A few of you have complained about the lack of summary in these recaps, and you probably have a point. Going by titles alone, I don't remember half the episodes before I sit down to re-watch them, and this show was a huge influence on me as a kid; it would only be fair of me to provide you with a little grounding before we dive into all the crazy. But, um, here's the thing. I don't really know what's going on in mythology episodes. I never have. And I don't mean that I lost the thread once the writers stopped trying to make all the pieces fit. I mean that, right now, even after having watched "Apocrypha" and the episode that preceded it, and all the other mythology episodes before that, I don't know the details. To me, it's just creepy stuff happening for obscure reasons to the characters I care about. It's like Calculus all over again: I take the notes, but I'm praying I'll get lucky at Finals.
I don't really think that hurts my enjoyment of these eps. This is just how I (and, I assume, lots of other people) approach this kind of story. I'm a big picture guy. I've seen all of The Sopranos, and I've watched The Wire, and I love both, but if you wanted me to outline the intricacies of mob politics, or detail the complexities of corruption, betrayal, and institutional sloth that destroyed David Simon's Baltimore from the inside, well, I could give you the broad strokes, but that's as as far as it would go. It might be because I'm not as bright as I like to pretend I am, but what it really comes down to is that the plotting isn't what I'm interested in here. Good story is important, but the more complex a situation gets, the more I'm willing to disregard non-character based detail in favor of grasping the main threads. I never felt lost watching The Wire, because I knew what the characters wanted. I never feel lost during the X-Files conspiracy storylines because I know that Mulder and Scully want the truth, Skinner wants to protect his agents, and the Cigarette Smoking Man wants control. There are obviously shadings on each goal, and I don't want to give the idea that I'm a complete idiot or anything (it's cute how I assume I can control my image at this point, isn't it?), but I'm never going to be the kind of guy who puts together a website trying to explain just what in the hell is going on here. More power to that guy, really. Somebody needs to hold these bastards accountable.
Still, if you need to remember "Apocrypha": Mulder and Krychek take a road trip that ends badly. Skinner survives getting shot. Scully manages to track down her sister's killer. Mulder and Scully nearly find the truth. The CSM gets that pesky digital tape back (y'know, the one Krychek was trying to blackmail him with)(see, I do remember some things). And Krychek—poor, poor Krychek—gets really, really screwed.
One of the things I love about revisiting these mythology episodes is how much they've grown in my mind. Even with my lack of interest in the specifics of Mulder's quest, there are all these amazing, iconic scenes that stuck with me—I mean, I've been haunted by the one-two punch of the end of this one for years, with poor Krychek first coughing up the black oil from his mouth, noise, and eyes (bleargh), to him restored to his regular self, only still locked in that silo with the alien ship, screaming for help to an abandoned building. Even from a show that traffics in dark endings, that is pure nightmare fuel. It feels like the closing beat to a great, epic storyline, and it sort of is—but it also sort of isn't. That plot summary I gave above is basically what happens in this episode. One of the X-Files' great strengths, and one of the reasons that the mythology eps stayed as strong as they did for as long as they did, is the show's ability to create a sense of grand import out of eerie moments and a lack of closure. If you were a faithful fan of the series, you spent a very long time waiting for all this build-up to pay off in some huge battle against the forces of old white dudes and aliens. That never happened (at least, I don't think it did. There was a lot of stuff near the end that I missed), but it's a testament to the series that I went on believing it would for a very long time.
Really, the only plot progression we get here is that Scully catches the killer, the digital tape is taken off the table, and the black oil monster gets where it wants to go. Mulder isn't any closer to anything by the end, although he does make contact with a member of the Old Guy Conspiracy. Yet it's a great episode, because closure isn't really the point. There's a great scene where the Lone Gunmen team up to get the envelope Krychek left in a locker—there's ice-skating and everything, and it's hilarious and even a little suspenseful. It doesn't really matter that the envelope they get is already empty. I mean, okay, it matters some, because if Mulder got hold of the tape, we'd have a very different show on our hands (and possibly a better show; I'm all for the slow burn, but how bad ass would it have been if somewhere in this season or the next, our heroes had finally started making some definitive steps forward?). But in my enjoyment of the scene itself, the means justify the ends. It's not a balance that would work forever, but for now, anyways, it's enough.
I haven't mentioned the opening scene, where we see Mulder's dad and the CSM interviewing a burn victim, but it's pretty cool. It's a great reveal—because we're seeing these characters before they grew up to be older and, in the case of Mr. Mulder, dead, we don't recognize them straightaway. The victim begs for his story to be told to the public, and the young CSM assures him it will (sounds like they dubbed in William B. Davis's voice here), and there's such a sense of dread in that moment, in knowing how long and how thoroughly those in power have been working to hush up what's happening. (Whatever that is.) It's also good to get more of a sense of Mr. Mulder's involvement in all of this. There's tremendous potential in the idea of our Mulder struggling to make right the errors of his father, and maybe even finally doing what his father always wanted to do himself.
The biggest emotional pay-off of "Aprocrypha" comes in the sort-of resolution of the murder of Scully's sister. She catches the killer (who also shot Skinner, so the dude gets around), and the episode does a fine job of both "solving" the mystery and yet showing the complete lack of satisfaction that solution provides our heroine. Melissa is still dead. We even get a scene at the cemetery to drive that point home, and it's also during that scene that we learn that Melissa's killer died in his jail cell. The government forces responsible for the original crime have eliminated their tool when he proved no longer useful. The truly guilty go unpunished. It's enough to make you wish Scully had actually shot the assassin herself. Same end result, really, but at least she would've had the satisfaction of more immediate revenge.
Of course, that wouldn't happen because Scully is Scully, just as Mulder isn't entirely discouraged after the events of this two-parter (despite being in roughly the same place he always winds up at the end of these storylines), because that's who he is. That's one of the reasons why I always came back to this show as a kid, and why I love it so much, even with my difficulties in understanding all the ins and outs of the black oil betrayals. I love these two characters, and I love that they can't be corrupted or dissuaded or undone. You'll note that our heroes never get overcome by the black oil—intentionally or not, that's symbolic of their role on the show. Mulder can be a jerk, and Scully's skepticism can occasionally wear thin, but while they sometimes bend, they never break. I like that. The X-Files is a show of often shocking cynicism and darkness, but at its core, it never really gave up on its heroes, and that makes it easier for us to do the same.
- Mulder theorizes here that the radioactive oil that we see infecting people is actually a medium for the alien to move through. Which is a lot creepy than any of those gray heads were.
- Nice continuity nod: "At this point? Other than a sign from God?" I've seen stranger things, believe me."
- Hey, that lab tech who keeps flirting with Scully is back! I keep expecting him to die horribly.
Stop me if you've heard this one before: there's a man, and he's not really happy with the way his life is going. He thinks he's a great man, and he thinks he's entitled to great things, but so far, his is a history of failure, compromise, and rejection. Then one day he finds out there's something wrong inside of him. Something terminal. But instead of being destroyed by this possible death sentence, the man uses it as an excuse to finally reach for his destiny. He takes the freedom granted by the limited time he has left to risk everything, to become, as the pop psychologists call it, self-actualized. Only problem is, this guy is kind of a bastard. And if he's gonna get what's coming to him, a lot of people are going to get hurt in the process.
"Pusher" is Vince Gilligan's is second episode as a writer on The X-Files, and it's his first great one. I don't want to over-stress the connections between this ep and Gilligan's current claim to fame, Breaking Bad, but it's not impossible to draw a line between the two. "Pusher" is a return to the more traditional MotW episode structures after a run of aggressively stylized takes on the concept. Whereas eps like "Syzygy" and "War of the Coprophages" worked as self-parody (with varying degrees of success), and "Grotesque" amped up the grimness and plot-twists, "Pusher" is surprisingly straightforward, or as straightforward as these ever get. There's a bad guy, and Mulder and Scully have to stop him before he kills more people. They follow his tracks, stumble more than once, but finally through a combination of solid detective work, quick thinking, and force of will, they get the upper hand and take the bad guy down. We're not commenting on the core concepts of the series here, and we're not mocking the cliches. Whenever I try and think of "pure" X-Files, this is the kind of ep I think of; when the mythology started losing steam, it's solid foundation like this that kept the show on its feet.
"Pusher" works because it has a terrific villain, and because it knows how to use that villain to the greatest effect. "Soft Light," Vince Gilligan's first written episode on the show, had a cool idea—scientist with a black hole shadow—but that idea never really came together. There are frightening moments in the ep, but over all, the story lacks the cohesive, fifty-minute-thriller-movie kick that you get when the series is really working well. In "Pusher," Gilligan seems to have learned from his mistakes, because while we never get too much into exactly how Robert Patrick Modell's (ooo, three names, no wonder he's an assassin) work on a biological level (he has a brain tumor, so, there you are), we know what he can do, and we know the basic scope and danger of his abilities. If he can talk to a person, he can make them do stuff, be it getting into a car accident or having a heart attack. It's mind control, but it's mind control that relies on a battle of wills, and, even better, the battle isn't simply rapid cutting between two actors.
The cold open here is terrific, as we're introduced to Modell (played with a wonderful snarky contempt by Robert Wisden) getting arrested at a grocery store by a team of armed agents. Modell's casual arrogance ("Let's get this show on the road") contrasts beautifully against all those men with guns and blank expressions, and the pay-off, as Modell talks a cop into crashing his car into an 18-wheeler, sets things up nicely. Throughout the episode, Gilligan makes great use of Modell's abilities, never making him unbelievably over-powered, but tossing out creative uses for mind-control that prevent the ep from being a simple "investigate, monster attack, investigate" paradigm. In particular, there's a great scene where Modell forces a cardiac arrest on the agent who's been tracking him, all through a simple phone call about bad cholesterol. Modell is powerful enough that while there's no doubt Mulder and Scully will find some way to beat him by the end (or, at the very least, temporarily restrain him), the stakes are quite high, and the possible solutions seem very limited.
Man, though, how awesome is that climax in the hospital? Mulder strides in wearing his best Laser Tag outfit (hey, remember that episode when Mulder and Scully get stuck in the virtual world video game?), shots are fired, and Mulder's camera goes dead. Scully runs in after, and she finds Modell and Mulder in a stare off, about to engage in a game of Russian Roulette. By now we know that Modell isn't long for the world, and that his powers most likely stem from a brain tumor. We won't find out till the end that Modell had every opportunity to have that tumor treated, but refused. Even not knowing this, though, it's not that much of a jump to believe that the creep wants to go out in a blaze of glory. He'd obviously prefer to see Mulder dead first, but that's a preference, not a need. What's fun here is to speculate just how much of a death wish Mulder has. I certainly don't think he's suicidal, but given the intensity and often desperation that characterizes his work, there's a certain despair buried in all of Fox's efforts, the fear that nothing he does could ever be enough. It's not enough to ruin him, but it is enough to give Modell an in—and if it wasn't for Scully, and a nearby fire alarm, who knows what might've happened?
"Pusher" isn't perfect. I'm not a huge fan of the victimized, mousy FBI clerk who Modell takes advantage of, because it's so obviously a set-up, and because the implication that Modell is able to get through to her because of her fear walks that weird line between plausible and not entirely necessary. Then again, I don't really have any problem with Modell exploiting Agent Frank Burst's wait to give him a heart attack. Maybe I'm just a huge hypocrite—or maybe I'm just not a fan of how obvious that poor agent is. She's cast and written to be as meek and unassuming as possible, and there's no real character there, just a stereotype. It is fairly hilarious to see her take down Skinner, but it could've been better handled. (And while we're there, how exactly does Modell's fake FBI badge work? Everything we've seen so far has pointed to him needing contact with his victims to influence their minds. Is he able to create illusions now that just project to anyone in the vicinity?)(Although Skinner sees right through it. Of course.)
Overall, I'd rank this as a minor classic. It's smart, well-paced, and exciting, and Modell is memorable for being a very human monster who manages to be both well-drawn and unsympathetic. X-Files gets a lot of mileage out of the tragic killer, and Modell stands out as an underdog who may have deserved all the abuse he received. Comparing him to Walter White, the anti-hero of Breaking Bad, may come off as finding connections for the sake of connections, especially for those who haven't watched all of Bad's three seasons; White has a family, he's brought some good into the world, and there still may be a chance of him finding some small piece of his soul before the end. Yet at the heart of White and Modell, there's that rage. That but-when-is-it-my-turn rage. That why-won't-these-idiots-pay-attention-to-me fury. We have a habit in our culture of rooting for the little guy, but it's important to remember that in some cases, we'd all be better off in the little guy stayed small.
- "You know, officer, your uniform is really the most soothing shade of blue."
- You can see Gilligan taking a few beats from Darin Morgan here, I think—there's the tabloid Modell looks at in the grocery store, and there's also Scully, whose characterization here is an approximation of Morgan's take on the character, especially in that last scene. The difference is, to Morgan, Scully is the only grown-up in a world full of nutty kids, and for Gilligan, Scully is more the perfect partner and support. She's still sane, but she doesn't have the same distance from the craziness that Morgan's Scully does.
- Plus, Gilligan gives Mulder the episode's best joke: "Hey, your shoelace is untied." Beat. "Made you look."
"Teso dos Bichos"
Weird that I'd be covering "Teso dos Bichos" this week, after writing about "That Darn Katz!," a Futurama episodes that posits cats as a race of intelligent aliens intent on harnessing the Earth's rotational energy to save their own dying planet. I mean, I'm not thinking it means anything, but it is a bit of a coincidence. I gave the Futurama episode an A-, and while I've been taking some flack in the comments for that, I stand by the grade. (Okay, it might be more of a B+, but the distinction is, despite what my desperately nerdy sixth grade self would've told you, slight.) I will not be giving "Bichos" an A-. Or a B+. Or anything approaching that high. The plots of "Bichos" and "Katz!" both revolve around killer kitties, but they differ in any number of other respects, the most important distinction being, "Katz" realizes it's ridiculous. "Bichos" takes itself far too seriously.
Really, the script here seems like it would've made much more sense coming in the second, or even in the first, season of the show. It's straightforward, not particularly scary, uses a standard b-movie set-up without commenting or subverting that set-up (well, there's some moderate subversion in that the most obvious suspect gets killed, but other than that), and the whole thing often seems like somebody made a copy of that script about aliens and gorillas and just shuffled the characters around. There's something very frustrating to see this now, because if it'd had dropped earlier in the show's run, I would've most likely nodded, smiled, and moved on, accepting that the series' procedural elements were strong enough to get us through some growing pains. But to get this now, after such a generally strong run, makes it worse than just tedious.
There are some bones, and they belong to an ancient medicine woman or shaman or whatever, and they get moved. And wouldn't you know it, this turns out to be a bad call, because some crazy POV shots start killing people, first at the original dig site (goodbye, officious white-haired guy who probably owns a pipe!) and then at the museum where the bones are being held. Mulder and Scully are called in to investigate, they do some poking around, and discover one guy who came over from the original dig, who's wasted on ancient hallucinogens most of the time, and who could be turning into a werecat. At least, that's what we're supposed to think, until Mulder and Scully, investigating the museum basement after a series of deaths and disappearances, find a herd of murderous cats who attack them. It's as goofy as it sounds. Mulder and Scully escape, and we get one the typical "ooo, Santa Claus is real!" style endings, and, well, that's it.
I doubt this was the worst X-Files ever, and there's some decent Mulder and Scully banter. It's cute that the museum director who gets killed is named Dr. Lewton. (A nod to Val Lewton, the producer behind Cat People and some other great flicks.) Maybe I've been doing this too long, maybe I'm burnt out, but for the life of me, I can't find anything worth commenting on here. The tribal curse is played out, and nothing new is done with it here. The cats themselves aren't scary, and while there is something moderately clever in going with a group of them, instead of just having one big cat-type monster do all the heavy lifting, the actual reveal of our heroes batting away a bunch of orange tabbies (some of whom had to've been stuffed) is too ludicrous to be effective. Unlike other episodes on the show, this one isn't even willing to embrace it's own absurdity. It's straight-faced from start to finish, and there's even a baffling attempt from Mulder to make it seem like some sort of national tragedy that people aren't taking the "curse" seriously.
Maybe I'm missing something here. There could be some subtext in, um, yeah, I got nothing. The dead rats in the toilet were freaky, right? And they did kill that dog off, so that's hardcore. Really, though, I'm just too disappointed to say much else. This is paint-by-numbers at its most tedious, and while it's nice to have evident proof of how far the show has come since it started, that doesn't make it any easier to sit through.
- I don't have a single quote from this episode in my notes. Oh wait, there was one: "She's dead." Yeah, that's a keeper.
- Next week, Todd takes a look at "Hell Money," blows us out of the water with "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space,'" and tries to maintain interest in "Avatar."