The X-Files: “Empedocles”/“Vienen”

The X-Files: “Empedocles”/“Vienen”

“Empedocles” (season 8, episode 17; originally aired 4/22/2001)

In which evil is a disease, and only Mulder has the cure (not really)

(Available on Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.)

There are a lot of things to like in “Empedocles,” but the central conceit is just too stupid for the episode as a whole to work. Some genuinely unsettling stuff happens in this episode—just go back and look at that shot where poor Jeb tears off his skin to reveal the fiery demon-self living beneath said skin—but it’s kind of hard to get used to the idea of evil being a virus that’s passed between people in moments of weakness. I think there’s a version of this episode that features a genuine demonic possession of some sort, and that version of the episode is probably better. As it is, the notion of people being taken by evil itself feels slightly too much like those interminable early episodes of Millennium where Frank and his wife would argue about whether evil was a naturally occurring force that sometimes just wrote up of its own accord or something that could be curbed with good social work.

That said, what I do like about “Empedocles” is the way that it features all four FBI agents in the same episode, letting them bounce off of each other and giving the episode a busier feel than most of the rest of the show. Despite only being a couple of minutes longer than your average network drama today, early seasons of The X-Files could feel as if they had a downright leisurely pace, and the more I think about that, the more I think it has something to do with how the show only had the two regulars. The mythology episodes allowed for greater “regular” casts, but in most episodes, it was just Mulder and Scully, with the people whose cases they were investigating filling out many of the scenes in the B-story. Now, however, the show can play Reyes off of Mulder, or Doggett off of Scully, or return to the classic pairing of Mulder and Scully, and all of these relationships feel like they could potentially be truly fascinating.

It’s hard to overstate how different this feels from episodes that aired even a few weeks ago. I don’t particularly like Reyes as a character—this episode, sadly, may be her high point—but I do like how her form of “belief” is very different from Mulder’s and how that produces a little conflict between the two of them. I also like the way the show gives her and Doggett a pre-existing relationship that extends back to the death of his son, which has been one of the better-handled throughlines of the season (and that’s actually saying something). Some of this stuff was hinted at back when Reyes first came around, but giving it a little more weight here is the right impulse.

Having all four of the agents around also allows for the show to have all sorts of storylines going at once. Scully has to go to the hospital in this episode, and rather than sit by her bedside and wait for her to wake up, Mulder finds himself dragged into a case Reyes needs a consult on. This gives him a good chance to play off of someone other than his former partner, and there are some nice scenes between him and Reyes and between him and Doggett. Because the producers almost certainly knew they wouldn’t have David Duchovny for any prospective ninth season (and mostly likely wouldn’t have Gillian Anderson for a 10th), it was imperative that they find some small ways to pass the torch from the older characters to the newer ones. To that end, having Doggett talk with Scully about why she was able to finally believe or having Mulder and Reyes debate what’s worth believing in makes these new characters feel like they fit in ways they haven’t always before (something that applies more to Reyes than Doggett).

It’s the Mulder and Scully scenes, curiously, that fall flat. Granted, Scully’s in a hospital bed for much of the episode, but the banter between the two in the early scene where they talk about whether she’s sleeping with her pizza guy just doesn’t work and seems to go on forever. And the final scene, where the two of them talk over pizza and the gift Mulder has given her, is almost embarrassingly schmoopy for the show. Yes, I get that the writers had more or less made their peace with the idea that Mulder and Scully had been doing it (though they didn’t want to just come out and say that), but the cheesiness of, say, Scully telling Mulder that he gave her the wonderful gift of being able to believe is just too, too much. These two have always had one of the great TV relationships of all time, sure, but there was also a good deal of prickliness to it at times, and that’s sorely missing here.

Also, this case is pretty much rock-bottom stupid, particularly once it’s resolved. The opening image of the flaming man exiting the car wreck and possessing Jeb is pretty cool, but by the time Mulder is talking about how he thinks that people can be taken over by evil in moments of weakness, the wheels have come off the thing. Here’s the thing: I think all of this might have worked if it were played on the level of metaphor, if the flaming man were just meant to be some sort of unexplained monster or nebulous demon. That would have left a nice sense of mystery to the proceedings, and it wouldn’t have required the final bit where Mulder explains what’s going on.

Plus, if you think about it, this seems like it’s being set up to be the trace beginnings of something for Doggett and Reyes to investigate throughout their run of the show. Just as Mulder had his sister, Doggett has his son’s death to investigate. But instead of the aliens, who were central to the mystery of Samantha’s abduction, Reyes and Doggett are going to investigate, what? Evil itself? Some sort of Satanic beast that manifests itself as a flaming man and/or its victims briefly appearing as if they had been burnt to death to those looking into their deaths? I don’t know if Doggett’s son’s death continues throughout the series (I’ve seen barely any of season nine), but all of this feels incredibly convenient and poorly explained. A monster-of-the-week episode can get away without having a very convincing monster if the dialogue is sharp or the characters are interesting. But “Empedocles” only has boring old Jeb and his sister (Katha? Seriously?), and they’re not fascinating enough to hold down the fort. I like this episode for how it turns all four agents into differing, sometimes squabbling, personalities, but the actual plot lets everything down.

Stray observations:

  • If you’re at all intrigued by that shot of Jeb clawing off his own skin to reveal the flames underneath, Wikipedia has the full story of how that effect was greenscreened together.
  • I can see what writer Greg Walker was going for with the whole “you’re sleeping with the pizza man!” scene, but between the fact that it’s not particularly funny (nor does it add anything to the episode’s plot) and Duchovny seeming over it all, it just doesn’t work.
  • Director Barry K. Thomas gets some nicely eerie shots in the sequences where Doggett remembers the finding of his son’s corpse.

“Vienen” (season 8, episode 18; originally aired 4/29/2001)

In which the black oil is back

(Available on Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.)

It’s hard to know precisely when the mythology of The X-Files went belly-up. Somewhere in the middle of season four seems to be the most popular answer. I’d place the date at the three-parter spanning the end of season four and the start of season five, which has a lot of great stuff in it and a lot of hogwash. You could even make a case for “Two Fathers”/“One Son,” I think, though I’m not sure I’d recommend it. The point is that the mythology episodes were supposed to be absolute messes by this point of the show’s run, yet “Vienen” is a terrific little roller coaster ride that brings back one of the show’s best villains, one that was supposed to be played out. It’s probably the best mythology episode in several seasons and maybe since the season three finale.

What’s sort of crazy about that is that the episode goes out of its way to mostly ignore everything that was done with the mythology in every season after three, when the conspiracy went global and the aliens’ colonization plot started to take form. Yeah, there are some subtle mentions of that in “Vienen,” but for the most part, this is the black oil as we encountered it way back in “Piper Maru” and “Apocrypha.” It isn’t the first stage of some insidious alien colonization plot, a virus that eventually turns human hosts into incubators for pupa stage Greys. It’s, instead, just some strange organism that can override the body’s functions and take control, which makes it all the more alarming. It’s more Invasion Of The Body Snatchers than Alien, and the episode is all the better for it.

What’s more, this episode regresses the mythology’s big picture to a season three state as well. The aliens might be around, but they’re mostly offscreen, and the bulk of the time, all they seem to be doing is listening and transmitting messages to the guys at the oil rig. In practice, the sort of story this has the most resemblance to is a zombie story, albeit one where the zombies can disguise themselves as humans like you or me. (Come to think of it, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is a very good comparison point for this episode.) It’s an episode where Mulder and Doggett discover they’re smack dab in the middle of an infestation, then have to figure out what they’re going to do about it. It has a lot of similarities to another season highlight, “Roadrunners,” except this one somehow ropes in much of the series’ master-plot and makes it enjoyable again. And I would bet just about anything the only reason it arose is because of the location it’s filmed at.

The Wikipedia page for this episode informs me that the location of an offshore oil rig was one of several places scouted in the offseason before season eight. In the past, the series had written to locations, and then the location managers had gone out to find them. But before season eight, for the first time, the location manager was encouraged to go and find places where episodes might be filmed, places that would stand out as different from the settings for previous episodes. And an offshore oil rig, with its isolation and man-made island status, was definitely the sort of place that would look and feel different from just about every other episode of the show. Yeah, there are some similarities here to, say, “Ice,” but when the episode cuts to Mulder and Doggett running around the oil rig in various exterior shots, it’s the sort of thing that the earlier, low-budget version of the show just couldn’t have done.

So from there, I’m sure, the question became, “What do you do when you’ve got a story set on an oil rig?” and that immediately turned to the black oil, which had taken much more of a supporting role as the seasons wore on. The problem with the black oil was that its powers were so undefined as to let the show turn it into just about anything, and that made it lose a lot of what made it cool, particularly the fact that it was this strange alien virus that kept people alive at the bottom of the ocean for decades. Now, “Vienen” fucks around with some stuff I had forgotten was even in the black oil playbook (like those radiation flashes), and I’m not sure I needed that. But it mostly just gets it back to the mind-control virus that was always so freaky because of the potential it had to crawl inside of you of its own volition. (Shots of the oil moving beneath people’s skin will never not be creepy.)

All of these elements—the isolation, the location, the stripped-down aesthetics, and the presence of the black oil—conspire to create an episode that more or less serves as an enclosed space thriller, where our two heroes find themselves in a place that they can’t easily get away from with a bunch of people they know are enemies, who don’t yet know Mulder and Doggett know the truth about them. This could all feel too complicated—and just trying to explain the game of who knows what when is making my head spin—but in practice, it’s marvelously tense, particularly in the last 15 minutes or so, when all hell is breaking loose, and the two agents’ only recourse is to find their way to the edge of the burning oil rig and leap into the water in hopes that the helicopter Scully sent will be able to rescue them. If nothing else, “Vienen” is a great example of how to raise and raise and raise the stakes.

It’s also trying to do a couple of things the show will need for the series to continue, one quite successfully and the other a little less successfully. The first is the need for the show to have David Duchovny and Fox Mulder pass the torch to Robert Patrick and John Doggett. For the show to work for years to come, somebody else will have to pick up the thrust of Mulder’s quest, a quest that he won’t have as many resources with which to pursue now that he’s been fired from the FBI. The experience at the oil rig is meant to be a kind of turning point for Doggett, a point where he needs to figure out just what’s up, and I think the high stakes of the situation more than make the case that he would be at least curious about whatever was going on 150 miles offshore.

The episode is less successful at reinstating that old X-Files dynamic of the skeptic and the believer, working together. Oddly enough, “Empedocles,” in which all of the characters are skeptics about some things and believers about others, was more believable in this regard than this return to the show’s rigid old format. “Vienen” presents Doggett’s encounter with the black oil as something that he will have to struggle to eventually believe in, a journey from the way he’s always thought of the world to a new way of thinking about it. And while the show has done some interesting things to differentiate that from Scully’s arc for the first seven seasons, it’s still basically Scully’s arc. The scenes in this episode where Mulder and Doggett argue about what’s real and what’s not stop the story dead. We’ve come far enough that it’d be okay for someone like Doggett to take little leaps of faith, particularly when everybody around him is more or less certain this is the case (even Skinner!).

In spite of this, “Vienen” packs a punch. It’s a suspenseful, tension-wracked episode, and when it reaches its end point and Fox Mulder is fired from the FBI, there’s a real feeling of finality to it, the sense that we’ve reached the end of an era. Season eight is about as orderly a transition as I can imagine for a show to roll out from one version of itself to a new version of itself, and with almost all of the pieces in place, “Vienen” puts a few more together, so the puzzle starts to make more sense. That’s not what makes it a season highlight—the crackerjack plotting and terrific last act do that—but it’s certainly one of the things that helps set this season apart from its general reputation as being a mess.

Stray observations:

  • I didn’t get to cover either “Deadalive” or “Three Words,” so let me just say what a pleasure it is to have Fox Mulder around and taking cases again within the world of the show. Duchovny is so obviously over it, but the character himself is a necessary figure within the world of the show, whether missing or present.
  • Another minor complaint: Scully doesn’t get very much to do, instead just hanging around at FBI headquarters and concluding that the black oil is responsible for all that’s gone down on the oil rig. Yeah, she gets to be super smart, and yeah, it makes sense a pregnant woman would be sitting all of this out. But I’d like to see more, you know?
  • That’s M.C. Gainey, who played Mr. Friendly on Lost and has been in a million other things, playing the lead possessed guy. The scene where he vomits black oil all over one of his fellow crewmen is a great reminder of why the black oil became such a popular villain in the first place.

Next week: Zack rounds out season eight with a look at “Alone” and then the two-parter “Essence” and “Existence.”

And after that: It’s time for the holidays! But we’ll be back sometime in early winter to finish out the series with a look at season nine and, hopefully, the second movie. 

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