“Unrequited” (season 4, episode 16)
In which there’s an invisible assassin, and somehow, no one seems too worked up about it.
Vietnam’s the war America can’t let go of. Oh, sure, we’re, in some ways, still fighting every single one of our major wars via weird, psychic echoes of the country as it was back then, but Vietnam did a number on us. The war animates the paranoia of Oliver Stone, whose films are an obvious touchstone for The X-Files, and it animated the attitudes that led to the general, growing distrust of the government in the mid-70s that was only confirmed for many by Watergate. The X-Files has dealt with the Vietnam War on a handful of occasions, but it has rarely done so as directly or as succinctly as it does in “Unrequited.” Now, the echoes of the war haunt us out of the corner of our eye, and the soldiers who fought in the conflict become almost literal ghosts, returning to their homeland to enact a revenge they barely understand beyond a certain programming.
“Unrequited” isn’t a very good episode of The X-Files, but it’s a potent one all the same. If we’re looking for great, scary visuals, the episode offers only one, where Scully stands outside a compound for a separatist militia group, scanning the treeline, and the camera just barely picks out… SOMEone just standing there, but Scully can’t quite see him. And the structure of the episode is often a mess, the assorted mysteries of the story never coalescing in a way that would make the whole thing pack the kind of punch it clearly wants to. Nor does it help that one of the episode’s major motifs is literally the same thing as the major motif of a recent episode of Millennium (an apparently completely innocent coincidence, even though the two series shared producers). So, yeah, it’s not a good episode, but it’s somehow one that’s hard to shake.
The biggest problem, structurally, stems from the fact that the episode opens at a speech about the Vietnam War, delivered by a general. The speech is being given just feet from the Vietnam War Memorial, and the general is being stalked by an assassin out in the crowd, someone that neither Mulder nor Scully can wholly get a bead on. And just when the assassin draws his gun and Mulder finally, finally locks eyes on him, the assassin vanishes into thin air, seemingly whooshing out of existence. It’s a neat effect, and it immediately establishes the paranormal aspect of the episode. It’s a pretty great starting point for an episode. Instead, it’s actually the endpoint.
One of the TV structural devices that needs to be retired post-haste is the idea of starting an episode at a point of maximum conflict, then flashing back to, say, a day earlier, when we learn how things came to that point. It almost never works as a way to goose drama, because it reduces everything to a series of equations that need to add up to the scene we saw earlier. A few episodes of a few shows have managed to make this device interesting (one recent example would be Modern Family’s “Fizbo”), but for the most part, it’s a momentum sapper. And while The X-Files is old enough that the device was still pretty new when the series utilized it, it doesn’t utilize the device in a clever way. The rest of the episode literally just confirms what we learned in the opening, and the final scenes involve replaying the five-minute opening almost shot-for-shot, meaning that roughly ten minutes of the episode are taken up by showing the same scene two times through, for no real discernible reason. What’s gained from showing the scene through in its totality again? Nothing, really. It feels like the episode came in short.
As the episode plays out, we learn that the man Mulder and Scully are trying to capture is Nathaniel Teager, a Vietnam vet who was a presumed POW, before his charred remains were ostensibly shipped back to the U.S. Is the Teager stalking these assorted generals a ghost? Some sort of brainwashed robot? Both? The plot that the episode weaves is fairly convoluted, involving (and correct me if I get some of this wrong) Teager joining forces with the militia group to take out the generals, utilizing techniques of disappearance he learned from observing the Viet Cong while in captivity. At the same time, he’s doing this at the behest of, uh, the U.S. government, which wants the generals dead to keep them from exposing embarrassing information. Or so Marita Covarrubias says, and who can trust her? The episode, scripted by the show’s two biggest government paranoiacs, Howard Gordon and Chris Carter, tries to toss so many balls in the air at once that it can’t catch all of them as they come back down. The militia group, for instance, never feels like anything other than a stall, even if the scenes set at the group’s compound are kinda cool (and contain the aforementioned shot).
The problem here is that the episode suggests a lot of great ideas without really making those ideas come home. For instance, Teager says that there are many other POWs still in Vietnam, one of those old ideas that floats around the edge of assorted conspiracy theories (though with slightly more evidence than usual) but one that gives this episode an unexpected punch, via the idea that these men could return, could be just as bent on vengeance as Teager. Similarly, the idea that Teager learned his disappearing tricks from the VC is a cool one that mostly just floats by, and the episode never really bothers to settle on an explanation for why Teager can disappear from view (outside of suggesting he somehow creates floating blind spots in people’s eyes and … what?). There are a lot of great ideas here, but they seem trapped in a never-ending quagmire.
The episode might also be better off if Teager were developed more as a character. It just doesn’t have time to make him anything more than a boogeyman, able to pop up wherever he wants at any given time, putting bullets into the heads of heavily guarded generals with impunity. The first time we see him (well, after that opening), he pops up opposite one of the generals in the back seat of a car, while the car is moving. It’s a great idea, it’s a great image, and it’s a great moment. But the impact of it is muted by the fact that Teager remains just some guy throughout the episode. Great moments abound throughout the episode involving Teager, but they don’t tie together in any real way. Look at Teager entering the Pentagon without anyone noticing him or in that scene where he talks to the veteran who recognizes him at the general’s speech. There’s potential for a real, human monster here, sort of like the monsters in “Tooms” or “Pusher.” Instead, we get a generic almost-ghost.
And yet there’s plenty to like about “Unrequited,” so much that I can’t really dismiss it out of hand. It’s a good episode for Skinner, for one thing, an episode that gives him a mission (keep the generals safe) and alludes to his past without making a big deal out of it. Mitch Pileggi was always good at everything the series asked him to do, but it rarely asked him to do too much. (The grand exception is coming up in just a few episodes.) Here, at least, he’s getting material other than being the gruff boss who still cares deeply for his agents. And while Mulder and Scully don’t get a lot to do, the interplay between the two, between Mulder suggesting insane ideas and then Scully giving him evidence that causes him to come up with ideas that are even crazier, much to her chagrin (and our delight). The scene where she’s forced to share his theory, at least in part, is a lot of fun.
And the best thing about the episode is the way that it uses Vietnam, a national wound that still hasn’t finished healing and actually felt somewhat fresh when this episode aired, as a sort of point A in a long line of national calamities, a natural beginning point for a country that was controlled more and more thoroughly by “them,” whoever “they” were. The X-Files was always a show for free-floating paranoiacs, people who really believed in the Roswell cover-up AND the JFK cover-up AND any other number of cover-ups, and here, Vietnam is fitted into that picture readily, as a sort of lie all can agree on, a time when the government didn’t tell the whole truth and pretty much everybody can agree it didn’t. For a show featuring an escaped Vietnam POW who can make himself invisible, “Unrequited” feels almost believable.
- As mentioned, this episode takes a fairly major plot point from a recent Millennium episode, which also featured a Vietnam vet getting his revenge and leaving a death card at the scene of all of his crimes. It’s such a bizarre coincidence that I’m convinced Carter worked it into both shows for some reason, even though all of the evidence suggests he didn’t.
- The scene where Mulder and Scully race from the dogs at the compound is far from the series’ most thrilling. Still, I like the dog’s eye view of the two, long coats billowing behind them.
- I think the scene where Teager repeats his name and rank over and over after he’s shot is supposed to be a sort of emotional catharsis, but his general lack of character development means this moment doesn’t play nearly as powerfully as it’s meant to.
- That said, I love the list he turns over to the vet who recognizes him. That’s a great visual evocation of the central idea of The X-Files: There is a shadow world that some men are driven mad by knowing about, and the only proof you have of it may be as insubstantial as a piece of notebook paper.
- Nice, if cheesy, shot of Skinner standing in front of the American flag at the end. (In general, a lot of over-obvious but stirring use of flag imagery in this episode.)
“Covenant” (season 1, episode 16)
In which Frank gets called in to underline a man’s criminality and instead decides to play Matlock.
I’m impressed by the fact that this late into its first season, Millennium is still trying all different kinds of things. “Covenant” is an episode that seems to be an acute psychological study at first, then one that shifts into an after-the-fact murder mystery, and it manages the shift so subtly that you’re almost not even aware it’s doing this until Frank points out that it’s what he’s doing. The writing (by Oscar winner Robert Moresco!) is solid, the direction is nifty, and the performances are all nicely subdued. This definitely feels like the show trying on a new disguise—perhaps as a show about just what could possibly drive men to commit these sorts of evils—but it’s one that’s reasonably well carried off, despite a couple of late in the game plot twists that are head-scratching in their oddness.
The town of Ogden, Utah, has been rocked by a bloody mass murder, a former sheriff having taken the lives of his wife and three children using a chisel, of all implements. Once the murder is over, he calmly calls his deputy to say that his family is all dead, and when we next pick up the storyline, it’s six months later, and the sheriff (named William Garry) has been convicted of murder. The prosecutor has called in Frank to build a profile of William. If Frank can convince the judge that William’s an imminent danger to society, then he’ll likely get the death penalty. What’s more, William actually wants this, since he believes the only way he can atone for what he’s done is to have his own blood spilled, which will happen under Utah’s firing squad death penalty. As the episode begins, it seems as though it will be about Frank slowly unraveling the man’s horrifying psyche, about the depths men can sink to and how easily that switch can be flipped.
Except there are little, niggling problems with that reading. In the cold open, we saw William’s oldest son getting a cookie and some milk, then descending the stairs. And while he’s doing that, it sure seems like he sees a bloody cloth down at the bottom of the stairs. We abruptly cut to a point-of-view shot, one that shows the kid with a heavenly glow around him, and then we get the sense that things are about to go very wrong. As the episode proper begins, we’re still carrying around this bit of knowledge, this suggestion that things aren’t quite as they seem, and the episode goes out of its way to suggest here and there that our theorizing is right. Take, for instance, the strange scrawl of “12815” on the kitchen window, numbers scrawled in blood that no one’s been able to decode. Or the general sense that the crime scene isn’t as it probably was right when William placed the four bodies at the foot of the stairs. There’s blood all over the kids’ beds, but not really anywhere else. Is someone covering something up?
These are the questions Frank starts to ask, too, and what we get is a sort of one-man riff on Twelve Angry Men, an episode where some small points begin to coalesce into a series of much larger issues with a case that railroaded a man who may be innocent, largely because he wanted to be railroaded. William’s made a confession, see, but Frank thinks it’s faked. There are small, strange discrepancies between the confession and the crime scene. Take, for instance, the fact that William claimed to have been extremely angry when he killed his family, but the killer was obviously calm when he positioned the four bodies at the foot of the stairs. Or take the fact that someone scrawled that message on the kitchen window in blood, but the kitchen itself was spotless, free of blood. Frank starts to wonder if there isn’t something more going on, and maybe so do we. Could those numbers be something different? What if the 1 was actually an I …
It’s here that we need to talk about the world that “Covenant” came up in. In the mid-90s, a handful of women killed their children, then either attempted to kill themselves or actually succeeded at the same. Of these women, the most famous was probably Susan Smith, who placed her children in a car, then let it roll into a lake. The cases, of course, spawned the usual sort of media discussion and hand-wringing about just how any mother could do such a thing, as if Smith were some sort of strange monster from another planet and not a very real human being who had done a monstrous thing. Thus, for viewers of “Covenant” in 1997, it must have been easy to make the leap to the fact that William’s wife had actually killed the children, then killed herself, in a way that made it look as if her hands were scarred by defensive wounds. My wife and I still made the leap to that twist now, 14 years later, but it took us longer than it likely would have back then. “Covenant” is that rare episode of television that actually gains strength from a certain distance from when it originally aired. Back then, it was just another ripped-from-the-headlines tale of a murderous mother. Now, it’s a crafty mystery that doesn’t reveal its cards until late.
It certainly helps that the social commentary is on the slight side. In particular, I like the fact that the ending leaves almost everything about the case’s resolution up in the air. Frank pleads with the deputy to tell the prosecutor that he helped cover up the fact that William’s wife killed the children. He tells William that his wife was pregnant when she killed her children and herself. He tries whatever he can to get someone to do the right thing, even going to a judge with all of the evidence he and the small team of people who become convinced that William is innocent can muster, only to be disappointed by the judge’s lack of interest in what they have to present. It’s going to take William retracting his confession and the deputy admitting to his culpability to let the man walk free, and neither act seems terribly certain. After all, if your spouse had just killed all of your children and then him or herself, wouldn’t you feel almost better facing a firing squad than trying to get your life started again, trying to put this massive, soul-scarring tragedy behind you? William’s committing very slow suicide, and once someone’s made up their mind about that, well, there’s really no way to pull them out of it, no matter what you say. And to the episode’s credit, Frank never gives any sort of “life is worth living!” speech. He’s far more interested in making sure the truth sees light, damn the consequences.
If there’s something I don’t like here, it’s the rather odd idea that Mrs. Garry kills her children because she, uh, sees them as angels. Actually, in theory, I don’t really have a problem with this, but by showing us the children surrounded by that heavenly glow, the episode takes things a little too far into the realm of over-literalizing things. It doesn’t help that the answer feels so pat. The reason we struggle to find answers in situations like this is because there ARE no easy answers, and just having Frank come up with this idea of angels feels too easy, like forcing a TV solution onto a problem that resolutely refuses having an easy TV solution forced onto it. It allows for the angel motif to have more of a payoff, but it also feels like the writers scrambling to come up with an ending and an explanation to avoid the very dark heart of the episode. (It doesn’t really help that the episode continues some of the series’ problems with weak, poorly motivated female characters, but that’s a subject for another time and a messier episode.)
And yet the moments when the episode stares into that dark heart are so good that I can’t fault it all that much. I love scenes like Frank walking through the empty house of this once ostensibly happy family, picking up small items and trying to piece together who these people were before they simply weren’t. I love the way the episode finally builds to the bleak despair of the night William discovered his dead family, the way that both he and the deputy seem forever changed by the events of that night, events they’ll never shake. I love the scenes where you’re not sure what Frank’s getting at, but you know he’s getting at something until the case is staring both you and him in the face. And I love the way the episode proceeds, methodically, step by step. It almost seems as though midway through its first season, Millennium realized that a lot of the serial killer stories it was trying weren’t working, so it just resolved to turn into a really interesting crime-fiction anthology series. “Covenant” is one of the stronger fruits of that decision.
- Or maybe I don’t like the angel solution because the angel effects just look stupid.
- As always, the scenes with Jordan and Catherine feel shoehorned in from some other series entirely. Also, dig the scene where Frank leaves home as the TV provides exposition about things we’ve just seen, his nosy neighbor looking in on him. None of this is necessary. All of it would have been cut in a modern drama series, which would have had two fewer minutes of screentime to play with.
- I love how the initial confession of William makes it sound like he killed his son almost by accident, then saw his wife and figured, "In for a penny, in for a pound …"
- Late in its first season, Millennium seems like it’s going to turn into a series about a dude who travels the country, wearily, solving the cases no one else can. Is there another show in that template whatsoever? And if not, can we remake this show to be about that?
- Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death, And with Sheol we are in agreement. When the overflowing scourge passes through, It will not come to us, For we have made lies our refuge, And under falsehood we have hidden ourselves.” (Isaiah 28:15)
Next week: Zack hangs out with Max Fenig again in “Tempus Fugit,” then learns just why the Internet is EVIL in “Walkabout.” (No, not THAT “Walkabout.”)