"The Blessing Way" (season 3, episode 1)
Season three of The X-Files is, for me, hands down, its best season and maybe one of the greatest TV seasons of all time. Despite what Zack was saying last week, season three is where the mythology really works for me. It's also the season where the standalones are generally the sharpest, despite a few clunkers here and there (no season is perfect). And, as the perfect capper, Darin Morgan turns in three episodes that rank among the best television episodes of all time. It's a brutally consistent season of television, swinging from strength to strength, handily taking the show from cult sensation to genuine pop culture phenomenon, a show that would become a major part of the '90s cultural landscape and an Emmy Award-winning sensation, instead of just a show a handful of devoted, fervent fans watched.
I had forgotten that it starts out kind of terribly.
Now, "The Blessing Way" isn't, actually, some abomination of an episode, but it is one of the episodes that has aged atrociously. In general, when The X-Files was dealing with the weird compromises the West made to stay ahead of communism after World War II was over, it was at its best, filtering some of the awful things nations like the United States had done through the veil of alien conspiracy theories to make them more palatable to a mass audience. Episodes like that - like the very next one - are the best the conspiracy mytharc had to offer, even when that storyline had mostly run out of gas in the seasons to come. And season three is chock full of mythology episodes like that (and one that brilliantly sends them up). But when The X-Files tried to engage in trendy for the time New Age spiritualism, it tended to completely fall apart. And half of "The Blessing Way" is pseudo-mystical bullshit.
Fortunately, the other half is Scully running around, trying to find Mulder and the men who (she thinks) killed him. This half is pretty much awesome, and it redeems the episode. Up until now, Scully's had far too few chances to rescue her partner, while her partner has gotten many, many chances to rescue her. (Someone in comments said a few weeks ago that this feels dramatically unsatisfying because Mulder gets into danger because he's pursuing his goals, while Scully is often just randomly tossed into the paths of madmen. I tend to agree.) A motivated Scully is one of the very best things The X-Files had to offer, and Gillian Anderson makes the most out of racing across the country to try to find Mulder, facing off with Skinner, and just generally being a pain-in-the-ass to the Consortium, which gets its introduction in this episode. (Wikipedia informs me they're called the "Syndicate," but I've always called them the Consortium for some reason and will continue to call them that, unless there's an uproar. "Syndicate" makes me think they're going to start trying to sell local newspapers on picking up Funky Winkerbean.)
But every time we drift over to Mulder, lying in the midst of some sort of Navajo ritual, the episode turns into left-behinds from Chris Carter's junior year of college diary, y'know, the year he got the really GOOD stuff. At the time, I recall, this felt pretty profound because no other show on TV was doing stuff like having Mulder's father deliver lengthy monologues about how the quest for truth and justice is a holy one or something like that. Mulder languishes between life and death, in a weird, purply afterlife, and it turns out to be, well, a lot like that old show This Is Your Life, actually, with Deep Throat and his dad and the whole gang showing up. Potential Candidate for Worst X-Files Recurring Character Ever Albert Hosteen shows up to babble about what the Navajo believe and explain the episode title to us, and the answer to "How did Mulder get out of the burning boxcar?" turns out to be "Shut up!"
As Lost was winding toward its conclusion and it became more and more apparent that not all of the series' big questions were going to be answered, it touched off a bit of fan discussion about just how much needs to be tied up to make a satisfying ending. I realize that my position on these things is a bit unlike most other people who watch this sort of stuff for fun or a living, but, officially, I don't care. If the story just keeps getting bigger and bigger and more nebulous, fine. Pile mysteries on top of mysteries until the groaning weight of the artifice topples in on itself. So long as the character stuff and the plotting are generally tight on an episode-by-episode level, I kind of LIKE it when things get so big that they seem to encompass all of human existence (as the central mysteries on Lost and The X-Files both eventually did).
But smaller questions, questions of how or why certain moments happened to our characters? Those you need to answer. Did we need to see Mulder climb through the flames only to get buried by a rockslide? I'm not sure, but I think it would have been a helluva scene, and I think it would have handily re-dramatized the lengths he's willing to go to for his quest. (My wife insists that he specifically carved a hiding spot out of those rocks. I've always thought he found the hiding spot, then was buried by the rocks. I suppose her version makes more sense, but I'm sticking with what I've thought since I was 15, dammit.) I don't think it's an egregious cheat that we don't really figure out how Mulder gets out, outside of the suggestion that he did so painfully, but it's a cheat nonetheless, and when warped together with the series' penchant for New Age weirdness, it makes for an episode that's half deflating after the genuinely awesome and fun "Anasazi." (One image in this storyline that does work for me: All of the alien creatures being gassed to death in Mulder's vision. It's a rather potent sci-fi reimagining of some of the 20th century's worst atrocities.)
But, as mentioned, the Scully half of this episode kicks ass and saves it from being a total waste. She gets fired from her job! She pulls a gun on Skinner! She plays games with very dangerous men to avenge her partner's near-death! Her sister dies! (OK, that part's not so awesome, but it sets up a vital part of the Scully arc: She is going to sacrifice damn near everything for a quest that's not even her own.) This is the episode where Mulder's mission really becomes Scully's mission, where she begins to realize that the end of the X-Files road is both her road and Mulder's road. It's why the show was able to semi-function once Duchovny mentally (and eventually physically) checked out of the series. Scully may not believe everything she hears, but she's finally reached a point where she needs to know just what in the world would be worth so much destruction.
"The Blessing Way" has all of the middle-portion problems inherent in the second part of a trilogy. It's an episode caught in limbo, seemingly designed to keep us in suspense about a bunch of things we know won't happen. Mulder's not going to become Scully's spectral advisor. Nor is the Consortium going to catch up to Scully and eliminate her. And the attempts to clumsily graft in a bunch of spiritualist hokum fall incredibly flat. It's interesting that the mythology arc is so much more successful when it focuses less on the weirdness out there beyond the stars and more on the very prosaic evils men can do to each other by their own hands. But we'll get to that in "Paper Clip."
- When I was a teenager, this was one of my favorite episodes of the series. I liked all of the pretentious monologues in the in-between. But I liked pretension back then. I'd like to think I've matured, but probably not.
- No, really. Is there a worse recurring character than Albert Hosteen?
- I believe this is also the first appearance of the Well Manicured Man. The X-Files was the first show to really take advantage of the natural, built-in audience science fiction shows had on the Internet, and they used that conduit to leak things like episode titles and new character names out there. By the time I finally saw this episode in a late season three rerun, EVERYone knew he was called The Well Manicured Man. Duh.
- Scully's implant also turns up for the first time. I seem to recall the resolution to this sucking, but then, many mythology resolutions did. Sometimes, questions don't need an answer. Sometimes, questions simply existing is far more terrifying.
- This episode was watched by 19.94 million people. Season three was when The X-Files really crossed over, and even with that big of an audience, "The Blessing Way" was not among TV's top 20 programs. Geez.
"Paper Clip" (season 3, episode 2)
A conspiracy theory is a way of reordering the universe. It's a kind of religion, really. Things will never go the right way because the people in control make sure of it. They're the ones keeping the oil spill flowing. They're the ones who made sure Obama's change was incremental, not transformative (if, indeed, it was present at all). They're the ones who keep the populace cowed and ignorant. They brought down the Towers. They killed JFK. They're keeping back the truth about the aliens. They know about zero point energy or alternative biofuels or cars that get 600 miles to the gallon, but they're keeping them from you to keep the old order in place. They, they, they.
A conspiracy theory is a comforting thing, really. If you can blame someone else for everything that happens, then there's no need to take responsibility for one, and there's a sense that bad things don't just happen because the universe is terrifying and random for two. Admitting that the oil continues to flow because we just don't know how to stop it and may never be able to is a terrifying, terrifying thing. It's easier to think the men in the shadows are doing it for their own nefarious purposes, which will become obvious if we give things enough time. We're all pawns in the game, man.
The truth is that actual conspiracies are prosaic and often carried out in the open. Operation Paper Clip was secret for a while, but people eventually figured out about it. The people involved all had to say, "Well, we did it for the good of our country. Would we have won the Cold War without those scientists?" and for the most part, Americans shrugged and took the government at its word. Should there have been more outrage? Who knows, but "Paper Clip" is one of the defining episodes of The X-Files because it simultaneously expands the conspiracy into the kind of giant you can never hope to fight and brings it down to a more prosaic level. The Cigarette Smoking Man is a multi-tentacled monster with his hands in everything that's out there, but he can also be defeated by a resourceful FBI director and a bunch of guys with top-notch memorization skills.
"Paper Clip" contains some of my favorite scenes of the series. The whole sequence at the mining company front in West Virginia is simply terrific. Skinner's final showdown with the CSM is instantly iconic. Mulder's angry questioning of his mother about whether she had to make a choice is one of Duchovny's finer acting moments of the early seasons. Even the resolution to the Skinner and Scully standoff of the last episode, while completely expected, is handled with panache. German scientist Victor Klemper is one of the series' finer one-episode creations (at least for a mythology character). There are few episodes that move as swiftly or confidently as this one in the series' run to this point, and there will be few after. "Paper Clip" is so good because it makes The X-Files seem like a show that's capable of damn near anything.
The smartest thing this trilogy of episodes does is tie the larger alien conspiracy in to things that actually happened. The compromises the United States and other Western nations made to survive the onslaught of communism in the Cold War were ones that should have made more of those nations' citizens take pause, stop to think about the cost of living free, but they almost never did. Whatever kept us on the side of the coin where we could blithely say "Better dead than Red" was a-ok by us. Naturally, the Soviets had their own versions of these compromises, as two superpowers engaged in an intellectual arms race designed to make sure that both sides would keep their eyes fully open in a giant contest not to blink. I'm not trying to suggest that Western capitalist democracy is somehow a terrible system (it's not), but when you need to stay one step ahead of an enemy dedicated to wiping your way of life out of the way, well, you do some pretty bad things. And bad things happened. Operation Paper Clip is just the tip of the iceberg.
It's the fact that we still can't see the whole iceberg that keeps conspiracy theories alive. What makes "Paper Clip" work as an expansion of The X-Files' mythology is the fact that it never suggests anything below that tip that gives the conspiracy's members anything like superhuman powers. Alien/human hybrids? Plausible in a science fiction universe like this one and something that could be handled by doctors who'd tested the capabilities of the human body in the Holocaust. A giant warehouse containing tissue samples and medical information from everyone to receive a smallpox vaccination? Eminently plausible, if you're willing to assume the government would want such a thing. A UFO hiding out in a mountain base? If the government's going to have such a thing, where else would they keep it? The CIA being called in to clean up a problem involving U.S. citizens? Pretty sure we've been doing this for a while now. I don't have to believe that George W. Bush brought down the Twin Towers to know that I'm pissed off about the extraordinary rendition of men accused of no official crimes begun under his administration and continued under the next one. But I can see where the proven existence of these events lead to many believing the world is simply full of insidious evil, guarded by powerful men, seeping its way into the cracks of everyday life.
One of my very favorite things to do is drive across the American night and listen to Coast to Coast AM, particularly the episodes where host George Noory has some crazy dude who claims to know the TRUTH about Area 51 or something on. And the thing is, if you assume these guys aren't on the level, you have to assume they're insane (completely plausible) or that they're just fucking with a gullible audience (even more plausible). One of my favorite things about "Paper Clip" is the way that it suggests that all of the men Mulder has been gobbling up information from are, indeed, just fucking with him, dressing up sharply and going to leak him information that will keep him in spitting distance of the truth but never quite in reach of it. Scully's able to see through the bullshit the Well Manicured Man is filling Mulder with, the fact that much of it could very well be a lie just designed to keep her partner away from the more prosaic truths that would really infuriate him. Again, George W. Bush doesn't have to bring down the Towers for evil things to happen. But it's easier to chase an ultimate evil sometimes than recognize the atrocity in your midst. One of my favorite images of the series is Scully staring down that long mining tunnel at the tiny figure of a hybrid that seems to grow before her eyes as the ship's light stretches its silhouette. The conspiracy becomes something normal, comprehensible, but still frightening.
The story of the United States after the Cold War is the slow, dawning realization that we aren't always what we said we were and what we thought we were. The things we profess to believe in are good things and worthy goals, but the failures of our particular system and the men and women who have run it have led to a long series of compromises between our better angels and our pragmatism. And when you make compromises, it's inevitable that horrible things will happen around the edges. Really, we should have seen this coming, when we spent most of our first century keeping a careful balance between states that believed all men were free and states that believed some men were property, but like all humans, we have a bad eye for the big picture and a good eye for what's in our immediate vicinity. Mulder discovers his father in a picture, standing next to a monster of a man, smiling. We are not who we think we are. The iceberg looms in the dark, and what we can't see is scarier than what we can.
- I'm not sure why the Consortium is always so half-lit (outside of it being the series' aesthetic). Maybe they really need to conserve on energy bills.
- Great line: "Lots and lots of files." It's not a great line on the page, but the barely restrained terror in Gillian Anderson's voice makes it work.
- Skinner was such a badass. That's something I forgot, and this episode is one of his finest hours. The reveal of what happened to the tape is one of the best things about this episode.
- On the other hand, Krycek's role in the conspiracy has always been a little muddled to me. He's a character who started out with a clear purpose but eventually became far too all over the place, likely because the producers liked Nicholas Lea and the character but ran out of things for him to do.
- If this episode has a flaw, it's that there's another accursed monologue by Hosteen to open the episode. But speaking of, man, remember how the White Buffalo was kind of a big deal in the mid-90s? I had mostly forgotten.
"D.P.O." (season 3, episode 3)
And we're back to basics.
At the time, "D.P.O." was greeted with a certain amount of scorn from the fan community. After three episodes where the show's continuing storyline seemed to take off into the stratosphere, how the hell could the show simply return to monster of the week episodes. How could Mulder and Scully return to them? Weren't there bigger fish to fry? Making such an abrupt shift back to just generic stories wouldn't be possible in today's TV landscape - once Fringe had a story arc similar to what The X-Files did in its three-parter, it pretty much wandered away from straight-up monster of the week stories. But here we are in the middle of nowhere with a disaffected teen that can control the lightning or something.
Seen now, 15 years later and removed from the fan furor of the time, "D.P.O." is a pretty good episode, and it suggests why The X-Files went from very good to great and from cult phenomenon to legitimate mainstream hit in its third season: The show's direction, always good, made the leap from consistently interesting to look at to consistently cinematic. I don't think this is the result of any one person stepping up or joining the directing team or anything. Rather, it's probably the result of Fox giving the show a larger budget, allowing it to take its time with more intricate and intriguing shot set-ups. Indeed, even in future seasons when The X-Files' scripts would start to become more variable, the direction was almost always top notch. The series took chances on big, cinematic sequences and moments, and they would usually pay off.
You can really see the difference in the opening of "D.P.O." which sets up Darin, our monster of the week, a teenager who's killing people using the power of lightning (since he can control electricity for barely explained reasons). He grows angrier and angrier with another teen, who's playing too long on his favorite Virtua Fighter arcade console, and when said teen heads outside to his car, he's attacked by, well, by lightning, even as we don't see it jet out of the sky and hit him. The whole sequence is told visually, with a rock song rising on the soundtrack, and it's appropriately paced, cleanly edited, and briskly shot. Few of the monster of the week teasers in seasons one and two were as well constructed as this one was, and within a few weeks, doing something this cinematic to open the episode with would become almost de riguer for the series.
But that's not what most people talk about when talking about this episode of the show. No, the thing that most talk about is the fact that it stars Giovanni Ribisi as Darin and Jack Black as his closest compatriot Zero. I like both performances. Black is largely the same guy he plays in most of his roles, but it's like he's trying out a younger, less fully developed version of that character here, and his death scene is believably tragic (and, again, very cinematic). I do worry that Ribisi leans a little too heavily on a vacant-eyed stare toward the camera to convey the horror of what Darin is doing, but the scenes with Zero (particularly the cow barbecue scene) and his mom are all good, and I like the casual way he's learned to use his powers for destruction, just like a teenager probably would.
Another key element in the development of The X-Files in its third season was the fact that the show more often used Mulder and Scully as agents driving the action. The monster would be off in his own world, doing his own thing, but our duo would be one step behind him fairly consistently, instead of being shuttled from place to place like they were in some sort of horrific travelogue. Here, they come up with a good theory on what it is that makes Darin tick, find him via his initials in the video game, and have a series of standoffs with him. They even manage to lock the kid up for a while by episode's end. It's not the greatest policework in the world, but in season two, the two would often seem like they were guest stars in their own series. There's no mistake here that this is also Darin's story, but Mulder and Scully have a kind of agency in it that definitely helps keep the action rolling along.
I don't want to claim that "D.P.O." is some sort of unheralded classic or anything. In many ways, it's just a well-done, garden variety episode of a show that could do so much more than that, which can't help but make it feel just a bit disappointing after an episode where the series did just that. But there are so many interesting little touches in the episode and so many sequences that confidently walk the tricky line between horror and broad comedy (again, that cow barbecue scene springs to mind) that it suggests the series was closing in on a firmer sense of the kind of show it would be in the seasons to come in this episode. The X-Files had every reason to rest on its laurels at this point in its run, but it's still pushing into new territory and seeing what new ghouls and goblins it can turn up. They can't all be "Paper Clip," but when they were mostly "D.P.O.," the show was very good indeed.
- Wonderful images: Zero, passed out on the pavement of the parking lot, quarters flooding away from him like blood. Then, cut to Darin standing atop the arcade, looking down upon the other boy, blank expression on his face.
- Looks like the most popular way to describe this episode at the time of its airing was "Beavis and Butthead meets The X-Files," given how many reviews I was able to find that name check the then-popular duo.
- I'm not sure the hot school teacher was necessarily needed to tell the story, but, man, she was pretty hot, huh?
- Weird to think that out of the central four characters in this episode, Jack Black is the guy with the healthiest career right now.
- Signs of the times: Hearing those Sonic the Hedgehog noises definitely, definitely takes me back in time to the '90s. Really, all of the games at the arcade do. Also, I haven't thought about Filter's "Hey Man, Nice Shot" since, well, 1995.
- OMG. The dates on the Virtua Fighter games are largely from 9/11/1995. The X-Files predicted the future, man! They were in the business of INVENTING it.
- Another wonderful image: Lightning coming from the sky to strike Darin, him almost reveling in it. It's like the ultimate teenage wish fulfillment fantasy to have these kinds of powers, and the show finds a beautiful way to express that theme entirely visually.
And now, some brief thoughts on Space: Above and Beyond:
A few weeks ago, when Zack and I were talking about rebooting this feature, I humbly proposed that we follow Space: Above and Beyond at the same time as The X-Files, season three, and Millennium at the same time as The X-Files, seasons four, five, and six (and then probably Harsh Realm and The Lone Gunmen somewhere down the line). He seemed game for it, and I'd always wanted to watch Space: Above and Beyond, created by two of The X-Files' chief creative minds in its early seasons, Glen Morgan and James Wong. Plus, Mark Altman's Sci-Fi Universe, a fantastic magazine that deserved better than its fate of being purchased by the Sci-Fi Channel and turned into their house press organ, loved the shit out of the show, and that magazine was an early and important benchmark in my journey toward becoming a critic. I've also liked the few episodes I've seen in the past. But we can't let this feature take over the main one, so here are three paragraphs on the first three episodes.
The "Pilot" is actually quite good and a handy way of laying out who all of the characters are and just what's going to be the central conflict of the show (which is, apparently, going to be sort of a World-War-II-in-space type thing with heavy shades of the original Battlestar Galactica). On the other hand, I couldn't help but think of just how different this pilot would be if it were produced today. It's incredibly slow-moving, and it takes its pains to make sure we understand exactly which war movie stereotype lines up with which character. The cast is variable in talent, with leading man Morgan Weisser seeming to vacillate in capabilities from scene to scene. If this were being produced today, we would almost certainly have it be pared down to a lean hour where we watched the Marines take on the enemy threat on an important mission and got little, intriguing hints of their backstory. Instead, we see Charles Widmore bombarded by the enemy (an alien race called the Chigs), then get an hour of the road to alien war. It's not a bad structure, exactly, but it reminds me of how much time network television had to tell stories back in the '90s. The pilot isn't terrible, but it does feel a little logy. Grade: B
"The Farthest Man from Home" strikes me as an episode that might have worked much better as the pilot. You have all of the characters together in the main situation, but you also get a great chance to lay out some backstory that might have played more interestingly as backstory rather than actually being seen in the pilot. (In general, the relationship between West and Kylen is a little boring, and Kylen is better off as a ghost that West is chasing.) Morgan and Wong bring their X-Files lessons about opening an episode with a haunting prologue to bear, with the scene where the survivor screams about how he's the "farthest man from home," and once West takes off in his own bird to try and figure out just what happened to his girlfriend, the episode is pretty much on the rails. It's not great TV, but it's enjoyable sci-fi TV, and it suggests that the show will have some interesting places going forward. Grade: B+
On the other hand, "The Dark Side of the Sun" is kind of a mess. I wonder if the Silicates - who are basically the Cylons of this universe - weren't one sci-fi concept too many, as dropping them into the mix feels abrupt and forced, even if the series has made mention of them here and there up until this point. It's a pity, too, because so far, Kristen Cloke's Shane is the most interesting character (and I totally get why fanboys were obsessed with her back in 1995; she's damn gorgeous here). Tying her backstory into the backstory of the Silicates makes them seem like they should be more than the stereotypical rogue AI characters, and the portrayal of them feels like an unfortunate leftover from VR.5 or another terrible Fox series of the era. When they show up in Shane's dream of her childhood, it feels like a total mess, particularly as the Silicate makeup just looks stupid on the lower-grade video images, and the portrayal of their mining colony/Purgatory is the kind of bad sci-fi trope I wish the show would skew far, far away from. Grade: C-
Next week: Zack takes on one of the best X-Files ever with "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose." Also, "The List" and, uh, "2Shy." And whatever Space episodes he watches, assuming he's still on board with my crazy plan.