With the return of The X-Files to television, a conversation I’ve been hearing a lot recently has been the discussion of its balance between a show’s overarching mythology and its weekly format. The X-Files was, amongst other things, famous for the way it managed to build itself as a paranormal procedural and a show with a deeper underlying story about an upcoming invasion. It was an ambitious approach that distinguished the show at the start but fell apart as the mythology became more and more convoluted, spinning into total nonsense by the end. The monster-of-the-week episodes—“Home,” “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” and more recently “Mulder And Scully Meet The Were-Monster”—are the installments that have endured and defined the series in the decade-plus since it went off the air.
That balance between big and small stories is one that so many shows since then have tried to strike, Grimm being one of them. For its part, Grimm has been on the opposite side of that equation, as the episodes where it finally takes the time to clear up its mythology are better than the episodes that try to concoct a new wesen every week. And as season five has progressed deeper into the Black Claw story, it’s pushing the stakes to a point where some of the weekly investigation stuff has felt more like a distraction than a boon. As Meisner, Trubel, and Eve are quick to point out, war is being waged, and there’s an argument that Nick and company would do better throwing their attentions to that instead of everyday homicides.
While that argument can easily be made for both Nick’s team and the show as a whole, the first wesen of the week episode of 2016 forms an effective counterpoint. “A Reptile Dysfunction” is an example of the format executed well enough that it justifies the format’s continued existence, proving the value of a breath of fresh air—or a gulp of fresh water, such as it is—to a season-long story. Grimm benefits from getting out from its end times dogma, reminding the team and the viewers that even though there’s one big threat out there it doesn’t have to be the only threat they deal with.
The reference I made at the top of this review is appropriate, as the urban legend concept behind the case has more than a hint of fitting into an X-File. A local lake has reportedly hosted a monster since the 1960s, and two enterprising brothers decide to drum up business by paying an aquatic wesen known as a Wasser Zahne to scare the locals. Once again Grimm’s production team gets points for wesen development, producing a decidedly nasty-looking take on the creature from the Black Lagoon heightened with various predatory fish details. And while the scenes of the Wasser Zahne will be familiar to anyone who’s seen any shark/crocodile movie in the last 30 years—underwater perspective shots, fins and snouts at the center of rapid waves, water turning red in the last place a person was seen—it’s imagery that persists for a reason and well-implemented by director David Straiton.
It’s also interesting narratively as it’s a return to Grimm’s original mission statement, the idea that wesen led to the creation of myths and legends. While the Black Claw narrative is about forcibly going from myth to reality, the efforts of the Dunbar brothers and Logan are a story about how relying on those myths allow wesen to exist on the fringes of society, profiting off human ignorance.Similarly, the fact that it’s Nick and Hank who get called in to support the investigation is a nice way for the show to acknowledge that they do wind up dealing with a lot of cases that the average person would think are insane, and they’ve picked up a reputation for those dealings. It helps the world feel more natural, in a way that a lot of the apocalyptic rhetoric of this season hasn’t lent itself to.
Unfortunately, some of that focus is lost once events start to pick up. While Trubel’s interactions with Wayne and Oliver are terrific—she’s got a part to play and knows exactly how to play it—it sets off a chain reaction where it quickly becomes unclear what the final plan is. Is Wayne trying to trick his brother or only Logan? Are the Grimms aware that the brothers are trying to play them, and what exactly is their countermove? It’s hard to follow who’s trying to double-cross who.
The ending is also a bit anticlimactic, as once Trubel appears on the scene Logan is dead within 30 seconds, proving himself all bark and no bite. On the other hand, the moment where Wayne tries to woge and flee into the water, only to be shot dead by hunters looking for the monster he helped create, is a fairly excellent bit of karma. Going back to The X-Files again, there’s a feeling of ambiguity about the way the case shakes out, the fact that for most people there won’t ever be a satisfying answer to what happened and that it’ll remain in the realm of the unexplained for some time.
In the realm of the explained, “A Reptile Dysfunction” shines some more light on the structure of Hadrian’s Wall—literally, as Nick gets to go inside the bunker for the first time. In between Meisner offering details on their government ties that don’t make them any less vague or menacing, Nick gets to have a more legitimate conversation with Eve and further see that his ex-girlfriend is long gone. Bitsie Tulloch continues to distance herself from her prior incarnation as there’s not an inch of jealousy or regret to her words, only a single-minded focus on fighting Black Claw. If anything, it’s intriguing to see how the tables have turned between them since the first season, as now it’s Eve who doesn’t think Nick’s able to handle what’s coming.
Certainly Nick has a lot to handle, especially once Meisner discloses the final piece of information he wants to share. Disappointing those who hoped for Kelly’s head in a jar Crank: High Voltage-style, Meisner reveals that they were able to recover the rest of her body and buried her in their cemetery, allowing Nick a moment of closure with the grave in a solid moment for David Giuntoli. The major character arc of this season is cohering into what role if any Nick and his team will play in this war—and it’s definitely going to be a package deal according to Hank’s “We’re all in this together”—and this episode does a good job of helping to establish the stakes and initial reactions of the team to what’s coming.
While “A Reptile Dysfunction” has enough to recommend it, it also betrays one of the problems with how Grimm conducts its storytelling. Two of the season’s less developed subplots are given some more shading here—Rosalee’s ex-boyfriend from her junkie days sends another letter, Councilman Dixon’s press secretary does some hands-on media coaching with Renard—but in both instances the audience has to remind itself who these people are. These plots haven’t been seen since before the hiatus, and even then they were narrative breadcrumbs as opposed to actual stories, rapidly eclipsed by whatever’s happening with Black Claw.
As I said back in “Maiden Quest” they’re interesting ideas for stories on their own but the way they’ve been deployed hasn’t been working, and more connective tissue is needed to tie them to the big picture. Grimm may be doing a competent job of handling its story, but it’s still not perfect, and hopefully as things progress they’ll find those connecting elements.
- This Week In Portland: Diamond Lake is an actual location in Oregon, and while the monster myth was invented for this episode NBC’s marketing department now has plenty of shirts to perpetuate the myth into reality. It’s also more than four hours south of Portland, so the sheriff must have been very persuasive in talking to Renard.
- This Week’s Epigram: Nothing so literary this week, only the famous phrase commonly attributed to P.T. Barnum.
- “A Reptile Dysfunction”: Best Grimm episode title, or best Grimm episode title?
- This is a great episode for Trubel, between the way she drops all the intel on Nick and Hank while they’re trying to ID the bodies, her room/armory at the compound, and the matter-of-fact way she plays the bounty hunter card and dispatches Logan. Jacqueline Toboni’s grown well into the role, and feels like a regular in all but name at this point.
- One quibble with the Diamond Lake Monster myth: while Wayne establishes that his father saw the creature all the way back in the 60s, it’s never made clear if his father also saw a Wasser Zahne and this is a second-generation con. Given the Dunbars were also wesen, they would know the truth early on, or at least know there was a valid explanation for what they saw.
- Eve’s reminder that Hitler was a wesen is a reference I’d prefer the show forgot, given its ties to one of the darker patches in Grimm history. Stupid magic coins.
- Oliver bears a very distracting resemblance to Bevers on Broad City.
- “Make this report as logical as possible.” Good luck with that.
- Rosalee’s thought process trying to explain the difference between Juliette, Dark Juliette, and Eve is adorable. “I’m just gonna stop talking.”
- “Reality is definitely not what it used to be.”