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The X-Files Newbie Recap: “Soft Light”, “Our Town”, & “Anasazi”

"I thought nothing gave you nightmares." // "Yeah, well, I was young."

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In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth, and then She created Dana Scully.

“Anasazi”, you guys. I have lost the ability to can.

Soft Light

Pleasingly, the villain in this episode is dark matter. Now you’ve seen it all, lads. Our heroes come in to help out one of Scully’s former students, Detective Kelly Ryan. There’s been a spate of strange disappearances and Ryan is having difficulty getting a lead on things, so Scully volunteers some time. Wonderfully, when Scully introduces Mulder, Ryan says she’s heard a lot about him. He nods and, in an aside to his partner, says “We’ll talk later.” I love it. Why can’t these two just date already.

The disappearances are being caused by one Chester Banton, a physicist missing and presumed dead since a botched experiment at a particle accelerator. I can only imagine how hi-tech said accelerator must have looked back in the day. The victims are, er, dissolved by Banton’s shadow – since the accident he’s ended up with some kind of feral black hole following him around, and when other people get too close they end up being sucked into what looks like a shiny vortex in the ground but is actually the result of their molecules being split into component atoms. Beautifully-worded way to bite it, though undoubtedly rather unpleasant. This is what the splodges look like:

Splodge

I think I’ve invented the word “splodge”, but it seems to fit that shape.

Mulder and Scully find Banton by investigating the previous victims. Each of them arrived in the town by train, prompting Mulder to speculate that whoever targeted them found them at the train station. Using CCTV footage, they get an improbably clear image of Banton on the monitors. He’s been hanging out at the station and staring at the ground. Ryan sends two cops to find him, but the cops fail to heed Banton’s warnings and end up being splodged. Mulder and Scully eventually corner him at the station, and luckily for him he’s stumbled across the one FBI agent in history who’ll take his weird assertions seriously and who shoots out all the lights so there’s no shadow to kill them. Four for you, Mulder. Thou’st prosper.

They take him to a psychiatric hospital, where Banton insists on being housed in a room with soft light. This is the only lighting that neutralises his shadow. Banton explains that he’s been living in fear since the accident. He didn’t mean to hurt anyone, but his shadow seems to have a mind of its own and killed the two victims while he was just standing at their doors. He’s been trying to study it and divine its true nature before “they” do – by which he means the government, who want to imprison him and do a “brain suck” of some form to get his knowledge. They don’t seem to care what’ll happen to the shadow when there’s no one left to anchor it. You can practically hear the bells going off in Mulder’s head.

Outside, Mulder and Scully discuss the merits of the case. Ryan’s superior has gotten wind of the FBI’s involvement, which in the grand tradition of every cop in this show pisses him off. He’s adamant Banton is the culprit and wants to charge him with murder. Mulder’s warnings fall on deaf ears. He then accuses Scully of putting Ryan’s ambition above good sense. Scully, taken aback, retorts (verbatim): “Ambition? She’s a woman trying to survive in a boys’ club, Mulder. Believe me, I know how she feels.” Fuckin’ truth bombs. I bow down at your feet, Dana. One of my friends and I were recently discussing Mulder’s propensity for being a dick at times and this is exhibit A. Sometimes I like to picture Scully venting her frustrations on a punching bag while loudly playing Bikini Kill in the background.

The accusations about government have Mulder all riled up, so he calls Mr. X. The spook is not in a giving mood. He says that during their last meeting, he “bloodied his fist” and “regrettably exposed [his] identity to associates of yours.” I’ll say one thing for Mr. X, he may be a slippery fecker but he is erudite as hell. His fear of ending up like his predecessor (i.e. dead) also intrigues me. You’d think, for a man in this line of work, proximity to death would be a given, so he’d be less freaked out by his own mortality. Unless being around death a lot makes you even more fearful of it? I would have thought the shady government types he works for would insist on giving their top operatives hardened and infinitely less moral versions of the Kobayashi Maru, at the very least. Stare death in the face and try to remain ice-cold.

Anyway, Mr. X turns out to have more than a professional interest in the case when, later that night, he rocks up to the hospital Banton’s in. The power’s been cut and he has two orderlies – presumably disguised operatives – with him. They attempt to take Banton but the lights flick back on and the orderlies become splodges. Mr. X keeps back and lets Banton go, but he’s not done with him yet.

Le chasseur est devenu LE CHASSÉ

Banton goes back to the particle accelerator. His erstwhile colleague Dr. Davey agrees to help him but before they can go to the lab Ryan bursts in. Unfortunately, she fails to heed Banton’s warnings and in what may be the only instance of him deliberately hurting someone, he steps forward and lets his shadow splodge her. Sad times. Davey seems suspiciously fascinated with what just happened and promptly reveals his true colours by locking Banton in with the accelerator. He’s been working for the government the whole time – what a shocker! – but before he can turn on the machine, Mr. X takes him out and appears at the door. Cast in this light, Mr. X is actually quite scary. It’s abundantly obvious from all his ass kicking in this show that he’s something of a badass but what this episode says about his day job is frightening. He takes Banton before Mulder and Scully show up. When they arrive, they see what appears to be Banton on the screen in the lab. He’s in with the accelerator, which has been switched on, and before they can do anything he’s zapped into oblivion.

Scully attends Ryan’s funeral. Poor Dana has had to put up with so much death in such a short period of time. Mulder arrives shortly after the service and says a missing person’s report was filed for Davey. He wonders if it was actually Davey they saw being zapped at the lab, and Banton’s still missing. Of course it was, because Mr. X brought Banton to some creepy government facility where he’s being Clockwork Orange‘d by shady scientist types with flashing lights. And Mr. X is there in his finest suit to oversee it all. I’d love to say this guy has hidden depths, but they’re mostly depths of horrifying duplicity, so let’s not dwell on it as yet.

Sucks for Banton though :(

Clockwork orange-d

This was enjoyable, all the more so because what first appears to be the villain is neatly subverted by a cautionary about how far the government are willing to go in this universe. It gives us insight into Mr. X’s dark side and renders him that little bit more ambiguously, which I guess can either be read as a sign of the risks he’s taking in helping Mulder or that he’s not as nobly-intentioned as he seems (or both?). Ooh, one final thing: the nurse at the hospital identified Mr. X as one of the men who came for Banton, so Mulder confronts him before the episode’s over and tells him this’ll be their last meeting. Echoing Skinner’s recent words, Mr. X tells him it’s a bad time to be going it alone. All sorts of shenanigans lie ahead. Let’s power on.

 

Our Town
Does anyone else feel like they should become a vegetarian?

[shudders]

Our heroes are dispatched to Dudley, Arkansas to investigate the disappearance of a federal agriculture inspector. Scully thinks it’s a wild goose chase intended to keep them busy, but they’re about to get waaay more than they bargained for. The town is home to a chicken processing company named Chaco Chicken. The inspector, Kearns, had cited its main plant for several violations and recommended that it be closed. Mulder wonders if this might be why he was killed, but the local sheriff, Arens, says they’ve only filed a missing person’s report as there’s no body and no evidence Kearns is actually dead. The popular local theory is that he skipped town with some young wan, as he was apparently a notorious skirt-chaser. Even his wife seems less than bothered by this fact.

So far, so Arkansas, and Scully’s ready to leave this one to agents at the local field office. Then one of the workers at the plant has a meltdown right in front of them. She starts hallucinating, sees human heads in place of the chickens, and then jabs a knife at her superior (Harold)’s throat. The sheriff shoots her. The staff physician at the plant reveals that the worker, Paula, had recently started complaining of severe headaches and trouble sleeping. Scully wants to do an autopsy, but they need to get permission from Paula’s grandfather first – he who just so happens to be the head honcho of the entire company.

For some reason, this guy lives on a plantation-like home straight out of Gone with the Wind and even has an African-American housekeeper. This may be our first clue that he’s not exactly a stellar citizen.

El swanko

Anyway, he permits the autopsy, but not until he’s completed some irked rambling about how he built the town from scratch by setting up the company and Kearns was the type of guy who just tore stuff down. An important aside at this juncture: Paula had been carrying on with Kearns, as we see him and her out in the woods in the opening scene, right before he’s attacked by a dude wearing a tribal mask. More cultural appropriation by ignorant types, and of course it’s gonna end badly.

Scully discovers Paula had Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or CJD for short. Colloquially we know this as mad cow disease. It causes progressive dementia and seizures and she would have been dead within a few months. She updates Mulder, but is at a loss to explain how Paula contracted it as it’s extremely rare and non-communicable. Mulder meanwhile has made a startling discovery of his own – according to Paula’s personnel file, she was 45 years old, but barely looked 21. Suspicious. They’re travelling back into town when a truck transporting live chickens crashes into a river. (My housemate has three chickens in our back garden and seeing any of their kind in distress makes me really sad, peeps.) While hauling him out of the truck, Mulder asks the sheriff why the river wasn’t dragged when Kearns disappeared. It’s running a suspiciously dark shade of red which the sheriff puts down to runoff from the plant, but which proves to be something a lot grosser when they find hordes of bones. Literal hordes. Nine skeletons’ worth, one of which is Kearns.

All I got left is my bonesAll of the bones share a rather troubling characteristic – they’re smooth at the end, like they’ve been polished or buffed. Mulder has FBI HQ run a background check and discovers that 87 people have gone missing near Dudley in the past 50 years. He puts two and two together and suggests the good people of Dudley have been eating more than just chicken. He reckons that the bones may have been boiled in a pot, which would explain the buffed look, and notes that cannibalism is traditionally rooted in attempts to maintain youth, which might be why Paula looked so young. Scully counters that no scientific evidence exists to indicate cannibalism keeps one looking young and fresh, but she does abandon the bucket of chicken she’s unfortunate enough to be holding at this point.

They decide to get Paula’s birth certificate to investigate her age. Tests in the meanwhile have shown that the driver of the crashed truck also has CJD, and Scully notes it could have been transmitted through eating infected, er, meat. The birth records at the county courthouse have been torched. Then Mulder gets a call from Kearns’ widow saying she’s in fear for her life and needs to speak to him. He sends Scully over, while he goes to arrest Chaco.

At Chaco’s house, he finds a bunch of heads.

Don't lose yer head

Nope.gif. He also finds a photo of Chaco with the Jale tribe in New Guinea. The photo’s dated 1944, but Chaco he looks fresh as a daisy in it. This would suggest the old man is about 90 years old, but he has the appearance of a cuddly 60-something granddad. Something’s not right at all in down-home Dudley. Chaco himself isn’t at home, cos he’s too busy kidnapping Scully. Mulder’s on the phone with her when he knocks her out with some kind of club and drags her off to a community bonfire where everyone’s feasting on Mrs. Kearns.

It’s like The Wicker Man, but with KFC. Chaco is none-too-impressed that they boiled and ate the Widow Kearns, ranting that she was one of them and part of the town and the real problem was the outsiders, i.e. the FBI. He says they’ve turned into an abomination, which is choice coming from him. The villagers, led by Harold, grab him and put him on a chopping block in front of the bonfire, where he’s swiftly relieved of his head. A gagged Scully stands to one side looking at everyone like they’re mad, because they are. They go to decapitate her next but Mulder’s rocked up just in time and shoots the executioner, who’s sporting the same tribal mask we saw in the opening scene. Harold attempts to shoot him but gets trampled to death by the crowd (apparently), and when Mulder frees Scully they remove the mask to discover Sheriff Arens was the nutjob with the axe. What a messed up town, lads. In the final scene, the plant is shut down by the Department of Agriculture. They don’t find any evidence of contaminated chicken but 27 people have come down with CJD. Scully (in voiceover) says that Chaco was shot down over New Guinea in 1944 and spent six months with the Jale, a tribe long suspected of cannibalistic practices. Documents reveal him as having been born in 1902 which means he was 93, and didn’t look a day over 65. His remains have yet to be found but the final scene strongly suggests he’s been mulched up to be fed to the chickens. Appetising. Apparently humans taste like pork, btw. Someone I know whose dad is a firefighter says he could never stand to look at pork (or bacon or ham or the like) after a particularly troubling day at work. I guess Chaco is quite literally the other white meat.

This was another solid episode for extreme discomfort – albeit discomfort rooted mainly in the gut. I dislike Scully’s being imperilled and needing rescue but the episode seems throwaway enough for us to overlook that. Besides, she more than compensates for it with extreme badassery in the season finale.

 

Anasazi
AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH.

Isn’t this where they said a bunch of cannibals lived in the previous episode? Oy. Fasten yer seatbelts, lads. As ever the finale has a TRUCKLOAD of detail so I’ll try to be brisk. While hyperventilating. Oh, I’m going to embed some colourfully-worded tweets here so be advised: swear words ahead.

We begin in New Mexico, where an earthquake uncovers a boxcar buried in the sand. A young boy from a nearby Navajo reservation pulls an alien body out of the boxcar and takes it back to his family. His granddad (I assume) tells him to return it and that “they will be coming.” Ominous opening and token bit of cultural insensitivity in place.

ALIENS

Next, a hacker in DC breaks into the Defence Department mainframe and downloads a bunch of encrypted files about UFOs. He gets a message to Mulder by way of the Lone Gunmen and passes the files to him. As is becoming a theme in Mulder’s life, the hacker asks that he ensure the “rat bastards” see justice. Mulder’s not been feeling the best. He’s sleep-deprived and irritable and almost pitches a fit when he opens the files to find they’re all in gibberish. Except it’s not gibberish – thankfully for him, and us, and the universe at large, the level-headed Dana Scully is able to identify the language used as Navajo. It was used to encrypt documents in World War 2. Mulder asks her to find someone who can translate it (though “asking” in his current frame of mind mainly involves shouting irately) and goes to see Skinner, whom he then proceeds to punch in the hallway at the very mention of the files. Skinner, by the grace of his wondrous bald head, gets him in a headlock and I took a screencap so we can all quietly swoon.

Swoon

Skinner bb, you NEED to show off the arms under that shirt sometime.

The CSM has been notified of the document leak. A bunch of world (“world”) leaders speaking everything from Japanese to German relay word to one another until the black-lunged ne’er-do-well himself is informed. He’s at a meeting and tells everyone assembled that this was the phone call he hoped never to receive; that it pertains to the MJ files. Somehow I doubt that’s referring to Michael Jackson. The CSM then goes to a most unexpected place – Mulder’s dad’s house. That’s right, Bill Mulder has been in on this whole mess THE ENTIRE TIME. My head is fricking spinning, lads. Has Mulder not suffered enough without feeling the intimate betrayal of one of his frigging parents being a conspirator? His sister just came back from the dead and turned out to be fake and died again a few episodes ago; give the man a break. He’s already being drugged (as we’ll see later). Anyway, Bill talks with the wide-eyed horror of a man who knows he’s basically fudged, as his name is in the files. The CSM encourages him to deny everything should his son rock up demanding answers. Apparently, the CSM has been “protecting” him this whole time (EXCUSE YOU SIR) and they have no intention of bumping him off lest he become a martyr. Sure, Jan. All that nonsense is belied within about ten minutes.

Mulder’s been sent home for punching his superior and Scully got called into a disciplinary meeting where she was effectively threatened with dismissal if she didn’t dob him in. Mulder jumps when she appears in his apartment. He’s all over the place. She says she’s going to talk to someone about the encryption and asks him if he’s OK. He gets shifty. Scully tells him about the disciplinary action and that she’s effectively putting her career on the line to help him out. She wants reassurance that they’re doing the right thing. All Mulder can do is stick an X in the window to find out. He waits for Mr. X after Scully departs, but before the former arrives he gets a call from his dad. He heads up to Bill’s house to see him. There’s a tense, loaded conversation during which Bill tells him that he’ll come to understand certain words, like “merchandise”. Mulder looks befuddled. Before he continues, his dad goes to the bathroom to get his medication and LO AND BEHOLD OUR FRIENDLY NEIGHBOURHOOD COCKROACH IS BACK

Allow me to embed my live-tweet so you can see how I reacted in real-time:

YOU

Krycek, the snivelling little shite that he is, shoots Bill. Mulder comes running in but Bill’s been fatally wounded and can just about murmur “forgive me” before dying in his son’s arms. This is altogether too effing much for Fox’s fragile psyche, people. He calls Scully, who’s at his apartment. While he’s been gone someone attempted to shoot her through the window (right over the X sign) and just barely missed. Mulder tells her what happened. She urges him to get out of there. Mulder refuses, saying it’ll make him look guilty, but she reminds him that no matter what he does now he’ll be suspected. He eventually relents and comes back to her house. She puts him straight to bed and takes his gun. Before he wakes up the next morning, she heads down to FBI HQ to get a ballistics test done on it. This is an attempt to clear his name, though it’s worth noting that she looks like she herself needs a bit of convincing. And you can’t really blame her, given how sick and shifty and jumpy he’s been this entire episode. Case in point: he calls her, demands to know why she took his gun, accuses her of attempting to cover her own ass and then hangs up saying “don’t ask me for my trust.” You have the rational, non-drugged Mulder’s trust, Dana. Don’t worry.

She goes back to his apartment later to pull the bullet that was shot at her out of the wall. While she’s there, she notices a white van outside and workmen delivering cannisters of water. Called it. Mulder’s been tripping balls this whole episode, like back in Salem. As further proof of his shoddy behaviour, he’s on his way back to the apartment when he sees Krycek sneaking around outside. They get into a scuffle and Mulder turns the gun on him, demanding to know if he killed his father. Scully interrupts them and tells Mulder to drop the gun, lest he shoot Krycek and indict himself for his dad’s murder. He won’t back down, so she shoots him through the shoulder. GDI, Dana, you’re exceeding yourself this episode. Krycek does what he does best and scarpers. By the time Mulder comes to, Scully’s dragged his useless ass down to New Mexico, where she’s met Albert Hosteen – the old Native American man from the opening scene. He was a codetalker during WWII and will decrypt the UFO files. She also tells him someone was drugging the water in his apartment building with LSD or amphetamines (to further underline this point, earlier in the episode, an old lady living in the same building shot her husband for no reason at all. The Lone Gunmen were about at the time and aptly observed: “weirdness.” Chapeau). Basically, the shady government types were attempting to frame him for his dad’s death and turn everyone against him, because once again he, like Icarus, had flown too close to the sun of truth and had to be burned.

A moment to note: all hail Scully. Seriously. Mulder’s SUCH an ignoramus sometimes. Does he even realise how royally fucked he would be if she weren’t in his life, watching his back at every turn and cleaning up all his messes? I know he’s a sensitive type and driven by his emotions and prone to bouts of irrational behaviour given the litany of unresolved psychological issues from his childhood and in this case he was, in fairness, drugged but S E R I O U S L Y for such a smart guy he’s such a gobshite sometimes. Scully deserves that the blessings of every deity in the known universe be lavished down upon her for her boundless patience and all the selfless work she’s done in saving Fox Mulder’s ass.

//onward

Scully has to head back to Washington, as she’s missed a meeting with Skinner and there will undoubtedly be bald-headed hell to pay. Before she leaves, she tells Mulder that her name is in the files. It’s marked down with Duane Barry’s in a section on some form of test. She asks him to find out what the eff’s going on. When he’s a bit better, Albert drives him back to his own home. He explains that 600 years ago, the region was home to the Anasazi tribe, who disappeared without a trace. The word Anasazi means “ancient aliens” and Albert doesn’t believe they vanished – rather, he thinks they were taken by visitors who “come here still”. Nothing vanishes without a trace, he says. His grandson drives Mulder out to the boxcar in the desert. Before he can check it out, Mulder gets a call from the CSM, who tells him that not only was his father involved in the project; he authorised it, and this is what he couldn’t live with. I find the reliability of mid-90s cell service in the desert as depicted in this episode to be somewhat questionable, but let’s overlook that. Mulder calls him a black-lunged SOB and tells him to get stuffed. He climbs down into the boxcar and finds a bunch of almost mummified alien bodies.

Wait for it...yet MOAR aliens

The CSM used the phone call to get a lock on his coordinates, and he’s en route in a helicopter with soldier types. Mulder calls Scully before they get there. He says he can see a smallpox vaccination scar on one of the bodies. Scully’s found troubling references to experiments in the files – ones carried out in the US, on humans, by Axis scientists. Before they can continue Mulder gets cut off. Albert’s grandson tries to hide him from the CSM and co., but by the time the soldiers get into the boxcar Mulder’s disappeared. The CSM cries “nothing vanishes without a trace!” in a pleasing reflection of Albert’s words earlier, and orders the military to blow up the boxcar.

Slow curtain; scene.

Sweet. Baby. Jesus.

Are you exhausted? I’m exhausted. This was intense as all get-out, lads, and I’m so fearful of what awaits. I could sit here and write an essay on everything this episode suggests but that might be better done after the next one, or even the next two (hi season 3!), when all this is resolved. My stars though, this show knows how to do a season finale.

Some thoughts: Scully’s seeking reassurance from Mulder that she was doing the right thing with the files is so heartening. I love her for so many reasons, but I do find it so admirable that even with all she’s seen and everything that’s happened to her at this stage, she is able to keep a level head and rational mind about her. Her commitment to the truth and her partner is inspiring but she’s not the single-minded vigilante that Mulder so often resembles; she’s mindful of her wider duties to the Bureau and is far too sincere and professional to risk disgrace over what could be a wild goose chase. In the circumstances, I think she’s about as pragmatic as she can be – juggling Mulder’s wild notions as best she can, and practically babysitting his nonsensical ass, while also towing the line at work to ensure they’re *not* sacked and can still keep fighting the good fight. I love her. I love her so much. She is all I aspire to be.

Mulder, you sad loveable wonderful disgrace. You’ve been through the mill this season (as has Scully), and now your dad’s gone and been killed right under your nose. It’s so sad. I do like the fact that he and Bill got to talk before the latter died, and that Bill was able to praise him for having his own politics and not letting himself get twisted up in someone else’s agenda. Granted, this was delivered in a roundabout way, but it is something for Mulder to lean on in what will undoubtedly be testing times and discoveries ahead. (Also, commenter who said Bill would never become a major character, I get it now.)

I reiterate that I am unhealthily infatuated with Walter Skinner.

And on a final note (for now), does anyone else think the CSM’s voice doesn’t suit him? It’s quite sinewy. Not really the voice of a villain. Skinner has a villain’s voice, but the CSM sounds more cerebral. Wiry. Befitting his nebulous status, at least.

As ever, thank you for accompanying me on this madcap journey and more thoughts will follow next week – with season 3!

PHEW. Pass me the tea.

Grace Duffy is a pop culture devotée and sometime film critic currently catching up on her classic sci-fi. You can read more on her blog, Tumblr, or catch her frequent TV liveblogs on Twitter.

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