"The End" (season 5, episode 20, first aired: 5/17/1998)
In Which It Isn't
Ah chess. It's a game of... strategy. Two men enter (or two women, or one woman and one man, or maybe there are kids?), and vie for mental dominance by moving small statues across a field of squares. Only one may emerge victorious from the struggle, unless there's a draw, in which case yawnsville. Okay, forget draws, let's focus on the titanic struggle of minds, the manipulation of board control, the sacrifice of pawns to draw out the opponent, the brilliant end game strategy. Chess is symbolic of many things, mainly because it's a rather lazy way of saying "War, but smart-ish." If you want your villain to appear mysterious and clever, have him spout vague chess-related metaphors when he's discussing his plans with underlings. Not only will this indicate that he's a man of culture and intellect (and thus inherently hiss-worthy), it will also suggest to the audience that both the villain and the writer behind the villain have a plan for everything. This is important. The more complicated the scheming gets, and the longer it goes on without any clear resolution, the more necessary it is to reassure viewers that all of this will make sense eventually--and the more difficult it becomes for such an assurance to ring true.
"The End," the finale of The X-Files fifth season, has a lot of chess talk in it. The episode opens with a chess match between two masters, one a grown man, the other a child who looks barely old enough to read. The kid wins the match, and even more importantly, manages to duck out of the way in time to avoid an assassin's bullet. His opponent isn't so lucky. "The End" also marks the official return of the Cigarette Smoking Man to the series, as Krychek drags him back to the States to serve at the whims of the Conspiracy of the Exquisitely Groomed. CSM is responsible for the bulk of the chess talk for the rest of the episode, throwing down metaphors about giving up pieces and forcing opponents to move where he wants them, and so on and so forth. Really, the CSM has been making this sort of small talk for years now, and while he sounds more desperate than usual, well, his position isn't as solid as it once was. The problem, though, is neither is the show's.
We've talked before about The X-Files' tremendous knack for creating a sense of doom and escalating desperation, but I don't think Todd or I have gotten into the fact that this knack only goes so far. The show can feed our social paranoia, it can build on cultural fears and exploit our mistrust of government forces and powerful men, but when it comes time to deliver on all this, to finally pull back the curtain and move on to the next stage, it fumbles things. Whether due to a desire to stretch things out or the inherent shallowness of Chris Carter's artistic vision, the series was never able to build its mythology beyond a certain point, and once that became obvious, the attempts to intensify the drama turned laughable instead of exciting. "The End" has some fine moments, and its conclusion is arguably one of the most iconic visuals in the run of the series, but too much of its running time is spent trying to raise stakes in ways that are hard to take seriously. Mulder's finally found the hard proof he needed that the X-Files are real! The psychic kid is the key to all the mysteries ever! Something something aliens! There are revelations here that should hit the ground like seismic explosions, but instead, barely register on the scale.
I can't decide if the Mulder/Scully/Mimi Rogers love triangle is "The End"'s worst sin. It's not as integral to the mythology problems as the episode's other faults, and I don't remember Rogers being much of a player in the next season, but there's something about this sort of melodrama that's immediately off-putting. This isn't the first time Scully has been jealous about Mulder's relationship with another woman, but here, that jealousy--which manifests itself almost entirely through a lot of sad looks and comments from the Baby Xavier--is both out of character and entirely inappropriate. Which isn't to say this is a thread that's ever really worked on the show, but we're five seasons in now, and the Mulder/Scully dynamic has taken far more serious hits this year than the sudden appearance of Woman From The Past. If they could survive the mutual incomprehension of "Never Again" and "Bad Blood," if Scully could endure Mulder's contempt for her religious views, if Mulder could put up with Scully's reflexive, unthinking skepticism, why on earth would Mimi freakin' Rogers matter to either of them? Rogers is an okay actress, but she's miscast here, as both some kind of seductive trap for Mulder and a believer in psychic phenomenon. She just comes across as, well, a flake.
Even if a more appropriate performer had been cast in the role, though, Rogers' character is misstep, an attempt deepen Mulder's backstory in a way that draws too much attention to its artifice. Her sudden appearance in the briefing room during Agent Spender's run-down of the assassination doesn't make much sense (if she's so interested in psychic kids, why would she be involved in this case before anyone realizes the kid is psychic?), and her presence in the rest of the episode barely registers. She's more there are as a cause of effects than as a character, and even the effects aren't impressive. Then she gets shot while on guard duty, allowing the Super Human Alien Kid to fall into the clutches of the CSM, thus demonstrating her incompetence is not merely limited to her efforts as a romantic foil. Plenty of long-running series throw in new characters from their protagonist's past to try and create a sense of texture, but, while I have no trouble believing that Mulder hooked up with another agent at one point in his career, I don't really understand how that's relevant to "The End"'s main plot. Mimi doesn't have any secret insight into Gibson Praise (the psychic kid) or his abilities, and she spends much of her screentime wearing a needy, confused expression, which makes it even more ridiculous that Scully feels so threatened by her. Where's the threat? Or is it simply that, when two female characters are interested in the same guy, everybody has to automatically revert to lazy stereotypes?
Really, though, this isn't the only thing going on in the episode, or even the most important thing. We have Gibson, the psychic kid who just might be an alien-human hybrid, and could thus serve as hard evidence of the truths Mulder has been searching for all these years. And really, while the kid is likable enough (in a kind of eerie, slightly "off" way that the episode makes good use of), it's hard to get that worked up. As a monster-of-the-week, this would've worked all right, and the idea that Gibson has risen so high in the ranks of the chess world simply because he can read his opponents mind to find the best move is pretty clever. (Although I'm wondering if that would be as infallible as the episode seems to suggest. The kid would need to have some decent chess knowledge to make this work, right?) But as a "key to everything," he's not particularly impressive. All he does here is watch cartoons and provide the occasional wry commentary on the Mulder-Scully-Mimi triangle, and then eventually get captured by the bad guys. After waiting so long to finally make some progress, after hearing so much innuendo and rumor about the alien colonization project and all the cool creatures that come with it, it's hard to get that worked up about a pre-teen, even if he is kind of adorable.
This isn't Gibson's fault, really. When Mulder told Skinner and a room full of colleagues just how important he believed the golden child really was, I laughed out loud, because, well, really? I'm not buying it. I've struggled with Chris Carter's dialog throughout the series--sometimes the artificiality and tortured syntax effectively serve as evidence of a world where clarity is nearly impossible--and "The End" doesn't help matters by failing to provide sufficient justification to back Mulder's pompous pronouncements. You could view this as simply a piece in the puzzle, an indication of the mythology's next direction, but for the most part, the episode doesn't generate much excitement about the show's core storyline. This was supposed to be the big push into the movie, but most of the ep is frustratingly void of excitement. It just seems like another standard myth story, and it's hard to shaking the sneaking suspicion that the status quo will soon reassert itself.
There are good scenes scattered throughout "The End." Mulder's firm resistance of Mimi's questionable charms helps make the whole triangle a little less silly, especially after he explains to her (and the audience) how Scully's skepticism has helped keep him grounded and made him a better agent. And Gibson is a memorable tragic figure on a show with a long history of memorable tragic figures; it's not his fault that he can't live up to the burden Carter's script tries to place on the character. The CSM's triumphant (?) return to action is thrilling, and the sense that he's still at odds with the group, and that any member could turn on the others at any moment, has potential. And, of course, there's the ending, in which the CSM returns to the FBI, grab's Samantha's file and torches Mulder's office, and all the X-Files inside. It's a shocking scene, strong enough to have an impact even in isolation, and it helps, briefly, shake the sense that nothing really changed here.
It's a bold move, but not quite bold enough to save the rest of "The End" from general crumminess. The fifth season finale was supposed to end on a cliffhanger leading into The X-Files big screen debut, but as surprising as the conflagration which ends the episode is, there really isn't anything here to capture the thrill of the show's best mythology storylines. To move forward, the series needed to create a sense that it was slowly pulling together all the disparate threads it had dangled in front of the viewer from the start of its run, but however much Mulder might say otherwise, Gibson doesn't really work as a knot tier. At one point, Scully wonders if the child's appearance, and Mulder's decision to make his existence public, might finally destroy the tenuous protection the X-Files have received from the higher ups, and, presumably, that should add to the suspense generated by the office fire. All bets really are off, "The End" desperately wants you to believe, and things really are changing. Except, well, all those chess metaphors only work if you believe the person using them really does see four or five moves ahead of everyone else; and here, it's all to easy to believe that the reason Carter knows what happens next is that it's pretty much no different from what happened before.
- Didn't talk much about the Ballad of Jeffrey Spender, but he's not all that interesting--less of a time suck than Mimi, but CSM's "I am your father" confession at the end had about as much dramatic impact as junk mail.
- Early in the episode, Skinner asks Mulder, "What do you hope to find? I mean, in the end?" It's a great question, and the episode doesn't put enough thought into answering it. The smartest move The X-Files could've made, I think, would've been to have Mulder finally bring proof of extra-terrestrial life to the masses--and have that information not really change much of anything. (Or, at least, not solve all the problems in the way Mulder seems to believe it will.)
- "You've got a dirty mind."
- CSM's messages to the jailed assassin were fun, but I'm at a loss as to why he didn't just have the guy killed straight off. Must be some sort of complicated castling move.
- Mulder and Spender's interactions are frustrating, but they do serve as a great example of how Mulder's single-mindedness can be off-putting to people who might otherwise be on his side. (In that, whatever his parentage, I don't think Spender is innately evil; it's just, Mulder is such a dick to him, he doesn't have much choice.)
"A Room With No View" (season 2, episode 20, first aired: 4/24/1998)
In Which Love Is Blue Is Love Is Blue Is Love Is Blue
It's simple enough, to kill a man. There are certain mechanical difficulties involved--deciding on a method, finding the opportunity, making sure on the follow-through--but if we're honest with ourselves, if we really wanted to murder someone, we probably could. It's not like writing a best-selling novel or flying to the moon. Some targets are easier than others, and if you want to take aim at a big name, that comes with its own share of problems, no question. But it's morality and the fear of getting caught that stops us from murdering strangers whenever the mood takes us. I'm not trying to make some grand, Lord of the Flies-esque statement about the inherently corrupt nature of humanity. While "I don't want the police to arrest me" isn't the most noble of reasons not to shiv the woman standing in front of you at the pharmacy who keeps shouting about her knees, it's effective enough, and it says something about our desire to sacrifice immediate pleasure for the privilege of remaining an acceptable member of society. Plus, morality is noble, and, presumably, most of you reading this have enough empathy and compassion to realize a passing irritation or inconvenience isn't sufficient justification for homicide.
But still, killing is simple enough, and it's so simple that, as demonic plans go, it leaves a little something to be desired. The dark forces at work on Millennium, the creatures who are striving to bring down humanity as the year 2000 approaches, have got some kind of plan they're working off. Maybe nothing hard and fast, but certainly a group of guidelines to structure their efforts, and from both a story sense, and as fictional constructs, "killing dudes" would be way, way too straightforward as a primary goal. If the monsters Frank glimpses out of the corner his mind merely wanted to murder as many innocents as they could, there'd be a lot more school bus bombings this season, and the show would've suffered for it. Instead, the demons in human faces have a more insidious, long-term goal in mind, and "A Room With No View" is one of the best twists I've seen on the idea of corruption. Sometimes evil isn't just chaos; sometimes, it's finding the brightest stars, and finding a way to dim their glow forever.
The last we saw of Lucy Butler way back in season one, she was killing Frank's friend and changing shape in a supermarket. So it's fun to see her pop up again here. This time, she isn't manipulating serial killers or checking sales on grapefruit, but kidnapping young men and woman and crushing their spirit through the power of sexual abuse and Paul Mariat's supremely syrupy "Love is Blue." In the cold open, one of her charges attempts to escape through a hole in his cell, only for Lucy to follow him, run him down with her car, and then explain patiently how she loves him, and this is all his fault. This is how abuse works. Whenever anyone questions why an abused person would choose to stay with their tormentor, they're not recognizing the brutal effectiveness of the system. Assault is only part of the process: the victim doesn't just suffer physically, they have to believe that they are somehow responsible for their suffering, that they brought this on themselves. A monster like Lucy offers the illusion of love and safety at the same time as she threatens pain and punishment. Soon enough, her victims crave the former as much as they fear the latter, and the longer the process goes on, the more difficult it is to consider themselves as separate from their abuser. The abuser defines each moment, and the only purpose of existence is to please them, partly because you don't want to get hurt again, but mostly because you firmly believe it's the right thing to do. That's how fucked up this gets.
Lucy has been doing this for a while, and she's very, very good at it. We learn later in "Room" that the tunnel one of her victims uses to try and escape in the opening is a test, left in the rooms to tempt the captives. When they fall for the temptation, she's waiting, and can punish them accordingly; and if they don't take the tunnel, it means they've been so cowed by fear that they don't have the will to leave, which is another win for Lucy. Early in "Room," we see her grabbing her next victim, Landon Bryce (Christopher Masterson, aka the older kid on Malcolm in the Middle), and from what we see of Landon pre-kidnapping, it's obvious Lucy has a specific sort of target in mind for her special basement rooms. Landon is a nice guy, the sort of smart kid who frustrates his teachers by not taking schoolwork as seriously as he's supposed to, and even more importantly, he's an inspiring kid. His first scene, he's arguing that his friend Howard should apply to the colleges he really wants to get into, and not settle for less just because it's safer. Howard takes his advice, or at least, he's trying to when Lucy shows up, kills the poor kid with fear, and kidnaps Landon.
That's where Frank and Peter come in. There's a bit of talk at the beginning that Landon was responsible for Howard's death, and that he disappeared to escape the authorities, but Frank is never that convinced; some time in Landon's room, and a quick chat with the boy's father, convinces him that Landon wasn't the sort to murder a friend. (Even if he was somehow capable of killing someone the way Howard died.) More, he senses Lucy's presence. Peter's quick to doubt, but Frank is convinced, and the two of them go to visit Lucy's supposed place of residence. The Millennium group has been keeping track of her, and we get a great, Silence of the Lambs type scene in which we briefly think that Frank and Peter are coming to Landon's rescue, as Landon makes his first unsuccessful attempt to escape his cage. Except the house Peter and Frank visit is empty, and all they find is the corpse of the agent who'd been assigned to guard Lucy by the group, and a tape-recorder playing "Love is Blue."
Plenty of shows like this one have done kidnapping episodes before, but "Room" is an exceptional entry in the genre. It's well-made, and exciting throughout, and never descends into the creepy, hollow exploitation of something like Criminal Minds. What really sets it apart, though, is twist behind Lucy's intentions. Most times, whenever someone's kidnapping people and screwing around with them on TV, they're doing it for some sort of sadistic sexual thrill; and at first, that's what seems to be going on here, as Lucy wanders from room to room in a see-through dress, straddling her charges and telling them over and over how much she loves them, and how she's there for them. But as the story progresses, and as we learn that Lucy's been snatching up gifted and talented kids from all over the country, we realize she has a very clear goal in mind. She's brainwashing her victims, convincing them that the real purpose in life is to fit in, to stop trying to achieve, to accept that real love is mediocrity and dullness and settling.
Basically, she's trying to turn them into citizens of the world of "Harrison Bergeron," or any other fascistic state in which uniformity is the hallmark of the true patriot. It's a fascinating goal, and it's one that helps clarify something about the entire season. If the new millennium brings the possibility of destruction with it, it also brings a hope for change, a chance for humanity to make its next great leap forward; it stands to reason, then, that in addition to sowing chaos, the demons trying to undermine God's work would also be trying to snuff out that possibility of ascension, or whatever you want to call it. There's something exciting about watching Lucy try and break down Landon's sense of self-worth, because for once, instead of just some kind of generic evil, the kind that sneers and torments without any other purpose than sneering and tormenting, we get a sense of what's driving her, and why she's going to such extreme lengths. Too often, psychotic villains are given the short shrift when it comes to character development, because it's assumed that hey, they're crazy, what else are they going to do? Here, though, even more than in her first appearance, Lucy makes a twisted amount of sense, and that means the scenes with her don't play out as rote horror.
Another great idea: the guidance counselor who's been so beaten down by the world that she sells her soul. It's obvious early on that Roe has some connection to the kidnappings, as her first scene, in which she squares off against Landon over poor, doomed Howard's future, comes too suspiciously close to Landon's kidnapping to be a coincidence. For a while, I thought she actually was Lucy, albeit in a different form. (Lucy does change shape in "Room," to give her victims a sense of separation between the violence force that kidnapped them and punishes them, and her own more loving, supportive presence.) But no, she's just a horrible woman who decided the system was so good at crushing kids like Landon that her best bet was to join forces with someone who could help re-educate special kids in the art of fitting square pegs into round holes. She gets a decent speech in the interrogation room that humanizes her to a certain extent, but in a way, she's even more evil than Lucy. Butler is just obeying her nature; Roe made a conscious choice to betray her profession and her humanity, and however much she tries to rationalize her decision, it's clear she's really doing this because she resents the others for being more special than she is.
Frank and Peter finally find Lucy's real house, and there's no pitched struggle or hostage situation; they just show up with a bunch of cops, and free everyone trapped in the basement. Lucy herself disappears, as she tends to do when cornered. It's hard to know just what her end game was here. She promises Landon over and over again that she'll release him as soon as he accepted his mediocrity, and while the promise of release is a lie captors often tell to manipulate their captives, I wonder if Lucy wasn't telling the truth. Frank and Peter arrive in time to save Landon's sanity, and hopefully the sanity of many of the other kids in the house, but who knows how much damage Lucy's already accomplished. Who knows how many lights she's dimmed. And she's still free to go on doing what she's always done. Young people will always be adrift in a world designed to ground down their edges and teach them to be ashamed of reaching beyond what's easy to grasp. All someone like Frank can do is tell his daughter he loves her, and she's special, and hope that's enough.
- Well, I'll never be able to hear "Love is Blue" again without thinking of this episode. Which I appreciate, but I wonder what it must feel like as an artist, when someone holds up your efforts as ultimate proof the power of the mundane.
- Lucy's offers of love aren't just of the spiritual kind; the episode makes a good choice of never being too explicit about it, but the lady owns a lot of see-through dresses.
- Landon's reading material: The Name of the Rose, Libra, and a Nabokov novel that I think is Lolita. (I actually tried to track down my paperback copy to see if the ISBN numbers matched, but couldn't find it. Geek fail.)
- We also get a little more backstory on Ms. Butler; she was apparently abducted herself in 1911.
Next week: We take a look at my favorite Millennium episode, "Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me."