“Hungry” (season seven, episode three; originally aired 11/21/1999)
In which we see how the other half lives...
I can’t remember when it happened, but at some point in my life, I started wondering about orcs. I first read The Hobbit when I was 8, The Lord Of The Rings fairly soon after that; I loved Middle Earth, the titanic battle between good and evil, talking dragons, and Frodo and Sam’s trek across Mordor. Back then, orcs were just bad guys, the cannon fodder in Sauron and Saruman’s war against the light. When they talked, they were kind of funny and scary, but mostly they didn’t talk. Mostly they got stabbed and died. But at some uncertain point, it occurred to me to wonder why the orcs were so universally despised. Sauron and Saruman were villains because they chose to be; they had power at their disposal, and they used it to try and get more power, and whatever happened next, well, that was basically their own look out. But orcs were created as tools of wicked men, former elves tortured and broken into hideous forms. Sure, they’re violent and angry and hunger for man flesh, but doesn’t that make them as pathetic in addition to monstrous? Bilbo’s pity stopped him from slaying Gollum, but surely the orcs are just as deserving of sympathy. In all those countless, marauding armies, surely there’s at least a few orcs who yearn to be more.
I wouldn’t say Vince Gilligan ever gave much thought to the civil-rights concerns of Middle Earth, but I’d argue that a similar line of the reasoning must have led him to write “Hungry,” an episode told from the perspective of the monster of the week. Rob Roberts (Chad Donella, managing to be vulnerable, likeable, and creepy) is a nice enough guy. Bit of a neat freak, and he works at Lucky Boy, an ironically named fast-food place, so he’s probably not the ambitious type. But he watches self-improvement tapes and keeps his apartment neat, so who knows. Also, he wears a wig to cover his bald head, fake ears, false front teeth, and he has an uncontrollable hunger for human brains. The cold open has him munching on a late night drive-thru customer, and the rest of the hour follows him as he struggles against his unnatural cravings, and tries to dodge the increasingly long arm of the law—said arm, in this case, being shared by a pair of familiar FBI agents.
This is a good gimmick, and a great starting point for an episode. The cold open functions like the cold open of your average MOTW entry, but from that point on, we see the world through Rob’s eyes. (Well, not literally. That would be a bit much.) The X-Files has given us plenty of scenes of human-looking monsters observing their prey, but “Hungry” spends time getting inside Rob’s head, showing how much he’s struggled to resist his need to kill, and how little his struggles ultimately avail him. Also fun is the fact that we only ever see Mulder and Scully when they interact with our brain-munching protagonist. Scully doesn’t really register, but Mulder gets a few good scenes needling Rob, giving us a sense of what it might feel like to be chased by an obsessive who doesn’t have trouble believing in a genetic freak with a super long tongue. It’s a little like watching an episode of Columbo; Mulder realizes who’s responsible almost immediately, and spends the rest of the hour poking away at Rob’s façade.
Of course, Columbo also made it a point to have murderers who constructed elaborate, seemingly airtight plans. The pleasure was in watching Falk’s rumpled detective slowly, patiently tearing apart his opponent’s scheme. Rob’s reasonably clever—he cleans up after his crime, ditches the episode’s first victim outside of town, and lies well. But he’s not a mastermind, and the random guy he murders in the cold open is the only kill he makes that has nothing to do with him at all. Rob’s second victim is a private detective staking out the apartment building where he lives. His third is Derwood Spinks (Mark Pellegrino), a thuggish Lucky Boy co-worker who catches on to the edges of Rob’s secret and makes the life-shortening decision to attempt some blackmail. Rob tries to cover for Derwood’s death, but his storytelling abilities aren’t all that advanced, and when he also murders his kind-hearted next door neighbor, Sylvia (Lois Foraker), capture or death become inevitable.
There isn’t a lot of suspense in “Hungry,” then, apart from occasional fears that Rob might eat someone we like. Which is fine; X-Files episodes don’t always need to be suspenseful to be good. The script’s structural innovation is very clever, almost clever enough to justify the hour’s existence—but that “almost” is a killer. The problem is, once you get beyond the cleverness, there’s not a lot of depth. Rob is an effectively hapless antihero, and the way he connects and diverges from the show’s usual threats has some resonance (he’s just familiar enough to make you wonder if maybe Mulder and Scully haven’t put down half a dozen other creatures like him in the past), but most of the observations Gilligan pulls out are obvious and overly familiar. Rob’s interest in self-help guides is cute (and might have played better when the episode aired), and his trip to Overeater’s Anonymous is notable for managing to be funny without making fun of the obese, but there’s a frustrating lack of depth to this. It’s smart, but shallow, occasionally moving without ever really going for the throat.
That’s not really surprising. The X-Files is an older show now, and while it started off with a fairly rigid episodic format (apart from the mythology entries), in the past few seasons, it has tweaked, poked, stretched, prodded, twisted, and at times outright broken its own rules. At this point, while telling a story from the creature’s point of view has a nice ring to it, it’s not enough to satisfy for an entire hour unless the writing manages to find something new to say. Rob’s life is sad, and Gilligan and the actors do a fine job in managing to make sure he’s still an X-Files freak even as we gain sympathy for him, and yet it’s not as though the show hasn’t had semi-sympathetic monsters before. Also problematic is the fact that the plot’s arc isn’t so much an arc as a straight line, with few surprises or unpredictable twists. Once we learn what Rob’s deal is, it’s just a matter of watching him work his way through the standard three to four kills before getting put down. Most of the murder scenes are straightforward, although I wasn’t expect Rob to bump off sweet old Sylvia. It’s a necessary moment, if only for ensuring that we understand Rob isn’t just some Hannibal Lecter-lite figure who goes around chowing down on jerks, but it also means the tension in the finale isn’t, “Will Rob escape?” so much as “I hope Rob doesn’t eat that nice psychiatrist lady.” Which is, roughly speaking, the tension at the end of most monster of the week episodes.
There’s also the fact that, as creatures go, Rob isn’t all that interesting. There’s no discussion about why he eats brains, where he comes from, what urban legend he might have spun off from. He mentions at the Overeaters Anonymous meeting that the “cravings” have only gotten too strong to resist recently, but even so, he still had to buy a wig and really convincing fake ears and contacts at some point, so how did that happen? The episode doesn’t necessarily need to focus on where its main character came from, but Gilligan is too easily satisfied with surfaces. If “Hungry” had unfolded in the usual way, following Mulder and Scully as they argue and poke around for the truth, it would be forgettable at best, tedious at worst. As is, it’s fine, and the sense of humor is very much on target, playing up the oddness of the situation without sacrificing the horror. (The score is really effective in maintaining the right tone throughout.) Dr. Rinehart (Judith Hoag, who has some experience with weirdoes, given that she played April O’Neil in the first live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie), that nice psychiatrist lady who senses Rob’s misery even if she doesn’t understand the source, is a pleasant surprise; as with the O.A. meeting, she’s someone who could’ve been played off as an easy joke, but instead winds up being the closest thing the episode has to a heart.
So, again: it’s fine. This is perfectly acceptable, and, as such, I’ve given it a perfectly acceptable grade. There’s modest ambition to be found in the hour, and moderate success, and it only really stings because I can’t help but suspect this is a harbinger for things to come. Because deep down, what this episode really is, is tired. Gilligan finds some nifty ways to distract from the tiredness, and for the most part he succeeds, but if this is as good as it gets, I’m not looking forward to whatever comes next.
- The Lucky Boy sign is so creepy I half expected it to start spouting prophecy at some point.
- So, the first corpse had a Lucky Boy button on him. But Rob had his button in his pocket. I guess he kept an extra? Actually, that does suggest a possible theory for Rob’s sloppiness throughout the episode: He wants to get caught. Which doesn’t explain him killing Derwood, exactly, but would explain why he killed the private detective and Sylvia. In the end, instead of giving himself up, he charges Mulder and Scully knowing they’ll shoot him. “I can’t be something I’m not,” he explains. It’s a nice ending, especially the way the camera seems to close its eyes before the end credits.
“Millennium” (season seven, episode four; originally aired 11/28/1999)
In which we say goodbye to Frank Black. Again…
Did I mention tired?
This is a weird one: an hour-long fan tribute to a show which barely anyone watched, which doesn’t really have anything to do with said show apart from some names and a pair of guest stars, and which, ultimately, ends up satisfying no one. Like “Hungry,” it’s not really terrible, although it’s definitely a lesser episode than that one; there are some creepy zombie sequences, and anything in which Lance Henriksen gets screentime can’t be all bad. Plus, the final scene, which seems almost completely disconnected from everything which came before, serves as a surprisingly sweet way to both end Millennium and connect it back to the show that made Chris Carter famous. But it never really works. There’s too much exposition to bring non-Millennium viewers up to speed, and too little closure for those few fans who would’ve been clamoring for something like this in the first place.
Give writers Vince Gilligan and Frank Spotnitz this much credit: they’ve done their homework. “Millennium” (and I promise you will get so, so tired of that word by the end of this review) gives a surface pass by all of the original series’ big obsessions. The plot hook is standard X-Files, though: The body of a retired FBI agent is found missing shortly after his funeral, and Mulder and Scully are called in to investigate. A little digging around (heh) shows that the lining inside the coffin the man was buried in is torn to shreds, and there’s a circle of goat’s blood drawn around the grave. Scully thinks it’s a hoax, but Mulder decides it’s a necromancer, and, as we know because we saw the effectively bizarre cold open, he’s right. But it’s more complicated than that. Mr. Crouch, the missing dead guy, is actually the fourth FBI agent corpse to vanish, and all four of them were suicides. All four of them also had ties to the Millennium group, which Skinner explains to Mulder and Scully, although both of them have heard of the group before. (Mulder, naturally, knows the group’s real, apocalypse-gaming nature.)
We get a few scenes of Mark Johnson (Holmes Osborne), the man responsible for raising the dead, and it’s here where the Millennium vibe kicks in the most. Johnson is constantly reciting Bible verses about resurrection and belief, and the vaguely mystical, religious air the episode occasionally conjures up would have fit in well with the other, cancelled series. Of course, Johnson isn’t a sexual predator, and we don’t get any scenes of him menacing some young woman foolish enough to drive at night alone, but I guess you can’t have everything.
Once Mulder hears that the Millennium Group is involved, he decides to contact Frank Black, who he knows of as a man with connections to the group who also was once the best damn profiler anyone at the FBI had ever seen. Last we saw Frank, he and Jordan were driving off to brighter days, so it’s more than a little odd to see him hanging out in a psychiatric ward, having check himself in for 30 days of observation. The premise is that Catherine Black’s parents are fighting for custody of Jordan, and Frank is trying to rid himself of all ties to Millennium, including his obsession with bringing the group down, in order to prove that he’s a fit parent. Again, this doesn’t make a lot of sense based on the way Millennium actually ended, so if you’re a fan of that series, this seems like some kind of weird, alternate universe version. And if you’re not a fan, you won’t understand how important Jordan was to Frank (apart from the obvious fact that a dad who would check himself into a mental institution to get his daughter back clearly loves the kid), nor what it means that his wife is dead. Although hopefully you’ll appreciate seeing Lance Henriksen, because he is awesome.
It turns out (and you’ll laugh when you hear this), the reason Johnson is raising these four dead men, in fact, the reason these men killed themselves, is to bring on the apocalypse by creating the four horseman: War, Famine, Plague, and Death. I have absolutely no idea how this works, and neither, it seems, do the writers. Frank explains it to Mulder and Scully, they both pretty much take him at his word, and Johnson babbles on about it at one point, but there’s no sense of how you get from raising the dead (which is, admittedly, pretty darn impressive) to transforming them into avatars of humankind’s greatest miseries. After everything the Group did on Millennium, all the plagues and the genetic engineering and the vast conspiracies, this seems both too big and too small at once. The script tries to cover by claiming that the four dead guys were actually a schism that broke off from the rest of Millennium, but in that case, how is this closure? So far as we knew at the end of Millennium, the main group was just kicking into high gear. Does this mean they’ve basically given up on ending the world?
It could be. After all, this episode is set during the last days of 1999, and ends a few minutes into the New Year. So maybe the group realized it was screwed, and cheerfully disbanded, because clearly, they were that kind of people. (Maybe they even took the time to apologize to Peter Watts’s widow on their way out.) Or maybe I’m missing something. Either way, from a story perspective, it’s not effective closure, and really, I can’t imagine any way it could’ve been. Millennium ran for three seasons, and while those seasons often retconned and/or contradicted each other, that’s still a complicated, expansive mythology to try and tie up in a single hour of another show. It’s hard not to see “Millennium” as doomed from the start, a hopelessly quixotic enterprise which, in wanting to satisfy everyone, accomplished nothing.
But enough of that. The flaws in this one—it’s both too ambitious and not epic enough, Frank Black doesn’t get enough screentime, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a point—are obvious enough, so we might as well look at what actually works. Johnson is an interesting villain, in that he’s a devout Christian who honestly believes he’s doing a good thing; while Millennium had religious zealots, Johnson is quieter, and less actively murderous. He does get a cop killed, but that’s an accident, and he’s courteous enough to bury the cop with his lips stapled over a Bible verse and a mouth full of salt. Oh right, that’s the other part of the schism group’s master plan: the four horsemen are supposed to usher in a zombie apocalypse, so anyone they kill comes back to life as a zombie. Poor Scully learns that when Mulder sends her to the morgue to guard the cop’s body, and she gets a neck full of scratches and bruises for her trouble.
What else? Well, Mulder being trapped in a basement with Johnson’s creations is kind of cool, although he waits down there for hours before Frank shows up to rescue him. The final fight between Frank, Mulder, and the four—no, three—remaining zombies has a fun, pulpy charge to it, although “shooting everyone in the head” isn’t the most innovative of solutions. Really, though, “Millennium”’s best scene, and the only scene which comes close to justifying the episode’s existence, comes at the very end. While it makes no legal sense whatsoever, Frank is reunited with Jordan, and the sight of the two of them together again is sweet, especially when you consider that this is the last we’ll see of either character. At least they finally get their happy ending. Also, Mulder and Scully watch the ball drop in Times Square on a TV, and they share a kiss for the start of 2000. For what, I think, is the first kiss the two characters have ever officially shared, it's lovely, and there’s a pleasing ambiguity to the moment. Like, maybe this is just a one time thing, or maybe it’s the start of something, or maybe it’s just a continuation of something that’s been going on for a long time now, right under our noses.
It’s nice, is what I’m saying. The rest of the episode? Eh.
- Scully is surprisingly open-minded. It takes a little while, but by the end of the episode, she’s full committed to the Mulder’s theories. Sure, she was nearly killed by one of those theories in the morgue, which tends to focus one’s powers of belief considerably, but usually she’d be in full denial mood right up to the end.
- I love that Mulder can bust out a speech about necromancy during an FBI meeting, and all he gets is a weird look from the new guy. Like, by now, Skinner and Scully know to just roll with it.
Next week: Todd gets a “Rush,” and then meets a man with awfully good luck in “The Goldberg Variation.”