The X-Files: “Closure” / “X-Cops”

The X-Files: “Closure” / “X-Cops”

“Closure” (season 7, episode 11; originally aired 2/13/2000)
In which Mulder stops looking for his sister.

There’s a certain vulnerability involved in caring about art. It’s the vulnerability that comes from liking something, from investing some small part of yourself in a story, a painting, a song. When you like something, you can be hurt. Really, that’s at the heart of all the fan rage over disappointing finales, bungled plotlines, prematurely murdered characters—passion has a cost, and the cost is a loss of impartiality, objectivity, distance. Chances are, if you read this website, there’s at least one show or book or movie that you care deeply about, that you’ve obsessed over, lingered on, and defended to anyone who dared doubt its quality. It’s absurd, on the surface; I’m no more connected to, say, Breaking Bad than I am to the moon. But these things become a part of our lives, and that can be thrilling and astonishing and heartbreaking even while it’s completely ridiculous. There’s a line, though. Fandom love, no matter how passionate, is never completely unconditional. There’s always a line, however deeply buried or unlikely it may seem, and if that line is crossed, people get angry. Because nobody likes feeling as though they’ve been taken advantage of. Nobody likes feeling like a chump.

Todd talked about his experience losing his initial interest in The X-Files last week, and I’m not going to repeat him; even if I wanted to, I’d turned my back on the series at least a year before he did, so my reaction to this two-parter doesn’t have a lot of personal history behind it. But it’s such a bizarre, haunting, ridiculous, lovely bit of television that I kept thinking about that invisible line, about the point of no return when lavish adoration turns into snickering contempt. “Closure” dances around that line quite a lot, so that even without having a huge commitment to the show (I still love it, obviously, but I realize we’re in the weeds now, so to speak; I’m more curious about the later seasons than I am excited), I wavered between awe and eye-rolling. The more I think about the episode, the more I’m sure that it works on an emotional level, while failing to make more than the most basic sense in terms of plot. It feels satisfying, but at the same time, I’m nervous about trying to explain that satisfaction to anyone who doesn’t live in my head. Which is, really, why fandoms exist: we want to insulate against an uncaring world by surrounding ourselves with people who are just as crazy, and the same kind of crazy, as we are.

There’s more ghost kid action in “Closure”; there’s also a psychic, a special appearance by the Cigarette Smoking Man, a video of a younger Mulder (with bonus hideous haircut) being hypnotized, and the no question, no wiggle room, we’re completely serious about this final resolution to Samantha Mulder’s disappearance. Sort of. Given the number of times Samantha’s story has “ended” before, it’s hard not to approach this particular conclusion with Scully-levels of skepticism, and yet it’s played with the kind of intense sorrow and compassion that makes it hard not to trust. But in order for that to work, in order for this episode to be at all effective, you have to be willing to put yourself out there, to risk feeling like a jackass if the whole thing falls apart. This show (and Carter’s work in general) has never been afraid of putting itself out there when it comes to absurdity; while the mythology might seem to drag on interminably at times, that tedium comes more from a refusal to provide satisfying resolutions than an unwillingness to go batshit insane when the situation demands it. All those purple prose monologues Carter forced on his lead actors are a kind of warning sign, a way to tell us that what follows can’t survive the application of too much irony, too much distance, too much disbelief. The commitment isn’t always worth it, but, well, we wouldn’t still be talking about the series if it didn’t hit more than it missed.

As to whether or not this hits, I honestly don’t know. The concept of “walk-ins,” children who are taken out of life before they’re forced to suffer extreme pain, is such a vague idea that it’s hard to buy as the answer to so many questions. There’s something frustratingly convenient about it, a wish-fulfillment mysticism that tries to justify all the world’s misery by offering a kind of easy out for the true innocents. Admittedly, death as a happy ending only really works in extreme cases, and it’s not like anyone in the episode beyond Mulder is that happy to find that the kid they’re searching for has gone to a better place. But the concept is little better than just coming out and saying, “She’s dead, but it’s okay.” That’s fine thematically, and it’s probably the most effective emotional beat the writers could’ve wrung out of this storyline at this point (I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like if Samantha really had turned up as a full-grown adult—not a clone or a stand-in, but her. What sort of dynamic would that have created?), but it’s asking just a little too much of the audience. We’re supposed to forget all the other things we’ve heard, all the other dead ends and detours, and just accept that Samantha Mulder was kidnapped and then tested by scientists, and then she ascended into a kind of non-denominational heaven where she’ll be eternally black-and-white, moderately transluscent, and 14 years old.

And yet. And yet. If you can swallow all of this, if you can make that one big jump, there is so much that really works about “Closure” that I can’t dismiss it out of hand. The plotting is loopy, and the way the Ed Truelove story basically disappears after the first ten minutes is questionable to say the least; while this is technically a two-parter, the only real connection between the child kidnapping and murders in the previous episode and Mulder’s search for Samantha in this one is that Amber, the kid who disappeared in “Sein Und Zeit,” ended up ascending the same way Samantha did. But Samantha wasn’t kidnapped by Truelove, and her body isn’t in the cemetery Mulder, Scully, and Skinner found. (For that matter, neither is Amber’s. I guess when the kids become “walk-ins,” their body vanishes.) This is less a one big story than it is two smaller stories tenuously connected; which isn’t a huge problem or anything, but it is weird how disjointed all of this can feel at times.

Again, though, there are amazing scenes in the episode, and they come part and parcel with the premise’s absurdity. Mulder and Scully meet up with a police psychic who’s determined to help them solve the case. Harold Pillar (Anthony Heald, aka Chilton from The Silence Of The Lambs) sits at just the right point between ridiculous and plausible; his position and purported abilities are seemingly a joke, but Heald’s calm, unruffled confidence make him hard to dismiss. It’s the sort of trick the show plays regularly, presenting a character who under other circumstances would a punchline at best, or a villain at worst, and giving him an unexpected dignity, including (at least in this case) a legitimately tragic past. He works with Mulder to follow Samantha’s trail, and Mulder trusts him until Scully discovers the man has a criminal past, and his own missing child—a son. But even that’s not enough to put Mulder off completely. Duchovny may not always be fully engaged this season, but I love the way he plays this arc—half-devastated, half-hopeful, like he thinks he might see an end, but can’t quite allow himself to accept it. (Acceptance is a choice, too; while the episode is so full of weirdness that Pillar’s missing child story never fully develops, the psychic’s refusal to accept his son’s death helps make Mulder’s calm all the more affecting.)

What makes this mess work for me—and yeah, I’m willing to admit that I do think “Closure” is fundamentally sound, even while completely understanding why people would turn on the show because of it—is two scenes. My favorite of the two is also the episode’s most successfully unsettling sequence, powerful in its lack of overt menace and special effects. Mulder finds his sister’s journal behind a wall in the house she used to share with the Cigarette Smoking Man. (CGBS makes an appearance here, and even has a brief chat with Sully; the two hang out so infrequently that it’s nice to see her coldly shut him down in a way Mulder never can.) Then he and Scully go to a diner, and Mulder reads aloud some of the entries. That’s it; there are no flashbacks, no attempts to visualize the past, and little, if any, overt interpretation as to what it all means. Years ago, Samantha was taken away, and she suffered for a while, and then she disappeared for good. But there’s something about the stark simplicity of those entries that gets to me. As often as the show has used Samantha as a motivation for Mulder’s actions, we’ve rarely, if ever, had a chance to hear from her directly. To do so now, if only for a moment, changes the narrative in a small but important way. It’s not just Mulder who’s lost something. There are consequences behind all the black oil alien abduction human hybrid insanity, and those consequences can be as simple and direct as a teenager forced to participate against her will in the mad dreams of old men.

The other scene is the ending, that “closure” Mulder is so desperate to find. Given all the convolutions and plot hoops the episode had to go through to get to this point, it’s not the easiest scene to take. After all, the answers Mulder gets are more emotional than fact—the mystery isn’t so much solved as it is passed over, left to rest for good. But it’s still a beautiful moment, as Mulder climbs a hill to see all the ghost children playing. A bit sappy, a bit surreal, a bit lovely. Really, at this point, I can’t imagine anything else working. Samantha’s absence doesn’t even feel all that important to the show anymore—whenever someone mentions it, it’s just a bit of backstory. Maybe, then, what this is really about is providing an answer to Mulder’s monologue from the cold open, his description of the events immediately following the child burial ground behind Truelove’s home. It’s a good speech, and it questions how we can live in a world with such horrors, suggesting that the desire to believe isn’t just a simple matter of wanting a more interesting reality, or looking for monsters. It’s a need to think that all of this might have some purpose to it; that the pain and suffering of innocents might be alleviated by some higher plan. The idea of “walk-ins” is probably too easy, too simplistic, to really serve as an answer. But it allows Mulder some peace, and lets him move on, and I think that’s enough.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • That grade is even more subjective than usual. I think if I’d seen this episode when it first aired, I would’ve been really, really pissed.
  • The credit slogan this week: “Believe To Understand.” Very zen.
  • “Oh he led you, Mulder. He led you from the moment he met you.” -Scully, going full melodrama.
  • She makes it up for it with: “Oh yay, a seance. I haven’t done this since high school.”
  • The nurse who last saw Samantha before she got taken up to the heavens is named Arbutus Ray. That is a weird damn name.

“X-Cops” (season 7, episode 12; originally aired 2/20/2000)
In which Mulder and Scully come for you...

I used to write about House, and that got painful in the show’s final years. There are lots of reasons for this, but one is just a simple fact of life: once a TV series has been running long enough, it starts to run out of stories. When that happens, it can either try and dig deeper, or it can use increasingly desperate gimmicks and flashy, ungrounded plot twists to try and distract from a fundamentally hollow core. House took the latter tack, and it was just dreadful—occasionally there’d be some flashes of wit, or Hugh Laurie would give a line reading that reminded me why I loved the show in the first place, but mostly it was just a lot of forced silliness reeking of flop-sweat.

“X-Cops” is a gimmick episode; what’s more, it’s a gimmick episode that, in retrospect, is pretty obviously going gimmick to hide the fact that the actual story isn’t all that compelling. (It’s a monster that eats fear. Well, I think it’s a monster. We’ll get to that.) And yet, it’s still a fun, intense hour of television, and even if it doesn’t quite live up to its opening scenes, Vince Gilligan and the cast make the most out of the premise. While the monster isn’t one a hall-of-famer, its method of attack meshes well with the episode’s “live action” aesthetic, and provides enough of a structure to make sure that the fun doesn’t stop even after the novelty dies off. It’s a great entry to pair against “Closure,” because where that episode was straight-faced, grim dive into the show’s mythology, “X-Cops” is lively, light-footed, and funny, going back to the core design of The X-Files (Mulder and Scully hunt creatures; Mulder has wild theories, Scully doesn’t quite agree) in a way that reminds us once again of how resilient that design can be.

Oh right, I should mention the actual gimmick. You ever watch the show Cops? It’s a reality series—an amazingly popular reality series which has been on the air since 1989—on Fox which sends a camera guy and a sound guy to follow a police officer around on patrol. Wackiness ensues, most often in the form of some blurred face, shirtless asshole screaming bleeped curses while his wife/girlfriend sobs in the background. Snideness aside, the show’s cultural impact is strong enough that even if you’ve never watched an episode, you’re most likely familiar with the premise; it’s a straightforward, no frills concept that taps into the voyeuristic pleasures of reality TV without much interest in artificial contests or faux personalities. It’s just dudes (and ladies) chasing other dudes (and other ladies) down alleys. “X-Cops” imagines what might happen if a standard episode of Cops somehow wandered into an episode of The X-Files. This means everything is shot on video, unfolds roughly in real-time (or, as the Wikipedia entry puts it, “real-life”), and we get some of the standard Cops signifiers like officers trying to explain why they do what they do, faces blurred out because they died before they could sign release forms, and, of course, the opening theme song “Bad Boys” by Inner Circle. The whole thing feels authentic, right down to the bits of dialogue that play over the title screen between commercial breaks.

But conceit alone isn’t really enough to power an entire episode, and Gilligan’s script (apparently he’d been pitching the premise since the show’s fourth season) makes excellent use of the Cops format. The cold open sets the stage nicely, first by establishing the familiar rhythms of the show its riffing on, and then throwing in a decent sized scare. That’s something found footage is good at—this isn’t technically in that genre, but it’s the same approach to storytelling, with the same advantages and disadvantages. The video footage, flat and ugly as it is, gets past our defenses; our brain reads it as “real” even though we know it isn’t, and the way that footage is actually shot, with important events happening in the background or on the edge of the frame, forces us to engage more directly with what we’re watching. It’s not a subtle trick, but the immediacy of the shaky video and unflattering lighting can be immensely powerful. It works here not just because the obvious cleverness, but because the format fits in with the monster Mulder and Scully are chasing. The idea of a creature or force which makes people see their greatest fear is an old one, but there’s a definite charge the first time we see the sketch artist’s picture of Freddy Kruger, constructed off of supposed eye-witness testimony. It seems like a great joke at Mulder’s expense, at least at first (he thought he was hunting a werewolf), but then they find a body with claw marks, and it becomes a lot less funny. The Cops-style narrative makes the idea of Freddy somehow more real; it’s frightening because it could be true, even though it’s also ridiculous.

“X-Cops” is full of good jokes that don’t turn into scares—Scully’s perpetual dislike for the camera crew following her around is great, and entirely in character, and while watching people outside Mulder’s crazy little world react to his theories is a gag the show has used many, many times, it’s still funny, particularly the one officer who keeps swearing (and getting bleeped out) when Fox unleashes his latest theory. I’m not quite sure what to make of Steve and Edy, the gay couple who witness one of the deaths; their flamboyant and catty to the point of stereotype, but at the same time, they both survive the episode (the second witness isn’t so lucky), and there’s an effort to show a layer of sincerity underneath the camp in the suggestion that the reason they survived contact with the fear monster is that their relationship protects them from mortal fear. The real problem is that the scenes in their home go on a bit too long, as it’s the only point in the hour that really drags. There’s a point to the dragginess—Mulder’s expecting an attack, and when there is none, it gives him an important clue as to what’s going on—but it still feels like the episode running out of things to say about fifteen minutes before the end.

The monster Mulder, Scully, and the cops are tracking fits in nicely with the episode’s aesthetic; found footage always works best by suggesting that there’s something going on you’re not quite seeing, and giving the impression that if you don’t find it soon, it might be too late. But there’s also a certain level of cop-out in the thing’s design. Threats on The X-Files should have a certain level of uncertainty to them, because it’s scarier when we know just enough to know there’s a danger, but not enough to know how to stop or explain it. This is pushing that a little far, though, because there’s never a sense of what the thing actually is, or even if it’s a thing at all. It’s more like a disease that jumps from body to body; the one death we actually see is when a morgue attendant assisting Scully in an autopsy convinces herself there’s a threat of contagion, and promptly catches a case of instantly-fatal hantavirus. But if it’s just an illness, how does it turn over Keith’s patrol car in the cold open? How does it cut gashes into people’s chests, or block doors to isolate its prey? Apart from the “mortal fear,” there’s little to connect the attacks, and there’s no sense of the creature behind them.

In a more conventional episode, that would be more obvious. Here, because of the unconventional approach and undeniable creativity of the episode’s design, it’s easier to accept. Combining two of Fox’s most popular shows may not have seemed like a great idea initially, but the end result is witty inventive, and intermittently spooky. The thrills fade in retrospect, and it’s hard to argue there’s more going on here than just an unexpected way to tweak the same old routine. But who cares? The problem with all those bad House episodes was the desperation behind each new twist, the sense that someone in the writing staff was leaning through the television, grabbing the audience by the shirt and screaming, “THIS IS EXCITING!” over and over again. But “X-Cops” is laid back and confident, the work of a creative team which may be running out of ideas, but still has enough gas in the tank to get us where we need to go.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • Officer Keith’s disappearance and sudden reappearance in the cold open is one of the fun tricks of found-footage; it’s nothing complicated, but because of the limits of the format, we don’t follow the center of the action. We just see the after effects.
  • Another strength: most found footage stories reach a certain point where it stops being believable that characters would still bother carrying the camera. “X-Cops” never has to deal with that problem. Everything happens so fast, and the camera crew are so rarely in danger, it never becomes implausible.
  • Love the special announcement at the beginning, warning people things are about to get weird.
  • Keith’s speech about the difficulties of being a cop is nicely done, and also fits in well with the Cops format. 

Next week: Todd plays a bit of "First Person Shooter," and then has to track down a "Theef."

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