“Trevor” (season 6, episode 17; originally aired 4/11/1999)
In which he wants what’s his…
“Trevor” is an episode that almost works. It’s got a strong idea—a killer who can walk through walls—it’s got an emotional hook, and it’s got a great performance at its center from John Diehl. Yet the script from first-timers Jim Guttridge and Ken Hawryliw makes the same mistake lots of first-time X-Files writers’ scripts do: It focuses too much on the “monster” and not enough on Mulder and Scully. There are times when this can work, when the monster is just so compelling that it doesn’t really matter if our heroes catch up to it. But this is a risky proposal indeed, because it requires getting the audience to sympathize with a character to whom we have no attachment. It fails more often than not, and it’s highly reliant on the actors cast in the parts. Diehl tries his level best, but he can’t fight off the fact that by the end of this episode, there’s a heavy “Who cares?” factor.
This is a problem that afflicts plenty of the monster-of-the-week episodes in the period after the show left Vancouver to shoot in Los Angeles. To be sure, there are some great monster-of-the-week episodes in the final four seasons, particularly in the even-numbered ones, but there are also plenty where the show’s formula had grown overwhelming, where it was simply clear that all involved were tired with coming up with new variations on the same forms. In those cases, the show would often go for broke on a single image—the wall that breaks out roughly in the form of a man, here—and then hope that was enough to carry the day. These episodes have a very paint-by-numbers feel. The underlying structure is so sound that it’s hard not to appreciate it on some level, at least, but it’s still something that has a very manufactured quality to it. It’s an episode assembled in compliance with the instructions that came in the box.
Diehl plays a man named “Pinker” Rawls, a hardened convict who’s obviously stewing over something. When he nails a fellow prison inmate’s hand to the board the two are placing over a building’s window in light of an approaching storm, he’s placed in “the box,” a small, solitary-confinement space out in the middle of the prison farm’s grounds. Since there are tornadoes touching down all over, Pinker is naturally concerned about this, but the warden lets him know he should have thought of that before he decided to, uh, nail another guy’s hand to a board. Pinker sneers about this but accepts his punishment. The tornado touches down. The box is destroyed. Pinker is dead.
But so is the warden. And he’s been split in half. And both of those halves are burned off, as if he were set on fire or struck by lightning. It’s enough to make Scully—sensible Scully!—suggest this could be spontaneous human combustion. (David Duchovny mostly plays this episode as if he’d rather be anywhere else, but a bit of the old Mulder snark comes out when he’s play-flirting with Scully after her suggestion of spontaneous combustion.) Naturally enough, Mulder and Scully head out into the field to figure out what’s going on, and after a prison guard tells them this has to be Pinker, they find that, sure enough, people with connections to Pinker are turning up dead. He wants the money he’s owed, and he’s willing to plow through old roommates and sisters of old girlfriends to get it. The death scenes are nicely gruesome—the moment when Mulder discovers a corpse has had its face burned away is a good shocker—and the conceit that Rawls is now apparently made of electricity, so anything he passes through effectively turns to ash makes for some nice visuals, when bullets and handcuffs turn to dust. There’s also a wonderfully mounting tension to the first half of the episode, with Pinker making an effective boogeyman.
Here’s where knowing too much about an episode—even its title—can really come back to bite you. Because this episode is called “Trevor,” and by the halfway point, there haven’t been any characters named Trevor. On the other hand, we’ve checked in with an old girlfriend who’s turned all respectable, and we can tell that Pinker seems motivated by something more than money. So he must have a son, and that kid is going to get a limited amount of screentime to try to make us care about whether he and his dad can bond in the way Pinker would like. As it turns out, he gets about 10 minutes, and it’s not nearly enough. By the time Trevor’s in the middle of the story, things have flown off the rails, as the episode is scrambling to pull a reversal and make Pinker an object of the audience’s sympathy, rather than the story’s villain.
Don’t get me wrong. When something like this is done well, there’s nothing quite like it. An episode of TV getting us to reconsider something we’ve held to be true about a character is wonderful indeed. But the episodes that do this often feature characters we’ve gotten to know over time—think of when we learned Scully was a devote Catholic—or character development that doesn’t turn on a dime, as in countless episodes where the monster of the week seems scary but the show drops hints that he’s actually got hidden depths. “Trevor” mostly tries to get us to sympathize with Pinker by insisting that he’s sympathetic, and even though Diehl gives it his all, he can’t overcome the sheer predictability of the story, the laziness of the character development, or the way the story falls apart once Trevor is introduced to it. It’s still competent—it’d be hard to mess up that underlying structure—but there’s little artistry to it. Every time the episode checks in with Mulder and Scully, they seem as bored as the audience probably is.
Southern gothic is a genre many of Chris Carter’s shows would turn to from time to time, and they almost always had trouble pulling it off. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps the genre itself invites trafficking in broad stereotypes, of the sort that require a Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner to make believable. Or maybe the show was just unlucky when it came to the genre. There’s a haunting, eerie core to “Trevor,” and the “rules” that govern Pinker’s powers are pretty ingenious, if arbitrary. (Why, for instance, is glass the only thing that can stop him? Wouldn’t wood also have no effect on him?) But where “Trevor” succeeds on a moment-to-moment basis, it mostly flails all over the place in terms of story. There are several good ideas here, but they never cohere, and Mulder and Scully get left out in the cold.
- The scoring in this episode is far, far too obtrusive as well, and the way it seems to consist of the same ominous chord, played over and over, quickly grows irritating. It’s like Mark Snow is lapsing into self-parody, and the few times the score lets up are notable. Over-scoring is often a way that producers will try to make a lackluster episode of television come together in post-production, and this is a fine case in point.
- I do like the way that Pinker is ultimately dispatched, with the car turning to ash until he hits the windshield. It’s nicely gory, and it’s tragic in a way the episode doesn’t ultimately earn but that feels somewhat moving in the moment. Then the episode just ends and squanders the goodwill it garnered from that close.
- There’s another solid scare in the closing, when Scully closes herself in a phone booth, the only place she’s safe from Pinker, and he starts hammering away at the glass with a rock. Man, TV writers must miss phone booths!
“Darwin’s Eye” (season 3, episode 17; originally aired 4/16/1999)
In which… uhhhhh… I’m not actually sure…
“Darwin’s Eye” is just the right blend of crazy, to the degree that I want to like it more than I actually do. It’s full of over-the-top pretension. It tries to hook up the show’s Bible-based eschatology with the more mundane serial-killer stories of season one. It’s based around a crazy person’s voiceover, and it awkwardly shoehorns in a personal narrative for a character who’s not really capable of supporting one. It’s a big, big swing, and it’s also a big, big miss, but I found it weirdly endearing all the same. My wife, who was in the room with me as I watched, kept laughing at the ripeness of the purple dialogue, but I couldn’t help but feel a weird affection for what was going on here. This is a show that knows it’s on its last legs and is doing whatever it can to find another way forward. That it’s mostly failing makes the whole process that much more interesting to watch.
“Darwin’s Eye” mostly proceeds on two tracks. In the first, an escaped mental patient named Cass Doyle (played by the great, perpetual TV guest star Tracy Middendorf, in one of her earliest big roles) breaks out of the hospital where she’s been staying, having apparently decapitated a guard. She commandeers a cop car, says she didn’t do it when asked. And, hey, given that it’s this show, there’s no problem imagining that, say, a random demon stopped in to perform the deed for her. The cop she takes hostage—named McNulty!—and eventually comes to love takes her on a wild road trip through the immediate area. What the two are in search of is a safe place for Cass—who claims the FBI is trying to kill her—but the episode also plays up how they seem to be seeking out a place to just be themselves and be in love. They hole up in a hotel whose sign features the crossed palms that have been shown prominently throughout the episode. This can only end well.
The other half of the episode has to do with the continuing adventures of Emma Hollis. Way back at the episode’s beginning, when Cass is monologuing in voiceover about natural selection and whatnot, we see a bald, older African-American man placing a series of random items into a wooden box, then sending it off to Emma. As it turns out, this guy, who’s played by John Beasley, perhaps better known as the narratin’ bus driver on Everwood, is Emma’s father, James. He’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and he’s been seized by a kind of apocalyptic fervor, it would seem. The episode ends with Emma going to get him at a local store, where he’s endlessly photocopying images of palm trees buffeted by a nuclear blast. See? Synchronicity!
Now, these two stories don’t really add up, beyond the vague idea the episode has that those who have mental health problems are tuned into the free-floating sense of impending disaster that was the turn of the 21st century. (As mentioned before, these themes seem particularly bizarre when looked at from the year 2012, when we know that things continued on pretty much as they always had.) Other than that, this is an exceptionally disjointed episode, with both halves competing for supremacy and the Hollis storyline, in particular, feeling like it’s been shoved into the middle of everything else because the writers can’t figure out what to do with her, even more than they could never figure out what to do with Catherine in the show’s first two seasons.
It’s not hard to sympathize with the writers in their attempts to come up with “another half” for the show. Even if Millennium strives to be something of a different show from The X-Files, all of these writers know in their bones that what made that earlier show was the interplay between the two leads. Millennium too often threatens to turn into The Lance Henriksen Show. While Glen Morgan and James Wong made good use of this back in season two, with episodes where nobody but Henriksen appeared for long periods of time, it’s also the sort of thing that grows wearying on an actor. Millennium has attempted to build a small ensemble around Frank each season, but none of these characters have ever really taken hold with the audience, which means the ensemble, outside of one or two players, is effectively rebooted with each season, leaving Frank as the only constant. It’s not retooling, exactly, but it’s a close cousin.
In the original conception of the show, at least, Catherine had some sort of purpose. Where Frank believed that Evil was sui generis, a constantly existing condition that struck out of the darkness of men’s hearts, Catherine believed that it could be cured, more or less, that by being loving and compassionate, you could chase away that darkness. She was a social worker for a reason, and the show tried its level best to give her storylines where she tried to make the many awful things people can do to each other—or to their children—better through simple goodness. The problem was that social work isn’t terribly compelling as a dramatic engine for storytelling, so she receded into the background, eventually turned into a mere symbol for Frank to chase after. There was an attempt at a Catherine-centric episode in season two, but instead of doing something related to her original purpose on the show, she was shoehorned into a standard Frank Black plot that simply didn’t feature Frank Black.
After Catherine died, the show needed to have another female lead, because, well, it had to. That wasn’t the best impetus for a character ever, but there was a chance to do something different and interesting with the character, perhaps providing a different perspective from Frank that would be there on every case with him. There were hints of this in the early going, when Emma was more often than not lightening the mood while Frank was his usual dour self. But as the season has gone on, the writers have flailed about more than usual while looking for something for Emma to do. She’s not a character so much as she’s someone who’s there to stare blankly into the world of evil Frank confronts every day. And that doesn’t add up to an arc at all.
This is why this episode tries so valiantly to humanize her by giving her some personal problems. And, honestly, it might have worked if the show had gone this route earlier in the season. By this point, though, it’s too little, too late, particularly when it’s shoved up against the very odd Cass storyline, which feels almost by-the-numbers and is helped only by the late-episode turn when Cass reveals that she’s decapitated McNulty as well. The Cass stuff was exactly the right kind of preposterousness that Millennium can do well when it wants to, which makes it even more painful that the episode doesn’t handle the transitions very well. The Emma stuff is supposed to drive her personal involvement in the Cass case; instead, it drives her closer to her father, and Frank saves the day yet again. It’s an imbalanced basis for a TV show, but everybody involved knows they have to make it work. So they keep firing away.
- I find it hard to believe that nobody would have realized that Cass had covered her walls in words that were meant to resemble her own face. One of the things you notice immediately is an eye, and you don’t think to look for the whole face?
- Is there an example of a positive sex scene on this show? In general, this series’ relationship to sexuality, particularly female sexuality, is really messed up, and this is yet another example of an episode where a woman having sex ends with something horrible.
- Somebody in comments linked to this last week, and I found it hilarious. I present to you: Suddenly Millennium.
Next week: Zack heads into an ocean of purple prose with “Milagro,” then heads off with “Bardo Thodol,” who is not a J.R.R. Tolkien character somehow.