I'm glad Todd and I have been doing double duty on the X-Files this summer; it cuts down on my workload, and it also means I don't have to feel quite so responsible on reviewing every iconic episode. Because I missed "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'" when it aired, I haven't spent the last fifteen years going over it in my head. It has no real emotional connection for me, so I couldn't speak to it as changing the way I viewed the world or the show. But more fundamental than that is the simple fact that, having now seen the episode for the first time last week, I didn't really like it as much as I probably should have. That's fine as a fan, because who gives a damn what a fan thinks, and it's arguably fine as a critic; nice as it is to have one's opinions confirmed, there's a lot to be said for reading a well-written piece that contradicts popular wisdom. Even if you don't agree with it, it at least forces you to think in a different way about why you don't agree, which can be a lot of fun.
Problem is, I have a sneaking suspicion that my reasons for not embracing "Chung" have less to do with the ep itself, and more to do with the way I enjoy television shows. I can recognize the brilliance of the meta-narrative, the way it deconstructs our most basic assumptions about the X-Files, and the larger points Darin Morgan is trying to make about the nature of stories and how easy it is to become obsessed with the details on our way to some kind of impossibly elusive big picture. I can appreciate these things in an intellectual fashion, but emotionally, they don't work for me, at least not in this context. I get that this is a fictional show, and I get that the conspiracy Mulder and Scully devote so much of their lives to is elusive to the point of absurdity. I suppose it's fun to know that the writers also realize this, but reminding your audience of the ridiculousness of your premise is always a slippery slope. You can start off on the pretense that everyone is in on the joke, and a season or two later there's nothing left but the joke.
So I think "Chung" is brilliant, but I'm also not really sold on what it does for the series. "Quagmire" is no where near the same level of insight and wit, but all the same, I prefer it as an episode in the context of the show. (Wow, lotta italics there.) It deals with some of the same issues as "Chung," including the danger of reading too far between the lines, and the arguably destructive nature of Mulder's quixotic close-mindedness, (we call Scully the skeptic, but Mulder's the one who refuses to believe anything that doesn't fit his world view. He just happens to have a weirder view of the world) but it also allows for the possibility that our characters might eventually find what they're looking for. It allows for the possibility that the X-Files itself might have some kind of happy ending, even if, in the real world, shady governments and the need for deeper truths generally don't add up to spiritual or personal fulfillment. "Chung" is the better work of art, but it doesn't really belong, and, speaking for myself, I need more than just familiar lessons about the shifting nature of reality to get excited. (Admittedly, Mulder shrieking at the sight of a dead body does go a long way.)
Of course, it's not like "Quagmire" starts off all that amazingly. We get a standard body-count opening; we meet Dr. Paul Farraday, a scientist concerned about the decrease in the frog population around Heuvelman's Lake. Farraday will pop a few more times in the episode, but his companion, who drops his beeper and makes an ill-advised attempt to hunt through the shore on his own to find it, will not. The poor guy gets attacked and, presumably, devoured by a POV cam which has already been responsible for the disappearance of a scout master; the growling POV will return again, and thankfully, it's not a bunch of cats. Or rabid raccoons or something. (It's an alligator. Which isn't the monster Mulder thinks it is, but is still pretty cool.)
Mulder drags Scully in on the case (the victim we see in the open is a federal employee), and here's where the interesting touches begin: instead of the usual professional dress, both our heroes are wearing casual weekend clothes, because it's a Saturday. Scully even brought her dog, Queequeg along, a decision that will ultimately prove tragic for the poor, bite-sized mutt. I like the dynamic here, because we start at a believable level of tension. Scully is frustrated because Mulder, as always, hasn't really explained himself (in this case probably because he's going waaaay out on a limb), but she's there. That was always the part of their relationship that writers on the show struggled with, I think, because while it's easy to buy Mulder going all out--Mulder's kinda crazy--it's sometimes confusing to understand what Scully gets out of all this. You can say it's her job, but at a certain point, say once you've been abducted by aliens, had a chip implanted in your skull, and had your sister killed by mysterious forces who actually meant the bullet for your face, it's time to start shopping the ole resume around.
Scully has to be in this for some reason, then, something more complicated than simple careerism. Watching the show now, I'm even more baffled by the shippers who demanded more romance between our heroes when the show was airing; not because I don't think Mulder and Scully would make a good couple, but because, if you're paying attention, there's nothing but love between these two characters. Sometimes it's not exactly happy love, like all the spiteful bickering in "Syzygy," but the only possibly justification for why Scully would devote so much of her time to Mulder's cause, and why Mulder would trust her so completely, is that they belong together, in the only sense of the term that matters. Any other relationship, any other commitment, pales beside whatever it is that brought them together. Their interactions throughout "Quagmire" speak to this. Scully spends most of the day unconvinced that anything is going on, and she isn't afraid to repeatedly tell Mulder to calm the hell down--but she stays around. There's a reason that it's two of them stranded on that rock near the end of the episode, and it's not just because Scully can drive a boat.
That long dialog scene is what sets "Quagmire" apart from all the other standard Monster Of The Week procedurals. To get there, we have the usual run of idiots-about-to-be-corpses, including a scuba diver who's hanging out with the surviving druggie teens from "War Of The Coprophages." ("Quagmire" was written by Kim Newton, not Darin Morgan, but between the recurring teens and the soon-to-be lunchmeat Queequeg, this episode is not shy in referencing Morgan's work. Even the basic conceit--Mulder works himself into a frenzy over a garden variety alligator--is very Morgan-esque, speaking to our need for myths and lies to avoid the harsh light of day.) Mulder believes it's all the work of "Big Blue," the local Loch Ness-type creature that's rumored to live in the lake, and with each discovered corpse, he becomes more vehement about proving Blue's existence. Scully does her reasonable explanation run, the locals keep dismissing him, but Mulder refuses to listen. And he's right that something's going on, but it's a lot more prosaic than a dinosaur.
Anyway, Mulder and Scully end up on a boat in the middle of the night trying to hunt down the the creature, something crashes the boat, and they're stuck on a rock in, so far as they can tell, the middle of nowhere. There's a slight cheat here; given how close the shore ends up being, in reality, they most likely would've been able to hear the echoes and realize they were within walking distance of land. But given the hour and the circumstances, it's not completely inconceivable that our heroes' judgment could've been clouded. Besides, the setting is creepy enough that plausibility isn't a concern; I remember stumbling across this episode in reruns a few years back, finding this very scene, and, even apart from the conversation, being just super freaked out by all the darkness and the water and so forth. If you've ever been swimming in a lake, you know how eerie it is to look down between your legs and see what could be miles of blackness below you. Anything could be down there. Anything at all.
It's the conversation that lingers, though. Both characters get good speeches: Scully calls Mulder an "Ahab," and Mulder talks about his dreams of a peg-leg, and I'd argue that the bond between them is better defined here than it is in any of Morgan's episodes, or, indeed, in much of the series. Later in the episode, after the mystery has been solved, the alligator shot, and everyone heads home, Big Blue briefly surfaces, to give us some small hope, however absurd, that Mulder might someday find his answers. But for me, I find more hope in that scene with him and Scully, being honest in the darkness. It's the connection that Morgan was talking about at the end of "Chung," and I think he missed a beat by not realizing it was already right there on the show. Because sometimes, the people we're closest to don't always make sense, and sometimes they drive us crazy. But then it's just the two of you, alone in the night, and right then you know that the person you're with is the only person you ever need to see.
- I love Mulder's expression when he and Scully find the wounded Farraday. It's like a kid catching Santa going up the chimney.
Hey, remember that second season episode, "Blood," where William Sanderson went batshit and nearly shot a bunch of people? Yeah, this is kind of like that.
The cold open is a hell of a lot more grabbing than "Quagmire"'s, though: we start with a guy burying a corpse, muttering "Your killing days are over!" to the dead body. The guy goes home, starts to unwind, and you really gotta feel for him, because (presumably) murdering someone and then burying them is hard, stressful work. So it's not difficult to understand this poor, exhausted bastard's distressed when the supposedly dead killer re-appears in our guy's kitchen. Our guy kills him again, jams him in the trunk of his car, and then cops show up. And wouldn't you know it, both of the cops are the now seemingly twice-slaughtered killer! That's bad; it gets worse when the cops subdue our guy, and then one of them (who has a completely different face than what we first saw) checks in the trunk. Our guy looks in, and realizes he's made a horrible mistake. It's not a man stuffed in the trunk. It's our guy's wife. Cue theme music.
Maybe I'm just susceptible to that kind of horror, but for my money, nothing in the rest of "Wetwired," not the murdering housewife, not Scully's increasingly unhinged state, is quite as unsettling as that first reveal. Once again we have an episode about the government running hideous experiments on unsuspecting townsfolk, once again those experiments have a body count, and once again, Mulder just barely manages to make it through the experience without ever bringing those responsible to justice. It's a well-made ep, and it has some moments of brilliance, but those moments don't hide the fact that we've been down this particular road before.
Which sounds like an odd complaint coming from me, considering I spent a few paragraphs above committing the heresy of criticizing the show for trying to expand outside its stated objectives, so I guess I should explain. If you'll allow me my more philosophical concerns with "Chung," I think we can all at least agree that the X-Files needs that kind of experimentalism to really thrive. Just because I wasn't huge on the particulars doesn't mean I think the series shouldn't take risks; one of the reasons the show is as well-remembered and as well-loved as it is, is its ability to vary widely from week to week without ever violating its core ethos. (My earlier argument is that, for me, "Chung" stretches that ethos a little too far, but that really is a question of taste, and better a hundred "Chung"s than a single "Teso Dos Bichos.") That doesn't mean the procedurals should be junked entirely. I think a steady mixture of mythology, procedural, and outright madness is the key to a healthy diet.
So when I say this is a familiar road, that's not entirely meant as a criticism. It's nice to know that Mulder and Scully are still doing their regular jobs. I just got a little disappointed by the specific MotW here, because the actual concept doesn't really get explored. Somebody's sending signals to people through their televisions, subliminal advertising that doesn't simply combine the ideas of "sex" and "Coca-Cola," but goes so far as to cloud the viewer's mind entirely, driving them to commit violent acts against those closest to them. The Lone Gunmen make a guest appearance here, helping to take apart the strange device Mulder finds in a cable box, and there's a conversation about signals and control and what-not, but the actual project remains fairly unimpressive. This isn't some kind of subtle commentary on the way media can define our reality, nor does it do much with Scully's suggestion about how violent video can drive the viewer to violent response. (And really, boo on Scully for trying to settle on this as an explanation; I'm not sure if she's already supposed to be under the sway of the signal by that point, but it's one of her more ridiculous attempts at rationalism.) The closest the actual case comes to inventiveness is the way the picture gets scrambled when anything bad's about to happen.
Which is cool, admittedly. It's just not enough to get me that invested, which means I have to look to other aspects of the episode to hold my interest. Thankfully, we've got a couple. In a surprising turn of events, when it comes time for one of our heroes to get infected by the madness, Scully takes the train to Crazy Town. (The reason Mulder isn't affected, we later learn, is that he's red/green color blind. Or else he's been living in Crazy Town for so long that nobody would really notice the change.) What's interesting here is how her paranoia manifests: she gets suspicious of Mulder, and one night at their hotel, she goes out for ice and thinks she sees Mulder in his car with the CSM, both laughing uproariously. She starts to think Mulder is in on everything, that he's working with the men responsible for abducting her and murdering her sister. It gets so bad she even fires her gun at her partner--albeit through a closed door. (She doesn't hit anybody, but she scares a hotel worker half to death.)
If I'd had to guess beforehand how Scully would've succumbed, this would not have been my first choice. It seems so much more like Mulder's deepest fear than Scully's, and we've already had an episode proving this; in "Anasazi," back at the end of season 2, Mulder's apartment was gassed, and the more he succumbed, the more hostile he became to everyone--and the final straw on the camel's back was him losing his faith in Scully. Mulder is a man without a country, a loner, a freak in cool guy's skin, so of course there's gonna be some part of him that believes he's got a target on his forehead, and the world's holding the gun. (It doesn't help that he has paranoiac's wet dream worth of information proving these fears at right.) But Scully? We haven't ever seen how alone she is, how much taking on Mulder's world-view has changed her own. I'm not sure her descent here is entirely justified, mental domination or no, because it doesn't seem quite as personally connected to her as it might've. More effort to tie in her fears to her dead sister and her abduction might've helped; she gives a speech stating the connection late in the ep, but it's more of an intellectual connection than an emotional one.
It makes sense, though, that Scully lose her cool every once in a while. You can't always have the unstable guy getting more unstable. And whatever else, that shot of Mulder and the CSM joking it up is terrific, an image that's both hilarious and unsettling. Plus, there's the fact that Scully discharges her weapon at a fellow agent in questionable (at best) circumstances). "Wetwired" sweeps this under the rug by the end, because I don't think anybody wanted to sit through Dana's disciplinary hearings, but Skinner does mention it right after the incident, so there's that. This isn't the kind of show that could legitimately make us think Scully had gone off the deep end for real. Any other character, maybe, but her and Mulder are untouchable. But there's some dramatic effect in having the show's moral and ethical compass go astray.
What else... well, we did get to see more of how Mr. X works, both in terms of what he expects from Mulder, and how he manages to serve his masters even as he secretly betrays them. I think this is the first time X has used others to do his dirty work in passing information to Fox. The episode works best for me when it starts going off the rails in the third act, when Mulder is forced to solve the case on his own while trying to save Scully. The relationship between X and Mulder, which has never been exactly cordial, is further strained here, to the point where Mulder even pulls a gun on the informant insisting that someone pay the price for all this death. X manages to talk his way out, unsurprisingly, but it's a dangerous game he's playing, as highlighted by his final scene with the CSM--there are lies nested in omissions covered by deflections here. It's a lot of chainsaws to juggle, and eventually, one of them is going to drop.
That's about it for this one, really. It's a potentially interesting hook dealt with in a cursory, but professional fashion. I can't help wishing that we'd spent more time with that poor bastard in the cold open; if there'd been a greater sense of the tragedy here, of lives and families destroyed by the government's arrogant interference, then we might've had something. (It doesn't help that one of the murders, the housewife killing her husband, is played largely for laughs.) Or else, given how much the show is already about how we're programmed to act by the people who think they know best, well, maybe we've could've focused on that a little more. But as is, it's pretty good.
- Mulder, with the motel guy: "You want me to go first this time?" "Damn straight."
- When Mulder and Scully visit the cold open killer's home, the two kids inside are watching Die Hard. I don't believe that's relevant, but what the hell.
- Just looked at Todd's comments--this is one of his favorite standalones? Maybe I really am too hard on this show.
You want an indication how much I was into this episode? How about: the entire series is currently on Netflix Instant. I have Season 4 already lined up in my queue, and whenever I want to, I can start watching. And yet when I got to the end of "Talitha Cumi," I freaked out. Mulder's mother was dying in her hospital room, of a stroke that may or may not have been inspired by the CSM; Mulder and Scully had finally tracked down one of the aliens they've spent the whole season just barely missing; and just as Mulder demands the alien (who repeatedly assures us he can explain "everything") come back with him to his mother's hotel room, the Alien Bounty Hunter shows up looking mighty pissed off. (Or, looking like Brian Thompson, which is roughly the same thing.) The friendly alien says, "He's coming to kill me." Mulder is frozen, clutching the switch-needle device, the only thing anyone knows of that can actually kill aliens, in one hand. Cut to black. "To Be Continued..."
And I swear to god, I yelled at the TV. I even yelled in my notes: "To Be Continued? YOU FUCKS!"
That's good storytelling right there, so good that even knowing that part two was about three minutes worth of button pressing away, it still wasn't near enough. The cliff-hanger at the end of "Anasazi," with Mulder seemingly trapped and set on fire in a buried train car, is good, but the suspense is more about seeing how he gets out of the danger. I can't imagine anyone thinking that the third season was going to start with Mulder corpsified and Scully trying to solve the mysteries of grieving process and the human heart. Here, though, while Mulder and Scully are nominally threatened by the bounty hunter, it's really the nice guy alien we're worried about, Jeremiah Smith. He starts out the episode by healing the wounded and preaching calm, and he seems more than willing to finally start providing our heroes with definitive answers to their questions. On The X-Files, being a friendly freak suggests you may not last long; promising the Truth guarantees it.
So, we've got the Jesus alien running around, throwing all kinds of monkey-wrenches in the supposedly air-tight plans for colonization. (Another thing I never paid much attention to as a kid: the whole "colonization" storyline is far more important to the mythology than I realized. The CSM and Jeremiah confirm that's the big goal, in the midst of a dialog about protecting people through fear which has the over-serious stolidity we've come to expect whenever Chris Carter gets serious. I only managed to get through the first season of Heroes, but that was long enough for Mohinder's interminable, "Pretend I'm actually Patrick Stewart" narration to sear its awfulness onto my brain. Carter's heavy dialog is basically that kind of pseudo-poetic junk done right--or at least done with purpose, which takes the sting out.) Wow, that parenthetical got out of hand. What I meant to say is, we're back in the land of heavy mythology, and even better, we're coming to a rise in the action. We're seeing more connections, we're getting the impression that some awful plot is coming to a head, and for once, Mulder and Scully have an ally who isn't incompetent or corrupt. Jeremiah Smith, however short-lived he may ultimately prove, is a powerful, morally righteous figure, someone who knows what's going on, and who isn't trying to hide from it. One of the defining characteristics of Mulder's quest is its isolation--Scully's appearance kept him sane. Who knows what another ally might bring?
Also a big deal: Mrs. Mulder knows the Cigarette Smoking Man! (I felt some vindication when Mr. X called the CSM "Cancer Man," by the way. I'm not crazy after all.) I have vague memories of the show trying to imply down the road that the CSM is Mulder's biological father, and it's possible to start reading that far between the lines here. I'm not inherently against the idea, but I don't think it really serves any purpose. Mulder's commitment to the cause is an interesting enough that it doesn't need some torturous familial connection to make it even more tragic, and let's face it, having Mr. and Mrs. Mulder both know the CSM well enough to reminisce about vacations together is more than enough of the creepy. There's always something vaguely Freudian about conspiracy theories, isn't there? Powerful figures with impenetrable motives controlling the lives of the innocent--well, from a certain skewed angle, that's pretty much what parents do. Believing in conspiracy is believing that there's someone out there, somewhere, who can make everything make sense. And of course you have to stop them, because you want to make your own kind of sense.
Mrs. Mulder is clearly not too fond of the CSM anymore, but it's the kind of antipathy that can only come from betrayal and more than a little self-loathing. I don't think the CSM had anything direct to do with her stroke; he denies it, and while he "lies in every word," just this once, I think he's telling the truth. She's already clearly conflicted enough, by her past, by the death of her ex-husband, and by the damage that her and Mr. Mulder's choices have done to both their children. (Lest we forget the extent of that damage, the CSM dangles news of Samantha in front of Fox one more time.) One of the problems with bringing the Mulder family into all this madness is that it becomes more and more difficult to explain why the hell no one sat our Mulder down and laid out the situation for him. Yes, Fathers tell lies and Mothers keep secrets, but surely by now, Mrs. Mulder would've felt compelled to tell him something. There has to be some justification for her silence, but because we never really get to know her that well, we can only infer. Maybe she just hopes it will all go away if she keeps her head down. Maybe she's hoping Samantha will be returned to her if she plays nice. Maybe she's an alien. (You gotta admit, that would be way worse than Mulder being blood-related to the CSM.)
We never really know. It's a drawback of this kind of seat-of-the-pants plotting, where you have a character behave a certain way for plot purposes and then pretend it'll all make sense in a year or two. And honestly, it's not something I really thought about when I first watched this, because it all works really well on a surface level. If you accept that Mrs. Mulder has a past like everybody else, well, the conversation between her and the CSM is wonderfully done, all jagged and off-putting, especially the climax, where we shift to photographs (taken by a spying Mr. X) and see how the barely restrained politeness turned into shouting and arm-waving and turned backs. The stroke isn't a bad twist, because it gives us that "PALM" note, which leads to Mulder tearing apart the living room in the family summer house. I'd forgotten that "PALM" was really stroke-speak for "LAMP," which is a smart touch, and I'd completely forgotten what Mulder finds when he breaks that lamp: one of the weapons we've seen the bounty hunter use to murder other aliens, supposedly the only real way to kill an alien for good. So now, for the first time ever it seems like, Mulder has some measure of control, even if he doesn't understand it or know how to use it. (That it's a phallic symbol is, well, enough Freud for today.)
Anybody else get faked out by the Jeremiah switch? The CSM tracks down the magical healing space creature and imprisons him, and soon after, Scully runs into what looks like the same guy coming into the Bureau to turn himself in. I had the sinking sensation that the episode was going to play some kind of body-jumping trick on us. Yeah, it was cool with the black oil, but it wouldn't really make sense here, and I was relieved to learn that the Jeremiah Scully finds is a dupe, sent in to cool the search for the healer. Really, the plotting here does a good job of bringing us to that final confrontation. Or, at least, the episode made such a good impression on me overall that I've blocked the bad spots out in the three or four days since I watched it. Sure, we've seen Mulder unhinged and demanding answers before, but it works, and at least here that anguish and uncertainty looks like it'll have a direct affect on a situation where he could do the right thing, if he only knew what that was.
I mentioned the heavy chat that the CSM and Jeremiah have while Jeremiah's locked away. It's one of my favorite parts of the episode, because really, I love any face time we get with the CSM. I've been listening Nixonland on audiobook the past couple weeks, and there's something deeply Nixonian about the CSM. Nixon was a deeply flawed human being who only truly became a monster when he achieved power--the tragedy is that his flaws were uniquely oriented to drive him towards power, to give him the tools for achieving what he desired, and than make him utterly incapable of managing that power in a responsible manner. We don't know much about the CSM yet (have I mentioned how much I love "Musings Of A Cigarette Smoking Man" yet? Because it's a lot), but the more we learn, the more we see a man who only goal in life is control. He's turned a means into an end, and Jeremiah does a decent job of poking holes in that end. The alien's transformations, first into Deep Throat, then into Mr. Mulder, are great, iconic moments, as is Jeremiah calmly telling the CSM he's riddled with lung cancer. The CSM can deny it, but no one believes this denial.
I haven't actually watched "Herrenvolk," the fourth season premier and the the second half of this two parter, yet. I've seen it before, but I don't remember it well enough to tell you what happens next. After that initial burst of cursing, I calmed down some, and eager as I am to see just how Mulder and Scully's hopes will be dashed this time, there's something to be said for not knowing everything right away. This is the last X-Files recap of the summer. Todd and I aren't sure when we'll pick back up again, but hopefully soon. Until then, think of this as just a pause. There's something to be said for taking a jump off a high cliff, and then staying frozen in mid-air, not knowing where you'll land. Or if.
- Aaaand I totally forgot to mention Mulder's through down with Mr. X! Let's just say the tension we saw between them in "Wetwired" pays off well here. Also, I'm amazed that Mulder managed to walk away from the fight.
- Scully doesn't get a whole lot to do here, besides connecting some dots. Her pick-me-up speech to Mulder after he learns about his mother isn't very good: "Mulder, I don't want you to jump to conclusions." Mulder? A conclusion jumper? Ridiculous!
- You could do a quick and brutal drinking game by taking a shot every time Jeremiah says, "I can explain everything," only to be immediately interrupted before he explains anything.
- No Space: Above And Beyond notes from Todd this week.
- Glad we could bring this one back, and thanks everybody for the support. To be continued-