X-Files Recap is a weekly column by Keith Uhlich covering Chris Carter's 10-episode continuation of the
X-Files television series.
Shafts of light outlined by drizzly mist. A soon-to-be massacred boy (Sebastian Billingsley-Rodriguez) separated from his mother. A shape-shifting monster lurking in the woods. Business as usual on The X-Files, though there’s something about the adeptly creepy teaser sequence of “Familiar” (the eighth episode of Season 11, penned by former XF writer’s assistant Benjamin Van Allen, and beautifully, atmospherically directed by series newcomer Holly Dale) that feels provocatively off and strange. It’s a sensation that extends over the entirety of an installment sure to be categorized as “old school,” though it more accurately blends the freshly peculiar with the staunchly, yes, familiar.
“Thanks for backing me up out there,” says FBI Special Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) to her partner Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) after they mutually spar with Chief Strong (Alex Carter), tightlipped head of the Eastwood, Connecticut police department. “Yeah,” replies Mulder, “You’re my homie.” After multiple episodes (pretty much every one this season) revolving around the duo’s deep-rooted angst/longing, their second-nature banter takes center stage. That also means they’re more observers to and commenters on the mainly mystic happenings—involving such disparate elements as child murder, small-town mass hysteria, a witches’ curse, adultery, a literal hound from hell, and a demonic kids’ TV character named Mr. Chuckleteeth (pure nightmare fuel, him, with an earworm of a theme song to boot)—as opposed to direct participants.
This is a scenario (established protagonists as effective bystanders) often utilized in the series’ heyday when it was more often a Nick-and-Nora-Charles-go-supernatural procedural. But as these two revival seasons have shown again and again, you can’t return to what was. The past may inform the present, but it can never be recaptured. At one point, Mulder lays out the history of “familiars,” spirits purportedly conjured to take a pleasing shape and lure people to their deaths. He might be extra-textually spotlighting the tension that informs this long-running series’ later seasons, which are always recognizable as The X-Files, so resolutely does the show stick to its patented narrative formulas, even as they often uncomfortably force viewers to reckon with time passing, with the clock ticking.
There’s now an ingrained world-weariness to Mulder and Scully that, in lesser installments, seems to spring from the performers playing them. (Understandable after 11 seasons, 2 movies and multiple franchise-extending side projects.) In such cases, the characters’ enthrallingly Sisyphean compulsions go AWOL. Yet when the narrative themes and aesthetic execution match up, as here, with the duo’s studied jadedness, the effect is bracing. You can sense them searching, hungering really, for a spark of some kind, even if it means gazing into the abyss to get it.
The town of Eastwood turns out to be just the place for that, a hothouse micro-cosmos in which each adult is at full boil at every moment. Mulder puts his finger on that pulse in one of the more didactic lines of dialogue, diagnosing the community with “a fervor that we see too often in this American experience of ours.” That’s a line—embarrassingly on the nose and yet somehow, in this context, entirely apropos—straight from the playbook of series creator Chris Carter, and Van Allen follows his boss/mentor’s storytelling tendencies, throwing the zeitgeist and the concerns of the moment into a blender and hitting “puree.”
He also tosses in a few potentially past-their-sell-by-date references, such as the fiendish, Teletubbie-like Bibble-Tiggles, one of whom shepherds another more-than-willing child (Emma Oliver) to her demise. This initially seems like a conceit better suited to the late-’90s/early-’00s when the baby-talk-chattering T-Tubs were at peak popularity. Yet there’s something uncanny in the way the Bibble-Tiggles are designed, their simple, soothingly colorful fur contrasting ghoulishly with their hollow-eyed, inexpressive white faces (simultaneously a death mask and a Rorschach blot). Superficially, they are parodies of something recognizable though out of vogue. But they also have a novel, amorphous terror that transcends any particular time or place. That which is familiar is grounded, graspable, easily taken for granted, while the void is eternal, transmutable. And what happens when the thing we know becomes the very instrument of our destruction, swallowing us and our spirit whole?
“Time has a way of shedding light on injustices,” says Scully to African-American Officer Wentworth (Roger Cross), who provides, against the orders of his direct superior, some crucial information to the agents and then nods in drained solidarity with Scully’s remark, as if he knows he should be convinced of its truth yet can’t make the leap of faith. This American experience of ours (as filmed in Vancouver, Canada): Children butchered, minorities exploited, and unfaithful/vengeful adults who should know better calling up literal demons instead of dealing with the corrosive ones inside. It’s easier to lay blame at the doorstep of a John Wayne Gacy manqué (Ken Godmere) than it is to admit your own cloistered culpability in the death of innocents. But how effective and all-consuming the old habits can be. Look at the moment when Mulder, searching around a potential suspect’s house, is startled by a monkey caged in the closet. “C’mon!” he shouts, ashamed that a jump-scare so rote still has a distracting jolt of life in it.
What, or who, are we willing to sacrifice, and not necessarily for the greater good? Looking at the two barely-past-toddler-age casualties in “Familiar,” both of them snatched away with a shocking mercilessness that Van Allen and Dale manage to convey even amid network TV restrictions (especially in a hauntingly visualized autopsy scene), it’s hard not to think about the victims of the Sandy Hook or Parkland shootings, lambs to another kind of demonic slaughter. These are points at which unabashed pulp proves more adept at holding up an unflattering mirror to the audience than any number of well-intentioned works of art. Genre storytelling especially thrives on precariously instinctual impulses, though what continues to intrigue about The X-Files is how it will go baldly pedantic as a kind of counterbalance, allowing Mulder and Scully to pontificate to a philosophical fault.
“There is no getting out of this town, Scully,” says Mulder at episode’s close, “Not these days.” Blunt moralizing, but what a moral: A lesson in inevitability, and an acknowledgment of the prison (mostly of our own making) in which we devalue and devour each other ’til death do us part.
MUSINGS OF A NON-CIGARETTE-SMOKING FAN
• I recommend checking out Van Allen’s “Familiar” post-mortem over at SyfyWire,
where he goes into some of the episode’s influences. Mr. Chuckleteeth, who seemed to me like a devilishly possessed Pee-Wee’s Playhouse
character, was actually inspired by one of the regulars, Mr. Noseybonk, from a British kids’ TV show titled Jigsaw.
• Ever since Season 4’s “Home” (filmed third, but aired second) each season of The X-Files has debuted certain episodes out of production order. “Familiar” was shot ninth but aired in the eighth slot. Next week’s James Wong-directed installment, “Nothing Lasts Forever,” was shot eighth and now occupies the penultimate ninth slot. This often has a practical purpose, accommodating certain performers’ schedules or location availability. But sometimes, as with the swapping of “Founder’s Mutation” (filmed fifth, aired second) with “Home Again” (filmed second, aired fourth) during the tenth series, it’s with the intention to better shape the emotional arc of a given season. The most infamous, and still hotly debated example of this is when Carter and his producers moved Season 4’s “Never Again” (the last Glen Morgan and James Wong episode before the revival series, originally intended for a post-Super Bowl premiere) in-between the hybrid mythology/standalone installment “Leonard Betts” and the straight mythology episode “Memento Mori.” This had the not-unsuccessful effect of making the events of “Never Again,” in which Scully has a one-night stand with a guy sporting a sentient, murderous tattoo with the voice of Jodie Foster (god, I loved typing that), seem like a direct result of the revelation in “Leonard Betts” that Scully has cancer. Yet this was apparently never considered in the writing or the production of “Never Again,” and Anderson has noted that she would have played Scully’s actions differently if she knew of the final airing order.
• One slight deviation from “Familiar’s” Mulder-and-Scully-as-detached-observers approach: Whenever the agents are in the presence of the two children, there are implicit references (and one explicit one) to their on-the-run son William, though they pass by so quickly that it further illustrates the undercurrent of willful disconnection with which the duo investigates this particular case.