"The Walk" (season 3, episode 7)
I legitimately have no idea if I've ever seen this one. I've seen all of the episodes around it (though I saw "Oubliette" and "The List" in reruns), but this one was almost completely unfamiliar to me throughout, to the point where I honestly thought Willie Garson was behind the attacks for a little while. I don't think it's a great episode of The X-Files by any means, but it's another one that illustrates how the third season made the step up to higher quality that the previous seasons hadn't. I didn't disagree with any of Zack's assessments about last week's episodes. "Clyde Bruckman" is such an amazing piece of work that anything airing after it is going to seem wanting. On the other hand, I think I might have bumped both "The List" and "2Shy" up a notch - especially "2Shy." They're fine examples of the show honing its formula to a sharp point.
So is "The Walk." The other two episodes this week are more experimental in nature, playing around with the show's formula. But "The Walk," the first script credited to John Shiban, who would stay with the series through its end and now works with Vince Gilligan on Breaking Bad, is pretty straightforward. A ghost seems to be killing people at a military hospital. Mulder and Scully get called in to try to stop said ghost. And the real answer is, of course, what no one would have expected. Along the way, there are some strikingly shot sequences, a few legitimate scares, and some pretty poor acting. We'll deal with all of those in turn, but I think this is a good point to talk about the way the X-Files writers' room was shifting and changing.
The third season of a show is often when the writers' room that will come to make up the bulk of the series comes into shape. In the first two seasons, there are usually a few iconoclastic voices within the room that are gradually shifted out of the way or moved on to other projects. The staffs will also tend to be smaller. The bulk of the writing in the first season of X-Files, for instance, was done by Chris Carter, the team of Glen Morgan and James Wong, and the team of Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon. To fill in between the episodes these writers turned out, the show hired freelancers, who are responsible for quite a few forgettable episodes. The same dynamic prevailed in season two, though Morgan and Wong left midway through, and Darin Morgan, Vince Gilligan, and Frank Spotnitz all made their first contributions to the series.
Season three, then, is when the core of the writing staff that would define the show going forward is formed. The thing about the first two seasons is that they're wildly inconsistent, but they're also willing to try many, many different kinds of things to get the audience involved. They're the seasons of a show first testing out what, exactly, it is, and then testing out which approach to its core sensibilities will be most likely to make it a hit. The writing staff The X-Files assembles in season three is one of the best staffs of its era, but it's also a staff designed to cut down on the experimentation, to more or less boil the show down to its essence. It's the shift the show makes from being an upstart cult phenomenon to a big hit show.
Consider the roles of the writers who will be such a big part of the show going forward. Carter, of course, is there for the big picture stuff and the mystical gobbledigook. Spotnitz will become Carter's right-hand man on the mythology stuff, though he'll also branch out into what might be termed "mainstream paranoia," taking the paranoid ethos of the mythology episodes and spreading it into more mundane tales. Gordon will eventually leave the show, but in the next few seasons he'll be the one most dedicated toward the vaguely pretentious, horrifically scary monster of the week episodes common to the first two seasons. Gilligan is capable of writing a tense monster tale or a goofy comedic episode, and he's most dedicated toward creating really interesting and compelling monsters of the week and examining the Mulder and Scully relationship. And Shiban is a utility infielder, filling in on any and all types of episodes, never doing transcendent work, but always doing solid work.
What makes seasons three and four of The X-Files so compelling is that they pin down the formula and build a writing staff uniquely devoted to serving up that formula in just enough different ways week to week to keep viewers coming back, but that they also find room for the more iconoclastic voices that kept viewers guessing. In season three, of course, it's Darin Morgan, but in season four, it's the return of Glen Morgan and James Wong, who leave Space: Above and Beyond and come back to do four episodes that are virtually unlike anything else in The X-Files canon. (In future seasons, Vince Gilligan and Chris Carter would be the ones most willing to stretch the formula, though season six seemingly had everyone trying their hand at it, with often bizarre results.) It's a hit show. It's also a show that keeps winking toward its origins, seeming less formulaic than it actually is, particularly when you don't consume episodes one after the other on DVD. The X-Files, more than the great dramas that followed it, is always, always very consciously a collection of voices coming together to form a greater whole.
But enough about that. How was "The Walk"?
Honestly, there are some big problems here. Frankly, the amputee who's revealed to be the big bad as the episode goes along is a pretty lousy actor. He screams things that might be scarier if they had understatement to them, and he doesn't project the requisite menace he'd need to while lying in his hospital bed. When he's just a shadow, astrally projected outward and, say, dragging a woman to the bottom of the pool, he's a terrific villain. But when you get down to the man behind the monster, the actor just isn't able to convey the emotions needed to make this all work.
On the other hand, there is a lot of stuff here that is fun in that X-Files Mad Libs way that occasionally takes over the show. The setting of a military hospital is well-realized, and the other characters around the edges - including, yes, Garson as a menial employee of the institution - are all quickly and neatly sketched in. And the direction by Rob Bowman is terrific throughout, whether it's that meeting of the men who were injured in the line of duty - backlit so much that it would never naturally appear like that - all appearing as weird, shadowy ghosts, or the swimming pool sequence, which is one of the best scare sequences in this season up until this point. (The image of the shadow of the man who isn't there darting through the water after the swimmer is sublime.) The sandbox sequence, as well, gives a real sense of Bowman's talents and eye for a shot.
In addition, Mulder and Scully continue to drive more of the plot than have the plot driving them around, and the storytelling is both simplified and more complex. There's a really frank consideration in this episode of the way that government fails its veterans and often abandons young men to suffer death or worse without considering how they might be pulled back from the brink after the fighting's over. This is the sort of thing the show gets into at its best, and while it's not as pointed in this episode as it is in others, I still enjoyed "The Walk." With a better villain, this might have been an all-time classic.
- To my eternal embarrassment, the first time we hear the astral projection's voice, I was convinced it was the voice of Garson, simply because he was the one actor in the supporting cast I recognized. Naturally, he died in a cell.
- Some pretty great makeup work - that still holds up! - on that guy who tries to boil himself to death and is then pulled out of the tank after the spectral being saves him.
- Maybe I am overrating this episode, owing to the fact that I simply cannot remember the villain's name.
- Another great shot: The projection rising out of the water behind the swimmer, shape of a man, but not really a man.
- I had forgotten just how one-sided the skeptic/believer dynamic was in this series. The natural bias of a show like this is to tilt toward the believer and say that the horrific monsters are all really real, but, man, Scully just keeps getting smugly upbraided by Mulder in these episodes, and it can be painful to watch. I kind of can't stand his voiceover that ends the episode.
"Oubliette" (season 3, episode 8)
Well, hi, Jewel Staite! What's up? Getting kidnapped by a creepy department store photographer? Oh, I hear that. Locked up in an underground dungeon? Gotta suck, I agree. But it's just nice to see you here, and it's nice to know that you're not going to die, since you're the damsel in distress and this is The X-Files. Shame you have to be psychically linked to a pretty poor actress, though. But unlike "The List," this episode maintains a hell of a punch even with the casting issues. A lot of that is thanks to Staite, who imbues the generic "This girl has been kidnapped!" type with more soul than I think the character has on paper. This is a fittingly moody episode, all shadows and camera flashes, and it's a better one than I remembered it being.
The basic story is this: Our photographer villain kidnaps Staite's Amy Jacobs from her bed at night after being enthralled by seeing her pose before him. Meanwhile, one of his former victims, a woman named Lucy, starts to feel whatever is happening to Amy as it happens. Mulder and Scully somehow find out all about this and use Lucy to track down Amy before anything bad can happen to her. Then Mulder shoots the photographer. The end. What none of the above conveys, however, is just how impressively dark and occasionally moving an episode this is. It's about people who have had their lives cruelly interrupted and are trying to escape the state of stasis they're in, but the crimes always come back to haunt them. Mulder's sister, of course, fits the same description, and that may be why this is such a Mulder-heavy episode, though the show only really coyly suggests her presence within the storyline.
"Oubliette" isn't the greatest episode ever, but it belongs to a subcategory of X-Files episodes that can often be more satisfying than the usual categories: This is an episode where the monster of the week is a human being, and the paranormal element is used to catch him, not to facilitate his vile tastes. The monster, as it is, is a garden-variety kidnapper, but the show feels almost no compunction about giving him the kinds of sympathy it gives its greatest paranormal monsters. This is just a guy who deserves that bullet in his back at episode's end. He's a dark, perverted creep, and - the show suggests - this link between his victims is a kind of karmic comeuppance for the bad he's done over the years. It's hard to watch that scene where he shoots photo after photo of Amy in the dark, and it may be one of the most genuinely unsettling things the series had done up until this point. Other episodes provide safe spooks. This one, like, say, "Irresistible," aims more to get under your skin and fill you with a nameless dread.
I'm struck on this rewatch by what a DARK show The X-Files was. I don't even mean thematically. I mean that there are shots in this series that literally consist of just a dark room with only one or two pinpricks of light for the characters to try to use to orient themselves. All of the scenes inside the dungeon (or oubliette) where Amy is held may as well just consist of complete blackness with a soundtrack. There's pretty much no other show that followed in The X-Files' wake that was this comfortable with shutting out all of the lights and letting your brain fill in a lot of the gaps. I've rewatched some episodes of the many, many X-Files clones that popped up around the same time, and I'm amazed by just how few of them captured the cinematic qualities that made this show work at its best. Something like Dark Skies - a show I remember dearly loving as a 16-year-old - is like a rubbing made of an X-Files episode, capturing many of the same pictures but none of the nuance.
"Oubliette" is a pretty good example of how even a standard-issue X-Files episode from the time could set itself apart. There's nothing particularly new or different about the story of finding a kidnapping victim, outside of that psychic link, but the cinematography and editing (particularly of the sequences where the kidnapper torments Amy) are a cut above, and the storytelling is really smart. Whereas last season, Mulder and Scully might have followed Lucy around while she solved the case for them, in the third season, they slowly put together the clues she's "giving" them and assemble them into a large enough picture to figure out how to save Amy. It's a tiny distinction, but making the leads proactive was another step the show took from cult hit to genuine hit.
That said, the episode's biggest problems also stem from Lucy. The actress playing her - Tracey Ellis - isn't up the level the script requires of her. This is a woman who's supposed to be reliving the worst days of her life, and it often seems like she's doing so under the haze of a good dose of Valium. She needs to be more of a livewire, and, instead, she seems as dreary and mope-y as the rest of the episode. As mentioned, Staite does fine work with what's a pretty thankless role (she just stands in a hole in the ground and screams for most of the episode), and Michael Cieffo is very, very good as the show's latest all-too-human monster. But Ellis leaves so much to be desired that she almost takes the episode down with her.
It similarly doesn't help that, well, this is yet another episode to go to the "violence against women is the best way to provoke audience sympathy" well. For the most part, I don't mind that The X-Files does this nearly as much as I do when, say, Criminal Minds does it, largely because Scully is such a vibrant and interesting character, usually able to take care of herself and also because the horrific threats at the show's center don't tend to pick on just "women" but on particularly defenseless members of society for the most part (here, a teenage girl). Normally, this sort of thing is cheap and borderline indefensible, but The X-Files somehow pulls it off. "Oubliette" toes the line, but I think Staite's characterization of Amy and the writing of Lucy (if not the performance) keep it from being completely objectionable.
But, by and large, "Oubliette" is a very good episode of The X-Files, one that probably just slid into the background back in 1995 but now seems to stand out just a bit. It blends a lot of things the show does very well, and by building a more emotional core at the episode's center - with Mulder's quest to find the girl, using any straws he can grasp at - it also finds a way to leaven some of that pitch black with a bit of heart. The X-Files is not a show one could readily accuse of being sentimental, but it does have something of a romantic soul to it, and episodes like "Oubliette" prove it can call on that when it really wants to.
- Still a bit puzzled that Scully gives up on her CPR as quickly as she does, but oh well.
- Man, people who work in old-school photography are just somehow instantly creepy. I think it's because they see us at our most vulnerable. There's something about a seedy photo developer or photographer in a mall or store that immediately feels a little ... off. (Speaking of which, the whole photography aspect of this episode is pretty much your "Hey, it's 1995!" alert for the episode.)
- I remembered an inordinate amount of this episode taking place outdoors. Strangely, it seems I'm mostly remembering the climax, which must have really hung with me for some reason.
- This is just not a good set of episodes for Scully (well, she gets quite a bit to do in "Nisei"). It often felt like different writers were better writing for different leads. The Morgans and Gilligan tended to gravitate toward Scully (though Gilligan wrote some killer Mulder episodes). Carter, Spotnitz, and Shiban were always more attracted to Mulder.
"Nisei" (season 3, episode 9)
I've been rewatching a good deal of these episodes with my wife. What I'm surprised by is the way that the standalones, for the most part, don't seem to grab her, but the mythology episodes still hold a certain power for her, even as the both of us know that these episodes aren't going to resolve in a satisfying way. Season three is, for my money, the last season when the mythology is wholly satisfying. There are good mytharc episodes in seasons four and five, and I like portions of the big season six mythology capper. There are even some good mytharc episodes in seasons seven and eight. But, for the most part, this is the last season when it still feels like things will eventually make sense, even as you can feel that the story is just getting too big to ever resolve wholly satisfactorily.
I've been pondering just how much the enjoyment of watching The X-Files back in the day was hinged on the enjoyment of watching the mythology storyline play out. You can essentially chart the show's rise and fall based on how successful the mythology episodes (which were generally higher rated than the standalones) did. As mentioned, the mythology episodes remain entertaining, but the prevailing consensus is that the standalone episodes are the ones that have stood the test of time. Generally, I agree with this, but there's something to the mythology episodes, something that made them a vital part of the X-Files experience. We were really invested in this stuff back in the day. We had theories and ideas. We speculated about how all of the pieces fit together. We wanted to know just how much power the Cigarette Smoking Man had.
And it's not hard to see why. In these episodes, The X-Files has the drive of a big-budget action film. The series would skimp on other episodes so it could make these bigger than pretty much anything on television. These were also the episodes that featured our protagonists at their most motivated. The three central questions of The X-Files - what happened to Mulder's sister, what were the aliens up to, and what happened to Scully? - were all so personal and pressing to our characters that they always pushed harder for answers than they might otherwise. Hell, even Scully gets into the action in this episode, what with her discovery of the little band of abductees.
But what I had also forgotten was that the show was always presenting some interestingly contradictory information. It was always pushing the viewer to accept that much of what Mulder believed might be bullshit, specifically fed to him to keep him away from the actual truth, which was more prosaic but more damaging. Season three is the last season where you can really sit back and say that maybe the aliens aren't actually aliens but, rather, frightening government creations, birthed out of mad science and the U.S. government's collusion with Nazi and Japanese scientists after World War II. Scully reaches some conclusions in "731" (which I couldn't NOT watch after watching this one) that are, if anything, even more horrifying than the conclusions Mulder always reaches. The mythology episodes of season three are, more often than not, the show crying out, "Look at what's been done in our names, under our watch," and that gives them a moral center that makes them immensely powerful.
But, OK, "Nisei" is also a hell of a lot of fun. There's great wit in the scripts (pretty much any line Mulder has about the alien autopsy video he bought out of an ad in the back of a magazine is golden). There are some solid action scenes. And the whole episode builds so relentlessly that by the time Mulder jumps on top of a roaring freight train, the plot has basically become the exact same thing. I had forgotten how "Nisei" starts from a very small incident - Mulder buys that tape and wants to find out who's distributing it - and turns into a nation-spanning storyline very, very swiftly. And the thing is, everything here feels like it fits with everything else, thanks to the way Mulder keeps pushing and pushing until things finally start to break.
I'm often surprised at how many of these mythology episodes split up Scully and Mulder, but one of the things that makes "Nisei" work where earlier mythology episodes didn't is that Mulder's quest is now also Scully's. She's just chasing it in a different fashion and reaching different conclusions. Mulder's storyline is more action packed, but Scully's story - involving her meeting a bunch of abductees who tell her she's one of them, followed by her having some brief flashbacks to her time aboard whatever ship she was on board - is similarly engaging. The storyline always works best when there's an emotional core to it, and Scully's scenes can be surprisingly moving.
Now, obviously, some of the things I'm saying are not exactly true. The show will give Scully a really good and horrifying argument and let her pursue the "truth" in her own way, but it's decidedly on Mulder's side. We see aliens, after all, and that piece of a UFO. No matter what Scully says, we know that Mulder's the one who's in the right. (He's, again, kind of an asshole to her when he says that some people want to see proof but also want to believe.) Then again, The X-Files is a show heavily influenced by the story of doubting Thomas, it would seem. Whether you require proof or not, everyone's going to end up in the same place: believing.
When it comes down to it, the "story" of The X-Files is buried in these episodes. You can make the argument that the true story here is how a series of unusual cases bond an unlikely couple into friendship and, eventually, love (spoiler alert!). You could make the argument that the true story here is the gradual exhumation of a weird, American underbelly (and I would make that argument). But if the thing that kept The X-Files from being like, again, Dark Skies was the fact that it understood it needed to have compelling standalone stories about something other than aliens, then the thing that kept it from being just another goofy cop show were the mythology episodes. It's here that the show most thoroughly blows open its portrayal of post-Cold War America as a place full of secrets waiting to be uncovered and here that the two leads follow what threads they can because they know no other way to be.
- The cliffhanger here is just phenomenal. X tells Scully Mulder can't get on that train. Scully repeats this to Mulder. But he just doesn't care. And he leaps, the cell phone skittering off the edge of the train. Fantastic. See you next week!
- I think someone needs to make a video of every time that Mulder says to Scully, "After all that you've seen!" He's such a jerk about it too!
- X was always a rather underused character. I get that they couldn't just have him popping up all the time, but Steven Williams brings such a gravitas to the guy that I wish they had figured out a way to have him around more often than they did.
- Hey, that's Raylan Givens' dad as Senator Matheson! (Raymond J. Barry bopped around the TV guest starring game for decades before landing his role on Justified. A lesson in persistence, I suppose.)
- Apparently, this was to be a one-parter at one point. I have no idea how anyone involved thought they could possibly make that work.
- I like the way Mulder can just jump to insane conclusions - "There's a secret government railroad!" - and usually be proved right.
- I wonder if this will come up again: Other members of the abductee group claim to be dying from a sickness they contracted while abducted.
And now some thoughts on Space: Above and Beyond:
I still don't think this is the unheralded classic a lot of people think it is, but it's definitely settling into a nice little groove early and often. I watched four episodes, largely because I couldn't stop, and it was an enjoyable way to waste a little time while working on these pieces. My favorite of the four was "Eyes," which takes a '70s conspiracy thriller and somehow transports it to a spaceship. This one feels like it was intended as a bottle episode, and it makes excellent use of the entire cast, but especially James Morrison's McQueen, who gets a nice chance to show off some mettle and steel as he tries to prove his worth to the world without going through the test designed to prove that he's loyal. There's a very good guest turn from Harriet Sansom Harris, plenty of political intrigue, and the sense that there's more going on here than meets the eye. The conspiracy here - which seems to have been designed to draw Earth into the Chig War - is a little unspecific, but I think that's the point. Anyway, good episode, with good work from the entire cast. Grade: B+
I was less enamored of "The Enemy," which is pretty much just an attempt to do Glen Morgan and James Wong's season one X-Files episode "Ice" in outer space. There's some good stuff here. In particular, I love the way that much of the episode takes place in the airlock of the ship as they try to hold off the enemy fire coming from other humans. But the idea of a chemical that turns on the fear center of the brain and makes them attack each other? Yeah, that's been done many, many times before, and this episode doesn't really offer a new twist on the template. There are some good scenes and a few good action sequences, but this episode just can't escape the feeling of having been there and done that. Grade: C
The two-parter "Hostile Visit"/"Choice or Chance" seems like Space's attempt to do something like an X-Files mythology episode, as a Chig ship turns up, and the Earth forces think they can trace it back to its point of origin to begin their counterstrikes against the Chig. Unfortunately, the first ship sent in there is almost certainly going to be sent on a suicide mission, and much of "Hostile Visit" is taken up with some interesting talk about what life means to our various characters, but it's still just talk. The thing that makes X-Files mythology episodes crackle is that the talk is interspersed with some strong action and narrative drive. Here, we get the idea of what's going to happen, then sit still for way too long. Fortunately, "Choice or Chance" makes up for this in spades with an action-packed hour that brings back my least favorite villains (the Silicates) but does so in a fashion that is mostly enjoyable. There's some stunning stuff in here, not least of which is Hawkes and McQueen working together and West finally finding Kylen. Just an all-around entertaining hour of TV. "Hostile" grade: B-/"Choice" grade: B+
Next week: Zack closes out the two-parter with "731," gets vaguely Christmas-y with "Revelations," and revisits the wonderful world of Darin Morgan with "War of the Coprophages." Also, did you know Space: Above and Beyond had a Christmas episode? Well, it did.