or her mother, both of whom spend seemingly every moment their on screen being judgmental, dismissive, and just generally unhelpful. Bill seems to still be struggling with the chip he had installed on his shoulder back when Scully was in the hospital, and Mrs. Scully just blames everything on Melissa's death. And Bill's wife Tara goes on and on about the wonders of child-birth, which is a particularly painful joke considering how Scully is supposedly incapable of having a baby herself. It's possible to justify everyone's point of view here. Scully should take some time off from her job, and, under any other circumstance, claiming that you've been getting calls from your dead sister would be a perfectly clear indication that you're not entirely over your sister's death. (Plus, there's the fact that none of this would've happened without Scully getting involved on the X-Files.) But it's incredibly frustrating to watch, because it's just scene after scene of Scully struggling to defend what she has to do to people who refuse to respect her or support her decisions. 

I suppose that's always the downside of family; they've known you so long that they can believe without a shred of doubt that they know what's best for you. It makes for some frustrating scenes in an otherwise great episode. By the end, we don't know exactly what's going on with Emily. She has some rare diseases, and there's a pharmaceutical company that's been paying Roberta Sim for permission to run drug trials on the kid, and that company is probably responsible for Roberta's death. They're certainly responsible for Marshall's death. Once Scully determines the suicide was faked, Marshall is arrested, and he gets a visit from some company men before winding up hanged in his jail cell. So the stakes are high here for Emily's life, and there's no way Scully could leave this alone--especially after learning that Emily isn't Melissa's daughter, but her own. We'll see how this winds up next week. It's hard to get completely invested, since I can't imagine the show saddling Scully with a kid at this point in the run, but still, this is exciting. Who ever expects to get a call from the dead, only to find someone living on the other end? 

Grade: A

Stray Observations:

  • The cop who helps Scully out? John Pyper-Ferguson, whose already popped up in at least one Millennium episode. (I'll always think of him as Pete "Don't Touch My Piece" Hutter from The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., though.)
  • I really, really can't stand Bill Scully. Part of the problem is that Dana never tells him to shut the hell up or get out of her life--it would help a lot of she showed any frustration over being treated the way he treats her. 
  • The name of the pharmaceutical company is Prangen Pharmaceuticals. Boo, hiss, etc.

Next week: Todd spends some quality time with "Emily," and searches for a missing busload of kids in "19:19."

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