So, werewolves, then. Werewolves.
I have nothing against lycanthropes, you understand. An American Werewolf In London, The Howling, Ginger Snaps--all good stuff. My problem with "Shapes" is less a matter of concept than something I mentioned last week in connection with "Miracle Man"; when you watch a lot of genre TV, you get familiar with the basic tropes. The checklist episodes, so to speak, the ones that seem to exist more out of a sense of tradition than any real desire to tell a specific story. They're generally competent and thoroughly predictable, and "Shapes" qualifies on both counts.
Tim and Lyle Parker, a father and son ranching team, get attacked one night while investigating some strange noises around the caged animals. The father shoots a large form clawing at his son, but when they get a light on the corpse, it turns out to be a Native American later identified as a Joseph Goodensnake. This is a problem, since the Parkers are involved in a border dispute with Goodensnake's people, the Tregoes, which makes what should've been a defensive act on Tim's part seem awfully suspicious. But even worse–at least to those of us who've already cottoned on to what's going down–is that Goodensnake managed to maul Lyle pretty good before the shotgun blast took him down.
Mulder and Scully show up and do some poking around; they find what Scully calls an "open and shut" case, along with a whole lot of resistance to questions from the Trego locals. Sheriff Tskany, a Trego himself living on the reservation, is helpful but stand-offish, and Joe's sister Gwen is openly hostile. But Mulder won't be put off so easily. As he explains to Scully, he pulled some strings to get called in on this particular shooting, because it has connections, he believes, to the very first X-file, connections that somehow explain the shed-skin found at the crime scene, the footprints that change from human to animal mid-stride, and the freakishly large fangs in the dead Goodensnake's mouth.
While nothing in "Shapes" is exactly groundbreaking, it does manage to avoid the clumsy editing and lousy special effects of some of the season's earlier missteps. The presence of another "Twin Peaks" alumni in Michael Horse (playing Tskany) is always welcome, and the acting across the board is solid. We don't get too much into the Native American mysticism that future seasons would embrace, but the Trego culture does get a few nods, and their frustration with the government is convincing without being over-played.
But the story's a snooze, because it never subverts expectations. Once you realize you're dealing with werewolves (and you should figure it out in the cold open at the latest), you know that Goodensnake really was a monster when he was shot, and that those fangs he's sporting aren't calcium deposits or whatever silliness Scully attributes them to. Even more damaging, you know that poor Lyle is a goner–after all, he was attacked and survived, and even a man who's pure at heart and says his prayers by night, etc, etc. Which makes it frustrating that Mulder doesn't figure this out until about the thirty-five minute mark. No one even suspects Lyle until Joe's sister Gwen makes a terrified confession about seeing him change; while Mulder shouldn't automatically believe everything the movies tell him, he, and the series in general, should never be so painfully far behind the curve.
I'm going to try a new evaluation system this week–Good, Bad, or Ugly. A solid Good episode is one I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to anyone, while a Bad ep is something I'd suggest anyone but the staunchest fans avoid. Ugly episodes are anything in between. Hopefully, the reviews themselves will make this clear, but if there's ever any question, feel free to ask.
Good, Bad, or Ugly: Ugly
--Continuity watch: Scully mentions losing her father to Lyle after Lyle eats his.
--And the run of bad hospital lighting continues.
--Favorite exchange: Tskany says (about Gwen), "Maybe she saw something that she wasn't ready to understand." Cut to Scully. Bit of a pause. Scully: "Maybe."
My family has a one room cabin up north. It's in the boonies, so to speak, no electricity, no running water, a dirt road going in, and miles of forest around you if you make more than a couple wrong turns. There's a lake for swimming, although you have to be careful going in because the shoreline is just ground, grass, and rocks, and the water itself is black and cold. At night, the sky is full of more stars than I've ever seen anyplace else. But it still gets very dark. And quiet, like the kind of quiet that stuffs your ears and makes the air weigh heavy.
Also, if you go up at the wrong time of year, there are a lot of bugs around. Nasty, bitey things. Not many of them glow in the dark, and I've never heard of a swarm of mosquitoes cocooning a man, but you give 'em time, and it'll happen. The damn things just haven't figured out how to make the webbing yet.
Maybe it's because they haven't gestated inside a five hundred year-old tree, like the freaky insects that plague Mulder, Scully, and a lot of dead lumberjacks in "Darkness Falls." After a group of loggers disappear, Mulder and Scully make a trip to the middle of Olympia National Forest to investigate, accompanied by Ranger Larry Moore and Lumber Security guy Steve Humphreys. On the drive in, Humphreys gives a quick rant about the "cowardly" eco-terrorists that have been plaguing his company, and the industry in general, for decades; his irritation is apparently proven out when the jeep the group is driving in runs over some spikes on the road, blowing two tires. The four hoof it the rest of the way to the logging camp, where they find a lot of sabotaged equipment and no signs of life. Mulder, Scully, and the ranger go for a hike to see if they can find anything, and stumble across the desiccated corpse of a man, cocooned to a branch high above ground; while back at camp, Humphreys makes a new friend when Doug Spinney, a notorious saboteur, breaks into the main cabin for food. Spinney explains that he's getting supplies for friends a couple valleys over, and then offers the cryptic warning, "Darkness is our enemy." Which isn't exactly true.
"Falls" is reminiscent of "Ice," in that both episodes revolve around a small group of people isolated from the outside world who are forced to deal with a mysterious (and definitely lethal) threat. Both episodes are also excellent; although "Falls" lacks "Ice"'s ratcheting paranoia, it makes up points in originality and tension. The insects are basic enough to be both immediately dangerous and believable, sort of the Platonic ideal when it comes to sci-fi/horror monsters. And the thing about being in the woods at night is that it's impossible to feel safe even when you aren't in any specific danger–too many shadows, too many noises, and that terrible confluence of an abundance of space combined with an excess of things to fill it. It's claustrophobic, but you still feel perversely open to anything that passes by; you can't move as freely, but that's not going to slow down what's hunting you. The cabin where Mulder, Scully, and the others take refuge quickly becomes defined by the glare of a single bulb hanging over the kitchen table. And that can't last forever.
"Falls" also hits the right notes when it comes to personal drama. Humphreys may be somewhat one note, but Moore's ambivalence towards Spinney and his ilk is believable, as is his growing frustration with a situation he can neither control nor resolve. His snappishness never makes the character seem unsympathetic or irrational; given the survival rate of secondary law enforcement figures on the series this far, one can't really blame him for holding at least a little grudge against the only two people in the cabin who are definitely going to get out alive.
But Mulder and Scully are having problems of their own. After Mulder lets Spinney escape with the last of the gasoline and a car battery, Scully is rightfully upset with him for making such an important decision without bothering to check with the others. Which, in a way, is Mulder all over; he has faith in the world, and in people, and often that faith supercedes basic common sense. The spat blows over soon enough, and it leads to one of my favorite moments in the episode: just the two of them sitting side by side, with Mulder offering hopes of escape and Scully trying her best to poke holes in each one. This is the other side of his optimism, the part that makes up for his occasional arrogance and bullishness–he really does think things will work out for the best in the end. Scully's skepticism is based, in part, on a desire to protect herself; every time we have a belief, we make ourselves vulnerable because a belief is something we can lose. Mulder just chooses to embrace his beliefs and not give a damn about the consequences. It's why he keeps trying again and again to bring proof of, well, everything to a world that has shown itself definitively unwilling to accept anything that happens outside the sightlines; and it's why Scully comes to support him with such intensity, out of respect and admiration (and maybe more) for a passion she can't allow herself to share.
"Falls" has another ending that shows our heroes can be wounded, with the glow bugs attacking and cocooning Moore, Scully, and Mulder inside Moore's jeep. They survive because help arrives before they die of exposure, but it's a close thing. Mulder's final conversation with one of the doctors treating Scully puts a new angle on the malevolent government conspiracy; here it's not so much an intentional cover-up as it is a basic assumption by the powers that be that they can fix any situation before it gets out of hand. It's a bleak parody of Mulder's own faith–the shadowy forces he struggles against cling to control by simply ignoring the possibility that any other option exists.
Good, Bad, or Ugly: Good
--It's on-the-nose irony, but I did like the fact that the bugs were roused when the loggers illegally cut down an old-growth tree.
--Another in a long list of reasons why Scully rocks: when you ask her "What do you know about such and such?" she always gives you an answer.
The last time we saw Eugene Tooms (aka "Squeeze"), he was safely locked away in a sanitarium, working on his paper mache and eyeing the small meal slot in his door with a suspiciously intense curiosity. In "Tooms," we find him still eyeing that slot, and even going so far as to stretch his arm through it and across the outside of the door to his cell, as if making preparations for escape. But it turns out he needn't bother; due to the kind efforts of the vaguely sleazy hospital psychiatrist Dr. Monte (future Wire drug smuggler Paul Ben-Victor), Tooms is up for release. After all, they could never connect any of the murders to him, and his invasion of Scully's home? Well, just chalk that up to misplaced aggression. Besides, despite the protestations of one well-dressed but exceedingly paranoid F.B.I. agent, there's no proof whatsoever that there's anything unusual about Mr. Tooms. He's just a little–different. A little quieter. A little more feral.
Here's a first: a continuity heavy episode that doesn't rest largely on the series' central mythology. It's rare enough that X-Files has a recurring villain that doesn't work for the government or tie in with the alien invasion, but this episode even brings back Detective Briggs, the elderly detective who provided Mulder and Scully with background info in "Squeeze." While some time has definitely passed between the two eps (just how much time is a question I'll get to in a moment), the connective tissue between the two really works to make them feel like one big story, and a richly rewarding one at that.
Of course, "Tooms" isn't completely myth-free. While Mulder is sweating through Tooms' release hearing, Scully is getting reprimanded for her and her partner's somewhat unorthodox crime solving methods (methods that have resulted in an impressive 75 percent resolution rate). The reprimand comes from no less than the Assistant Director of the Bureau himself, Walter Skinner, in his first appearance on the show. As played by Mitch Pileggi, Skinner is a man of continually divided loyalties; his lectures to Scully and, later, Mulder, are far more reasonable than anything we've seen either character get from their superiors before, but the Cigarette Smoking Man is always watching to make sure that reasonable-ness never turns into honest support. It's a struggle that only really becomes clear in later seasons, but even from the start, it seems like Skinner at least has some of his soul left.
Back at the trial, Mulder takes the stand and makes the inadvisable attempt of laying out the entire Tooms' history, hundred year old murders and all, before the judge. It's a painful moment, given that there's no chance in hell anyone's going to believe him, but it's also a defining one; as Mulder later tells Scully, it doesn't matter if they listened, so long as he got what really happened on the record. Much of the episode revolves around the unusual techniques that have the government spooks so unhappy, from Mulder's one-man surveillance of Tooms post-release, to Scully's trusting the hunch of an old cop in order to link Tooms to his earlier crimes (a link which, now that I think about it, was ultimately unnecessary given Eugene's eventual fate), and at the heart of those techniques is Mulder's simple, quixotic assertion that the Truth trumps all. Everything else–career, regulations, sleep–comes second.
So Tooms gets his release. As Mulder is well aware, he's nearing his hibernation state; he just needs to make one more kill before he can hole up someplace dark for the next thirty years. While Scully and Briggs dig up an old chemical plant looking for the body of one of Toooms' victims that was never found, Mulder follows Tooms around, harassing him at his day job and preventing him from getting access to his prey. Eventually, Tooms holes up at home, and while Mulder waits him out in a parked car, Scully visits to try and convince him to let her take over for a while. The conversation between the two of them, with its low-key flirting and honest affection, is charming, and gives us a nice character moment when Scully, in a callback to "Beyond The Sea," calls Mulder "Fox" in an attempt to convince him of her sincerity. He laughs uncomfortably and tells her, "I even made my parents call me Mulder."
I love the inference here–not that Fox is an embarrassing name (well, it sort of is), but that Mulder is always exactly who he appears to be. When he calls Scully "Dana," it represents a step forward of intimacy between the two, because for Scully, the two names mean two very different things; there's her professional side, and her personal side, and like most of us, she puts in a good effort at keeping the two as divided as possible. For Mulder, that separation doesn't exist. There is no secret "Fox" aspect to his personality that Scully hasn't seen yet, no private part that he keeps protected form the world. He just is who he is, always. It's his greatest strength, and his greatest weakness, and yet another reason why he really needs Dana (both versions) around.
Scully eventually manages to convince Mulder to take a break, but when he drives home, we get a shot of his car trunk closing; looks like Scully's not the only one to get a little home invasion this season. Only this time, instead of attacking Mulder while he's asleep on the couch, Tooms takes a page from the Scorpio Killer and makes it look like Mulder attacked him. The staged beating won't hold up under any serious forensic examination, but it does buy Tooms enough time to make his kill, the poor, trusting Dr. Monte, and then hightail it to 66 Exeter Street, his former home.
That home was torn down, though, and a new, much shinier one erected in its place. (This is where the timing comes in: when Mulder and Scully visited the same site in "Squeeze," it was a derelict building on its way to being condemned. So since then, the old place has to have been torn down and the new place put up in its stead. How long would that take? A year? Less?) Mulder and Scully are onto to Tooms' game at this point, and track him to a maintenance shaft under an escalator on the new building's main floor. Mulder goes in alone, and is nearly gunked to death for his troubles; but with Scully's help, he wriggles free at the last minute, turns on the escalator, and for once, an X-Files monster comes to a definitive (and definitively nasty) end.
Good, Bad, or Ugly: Good
--I'm baffled by Dr. Monte's motives here. Even if he believed Tooms was innocent, the character is so relentlessly creepy to be around that his continued interested–especially coming from someone who exudes that level of smarm–is bizarre.
--Nice that the first two potential victims Tooms spots are both wearing bright blue overcoats.
--Man, was Tooms really trying to come up through the toilet?
--The episode ends with Mulder telling Scully that a change is coming. We'll get to that when we pick up season two in a couple weeks.
--Speaking of--next week, the end of season one!