The X-Files: “Release”/“Sunshine Days”

The X-Files: “Release”/“Sunshine Days”

One of these should be the true series finale.

“Release” (season 9, episode 17; originally aired 5/5/2002)

In which the mystery you had forgotten about gets wrapped up

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

“Release” is a particularly frustrating episode of The X-Files. It contains some extremely moving and beautiful moments—particularly for a late-season episode of this show—but it also seems, at times, like it’s set up as a backdoor pilot for a character who’s hard to care too much about. Obviously, this wasn’t the case, but when the show is wrapping up one of the major ongoing mysteries it has left at this point, it’s all the more frustrating to have so much of that episode taken up by a character whose development is almost entirely taken up by staring. “Release” is an episode that reaches for profundity, falls short, but somehow still manages to get close enough to be worth watching, at least when it’s not trying to convince us that Doggett and Reyes should be falling in love, because that’s what all good FBI agent pairings do.

At the center of “Release” is a mystery I’ll bet you’d forgotten was even a mystery: What happened to Doggett’s son when he was murdered? My favorite thing about “Release” is that while it answers that question—sort of—it never does so in such a definitive way that you feel like you know for 100 percent certain what happened to the kid. Even when a character sits down and explains to Doggett (and, by proxy, the audience) just what happened, it feels like we’re only getting, at best, 90 percent of the whole story, just because so much time has passed, and the details are starting to get a little foggy. It’s a trick that the episode seems to have learned from season seven two-parter “Sein Und Zeit” and “Closure,” which did their best to wrap up the increasingly convoluted mystery of what happened to Samantha Mulder. Answers are one thing; emotional closure is another.

In some ways, “Release” is even more successful than those episodes, but for the fact that we just don’t have as much invested in whatever happened to Doggett’s son as we did in what happened to Samantha. What I like about the answers Doggett gets is that they’re so unsatisfying, in some ways. No matter what he learns, it’s never going to be enough to resurrect his son, and at the end of the day, he would take that option every time over figuring out just who killed him. Still, finding the answers are important for Doggett and his wife (played by Robert Patrick’s real wife) to be able to come to the point where they can scatter their son’s ashes in the ocean. That final moment of the episode, with Robert and Barbara Patrick standing in waves covering their feet and having their moment of release, is my favorite in the hour, and I think Kim Manners (offering up his next-to-last directorial outing on the series) captures the heartbreakingly private in a way that doesn’t intrude unnecessarily. I could, however, do without the fact that Reyes is apparently there, just watching these two mourn their dead son, ready to roll back into action.

The episode’s greatest weakness, however, is also tied inextricably into the solving of the murder of Doggett’s son, and that’s the fact that so much of the plot revolves around a super crime solver patterned on Sherlock Holmes named Rudolph Hayes, as well as the character of Assistant Director Brad Follmer. As Follmer, Cary Elwes never really settled into his part and became someone who seemed like they belonged in this world, and in the scenes where he’s being threatened with exposure by Regali (the mobster who’s been bribing him for years), he goes comically over-the-top. Similarly, when he shoots Regali, it feels less like a moment of redemption—or even the ultimate moment of weasel-like behavior from the dude—than it feels like something he does just because the episode needs to end, and David Amman’s script (from a story by Amman and John Shiban) can’t think of anything else to do. Follmer has been a weird fit for the series all season, and in his last appearance, he doesn’t come off any better.

It’s Hayes (who’s actually a former mental patient named Stuart Mimms) who really drags this episode down, however. As played by Jared Poe, he seems to mostly solve cases by staring intently at the camera until something occurs to him. He’s introduced as one of the trainees Scully is introducing to the fine art of forensic science, and he gets a pretty Holmesian moment when he explains why the corpse on the table was an unemployed single woman. But it’s downhill from there. The character—and whether he’s good or bad—becomes far too much of a focus for the episode, when it properly should be focusing on unraveling the mystery of Doggett’s son’s killer. All of the emotional weight is with John Doggett, but what the episode is really interested in is this weird, creepy guy who maybe has psychic insights or is maybe just really good at making keen observations.

I said above that this episode feels like a backdoor pilot for a show that was never produced. Now, I know that’s not the case, but I think it’s because the guest star hijacks the story in a way that the guest stars rarely do on X-Files. Amman and Shiban seem incredibly interested in whatever Hayes/Mimms will get up to and whether he can help everybody crack the case. This happened more and more in the later seasons of the show, when the “X-File,” so to speak, would be off to the side, and the case that was solved was mostly non-paranormal. But because we got so much about the nature of Doggett’s son’s killer in prior episodes—particularly in the one that alleged he might have been, like, evil incarnate and/or a virus passed between people that acted as such—all of this feels like a waste of time. Maybe that would work with a stronger actor, but Poe simply glowers when he’s meant to be conveying intelligent thought. (His wall full of crime scene photos is creepy, though.)

I don’t necessarily know what I wanted from an episode like “Release,” but it probably should have been more like the scenes where John and Barbara Doggett, still reeling from the untimely death of their child, try to come together to find closure. I get that this episode was rushed because of the show’s cancellation, that if the series had continued to run, the secret of this murder would have unspooled alongside it until whenever Patrick decided to leave or the series finally ended. But it’s the very suddenness of the solution that could have made “Release” so satisfying. In the moments when John and Barbara realize they simply have to let go of this moment in their past if they’re ever going to move on, the episode actually touches some of the profundity it aims for. In the other moments, it’s just a guy, staring at the camera, pretending to think really hard.

Stray observations:

  • I mentioned that the show insisting Doggett and Reyes have a love connection bugs me, but that was before seeing all of “Sunshine Days,” where the episode does something very sweet with it. However, I still think the two actors have little-to-no chemistry, and it seems like the show is just insisting they’re in love because Mulder and Scully were.
  • The show has largely just lost track of what to do with Scully by this point. It tried the whole “overprotective mom” thing and mostly failed at that, and now she just pops up in a couple of scenes per episode, but the series keeps resting far more of its dramatic weight on her than the leads. It’s just weird.
  • I did like the use of the intertitles throughout the episode, particularly once “Release” came up. It made up for a lot of the episode’s other structural clumsiness.

“Sunshine Days” (season 9, episode 18; originally aired 5/12/2002)

In which everybody’s smiling, and everybody’s happy

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

“Sunshine Days” has its problems, but it’s my favorite episode of season nine, and, like its weird pseudo-prequel “Je Souhaite,” it’s an episode I almost wish had been the series finale, even though that would have pissed off lots and lots of people. (As it was, this episode garnered some of the weakest reviews of the season when it initially aired, almost solely because it was the next-to-last episode of the series, and the show was wasting time on the fucking Brady Bunch.) I wanted “Je Souhaite” to be the series finale back in season seven because it put such a perfect capper on both the character of Mulder and the relationship between him and Scully. And I think “Sunshine Days” would be a great ending for the character of Dana Scully—as well as offering a great capper for the X-Files themselves. The quest for proof comes to an end, but it is subsumed by other, more important things. Yet, ultimately, none of that is why I sort of wish The X-Files had had the good sense to end here. No, the reason “Sunshine Days” makes the perfect ending, to my mind, is because it understands what The X-Files is all about at its heart: loneliness.

At some point in the run of these reviews, I suggested that if one were to boil down The X-Files to one word that it was “about,” it would be loneliness. The characters, for the most part, are defined by the central wound of an absence in their lives, all the way from Mulder (with his sister) on down. The monsters that the various agents track are almost always misfits, cast out of society and introduced to us as beings that inspire either pity or terror because of this. Most of the show’s most famous episodes revolve in one way or another around the quest for a perfect other half, and I don’t think it’s an accident that the show’s most famous pairing was between two people who completed each other so neatly they may as well have been yin and yang.

This is the thing that Vince Gilligan, writer and director of both “Je Souhaite” and “Sunshine Days,” understood above all else. I find the end of this episode more than a little hokey—with its insistence that there are things more important than proof of the paranormal, things like human connection—but I also find it tremendously moving, because it’s Gilligan wrapping up the series’ central emotional conflict while everybody else is more worried about drawing the show’s other plots to a close. Both Zack and I have suggested that Gilligan was the series’ best overall writer, capable of handling its many different tones without breaking a sweat, but he was also a writer possessed of a kind of gentle humanism that played well off the show’s often dark palette. The end of this episode is hokey, yes, but it’s also about one man realizing just how terribly he wronged another, then going back to ask for forgiveness. That’s not something you see in every episode of this show, but it’s something you see in a Gilligan episode before just about any other writer’s.

Like Darin Morgan and the team of Glen Morgan and James Wong (others in the race for best X-Files writer ever), Gilligan seemed particularly interested in writing for Scully, and in “Sunshine Days,” the main plot—such as it is—is largely about Scully finally coming across incontrovertible “proof” of paranormal activity in the form of Oliver Nelson (the great Michael Emerson), a telekinetic who’s able to project his fantasies into reality and, thus, has remade the interior of his home into that of the home from The Brady Bunch. It’s a kooky notion to make the final monster-of-the-week sitcom characters, but it works surprisingly well, particularly when it’s grounded amid the great work we see from the regular cast members and Emerson. Here, finally, is the proof they’ve been seeking, and it’s far weirder than they ever could have imagined. And to exploit that proof means causing a man’s death, ultimately. Is it worth sacrificing the soul for a short-term gain?

There’s another big reason to love “Sunshine Days” and wish it was the series finale: It’s an episode that’s positively in love with television. This stems from both the premise and the accurate recreation of the Brady Bunch set all the way down to casting David Faustino, Bud Bundy himself, as one of the luckless doofuses who finds himself killed after he breaks into Oliver’s house. But there’s also a rich level of meta-commentary to everything that happens, as the characters talk about how with the proof they have thanks to Oliver, the X-Files program could run for years, or as they talk about how much television series can mark somebody’s life. This isn’t just Gilligan’s farewell to The X-Files and the character of Dana Scully; it’s his love letter to the whole medium that made the show possible, to the idea that you might genuinely open a door somewhere in Los Angeles and find the place where they filmed The Brady Bunch. The X-Files has always been a show where a door could open and reveal just about anything, so why not this? Why not an attempt by someone to fill their loneliness via the opiate so many of us use to do so?

Yes, “Sunshine Days” has some serious problems. Like “Je Souhaite,” it doesn’t end up having much of a plot, and the story shifts into about three different conflicts throughout the episode. (First, it’s about a standard monster-of-the-week episode. Then, it’s about Scully needing her proof of the paranormal. Then, it’s about whether Oliver will live or die. There’s a loose thread connecting those three things, but Gilligan works overtime to justify it.) It also, ultimately, feels like sort of a too-easy ending to have Oliver’s problem be cured by just having the doctor who abandoned him as a boy vow to be his friend now and do a better job of looking out for him. Sure, that’s one way to end this story, but this guy doesn’t have any real obligation to Oliver beyond his own guilt. Do we really think he’ll stick around long enough for this man to finish healing?

I’m not sure that matters, though, because when the episode comes to that scene between Emerson and John Aylward (as the doctor who abandoned Oliver) at Oliver’s bedside, it pushes not for answers or explanations, but for human connection. I realize that there are plenty of people who will deride a show that chooses, instead, to leave its characters in a more or less happy place, instead of providing all of the answers it can think of, but I’ve always been partial to that approach, and I think a big part of that is the one-two punch of “Sunshine Days” followed by “The Truth.” It ultimately comes down to this: Would you rather leave Scully realizing that all of the years she’s spent pursuing the paranormal weren’t for naught because of the people she worked alongside, or would you rather leave her listening to a confusing deluge of information, then going on the run for her life? Similarly, would you rather leave Doggett and Reyes quietly holding hands in a hospital hallway, imagining that they might have gotten the hang of this, or playing chauffeur to other characters? For me, the answer is simple. Always go for the ending that ties up the characters in a big, fat bow. Always go for the ending that understands what the show really is, not what it was hyped to be.

Stray observations:

  • One of my favorite shots in the run of the show is in this episode, as Mike Daley (Faustino) lurks outside of Oliver’s home and peeks in through the window to see the Bradys gathered around the table. It’s nicely spooky, while also feeling like something almost desirable.
  • Michael Emerson is a hell of an actor, as he’d prove time and again in his work on Lost, and if that hospital bed scene works, I think it’s largely due to him and the way he delivers lines like “I don’t want to be alone.” But Aylward gives as good as he gets in these scenes, and I like how the episode carefully traces his arc from a man who wants his life’s work validated to a man who realizes just how little that impulse matters.
  • I thought about making the screencap for this episode that goofy shot of Scully grinning like a madwoman as Skinner rotates in the air, levitated by Oliver, but ultimately went with something else. But that’s still a fun shot.
  • Not to overly troll that one guy who hates when we talk about Breaking Bad in reviews of Gilligan episodes, but the two losers hanging out and talking pop culture at the beginning of this episode feels like a dry run for Badger and Skinny Pete on that show.
  • Vince Gilligan, optimist. Darin Morgan, cynic. Discuss.

Next week: Zack and I finally crosstalk something, as we sit down to find out just what is… “The Truth.”

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