“Patience” (season 8, episode 3; originally aired 11/19/2000)
In which maybe a guy could have evolved from a bat, don’t you think?
“Patience” is a necessary episode of The X-Files, but it’s not an incredibly good episode of The X-Files. It is, in some ways, the real season premiere for season eight, getting out from under all of the mythological stuff in the two-part premiere and settling back into a monster of the week format. The show probably could have made this a season-long search for Mulder, and there are elements of that in both this episode and the other one I’m reviewing this week. But that would have removed one of the most pleasurable things about the show: two FBI agents heading off somewhere into the American hinterland and discovering that things are not as they expected them to be. The monster of the week episodes could be very formulaic, and “Patience” is very much that. But it’s still fun—and a bit of a relief—to see the show executing its formula so well and finding interesting variations on it.
The problems that ultimately sink this episode are twofold. For one thing, the monster is just ridiculous. It is, apparently, some sort of man that evolved from a bat, instead of from an ape. The show has had far stupider monsters on a conceptual level that, nonetheless, made for pretty great episodes of TV, thanks to how well the show used them. The man-bat in this episode is not one of those. The design of it is bland and generic, and its attacks devolve into a series of jittery, blood-soaked jump cuts. It attacks people by pouncing on them from above, then sinking its teeth into them, which lacks any real creativity, and all explanations of why it came to exist verge on the absolutely ludicrous. (Not to get ahead of myself, but “Roadrunners” underlines why sometimes less explanation is more on this show.)
I’m also not a huge fan of the guest cast in this episode. The X-Files was generally able to come up with strong guest stars even at this late date, and I presume Chris Carter (who both wrote and directed this episode) thought that Gene Dynarski, with his filmography filled with guest parts on shows a bit parts in great films stretching back to the ‘60s, would be just the guy to nail down Ernie Stefaniuk, the hunter whose actions in the ‘50s led to the revenge of the man-bat in the show’s present. But he’s the weakest link in a cast that’s filled with actors hamming it up (and playing Idaho as some weird corner of Tennessee, rather than anything like its real culture or accent). The scene where he explains to Scully and Doggett what’s going on and how he made his wife live away from society for 40 years because of the man-bat is just silly. It’s undercut by Dynarski’s hammy performance, particularly when he talks about how maybe a man could have evolved from a bat, then discusses how his wife wanted to be buried on consecrated ground. A lot of this is on Carter’s script, but there was probably a stronger approach to take than “outright cheese.”
This is too bad, because I think “Patience” is better than its reputation otherwise. It’s a very, very slow episode, but in a way that’s necessary because it needs to reestablish how this show is going to work with Doggett in the mix instead of Mulder. What I like about this new dynamic as expressed in “Patience” is that Scully is the “believer” and Doggett the “skeptic,” now, but they’re both more than willing to stray over the lines drawn between them instead of getting rigidly trapped in the boxes the show often placed Mulder and Scully in. Scully’s the one who makes all sorts of crazy leaps about what’s happening and suggests a seeming animal attack might be the work of a human being instead, but she’s also the one who looks at autopsy results and concludes that she might have been wrong, that an animal might have been involved after all, in exactly the way Mulder never would have. And Doggett may have his doubts about a human being involved in this, but he backs Scully up at every turn, and he’s done the good cop thing and read all of the X-Files, so he can haul out a newspaper article that establishes the man-bat as the episode’s villain.
In short, the show is having fun with these new dynamics and exploring what it means to have Scully stepping into the role of the person who believes in crazy things since her partner is off in the sky somewhere. The scene where Scully gives the slide show presentation Mulder would have in previous seasons is a nice, subtle indication of this, but so is the moment when she finally puts Mulder’s nameplate in a drawer and assumes command of his desk. This is all important, necessary character stuff to help ease the transition to Doggett as the co-lead. No matter how well the show has introduced Doggett so far (and I’d argue it does a pretty good job with this task), the audience needs to be given permission to let Mulder go for a little while, and both “Patience” and “Roadrunners” examine this dynamic between the audience and the show in interesting ways. The series accepts, on some level, that some people will never forgive Doggett for not being Mulder, but it’s also doing its level best to give him every opportunity to catch on with the viewership.
What might put that over the top, even in an episode that’s finally undone by some very strange story choices and a dumb monster, is the way that it underlines that Doggett has a great deal of respect for Scully and for the job at the end of the day. It would have been easy for the series to introduce a character who came roaring in and complaining about all of the stupid stuff he had to put up with in this job, a character who blanched at the thought of the other agents making fun of him for what’s in his reports. But John Doggett isn’t that guy. He might think this is a weird job, and he might think this is not the job for him, but so long as he’s assigned that office, he’s going to do that job as well as he can. And he’s going to respect and honor the woman who’s made this the work of the last seven years of her life. In so doing, the show indicates to the audience that this is a character worth investing in—not Mulder, but also not someone who’s trying to be Mulder. It’s a tricky balance, but “Patience” manages it, and that proves necessary, even with a weak monster and a hammy guest cast.
- I really don’t understand how the man-bat could smell Ernie on all of these people who had tangential connections to the body of his wife—like her mother, who saw her for the first time in decades when she identified the body—yet couldn’t somehow catch his scent out there on Bird Island. I’m willing to go with it, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
- The idea of the man-bat waiting and biding its time for ages and ages just to get a shot at the people who killed its fellow species member (and anyone even slightly connected to them) is a pretty cool one, and I liked that the episode didn’t do the typical X-Files thing and give us a sting where we saw it recuperating in its den or something. But I also like the way it has a metaphorical link to Scully’s patient wait for Mulder to come back to her. It’s subtle, but it’s there, and it’s well-handled.
- One shot I did like of the man-bat: Myron leaves his garage, and the camera pulls back to reveal the creature hanging from the ceiling upside down. Nice and creepy.
“Roadrunners” (season 8, episode 4; originally aired 11/26/2000)
In which Scully is going to be Jesus! Hooray!
The X-Files is a show of the American backroads. It’s a series that leaves behind the Interstate to see what it can find by taking the less-traveled state and national highways, two-lane roads that wind their way through empty places and get very dark at night. This is nothing new to say about this show. Zack and I have been saying variations on this for years now, and this lovely Grantland piece on the show’s 20th anniversary earlier this fall said much the same. But there’s still something really unexpected and stark and beautiful about the way the show can leave behind the urban cityscapes of so many crime shows and end up in a menacing little small town in the middle of nowhere Utah. At its best, The X-Files bottles the feeling of being out there in the middle of nowhere and coming across a town that’s six or seven buildings at most, thinking it’s abandoned, and then seeing someone come out of one of the houses, step onto the porch, and watch you drive through, following you with their eyes the whole way.
“Roadrunners” is the only episode of season eight that was scripted by Vince Gilligan, who would head off after this episode to head up the Lone Gunman spinoff. The episode was meant to be terrifically scary—which it succeeds at, thanks to a wonderful slow build and a wholly unexpected monster—and to solidify the partnership between Scully and Doggett—which it’s less successful at. Still, it’s a terrific episode of the show, and it’s a wonderful examination of who Dana Scully is at this point in time. There’s a moment when she’s being held down by the townspeople who mean to infect her with some sort of slug parasite, and she starts screaming about how she’s pregnant and they can’t do this to her, and it’s a reminder of how important to the success of this show Gillian Anderson has always been. Even when she’s about to have her mind wiped by a Jesus slug, Anderson commits.
Like “Patience,” “Roadrunners” is an episode that’s dedicated to helping us move past the Mulder era. Unlike that episode, it does this by tossing the character we theoretically still have a connection to—Scully—out into the middle of nowhere and having her get in over her head. What makes this work is that Scully is constantly trying to figure out a way out of the situation she’s stumbled into, one she very quickly realizes could very well lead to her death. She mostly plays this situation very smart, and the one time that she screws up—when she gives Hank her gun to defend himself—she can’t possibly see coming the fact that he’s about to have his brain overridden by a parasite. Even when she’s been tied down to a bed so that the parasite can meld with her mind, she’s trying to find a way out, to attract the attention of Doggett, who’s right outside, by kicking over a lantern and starting a house on fire. This is strong, capable, smart Scully, and it’s fun to watch her struggle against overwhelming odds.
Yet the episode is also a touch unsatisfying on that level, almost entirely because of the final scene. Once Doggett has cut the slug out of Scully and shot it, she recuperates at a hospital in Provo. On her way out a week later, she apologizes to Doggett for not letting him know that she was taking on this case—which started out as a fairly typical consult on an unidentifiable corpse that was found in the desert—and he tells her how stupid she was to go without him. The scene is meant to let us know that Doggett wants Scully to be aware he has her back, but it plays, instead, like he’s being kind of an asshole to her for no real reason. She nearly became a brain slug cult leader in the Utah desert, Doggett! Cut her some slack! This ending plays even more strangely because of how sidelined Doggett is in the storyline, though the fact that he’s constantly trying to find her when he stops hearing from Scully makes his end of things work and does make him a more sympathetic character to the audience until that final scene.
By far the best thing about “Roadrunners” is the way that it doesn’t bother overexplaining what’s going on. This is often a strength of Gilligan’s scripts, and it definitely works here as well. We get just enough clues about how this works—the cultists find hapless folks out in the desert, then stone the former brain slug hosts to death in order to extract the slug and place it in the new host—to put together what really happened after Hank got onboard that desert bus and rode off to his doom. But there’s no scene where anybody sits down and tells us what’s going on or why it’s happening. Even better, the script lets us think that maybe that slug is some sort of incredible, supernatural being, easy to mistake for the second coming of Christ. The change in personality between the Hank who seems to be suffering from constant seizures and the Hank who’s under control of the parasite is noticeable, but he’s also not especially vengeful. There’s an undercurrent here of some desert weirdoes who just want to worship their brain slug in peace. And if that means they have to commit a few murders, well, so be it.
I don’t think “Roadrunners” is an all-time great episode of The X-Files, but it gets close enough to surprise me every time I watch it. That last scene grates, and I wish there were one or two more hints of why the cultists believe the slug to be Jesus (perhaps with the “resurrected” Hank). But the best episodes of this show have that weird wildness to them that many shows have tried to copy since and few have succeeded at. “Roadrunners” unfolds like a long, horrifying nightmare, possessed of logic that makes sense while you’re in it but dissipates as soon as you’re roused from its spell. And like so many of the best Gilligan episodes—on both this and Breaking Bad—it plays out like a collection of individual elements that shouldn’t work together yet somehow do, enhancing the terror. A bus pulling up in the middle of the night in the desert and letting someone on shouldn’t necessarily be scary, but here it is. And that shouldn’t fit together with cults that stone people or slugs that may or may not be Jesus. But it does. “Roadrunners” is a triumph of stripped-down X-Files greatness and a triumph for Dana Scully. It’s what happens when a confident writer and a confident actress boil the show down to its essence and find out the very basics still work just fine, if presented with enough verve.
- This episode was directed by Rod Hardy, who’s added some terrific tension, pacing, and shot selection to many genre shows since he joined this one. This is his first credit for the series, but he shoots the episode absolutely beautifully, particularly in the scenes on the bus, whether moving or standing still.
- Lawrence Pressman and Rusty Schwimmer as the two most prominent cultists in the little settlement offer some nicely terrifying work. It’s that David Lynch-like thing where you know there’s something wrong with them, but you can never quite put your finger on it.
- Obviously, the scene where the cultists march toward Scully with that squirming… thing is the most terrifying in the episode, but I’m also partial to the scene where Milsap watches Scully as she slowly realizes she’s going to have to spend the night in this town, as little as she might want to.
Next week: Zack learns more about who John Doggett is in “Invocation,” then watches the series play around with time in “Redrum.”