The X-Files: “Beyond The Sea”/ “Gender Bender”/ “Lazurus”
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The X-Files: “Beyond The Sea”/ “Gender Bender”/ “Lazurus”

Before we get into things, a little damage control. I, as you may have noticed, am not Keith Phipps. You can blame my parents for that one. But despite my utter lack of Phippsiousity, I am going to be taking over X-Files coverage from here on. Before anyone says anything, this is not because Keith got too close to the Truth. Nor did he get abducted by aliens. Nor is he leaving to start an abortive movie career, only to return for a few random guest spots and a final episode that raises more questions than it answers. And that whole "auto-erotic asphyxiation" thing, I have no idea what that's about at all.

Whatever the reason, you guys are stuck with me in all my Robert Patrick-esque glory. If you don't mind me saying, I'm pretty psyched about it. The X-Files is one of the formative series of my youth, the first show I can remember being engaged with at the same time it hit big on the cultural map, but it's been years since I revisited it. Watching earlier episodes now is like playing a game of "Spot The Thing That Stuck In My Head For A Decade." (And if it's any comfort for you Phipps fans, Keith passed the torch to me because of rampant busy-ness, but he'll still be popping up in the comments section.)

Beyond The Sea

It's no secret that X-Files owes a debt to Twin Peaks, and the cold open of "Beyond" wears that influence proudly–not only do we meet Scully's father, who happens to be played by the late Don Davis (best know to Peak heads as Major Garland Briggs), but we also get an overtly Lynchian sequence, when Scully wakes up on the couch to see her father sitting across from her, lit from above, and moving his lips without making a sound. It's an eerie, discomfiting moment that only gets worse when the phone rings–and Scully learns that Dad, who she said goodbye to only hours before, has died of a massive coronary.

Growing up, Mulder was always my favorite character. He was funny, smart, and a bit weird, all things I could relate to; but re-visiting the show now, I find myself more inclined to take Scully's side of things. Which is curious, since Scully is so often wrong. It's a standard complaint that the dynamic between the two leads–Mulder's wide-eyed gullibility against Scully's skepticism–becomes too much of a crutch over time, with Scully's unwillingness to accept the paranormal more like a conditioned response than a reasoned scientific approach. I think that criticism is somewhat exaggerated, especially considering just how nutty Mulder's theories tend to sound, but regardless, Scully's level-headedness fascinates me because it means that each episode is as much about a struggle for her belief as it is about tracking down beasties or getting proof of alien intelligence.

That struggle is one of the centerpieces of "Beyond." The main case centers around a pair of kidnapped college students; the kidnapping has the same M.O. of an earlier abduction/murder, which means the FBI doesn't have much time to save the pair before their abductor bumps them off. Enter Luther Lee Boggs, a convicted murderer up for execution who claims to have psychic visions that will help find the kidnapper and his victims. For once, Mulder is the unbeliever; his profiling helped put Boggs in the hot seat, and he believes that Boggs is orchestrating the whole crime from the inside, using it to save himself from the gas chamber. Scully initially concurs, but during Boggs' interrogation, Scully has another vision of her dad–this time dressed in Boggs' prison orange, singing the song that was playing during her parents' wedding. She follows Boggs' clues and finds evidence that he was pointing in the right direction after all, which only confirms Mulder's suspicions. But suspect or not, Boggs' is the only lead the FBI has, so they follow his word to a lake house; Mulder, disregarding an oblique warning from Boggs, gets shot, and only one of the kidnap victims is rescued, leaving Scully to solve the case and deal with her own rapidly unwinding psyche in the face of overwhelming evidence of the paranormal.

"Beyond" has a lot to recommend it. Brad Dourif plays Boggs, and unsurprisingly, he's unnervingly intense. The scenes where he switches characters while in the grip of his "gift" are excellent, as is his recollection of the experience that he believes gave him that gift; his first trip to the gas chamber, which ended in a last minute stay of execution, put him under a pressure that made him vulnerable to outside influences.

But we never get a real sense of what those influences are. Boggs isn't faking, you can tell that much, but it's uncertain if he's psychic, able to communicate with the dead, some combination of the two, or something else entirely. Dourif sells it because, well, he's Brad freakin' Dourif, and it's not like the show has a habit of giving clear answers. But sometimes the uncertainly feels a little bit lazy.

The ep's main flaw, though, is its handling of Scully's moral crisis. Having her character front and center is a great, especially once Mulder is sidelined–without anyone else she can trust, Scully is forced to stand alone, despite her still intense grief over her father's passing, and the fact that this one case in particular seems designed to exploit that grief.

I just wish the ep didn't make her look quite so weak. Of the two leads, Scully has always been the rock–she's more rational, more mature, and I always got the impression that if you were going into a combat situation, you'd rather have Scully at your back than "Spooky" Mulder. While it's good dramatic sense to see that confidence shaken, "Beyond" goes too far; having her break down in front of Boggs feels forced even if she did see a vision of her dad. The worst is in her final scene in Mulder's hospital room, when she starts rationalizing everything she's gone through. Mulder asks why she can't believe in what she's seen, and she says, "I'm afraid to believe."

I don't buy that, and I think it stacks the cards too heavily in Mulder's favor. Scully's logical approach to the world should never be presented as a failing on her part; the show works best when it agrees as much with her in spirit as it confirms Mulder in fact. By having her confess that the only reason she doesn't completely give in to the supernatural is fear, the ep makes the same mistake of all those movies and books that treat atheists as people who are just really pissed off at God–it turns a philosophy into failing. Anderson does a terrific job throughout "Beyond" at handling Scully's grief and rage, and her final line about already knowing what her father wanted to tell her ("Because he was my father.") is beautiful. It's just frustrating that the rest of the ep doesn't quite live up to her.

Grade: B+

Stray Observation:

--Did anybody else get another Peaks vibe when Scully picked up the necklace off the factory floor? The glove and lighting looked a lot like the final shot of the pilot…

Gender Bender

Friggin' Amish. I mean, what the hell, right? Living with no electricity, working off the land, coming into town and being all-too-perfect ice cream targets, seducing our valuable Harrison Fords with their simple, god-fearing ways–I've had it up to here with this crap. And to find out that certain similar sects also have the ability to seduce people with a thumb rub, kill with sexual intercourse, and change their gender at will, well, that's just the final goddamn straw. Something needs to be done about this. Something involving fire, a lightning storm, and a whole lot of pitchforks.

The stalk-and-slay cold open is a time honored tradition on crime and supernatural shows, and "GB" at first seems standard; it's only in the final few moments, when the femme fatale becomes significantly less femme, that things start getting weird. The weirdness increases when Mulder and Scully get called in to investigate. It turns out the killing has an M.O. that Mulder's seen before, and that our Crying Game assailant has been leaving quite a path of bodies as he/she makes his/her way south. At this crime scene, forensics identifies a kind of white clay in scratches in the victim's back, a clay that's only found in Steveston, MA, where a group of Amish-esque farmers calling themselves "The Kindred" use it to make pottery and crafts.

Before watching this again, I'd automatically marked it in my mind as one of the standard MotW eps that, while solid, didn't really distinguish itself. The premise of a psycho who seduces and destroys his targets was a non-starter to me, and the whole Mennonites angle seemed more clever than actually involving. Plus, Scully getting the whammy put on her by some jug-eared dude had an uncomfortable whiff of fan fiction; I wouldn't be surprised if there was some badly written prose floating around the web featuring Dana macking on a geeky, pimple-faced pubescent with halitosis and magic fingers.

But man was I off-base. (Although not completely about the seduction thing, which we'll get to in a moment.) "Gender Bender" is great, a perfect mixture of scientific theory, unsubstantiated rumor, and memorable visuals. The club scenes are somewhat predictable (and hey, look, it's Krycek!), but the time Mulder and Scully spend with the Kindred, from getting surrounded in the forest to an awkward dinner, to some truly bizarre barn-based funereal arrangements, "GB" is the platonic ideal of what the X-Files, at its best, is really about; sane people brushing briefly against the vast madness of the world, and escaping in the end with only suspicions and the certainty that there is more going on that anyone could ever know.

Even the look of the ep represents a step up. As The X-Files went on, it developed an increasingly cinematic visual style, but much of the first season has a flat, bland appearance. "GB" is a comparative feast for the eyes, between its excellent production design–the underground hive Mulder discovers is wonderfully organic and womb-like–to a number of strikingly composed camera shots. This was director Rob Bowman's first episode; he'd go on to direct a number of X-Files classics, and it's clear to see he's got strong sense of what works right out of the gate.

The Kindred themselves make for an enigmatic threat, since in a literal sense they aren't really threatening at all; given multiple opportunities to attack Mulder and Scully, they prefer to simply glare and stand aside, but that doesn't make them any less freaky. One of their number, Brother Andrew (played by "Hey it's that guy!" character actor Brent Hinkley), takes a liking to Scully, and tells her the truth about the killer she's hunting; it's Brother Martin, a former friend of Andrew's. The two found a pile of magazines while out walking one day, and Martin was immediately seduced by the sensuality of the outside world. The Kindred are "different," Andrew says. One gets the impression that Martin's murders are more an act of indifference than intent–he/she just wants to get laid, no matter what the consequences. But the Kindred have their rules, and in the end, even though Scully and Mulder track Martin down, it's his people that take him home.

My only problem here is, again, Scully's treatment; the whole "thumb-rubbing" thing with Andrew is all right (it's probably more dramatic if Scully is the one who gets her boundaries broken, as I'd bet Mulder's a cheap date), but there's this moment at the end when Scully has Andrew in her gun sights, and she orders him to stand down–and he keeps walking towards her–and she doesn't fire. Maybe she's not shooting because he seems peaceful, maybe she has doubts, but the hesitation also appears connected with the mojo he put on her earlier, and that just seems wrong to me. I'll buy that Scully can be vulnerable. It's part of what makes her such a bad-ass. But that she wouldn't regain her professionalism almost immediately strikes more as narrative convenience than anything character based.

Grade: A

--I kept flashing on the Angel episode, "Lonely Hearts," about a demon that body jumps from lover to lover. Boy, it's almost like the pursuit of romantic connection makes for easy-to-exploit drama, huh?

Lazarus

During an abortive bank heist, two men are gunned down: Agent Jack Willis, Scully's mentor and former lover, and his target, loose cannon and fugitive Warren Dupre. The two men are rushed to the hospital, where Dupre is pronounced dead, but Willis is ultimately revived. Something is wrong, though. When Willis wakes up, he leaves the hospital without telling anyone, but not before breaking into the morgue and stealing Dupre's wedding ring. And then he starts trying to re-enter Dupre's life, going back to where Dupre had holed up with his wife Lula, visiting Lula's brother Tommy. Is Willis having a breakdown? Or is it something more–something to do with the way Dupre's tattoo is slowly fading onto Willis's arm …

I seem to have gone for a bit longer than intended here, but fortunately, "Lazurus" doesn't really warrant a whole lot of discussion. It's not terrible; Christopher Allport does good work playing Willis and the Dupre/Willis hybrid, and the relationship between him and Lula is well-handled. But really, it's a matter of structure. Instead of having Willis's transformation be a surprise, we in the audience know what's going on almost immediately, which makes it doubly curious when Dupre/Willis comes back to the bureau and tries to pretend that he is who he appears to be. He does a much better job of this than Dupre on his own could have, and there is some ambiguity as to how much of Willis is left in Dupre/Willis's head, but it doesn't ever really go anywhere.

In "GB," the ambiguity works to the episode's overall strength–we never know exactly what the Kindred are, or how the gender switch works, but that makes them seemingly more real. Here, the ambiguity is istracted and undercooked. Dupre/Willis only really comes into conflict with himself in the last ten minutes or so, leaving the tragedy of the situation largely unexplored.

Plus, the hook itself is shaky. With a show like this, you either need one strong premise (like "Ice," with it's anger-management worms) or two good premises that combine for a cumulative effect (like "GB"–hey, you got your sex-changing serial killer in my alien Amish! You got your alien Amish in my sex-changing serial killer! But you know what? It tastes great). "Lazarus" just has the one idea, a vague connection between near-death experiences and body jumping, and it doesn't resonate. A stronger push on Willis's obsession with tracking down Dupre would've been helpful, maybe implying that a pre-existing link between the two made Willis more vulnerable to take over, but apart from a couple of dialogue lines and a taped interview near the end, there's no real thematic resonance to what happens.

Grade: B-

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