The X-Files: "The Pine Bluff Variant" / Millennium: "In Arcadia Ego"
B+

The X-Files: "The Pine Bluff Variant" / Millennium: "In Arcadia Ego"

"The Pine Bluff Variant" (season 5, episode 18, first aired: 5/3/1998)

In Which Mulder Robs A Bank

The more you believe in something, the easier it is to see that belief impacting every area of your life. If you believe in God, than everything you do, and everything that happens to you, is affected by God--you're either holding to God's Will, or you're disobeying, and happenstance is either God's punishment for transgression, or reward for good behavior. If you're in love, every sigh, every vocal inflection, ever misplaced pronoun from the object of your affections is liable to intense scrutiny, as part of some new secret language only your heart can really understand, and even weather patterns and the mail become part of an intricate web of omen and portent. And if you're Fox Mulder of the FBI, conspiracy enthusiast and fervent follower of little gray men, every suspicion is a certainty, and every calamity is just the latest iteration of a government dedicated to crushing its citizens and consolidating its power in the face of a potential alien invasion.

The thing is, most of the time, believing everything is connected is a very good way to go completely mental. There's some comfort in assigning even the slightest coincidence to God or Cupid or whatever, but the end result is a paranoid delusion that all of life is simply an impossibly well-orchestrated fait accompli, where personal responsibility is irrelevant in the face of the Rube Goldbergian machinations at work all around you. On The X-Files, though, assuming that everyone is out to get you is really the only way to survive. As Todd and I have both talked about before, one of the series' greatest strengths is its ability to play off the barely buried terrors of our collective subconscious, in a way that feels simultaneously absurd and undeniably real. There's something very Lynchian in that, I think, in the juxtaposition of the utterly ridiculous with the lethally potent. Mulder has a tendency to assume the worst in any given situation, and events nearly always prove him correct in his assumptions. Which would be hilarious, if it wasn't all so deadly.

Take "The Pine Bluff Variant," an episode which, at first, seems to have nothing to do at all with Mulder's usual fixations. Fox seems to have gotten himself involved with some very unsavory characters, and during the cold open, Scully stumbles across him letting the subject of an FBI/CIA joint agency sting operation escape after murdering someone with some horrible flesh-eating bio-weapon. Scully is understandably confused, and more than a little suspicious, especially after Mulder dodges her repeated attempts to get him to explain what happened. Mulder even lies about his behavior during a group debriefing about the operation, and when Scully follows him after work, she finds he's living in an apartment complex under a false name. Scully's immediate mistrust of Mulder's actions could've seemed a little out of character, considering how much the two have been  through at this point, but Anderson makes it work by playing everything with a note of exasperation. It's not as though her partner hasn't gone in over his head before, and Scully's increased irritation about Mulder's behavior comes across more as a friend annoyed by another friend being stupid than an agent getting ready to report her co-worker to the authorities.

Of course Mulder isn't actually working with Jacob Steven Haley (Daniel von Bargen, a classic "Hey, it's that guy!" guy), the second in command of an anti-government militia group. The group contacted Mulder because of a speech he gave at a UFO convention (I'm guessing this is a reference to his "This is all a pack of lies!" speech in "Patient X," which is a nice call-back), and he's now working as a double agent, on the orders of Skinner and US Attorney Leamus (Sam Anderson, whose done work on a number of genre shows, but will always be Bernard from Lost to me). Skinner and Leamus instructed Mulder not to tell anyone of his work to protect his cover. While I could see arguing that Mulder's relationship with Scully is close enough at this point that he'd let her in on the deal, just so she wouldn't be concerned by his actions, I can also see him keeping it a secret because he doesn't want to get her involved, out of concern for her safety. (That's not to say I think Scully couldn't handle the militia guys, just that Mulder might want to protect her.) And while this is never outright stated in the episode, there may be some shame keeping him quiet as well. This hasn't been a easy season for the Mulder/Scully relationship, and the militia contacted him for things he said, statements which were sincerely meant, however much that sincerity was tinged with anger. Admitting to the person whose respect and trust he needs the most that crazy violent men have decided he's their kind of nutjob wouldn't have been an easy conversation.

In fact, throughout this whole episode Mulder seems to be almost paying penance for something. This is as much to do with the placement of "Pine Bluff" as it does with anything in the actual script, but given how Mulder's been on edge for a while now, going back and forth on his faith, you can read his reticence and double-dealing here as an attempt to make up for his earlier confusion. At one point, Jacob has one of his men torture Mulder by threatening, and then breaking, his pinky, in order to establish Mulder's commitment to the cause. Duchovny plays this scene very close to the edge, at one point head-butting the pinky-breaker to get him to back off (which is awesome, by the way), and while his edginess makes sense in context, you have to wonder just how close what we're seeing is to the real Mulder. How much of his expression is fear and pain and anger, and how much of it is just him being right up against whatever's been driving him his whole life. He lost who he thought he was, then he found it again, and now he's forced to work with people who represent his anti-government fears at their very worst. The danger of undercover work (at least in fiction) is always losing the line between what makes you you, and whatever mask you wear to convince others you belong with them. I don't think Mulder is in danger of falling in with the bad guys here, but I do think the shakiness of his faith is informing his performance. 

Even if you don't read that much into it (and I'll willingly admit, I may be grasping at straws here), "Pine Bluff" is an excellent episode, notable for its tension, and for the way it seemingly tells a story that has little to do with the X-Files or Mulder and Scully's search for the truth--right up until the final twist. For most of its running time, the bio-weapon that Jacob and militia leader August Bremmer (Michael McRae) have at their disposal is the only thing that separates this story-wise from any other well-made cop drama, and that's not a criticism. This is a tight, smart piece of work, never letting the audience get too relaxed with Mulder's position, and managing a number of terrific suspense set-pieces with aplomb. There's even a bank-robbery scene, in which all the militia members where monster masks and Mulder is ordered to shoot a bystander, but can't bring himself to do it. When Bremmer tells him his gun "can be traced," and shoots the bystander himself, it seems like a cheat, allowing Mulder to get off the hook in a way that just barely makes sense. But it's all part of the episode's end game. 

That end game connects back to the bio-weapon, which is a very nasty piece of work indeed. The X-Files has gotten a lot of mileage out of a variety of lethal toxins over the years, but this one stands out well enough, eating the flesh off a person's bones and leaving them looking like the Tar Man from Return of the Living Dead. Bremmer tests the virus out on a small town movie theater, and the result--a small audience who paid to see Die Hard With A Vengeance meeting a fate worse than Bruce Willis--is a striking, deeply creepy visual. Initially, Scully is told that the militia (which doesn't have the resources to create this kind of contaminant on its own) most likely purchased the bio-weapon off the Russians. But when she looks deeper, she learns that this a home-grown virus. When Bremmer lets Mulder go, after exposing him to the rest of the group as a spy, the answer isn't hard to figure out: this whole thing was a set-up. Bremmer is working for Leamus, whose working for god only knows, and he's using the militia to do field tests on a virus that can be sprayed on money, and passed around the world.

It's comforting to believe that everything happens for a reason, and that you understand what that reason is, but it's also unsettling; it means that nothing is meaningless, that any hiccup or snag could have dark implications. That's exhausting, which may be why most of us don't live in that world. Sure, most everything does happen for some kind of reason, but the cause is generally not much more interesting than the effect, and it would require minds capable of greater discernment than my own to follow each thread back to its starting point. That's a responsibility I'd rather not have on my shoulders. Pity Mulder, then. He believes he knows what's going on--and with the more he learns, the clearer it becomes that he may actually be right

Grade: A

Stray Observations:

  • This is John Shiban's fifth solo writing credit on the show, and by far his best. 
  • Sticking it to the movie theater industry: "Do you want some large, extra large, or jumbo large?" (in reference to popcorn)
  • Scully is able to recognize Mulder in the bank robbery surveillance footage, because of the cast on his broken finger. It's a moment that satisfies 'shippers (aw, Scully pays close attention to Mulder!) without being obvious (because really, Scully just pays attention to everything).
  • Jacob gets a hit of the flesh-eating blues by the end of the episode, which makes it clear enough that the whole reason Mulder was pulled in to the militia was to give Bremmer a chance to solidify his control. 

"In Arcadia Ego" (season 2, episode 18, first aired: 4/3/1998)

In Which Frank Delivers Tidings of Moderate Joy

I wonder how many virgins have given birth since Mary? Admittedly, none of them were actual virgins, unless there've been a few messiahs since Jesus and no one noticed. (I don't actually believe Jesus was a virgin birth either, but since he and his mum have the advantage of history and millions of faithful followers, I won't poke at that one too hard.) But I wonder just how many wounded, frighten young women over the years have tried to pass off the steadily swelling lump in their stomach as proof of divine providence. And I wonder how many of them honestly believed that their progeny truly was the spawn of the Almighty. It takes a special kind of madness to go that far, to ignore the laws of biology in order to hold on to one thin strand of hope that there's something truly wondrous happening in your insides. I'm sure in some cases that madness is preferable to the alternative. The idea floated in "In Arcadia Ego" is that Janette (Melissa Crider), the escaped prison inmate who believes she's carrying the Lord's baby, was raped by a guard while she was unconscious. So she has no idea she was impregnated by some creep, and when her period stops and the morning sickness starts, what else is supposed to believe? 

And really, Janette may have been right all along. Through a complete coincidence, this week's X-Files and Millennium episodes both steer clear from the more outlandish aspects of their respective mythologies, but both episodes hedge their bets in the end with the idea that things weren't as simple as they appeared to be after all. (Episodes like this always remind me of the standard sitcom Christmas ep, which has parents desperately trying to prove to their cynical children that Santa Claus really is real, and at the end, everybody stares into the sky as a mysterious figure flies a sleigh led by eight tiny reindeer through the heavens. Grace Under Fire had an ep like that, hand to god.) In "Pine Bluff," Mulder discovers that what looked to be a regular old "stop the militia bad guys" mission had a hidden layer of betrayal, and in "Arcadia Ego," Frank Black discovers that Janette's seemingly explicable pregnancy may not be so explicable after all, at least not in terms that mere humans understand. The episode doesn't have much to do with the Millennium group, and no one talks about how this birth may be connected to the supposed End of Days (although the kid will be les than two years old when the year 2000 hits, so I'm not sure how much use she'll be to anyone). It's straightforward enough that you could easily imagine appearing significantly earlier in the season, and I could even see it working as an X-Files episode, with Scully filling Frank's role as a desperate protector. The only real connection it has to the episodes which preceded it is Frank's obvious frustration with the officers handling the case. Over the course of the season, Frank has become slightly unhinged by the various pressures that inform his life, and while he's in the right throughout the episode, the calm voice of reason that dominated the show's first season has largely disappeared.

For most of its running time, "Ego" plays out like a standard convicts on the run story. Sonny (Mary-Pat Green) and Janette are lovers who met in a women's prison in Idaho, and one day, while Sonny is only four months away from going up for parole, the two bust out of jail. Sonny beats a guard to death in the process, after the guard fires on Janette. The bullet should've killed Jan, but instead is flattened by the police badge she has pinned to the stolen uniform she's wearing, which both women take as a miracle. Frank is called in to help the search (I'm not exactly sure why), and is almost immediately put off by the bloodlust of the cops in charge of the search, like Warden Kellard (Ed Lauter), who clearly wants some payback for the dead guard. Thing is, neither Jan nor Sonny wanted the guard to die, and both are horrified when they learn what happened. As Frank does some research, he learns that Sonny was abused as a child, but only murdered her abuser when he started beating on her younger sister. In other words, she strikes back too hard, but she's still as much a victim as she is a killer, which makes the guards' animosity even more misplaced.

While Sonny and Jan make their mostly peaceful way around town, trying to make contact with a religious couple, hiding out in hotels and visiting birth clinics, Frank is doing his best to find them before the police do. This causes some friction, and Peter is brought in to bridge the gap. This doesn't stop Frank from continuing to drop leads, and harass witnesses. It's an odd dynamic, because every time Frank gets angry or acts suspicious, it turns out he's right to do so. He's the one to bring up that a guard is most likely responsible for Janette's pregnancy, and he's the one to pick out the guard that raped Janette, driving him to a confession through a fair amount of pissed off hectoring. Then there's the witness--Sonny and Jan steal his car and leave him tied up in a motel room, and while the police are treating him gently, Frank has nothing but contempt for the guy, pointing out that he doesn't have single bruise on him, and that he most likely picked up the women expecting sex.  Every time this happens, every time Frank gets really mad or accusatory, he seems to have gone to far, and every time he's justified in his contempt. But it still comes across as nearly out of control, like Frank is just so sick of all the crap and bad judgment around him that he can barely restrain his disgust. While nobody mentions Roosters or Owls or pieces of the cross, this characterization fits in very well with the direction Frank has been heading the whole year. He's lost his ability to be impartial or calm. He's just a grumpy loner who can't get over how fast everything's going to Hell.

It all comes to a head when Frank inadvertently surprises Jan into premature labor. The cons hole up in a trainyard, and when Frank tracks them down again (without mentioning where he's going to the Warden or anyone else), Sonny grabs him. Eventually the Warden realizes he's been had, and the cops convene around the boxcar Jan, Sonny, and Frank have hold up in. While Frank does his best to keep both women alive, and Sonny awkwardly negotiates with the police, Jan gives birth in the corner. Unfortunately, something goes wrong, and she bleeds out, despite Frank's best efforts to save her. The baby survives, but that isn't enough for Sonny; once Frank has the little girl in his hands, and promises to make sure she goes to a good home, Sonny goes out in the open and gets herself gunned down. 

It may be the heat, or the fact that I've been sick all week, but I just don't have a lot to say about "In Arcadia Ego." I liked it well enough, as it moved at a good clip, and the gradual shifting of allegiances away from the law and towards the escaped convicts was well-done. Green and Crider turn in solid performances, and it was nice that their relationship was never abusive or unpleasant to watch. Both women seemed very clearly devoted to each other, and while they're dysfunction brought them together, they make for a surprisingly healthy pair, which makes their deaths all the more tragic. As I've mentioned before, I find Henriksen's performance in season two far more interesting than his work in the first season; he was fine then, but this current version of Frank Black has more dramatic potential, and helps to bring more of an edge to a somewhat predictable storyline.

Maybe that's my problem--even with the final twist, "Ego" isn't as emotionally affecting or bizarre as the best episodes of the show have been. The guard who admits to raping Jan while she was out cold (after getting her wisdom teeth removed, no less) is black, but the baby Jan finally delivers all white. (Amusingly, one of the cops involved in the chase points out that Jan will be "surprised" when she gives birth to a mulatto. This has to be for our benefit, because why would a mixed race child be less holy to Jan than a white one?) Taking this a step further, Peter informs Frank late in the episode that a genetic test on the infant revealed no known father. Now, it's possible that Janette was raped by another guard, and that we just never found out about it. But it's also possible that she was right all along, and that the new girl is a legitimate immaculate conception, which means... what, exactly? It's the sort of ending that shouldn't be clean, given the implications, and yet somehow is; and by clean, I mean neat and tidy, to the point where if Jan's baby is never mentioned again on the show, I wouldn't be surprised.

This is by no means a bad episode, and I'm not quite certain if I'm being fair with it or not. After all, I graded "Pine Bluff" higher, and it's not like I expect the face-eating bio-weapon to pop back up in a later episode. And really, "Ego" was a nice reminder of hope on a show that so often trades in darkness. It has some haunting moments (the best being the shot of Frank holding the baby in the boxcar, Jan's body slumped over beside him), and it fits in with the show's continued implication that large forces are at play on the Earth, not all of them necessarily evil. Jan and Sonny are memorable enough for one-offs, and while this ep isn't as intense as "Pine Bluff," it wasn't really trying to be. I think my major disappointment here is that it all ends up too easily. Sonny and Jan die, but that's how this story always goes; there's sadness in that, but not much more. I don't need a show to constantly surprise me in order for it to work, because that's an impossible model to sustain. The more you surprise your audience, the more the audience braces itself to be surprised, and inevitably, they'll be disappointed when they finally find themselves a few steps ahead. But Millennium has proven itself willing to go deeper into established concepts than other series would, and to have them throw out the possibility of a new messiah without anything more than a "Huh, who knows?" conclusion just isn't good enough. I suppose it's a sign of the quality of the second season that I can watching something as generally well-made and melancholy as this, and still be left wanting. 

Grade: B+ 

Stray Observations:

  • There's a weird shot near the end, right after Sonny is killed--the camera is above the action, and the image is distorted. I wonder if that's supposed to be the POV of Sonny's soul as it rises to heaven? 

Next week: Todd gets a glimpse of one of the X-Files' creepier monsters in "Folie a Deux," and watches Catherine and Lara have a team-up in "Anamnesis."

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