“John Doe” (season 9, episode 7; originally aired 1/13/2002)
In which Doggett loses something twice…
Here’s a pleasant surprise: “John Doe” is pretty damn good. I could be overrating it based on my general negative impression of the season thus far, but this felt solid to me: clever hook, strong direction, a script that never makes the mistake of trying to explain too much, and a fitting, even moving, conclusion. There are a few clunky bits, but not many, and none of them are so bad as to kill the hour for any significant length of time. Mostly, this is just a stylish, pulpy thriller with a premise that’s familiar, but still grabs me no matter how many times I see it used: what if you woke up in the middle of nowhere with no memory? How would you survive? And what would you do to get your memory back?
If you’re John Doggett, it turns out you’ll only do so much. At the start of the episode, Doggett wakes up in a Mexican town dressed in a white t-shirt and jeans, with a homeless guy trying to steal his shoes. Doggett gives chase, but ends up running afoul of the local law, who demand his passport or some identifying papers; Doggett can’t provide them. What’s more, he can’t even provide his name. So it’s off to the local jail, where he meets up with a pair of local thugs who he eventually ends up doing some odd jobs for. One of the smartest touches of Vince Giligan’s script is that even though Doggett doesn’t remember his identity, his fundamental personality remains the same. He’s resourceful, bad-ass (one of the thugs pulls a gun on him; Doggett takes the gun away), and determined to figure out what’s happened to him; even more telling, he refused to do anything illegal for the two thugs, regardless of how limited his options are. The best amnesia episodes are often about stripping away all the noise and trappings from a character, and getting down to the core of who they are. Finding out Doggett is a straight shooter right down to the bone isn’t a revelation, but it does help solidify his personality just that much more. And the one memory he keeps coming back to when all others are gone is equally important.
I’m burying the lede here. As generally strong as this episode is, it’s greatest value to pop culture arguably comes from behind the scenes. Much as last week’s “Lord Of The Flies” represented Vince Gilligan’s first (sort of) brush with Aaron Paul, “John Doe” marks the first time Michelle MacLaren would bring a Gilligan script to the screen. In fact, it’s the first time she’d directed an episode of television written by anyone, going by her IMDB record. And she takes to the task with aplomb—maybe a little too much aplomb, really. The washed out look of Sangradura during daylight hours effectively conveys the heat and glare of Doggett’s trap, and the action sequences are well-composed, so far as I can tell; in what should be a surprise to no one, I’m not a great technical critic, although I did enjoy how the confrontation with the bribed cops played out, with Doggett backing a bus out through a garage door and flipping the vehicle a hundred yards or so down the road. The sequence had a good rhythm to it, and the visual of Doggett and Reyes staring out through the smeared windshield at the shapes coming to kill them is quite striking. There’s also a clever use of one the show’s signature visuals, the “A monster is about to do something horrible, so let’s pull outside and view it from a distance” shot, only here, instead of a monster, it’s Doggett jumping on top of a man trying to kill him. The most obvious reason for the change in perspective is that there’s a gun shot, and since this is right before a commercial break, keeping exactly who (if anyone) got shot a mystery is a decent cliffhanger. But it also underscores how Doggett has become a monster himself—a fundamentally decent one, but still a creature driven to take violent action for reasons he doesn’t entirely understand.
But while “John Doe” is on, the whole, a well-directed episode, there’s a little too much showiness at times, from the startling “DAY [number]” title cards to the dream sequences which haunt Doggett throughout the hour. The title cards are initially striking and establish a cool minor mystery to go along with the story’s bigger problems. Why is the day important? Is there a time limit here? There isn’t, actually, and while the “DAY” notifiers help indicate just how long Doggett is on his own, they serve no purpose beyond this. This becomes more and more clear as the episode unfolds, which makes each successive “DAY [number]” that less impressive. Intensity and heightened drama only work if the audience can take the presentation as seriously as it’s intended to be taken, and here, it’s hard to get all that worked up about what week it is when Doggett isn’t under any immediate threat. Eventually, the portentous nature of the title cards becomes more of a distraction than anything else, like a dark joke that no one involved realized was funny.
That trouble with tone also comes up in Doggett’s one remaining memory; framed as a dream sequence, and doled out in sections over the course of the episode, it’s a glimpse of what the agent’s life was like before he got involved with the X-Files, back when he was still married and had a son. Luke’s death has been hanging around the periphery of Doggett’s character arc for a while now, and the script makes smart use of it here, first making Doggett’s link to his son so strong that it survives erasure by the Man Who Disappears People, and then basically having Doggett come back to himself when he realizes that Luke is dead. The dreams are overdone, though, all soft, hazy white light and pastels, and, worse, the kid playing Luke is, to put it kindly, terrible. The past, which is supposed to resonate so strongly that it stays with our hero even in his worst moments, plays like a commercial for vitamin supplements. Yet Robert Patrick’s commitment to Doggett’s grief in the present makes it work. His scenes with Reyes at the end are legitimately heartbreaking, and if it’s not really possible for us to miss Luke much, it’s more than easy to understand that Doggett does, and empathize with his sorrow.
While MacLaren occasionally overplays her hand, the intensity she brings to the episode (intensity matched by the actors and the writing) overwhelms the missteps. Even at its most heavy-handed, “John Doe” is striking to watch, and unlike, say, “Daemonica,” whose excesses served to call attention to an inadequate script, this episode hands together well. And while I may be over-stressing the director’s contributions in light of her later successes, it’s worth noting that even this script needs a little help. Gilligan’s smart enough to keep the supernatural element vague and at the edges of the story, but in retrospect, it’s hard to understand why the Cartel (referred to in hushed tones throughout) would be better served erasing people’s memories and leaving them alive than it would be by simply killing them flat out. Especially in Doggett’s case; even without knowing who he is, the man is still resourceful enough to be dangerous, and the fact that the FBI is looking for him means having him around is a liability.
That’s a flaw built into the story, and it’s theoretically possible that Gilligan might have reworked some of the plot to make things more plausible. But thankfully, MacLaren was around so that he didn’t have to. The greatest impression “John Doe” leaves is one of sweaty, hellish desperation, and it’s mirrored in Doggett’s increasingly haggard face. (The make-up work is excellent.) The logic of the situation ceases to matter as anything more than a passing surface, and all that remains is the focus on the protagonist, and the misery he has to struggle through to find his way home. In the end, Doggett gets his memories back not through some magic fix or silver bullet, but by willpower; because he’s stronger than the other victims, maybe, but also because he’s spent so much of himself to kept his past his own. Coming back means remembering the absolute worst thing that ever happened to him, and the irony is, without that worse thing—without the sad, life-shattering death of his son waiting to show him the way—he most likely never could’ve come back at all.
- Another (minor) nitpick: the scenes with Reyes and Scully take away some of the claustrophobic power of the main story, and I’m not really sure they’re necessary. If Reyes had just showed up at the end without any context, it would’ve worked fine, although then we would’ve been robbed of the fact that she speaks fluent Spanish and grew up in Mexico. Which, sure.
- For those of you (and me) disappointed that Aaron Paul didn’t say “bitch” in last week’s episode, I hope we can all take some pleasure in an hour of television directed by Michelle MacLaren based on a Vince Gilligan script that’s set in Mexico and features several references to the “Cartel.”
- While it’s to the story’s benefit that the Man Who Disappears People remains an ambiguous (though clearly evil) figure, I do wonder about him. Ditto Domingo (Frank Roman), the man who hires Doggett for the odd jobs, much to his later regret.
- The bit about the crescent wounds on each victim’s forehead was a really clever way to hint at an underlying cause without giving us enough information to figure out what that cause was. And the reveal that it was the Man Who Disappears People’s thumbnails was perfect.
- All that praise of Michelle MacLaren, and I forgot to mention Director of Photography Bill Roe, who is responsible for the episode’s distinctive look.
“Hellbound” (season 9, episode 8; originally aired 1/27/2002)
In which Hell is a place where no one ever changes…
I don’t like Agent Monica Reyes. I don’t hate her. I just don’t care about her in any significant way, and whenever I realize an episode is going to focus on her adventures—like this one does—my eyes reflexively glaze over and I start wondering way too much about what I’m going to have for dinner. Something about the character just doesn’t click, and I’ll be damned if I can figure out why. Doggett makes sense. Robert Patrick is strong in the role, and Doggett was clearly realized almost from his first appearance; he had the no-nonsense thing going on that’s a hallmark of a lot of cop show protagonists, but he was also smart, adaptable, and loyal to his friends. Reyes is loyal too, which is good (loyalty is one of the more likable traits a fictional character can have; real ones too, presumably). She’s not a pushover, either. She gets involved in “Hellbound” because of a feeling, and dammit, she follows her gut throughout; the closer she comes to figuring things out, the more driven she becomes.
And yet… There’s a scene fairly late in the episode, after Doggett has stumbled across another brutally skinned murder victim, where Reyes arrives and tries to explain that this is a case that’s been going on for a long time, and that she has some sort of connection to everything that’s been happening. Her proof is that she knows, even before she looks at the corpse, that the body has a rag stuffed into its mouth, and the rag is black with coal dust. It’s supposed to be a striking, and eerie, speech, a demonstration of forces beyond either character’s understanding working behind the scenes. But as it plays, it’s just kind of silly. Annabeth Gish puts on a very serious expression, and uses her Very Serious Voice, and yet the effect is negligible. Laughable, even. In general, Gish rarely has the presence required to fill in the part she’s playing, and her typical reactions of worried confusion and worried frustration fail to engender much of a relationship between her and the audience.
But it’s unfair to lay this all at the actress’s feet. Reyes just isn’t a very well conceived character, and every time “Hellbound” tries to use her as a mystery or a reason to care about what’s happening, it falls flat. Where Doggett is clearly designed, Reyes operates in this vague gray that can only be described as “Not-Scully,” a person whose primary characteristics—her supposed belief in the occult world (a belief which lacks the intensity of either Mulder’s omnivorous search for the truth or Scully’s deeply rooted religious convictions) and, um, I guess she likes Doggett?—fail to cohere into a memorable or compelling whole. Gish may be strident and irritating by turns, but given what she gets to play on the page, it’s hard to blame her; at least she’s trying to generate something. I was skeptical about Doggett’s dead-son back-story, but the writers have managed to use that history well, often to great effect. And even if they hadn’t, it provides some sense of context for the character’s past. We know Reyes grew up in Mexico, and that she’s good at handling cases with Satanic overtones. Also, she first met Doggett when she was part of the team investigating his son’s kidnapping and murder. That’s about it. The Doggett/Reyes relationship is the brightest spot in Reyes’ characterization so far, but that also limits her utility as a protagonist. Her “belief” could be seen as an attempt to invert the skeptic/believer relationship of Mulder and Scully, but neither she nor Doggett adhere to a strict philosophy. That makes for more dynamic conversations, but unlike Doggett, Reyes has no other personality to fall back on. She’s just sort of there.
Which doesn’t help “Hellbound” much, considering the episode hinges on her obsession with a murder-by-skinning that turns out to have a long, long history. The whole story is a mystery which waits until the final ten minutes to reveal itself, and that means that between creepy sequences of ex-convicts getting stalked and slaughtered, there needs to be some strong pull to keep us invested beyond simply wanting to find out what’s going on. “John Doe” had Doggett’s resourcefulness and determination; here, we have Reyes being weirdly invested in what’s happening, but her “investment” is mostly just being stone-faced and refusing to explain herself to anyone. On her own, she’s not interesting enough to make me want to care what happens next, and while the skinnings are an undeniably arresting visual, the shock wears off, so by the time the third guy gets dead, it’s as close to monotonous as “men being skinned to death” can be. Scully pokes around a bit on her own time, and Doggett just sort of rolls with everything, but Reyes can’t carry a story on her own. She’s a ghost, and ghosts can do much heavy lifting.
Thankfully, things get more interesting by the end, when it’s revealed that the murders are part of a century long cycle in which the reincarnation of a murdered settler tracks down his reincarnated murderers, kills them, and then kills himself so that the cycle can begin anew. While this raises certain questions about the nature of the afterlife (there’s no suggestion that the original victim somehow managed to curse his tormentors, although that’s certainly possible), it’s not a bad story concept. What really keeps the episode from working as well as it might have is that all the most interesting aspects of it don’t come into play until the final ten minutes, at which point it’s pretty much just a pell-mell rush to the ending. Reyes’s connection to the killings is explained but left unexplored: her soul had been present every other time the killer had avenged himself, and each time, whatever version of Reyes was alive had been unable to stop what was happening. This could be fascinating, but it’s tossed in so haphazardly that it’s hard to make sense of it. Does this mean that Reyes’s previous incarnations also killed themselves shortly after the killing cycle ended? Who were her past selves? And has Reyes, with her pre-established belief in reincarnation, ever had such explicit proof of the process before?
It’s not that any of this really matters; it’s just that “Hellbound” takes such a long time getting to the point that when the answers do finally come out, their effect is half lost in the muddle of questions surrounding them. There are lots of potentially fascinating issues in here; questions of the lingering echo of violence, the possibility for redemption, and the stain of sin are all themes that could’ve made this one special. Instead, we get an okay hour that serves mostly to point out how badly this show has done by its female lead, and how little chances there are left to make things right. I’m not sure if Gish or the character will ever work entirely, but there has to be something better than this. Right now she’s just a shape designed to distract from an absence.
- The story’s villain, a former victim turned ruthless and seemingly eternal avenger, should’ve been fascinating. Instead, he’s just sort of there; you know the character is probably important because he’s so odd, but there’s no effort to define him past his place in the narrative.
- The fact that Reyes manages to save one of the killer’s intended victims bumps this up a point or two for me. This show is often so relentlessly fatalistic that it’s nice to have an ending that isn’t completely despairing. (That said, given that the killer does die at the end, I guess the survivor should avoid any suspicious looking teenagers a decade or two.)
Next week: Todd dives back into some mythology with “Provenance,” then faces off against a UFO cult that wants Scully’s baby in “Providence.”