“Field Trip” (season 6, episode 21; originally aired 5/9/1999)
In which all is a dream
Is there any twist more unsatisfying than “It was all a dream”? Maybe that’s a twist that can work once or twice when you’re a little kid—I remember being blown away by it when I was 4 or so—but once you get past those first couple of uses, it starts to feel like a cheat. If the storyteller isn’t going to take his story seriously, then why should you? If the rug can be pulled out from under you at any time, then there’s no good reason to trust the storyteller, and trust is something implicit to the act of listening to a story. M. Night Shyamalan rather exemplifies this rule, to the point where his twist endings ultimately made him seem somehow lesser in a lot of viewers’ eyes. He had pulled the rug out a few too many times, and we’d gotten tired of that.
“Field Trip” is one of my favorite episodes of The X-Files’ sixth season, but it’s an episode that sets such an impossibly high bar for itself that it’s one I’m surprised the show was able to cross. Much of the sixth season has been about the relationship between what’s real and what’s just in our heads, and this is the ultimate examination of that, as our two protagonists are trapped inside of an active hallucination, one that’s working as hard as it can to keep them from moving, that they might be digested by a giant fungus. On one level, it’s a bit of a mind-fuck episode—the twist at the very end when Mulder realizes that, no, he and Scully haven’t escaped the fungus is beautifully executed. But if it was just that twisty, complicated bit of business, it wouldn’t have the resonance it does. No, what makes “Field Trip” work is that it’s as much an examination of the Mulder and Scully relationship—and the way they complete each other in a nearly mystical way—as last season’s “Bad Blood.” This is an episode explicitly about the show and its central characters, and that gives it its beauty.
The best choice the script—by Vince Gilligan and John Shiban, from a story by Frank Spotnitz—makes is to isolate Mulder and Scully, then bring them together. In some ways, “Field Trip” is all about asking just what Mulder and Scully would most want, then giving it to them. This seems fairly easy in the case of Mulder: He wants proof that the aliens are real. It’s more difficult in the case of Scully, but the episode zeroes in on something really sort of tragic about her: She just wants to be right. This whole time she’s been on the X-Files, Mulder’s crazy-ass theories have almost always proved to be the case, while she’s been forced to ride along and realize the world is weirder than she gave it credit for. Scully is a character who’s not just trapped by her own rational brain or by having to watch her partner’s theories proved correct. She’s a character who’s trapped by her own show. She’s forced to play a certain part by the series she stars in, and when the hallucination is giving her what she wants, it doesn’t just involve people buying one of her theories; it involves Mulder’s death.
This is a marvelously complicated bit of business. By this point, we’ve essentially figured out that some strange goopy thing is making Mulder and Scully see things that aren’t there, just like the young couple in the opening scene (played by David Denman and Robyn Lively!). The fact that Mulder’s skeletonized remains turn up just clinches this fact: The show isn’t going to kill off its male lead so unceremoniously. But this is what’s smart about “Field Trip,” I think. It gets the “it was all a dream” propers out of the way very early on, that we might get down to the more knotty business of how dreams can reflect our worst fears and greatest hopes. For anybody to take Scully seriously, Mulder has to die, because he’s always been what’s standing in the way of her theories. Yet his death, understandably, all but guts her, and the way that the coroner, then Skinner, then the Lone Gunmen parrot her theory about ritualistic murder right back to her becomes terrifying in its own right.
What’s easy to miss is that roughly the same thing happens in Mulder’s hallucination, when he brings Scully over to his place to meet the presumed dead couple and the little Gray that he abducted and kept in the spare room. (The Gray, for its part, seems totally fine with this.) These hallucinations reveal, on some level, that both Mulder and Scully crave being proved right. But where Scully’s hallucination reveals that to be proved right would involve such a change to her status quo that she doesn’t want to contemplate it, Mulder’s hallucination reveals that, on some level, he needs the pushback, needs people to think he’s crazy. When Scully says that, yeah, he’s sure proved the existence of aliens all right (since, let’s not forget, he has an alien in his apartment), he seems a little hurt. He enjoys always being right, sure, but he almost seems offended at the idea that Scully would give up in the fight, would just cede this argument to him. He needs the pushback, but so does the show.
Even as the show is about the weird dichotomy of this partnership, the way that Mulder and Scully fill in the gaps in each other, “Field Trip” is also about a series approaching the end of its sixth season and looking for new stories to tell. Season six was filled with these sorts of hallucinations and dream sequences, and I suspect that’s because this far into the show’s run, there was simply no way to keep playing out the string of these weird mysteries without understanding, on some level, that it was all bullshit. There’s no way that Scully would keep questioning Mulder this long once she realized he was always right. There’s no way Mulder would always be right. These things only happen because the story of the show requires them to. In a lot of ways, season six is an artful dodge of many of these questions. Through comedy and mind-fucks and structural experimentation, The X-Files spent so much of its sixth season both questioning why it was still going and why we kept watching it, and “Field Trip” is sort of the ultimate expression of both of those questions.
Yet “Field Trip” answers those questions perfectly with that last shot. Mulder and Scully, pulled from the ground before getting eaten by the fungus, lay in the back of the ambulance, exhausted, but alive. It’s like a tacit acknowledgement by the show that these people shouldn’t keep getting so lucky, yet they do. (In particular, Skinner and the coroner’s arrival to save them feels almost as if Mulder and Scully, in the midst of their shared hallucination, have willed their rescue into existence.) He reaches out for her hand, and she finds it, and in that connection, the increasingly shaky show is supported. The hallucination hypothesis is one Scully arrives at, but it’s one Mulder bolsters. These mysteries can only be solved if both of these people are working to solve them. In its sixth season, The X-Files wandered away from its own increasingly constrictive formula as much as it could, heading out into the hinterlands in search of new pulp myths to exploit. The thrill of “Field Trip” is that there are still blank spots to write “Here Be Monsters,” as surely as there are still these two people to head into caves and fight them together.
- Hey, it’s Jim Beaver as the coroner! At first, I didn’t remember how important he was to the episode, but he does a fine job of playing essentially two versions of the same guy, one filtered through Scully’s subconscious.
- The visual effects in this one have not aged well, have they?
- Mulder pulling the gun on Skinner and shooting him three times in the chest is one of the great, thrilling moments in the show. Dream sequences are often a way to do these sorts of “We would never do this!” moments, and the writers clearly relish the chance to use them thusly here.
- The script is very canny in the way that it pulls in the Brown Mountain Lights to give this an added sense that, hey, maybe it is aliens.
- Robyn Lively may be most famous for her work on Twin Peaks and being related to Blake Lively, but I will always remember her as the Fairy in Return To Zork. (You may call me a nerd in comments.)
“Via Dolarosa” (season 3, episode 21; originally aired 5/14/1999)
In which the season is ending soon, so we’d better wrap this up, huh?
I literally don’t know what to say about “Via Dolarosa.” I don’t even mean that in the “I’m just saying this so I get to bullshit for a paragraph or two before writing 5,000 words about it” way either. I mean it in the, “This episode is the first part of a two-parter, and is so evidently constructed to be so that it’s hard to say much about it without talking about the ultimate series finale as well” way. At least the second season finale’s first half featured some bravura sequences that let you know this show wasn’t kidding around with the end of the world business. “Via Dolarosa” is just a weak effort to continue to tie the show’s serial killer roots together with its biblical ambitions, one that the show kept trying to pull off in its third season and one that it never really figured out.
At its center, “Via Dolarosa” is just another serial killer tale, only its one the episode keeps trying to insist is important, despite all evidence to the contrary. As the episode begins, Frank goes to Jordan’s school to pull her from class and take off, racing with her down the hallway. This, presumably, will be paid off in the next episode, since it’s sure not paid off here. (As an attempt to get us excited for next week, it’s a little weak, also, since I basically forgot it happened until I read a summary of the episode.) From there, we go to Frank sitting in the audience for an execution. As the criminal is brought to the electric chair, he mouths “Yes” to someone in the audience, and, of course, that someone in the audience is going to head out into the world and start replicating the dead man’s crimes, complete with a little overlay of religious symbolism for kicks.
This really speaks to how Millennium has had trouble building an overarching mythology. It did all right with some aspects—particularly the Millennium Group—in its earlier seasons, but it’s really become a mess in season three. If the serial killer that Frank sits in on the execution of had been built up as a figure of importance before these episodes, they might have had the sort of weight the series wants them to have. Instead, it’s hard to get too worked up about this particular copycat serial killer being strong enough to carry a two-part season finale, because everything he does is something that’s new to us. He’s copycatting someone, but we really just have to take Frank’s word for it, since we don’t know a damn thing about the man he’s copying.
It’d be one thing if the murder sequences were scary or something, but even those feel rather paint-by-numbers, particularly for this show. Once again, the series is mixing up sex with death, as our copycat criminal is killing rich people who are in the midst of coitus, and it’s to the point where this sort of trick just feels tired. It’s telling, I think, that the one sequence that really works here is the one where the couple notices the guy standing in their bedroom with the night-vision goggles on. In that moment, there’s some of the excitement and momentum of the better murder sequences on this show. As the killer races from the house, the home owner on his tail, the episode feels, finally, like it’s heading somewhere. Instead, it mostly doesn’t.
The other major thrust of the episode involves Emma’s dad, a storyline that the show has kept hitting and hitting, even though there’s no reason for the audience to be invested in it, beyond the fact that Alzheimer’s is sad business. Emma keeps getting distracted from her work by her dad—and the moments when he pulls a gun on her and when her pager goes off while the FBI is closing in on a suspect’s apartment are hilarious—and then Watts comes along with an offer: Get Frank fired from the FBI, and we’ll cure your dad’s Alzheimer’s. Which, what? How on Earth is Emma going to be able to get Frank fired? And how can the Millennium Group have a cure for Alzheimer’s? I know the show wants to make the Group this all-powerful secret society, but it also seems dedicated to backing away from that choice at any given moment, the better to make this a series about the grim reality of tracking serial killers.
There’s also plenty of biblical nonsense—the killer is reenacting the stations of the cross!—and an overriding preoccupation with the end of the world that feels like the show simply playing out the string at this point. The episode ends with the FBI closing in on the suspect’s apartment, and the second this started to build up, I knew it was going to end with the apartment being rigged to explode, because I’ve seen this story before, a million times. And, of course, the agents enter the apartment, and of course, Frank has a premonition of what will happen and calls for them to get out, and of course, the bomb goes off, and Emma (distracted by her pager) realizes that Frank has psychic powers or something. As a cliffhanger meant to get us back in time for the season finale, it leaves a lot to be desired, especially when coupled with the serial killer invading another home, night vision goggles on. Who cares?
That’s a question the show has struggled with since its earliest episodes, but in the second half of season one and all of season two, the series hit a sweet spot, where it managed to tell some strong, dark stories about the weight of living in a world filled with evil. It could be ridiculous in its over-earnestness, but at least it was trying. In its third season, however, the show never figured out what it wanted to be. It tried to return to the more simplistic crime-solving stories of season one, then tried to blend in some of the biblical stuff from season two when that didn’t quite work. Instead, the whole thing started to fall apart under its own poor construction. It was a season of TV that didn’t need to exist, and it never bothered to make a convincing case for what it was trying to do. Emma was always more a concept than a character, the strongest episodes almost entirely had to do with tying up old business, and the serial killer cases were almost all tired and boring.
It’s too bad that Millennium has to end here. A part of me wonders if everything wouldn’t have pulled itself together in season four, even as I know that likely wouldn’t have happened. There was good stuff in season three—particularly when it got a little more batshit insane and stopped trying to make so much sense—but it was also a season blended together from influences that never successfully blended together. Maybe that was the whole series in a nutshell, though. Maybe this was just a show born from a bunch of conflicting impulses—religious and otherwise—that made uneasy bedfellows. It was a problematic show, but it had its moments. I think if I ever rewatch, I’ll pretend it begins and ends with season two.
- I don’t entirely understand why the killer removes his night vision goggles when he’s racing from the home owner. Wouldn’t he have an advantage if he just kept them on?
- What’s really too bad about Millennium’s constantly thwarted attempts to build a larger mythology was the fact that X-Files did it so readily. A show like this with the ensemble cast X-Files built up could have been really cool.
- Okay, so this is basically just three different series awkwardly sharing the same title and main character, huh? It’s really hard to look back at my favorite episodes of any season and imagine them sharing the same concept as my favorite episodes from other seasons.
Next week: Zack finds out what the aliens are up to in “Biogenesis,” then says “Goodbye To All That” where Millennium is concerned.