“Signs And Wonders” (season 7, episode 9; originally aired 1/23/2000)
In which there is a snake person or something
I don’t believe in Hell anymore, but I’m still afraid of it. When so much of your childhood is spent making you terrified of something, making sure that the very core of your being is set up to avoid one particular thing, it’s hard to shake that, even when you’re an adult and can be more reasonable about things. The thought of avoiding eternal damnation was such an overriding concern for me for so much of my early childhood that when my family abruptly and out of nowhere switched from the fundamentalist Christian church of my childhood to the much more sedate, mainstream church of my adolescence, it was like an atom bomb going off in a lot of what I believed. Where I’d been a part of a church that believed in being “on fire” for the Lord, in bringing as many people to the same brand of passionate Christianity as our own, that we’d save them all from Hell, I was now a part of a church that was interested in spiritual matters, sure, but was primarily a function of our community, a kind of weekly gathering place for like-minded people, as much about coffee after the services as the services themselves.
This was ultimately a good thing—I don’t know if I could have made it through adolescence without getting seriously screwed up if I’d stayed in that earlier, more restrictive church—but the whiplash briefly drove me to be even more devoted to the prior form of Christianity, before I finally began to drift away from it in college. That’s what whiplash is, after all: something jolting you so much that you fly forward, then back, before returning to roughly where you started, hoping you’re not dead or injured. It was always alienating to my friends in school, who didn’t attend the same fundamentalist church as I did, to come with me to church functions, because they were used to the more sedate Christianity, where my church was full of speaking in tongues and “dancing in the spirit” and laying hands on people to cure them of their illnesses. Most of them looked at me like I was a little crazy when we left.
There are sequences in “Signs And Wonders” that approach this fundamental divide between deeply devoted fundamentalists who practice a more terrifying brand of religion and the more sedate churches most Americans are used to. A wonderful sequence around the episode’s midpoint cross-cuts between the snake handlers at the Church of Signs and Wonders sitting outside of a tiny Tennessee town and a Bible study circle at a local church with a more progressive theology. The folks at the progressive church are saying all the right things, all the things we who profess to live in a more tolerant world want to hear coming out of the mouths of ministers. But the people at the snake handling church look like they’re having a much more exciting experience. Granted, that’s because they’re playing around with poisonous snakes, but there’s a real fire and passion there that seems to have been completely leeched out of the other form of belief. Fanaticism is always going to have a certain lure to it, the lure of complete commitment, of surrendering the self to someone that claims to know all the answers.
Unfortunately, “Signs And Wonders” is hopelessly confused and convoluted, to the point where it doesn’t quite work, even though there are some great things in it. Jeffrey Bell’s script has some great, scary moments in it, particularly in that sequence where Beth Grant—playing the Beth Grant part—is killed by a staple remover that abruptly morphs into a rattlesnake, but the last 10 minutes of the episode scuttle so much of what came before that it becomes sort of impossible to parse what happened. The basic idea here—the villain we think is the villain is actually sort of a good guy—isn’t a bad one, particularly as it pertains to the way the show was playing around with its monster-of-the-week format in some very basic ways this season. But when we find out who the ultimate villain is, the story stops making any sense.
The whole episode is based around that snake-handling church, which has recently seen two of its members, one of them pastor Enoch O’Connor’s daughter, Gracie, leave to join the more progressive church in town. The reverend of that church, Reverend Mackey, is exactly the sort of kind-hearted local preacher Bing Crosby might have played in the ‘40s, but it’s not hard to find O’Connor a little more “fun” to be around. Even if he’s meant to be the villain, Michaels Childers does so much great scenery chewing playing him that it’s not hard to want to spend more time with him. As Mackey, Randy Oglesby is fine, but he’s always a step behind Childers.
Now, O’Connor’s not the bad guy, as becomes apparent when he’s attacked by snakes about two-thirds of the way through the episode. (It should be said that the snake attacks in this episode are often surprisingly horrifying, given that they just feature lots of footage of snakes slithering around. Maybe you have to be predisposed to find snakes kind of creepy, but it worked for me.) At this point, it seems like pregnant Gracie, whose boyfriend was the young man killed in the cold open, could be the one who’s behind the snake attacks. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but there’s a way to make it make sense, particularly if you buy Mulder’s argument that her dad got her pregnant. It’s easy to see her lashing out at the world with snakes once that happened.
Then, however, Gracie’s dad drags her back to the Church of Signs and Wonders, where he forces her to induce birth, and she gives birth to a giant pile of snakes. Now, it’s an appropriately horrifying moment, one of the scariest I’ve seen in the show in quite some time, but it also sends the episode off into looney town. See, Mackey is the man with snake powers. Why? It’s never immediately clear what he’s doing. Mulder gives us some hooey about how it’s all an attempt to cloak a more devilish religion in the guise of a more tolerant one, and a little research tells me that Frank Spotnitz described the theme of this episode as “Intolerance can be good!” (which really doesn’t come across, unless you mean we should be intolerant against snake people, in which case, agreed), but I still have no idea why Mackey is doing any of this. The monsters on this show often have a simple motivation: They need to feed. But what Mackey is doing is more complicated than that, and the fact that we don’t get any explanation of how his powers work muddy the waters even more. When he moves to Connecticut and feeds the snake living in his mouth a mouse, it’s still not clear. At least being near a snake-handling church gave him a good cover. Now, he’s just going to attack people with snakes in Connecticut?
I want to like this episode a lot, and I think there are a lot of good things in it. I like the compare and contrast between the two churches, and my personal history makes me a little more kind to it than I might be otherwise, I think. But even without that personal attachment, I think there’s plenty to recommend here. The snake sequences are scary, the guest characters are unexpectedly compelling, and there are some nice moments for Scully, who very nearly finds herself judged by the snakes before Mulder saves her. (I think it’s telling that the snakes don’t bite Scully, but do bite Mulder, even if Mulder was being attacked by some sort of demon snakes.) But those last 10 minutes just sink everything good the episode has going, and in a way that hurts everything that came before. In a more traditional monster-of-the-week story, a weak ending doesn’t matter if the build-up is stirring. In one built around a twist, the, well, whiplash from that twist can make a viewer look back on everything that came before with a kind of bitter acid.
- For as much as I like most of the snake attack scenes here, I do think that initial one where Mulder and Scully go to the church—which is complete with a few “boy, Tennessee residents sure are hicks!” jokes—is kind of dumb. Gillian Anderson does her best to make pulling her gun on a snake compelling, but it’s just never going to work.
- David Duchovny’s sleepwalking through this episode to a degree far greater than I think I’ve ever seen him do on this show. When you’re making 22-24 episodes of television a year, particularly when you’re one of only two characters who appear in nearly every episode, there will always be episodes where you sort of coast, but Duchovny’s really letting himself idle in a lot of these episodes. (At the time, he was suing 20th Century Fox, which I imagine had something to do with it.)
- If you’ve been reading along with this series and recognized the actress playing Gracie, it’s because that’s Tracy Middendorf, who was Cass back in the very odd Millennium episode “Darwin’s Eye.”
“Sein Und Zeit” (season 7, episode 10; originally aired 2/6/2000)
In which no one shoots at Santa Claus
Every personal fandom has a natural life cycle. It’s like a relationship, really. You discover the thing you love, and you get to know it a bit. Maybe it immediately declares its intentions, and your love burns fast and hot right from the first. Maybe it sneaks up on you a bit, and you only realize how fond you are of it in retrospect. Or maybe you start out hating it, then learn that the very things you hate about it are the things that can make you love it, too. Once you’re in love, though, then you find yourself looking forward to the time you get to spend in the company of that thing you love, week after week or month after month. In the best cases, this infatuation can last for years and years, a constant in your life as strong as a great friendship or relationship.
There’s the flipside, of course, the point where it all just… stops. One day, whatever it was you were in love with just isn’t doing it for you anymore. Maybe you hang on with it out of habit, the two of you trapped in a dysfunctional relationship where neither of you will ever please the other anymore. Maybe you just break up, swiftly and cleanly. Or maybe you just drift away, checking in every so often but mostly just wandering off, until the two of you are strangers, and you wonder why you were in love in the first place.
“Sein Und Zeit” and “Closure” were the point where I realized I wasn’t an X-Files fan anymore, at least when they first aired. There was so much build-up to the idea that Mulder would finally get an answer to the question of what happened to his sister, and when I got that answer, I found it messy, muddled, and pointless. I don’t want to say I hated these episodes; I was just hugely disappointed in them, and the part of me that was really into the show that had already been flirting with Buffy and The Sopranos just went off and formed relationships that were ultimately much more satisfactory with those shows. But you never forget your first love, and The X-Files was always going to be that for me, and for a lot of other geeks who came of age in the ‘90s. Yet you never forget your first break-up either, and my break-up with the show was mostly clean. I watched the season seven finale because I heard it was good. (It was.) I watched a couple of episodes of season eight (the premiére and the “Mulder comes back!” episode, I think). And I watched the series finale. But that was it. I was done. Even when I rewatched the series years later on DVD, I mostly watched the highlights, then caught up with all of season eight, which I’d heard was solid. (Much of it was!) But this is the first time I’ve ever returned to these two episodes.
While I haven’t watched “Closure” yet—the episode that caused so many of my problems the first time around—I’m impressed with what a grim piece of business “Sein Und Zeit” is. It’s not one of the series’ very finest hours; we’re well past the point where the show was capable of that. But it’s a very, very good piece of television, and it takes the story of Mulder’s loss of his sister about as seriously as the show ever has. The disappearance of Samantha has receded so far from the show’s center that it’s sort of surprising when the show makes an obligatory return to the question in every mythology episode. Really, it hasn’t been central to the show since Scully’s abduction gave both characters a reason to pursue the conspiracy. I don’t know that the show really needed to give a concrete answer to what happened to Samantha, actually. Aliens did it was always good enough for me.
That said, “Sein Und Zeit” is like a lesser version of the great season four episode “Paper Hearts.” The disappearance of a young girl under odd circumstances draws Mulder into a case that may or may not point the way toward his own sister having been the victim of something more prosaic than an alien abduction. But where “Paper Hearts” was essentially a straightforward procedural about one case that had greater bearing on Mulder’s state of mind, “Sein Und Zeit” returns to the show inflicting misery upon Fox Mulder, that he might have to suffer for the sins of trying to topple the system. There’s an honest-to-God “Mulder cries” scene in this episode, and for as sleepy as David Duchovny has seemed this season, he brings the intense mania to Mulder that has always made the character work at his best. He seems energized by this storyline, in many ways, and that’s enough to give the episode the weight it needs.
Make no mistake, though: This is in no way a “fun” episode. Where stories like this had an air of escapism to them in the early days of the show, this is now a deadly serious quest, something that Mulder has to trudge through to make his way to the next heap of misery that will be visited upon him. I think that may have been why I didn’t like it back in the day: It was just too damned grim. But now, I like the way that it starts with only the barest hints of paranormal activity—some automatic writing here; a grey-faced child there—then gradually gets more and more confounding and mysterious as it goes along. Mulder gets Skinner to let him be on the case, but then he utterly botches the job, getting a little bit of information, then retreating before he does anything else, laying on the couch and watching endless news reports about the missing child. Clearly, something more is going on here than him just being disappointed about the possible lack of paranormal activity.
Of course, it turns out that he’s upset because he might learn his sister was just killed, not abducted. If she’s out there somewhere, he can find her and bring himself some form of closure. If she’s just dead, that’s messy and complicated. He’ll never really get closure, because it will also rob his greater quest of its personal center. And “Sein Und Zeit” immediately starts tracking in the direction of messiness. The little girl turns out to have been abducted by a man who’s apparently murdered many children, a guy who owns one of those “Christmas year-round” parks and dresses up as Santa Claus (hence the cryptic “No one shoots at Santa Claus” mention in the letter psychically written by both the girl’s mom and the mother of a young boy years ago). There are ghost children wandering around, which would imply those kids are dead, not off in outer space. And when Mulder’s mother dies—and, yes, she dies—Scully confirms that Mrs. Mulder killed herself, not that she was killed by the conspiracy for nearly revealing something Mulder needed to know about his sister. This is an episode about a man having his very belief system eradicated before his very eyes.
There are plenty of problems here—the introduction of the Santa Claus guy comes out of nowhere, essentially, and the whole idea of the “walk-ins” (much less that Scully and Mulder follow information provided to them by a ghost child) is patently ridiculous—but this is an episode that deserves a fairer rap than the one it gets, even if “Closure” is as bad as I remember it being. (And, honestly, maybe it’s far better than that reputation.) It’s difficult for me to approach these episodes as anything other than the things that burned my love for the show almost completely, but to watch “Sein Und Zeit” now is to watch the show doing its best to take everything away from Mulder and see if he still keeps going. It’s forced in places, yes, and it can be a little too grim for the sake of being grim, but it’s also surprisingly moving and occasionally beautiful. When I was 19 and this episode first aired, I wanted answers. Now, I’m 32, and I guess I’m finally starting to accept that life is mostly uncertainty.
- I’ve always thought that if you were going to reboot X-Files—as Fox often seems intent on doing—you’d have to do it sans Mulder and Scully. But I think that you’d have to have Skinner still around. For one thing, Mitch Pileggi would probably welcome the work. For another, his “gruff boss who cares about his agents” shtick would provide a nice continuity between old and new. And for yet another, you know Skinner, deep down, believes in Mulder’s crazy theories, even if he’s scared to admit it. That would be the necessary link you’d need between an old show and a new one.
- I always enjoy storylines where Mulder has to interact with other FBI agents, and the scene where he wanders into the briefing and just starts spouting off about whatever the hell’s on his mind is a good example of this.
- Scully’s mostly thankless in this episode, so I like that she gets to make some of the big leaps here, particularly when she just goes with the ghost child saying “74” to find Santa’s village.
Next week: Zack gets “Closure,” then hangs out with Vince Gilligan and the “X-Cops.”