“First Person Shooter” (season 7, episode 13; originally aired 2/27/2000)
In which it’s all in the game
“First Person Shooter” is an almost legendarily bad episode of The X-Files. I know it mainly by its reputation and suspect this may be the first time I’ve ever seen it. (I skipped over episodes that fell beneath a certain threshold on TV.com on my last rewatch, and I can’t imagine this one not falling below that threshold.) There’s little here worth recommending, and what’s notable about it is that it just keeps getting worse, until it ends in an utterly hilarious—in a bad way—confrontation within a virtual reality world that’s somehow stored in a warehouse in California’s Inland Empire. At every given moment, “First Person Shooter” simply follows exactly the path a viewer would expect it to, and it does so in ways that often butt right up against being utterly sexist—toward both men and women, which is some sort of feat.
This is the part where I’m supposed to say “but.” It’s the part where I’m supposed to tell you that there’s something worth seeing in this episode, even if the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The problem is that I’m not sure there is a but, something that would distract from the episode’s very real problems. And yet I kind of had fun watching it all the same. It’s rare to see an episode of TV that’s this bad that’s still made with such evident care. The episode won two technical Emmys—one for visual effects, which seems sort of goofy now, but it’s easy to see how these were truly impressive in 2000—and there are moments throughout where Chris Carter’s direction is solid. It’s also an episode that really wants to have scope, and it’s scripted by William Gibson and Tom Maddox (yes, the famous authors, who were also responsible for the much better "Kill Switch" in season five) to be the sort of over-the-top action showcase this series rarely indulged in. The episode was slotted into February sweeps, likely as a kind of centerpiece, and it’s not hard to see why. This thing seems endlessly promotable.
The overall experience of watching “First Person Shooter” is feeling as if the show is slowly but surely letting the air out of its own tires. The central conflict—something about male aggression and bloodlust versus women who just don’t cotton to such things—is somehow meant to be reflected in Mulder and Scully, and to do this, the episode does some crazy gymnastics to make it seem as if Mulder is the sort who would really be into first-person shooters, only to have Scully save the day in the end. The thing is, I can sort of see how all of this was meant to work, and I can see the structural bones that were meant to make this a powerful examination of male bloodlust and how it’s tempered by the soft, warm, caring women of the world. The problem is that this idea is at once completely predictable and completely reductive, creating an episode that reaches its nadir when a bunch of predominantly African-American cops stand in a hallway and bite their knuckles in excitement over the sight of an attractive woman.
The central conceit of the episode is the central conceit literally everybody first thinks of when they hear the words “virtual reality”: Hey, what if people were going into a virtual reality world, and they started getting killed? It’s the basis of many a cyberpunk novel (which Gibson would obviously know about), but it’s also the basis of The Matrix and Carter’s own Harsh Realm. Virtual reality worlds have primarily been of interest to fiction writers insofar as people can go into them to mysteriously die, so when people start getting vivisected by a sexy woman in the middle of a new VR game—again, set up in a warehouse somewhere—well, you can bet that we’re going to learn a lesson about the dangers of machines or of turning our lives over to video games or something like that.
What’s weird about this is that we don’t learn about that, at all. Mulder and Scully get involved in the case because of the Lone Gunmen, but they’re very quickly getting sucked into the game world itself. The lesson we’re meant to take from this is that men need to have their aggression stoked, which is exactly what the sexy woman within the game world—named Maitreya (and called “Goddess” by Phoebe, who programmed her)—feeds off of. The episode possesses no real stakes, since it never once sends the game’s programmers (who are the guest stars we spend the most time with) into the game, instead sending in lots and lots of cannon fodder, including some guy who’s supposed to be the world’s best hacker, which would naturally make him great at a virtual reality shooter. The Lone Gunmen briefly get stuck inside the game, as do Mulder and Scully, but there’s never any doubt that all five characters will survive. This creates a weirdly bloodless episode in terms of drama. People die, but it doesn’t matter, and the point the episode tries to make is a little too weird to really care about.
What’s fascinating is that everybody here is really trying, in a way that they’re sometimes not this late in the show’s run. David Duchovny, who’s seemed bored from time to time this season, really throws himself into this portrayal of Mulder, including a supremely goofy moment where he gives a little wave when Scully asks just who would want to play these sorts of games. (It’s pictured above.) And Gillian Anderson is really great in the moment when she enters the game and starts gunning down multiple versions of Maitreya in an Old West setting, bad effects be damned. It’s going to take a woman to defeat a monster that feeds off of male aggression, so why not Scully? Reimagining the character as an action heroine is the one thing that almost works here, and I’d love to have seen an episode with a more straightforward Action!Scully plot. In terms of guest players, Krista Allen leaves something to be desired, though that might be the role, but Constance Zimmer is really good as Phoebe, even as her character and motivations don’t make any sense.
Notions of video game violence and how they feed into things like male aggression have been with us since video games got sophisticated enough to portray something like real brutality. In theory, “First Person Shooter” should have been more intriguing at this point in time—where we’re once again discussing just where the line is in terms of pop culture violence—than at other points in Zack and my voyage through the run of this series. But “First Person Shooter” raises questions it’s not really prepared to answer, instead offering up ideas that are too pat, a plot that’s too predictable, and a villain that’s, literally, out of a video game. It all adds up to a big nothing, to an episode that concludes on what’s meant to be a shock image of a sexy Scully striding through the middle of the virtual reality world that manages to be completely unshocking. For an episode featuring this much talent, “First Person Shooter” shouldn’t make a viewer shrug and say, “Whatever!” but that was certainly my response, and it sure seems to be a common one.
- Mulder’s closing monologue is one of the worst pieces of dialogue this show ever came up with. When he mentions Sweet and Low, I just about lose it.
- The scenes with the Lone Gunmen and the programmers arguing about whether they should just shut down the program are probably the worst in the episode, because they manage to make both programmer characters—including previously sympathetic Phoebe—just seem like dicks who don’t care who gets killed so long as their game continues to exist. All of this could have been avoided with a few keyboard commands? Seriously? That’s a terrible resolution.
- Duchovny and Anderson don’t look badass at all in the outfits they wear to enter the game; they look like they’re getting ready for a really exciting game of laser-tag.
“Theef” (season 7, episode 14; originally aired 3/12/2000)
In which backwoods voodoo takes on modern medicine, and this is The X-Files, so you can just about guess which one wins
I had essentially no expectations for “Theef.” I probably should have, since it was written by three writers who were among the most consistent staffers at this point in the show’s run (those three being Vince Gilligan, John Shiban, and Frank Spotnitz) and since it was directed by Kim Manners. It also boasts a hell of a guest cast, with character actors Billy Drago and James Morrison facing off in a battle to see who can kill more of the other’s family—unintentionally in the case of Morrison’s character. Yet when the subject of underrated monster of the week episodes comes up, you rarely hear this one bandied about, even though it’s a bit of a kick in the teeth. I don’t know that this is an unheralded classic, but I’d wager it’s the strongest straight-up, non-experimental standalone the season’s had so far, and it might be the strongest “scary” episode since season five. Don’t hold me to that, though. I’m sure I’m forgetting something. (Like “Drive,” which I just remembered.)
Some of this could have something to do with my long-time fascination with hoodoo and voodoo and all manner of backwoods magic tricks. My fascination stems almost entirely from the first Gabriel Knight game, but I find the idea of this weird folk religion that found a way to tap into immense power incredibly interesting, even if I don’t believe a lick of it. The X-Files always works best when it introduces the strange and mystical into otherwise ordered communities, and the idea of a very modern doctor and his ordered life being disrupted by an ancient rite that seems to have arrived straight out of the year 1886 is such a classic X-Files idea that I’m surprised it didn’t pop up sooner in the show’s run. There are some great story beats here, and the idea of Peattie punishing his victims remotely is often nicely horrifying. (In particular, I’m thinking of how he uses that microwave to kill Mrs. Wiedler while she’s getting a CAT scan.)
The most common criticism against this episode, I’m finding, is that it paints Peattie as a backwoods hick and a rather broad stereotype of one. And, to be sure, there are places here that cross that line and don’t really look back, like the idea that Peattie would spell “thief” like the episode title. (Hey, he was working in blood; it’s not an easy medium to control.) The X-Files has never really been a master of subtlety, but it used to exhibit a little more care than this when coming up with its antagonists, and the episodes we remember derisively from the first few seasons usually have some broadly stereotypical players in them. “Theef” is no different, and there are places where the characterization of Pettie is borderline embarrassing for the show.
What saves it is Drago’s performance, which is constantly shot through with both menace and a weird sort of dignity. The episode never condones his actions of killing off the family of the doctor who took his daughter from him, but it makes his power such that you do start to believe he might have been able to save his girl if he’d managed to get to her before Dr. Wiedler wrote her off. (Hell, even Scully’s thinking this might be the case by episode’s end.) In short, the episode lets viewers into Peattie’s pain. The show is always at its best when it’s creating monsters who are sympathetic, even if what they do is something that needs to stop, and Peattie—thanks to some good writing and a sensitive performance—is a man who just wants to make sure Wiedler reaps what he sowed, even if he hasn’t really thought that plan through.
It’s worth comparing “Theef” to “First Person Shooter,” just to see how much more effective this episode is at making Pettie’s methodical murder of Wiedler’s family members count. Where “First Person Shooter” just kills a bunch of people the audience has no attachment to, “Theef” is much more skillful at instantly sketching in this little family, then picking them off one by one. To be sure, a lot of that is thanks to some great casting and the way that Morrison seems perfectly content to be at the center of this perfect little world. But there’s also a good deal of that due to some strong characterization from the get-go, characterization that makes the audience wonder just why Peattie would be targeting this particular family with his strange hexcraft.
The big problem here—as is often the problem in latter-day X-Files episodes—is that this isn’t a particularly good episode for Mulder and Scully. Mulder gets to be an exposition machine when it comes to hexcraft, and he gets to save the day at the end. Scully gets the little journey where she comes to half-believe that Peattie’s really capable of such feats (and of blinding her), and she gets a nice moment where she’s taken out of the climactic battle via Peattie’s tricks. But the two of them are largely just there to talk to various Wielder family members and get out of the way of the assorted creative murders Peattie visits upon them. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a demerit in an episode that does an otherwise solid job of making the guest characters interesting to be around, but the best episodes of this show offer up compelling guest stars and great stuff for Mulder and Scully. “Theef” comes close on the latter count, but it doesn’t ultimately succeed.
It also hurts that the end of the episode builds to something so perfunctory as Peattie getting shot. Yes, Mulder coming inside to the horrific scene of Peattie stabbing into a voodoo doll meant to hurt Dr. Wiedler and then shooting the villain is probably the only way this could have ended, but the second viewers realize that, hey, Mulder’s not present for the climactic confrontation and Scully’s sidelined from it so quickly, what’s going to happen becomes almost a fait accompli. From there, it’s a too-long march to the moment when Mulder races in and saves the day. I’m not saying this particular device can’t work, but when it’s as telegraphed as it is here—Mulder doesn’t even really have to struggle to shoot Peattie—it leaves quite a bit to be desired.
Still, there’s a ton of great stuff in “Theef,” particularly when it comes to the performances of Drago and Morrison. These two could easily feel like dual antagonists in some sort of Cape Fear scenario, but “Theef” really delves into the pain both of them feel at having people they consider precious taken away from them. Horror works best when it’s rooted in the psychological and emotional, when it gets past the very basic fear response and makes the audience sympathize on some other level before bringing down the hammer. I don’t know if “Theef” goes quite that far, but that it comes as close as it does, at this point in the show’s run, is really something to be impressed by, lumpy ending and all.
- Reportedly, this episode was written by Gilligan, Shiban, and Spotnitz in a rush when another script fell through. If that’s really the case, then the fact that it’s not terrible is even more remarkable.
- One of the coolest reveals of the episode is that Dr. Widler’s father-in-law—whose death kicks off the episode—is revealed to have kuru, a disease that’s been almost completely eradicated and hasn’t ever popped up in the United States. (It’s a disease localized among brain eaters in Papua, New Guinea.)
- The whole business with Lynette Peattie’s body feels like a bit of a stretch to me, but maybe the episode just needed a skeleton at that point. (Also, I liked that Wiedler was at fault in Lynette’s death, even if he was trying to do the right thing. It nicely complicates matters.)
Next week: Season seven’s end is rushing toward us, as Zack spends a little time with Scully and the Cigarette Smoking Man in “En Ami,” then figures out what a “Chimera” is.