The X-Files: “Born Again” / “Roland” / “The Erlenmeyer Flask”

The X-Files: “Born Again” / “Roland” / “The Erlenmeyer Flask”

"Born Again"

Children are a mystery--the blank expressions, the sticky fingers, the randomness. The randomness especially; everything else you can chalk up to a sugar addiction, but the opacity, the lack of an understandable motivation outside of fever dream logic, can be terrifying. You find yourself confronted with something you not only can't understand, but due to social dictates, you can't even control. Timmy comes at you with a knife? You take the knife away, and maybe you scold him. But there's no guarantee he's listening. And no reason to think that next time he won't be back with a bigger knife.

If all this sounds familiar, it should. The X-Files has been down the scary kid path before (the superior "Eve"), and while "Born Again"'s trip to the well has enough variations to not be a total waste, it does have a been there, done that feel. Especially when you consider that the other half of the story seems to have been lifted from "Shadows": an older man struggling from beyond the grave through a young woman to revenge himself on those who wronged him. For a series with so much potential for innovation, it's disappointing to see them go down the same well tread path.

There's a little girl named Michelle Bishop, and she's been having problems. She's terrified of water, and worse, she has anger management issues. Her psychiatrist has a closet full of dolls that Michelle has mutilated, all in the same fashion, and the doctor has no clue what's driving her. But Michelle is being driven; something's putting her at the crime scene of two apparently unrelated murders, murders that she couldn't possibly have committed on her own. She describes a strange man to the police when they ask her what happened, but that doesn't provide any answers. The description fits that of a police officer named Charlie Morris, but he died nine years ago.

But Mulder has a few ideas. Psychokenesis, for one–maybe little Michelle has access to more strength than her four feet of bland cuteness would suggest. And maybe her connection to Charlie Morris is more direct than anyone could've guessed.

One of the things that distinguishes X-Files from generic genre television is the details. "Born"'s reincarnation plot never really goes beyond the obvious–creepy kid plus creepy powers equals scariness–but there is pleasure to be found in the way the writers fill the spaces around that plot. The "burns or lesions" Mulder has Scully look for during an autopsy, to prove Michelle's powers, make a nebulous concept more concrete, and their investigation into the circumstances surrounding Morris' death, while in some ways standard cop TV fare, add to that concreteness. The show generally does a good job at grounding the more esoteric aspects of Mulder's philosophy, and watching a tech guy cleaning up the video of Michelle's deep hypnosis session to uncover a single, eerie image makes for a cool combination of hard science and the inexplicable.

That hypnosis session and the motivation behind it are an excellent reminder of why Mulder does what he does. During the standard MotW ep, it's possible to forget his main obsession isn't just to stop monsters but to bring them to light; and while little Michelle isn't exactly a monster, Mulder's need to push her into deep regression and his struggle to prove her connection to Charlie gives the episode more weight than its by-the-numbers structure would suggest. At the end, everything's wrapped up nicely; the evil are punished, and the innocent have found some kind of peace. But Mulder's still stuck out on the fringe.

Thanks for the comments last week about the "grading" system, everybody. I agree, "Ugly" is too harsh; I'm going to steal Darth Weevil's idea, and just call them "The Rest." Cool?

Good, Bad, the Rest: The Rest

Stray Observations:

--Maggie Wheeler plays a cop in this episode, and I kept getting Friends flashbacks.

-- It's supposed to be a happy ending, but I wish they'd done a little more with the reincarnation angle. How much does Michelle remember now? And how much of Charlie's personality is still in control?


Man, talk about familiar… Once again, we have a series of murders, and once again, the only person who could be responsible is the one person least likely to be involved. This time instead of a little girl, we have Roland, the autistic janitor who spends his time mopping the floors of the Mahan Propulsion Lab at Washington Tech. Roland is on the scene for the brutal deaths of two scientists–in a nice change of pace, we actually get to see him doing the killing, first by jet engine, and then by liquid nitrogen (now I'm flashing on Jason X)–but there's nothing in his personality that would indicate violent behavior. And there's definitely no way to explain the work he does after the murders, complicated mathematical equations that are beyond the abilities of even the most gifted idiot savant. Is someone controlling Roland? Someone like a scientist who died months earlier but whose work Roland seems hell-bent on finishing?

It's too bad that "Born Again" and "Roland" aired in such close proximity; neither episode is a classic, but put one right after another, it's hard not to notice the similarities. Sure, "Born" is about reincarnation and "Roland" is about twins and ghosts, but the big picture is the same. Mulder and Scully are left playing catch-up with a spiritual world that runs on strong wills and innocent proxies. It's like Tales From The Crypt, only without the painful black comedy and special guest stars.

But just like "Born," "Roland" is well-built enough to be enjoyable despite its familiarity. X-Files always set great stock in giving its secondary characters dignity–witness the level-headed portrayal of Native American culture in "Shapes"–and "Roland" no exception. As portrayed by Zeljko Ivanek, Roland himself never seems anything less than authentic, which gives his struggles a real bite, and his relationship with another mentally handicapped woman has an uncontrived sweetness.

Plus, unlike Michelle or any of the other "beyond the grave" schemes we've seen, the supernatural force at work here doesn't have righteous motives. Arthur Grable, Roland's twin, is disrupting the life of his still-living brother simply because he wants posthumous credit for his discoveries. Before his death, he made arrangements for easily influenced Roland to come work at the jet propulsion lab, and after his death, Arthur had his head cryogenically frozen, the nominal explanation given for his continued influence on the material world. It's as if he was so driven to succeed he even made sure he'd have an outlet for his ambition even if the worst occured.

While Arthur's fatal car-wreck is suspicious, no one ever flat out states that he was murdered (the "suspicious" part seems more for the benefit of confusing Scully and Mulder). For once, we have a spiritual will whose motives aren't pure; and while that will is eventually thwarted, an innocent still ends up suffering the consequences. The episode leaves you not with Mulder's frustrated ambitions or Scully's skepticism, but with Roland getting taken away from his home for psychiatric evaluation. The situation isn't hopeless, but the final shot of Roland going to brush his hair in the mirror, and then stopping to look at himself, makes you wonder just what the cost of Arthur's machinations truly were. Or if his victims–the living ones–will ever stop paying.

Good, Bad, the Rest: The Rest

Stray Observations:

--Hey, "Beakman's World"! I used to love that show.

--Mulder telling Roland about his dream was a lovely moment, especially given what we later learn about his relationship with his father.

"The Erlenmeyer Flask"

The final episode of season one starts with a bang–a car chase through city streets that climaxes with the suspect beating the crap out of two police officers and getting shot at by a third before diving into the bay. The shooter swears he hit the suspect, and there's good reason to believe him, as well as good reason to wonder just what the hell is going on; because on the very edge of the platform the guy jumped from, there are pools of green liquid that look a lot like blood.

A call from Deep Throat gets Mulder and Scully involved with the case, but after a search leads them to an unforthcoming scientist named Dr. Berube and not much else, Scully has had enough. She still doesn't trust Deep Throat; as she reminds Mulder, DT has already admitted lying to them at least once, and given that they have no idea who he really is, or his actual position in the government, what reason is there to blindly follow his clues?

Mulder is inclined to agree, and when DT confronts him on his front doorstep, Mulder lets his frustration at all the dead ends and "circular logic" come to a head. Still, DT urges him on. "You've never been closer," he says. And he's right. Dr. Berube is working on something very unusual–or at least he was, until he took a header out the window with a line of gauze wrapped around his neck. Scully brings a flask of the dead doctor's experiments to be analyzed while Mulder makes a trip to Berube's home. He traces a lead to Zeus Storage, on 1616 Pandora St. (subtle), where he discovers, in one of the coolest visuals of the first season, a room of six giant fish tanks. Five of the tanks have humans inside them--living humans. But the sixth is empty.

Scully has made her own discovery: the flask has bacteria with a virus inside it, the sort of preparation geneticists use in gene therapy to inject a living host with foreign material. Even more striking, a DNA test on the substance reveals a 5th and 6th nucleotide base pair, unheard of on this planet. Whatever is in the flask, Scully is told, is by definition, "extraterrestrial."

There's proof, then, between the bodies in storage and the flask, enough to bring to the public at large. But as The X-Files has shown us time and again, having proof isn't nearly as important as keeping it. The dark forces that generally keep to the sidelines during Mulder and Scully's work are about to bring the hammer down, and by the end of "The Erlenmeyer Flask," nothing will ever be the same again.

One of the basic criticisms of Chris Carter and the series is that all the conspiracy mongering and backstory he created never managed to reach a satisfactory conclusion. After a certain point, it became impossible to keep track of the double-crosses and shadowy figures and "groups within groups," and eventually the paranoia turned in on itself and became something dangerously close to camp. With a mythology this expansive, there needed to be a balance, a sense that behind all the madness and confusion rules were being followed. Without that balance, the whole thing becomes meaningless. Calvinball is a terrific game, but only for the players; to the rest of us, it's just bad improv with somebody else's stuffed tiger.

Looking back now, it's even more frustrating knowing the series would finally lose the track. "Flask" is a terrific ep, gripping, intelligent, and ballsy as hell. There's a sense of forward momentum, that feeling that progress is being made over shaky ground. The idea that the government has been experimenting with introducing alien genetic tissue to living human hosts is believably frightening, and the fact that the resulting hybrid's blood is toxic when exposed makes for a neat metaphor about the ways that power can over-reach itself by never having to worry about the consequences.

And how about that ending? That's what I call a paradigm shift. After Scully's tense excursion into the heart of darkness (I was surprised she used her actual name here; you'd think her and Mulder's ID would be on every bulletin board in the building) to steal the frozen alien baby that caused the whole mess, there's a prisoner exchange on a bridge that leaves Mulder wounded but alive and Deep Throat very, very dead. His shooting is a shocking moment, even when you know it's coming; Hardin's desperation with Scully makes you wonder if he knew the end was near, and his final words–"Trust no one"–will linger for the rest of the show's run. It's a motto that's at once easy to grasp and impossible to follow; when the whole world is against you, trust is about the only thing left you have to save yourself.

"Flask"'s final scene has Mulder's worst fears confirmed: "they" are shutting the X-Files down. It's the first time the department would face extinction, but not the last, and that, really, is X-Files undoing. The stakes raised in this episode are very high–a beloved mentor figure dead, the proof gone, and the one department capable of bringing it all to light closed for good. But we now know the real truth. It might take a few episodes, but the status quo would ultimately return. A new Deep Throat would arise, more evidence would dance tantalizingly out of reach, and the X-Files themselves would never die for long. It's the curse of continuity for a show so reliant on the status quo that it never really embraced its own possibilities.

But that's far in the future. Next week, Season 2–the Flukeman cometh!

Good, Bad, the Rest: Essential

Stray Observations:

--Deep Throat's death might be the episode's most dramatic exit but for my money, the creepiest was Scully's discovery that the friendly doctor who'd helped her investigate the contents of the flask had been killed in a car crash along with her entire family. There's a brutal effeciency at work here that's very unsettling.

--Awww. Cute little frozen alien fetus.

--I loved Scully's apology to Mulder about doubting him. Her skepticism really isn't as rigid as I remember it being.

--The last scene, with Cigarette Smoking Man depositing the fetus in a box in a room with many other boxes, makes a nice symmetry with the last scene of the pilot.

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