“Orison” (season 7, episode 7; originally aired 1/9/2000)
In which an old monster returns with old tricks…
The last we saw of Donny Pfaster, at the end of season two’s “Irresistible,” he was headed off to jail, which, in serialized storytelling logic, meant he could always come back if the writers missed him. At the time, it would’ve been hard to think of a good reason to do this. Pfaster was a terrifying threat, and Nick Chinlund’s performance in the role was appropriately off-putting, but there wasn’t all that much story that needed to be told. He was a serial killer with a fetish for hair and fingers; he became infatuated with Scully’s red-hair. He nearly killed her, and then, Mulder saved the day. Apart from a brief shot or two of the otherwise non-supernatural Pfaster morphing into a demon (which was arguably just Scully’s exhausted, horrified brain trying to cope with the situation), he was a normal, incredibly sick human being. No conspiracies, no mythos, no supernatural powers. The few other times The X-Files has brought a monster back for a second round, there were powers to exploit and change, and a relationship between the creature and one of our heroes to draw to a close. Pfaster did a mindfuck on Scully, no question, and it would be cool if she got a chance to finally and definitively put an end to his evil. But this is five years later. Was there any real need to go back?
Having watched “Orison,” I’m still not convinced there was. Which is not to say this is a bad episode. It’s spooky and has a number of haunting, indelible sequences. Scully does, indeed, shoot the hell out of Pfaster at the episode’s end, and it’s a great, ambiguous moment, but the hour it takes to get there never entirely comes into its own. There are a number of interesting ideas in the story, and buckets of grim mood-setting. Chinlund remains as creepy a presence as ever, and guest star Scott Wilson (Hershel from The Walking Dead) turns in a solid performance. It’s just that so much of the entry plays like reheating leftovers from other episodes. We’ve got the demonic murderer; we’ve got Scully and Mulder clashing over religion; we’ve got Scully questioning her own faith and wondering where it leads her; we've got Mulder theorizing over a seemingly normal human with freakish, vaguely explicable powers; we’ve got a leering monster first menacing a prostitute, before finally tracking Scully to her home, tying her up, and nearly doing away with her. There’s no serious problem with most of these elements—Mulder spouting crazy, but “true,” science is a cornerstone of the show, after all—but once you notice how they’re being used, it’s hard not to see how awkwardly they combine together.
I'd be perfectly happy to never have to watch Mulder snipe at Scully’s religious beliefs again, though. The first few times this happened, it was a sharp, effective character delineation; it helped to remind us that Mulder has his own blind spots, and that Scully, for all her hard-harded skepticism, was still willing to embrace the mystical. Their arguments also served as a subtle reminder of the importance of context when dealing with the occult. Both characters had their worldview, and while it was natural to assume Mulder was more open-minded, it really came down to wanting to believe what fit into his idea of the way the world worked. (There’s also a certain, “I’m canny enough to know what’s really going on” smugness, which you tend to find in a certain kind of atheist.) But this is a point that has been made over and over again, and Mulder has been so thoroughly deconstructed by now that I’m not sure there’s any need to remind us that he can be a dick. His instant snideness as soon as Scully tries to tentatively explain her concerns—she’s been hearing a certain song over and over again, and Orison, the prison chaplain who starts this mess, quoted some Bible verse at her—feels unnecessary and tedious. The episode does indicate that Mulder’s dismissiveness is more driven by a need to protect his partner than his ego, and Scully’s surprising willingness to see God’s hand in a series of unlikely coincidences shows how far she’s come from the start of the show, but it’s still a dialogue that's overly familiar, in a distracting and frustrating way.
I also would be happy to never see another sequence of a serial killer stalking his seemingly innocent prey, but that might just be a personal thing. Donny’s attempt to murder a prostitute unfolds over a couple of scenes (he already killed a really, really desperate drug addict who picked him up at a diner), and it plays out as you’d expect, right up until the moment the escort realizes what’s going on and escapes. Which is cool, don’t get me wrong, and does a nice job subverting the standard expectations for this kind of scene. But it all seems so rote. The very fact that the sequence only gets interesting when the wig-lady escapes drives home how unnecessary all of this. If he actually had successfully murdered the second prostitute, that would’ve been terrible, and I would’ve downgraded the episode for it. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised, but still left asking what most of the rest of the hour left me asking: Why?
Yet there’s enough that’s haunting or memorable here to make “Orison” worth-watching, even if I question the necessity of its existence. The titular chaplain is a potentially fascinating figure who never entirely comes into focus; partly that’s by design, as we’re supposed to be unsure about what he’s doing until he gets killed doing it, and partly, that’s because the episode has too much to focus on to give any single story thread the attention it deserves. Yet the sequences in which Orison uses his mental powers to hypnotize the people around him are eerie, violent, and mesmerizing, and they give the whole hour an otherworldly feel that makes Donny’s latest brief transformation into a demon somehow fitting. “Orison” feels far more like a Millennium episode than “Millennium” ever did, soaked in portent and omens and God, and there are large parts of its running time where the hour gets by on sheer style alone. We hear enough of Orison’s back-story (he was a convicted murderer who found religion, and then drilled a hole in the back of his head), to make me wish the script had spent more time on him. Donny’s presence is necessary for the final confrontation, but Orison seems like he could’ve supported an entire episode by himself, and mushing the two together makes for frequently compelling but messy results.
Although Orison does have more of an impact on the story’s climax then I first realized, I think. The chaplain is killed about three-quarters of the way through the story. We’ve finally found his plans for Donny (he broke him out of prison to kill him), but when Orison brings his purported victim to the woods to bury him, Donny turns the tables, becomes a demon, and leaves the chaplain buried in the hole. Then he goes after Scully. This is another sequence that goes on for a while, and it’s very tense and exciting, especially with the shots of Mulder back in his apartment, slowly putting things together, with the help of the same magic song that’s been haunting Scully the whole hour. The song, “Don’t Look Any Further” by Dennis Edwards, is also playing in Scully’s house while she struggles to free herself, and it’s a great choice of music because it’s so banal and suggestive at the same time. The tune and production are pure soft pop blandness, while the lyrical refrain seems to mock Scully’s endless skeptical commentary.
Finally, Mulder arrives to save the day, which would be disappointing if it weren’t for what happens next. In slow motion (the same slow motion that marked Orison’s earlier mind games), Scully comes out of her bedroom carrying her gun. Mulder has Donny cold, but Scully walks up to the two of them, stares the killer down, and before anyone realizes what’s happening, shoots him dead. It’s a shock, given that Scully has never been prone to acts of wild violence, and it helps transform the episode’s climax into something more than a simple regurgitation. And there’s the possibility that Orison actually hypnotized Scully into shooting Donny—or maybe that all the signs she’s been seeing this whole time were some other force’s way of bringing her to this moment, and making her end the life of a monster who deserved to die. It’s a strange idea, really, and it suggests a mystery that almost, but not quite, ties everything together: Who’s pulling our strings? And why? “Orison” is, I think, a mess, yet another example of the show’s late period attempts to slam a bunch of stuff into the same script and hope it works. It’s compelling, but, well, what was that song’s name again?
- I can’t decide what to make of Scully’s mini-monologue explaining why “Don’t Look Any Further” has meaning to her. (It was the song she was listening to when she learned her Sunday school teacher had been killed, and she realized there was true evil in the world.) Anderson delivers the speech well, but it’s simplistic and more than a little corny.
- The bit where Mulder reveals an inmate’s post-hypnotic suggestion is great.
- “Believe in the Lord, Agent Scully. He believes in you,” Orison tells Scully. Anderson’s pained, “That’s nice” is excellent.
- Her dad called her “Starbuck,” her Sunday school teacher called her “Scout.” How many nicknames does Scully have?
“The Amazing Maleeni” (season 7, episode 8; originally aired 1/16/2000)
In which abracadabra…
This episode is a little slow, and borders on being too satisfied with itself, but I love it. I’m an easy mark for stories about magicians, to be sure. I’m also an easy mark for stories about gifted fabulists working a long con whose dimensions don’t become completely clear until the final minutes, and “The Amazing Maleeni” fits the bill there too. The episode stars Ricky Jay, and I love seeing him in just about anything, unless it’s lingerie, because that would be uncomfortable. And Scully wears a top hat for about three seconds, and it is basically the high point of my life to date. So yeah, I’m not at my critical best talking about this episode (please stop laughing at the words “my,” “critical,” and “best”), but I don’t think it’s completely off the mark to say this is a fun, breezy, and rather delightful hour of television.
It helps that the con that Maleeni, aka Herman Pinchbeck (Jay), and his young protege Billy LaBonge (Jonathan Levit) attempt to pull off is both absurdly, improbably elaborate and yet just clever enough that we’re willing to believe they might have made it work. Springing from an apparent freak accident on the boardwalk, Mulder and Scully dive into a strange world of low-rent magicians, bitter feuds, tattooed loan-sharks, and Mexican card accidents. The audience is shown just enough of what’s going on to let us in that there’s some kind of plan, but never enough that we’re able to figure out what that plan is. (Actually, I take that back. If you paid attention to all the seemingly disparate details and made a few logical assumptions, you probably could figure out what Herman and Billy were going for. I didn’t, but I’m usually not very good at that sort of thing.) There’s no real sense of danger or suspense in the episode; apart from the post-mortem decapitation in the cold open, no one dies, and we’re not given much reason to believe anyone might. You keep watching because you want the big reveal, the prestige of the act, as it were. That doesn’t make for the most gripping hour of television, given the lowness of the stakes; I never stopped enjoying the episode, but there were parts in the middle I did wish they’d pick up the pace a bit. But it’s all so fun and good-natured that it never becomes actively tedious.
That good-naturedness comes in no small part because of the chemistry between Mulder and Scully. It may seem a little silly to comment on how good these two are together after six plus years of show, but there’s an ease to their banter that makes me smile no matter how many times I watch this episode. “Orison” tested that ease, but it ended by reminding us of Mulder’s unquestioning faith in Scully. (It doesn’t matter whom she kills, really.) In “The Amazing Maleeni,” Mulder spends as much time trying to impress Scully as he does trying to solve the case; not in a desperate or arrogant way, but like he’s just getting such a kick out of all of this that he can’t help himself. And Scully is enjoying herself just as much. The two take such obvious pleasure in each other’s company that it’s infectious. They’re just so relaxed and unhaunted for once. No one’s worried about aliens or murderers or government conspiracies. They’re just goofing around in the sun.
The script also does a good job at doling out its secrets in a way that never makes either the magicians or our heroes come off as idiots. Herman and Billy’s plan has layers. It uses the corpse of an identical twin brother, an eight year-old grudge, and all kinds of misdirection, but Mulder is always only a step or two behind them. This partly by their own design, as, in a classic magician move, the trick works best when the audience thinks they’re seeing through the ruse, but by making sure the good guys never come off as complete dupes, the episode avoids making things too easy or too hard to resolve. In the end, Mulder does manage to stop the trick from reaching completion. The real reason Herman and Billy went to all the trouble they did was in order to get the thumbprint and badge number of an FBI agent, which they needed to approve a number of electronic fund transfers. Mulder realizes this, and swipes the playing card with his thumbprint out of Pinchback’s wallet (“pickpocketed” from the evidence locker; sometimes, to beat a magician, you need to change the playing field), thus robbing the two men of the chance to, um, rob.
But he lets them go. This is slightly ridiculous: Herman and Billy have committed fraud, emptied out a bank vault, and mutilated a corpse, and as likable as they are (and as much as it must suck for them not getting to steal all the money they really wanted), they should probably go to prison for their crimes. Yet it’s hard to begrudge Mulder for letting them go. For one thing, as he points out, he doesn’t have much real evidence of his theory. And Alvarez was clearly a bad guy, and hey, even if he didn’t actually commit the crime he’s been arrested for, surely he must have committed some other crimes, and karma balances out and what not. Really, though, throwing the magicians into the slammer would have been at odds with the tone of the rest of “The Amazing Maleeni.” It’s a very slight entry, and I’ve been struggling to find things to say about it. (It doesn’t help that this is my last bit of work before I’m officially on holiday break.) I don’t think this earns a place in the pantheon of X-Files classics, even if it does have Scully in a top hat. The story isn’t quite sharp enough, the characters not quite rich enough, to push it over the top. But it’s such a pleasure to watch that it doesn’t need to be great. We want to enjoy.
- Gotta love the manager’s horrified shock at finding out Pinchbeck faked his injuries: “Oh my god. We gave you handicapped parking. We built you a ramp.”
- Also, Herman’s feigned shock when Scully asks him why he doesn’t cheat at cards: “Who raised you?”
- The boys rob Craddock Marine Bank. Too bad they didn’t get a second chance to make all of this work.
- Line from my notes, re: Mulder and Scully: “Oh my god, they are so adorable.”
- Scully in a top hat.
Next week: We’re off for the holidays, but Todd returns January 5th with “Signs And Wonders” and “Sein Und Zeit.”