“Agua Mala” (season 6, episode 13; originally aired 2/21/1999)
In which there’s an octopus monster that’s actually living water, and… sigh
“Agua Mala” is a famously bad episode of The X-Files. When I mentioned I was watching it on Twitter, I immediately got a response from someone who said it was the only episode of the series they were unable to watch in full. While I wouldn’t go that far, “Agua Mala” is definitely somewhere in the bottom 25 X-Files episodes, and it’s the kind of mess that a good TV show can only turn out around this point in the season, when everybody’s tired, and everybody just wants to be done with the season already. On the other hand, the worst thing about “Agua Mala” is that it comes so very, very close to working that it’s frustrating to see just how little it actually does.
As it turns out, writer David Amann didn’t initially begin the script that would become “Agua Mala” by setting it during a hurricane. Originally, he wanted to do a story about a monster in an abandoned gold mine, which would presumably kill those who stumbled into its domain. Executive producer Frank Spotnitz didn’t like that idea much, but he did like the idea of a monster killing people in an enclosed space, and Amann somehow went from that to the idea of an apartment building during a hurricane, which would be menaced by a sea monster who had been blown onshore by the storm. Honestly, that idea isn’t bad, or at least, the idea of people in an apartment building being picked off one by one by a monster isn’t. It’s basically just a variation on season one’s “Ice,” but it’s amazing how rarely the series returned to that bottle show setup when it needed to save costs.
The problem is that the episode isn’t content to simply tell the story of Mulder and Scully battling a weird tentacle monster in an apartment building isolated by a hurricane. That’s a story with stakes. That’s a story you could build on. No, the episode lurches all over the place, going out of its way to incorporate several elements that don’t really belong. The first is former FBI Agent Arthur Dales, the man who was the first X-Files agent back in the day. Now, he’s living in Florida, where he’s presumably retired, and he’s the one who calls Mulder down to save the day. Reportedly, Amann was made to work Darren McGavin, whom the producers wanted to bring back (for obvious reasons), into the script for the episode. That likely explains why he feels so tangential to the proceedings, since Dales turns up at the start to make fun of Scully, pops up randomly in the middle when he’s listening in on a radio, then comes back at the end to tell Mulder and Scully about how the world is full of weird shit and would they like a drink of water? It’s a glorified cameo, and it’s a broad, hammy one at that, with the script turning Dales into the kind of old man who stands on his porch and yells about the good old days to the neighborhood kids.
The story of the episode is also very oddly structured. It takes forever to isolate Mulder and Scully in that apartment building, and once it does, it doesn’t have nearly enough time to establish the people who live there, so they’re simply turned into broad stereotypes. (The worst in this regard is a Latino couple, complete with spitfire pregnant woman.) The show works as hard as it can to make these people into more than monster chow, and Gillian Anderson, in particular, does her level best to make the characters seem like the sorts of fascinating people Scully might enjoy shooting the shit with in other occasions. But it’s simply unable to do much of anything with these characters when it most counts. There are too many of them and too little time to flesh them out. So, inevitably, they just become the monster food Amann’s script so desperately wants them not to be.
Here’s the thing: I’m not so sure this needed to be a problem. If the script had eliminated Dales entirely and gotten Mulder and Scully to the condominiums right away (say, by having the initial family the monster attacks live there), that would have streamlined things enough to give time to fill out the characters living in the complex beyond their stereotypes. Hell, if Dales had just been living at the complex, that would have cut out much of the episode’s loginess right there and made better use of McGavin, who really does deserve better than sending our two heroes on their merry way. Normally, when a script of this episode is poorly structured, the flaws aren’t as obvious as they are here. In this episode, it’s remarkable just how easily everything would be fixed by condensing the events.
In spite of all of this, the episode might have been at least a little interesting if it had a memorable monster. Instead, it has one that’s far too convoluted. Amann’s original idea of a sea monster washed up on land might have felt stupid, particularly if he tried to go with the usual sea serpent look, but what he came up with instead is even more bizarre. The idea of living water is just a strange thing to wrap one’s head around, and since it comes up so late in the episode, the mechanics of how it all works are rather hand-waved away by David Duchovny saying a few things about how there are weird, weird things at the bottom of the ocean. Water somehow forming into a solid and garnering tentacles is something that’s interesting but also something that makes less and less sense the more you think about it. How would this even happen? And why, exactly, would fresh water be the thing that would defeat it, in a disappointing resolution?
The effects for the tentacle living water monster also let the story down. The show has usually been able to use its budgetary restrictions to its advantage when making low-budget monsters, but here, it can only get so much mileage out of suggesting tentacles via writhing shadows and little bursts of movement from out of nowhere. When we have to actually take a sustained look at the monster, it’s laughable. To its credit, the episode goes out of its way to avoid having us do this all too often, and in the process, it does come up with the image of the writhing tentacle in the overhead lamp (which is the one good thing here). But for the most part, the effects are as bad as everything else here. This is the rare X-Files episode where nothing—story, characters, technical aspects—works.
- Okay, I guess the look of the episode is pretty nice. It’s kind of a throwback to the earlier seasons of the show, with all of the water everywhere and the chronic darkness. The series also nicely evokes a hurricane via blowing water and flickering lights.
- God bless her, Gillian Anderson is giving it her all in that scene where Scully delivers the baby, even though she’s never done such a thing before. It’s such a transparent ploy to up the stakes of the whole thing, a desperate hail Mary pass in an episode that had already fallen apart long ago. But Anderson is doing her best to make it all play, even as Duchovny seems like he’d rather be anywhere else.
- This episode has a surprisingly large number of folks who would turn up on other shows in the near-ish future. There’s Joel McKinnon Miller, who would later play Don Embry on Big Love, as the hapless deputy. And there’s Silas Weir Mitchell, of Prison Break and Grimm, as the looter, Dougie.
- Okay, so how does the water monster convert its prey into water? And how, exactly, would this be advantageous to it? I’ve watched Mulder’s explanation for this a bunch of times, and it makes less sense every time.
- Hurricanes are uniquely well-suited to creating drama on a TV series. They’re large and slow-moving, and they wreak plenty of destruction. Plus, since you always know they’re on their way, it gives characters a chance to all get closed up in the same space. I wish this episode had done more with this.
“Antipas” (season 3, episode 13; originally aired 2/12/1999)
In which Lucy Butler returns and… HOLY FUCKING SHIT!
“Antipas” is that rare TV thing: a camp classic that’s legitimately entertaining. Usually, camp classics fall under the broad umbrella of “so bad, it’s good,” and while I’d hesitate to call “Antipas” great TV, it’s also not bad TV. Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz take credit for this episode’s script, and it wanders far afield of this season’s serial killer and crime-solving shenanigans in favor of crazy, crazy bullshit. We’re back in the world of angels and demons and supernatural occurrences, and even if it doesn’t make much sense how we’ve gotten here—a sign of how this series was made in an earlier age of TV serialization—I’ve always preferred this version of the show to the interminable serial killer episodes. So I’m glad to be here, even if it feels like we’ve briefly wandered into another television show entirely.
Right away, the teaser lets viewers know that they’re in for something different from the season’s usual. Two adults argue about the husband’s political future while paying occasional attention to their daughter, who appears to be here with her nanny/governess Lucy Butler. (The way the camera lingers on her and the score plays several sting chords lets those just tuning in for the first time know that this woman is both important and evil.) When the girl seemingly disappears, the two fear that their arguing has made her run off. They spot her at the entrance to a hedge maze and give chase. She races to the maze’s center, where she spots… a giant snake wrapping itself around a tree branch. Cut to the parents chasing after the girl (named “Davina,” we discover). Cut to the snake. Cut to the girl’s troubled eyes. Cut to the snake devouring the prone body of the girl. Then cut to the parents coming to the maze’s center and seeing Lucy standing, hands resting gently on Davina. It’s a teaser designed almost entirely to say, “Hey, I don’t think I’ve seen that before.” That’s roughly what the whole episode ends up being.
Again, this is all a little campy and more than a little weird. Frank determines that Lucy is calling for him… somehow, and he takes the case of a dead gay man that Lucy killed by shape-shifting into a male lover for him off the plate of Hollis, pretty much just because he can. On the one hand, I like the way that the episode immediately escalates the stakes by having this old villain of Frank’s return to his life. On the other hand, it feels more than a little abrupt, and if you’re not up on your Lucy Butler mythology (and, remember, she hasn’t appeared since somewhere in the middle of season two), it all feels as if it comes out of nowhere. Indeed, when I first saw Lucy in the episode’s opening moments, it took me a second to recognize that, yes, that was really her, and, yes, we were going to head back into the show’s more religious, mystical elements.
Everything after Frank decides to take the case, though, is just the right mix of bizarre and suspenseful. This is the first episode this season to be genuinely creepy here and there, and if it sometimes feels like Carter and Spotnitz are throwing everything they can think of at the wall to see what sticks, well, that’s not the worst thing in the world sometimes. The episode has creepy kids, random murders, dog attacks, and Lucy Butler appearing in the middle of the night to mount Frank and then morph into a demon. (No, really.) It’s a sequence that’s surprisingly sexually explicit for the time, and it’s one that plays off that fear of the person you’ve gone to bed with abruptly turning into an utter monster. Lance Henriksen and Sarah Jane-Redmond have an eerie chemistry, and this episode makes the most of that.
Throughout, Carter and Spotnitz take the story in unexpected directions. Take, for instance, when Frank finally convinces Hollis and local law enforcement to lock Lucy up for the murder of Davina’s mother. Sure, he doesn’t have a lick of evidence, but he’s Frank Black, dammit. He’s always right. Yet once Lucy’s in the jail, her lawyer comes in, blustering about how she’s been tortured and raped by the authorities. Hollis is angry about this accusation, as she would be, until the lawyer tells her that not only was Lucy raped, but she’s pregnant… with Frank’s baby. Once the lawyer starts talking about rape, it seems obvious which way this is all going to go, but it’s still surprising to see the story twist in this way. Lucy is, in every way, the nightmare Frank can’t put behind himself, and the more he tries to run from her, the closer she’ll get.
It’s really too bad that Lucy wasn’t on the show more often than she was. She’s a good villain for Frank to go up against, because her logic doesn’t really play by human rules. As some sort of demon, she’s got her own agenda that’s never immediately understandable, and her battle with Frank seems driven less by logic than by some strange desire to bring about Armageddon. It’s never immediately clear just why she’s so intent on making sure that Davina ends up on her side (to the point where Davina starts screeching about Lucy being her mother after her actual mother dies), though it’s possible to speculate about what she really wants, mostly stemming from the story of her dead daughter. Lucy Butler episodes tend to start out in fairly normal places, then take left turns into complete, batshit insanity. This one starts out there, then takes a left turn and keeps getting weirder. By the time Lucy is taking the form of Frank and yelling at Hollis in the hedge maze, it’s easy to forget that this will probably just go back to the usual crime-solving in the weeks to come.
“Antipas,” again, isn’t great TV. It’s probably too off its axle to be that. Great TV requires a certain steadiness to it, and “Antipas” is constantly threatening to fly off the road and plunge down the side of the mountain. But it’s resolutely fun TV, and it makes me wonder if the series wouldn’t have been better received all around if it had started out as some sort of Biblical X-Files, as a show that kept digging into the weird world of Christian esoterica, if there had been an elaborate story about Frank looking for the lost kingdom of Prester John or something. I don’t really know what such a show would look like, but episodes like “Antipas” suggest everybody involved in the series could have come up with something fascinating. That they didn’t bother to is a pity.
- The long-haired man that Lucy sometimes appears as feels like a low-rent version of Killer BOB from Twin Peaks. This still works surprisingly well.
- Points off: Rachel Victoria, who plays Divina, is a startlingly irritating child actress. The scenes where she’s screaming for seemingly no reason are borderline unbearable.
- I’m not sure that Hollis needed to be in this episode, but as a way to get her introduced to the show’s more mystical side, it’s not bad. I don’t really know if she gets dragged further into this world in the episodes to come, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea.
- Lucy’s threatening of Jordan at episode’s end is appropriately chilling. It would have been great to see where the show would have gone with all of this in a fourth season (since Lucy seemed to be the kind of character who only dropped around every once in a while).
- The series gets a lot of mileage out of great, eerie settings, and the Anitpas Manor in Wisconsin is a great one. The majestic building, the hedge maze, the weird lake… it all adds up to a memorable location.
Next week: Zack keeps repeating himself on a “Monday,” then takes a trip back in time with “Matryoshka.”