“En Ami” (season 7, episode 15; originally aired 3/19/2000)
In which the Cigarette Smoking Man and Scully go on a road trip…
As a show gets into its later years, original premises become thin on the ground. Most of the dramatic material available when the pilot aired has been mined to exhaustion and beyond, and stones have been wrung of every possible drop of blood. Things start to seem familiar no matter how hard the writers try to keep it fresh, and the behavior of characters (and the actors who bring them to life) is so well worn it’s possible to predict the words and inflection of every scene minutes ahead of time. Yet it’s not completely hopeless. After all, predictability isn’t always a bad thing, and the comfort and pleasure of seeing the same faces after so much time gives everything a lived in feel, enriching the relationship between the work and its audience. Also, every once in a while, the writers can still hit on an idea so striking and perfect you’ll wonder why it wasn’t done ages ago. That’s the case with this week’s first episode, “En Ami.” Scully and the Cigarette Smoking Man go on a road trip. How cool is that?
So cool that it mostly overcomes some significant script flaws, although the hour hasn’t aged well for me in the four days since I first watched it. To set up: a little boy named Jason has cancer, and his parents are refusing to get him medical treatment on religious grounds. One night, he sees a glowing light outside his window, and strange men on the lawn. The next day, his cancer has disappeared, seemingly verifying his and his family’s faith. Since this is The X-Files and not Touched By An Angel, it’s not quite so simple, something Scully discovers for herself after Mulder sends her to the boy’s home to investigate. Jason has a scab on the back of his neck, and that’s pretty significant, seeing as how this is a show where people get chips injected into their necks to keep track of where they are, and, oh yeah, to cure their cancer. So Jason’s salvation came from the government, and as soon as Scully realizes it, the Cigarette Smoking Man comes calling. He tells her he’s dying (cerebral inflammation), but before he goes, he wants to do one last good thing: he wants to bring the cancer cure, which is in fact a cure for all disease, to the world. The catch is, he needs Scully to come with him to meet the man who developed the process, and if she tells Mulder, the deal is off.
Right away, the big problem with this story is that it requires Scully to be a lot more naive than she usually is. Which isn’t to say she’s an idiot; once she accepts C.G.B Spender’s story (or, at least, realizes there’s enough of a chance he’s right that she can’t bare to risk not going), she starts wearing a wire, and tries to send tapes back to Mulder in case things go south. Of course, the trip doesn’t seem to last that long, so I’m not sure how useful those tapes would’ve been, unless she got killed, but still it’s good prep work which only gets foiled because Spender has a high class assassin following them. It’s just not enough. Teaming up these two characters creates all kinds of potential for fascinating drama, and the actors work well together, but given their history, the idea that Scully would believe Spender’s tale enough to make her think the risk was worth taking is stretch. This is a man who has lied and murdered and plotted against her and her partner from the very beginning, before she was born even, and now he suddenly, and with no more cause than a sob story about a death sentence, wants to do right by the world?
I can buy Mulder going along with it. Mulder has always been the impulsive one, the guy who takes big risks and doesn’t seem to value his life all that highly. (He’s not suicidal, he just never lets the fear of death stopping him from following his hunches.) Scully is the skeptic, and yet all she needs for proof is Jason’s health, and a quick trip to Spender’s supposed offices. William B. Davis is one of the show’s greatest assets, and his hang-dog sincerity can be surprisingly convincing, but our heroes have fought him and everything he represents for far too long for this to be believable. The reveal three-quarters through the hour that it really is a con, and that Spender’s using Scully as a way to draw out a Defense Department mole, is more disappointing than shocking. Given the way the episode ends, that’s probably intentional, and I’ll get to that ending in a moment, but that still doesn’t justify the treatment of our favorite red-headed FBI agent. She’s basically passive, moving where she’s told, her one act of rebellion quickly and easily stamped out. Anderson sells it for the most part, but it’s still disappointing she doesn’t get to put up more of a fight, especially considering Spender’s creepy paternalism towards her.
Yeah, so this is also an episode in which one of the show’s greatest villains changes Scully into her pajamas while she’s unconscious, and buys her a sexy evening gown. It’s weird, and the only reason it’s not incredibly creepy to watch is, again, Davis. The script even makes some feints towards trying to suggest Spender is mixing some light seduction into his con job, exploiting his own legitimate fears about aging and his place in the world in order to appeal to her pity, and then going just a little bit further. He busts out Scully’s old line about being attracted to powerful men, and makes sure to tell Scully he’s had a special affection for her all the years he’s been tormenting her and her partner; and while sure, the “affection” could just be read as a kind of faux fatherly concern, the whole situation is threatening in a way that’s never properly addressed. There’s no question that, if Scully is going to work with Spender, there’s going to need to be tension, but Scully’s willingness to just keep going along with what’s happening robs her of agency, and makes what should be a courageous choice (risking her life for the potential betterment of humanity) into something inexplicable and vaguely childish.
I’m not sure I’m making as much sense with this as I’d like, but I’ll leave this thought behind, because going further risks losing what little thread I have left. Suffice to say, there’s a contrast between Gillian Anderson’s performance (as confident and powerful as ever), and her character’s paralysis, and it doesn’t quite work for me. And yet, like I said near the start of this review, I consider “En Ami” to be basically sound. The Cigarette Smoking Man is a great character, a frumpier precursor to more charismatic TV Machiavellis like Lost’s Benjamin Linus and Justified’s Boyd Crowder, and attempts to give us a clearer sense of what drives him, even while his motivations remain a mystery to our heroes, are always welcome. It’s both darkly hilarious and deeply sad to watch him try and chat Scully up, as they drive across country or share a meal in a restaurant so classy it uses well-stocked bookshelves for interior decor. For Scully, this is agony, a frightening, dangerous glimpse directly into the heart of darkness. For Spender, it’s very likely the most human contact he’s had all year.
Of course it’s a con job, but like any great lie, there’s some truth to it. While the episode probably would’ve been improved if Spender had come to Scully with a more convincing lie, the amount of his personality that slips through makes the agent’s gullibility easier to accept. This isn’t a perfect hour, but for me, it mostly gets a pass because it gives us a glimpse of the man behind the monster. I’m always a sucker for that (see “Musings Of A Cigarette Man”), and even with the number of compromises needed to get the premise off the ground, it’s still a fundamentally good idea. I love the fact that Scully feels a brief bit of pity for a man she despises, for all the right reasons, only to end up hating him even more, even though he saves her life. (After admittedly putting her in danger in the first place. This shit has layers, yo.) Scully’s CD with the supposed cure for disease turns out to be blank, and the informant who gave it to her is shot dead for his efforts; that’s a bummer, both for the obvious reasons, and because it’s hard not to want to accept Spender’s self-defense, even when his rhetoric is more empty posturing than facts. His power comes from having just enough humanity left to covnince other’s he’s a human being. Yet every time he does it, he loses a little more. So: the bad guys win again, and Spender basks in his victory with a glass of wine. But man, as nice as that cabin is, and as comfy as it looks sitting by the fire, there’s only one person in the room, the house, for miles around.
- I’m not sure what to make of Spender’s decision to throw away the real CD. On the one hand, it contradicts his ruthless self-interest, and the thought of him throwing away any kind of power is a stretch. On the other, the character has softened just enough in the past few years that it almost plays.
- I’ve never really bought that line about Scully and powerful men. For one thing, most people are drawn to powerful people—that’s why they’re powerful. For another, it seems to cheapen Scully’s relationship with Mulder; while they’ve had some miserable times, and while Mulder’s been an ass to her before, their developing friendship never read to me as Scully being somehow pulled in by Fox’s raw magnetism. I could accept the line in “Never Again,” because Scully was the one who said it, and it could’ve had all kinds of different meanings. But to bring it up again, and then seem to give credence to it by having Scully buy into Spender’s act, is silly.
- “En Ami” is French for “as a friend.”
- Mulder is super pissed when Scully goes off alone. My guess: he’s jealous.
- Completely forgot the episode’s other big flaw: the score is distracting and over loud, often to inadvertent comic effect.
“Chimera” (season 7, episode 16; originally aired 4/2/2000)
In which a woman does everything she can to protect her family…
How much do we need to know about our monsters? How much explanation is necessary for an audience to accept the slavering beast on screen as a real enough threat?
It’s a difficult line to pinpoint, and it’s one I’ve been thinking about a lot watching this show. As a general rule of thumb, too little is better than too much. When writers over-explain their premise, when they come up with an increasingly elaborate and tortuous mythology to justify the plot, it’s boring; characters are reduced to mouthpieces existing solely to deliver whatever chunk of exposition is necessary to get us to the next scene, and the crisis driving the narrative becomes dry and academic, an hour of recess buried inside an endless day of school. For a “good” example of this, see M. Night Shyamalan’s The Lady In The Water. There are gorgeous moments in that movie, and great performances from Paul Giamatti and Bryce Dallas Howard. Too bad they get lost in all the clunky, nonsensical world-building.
But it’s possible to go the other way, and undersell, and that’s been of my problems with late period X-Files. Just coming up with a basic monster concept isn’t quite enough. There needs to be a personality, enough detail to imply this is a creature that might live somewhere, lurking under storm drains. Remember Eugene Tooms? The hook was, he could stretch and squeeze himself into seemingly impossible shapes, a psychotic Mr. Fantastic. But that wasn’t where the concept ended. He also had specific dietary needs (human livers), a hunting pattern, a history, and a greasy, smarmy personality. Too often in these last couple of seasons, the writers have come up with the sketch of a creature, and then left it at that, trusting to the stars’ chemistry and a few well-directed scare sequences to carry the hour through. It’s like reading a lesser short story from a prolific genre writer; all the signs of quality are there, but some crucial part, some sort of third heat is missing.
“Chimera” at least makes the effort to give its title creature psychological justification. The rotting cave monster who murders two women in an idyllic suburban town isn’t operating on a whim, or because someone dug into the wrong kind of sacred land. It has an agenda, and that agenda has elements of misery mixed in with the horror, which is often the case in the series’ most memorable creatures. (Although Tooms and the Fluke Monster weren’t exactly tragic.) Plus, there’s some great comic banter between Mulder, who gets sent on a solo mission when the daughter of a federal judge is the first victim, and Scully, who gets left behind on a stake-out to trap a serial killer targeting prostitutes. The attack sequences are suspenseful, making great use of the chimera’s hatred of mirrors, and the score is back to its usual effectiveness. But the episode falls short of classic status, trying to make a metaphor into flesh, and not quite succeeding.
For what it’s worth, that metaphor does do a decent job of hiding the episode’s actual antagonist. There’s a sullen neighbor with a supposed vendetta against the first victim, and that victim’s husband finds birth control pills made out in his missing (soon to be late) wife’s name, which means she was probably having an affair; beneath the town’s sunny exterior beats a heart of sexy, sexy decadence, as is so often the case on television. But the eventual reveal actually does a decent job of pulling all the various clues together. The actual killer is the sheriff’s wife, Ellen, a very nice lady who takes Mulder into her home, washes his clothes, and tells him about the joys of family with an evangelical zeal. A little too much zeal, actually. Her husband has been having affairs with not one but two local women. In his defense, he tried to end his marriage years ago, but Ellen refused to let him go, and then for some reason, when she realized he was sleeping around, she developed a monstrous split personality and started bumping off the competition.
This could’ve been horribly sexist (evil woman traps man in domestic relationship, and kills to keep her icy grip on his manhood!) (ew), but “Chimera” does at least try to present its characters as sympathetically as possible. Sheriff Phil’s philandering is excessive (especially since one of the women he was sleeping with, the monster’s first victim, was married herself, and one of Ellen’s closest friends), but the fact that he tried to leave his wife before they had their first child means he’s at least not a total bastard. And while Ellen could’ve easily been just as awful in human form as she is as a creature, Michelle Joyner (who was also the lady who dies a horrible, horrible death in the first ten minutes of Cliffhanger) does a good job at keeping her likable, her maternal warmth just barely covering a desperate need to maintain the status quo. Mulder gets some good lines in, and it’s always fun watching him explain his crazier theories to people who aren’t prepared to hear them. And Scully, despite being sidelined for the hour, actually gets to prove her partner wrong for once, when she discovers the serial killer case they’d been working on together at the start of the episode was actually just a religious man convincing prostitutes to come to his halfway house and get cleaned up. (Her few phone conversations with Mulder are funny, although her outraged disgust at the vile horrors she’s been forced to witness doesn’t make much sense.)
The reason this fails to completely hold together is that we never really get a sense of what the hell is going on with Ellen. There doesn’t need to be a rigorous scientific explanation for her seemingly magical ability to change her body and break mirrors with a glance, but just saying, “She really wants this family thing to work” isn’t enough. If we had a sense of where her need comes from, if there was some hint at what drove her to this point, it would work; as is, the actress’s performance is excellent, but the character remains too generic. We don’t even know what drove her to start killing when she does. Holding back the reveal of who the real killer helps to hold our interest, but it also means that, when the truth comes out, there isn’t enough time to develop it. Apart from her overly solicitous nature towards Mulder, a trembling voice, and a few troubled looks, we don’t know much about Ellen; the speech about multiple personality disorders Fox throws out at the end doesn’t go far enough. The end result is a decent hour of TV which fails to accomplish much in the way of small town satire or creature creation. The monster is frightening, but it doesn’t linger long.
- Mulder figures out Ellen’s identity, just in time for her to change and try and kill him. Good thing she’s filled that bath tub before he knocked on her door!
- Director Cliff Bole does a great job at making sure we’re always aware of reflective surfaces, even when there’s no monster in them.
- “No really, what did I do.” -Mulder, being funny with Skinner.
- “I gotta hand it to you, Sheriff. You put the service back in ‘Protect and Serve.’” -Mulder, getting in a burn
Next week: Todd gets into some heavy Scully time with “All Things,” and then makes the mistake of smoking “Brand X.”