The X-Files: “Via Negativa” / “Surekill”

The X-Files: “Via Negativa” / “Surekill”

“Via Negativa” (season 8. episode 7; originally aired 12/17/2000)
In which Doggett sees the other side…

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

Earlier this week, I took part in a Reader Roundtable write up of the second season Twin Peaks’ episode “Lonely Souls.” It was a fun time, and if you’re caught up on the show, you should check it out; I mention it here not to be a shill (well, maybe a little), but also because watching the first half of this week’s X-Files double feature had me thinking about “Lonely Souls” quite a bit. The two aren’t really comparable in terms of plot, and quality-wise, “Souls” easily comes out on top. But both episodes, at their height, tap into a kind of powerful, subconscious horror that elevates them above standard genre fare. “Via Negativa” has a silly plot about a cult leader who takes a special drug that unleashes… something; “Lonely Souls” has visions of white horses, a hypnotic night-club act, amnesia, a wisdom-dispensing giant, and an identical-twin cousin. Yet these are stories which transcend the limitations of mere plot and tap into a rich, more powerful source of emotion. “Via Negativa” never quite reaches the heights of Lynch’s work, and I don’t want to oversell the hour as some kind of lost classic. But it has undeniable power that took me almost entirely off-guard. Comparing something to a fever dream is, by now, the hoariest of critical cliches, and yet that’s what this entry often feels like: something dark and uncontrolled and off-kilter.

It’s strange how much of the season so far has been about keeping Doggett and Scully separated. Back when Mulder was the male lead, this made sense, at least in the later years; a good mix of partnered and solo missions helped keep the dynamic fresh, and after so much time working together, it was debatable if there was a Mulder/Scully argument we hadn’t seen half a dozen times already. But Doggett and Scully are new, and out of the seven episodes so far this season, half or more have found a way to keep one or the other agent on the sidelines, shifting focus onto a single lead. In the case of “Via Negativa,” that decision makes sense, in that the real story of the episode is Doggett struggling to come to grips with the darker side of working on X-Files: the creeping, unshakable realization that the world you’d taken for granted is no longer a world you can trust. Still, the determination to keep the two apart is an odd choice overall. It hasn’t hurt the show yet, as Doggett remains compelling and Scully is, well, Scully (long may she reign), but their partnership remains under-developed. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe the writers, having realized that there’s no way any new character could ever hope to rival Mulder and Scully’s long history have decided to take a mulligan on even trying.

Which isn’t to say Doggett isn’t spending time with some of Mulder’s other old friends. With Scully absent, Skinner steps in to fill the gap, with mixed results. The more time he gets on-screen, the more Skinner seems like a shadow of his former self. This is arguably intentional—as his loyalties to Mulder and Scully have become more and more pronounced over the years, the shadowy forces using governmental bureaucracy to hold the nation in line are inevitably going to trust him less and less. But it’s sad seeing him reduced to playing Mulder-lite, spouting crazy theories and looking increasingly desperate to be anywhere but where he is right now. As supporting cast goes, Skinner is someone who works best on the sidelines. An occasional starring episode is cool, but bring the character to the forefront too often and he loses whatever mystery he has left.

The Lone Gunmen fare much better. Appearing only for a scene, they serve largely to connect Doggett more deeply to the show’s world. Scully, who stays sidelined in the hospital for most of the hour due to “abdominal pains” (surely something to do with her pregnancy, although we don’t find out what yet), calls the conspiracy-obsessed trio in to help Doggett’s current investigation, a series of vicious axe murders that were committed under suspiciously outre circumstances. The boys show up, joke around a bit, and demonstrate by their almost immediate admiration of Doggett that the new guy is all that and a bag of chips. Their willingness to accept him (after he manages to make a connection they hadn’t noticed yet) would be almost too obvious an attempt to ingratiate us with the character, if it weren’t for the fact that Doggett’s transition from good cop in the normal world to good cop in crazy town isn’t without its downside.

The specific X-File the story centers on isn’t all that impressive. Anthony Tipet (Keith Szarabajka) was able to open his mystical third eye, but in doing so, unleashed the dark force of his subconscious will, and that force has been jumping into people’s dreams and murdering them with their worst fears. Or something like that. When you try and break it down into the details, there’s a lot of vagueness, and no real demarcation of what Tipet’s powers actually are, or why they’re manifesting in such a relentlessly homicidal way. There are ways to justify this, as Doggett’s reference to the episode’s title suggests; you could say Tipet tapped into powers he could neither understand nor control, and the result is a kind of demon who exists purely to kill. But the episode doesn’t seem much interested in getting too deep into reasons. Magic drugs, freaky third eye, dream murders. Just roll with it, okay?

I can see getting hung up on the plot, but the atmosphere—heavy, doom-laden, and frequently bizarre—makes up for any shortcomings in the script. As the episode unfolds, the how and the why of Tipet’s condition become less and less relevant, and the climax, which features Doggett struggling with the nature of his reality, barely features Tipet at all. By that point, “Via Negativa” is less interested in tracking down a monster than it is in expressing just what it might be like for an outside to stumble upon things that Mulder and Scully by now take for granted. The look of utter, almost frozen horror on Robert Patrick’s face as he goes into Skinner’s office, uncertain if he’s dreaming or awake, is remarkable, both from the actor’s work (he behaves like a man who has a bomb strapped to his chest and is terrified of sudden movements), and from the way it recontextualizes the show’s dangers. By now, people (and others) with paranormal abilities are par for the course on The X-Files, even when the show manages to find new ways to surprise us. But Doggett, a man for whom logic and rational thinking are clearly very important, is now faced with a danger that he can’t protect himself from. That his final dream climaxes with an attempted attack on Scully—one thwarted at the last moment by Tipet’s death and Doggett’s willingness to sacrifice himself—isn’t really a surprise. Maybe there are other reasons for why he would go after her, maybe it’s simply that his deepest fear is assaulting his own partner; but now that he’s faced with a universe in which all the closet doors stay open, who else can he blame for his condition?

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • I legitimately thought that Tipet was going to go after Scully. Doggett’s first dream sequence ends with him holding Dana’s head, and the fact that Tipet is sent to the hospital when we know that Scully is also at, or has been at, a hospital—well, in retrospect, the connection is a lot thinner then I realized, and I’m glad they went in the direction they did. But still.
  • The flashing blue light during the final dream sequence is terrific.

“Surekill” (season 8, episode 8; originally aired 1/7/2001)
In which Randall is looking through you…

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

From the deeply creepy to the thoroughly mundane; “Surekill” has Doggett and Scully back together, working on the case of a hit man with a seemingly magical ability to make almost impossible shots. There’s a glimmer of an idea here, but the more the premise unfolds, the less interesting it becomes. Partly that’s a failure of the script’s most basic concept, and partly it’s the way the structure harkens back to the classic X-Files format without offering much in the way of variation. Scully and Doggett show up, poke around a weird case, narrow down the perpetrators; this week’s guest stars squabble amongst each other; and then the story resolves itself, with little to no help from our heroes. It’s not terrible, but nothing here, from the sad, close-mouthed “monster” to the abusive older brother to the shabby femme fatale, ever rises above its circumstance. It’s the kind of story that really depends on the effectiveness of its hook to work, and unfortunately in this case, the hook just isn’t enough.

You know how most people can’t see through walls? Well, Randall Cooper (Patrick Kilpatrick) can. That’s basically it. Scully has a talk with Doggett about other forms of light, and how normal eyes have limits as to what rays on the spectrum they can detect, but Doggett sums up the gist: it’s X-ray vision. Unless you’re a horny teenager, that’s not the Superman power you pick. There are ways to use this well, and a couple scenes in “Surekill” feint in that direction. The cold open, which has a terrified man seek protection from the police, only to get shot in a locked room mid-scream, is effective enough, and a later confrontation, which gives us an example of how Dwight Cooper (Michael Bowen, honing the threatening asshole act he'd have perfected by the time he played a neo-Nazi on Breaking Bad) exploits his brother’s ability to take out drug dealers, is cool looking. But the concept only goes so far. The shots of Randall staring straight ahead, catching people when they think they’re alone or seeing danger coming seconds before it turns a corner, are fine as far as they go, but the character’s largely mute suffering prevent him from being much more than a symbol.

That’s a problem, because all of this is very familiar, and without any of the characters distinguishing themselves, there isn’t much reason to watch. Dwight is a browbeating asshole in the manner of all browbeating assholes, dominating his brother and using his miniscule power to keep the sole woman in their lives in line. What little pathos the hour generates comes from Tammi Peyton (Kellie Waymore), the secretary for the Coopers’ extermination company AAA-1 Surekill. Randall is obsessed with her, often watching her late at night while she’s alone in his apartment; in one clever/cruel scene, Dwight pulls Tammi aside into his office to have sex (which, judging by Tammi’s tired resignation, happens a lot), closing the door on his brother while knowing full well that a closed door doesn’t mean a damn thing to a man with X-ray eyes. It’s all very sordid and pathetic, but the low-rent noir angle doesn’t have enough depth to carry the whole hour. There’s a minor twist when we find out that Dwight is legally blind, creating a Twins situation in which Randall’s super-power came at the cost of his brother’s, but that’s largely cosmetic, strengthening the bond between the two without doing much more than that.

In particular, the script’s misconception that Randall’s infatuation with Tammi is somehow indicative of a deeper connection—that his willingness to peep on her while she’s taking a bath implies he “sees something” in her that others don’t—is ludicrous and unintentionally creepy. Someone who grew up with no conception of privacy would understandably have a skewed idea of what was and wasn’t appropriate, especially if you grew up under the tutelage of a guy like Dwight. But the script specifically implies a depth to Randall’s attentions that doesn’t really ring true. He’s a lonely, doomed man, although for once, his doom really doesn’t have anything to do with what makes him a freak; a Randall with normal vision would’ve been born into the same life, and probably had most of the same problems. Regardless, he fixates on Tammi the same way any lonely straight guy would fixate on an attractive woman who is occasionally nice to him. There’s no real connection there. Scully’s “He must have seen something in her she couldn’t see herself” comes across as an attempt to suggest an emotional weight that doesn’t really exist.

As for Doggett and Scully, now that they’re working a case together, they’re fine, but spend most of the time a few steps behind. Scully comes up with the X-ray theory, Doggett rolls with it; Scully tries to connect with Randall, manages to get a few words out of him but nothing more. The two agents are in the backseat, and while that’s a format that can work for the show, it falls flat here. “Surekill” isn’t terrible, but it’s far too easy to see right through.

Grade: B-

Stray observations:

  • According to the IMDB, James Franco plays one of the cops in this episode. If so, I completely missed him.
  • “I hate twins. Twins never rat each other out.” -Doggett. And now I want to see a flashback to Doggett’s career before the X-Files.

Next week: Todd returns to look through some “Salvage” and deal with “Badlaa.”

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