The X-Files: “Audrey Pauley”/“Underneath”

The X-Files: “Audrey Pauley”/“Underneath”

“Audrey Pauley” (season 9, episode 11; originally aired 3/17/2002)

In which Reyes breaks on through to the other side...

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

Remember how long it took for Mulder and Scully’s relationship to turn romantic? There was chemistry from the start, but it was a few seasons at least before that chemistry bubbled over into anything even remotely suggestive; and even then, the suggestions could’ve been chalked down as the growing mutual affection of two very close friends, and not necessarily True Wuv. Now that the show has pretty much decided that Scully and Mulder are soulmates, they don’t get a lot of screen-time together, which means that the X-Files’ core relationship, the anchor that held a world of maddening conspiracies and fluke monsters in its orbit, is gone. Which is where Doggett and Reyes come in. This new pairing is designed to carry the series forward, and it looks like part of that design is to throw them together as a couple as quickly as possible. “Audrey Pauley” starts with Reyes driving Doggett home from—well, I don’t think it’s a date, exactly. They never say it’s a date. But when Reyes parks in front of Doggett’s house, the two of them banter for a while in a decidedly more-than-friends kind of way. Reyes gets into a bad car accident soon after, and spends the rest of the episode in a coma (there’s an evil doctor, you know how that goes); her and Doggett’s connection is one of the emotional underpinnings of the story. One character even flat out says to Doggett, “You love her, though.”

It’s a nice idea, and for an episode as dependent on the audience’s emotional investment as this one (where most of the effect comes not from a clever story turn or complicated characters, but from fear of loss, humble sacrifice, and vague mysticism), a critical one. But Reyes as a character remains such an unfinished idea that the relationship still surprises me, even after the series has gone to considerable lengths to establish it. Are they dating? I don’t think so, not explicitly, but we also haven’t gotten any clear reason for why they aren’t a couple; I guess you could chalk it down to Doggett being afraid to love again after what happened to his son, but he seems pretty nakedly affection to Reyes even before the car accident. This basically plays like Mulder-and-Scully redux, only without the first season or two of uncertainty that justified their lack of immediate boning. Besides, Mulder had his holy quest, which makes him less than ideal boyfriend material. Doggett’s just a basic good guy, and while he and Reyes are caught up in the same conspiracy craziness that drove our former heroes to distraction, they still have lives.

Which isn’t to say that the situation demands a one-or-the-other type resolution. But Reyes remains such an indistinct figure that I find myself relying on external signifiers to try and understand her; and when one of those signifiers is vague in and of itself, things become confusing. “Audrey Pauley” is, in part, about how Doggett’s feelings for Reyes drive him to investigate suspicious circumstances he might not otherwise have noticed. He so absolutely refuses to accept that she’s gone for good (after the accident Reyes winds up brain dead, thanks to an evil doctor who’s serves as the episode’s more glaring weak point) that he keeps digging. It’s not hard to imagine Mulder or Scully doing the same if their own partner was involved, but in that case, the history between them would justify the intensity of the response. Doggett and Reyes don’t have that much history to draw on, and while the actors work well together, the weird ambiguity about just what the hell is going on between them makes what should be moving commitments appear artificial and forced.

Normally that isn’t a huge issue. It’s nice to have some genuine warmth between the leads. Only, as mentioned, “Audrey Pauley” doesn’t have a whole lot going for it in terms of actual story. Reyes falls into a coma (again, thanks to Doc Evil), and finds herself in a strange other-world version of the hospital, where she meets two fellow patients who are also locked in brain-dead comas. Reyes runs around trying to figure things out as the patients she meets disappear in a haze of blue electricity, and Doggett digs into the specifics of her case. Neither character accomplishes a whole lot. Reyes realizes the building she’s trapped in is the creation of an illiterate patient aide named Audrey Pauley (Tracey Ellis), a sort of mind palace that woman has constructed to house the souls of the living before they pass over to the other side. Or something; it’s all very spiritualist and hazy. Doggett, meanwhile, uncovers the fact that Dr. Jack Preijers is murdering people just in time to be too late to save a nurse, the two patients Reyes meets on the other side, or, in the episode’s saddest and most unsettling moment, Audrey herself. In fact, Pauley’s death (as well as the nurse’s) comes as a result of Doggett’s investigation, and it’s only through her dying that Reyes is allowed to leave the other-world and return to her body, just in time to save herself. So he does “save” her, albeit not in the way he probably intended.

The “protagonist trapped in an purgatorial situation while loved ones work feverishly to save them” set-up isn’t a new one; hell, even MacGyver had an episode along those lines. Audrey’s presence allows for a more X-Files-ish take on the situation (although it’s interesting that once again we get a case that isn’t actually an official X-File; the writers are apparently so tired of the show’s original premise that they take any excuse to dodge it), swapping religious mysticism for a more home-grown “human with special, inexplicable gifts.” Which isn’t to say that the story is completely without faith. Audrey is kept on at the hospital when the nuns in charge allow her to stay and help care for the patients; and in the end, when her post-death self guides Reyes to freedom, she explains, “I know what I built this,” implying a causality and fate that strongly suggests a higher power at work. But it’s still all kept on the downlow, so to speak. Everything happens for a reason, and that reason is “Keep Reyes alive.” (Sorry, dead folks. Enjoy wherever you ended up!) Any other concerns are secondary.

Which makes Reyes a focus for the story, which is fine as far as that goes. While she’s shocked to find herself in the other-world, she adjusts to the shock fairly quickly, and her refusal to give up does her credit. The dollhouse hospital is appropriately spooky, with grays and blues dominating, and the stormy haze outside is, while on the cheesy side, effective enough. The episode’s biggest problem is that once the contours of the situation become clear—once we realized where Reyes is trapped, and that her doctor had a hand in her coma—there isn’t much to do until the final scenes. No matter how determined Reyes is, her efforts can only uncover so much, and the results aren’t very illuminating. The evil doctor is cartoonishly villainous (if cartoons murdered lots and lots of people) for not clear reason; Doggett calls him “Doctor Death,” and that’s about as deep as it goes, which makes him significantly less interesting as a threat. Tracey Ellis does convincing work as Audrey, and the episode works best when it’s a sad story about a lonely woman who finds the meaning in her life as she’s leaving it.

So where does that leave Reyes? Well, Doggett’s in love with her. Reyes most likely returns his affections. And she doesn’t quit easy. But she still doesn’t seem like the lead, not even in a story that revolves almost entirely around her. She has virtually no part in saving her own life, and she fails to save either of the two people she meets while in the other-world. That doesn’t reflect badly on her, since given the situation, there really isn’t anything else she could’ve done. But it does make her screen-time seem oddly generic. Doggett is at least so distraught over the possibility of her loss that he’ll go to any lengths to save her. But Reyes is just trying to figure out what’s going on, and by the time she does, the problem has already resolved itself. Ostensibly, her belief in spirituality (or whatever it is that she believes in—astrology? Numerology? Angels and demons?) could be what helps her to keep a level head in the face of the inexplicable, but that doesn’t really come across; it’s not at all difficult to imagine, say, Doggett being stuck in a similar situation, and reacting basically the same way. I’m not sure that’s a point against the story, exactly, but once you realize there’s only so much going on, and there’s no deeper character revelations to come, things start to drag. Apart from the Evil Doctor’s hilariously mustache twirling attempts to keep his secret safe, there’s little suspense. It’s not a bad episode, exactly, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of point to it. We get a few good ideas, and then a lot of heavy emotion to glue everything together, and while that sometimes works, it makes for a forgettable hour.

Stray observations:

  • So what the hell was that doctor’s deal, anyway? Was he selling organs? (He mentions Reyes has an organ donor’s card, and the idea that someone out there needs a heart is used to try and pressure Doggett into letting go.) Because it’s hilarious how quickly he turns from killing the injured to murdering two perfectly healthy women standing in his way. Even if Doggett hadn’t been digging, the deaths of the nurse and Audrey would’ve attracted attention. I’m not saying the character couldn’t have worked, but apart from what he does, we’re given no information about the guy at all, which makes his decisions that much harder to justify.

  • Scully’s just seem more and more extraneous to the plot. Here she’s largely a sounding board for Doggett to deliver exposition/concerns to; maybe later in the season she’ll wander through the background of a scene, wave, and then get on with her life.

  • Ellis is good in this, and Audrey’s fear, confusion, and final, eerie peace help to keep this from being a total wash.

“Underneath” (season 9, episode 12; originally aired 3/31/2002)

In which nobody was watching...

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

According to Wikipedia, “Underneath” was the 71st most watched episode of television in the week it originally aired. I’m not sure if that’s good or not, but I’m going to guess that it’s not anything to brag about. You can argue that the low viewing isn’t really the fault of this one episode in particular, since you don’t choose to not-watch something based on any strong critical opinion about the thing you’re choosing not to watch. Maybe the preview at the end of the previous week’s episode was terrible. Maybe viewers where getting bored with the adventures of Doggett and Reyes. Maybe there was something else on TV that night. Regardless of the reason, this hour was a bust, audience-wise, and the sad fact is, those low ratings are probably the most interesting thing about it. A half-assed Jekyll and Hyde story about a killer so intent on denying he’s capable of sin that his sins take on a separate identity and start murdering for him, the only thing the episode really has going for it is the central mystery; it’s not the worst the show has ever been, and John Shiban (who wrote and directed; this is his first time in the director’s chair) manages some moments of grim, shocking violence. But it’s all pretty paint by numbers.

At least the cold open is reasonably clever. A scared cable guy (W. Earl Brown, character actor extraordinaire, probably best known ‘round these parts for his work on Deadwood) sits in his truck, terrified but unable to resist the orders of the shadowy figure in the seat behind him. Scared guy (whose name we learn later is Robert Fassl) talks his way into a suburban house, and, after a brief confrontation with a father, cuts forward in time to find that the entire family has been slaughtered. The time-jump isn’t a sci-fi thing; Fassl is just incapable of controlling himself or watching the murders as they happen. Seconds later, two cops arrive on the scene, and one of them, a younger, but still determined, John Doggett, puts Fassl under arrest. There’s a house full of corpses, someone’s responsible, and it looks like the only guy left standing—a cable guy with a blank, blood-soaked work-order in his hand—is responsible. Very open and shut.

That’s not a bad way to start. Fassl’s trembling desperation suggests that something strange is going on, and the disorienting cuts help establish his fractured state of mind. The Doggett reveal is unexpected (there’s no “eight years ago” or whatever establishing title screen, which is nice), setting up our hero’s investment in the case more effectively than an expository monologue would have. Not that we don’t get a few expository monologues, but still, there are worse ways to set things up.

Things don’t go south immediately, but boredom does set in; this isn’t eye-rollingly convoluted and goofy like the show’s worst mythology episodes, but there’s nothing really inspired by it. As good as Brown usually is, he isn’t given a whole lot to work with her, and spends nearly all of his screentime glowering in a kind of psychological deadlock. There’s a reason for this, story-wise: as mentioned, his character (who’d once trained to be a member of the priesthood) is so determined not to acknowledge his capacity to sin that he’s stuck in a perpetual state of denial. That limits the emotional palate an actor can be expected to display, but it’s still frustrating to watch someone as normally likable and down-to-earth as Brown stuck in such a thankless constant grimace of a role. It’s a nice twist to find out that he really isn’t as much a victim as he initially appears; while Fassl seems genuinely horrified by what’s happening, his deep-rooted hypocrisy is arguably what gives his darker side such monstrous, homicidal life. But the explanation for all this is a shallow gloss on religious faith and self-loathing, and the lack of any further characterization or understanding of what made Fassl into a monster makes him a poor villain. His “evil side” is creepy enough, and the intensity and number of murders is is impressive, but hollow.

It’s also annoying how much the story depends on Fassl’s involvement with a bizarrely trusting lawyer. Jana Fain (Lisa Darr) works to get the murderer released from jail on DNA evidence, and that’s fine; it kicks off the main part of the episode, which has Doggett working feverishly to find a reason to put Fassl back behind bars where he belongs. What starts to rankle is when Fain invites the newly released ex-con into her giant fancy home, where she lives with a single maid. You could chalk that up to naive generosity (and the lawyer does come off as very determined to help people), but Fassl is so overtly creepy and threatening in his meekness that it’s hard to believe anyone would trust him regardless of what they believed about his guilt. Worse, midway through the episode, after Fassl’s dark half murders the maid, Fain discovers someone’s been through her underwear drawer. Instead of giving the guy the boot, she lectures him on personal space and then leaves him alone in her house again. It’s just dumb.

As for Doggett’s obsession with catching Fassl again, it makes sense in character, and at least gives a strong reason for him to be involved with the case. I guess you needed that, since as it stands, this couldn’t have been just another X-File that crossed his and Reyes desk; Fassl’s new murders go undiscovered until the end, so our heroes needed a different excuse to be investigating him. And it’s perfectly in character that Doggett would need to have the case solved. While Reyes gets the episode’s most-Mulderish moment (when she explains Fassl’s basic condition in the most outlandish way possible), Doggett’s refusal to back-down shows he has a bit of Mulder’s obsessive tendencies built in, even as his Scully-ish skepticism balks at the true nature of the crimes he’s investigating. There’s also a weird bit where he finds out his old partner actually planted evidence to try and ensure Fassl’s conviction; the partner never appears again after his confession, and it’s not really necessary from a plot standpoint, so… I dunno.

Really, that’s the whole hour: a big, ineffectual I dunno. Fassl’s situation is unsettling enough to generate a few scenes of tension (the idea of wanting desperately not to hurt anyone but knowing people will get hurt anyway is one the show has used in the past), and the confrontation in the sewers is pretty cool. But in the end, this is just a werewolf story with a slight shift, and that shift isn’t enough to make it worth watching. The best X-Files monster-of-the-week episodes didn’t feel programmed or created to fill a slot; the story ideas came first, and the label came second. “Underneath” is everyone just going through the motions. Occasionally there’s some life to it, but if the truth is, if I’d tuned in on the night it first aired, I would’ve changed channel too.

Stray observations:

  • I wonder if the lack of real development for Reyes has anything to do with Scully’s continued presence on the show. The split focus doesn’t serve either character well, but since Scully’s been around for ages, she’s already well-established. Having her work with Doggett while he tries to close Fassl’s case, offering occasional pained looks and “Maybe you should back off” type advice, doesn’t tell us anything new about her. Meanwhile Reyes is just sort of around, helping out and coming up with theories but not quite entirely there yet.

  • “I pray all the time. I pray even when it looks like I’m not praying.” -Fassl, being devout in a way that sounds incredibly creepy.

  • Scully gets this look on her face when she’s examining Fassl’s pile of corpses at the end—I’m sure it’s supposed to be “horrified disgust,” but it plays more like she’s irritated to have to go through all this foolishness again.

Next week: Todd goes into the Danger Zone with Burt Reynolds in “Improbable,” and then chases after some “Scary Monsters.”

More TV Club Classic