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The X-Files: "Syzygy"/"Grotesque"/"Piper Maru"

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"Syzygy" (season 3, episode 13)

"Syzygy" is a pretty textbook example of the limits of what The X-Files' various writers could do. It doesn't help that it immediately follows a Darin Morgan script, which, while not his best, is still full of the genius the guy tossed off almost casually. Morgan would leave the show after writing "Jose Chung's From Outer Space," and the series would spend much of the next few seasons trying to fill the void. Perhaps predictably, the writers most able to write like Darin Morgan were the team of his brother, Glen Morgan, and James Wong, who were not quite as effortlessly funny as Darin Morgan but definitely managed to get at his sense of black humor. But Vince Gilligan would prove himself an apt mimic as well, and his scripts for "Small Potatoes," "Bad Blood," "Je Souhaite," and "Sunshine Days" were adequate-to-superb imitations.


But series creator Chris Carter took a while to find his own imitation Morgan voice.
Carter was great at a good many things. He kept the mythology episodes humming along. He came up with some great monster of the week episodes. And he defined a lot of what made the show the show. But The X-Files is odd in that its creator was never its sole major creative voice. There were a lot of voices jostling for room on the series - from the writers to the directors to even the actors in the later seasons - and Carter's was always in the conversation but never rising above it to dominate, the way other comparable TV showrunners of the time were. To compare The X-Files to many of its most immediate TV drama brethren, it's easy to identify NYPD Blue as a David Milch production or ER as a John Wells production or any David E. Kelley series as a David E. Kelley production. But outside of the central concept of the show itself, it's a lot harder to place the stamp that Carter put on The X-Files.

Carter spent much of the mid-section of the show trying to write off-format hours that would drag the show away from the alien mythology he originally intended to be the sole focus of the series (reportedly). One of those episodes - "The Post-Modern Prometheus" - is my second-favorite hour the series ever produced, and another - "Triangle" - is an enjoyable hour of directorial tricks, if not to the level of "Prometheus." But his first crack at this, "Syzygy," is an entertaining hour that never rises to the level of those other episodes. It is obviously Carter trying to do a "funny" episode of The X-Files and never understanding that what makes Morgan's funny scripts - and even Gilligan's funny scripts - so funny is how very sad they are. (He'd nail that combination on "Prometheus," and I'm always a little surprised that episode isn't more acclaimed than it is. But we'll get to that next summer or so.)


"Syzygy" is pretty much an episode that's constantly announcing, "It's safe to laugh now!" The central idea is that a certain alignment of the stars and planets (the "syzygy" of the title) have caused two girls born on a certain date to have an immense amount of power, which they, being teenage girls, are abusing. They use their power to make people act out of character, often to the ends of broad comedy, and the episode is most notable for the way that it seems to be pitting Mulder and Scully at each other's throats while keeping their cool professional demeanors. Is it funny to have Mulder tell Scully he assumed her "little feet could never reach the pedals" when she asks why she never gets to drive? Sure. And the testy banter between the two is also funny and perfectly played by Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny. But there's also a sense that the laughs here are emptier than they were the week before in "Coprophages," an episode that's also full of goofy, edgy Mulder/Scully banter, an episode that also features a flirtation between Mulder and a gorgeous blonde, and an episode that's also more broadly comedic. But that episode was written by Darin Morgan and belongs in the series' pantheon. This one, while it has its pleasures, can only suffer in comparison.

It feels a little false to hold against this episode that it can't be a Darin Morgan episode, and it feels a little unfair to compare it to the episode that immediately comes before. But the thing is that it's so clearly trying to be a Darin Morgan episode (right down to the fact that the structure is a very, very loose inversion of the structure of "Humbug," if you outline it) that it invites comparison, and having two comedic episodes come between "Revelations" and "Grotesque," which are both off-format but at least both horror hours, makes the comparisons even more pronounced. Now, on DVD, it's easier to accept "Syzygy" as a weird, occasionally funny experiment and just flip right on to "Grotesque." But back in 1996, it must have felt like the show had briefly lost its mind.

We don't watch television in a vacuum and really never have. Our own lives influence us, obviously, but so do other episodes of the show. If you remove "Syzygy" from its place right after "Coprophages" and stick it right after, say, "Apocrypha," it might hold its own a little better. Or it might not. It might just be an episode that is trying too hard to push its way out of Carter's wheelhouse and wander off into a new landscape. If Morgan blends comedy with a sense of impending doom, Carter was always best when he could blend comedy with an earnest sense of the universe's limitless possibilities. There's a lot in "Syzygy" that just feels too broad and too mean.

When I mentioned on Twitter that I was rewatching the episode, a number of people wrote to me to say, "Oh, that was my favorite episode when I was a kid" or some variation on the above. And that's how it strikes me now. It's an episode I probably would have enjoyed as a kid, and it carries enough of that sense to keep me enjoying it now (and, again, the Mulder and Scully banter is terrifically funny). But the vast majority of it is so unfortunately broad that it makes me cringe, even as I'm trying to get into it. The two teenage girls at the center of the plot are written as though Carter had never met an actual teenage girl, and they're played with a little too much self-awareness. And every time you think the episode has figured out a way to plant its foot firmly in comedic territory, there's a horribly judged moment of "drama," like Mulder's final monologue.


It's entirely possible that "Syzygy" is intended as a sort of teen slasher movie parody. And if that's the case, then it's likely a little better than I'm giving it credit for. But at the same time, "Die Hand Die Verletzt" did a much better job in the same territory a season earlier and was much more adept at blending dark comedy and genuinely frightening horror. There are good moments and good ideas in "Syzygy," but every time I watch it, I'm struck by the idea that the episode it could have been is so much better than the episode it actually is that it can't help but feel like a slight disappointment. It's like a shadow of some other episode we'll simply never get to see.

Grade: B-

Stray observations:

  • Yes, that IS Ryan Reynolds as the first kid that the two girls kill. The second most popular Twitter response after, "I liked that as a kid!" was "Isn't Ryan Reynolds in that?" What's remarkable is that he's only in the teaser. Either he left a strong impression, or a lot of people have revisited "Syzygy" since he got famous.
  • Insofar as blondes that Mulder finds himself infatuated with, the woman here (and I'm leaving her name forgotten, all the better to indicate how unimpressed I was) is no Dr. Bambi.
  • I strongly suspect that this episode played well with the 'shipper portion of the X-Files fandom, simply because it's possible to argue that Scully's irritation with Mulder stems from his flirtation with the blonde. But, again, you can even do that better in "Coprophages."
  • One of the two teenage girls went on to play Topher Grace's older sister on That '70s Show. So that's where you knew her from.
  • Reading up on this episode on Wikipedia, it may be the very first episode of any TV show ever specifically designed to jokingly acknowledge fan criticism of the series from the Internet. So it has that going for it!
  • Another problem: I think the episode treats murder a little too blithely. That's not to say that the show isn't capable of that particular shade of dark humor, but in Morgan and Gilligan's humorous scripts, the act of ending a life still carries a certain amount of weight. Here, it's just a thing people do.
  • "Sure. Fine. Whatever."

"Grotesque" (season 3, episode 14)

I was nervous about "Grotesque." I remembered loving it from the first run of the show, but I also remembered thinking - as a 15-year-old - that the episode was ponderous and pretentious. If I thought that then, I'd surely be even harsher on it now, right? And the subject matter - Mulder and Scully track a serial killer who may have demonic help and it sometimes seems as if Mulder himself is flirting with the dark side - certainly invited the series to indulge in its own worst tendencies. Furthermore, the episode was from Howard Gordon, probably the only writer on the series to give Chris Carter a run for his money in the self-serious sweepstakes, and it featured a performance from Kurtwood Smith, who would go on to be much, much better known for comedies, as a self-serious FBI guy.


So here's the thing: "Grotesque" is absolutely ponderous and pretentious and self-serious, just as much as I feared it would be. It also, unquestionably, works. The reason it works is very simple: It's pretty scary and pretty fucked up. And that's often good enough to carry an episode of The X-Files over the finish line, even as it seems the series might be falling a little too far down its own rabbit hole. "Grotesque" ends with a quote from Nietzsche that is applied without any deftness whatsoever (and is unattributed), but it somehow feels as though the episode has earned it. Sitting back and thinking about it now, I can poke holes in the story's logic and figure out places where it shouldn't work, but while I was rewatching it, I was surprised by the spell it cast on me.

"Grotesque" belongs to that category of episode I wrote about with "Irresistible," the episode where Mulder and Scully are tipped off to a non-supernatural criminal for one reason or another, then use their particular prowess and talents as a duo to capture said criminal. Usually, they're dragged onto the case because there's a sense that something paranormal may be involved, but in these episodes, it always turns out that Man Is the Real Monster. (The other notable example I can think of at present is season four's "Paper Hearts.") "Grotesque" occupies a similar place within the season that "Irresistible" occupied in season two, and it's essentially a flipside version of that story. Again, a serial killer is the target. Again, one of the central duo is imperiled and the other has to bring the one in peril back. Only this time, it's Mulder, and the threat is far more psychological and existential.


Mulder and Scully are brought on to a case involving a man who's been attacking and killing male models that pose for his art class. It's a case that has obsessed Mulder's former mentor, Patterson (Smith), for years, and now that they're finally close to the end, Patterson seems almost let down. The big question is: Where are all of the artist's victims? Using the fact that the artist has been sketching the models as gargoyles all this time, as well as creating sculptures of gargoyles in his studio, Mulder makes the leap that perhaps the victims are hidden within the sculptures themselves, which turns out to be right (and, honestly, no one else would make that leap?) From there, Mulder tries to prove that, yeah, there is a demon pushing the artist to kill, as the artist claims, and the evidence starts to mount that Mulder may have taken up the killer's knife himself, driven mad by the oddness on display.

The final twist, of course, is that Patterson was the accomplice and the man who showed up at the crime scene and (ostensibly) tried to frame Mulder. It was a twist I found ingenious when I first watched the episode, but I'm less sure that it works now. I'd like to believe that it does, since it's a cool idea, but it mostly seems backed up by Mulder recognizing a certain darkness within himself and then projecting that on to Patterson. Now, it helps that he's right, and it helps that Smith is there to really sell the twist, but it all would feel just the slightest bit more natural if the show had figured out a way to motivate it just a little bit more. That said, the final shot of Smith's face pressed against the bars of his cell, shouting out to protest his innocence, is a chilling bit of direction from Kim Manners, and it makes all of these concerns feel a little unfounded. (It also suggests that Smith should definitely pursue more dramatic work, perhaps even taking the Bryan Cranston route of the lead on a basic cable series.)


But, really, none of these things matter. The ponderous nature of the episode ends up being a benefit, where it often is not on the series. The slow, painstaking uncovering of the depths of the artist's horrors takes its time, letting us get a good sense of just how messed up this guy was and giving credence to the idea that Mulder or Patterson might have been driven over the edge by him. It's a good reminder that when they're not tracking down multi-national conspiracies or wolfmen or whatever, Mulder and Scully make a crack crime-solving unit, and it's a shame the FBI doesn't use them as such more often. And it's a nice way for the show to acknowledge that not all of the darkness in the world comes from external sources, strange creatures and aliens and mutants. Sometimes, that darkness lurks inside of our very hearts.

If I were ranking this against "Irresistible," the episode in The X-Files canon it most resembles, I'd probably put it just a hair below that show. This one is, ultimately, probably better written (there's nothing so goofily coincidental as the killer just happening to spot Scully) and better directed, but there's nothing as visceral in it as Scully's need to free herself from her captor or Donnie Pfaster's creepy need to take hair and fingernails from dead girls. "Grotesque" is a slightly distancing episode, very much an exercise in psychological horror and in making you consider the ramifications of the toll the kind of work our heroes do might take on them. It's a surprisingly stellar hour of television - again, it ends with a ponderous, pretentious Mulder monologue, but it damn near earns it - but it also carries just the slightest bit of coldness and aloofness. In its own way, the difference between "Irresistible" and "Grotesque" is the difference between Mulder and Scully themselves.


Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • I'm amused by how often Skinner shows up now, seemingly just to express concern for one of his agents. He'll fill essentially the same role in this episode and the next one, and it's no wonder that Mitch Pileggi felt he needed to recapture some of what made the character kick ass in "Avatar," which we'll get to the same week as "Jose Chung's." Man, I am going to write 10,000 words that week. I hope you don't mind.
  • Again, I'm taking this from Wikipedia (though it gibes with what I remember from the X-Files episode companions I used to read compulsively in high school - I should have my mom ship me those), but the original script for the episode apparently featured actual, literal gargoyles. Which would have been pretty stupid, though there's an outside chance it would have been awesome. Still, Carter wanted Gordon to rewrite, and the two apparently did so together. You can feel Carter's solemn fingerprints all over this one.
  • Every time I write about a Howard Gordon episode, I want to know what happened to Alex Gansa. Poor Alex Gansa.
  • Anyone want to take a stab at coming up with an alternate theory of this episode where Mulder actually did it? I sort of want to suggest that it's possible to construct one, but that could just be me talking out of my ass.
  • Or, I suppose, you could construct a theory where there really was a demon that came over the artist (whose name was Mostow) and Patterson. In general, these kinds of episodes work best when there's some ambiguity to them, and that's perhaps what I most respond to in "Grotesque."
  • It seems likely that this episode was one of the ones that Carter considered when creating Millennium (which he was doing around this time). Zack and I have bandied about covering that show next summer in tandem with The X-Files' fourth season. Let us know what you think of that idea. I think Millennium is fascinating - particularly its batshit second season - but ultimately a failure, and it would be interesting to dissect why.
  • Finding a corpse underneath the clay is just a horrific image, and I can't shake the feeling that I've seen it somewhere else. Suggestions?

"Piper Maru" (season 3, episode 15)

It's hard for me to pick between the "Nisei"/"731" duo and the "Piper Maru"/"Apocrypha" duo as my favorite overall mythology two-parter. "Paper Clip" is probably the best mythology episode, but "The Blessing Way" is kind of a snooze. And there are good moments in all of the other mythology two-parters, but never another that sustains the kind of tension and excitement the two in season three sustained. What's interesting is that the two take incredibly different approaches to roughly the same material as well. "Nisei" and "731" are a big, brainy action thriller, with ticking time bombs and runaway trains and every possible action movie plot device you could think of. "Piper Maru" and "Apocrypha" are a more emotional duo, a pair of episodes that allows time for Scully to grieve her sister while simultaneously bringing back the villain most on Mulder's level, Alex Krycek.


In a way, the difference between the two can be chalked up to the difference between the main alien villains of both duos. The alien villain of "Nisei" and "731" is the bounty hunter, a mysterious figure, to be sure, but one that is also fairly easily dealt with within the show's cosmology. Ice pick to the back of the neck, and you don't have any problems with him anymore. He's not a bad figure. He's just obviously a horror movie monster, and that takes away a little of his sting. In "Piper Maru," however, we get our first look at the black oil, which may be the most original and frightening creation of The X-Files' mythology, next to its sense that all of U.S. history post-World War II was a lie. The black oil is far more insidious. It turns people you trust against you. It keeps people alive at the bottom of the ocean for decades, waiting to strike. It overwhelms and converts you.

Now, the black oil would be one of the central things that brought down The X-Files' mythology ultimately. It was such a cool idea that it kept creeping into more and more mythology episodes, and it eventually became clear that the writers had no idea what to do with it beyond having it be some sort of alien mind control device. Alien mind control devices are all well and good, but we'd already seen those in any number of alien invasion tales. The hint had always been - and, indeed, is in this first appearance by the oil - that the black oil had a grander purpose. That that grander purpose ends up being - spoiler alert - some sort of virus that causes alien monster thingies to gestate within human hosts is all the more disappointing.


In a way, the biggest problem with the black oil is also what makes it the coolest invention of the show up until that point: It basically removes any possible logical explanation for the alien conspiracy. I had forgotten just how much of these early episodes was taken up by Scully exploring more mundane possibilities for what the government was covering up that were actually much more terrifying than little green men. It's just as scary to imagine that the government is keeping tabs on everyone for its own nefarious purposes as it is to imagine that the government is doing it at the aliens' bidding. And it's just as scary to imagine that Scully is right about the nature of the experiments in "Nisei" and "731," or that she's right about the lengths the government has gone to to cover up an atomic bomb on the ocean floor in this episode.

I mean, sure, there's an alien bounty hunter who can change his face out and about, but, crucially, our heroes have limited contact with the guy, and Scully is always able to write it off as people seeing what they want to see. The second we meet the black oil, we meet it in the eyes of a World War II pilot who's been kept alive at the bottom of the Pacific since his plane crashed there. There's basically no way to write this off as people just seeing stuff, and there becomes less and less of a way to write it off as the black oil infects more and more people, starting with the crew of the French salvage ship that finds the plane, then spreading to one of their wives, then, ultimately, spreading to Krycek. Even the story the Navy man tells Scully about trying to find the plane with that submarine virtually relies on the captain being infected, though Scully doesn't know that.


It's at this point in the mythology that the onus subtly shifts from Scully coming up with alternate theories of what's going on that make just as much sense as what Mulder's saying to the show desperately trying to keep Scully from knowing things so she can fit into her predetermined "skeptic" role. It mostly works here, because she's busy grieving her sister and being angry that the case into her sister's murder has been closed and coming up with knowledge about radiation burns and stuff, but it becomes more and more of a problem as the series goes along and it becomes more and more obvious that Mulder was right all along. "Piper Maru" is a hell of an episode. It's also the episode that marks a shift within the mythology and, eventually, the show toward embracing Mulder's point of view to the detriment of Scully's.

Ultimately, I'm not sure this is a bad thing when the episodes are as well-paced and haunting as "Piper Maru." It's nice to have our two leads on equal footing, but this has always been a show where it was going to eventually become obvious that, yes, aliens have been visiting our world, lo these many years, and, yes, they've been meaning to colonize it for some time and just haven't gotten around to it. The black oil is so thrilling because it's a solid indication that the show is definitely going ahead with this. There's pretty much no reason for it to exist, unless it's a way for the aliens to turn humans against each other, and that's what makes it such a cool idea in the first place. Humans can try to control the black oil (and will), but it is a force almost unto itself, even more so than any bounty hunter or alien-human hybrid. Those are monsters that leap out of the dark. This one comes from within.


The other great thing about "Piper Maru" is that it still belongs to the period of time when the mythology episodes were exposing us to more pieces of the puzzle, fitting in various things that we were meant to incorporate into the whole. This is the first time we meet the black oil, but it's obvious that others know all about it. The same with the bounty hunter and the alien-human hybrids. There's always a sense of the camera pulling farther and farther out in these episodes, revealing more and more of the picture, and that's thrilling, until the show runs out of new things to introduce and isn't sure if it can start tying together the things it has introduced because it's a big, hit show. I've always maintained that the X-Files' mythology more or less makes sense, if you're willing to forgive a few leaps of logic (as stated here). But think of how much more tight and compelling the show would have been had it gone right from the black oil into its colonization narrative. Instead, we see all of the pieces put in place, now, and the show hesitating to move them forward.

Grade: A

Stray observations:

  • I suppose I should talk more about why I gave this episode an A, instead of just talking about the mythology within the larger structure of the show. In particular, I think all of the business around Scully's sister is deftly handled by Gillian Anderson and, improbably, Mitch Pileggi, who take slightly overwritten scenes and make them feel aching and raw.
  • I also like that we're getting more of a sense of the global nature of the conspiracy, as Mulder races off to Hong Kong in pursuit of the salvage broker. Say what you will about the uneven season four duo of "Tunguska"/"Terma," but I always loved that those episodes took us into Russia, to see the Soviet Union response to the alien menace.
  • What's surprising is how few of the big mythology players this episode has. Maybe they were trying to set up some of the minor players in this episode to be big players in the future, but you really only have Krycek and Skinner from the show's recurring cast of characters. Not even the Cigarette Smoking Man stops in.
  • Continuity: Krycek is trying to sell the contents of the digital tape (from "Blessing Way" and "Paper Clip").
  • The show went to the "Mulder or Scully have a family member die" well a few times too often, but it's impressive how effective it is in these early seasons. Scully's anger over the bureau abandoning its look into Melissa's death is perfectly handled.
  • I wonder if the writers had a rough idea of how the black oil worked in this episode. Here, it sure seems as if there's ONE black oil organism, and that it passes from host to host (note how Gauthier seems to remember nothing after the dive after he passes the organism on to his wife). Later, it would seem as if the black oil could split itself and infect many.
  • And, OK, this episode would get at least a B+ for that opening image of the pilot still alive in the plane. One of the great cold opens the show ever did.

And now, some thoughts on Space: Above and Beyond:

I honestly thought about ditching this like Zack did, not because I wasn't enjoying it (indeed, it's growing on me) but because the amount of time it takes to watch three or four episodes of the show isn't exactly negligible, even with two weeks' worth of time to do so. Still, I'd started, and what is often cited as the best episode of the series was coming up, so I decided to power through disc three and see what happened. It starts with "Stay With the Dead," which is a mostly effective standalone hour that seems to fall into a trap the series falls into quite a bit: One of the characters has a piece of information, and they need to convince everyone else of its veracity. It's not a bad structure, particularly for a military-themed series, but it does get a little wearing when there are so many episodes like this (or so many episodes that are fairly similar) in a row. It also doesn't help that I'm not a big fan of Morgan Weisser, who has this episode built around him. "Stay With the Dead" isn't execrable, but it is kind of boring, and that's a fatal flaw in a show like this. Grade: B-


On the other hand, one of the things that's really making me enjoy the series is the way that it almost fetishizes its future military setting. To that end, "The River of Stars" is fantastic, primarily for the way that it grounds the story of Christmas stranded in outer space with the story of Christmas in No Man's Land during World War I. I'm a sucker for a good Christmas episode, and what surprises me is that this one is rarely brought up as a good example of the form. There's some solid banter among the cast members about the true meaning of the holiday, there are some heartfelt Christmas carol performances, there are some solid gift-giving scenes, and there is some beautiful, pseudo-religious imagery (that shot of Wang standing atop the ship and facing into the cosmos is gorgeous). The whole thing gets a little too maudlin with the final scene at the Christmas party, but there's a genuine sense of earnest holiday cheer, and this one deserves to be right up there with some of the best Christmas episodes ever. Grade: A-

"Who Monitors the Birds?" is the one that most big fans of the series point to as the episode that most marks the show's potential. It's hard to disagree. That this was pulled off by a mainstream TV series in the '90s is pretty stunning, and it must have taken a huge amount of guts for Glen Morgan and James Wong to go to Fox with this story and for Fox to put it on the air (though given the show's ratings, maybe Fox had just stopped caring). It's a nearly silent hour that tells the story of a secret mission undertaken by In Vitro Hawkes, a mission that nearly ends in his death as he lands on the surface of a hostile world wounded, trying to recall the training that got him to this point and could still save his life. The whole thing is told almost entirely through imagery (even the dialogue-laden flashbacks try like hell to tell the story as visually as possible), and it's just terrific. If I were watching this show first-run, this would be the episode that took me from mild interest to complete fandom. Grade: A


"Level of Necessity" isn't a bad episode of Space: Above and Beyond, but I'm not sure it's actually an episode of Space: Above and Beyond and not just a spec script someone had laying around for The X-Files. You'd see that a lot in '90s sci-fi series, where a show would do an episode about ghosts or psychic powers or something, simply because The X-Files was such a mega-hit that it pretty much demanded all other shows in its genre at least try to incorporate some of its template. After the solidly military based trio that precede this episode, it's jarring to spend so much time locked in a room with Damphousse, as the military tries to figure out if she has psychic powers. It feels like a weird tangent the show would do just as well to eventually drop, though we'll find out if it did. Grade: B-

So, yeah, I'll stick with Space: Above and Beyond through the end of the season. I've only got one more session of writing about The X-Files coming up (in two weeks), so I may have to slip my thoughts on the final five episodes in with Zack's write-up on the last three of season three of X-Files, but we'll figure out a way to get them out there.


Next week: The thrilling conclusion of "Apocrypha," the ingenuous return of Vince Gilligan to the show in "Pusher," and, uh, "Teso dos Bichos" and a bunch of killer kitties.