"Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose"
Heart attack. Car accident. Heart attack. Car accident. Lung cancer. Bowel cancer. Stomach cancer. Heart attack. Going out for cigarettes at 3 am, crossing the street when a drunk driver makes an illegal left and the impact pulverizes legs, spine, internals just a mass of pudding. Lung cancer. Shingling a roof in August, Six Flags T-shirt with a hole in the left armpit, sweating, headache, pulling back a broken square and reaching for the glue and there's a hole through the rafters and wasps swarm out, stinging thighs, neck, armpit, waving them away, not watching, over the side and the drop to the lawn isn't long enough for a scream. Car accident. Heart attack. Reaching for a wallet, going slow, middle of a strange city and lost and the guy with the gun tweaks and pulls the trigger. Drowning. Lung cancer. Throat cancer. Heart attack. Slipping in the tub and breaking and nobody knows till the neighbors notice the smell. Cancer. Cancer. Cancer.
This is the way our worlds end. Bangs for some, whimpers for most, but the circumstances only matter in the moment. The real point is, well, it's hard to find any point. Our consciousness allows us the questionable luxury of knowing we have a conclusion, and there are some days when that's all I can think about. Will it hurt? Will it be easy? Will I be alone? Or maybe it won't happen at all. Maybe I'll be that exception to the only rule that has no exceptions, because I'm special and smart and kind and clever. I have meaning, same as anybody, and that should count, because otherwise why bother with anything? "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" is my favorite episode of The X-Files because it's funny, suspenseful, does well by Scully and Mulder, and creates some indelible characters. It also addresses our mortality without blinking, balancing an almost unbearably brutal pessimism with just enough hope to be honest. Or maybe it's not hope. Maybe it's the understanding that, miserable or not, this is the life we get, and we might as well live it.
"Bruckman" made an impression on me when it first aired. Back then, I didn't really think of shows in terms of "good" or "bad." I knew what I liked and what I didn't, but I never considered how a series I liked could vary in quality from week to week. I was invested in The X-Files and MacGyver and Quantum Leap and Roseanne and Night Court and more, and once I made that investment, it was all basically there. I can't think of a better way to describe it—these stories, which were often cheesy or shrill or clumsy, weren't something it even occurred to me to judge. Those few times I did find an episode less than great, I just assumed that was a failing on my part. Like I wasn't living up to expectations as a viewer. It sounds crazy, and it kind of was. I didn't really think Sam Beckett was passing through time or Harry Anderson was dispensing wisdom and magic tricks somewhere in New York. But then, I kind of did.
"Bruckman" didn't change that, exactly, but watching the episode again now, I was reminded how much of an impact it had on me, and how even with my weird approach to fiction, I knew this was something special. X-Files has had some great guest actors, but Peter Boyle, playing the title role of a psychic who can see how people will die, wasn't really a guest actor. For this one hour, Clyde Bruckman was the star of the show, and Mulder and Scully shared the lead with him, because "Repose" is about a character. The structure here follows tradation, with a monster, a handful of unsettling kill scenes, banter between our heroes, and finally a confrontation with the monster that ends in gun shots. It's well-crafted, creepy, and memorable. It's also secondary to what's really important. I don't say that to dismiss the Bellhop Bastard at all, because he's critical to the "Repose"'s main themes, and writer Darin Morgan is so expert at putting everything together that nothing here is extraneous or filler. I mean it more as a compliment. Morgan does here what the show had to do if it ever wanted its Monster-Of-The-Week episodes to be more than good clean pulp: he uses our expectations for what The X-Files is supposed to be, and he delivers on those expectations while telling exactly the story he wants to tell.
There's a goofiness here that helps balance the despair. Bruckman mocks the Stupendous Yappi's psychic predictions, but buys the tabloid with them anyway, because why the hell not. (He also gets a lottery ticket and a pint of scotch, which seems like the perfect Saturday evening for a Morgan protagonist.) We watch one murder, but when we cut to the crime scene, it's actually the site of a previous killing, and when the cops start talking about outside help, the person they're describing sounds a lot like Mulder—but when Mulder shows up, everyone's surprised. Some of these gags fulfill thematic purpose, some to reward us for paying attention, but the point here isn't that coincidence and happenstance add together to create a larger meaning. The point is that the net of connections are the meaning. Clyde Bruckman isn't a happy man, and his unhappiness stems from his curse: he sees how things fit together, but only in the way they all wind up in the same place. His life is an airless, suffocating trap. He explains that he got his power from an obsession over the death of the Big Bopper, becoming so fascinated by the string of choices and luck that got the Bopper onto the same plane with Buddy Holly and Richie Valens that he eventually was able to put together the pieces on everyone's deaths. He can't use the knowledge to change anything, because the more he sees how everything fits, the more terrified he becomes that any action he takes to help anyone will only make it worse.
Still, he does try and help in "Repose." Of our two regular leads, Scully comes out the best in the episode, but Mulder does okay. He's mocked by Bruckman ("You know, there are worse ways to go, but I can't think of a more undignified one than auto-erotic asphyxiation."), and his talk about psychics looks pretty silly in the face of Boyle's embittered, mundane reality. Yet I don't think Morgan has complete contempt for him here, because even with all the usual Mulder ridiculousness, at heart the character is trying to do the right thing. No one ever mentions conspiracies or alien abductions or cigarette smoking men in the episode, but if you dig deep enough, it works (much like "Jose Chung's From Outer Space," albeit in a far more subtle way) as a critique of the show's quixotic obsession with answers. Bruckman has the answers, or at least the only answers that really matter, and he's gained nothing from it. His life is worse than it should've been. There's a reason people get obsessed with avoiding spoilers; without the surprise, stories and life can become mechanical, routine. Mulder has given up so many years to uncovering secrets, and in some ways, he's as pathetic as Bruckman. The big difference is that he's still searching—and we get a sense here that things might not work out very well if he ever finds what he's looking for. He could end up like Bruckman, alone and unloved, or maybe he'd just crack, start working as a bellhop, and murder strangers because he thinks he's destined to do it.
I don't think we're supposed to judge Mulder too harshly for his aspirations, however. Bruckman is doomed to be part of the case from the start, with or without Mulder's obsession with occult powers, and Bruckman even manages to make some small influence for good here. He helps save Mulder's life, although whether or not that's an actual change from Bruckman's vision of Mulder's death, or just Bruckman getting a glimpse of the killer's skewed prophecy, is debatable. He finds a home for the neighbor's dog. And he makes an impression on Scully, so that when he kills himself, there's at least someone to mourn him. Their conversation in the hotel room is great, as Boyle makes potentially embarrassing lines sound sincere, abashed, and slightly amused, but really, it's all about:
Scully: All right. So how do I die?
Bruckman: You don't.
For an episode that ends with a likable character killing himself, "Bruckman" isn't what I'd call a downer. One of my favorite novels is Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov, and there's this great passage in it that I think is relevant here:
Life Everlasting—based on a misprint!
I muse as I drove homeward: take the hint,
And stop investigating my abyss?
But all it once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
What it means, to me at least, is that there is no solution or purpose, but the search itself, and the pleasure we take in the random and the mistaken and the game of putting together pieces that keep changing and disappearing and twisting in your hand. For Bruckman, the questions went too far, and the joy died, but Morgan can't help but throw in tricks and puns and allusions. After all, if heart attack; cancer; plastic bag; are the only ways this thing can end for any of us, why not play? Even in all the bleakness, there's hope in that somehow, and who knows. Maybe there really is a riddle we can solve that will make this better. Maybe we can save everyone, and ourselves, and the sun will shine tomorrow and those lotto numbers will come in. Maybe Scully never will die. It's a lie, but there are worse ones to believe in.
- I didn't really talk about Scully much here, because I'm not sure there's much to say. She's the sane person, which means she's incredibly likable and important, but doesn't provide much fodder for discussion.
- Oh, and this episode is absolutely hilarious, by the way. Yappi is a hoot, and Boyle's deadpan is incredible.
- "But you're a fortune teller. You should've seen this coming."
- "I'm supposed to believe that's a real name?"
- "Sometimes it seems that everyone's having sex except for me."
- Bruckman: "Do you want to know how you're going to die?" Long pause. Mulder: "Y-yes, I would."
- "If coincidences are just coincidences, why do they feel so contrived?"
- "Hey, that's not the way it's supposed to happen."
You watch enough Twilight Zone eps, you get a feel for what makes the great ones great, and the middling ones skippable. As an anthology show, TZ depended largely on the strength of its scripts from week to week. The actors were obviously important, and the direction, but since the series didn't have a recurring cast or persistent world to get emotionally invested in, the stories stood largely on their own merits. (You could make the case that Rod Serling himself was TZ's recurring character, since even apart from his narration, his personality is stamped so firmly into the show that it creates its own connective tissue. There's something in that, but it doesn't save Serling's clunkier scripts.) The mediocre episodes were always the ones where the concept stayed at one level. A hook isn't enough on its own. It has to have an extra twist or emotional level to be complete.
The X-Files has recurring characters and basic continuity, but non-mythology episodes are closed-circuits, much like TZ. And like TZ, the bland ones are bland because they never develop beyond their original idea. "The List" is a perfect example of this. A prisoner is executed, but swears he'll come back from the dead to avenge himself on five people who wronged him. Mulder and Scully show up and try and stop him. They fail. That's pretty much it. Oh, we have some attempts at drama, between Warden J.T. Walsh's pissy viciousness, prisoner politics, and Ken Foree shacking up with the dead man's wife, but there's no depth to this. The sideplots have so little effect on the main narrative as to be basically padding.
This isn't exactly new. Every season of the show has this kind of episode, and it's hard to imagine many shows of this type (ones that have to come up with single ep plots most of the time) that doesn't have the occasional filler. What makes "The List" at all interesting is that unlike, say, "Shapes" or "Born Again," it really nails the look of a great episode. Once you get past the set-design and cinematography, you end up with some good lines and a few scary moments, and that's it. But because the set-design is as good as it is, I don't mind the shallowness as much. A spoonful of sugar and all that. I spent so much of the time getting unnerved by the prison setting, and sweating in sympathy with what appeared to be rain-forest level humidity, that it was almost enough to get me past the lack of interesting writing.
Am I being too harsh on the script here? I didn't hate watching the episode, but I do get frustrated when the show turns into a matter of just hitting the predictable marks with our heroes just a few steps behind. As a casual audience member, I can deal with that, because I get other things done while I watch, and because I really do like the show. As a reviewer, it gets annoying because I actually do need to pay attention, and I get bored. There were nice touches here. The maggots were creepy, and I loved how gory the show gets when it decides to pull out the stops. But the fact that the dead man is able to rise up and kill from beyond the grave just because he's smart and found some religion isn't enough. There's no second act to that. The concept isn't original enough to be distinctive, and it turns into a standard body count with characters I don't care about dying horribly.
About the only thing I can think of to mention here is how unnerved Scully gets at being in the prison, and I don't really have anything nice to say about that. It's a little reminiscent of Clarice Starling going into the insane asylum in Silence of the Lambs, but Starling was an inexperienced young woman who hadn't even graduated to full agent status yet. Scully has experience, she's shown herself capable of kicking ass when it needs to be done, and it feels cheap to have her act so spooked. I wonder sometimes if I just have this picture of the character in my head, one taken from other episodes (especially Morgan penned ones), and I just get bothered when my Scully in theory doesn't quite fit with Scully in practice. Mulder should be the nerdy, weaker one. Scully should be the fighter. Is that too much to ask?
Of course, in her defense, having Ken Foree grab you from behind in an empty prison shower would freak anybody out. I was happy to see him and J.T. Walsh pop up in the episode. Walsh is given slightly more to do, and the character makes the most of it. I was half hoping for a reveal that would show Walsh was actually behind the murders, not the executed man, but this was not to be. Foree's death was clever—I liked how the executed man was able to manipulate his wife into doing his dirty work and pin his crimes on someone else (not that it would've mattered much to him, I guess), and I liked the setting. The final scene, with the ghost showing up in Walsh's car and forcing him off the road, is effectively violent and scary, and the last show of the warden's dead face was a great note to end on. So really, this one gets good marks in style, but barely passes on content.
- "Imagine you could come back and take out five people who made you suffer." "Only five?"
I love the internet. It's provided me with so much that's good in my life: this job, friends, pornography. I even met my girlfriend online. It's tricky, though, meeting people through your computer screen, because chatting and e-mails isn't like face to face. I find it easy to forget that. Typed conversations can be incredibly open, heartfelt, and sweet, and while usually clicking with someone online means you'll at least get along in person, there are other factors to consider. Looks, obviously, but even something as seemingly harmless as different speech patterns can be enough to throw off a potential relationship. Expressing yourself through the written word means the freedom to craft your thoughts, and it also makes it much, much easier to hide those unsightly quirks that've made meat space communication so challenging. Like bad breath, or a skin condition, or an unfortunate habit to eat human fat.
I preferred "2Shy" to "The List," if only because I like monsters a little more than non-scary ghosts, and because at least this time, Mulder and Scully got to actually do something. Of course the attempt at topicality with online dating is dated, and there's something unpleasant in the idea that a creature like Virgil Incanto can seduce anyone simply by spitting out some Italian poetry and telling all the right lies. Obviously there are vulnerable, lonely people out there, but the female victims in this episode aren't really given much autonomy beyond self-loathing and shyness. The fact that one of Virgil's intended victims manages to shoot him in the end is a nice twist, but too much of "2Shy" takes it as a given that single women are targets, and that they are most at risk when they try and broaden their horizons.
Still, monster wise, Virgil is wonderfully gross, draining his victims of their fatty tissue and leaving corpses in his wake that are less bodies than masses of bloody pudding. Actor Timothy Carhart is just polite and non-threatening enough to be believably appealing to someone who doesn't want to get hurt, and it's fun watching him transition between seduction mode and contempt for all living things. I was surprised by the body count here, as nearly everyone who runs afoul of Virgil gets killed, right up till the finale. Even the landlady with the blind daughter. (I'm surprised they didn't make the blind daughter overweight and have Virgil attempt to seduce her. But of course, the emotional connection with his prey isn't that important to him, so he probably wouldn't put the moves on someone so close to home unless he had to.) It's interesting, too, how Virgil takes refuge in the home of a woman he dated when Mulder and Scully close in. You'd think he'd be better off running, but maybe he needs a snack. There's something very vampire-ish about needing your victim to let you in before you can murder them.
As for Mulder and Scully, well, they're their usual charming selves. Scully gets to deal with a sexist cop who doesn't think that women should be allowed on cases where a killer is specifically targeting women, which seems in its way as dated as the chatrooms and e-mail conversations we see. I could buy this situation coming up in the seventies or eighties, but while I'm sure there were sexist cops in the nineties, it seems odd to have this guy giving lectures to an FBI agent. I guess it's some sort of point about how it's tough being a lady in a man's world, but there's no real drama here. You feel kind of embarrassed for the guy.
Apart from that, well, like "The List," this lacks that extra level of story, but it feels more complete than the previous episode, if only because our heroes actually get to be an active participant in the action, and the monster movie arc is well-established stuff. The problem with Virgil is that, threat-wise, his needs are so specific that he lacks the universal creepiness of a Tooms, and he has such an elaborate process to kill someone that he's not much of a threat. Yeah, internet dating can be creepy, but there are probably easier ways to find overweight people (insert joke about Wal-Mart here). The reactionary take on the horrors of computer technology is silly (I mean, wouldn't these sites have some way to track their members? Part of the design of places like Match.com and Okcupid is to try and take as much of the danger out of the process as possible. If some members started getting murdered while out on dates with a person they'd met online, I think people would catch on quicker. Plus, you never, ever do this sort of thing without making sure your roommate or your friends know where you're going), but the effects are fun. This one seems like standard, meat-and-potatoes X-Files to me, on the low end of the scale, but passable.
- I'm not going to say the landlady deserved to get eaten, but come on. Forcing your work on a neighbor because you suspect they might be writer is not a way to make friends.
And now some thoughts on Space: Above And Beyond:
I have no idea why I'd never watched this show before. I remember feeling a certain contempt for it, but I can't tell you why—I guess the ads didn't appeal to me. (I used to tape MST3K episodes off the Sci-Fi Channel back when they were running reruns of this, and Col. McQueen's line, "The only thing means a damn to you anymore is hope," won't stop echoing in my brain.) That's strange, because I saw every episode of VR5, and I even watched a few episodes of Sliders. Clearly, I was not a man of discriminating tastes.
Now that I've seen some of the show, I'm sorry I missed it. "Mutiny" is often clunky and almost unbearably self-serious at times, but it also has a lot of sharp ideas, and takes some strong risks, story-wise. The episode deals with the strained relationship between "regular" human soldiers and tube grown In Vitroes, clones who come out of their tubes already fully grown. The Wild Cards are on a transport ship full of still-in-stasis In Vitroes when they're attacked by Chigs. The damage to the ship forces the captain to try and shut down the power on some of the In Vitro carg, which sparks a mutiny among the crew (and among the Cards, as two of them are In Vitros themselves). The debate about which duties matter more, the questions of identity and personality responsibility, and the dire consequences of making the wrong choice all reminded me strongly of the new Battlestar Galactica, where the stakes are so high that the worst always seems just on the verge of happening. The problem is, S:AAB doesn't have the actors or the scripts that BSG did, with characters too often flatly stating how they feel, or using broad cliches in the place of profound truths. Basically, it's all the edge of BSG with none of the art. If you keep that in mind, it's actually not too bad. Grade: B
The biggest strike against "Mutiny" is that it gets way too ponderous at times. "Roy Butts" brings in a one-off character, a crazy special ops guy with a thing for pancakes, and manages to lighten the mood considerably. Which isn't to say it's a laugh riot. Butts screws around with the Wild Cards' heads in order to determine if he can work with them, then takes them on a suicide mission to try and resolve some of his personal guilt issues. What makes "Butts" work is that the guest star character allows the writers to go a little crazy. We get a lot of Johnny Cash in the episode, which is great, and it's even better when Butts confesses that he doesn't much care for Cash's music, but listens to it because one of his former men loved the stuff. Butts' death, flying into a black hole while "I Walk The Line" plays is the sort of bizarre, iconic moment the show really needs, and the final shot of pancakes drifting through the vacuum of space has me wanting to see more. I'm still not sold on the actors here, but I love the sensibility that's developing. Now if only they could do something about the production design; it looks like every episode is shot at a power plant or Bronson Canyon. Grade: B+