The X-Files: “Three Of A Kind” / Millennium: “Nostalgia”

The X-Files: “Three Of A Kind” / Millennium: “Nostalgia”

“Three Of A Kind” (season 6, episode 20; originally aired 5/2/1999)
In which the Lone Gunmen save the day and Scully gets the giggles...

Ah, sequels. Season Five’s “Unusual Suspects,” which offered an origin for the geek chorus who call themselves The Lone Gunmen, was a good episode. Clever, funny, and frequently ridiculous, it gave Byers, Frohike, and Langly a chance to share the spotlight for once, and gave us a good idea of what a Lone Gunmen TV series might look like, as patently ridiculous as such a thing would be. It ended on an effectively bittersweet moment: Byers loses Susanne Modeski, the would-be love of his life, to government agents, a shock which completely his burgeoning disillusionment with authority, inspires him to join forces with Frohike and Langly, and even ultimately puts all three men in contact with the formerly straitlaced Fox Mulder. In a generally goofy episode, Susanne’s abduction is a shocking, if inevitable moment, and helps give some serious punch behind all the cheap nerd jokes and “Ha-ha, the ‘80s!” punchlines. The Lone Gunmen have always worked best as comic but still fundamentally smart; they’re funny because their paranoia and obsessive behavior is arguably the sanest response to the world Mulder and Scully live in.

“Three Of A Kind” is the second part of a story which didn’t really need one, a follow-up that changes Susanne’s sudden, frightening disappearance into something more warmly fuzzy and life-affirming, albeit still bittersweet. The stakes are still there—this time, the Gunmen get involved with a new type of drug which makes subjects particularly susceptible to suggestion—and people die, although nobody you’re supposed to care about that much. (Poor Jimmy.) It’s just not one of the seasons more necessary episodes. Filmed in order to work around David Duchovny’s absence (the actor was busy prepping for “The Unnatural”; Mulder doesn’t appear in this episode, apart from a faked voice over a cell phone), the hour lacks the novelty of “Unusual Suspects,” and sometimes feels like it’s simply hitting the same beats the earlier episode hit, to diminishing returns. This time, Byers already knows the truth about the government, so there’s no real character arc for him, other than a chance to briefly reconnect with the love of his life. And that reconnection feels in some small part like a narrative betrayal. The loss of Susanne fit into the X-Files’ worldview: the idea that the system was designed to remove and erase anyone who fought against it too loudly and too well, and the only way to stay off the radar was to make yourself seem to harmless, too ridiculous to be taken seriously. A joke, in other words. To have her come back, and to give the Lone Gunmen a major win is both crowd-pleasing and a little pandering. I like these guys, I want them to succeed, but it feels weird when they do.

But not so weird that I can’t take some pleasure in it; and besides, it’s not like Byers (or anyone) comes out of this with everything he wants. While the hour isn’t the sharpest the show has done or will do, it has that season 6 charm all over it. The episode looks great, everyone’s working at the top of their game, and the whole production is self-assured and relaxed—I’m not sure I’m describing this well, but the laid-back, let’s just hang out and have some fun vibe makes “Three Of A Kind” very, very easy to watch. Running it for this review, I had a great time, laughing at the best gags, enjoying the plot twists (I’ve seen the episode before, but not for a few years); it was only in retrospect that disappointment crept in. This is a perfectly fine chunk of television. It lacks the bite of the series’ best moments, and I wouldn’t ever try and argue it was at all necessary. In fact, I’d probably go further the other way—from a mythology perspective, it’s arguably better for Susanne to stay missing and presumed dead, because that lends a certain tragic gravitas to the Lone Gunmen’s mission. Yet while there are valid complaints to make, I can’t help but enjoy the winning cheeriness of it all.

Like, f’r instance, Scully getting drugged and turning into (as a disgruntled Frohike puts it) “Agent Scully Go-Lightly.” The Lone Gunmen are at a defense convention in Vegas for government contractors (“Def-Con '99,” ha-ha), scoping out new devices and trying to infiltrate the upper levels of power. They aren’t doing a good job of it, partly because they’re kind of ridiculous, and partly because Byers is distracted by the hope that he might see Susanne. Frohike warns him off, but the man with the broken heart is undeterred, and his perseverance pays off when he sees Susanne crossing the floor of the casino. So then Byers convinces his chums to use a computer program to mimic Mulder’s voice, so they can call Scully out to Vegas to help them save Susanne. There are very few ways in which this makes sense. At this point, Byers is the only one to have seen Susanne, and he hasn’t made contact, so he has no idea what her circumstances are. And even if he wants to rescue her, there’s no obvious reason for them to want a government agent on the case, no matter what Byers claims. Sure, it makes sense that they don’t call Mulder, since he really is high profile (although at this point, shouldn’t Scully be high profile as well?), but the real justification for all of this is that the writers want one of the show’s two main characters in the story, and Duchovny’s not available. (Plus, Duchovny got to solo with the boys in “Unusual Suspects,” so it’s Gillian Anderson’s turn now.)

It’s sloppy plotting, but the episode mostly pulls it off because it’s hilarious. First there’s the way Frohike keeps saying “She’s gonna kick our ass.” Then, when Scully actually does arrive, it’s like Mom just showed up and everybody has to tuck in their shirt; poor Dana is immediately scuttled off to autopsy Jimmy, who gets turned into road pizza when he clumsily attempts to surreptitiously video tape a secret conference room. That’s where she gets drugged (because apparently Timmy, the nerd mole who betrays Jimmy and seems to be running the bad guys’ show this time around, is able to teleport wherever it’s most inconvenient for our heroes), and that’s when things get really funny. Scully is such a reliably sober presence that the sight of her holding court to a room full of half-drunk, love-struck businessmen is hilarious even before she starts gurgling about cigarettes and lighters and slapping Michael McKean on the ass. (McKean has a cameo as his character from “Dreamland” here. It’s short, but worth it.) It’s kind of sloppy for Timmy to just drug Scully and let her go, but I guess he only really wanted to make sure she didn’t remember the injection point behind Jimmy’s ear. Besides, I laughed a lot. Anderson plays it big enough for the cheap seats, and it is glorious.

Really, I just like this episode. I like it because Scully goes off her nut, and I like because I find it almost impossible not to like Byers, Frohike, and Langly. This may change when Todd and I inevitably cover The Lone Gunmen, and I can easily imagine the wackiness being overplayed or growing stale, but for right now, I’m just happy to spend some more time with these characters. “Three Of A Kind” even does a decent job keeping up the suspense; I can’t remember if the fake-out with Langly at the end (Timmy grabs Langly and drugs him, tries to use him as a patsy; Susanne spots the injection mark, and they use Timmy’s plan to help Susanne fake her death, but we don’t realize it’s a con at first) fooled me the first time, but it’s well-handled, and the fact that we’ve already seen at least one character get drugged and pay the price for it makes it seem all too possible that Langly might still be under the influence. It’s probably convenient that the super evil government assassin guy doesn’t think to bring any back up with him when he realizes he’s been tricked and goes after Susanne and the Gunmen, but it plays into the wish-fulfillment angle that both this and “Unusual Suspects” went for. The nerds don’t get to be the main characters, not unless they look like Mulder; part of what makes these episodes entertaining is that they seem to come form some alternate universe where freaks like Byers get to pretend they’re bad-asses. Maybe we didn’t need to go to that well more than once, and there are some definite diminishing returns here, but I can’t bring myself to hate on this too much.

Besides, the cold open and the conclusion has a certain resonance to them, a sense of just what it might feel like to be someone like Byers—someone who really did believe America was pure and just and perfect, and then lost his faith. Mulder has his quest, and Scully has her god, but people like Byers and Langly and Frohike are just little guys (and gals, although there’s a definite shortage of female nerdery on display here), stuck outside the vast machinery of a world much darker and more insidious than they ever thought possible. Maybe the real reason I dig this episode is that it steps back from the lives of the knights and bishops and kings and queens, and shows us what it’s like to be the pawns; perpetually stranded, nearly defenseless, but hoping, with a little luck, to become something more.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • Why does Timmy decide that Jimmy can longer be used as a patsy because he’s “seen too much”? It’s not like Langly gets the drug surreptitiously, and the stuff is apparently powerful enough to completely wipe out someone’s brain, so... I don’t get it. I’m also not sure why it was so important to have an assassin publicly murder a woman who’d been disappeared for years; maybe it was supposed to be some sort of test of the drug.
  • Susanne comes off as kind of a dope this time around. The script tries to justify her relationship with Grant Ellis (a fellow government scientist who ends up betraying Susanne to save his own skin, and then dying anyway) by letting her explain how frightened and alone she was, but Grant is so obviously a douchebag that she comes off as naive. Especially seeing as how she was the one who exposed the truth to Byers and the others in their last episode together. For such a strong character (and Signy Coleman remains great in the role), it’s a shame to see her reduced to damsel-in-distress status.
  • Scully (post-injection), on what killed Jimmy the road pizza: “My medical opinion? Beeeeeeeep! [claps hands to simulate impact]”
  • Langly’s D&D character is Lord Manhammer.
  • Scully, off the drugs, discovering that she’s been tricked: “Oh man. I am gonna kick their asses.”

“Nostalgia” (season 3, episode 20; originally aired 5/7/1999)
In which you can go home again, but you shouldn’t, because there’s this stain...

I had him pegged as the killer the first time he showed his face. Jerry Neilson (Ted Marcoux), park ranger, supposedly friendly and non-threatening guy—he just screamed serial murderer. Partly it’s how he’s introduced; “Nostalgia” is already a few scenes in before Frank and Emma head to the park to check out some sand, which means the script has had enough of a chance to set up the town and the law enforcement, so it’s time to start introducing suspects. Partly it’s because he seemed harmless, but was just twitchy enough to make you wonder. You watch enough of these shows, you get a feel for how the bad guys, the ones who are supposed to fly under the radar, are presented; maybe he or she is a little too nice, a little too helpful. Maybe they have some minor tics or inconsistencies which seem meaningless at first, but ultimately serve to foreshadow a final reveal. Or maybe it’s just that you realize the killer in a story is nearly always going to be the person whose identity will make the right kind of impact. If turned out Sheriff Tommy Briggs (David Barrera) was responsible for the deaths of multiple missing coeds, that would be shocking, but it would also be too convenient, too obviously neat, fulfilling the themes of the episode (Emma spent a couple years in the town as a child, before her sister died; it was one of the last times she can remember feeling completely safe, so, this being Millennium, that has to go) like checking a box on a list. Tommy’s deputy Wayne was too clearly an asshole, and assholes are hardly ever the bad guy, unless the episode was going to try and double bluff us. A random character we hadn’t seen much of would be too meaningless. But Jerry? The Jerry Sheriff Tommy is so desperate to protect even as the evidence mounts against him? He’s a good fit.

I was very proud of myself for thinking this through, which gives you a fairly unflattering look at how my mind works, but I was determined to not let my assumption twist how I viewed the episode. But wouldn’t you know it, for once, the show pulled a fast one on me. Yes, Jerry is the killer; he takes to murdering young blondes after he kills a townie and no one bothers to investigate the death. It’s not supposed to be a surprise, though. This isn’t an episode about a mystery, exactly, or at least it’s not about the mystery crime shows usually deal in. It’s more about the grinding, unpleasant work of tracking down monsters, and the way that work can take over your life, until you start to wonder just how much of it has changed you, and changed how you see the world.

This is grim stuff, to be sure, and in many ways, “Nostalgia” wouldn’t be out of place in Millennium’s first season. It has the usual signifier: serial killer, sexually motivated crime, vague hints of puritanical morality, ritual, pretty young victims. But the episode is gentler, and less determined to bury itself in the semi-exploitative muck than the show once was. It’s creepy, no quesiton, and there’s still the writers’ frustrating inability to make the victims any more real to us than they were to the guy who killed them, but “Nostalgia” is gripping, intense piece of work. It succeeds by dialing down the crazy and focusing on the basics: Frank does his job, while Emma tries to reconcile her feelings about her former hometown. And it works. I’m not sure I’d want to watch episodes like this week in and week out, but this at least feels like a television series which has a point to it. They are trying to tell a definite, specific story here, and if it’s not exactly a happy one, well, no one ever said it would be.

At this point, I don’t think I’m ever going to be a big Emma fan. I don’t actively dislike the character, and I appreciate how the season has tried to develop her into a foil for Frank, someone who can play Scully to his Mulder, to pick a completely random example which I’m sure has absolutely no bearing on this show. Still, her anger over Tommy’s poor handling of the murder, and her sadness at discovering that the place she thought was decent has plenty of its own secrets, is worthwhile stuff to explore, and while her parts of the episode are probably the weakest, it never seemed like a complete waste of time. I especially liked how it all built to that final conversation with Frank in the car, which gave us the episode’s only real laugh:

Emma: Do you know what it feels like to show up at a sunny vacation spot, and it starts to rain, and you feel like you brought the bad weather with you?
Frank: Do I know what it feels like? [barks a laugh] Oh yeah.

It may not look it on the page, but in context, this is a legitimately funny, and even warm, moment. The tone of the show is often so committed to its stone-faced grimness that it’s tremendously refreshing for our heroes to admit that there is some humor in all this, albeit of a dark and depressing variety.

That’s the best scene of “Nostalgia,” but from a plotline perspective, Frank’s steady, relentless pursuit of Jerry owns the episode. What makes this work is that, while there’s tension in the situation, Frank never comes across as upset or even particularly stressed. While it takes some effort to catch Jerry, there isn’t that much suspense; Frank recognizes him as the killer fairly early on, and as soon as he does, it’s simply a matter of time before he’s able to close the case. Other shows would’ve given us a sequence where Jerry would stalk his next victim while the heroes raced to track him down, beaten back by the justice system’s horrible inefficiency and insistence on due process. Here, the Sheriff yells a bit, but Frank doesn’t appear to care. Yes, there’s a final confrontation between Frank and Jerry, and it’s an intense sequence, but not because Jerry is playing with his pursuers, or because he ever seems to represent a physical threat to Frank. Jerry arranges to meet with Frank; Frank talks him into walking through the last night of the first victim; and then, almost through sheer willpower alone, Frank talks Jerry into giving himself up. Really, that makes it sound like it takes more effort than it actually does. The secret is, Jerry wants to be caught. He’s wanted to be caught this whole time, and Frank knows it.

As for why Jerry wants to get caught, that’s the closest “Nostalgia” ever gets to having a real mystery. It turns out the first victim, Liddy Hooper, was a townie. She’d turned up drowned in the river one morning, and nobody bothered to investigate; Liddy was a “loose” woman, and while Sheriff Tommy and Deputy Wayne liked using her, they didn’t really like her. Looking into her death would’ve meant exposing Tommy and Wayne, and hell, she was clearly drowned, so better to just close the books and move on. But Liddy hadn’t just drowned; Jerry, who is self-loathing and incredibly screwed-up when it comes to sex, found Liddy in the park, took her down to the river, and held her under the water himself, presumably after raping her or molesting her or whatever awfulness the show was for once merciful enough to edit out. He assumed he’d be caught immediately, but when no one came for him, Jerry kept killing again and again, desperate for someone to stop him, unable to stop himself.

None of this is what you’d call happy fun-times, but it makes for an intense, compelling, and above all consistent episode, one that doesn’t lose its mind at the quarter hour mark and start tossing in demons and cabals. That’s not say demons and cabals are a bad thing, but it’s good to see, even as the series is getting close to the end, that they’re still capable of something as comparatively restrained and thoughtful as this. What makes it especially powerful is that most of the locals don’t look so great by the end, but none of them are implausibly gifted monsters, or genius-level sociopaths using complicated mathematical prophecy to guide their bizarre plans. There are just some selfish jerks, and one pathetic, broken murderer. I don’t think Emma should worry too much about carrying the dark side with her, but she should probably get used to this kind of bad news. It’s just people being people, and that’s the same all over.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • Jerry liked to jerk off in a shed while he watched the ladies in their bikinis. Jerry is a creep.

Next week: Todd takes us all on a “Field Trip,” and something something “Via Dolorosa.” 

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