The X-Files: “Rush” / “The Goldberg Variation”
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The X-Files: “Rush” / “The Goldberg Variation”

“Rush” (season 7, episode 5; originally aired 12/5/1999)

In which the kids are getting faster, and the adults are getting slower

As it began its seventh season, The X-Files had one goal: to produce some seriously scary episodes, all the better to respond to critics who thought the sixth season had gotten too humorous and soft. The series had lots its default status as the “cool” drama to say was your favorite to prove you watched good television, to shows like The Sopranos and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Usually when that happens to a show that was once heralded as TV’s best, it gets back to brass tacks. It goes back to what made everybody love the show in the first place. In the case of The X-Files, that meant taking aim, dead-center, at horror again and skewing away from the huge number of comedic episodes that bogged down season six.

The problem with going back to basics, usually, is that once you’ve evolved, it’s hard to get back to the place you started. Once The X-Files moved past the monster-of-the-week format into more experimental stuff, it was hard to go back to the straightforward structure. We saw this a bit in season six’s later episodes, but we’re really seeing it here in the early portions of season seven, particularly in “Rush.” I wouldn’t say this is a bad episode. Indeed, it’s largely watchable, and it has a few truly horrifying and dark murder sequences. But it’s also hard to appreciate given the context of where it came up in the series’ run. At least when you watch something like “Hungry,” you can see the series still trying to stretch its wings. In “Rush,” it’s much harder to race from the ghosts of X-Files past. Indeed, this episode would slot in alongside any number of earlier episodes about malevolent teenagers with paranormal powers from the show’s fun.

Even then, though, “Rush” might have worked better than it does but for one simple fact: Its guest cast mostly sucks. Because the audience knows nothing seriously bad will happen to Mulder and Scully, the monster-of-the-week episodes rely ever more heavily on getting the audience to identify with the guest stars. And in that regard, “Rush” comes up a big flop. It’s easy enough to see which teenage archetypes the show is going for—new kid in town Tony, who’s swayed by the big man on campus Max, who’s dating the pretty Chastity, whom Tony is also in love with—but the actors chosen to play these roles do very little to imbue them with life, particularly at a time when so many TV series were overrun by teenagers who were at least good at seeming like they were emoting. Everything in “Rush” is flat, and every time the teens open their mouths to say something slang-y, the dialogue is goofy and embarrassing.

The premise of the episode isn’t bad: Teenagers have found a mysterious substance in a strange cave that gives them super-speed, and since they’re all so hopped up on hormones, that super-speed is being used in nefarious ways. Mulder and Scully are called in to investigate when one of the teens bashes in a local deputy’s face with a flashlight, and the gruesome, telling detail is that said deputy’s glasses were embedded all the way in the back of his skull, and this from one whack with the light. It turns out that Max is the guy who’s got the super-speed, but it wears off after a bit, and the human body isn’t built to withstand such velocity. So he’s more and more desperate to get his next “hit,” even as Tony takes his first one and Chastity tries to figure out a way to stop all of this destruction from happening.

By far the best thing about this episode are the scenes where Max kills somebody, particularly the scene where he kills the teacher who dared accuse him of cheating in the lunchroom. The effect used to indicate that Max is moving quickly—which mostly consists of his body blurring in an otherwise standard, head-on mid-shot of him—is simple and subtle, and it gets the job done. What’s more, the growing horror the students feel as the teacher is first tripped, then sliced up by glass, then rammed against the far wall by a lunch table, then clobbered with a chair is felt by the audience as well. This is a brutal, visceral sequence, and every single ounce of pain the teacher feels hits with the maximum amount of impact. It’s an oasis of brutality in an episode that can feel by-the-numbers in places, and it works well to suggest what might have happened with a stronger actor in the Max part. (I kept thinking of the young Timothy Olyphant, for some reason.)

The episode’s biggest structural problem is hyper-extension. It tries to have its cake and eat it too with the kids’ superpower, which is meant to be a metaphor for all manner of things. When it starts out as a metaphor for the way that teenagers feel like they move more quickly than the slowpoke adults around them, it’s a nicely elegant piece of storytelling, particularly when we see Chastity just waiting for the clock to inch forward, that she might be done with the boredom of her day. But the episode works a little too hard to drive this point home, until seemingly everybody in the cast is remarking on how teenagers sure are different from adults, and maybe this is all a metaphor for something else. Once the episode starts mixing in the drug abuse parallelism as well, the whole thing just becomes too much. Sometimes, a mysterious substance found in a cave is just a mysterious substance found in a cave.

Yet I had an okay time with “Rush,” all the same. There was some nice banter between Mulder and Scully, particularly when the two were trying to figure out what was up, and I loved the general idea of Chastity shooting her boyfriend, then rushing into the path of the bullet to also shoot herself, even if the actress wasn’t up to making the full pain of the moment resonate with the audience. The ending—which offers no definitive explanation for why the weird light in the cave made the teens all Flash-y—is nice, particularly at a point in time where the show could try too hard to tie everything up in a neat little bow. And I liked the intimations that the teens losing super-speed was a kind of metaphor for the fact that they couldn’t turn back time and stay young forever. They, too, are going to grow up and get older and move at the same speed as everybody else. And then they’ll be trapped forever. Better to get your kicks and die young.

Grade: B-

Stray observations:

  • In comments last week, some of you were discussing just how similar the plot of this episode is to the recent film Chronicle, and you’re really right. I think there’s probably a cottage industry in taking X-Files episodes with great premises that the show didn’t quite pull off and turning them into screenplays.
  • I have no idea what accent everybody was trying to do in this episode. It’s set in Virginia, but the accents run the gamut from deep South to Massachusetts. Very strange.
  • Hey, that’s Ann Dowd as Tony’s mom! You may know her best for her recent role in Compliance, for which she’s received a number of year-end notices in the supporting actress category. She’s got an outside shot at an Oscar nomination, so I guess we can all say we knew her when.

“The Goldberg Variation” (season 7, episode 6; originally aired 12/12/1999)

In which everything evens out in the end

Do you feel lucky? I’m not asking this in the Clint Eastwood sense; I’m asking it in the genuine sense. Luck has always seemed such a weird concept to me, such a strange little thing to hinge so much of our belief system upon. I’m not saying that any of us literally believes in some personification of luck up above, smiling down on us and arbitrarily deciding to reward or punish us. But it is a bit odd to me that we’ve come up with this system to explain the terrible whims of fate. The lucky get good things, and if they get those good things in improbable fashion, well, then they’re really lucky. The unlucky get shat upon by the universe.

And yet I’ve noticed that people tend to slot themselves into one of the two categories, invariably, even though the world is just as likely to dump good stuff on your head as it is bad stuff. I’ve had all number of awful things happen to me in my life, but I’d still consider myself, by and large, a “lucky person,” because I’ve had a few big breaks go my way. Would I still feel that way if I hadn’t had those breaks go my way? Or would I feel unlucky? What I’m asking, I suppose, is whether luck is just a matter of temperament. You’ve heard that you make your own luck, of course, but maybe that’s literally true. After all, all luck is is something we’ve made up in our heads to explain something we wish had logic to it, a system. So you can “make” your own luck, simply by imagining yourself to be lucky, even if an objective analysis after the fact would suggest you’re terribly, terribly unlucky.

What’s fun about “The Goldberg Variation” is that it plays around with these ideas of luck being a giant system you pay into, then make withdrawals from. It’s a charming, enjoyable episode, one that I like quite a bit, but I don’t know that it really ever moves beyond its initial premise to become one of the truly great X-Files episodes. There’s a man named Henry Weems (played by the always excellent Willie Garson, in his second role on the show), and he appears to be the luckiest man who’s ever lived. Everything he touches turns to gold, and when mobsters try to kill him, they invariably end up dead instead, via the most improbable of means. But there’s a tragic offshoot to his luck. Whenever something really good happens to him, something bad has to happen around him, be that a bunch of small, inconvenient things happening to a bunch of people or one big, awful thing happening to one person.

As an illustration, the episode offers a moment when Henry buys a lotto ticket, hoping to win $100,000. He does, but when he finds out he won’t get the money as quickly as he needs it, he tosses the ticket out. It’s useless to him. (One of the reasons he has such luck, it seems, is because he only strives for exactly what he needs.) Another patron of the convenience store he’s in dives into the trash can after the ticket. Henry tries to warn him about what will happen, but he doesn’t listen, of course, because this is a fairy tale, and people never listen in fairy tales. The man races into the street to celebrate his good fortune and is, of course, hit by a bus, in a sequence that’s eerily reminiscent of the start of My Name Is Earl, of all things. Luck is a bank account for most people, this episode posits. You make deposits, and it issues withdrawals. But Henry gets and gets and gets and never seems to have to put anything back in.

“The Goldberg Variation” aired a couple of weeks before Christmas back in 1999, and it’s easy to see why the series slotted this episode at that particular point in time: It’s often legitimately heart-warming, something you rarely see The X-Files pulling out of its emotional palette. Henry is trying to get that $100,000 because Richie, a little boy in his building (played by a young Shia LaBeouf!) needs an expensive operation, and he’s running out of time. Henry is altruistic, and it’s implied that’s why luck keeps rewarding him. If he were attempting to use his luck to benefit himself, he would be punished, perhaps. Instead, he very quickly realized that his good luck had an adverse effect on the people around him, so he holed up and hid out, trying not to hurt anybody too much. He’s a good man, and he’s a lot more fun to follow around than any of the teens from “Rush.”

The problem is that a “good man” doesn’t make for that effective of a monster-of-the-week. Sure, there are some mobsters who want Henry dead because they think he cheated him out of a bunch of cash, and, yeah, the FBI finds Henry’s extreme luck suspicious and assumes it stems from criminal activity. Garson is definitely fun in the role, and he gives Henry exactly the right blend of “good guy” and “guy who just wishes this would all be over with already.” Yet at the same time, it’s not hard to imagine what the third or fourth season X-Files writing staff might have done with this character and idea. Jeffrey Bell’s script is solid and funny and full of nice ideas and exchanges, but it never quite finds another gear than “clever and whimsical.”

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. I’ll take “clever and whimsical” over “strained and self-important” any day of the week, and I like the things the episode at least tries to say about cause and effect, particularly whenever it brings in one of Henry’s homemade Rube Goldberg contraptions. Bell reportedly wanted the whole episode to function as a Rube Goldberg device, and I don’t know if it ever makes that leap, but it’s fun to watch all of the effortlessly convoluted ways the writers came up with for the mobsters to die. (My favorite has to be the guy who somehow ends up with his shoelace caught in the ceiling fan, though I almost think this would have worked better if Mulder hadn’t stopped to explain it to us.) This late in the show’s run, “Goldberg” comes close enough to being a great episode that I’m tempted to say, “Good enough!” and move on.

It all works out in the end. The mobsters take Henry, but they all die in the process of doing so, and it just so turns out that one of them is a match for little Richie, which will mean that he doesn’t have to die. Mulder and Scully get to have some of the playful interaction that still makes their scenes fun in the best episodes. And the whole episode gets to play around with some big ideas in a way that doesn’t push too hard, because pushing too hard might have made the whole, feather-light conceit at the episode’s center fall apart. “The Goldberg Variation” has its share of problems, but at its core, it wants to be sweet, and that’s a tone The X-Files used so rarely that it’s nice just to see it realize that it could.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • Hey, does the premise of this one remind anybody else of that movie where Lindsay Lohan and some dude swap luck in a magic fountain? I’m probably reaching here, but I really think I’m onto something with this, “Reimagine old ­X-Files episodes for fun and profit” thing.
  • Possible suggestion that Henry’s a little more messed-up than anybody realizes: His Rube Goldberg contraption is designed to hang a tiny figurine.
  • I love that Scully gets to be right when she says, “Maybe he just got lucky?” even if Mulder then takes that idea and runs with it. The show could have done more with that sort of dynamic this late in its run.
  • The makeup department does absolutely no work to make that eye look fake at all, huh?
  • I am considering doing a quick blitz through Chris Carter's other series, Harsh Realm, similarly to how we covered Space: Above & Beyond in this space (with a series of quick hits at the end of the main reviews). Let me know if that would interest you!

Next week: Zack checks in on an old “friend” in “Orison,” then hangs out with Ricky Jay in “The Amazing Maleeni.”

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