I write with quivering fingers because my house is Baltic right now. Good job both this week’s episodes are so dark then, hein?
A rightfully damning depiction of anti-Semitism forms the basis of this episode, but a tender and very moving love story makes it linger. Our heroes help investigate a string of murders that appear to be motivated by revenge. A Jewish man named Isaac Luria is murdered in his shop, and when one of the men suspected of killing him is strangled, Mulder and Scully come in.
Isaac belonged to a community of Hasidic Jews based in Brooklyn. His funeral takes place in the opening scene, with his fiancée Ariel suffering what appear to be flashbacks to his final moments. Isaac’s fingerprints are later found on the body of Tony Oliver, who happened to be in possession of a surveillance tape from the shop. Mulder and Scully to Ariel’s house to speak with her and her father Jacob. They want to exhume Isaac’s body and need her permission. Her father, Jacob, is appalled. He says the community was threatened several times by neo-Nazi types but authorities never paid any attention when they asked for help. Ariel grants them permission to dig up the grave but asks that they be left to mourn in peace.
Before they go to the cemetery, our heroes question Curt Brunjes, who owns the shop across the road from Isaac’s. He is anti-Semitic as fuck and appears to be printing leaflets emblazoned with all manner of racist accusations. One of the other men who killed Isaac hides out in the back, listening to their conversation. When Mulder mentions that Isaac’s prints were found on Oliver’s body, this guy, Derek, gathers up his friend and fellow killer Clinton to dig up the grave first. Isaac’s body is indeed in his coffin, but while Derek’s attempting to break into it someone attacks and kills Clinton.
When Mulder and Scully examine the grave themselves, they notice Hebrew letters printed on Isaac’s hand. There’s a book alongside the body, also in Hebrew, but it catches on fire spontaneously when Mulder picks it up. They take the remnants to an expert and learn that it’s a mystical text called the Sefer Yetzirah.
This prompts them to go back and speak with Ariel again. She shows them a ring her father helped to make when he was younger. He lived in a small village not far from Prague and worked as a jewellery apprentice. Every woman who got married in the local synagogue wore the ring on her wedding day. The village’s Jewish community wiped out in the Holocaust, but Jacob took the ring with him when he fled the country. He took it out for the first time in years to give to Ariel for her wedding, saying his village would finally live again. It seems today would have been her and Isaac’s wedding day. Our heroes look at one another and grimace awkwardly.
Jacob is the synagogue, so they go head over to speak to him. Looking around upstairs, they discover a body hanging from the rafters. Before they can do anything, something brushes past them and upends Mulder. Scully manages to corner Jacob and they take him into custody. He all but admits to the killings, but Mulder isn’t convinced. He returns to the expert who identified the Sefer Yetzirah and asks him about the legend of the golem. According to scripture, a righteous man could create a being out of pure clay and, using certain words found in the Sefer Yetzirah, bring it to life. The “magic” word, as it were, is “emet”, meaning “truth”. The expert cautions that the resulting being would be a primitive creature however—incapable of speech or expressing emotion, and which could only be destroyed by its creator. Removing the first letter of “emet” makes the word “met”, or “death”. Mulder learns that the Hebrew letters printed on Isaac’s hand spell out “emet” and begins to wonder if Jacob or Ariel created a golem to get revenge.
Scully calls and informs him that Brunjes has been found dead. In his shop, they find a printing press laden with various anti-Semitic leaflets and a mailing list containing the names of the three men who killed Isaac. Surveillance footage shows Isaac himself attacking Brunjes. Scully thinks the footage has been interfered with, but Mulder reckons it is him—just not as he once was.
Elsewhere, Jacob has been released from custody and is looking for Ariel. He finds her at the synagogue in her wedding dress. She has the ring he brought from his village. Jacob tells her that Isaac is dead and she must accept it. She tried bringing him back but what came back isn’t him; it’s an abomination with no place among the living. Ariel says she just wanted to say goodbye. There’s a noise in the distance and Jacob goes to investigate. When Mulder and Scully arrive, he suddenly drops from the rafters, hanging by a rope. They cut him down quickly and Scully stays with him while Mulder goes looking for Ariel. Upstairs, Isaac—in golem form—attacks but Ariel distracts him by calling out. She speaks to him in Hebrew and tells him she loves him before wiping away one of the Hebrew letters on his hand. He begins to dissolve back into clay and, when Scully comes upstairs a little while later, Ariel sits over him saying goodbye.
Tears, lads. This one hit me right in the feels. It’s an incredibly dark episode, taking uncompromising aim at the sinister and insidious nature of anti-Semitism but it’s the love story that makes it so affecting. In Isaac and Ariel’s ill-fated union, we see the reality of hate crimes driven home—it’s not just the frightening intolerance and aggression which motivates them, but the fact that the victims are hurt so intimately. Ariel loses not just her fiancé but a future she and her father longed for desperately. The inclusion of the ring symbolises this quite hauntingly—Jacob kept it hidden for decades until his daughter was due to marry, and the golem version of Isaac places it on her finger before she lays him to rest again. The grief and pain depicted throughout are searing, and all the more so for the fact they formed part and continue to form part of a great many real life stories we’ll never hear about. It seems fitting that the episode opens with a funeral and is filled with dark, rustling, shadowy shots, all of which capture the pervasive sense of loss as much as the hatred which caused it.
Hats off to all the performers in this one, particularly Justine Miceli and David Groh as Ariel and Jacob. Some other notes before I continue:
- The episode is dedicated to the memory of Lillian Katz, writer/producer Howard Gordon’s grandmother. Gordon wanted to draw on his Jewish heritage for an episode and was partially inspired by a friend’s wedding, one in which the ring featured in the episode was actually used. Apparently several Jewish writers had pitched episodes based on the legend of the golem before this was written.
- The score includes elements of clarinet, violin and cello to evoke mourning—composer Mark Snow said he was aiming for “somewhere between a Klezmer band and Schindler’s List“. On that note, there’s a little girl at the funeral in a bright red coat, standing vividly apart from the black clothes mourning garments worn by everyone else.
- “Kaddish” is a reference to the Jewish mourning prayer.
If that doesn’t make you feel morose, the next episode takes aim at U.S. policy in Vietnam. The writers weren’t even in the vicinity of fucking around on these ones.
The ghosts of Vietnam come home to roost. Or so it goes for three senior military officials, who find themselves targeted by a man they may have left for dead in a POW camp in the 70s. The FBI are asked to investigate the killing of Lieutenant-General Peter McDougal, who was shot at point-blank range in the back of his car outside Fort Evanston. His driver, Burkholder, is the only suspect as no one else was spotted in the car. Burkholder claims there was a shooter in the back seat with McDougal, but he disappeared right before his eyes. The only other evidence is a playing card of a skull found at the scene.
Skinner rounds up all his best agents and fills them in. The skull card is a throwback to Vietnam, he says, and Burkholder has links to a radical group of violent extremists called the Right Hand. The dedication of the Vietnam memorial is soon to take place in DC and it’s possible other senior officials will be targeted. Scully approaches Skinner to ask if there’s a warrant on the Right Hand’s leader, an ex-Marine named Danny Markham. She asks if she and Mulder can serve it. Skinner agrees but warns them to be careful.
Markham lives on an isolated lot in Virginia. His compound is guarded by dogs, so Mulder and Scully speak to him through the gate. Scully shows him the warrant and asks if they can go through the Right Hand’s mailing list with him. SWAT teams roll up on either side of the lot, prepared to intervene if things get ugly. Markham agrees to speak to them. The compound is secured and Markham shows Mulder a photo of himself with a man named Nathaniel Teager. Teager was credited with tens of kills in Vietnam but was left for dead after being shot down in the 70s. Markham claims the Right Hand liberated him from a Vietnamese POW camp in the early 90s and that the US government attempted to kidnap him when they came home. The attempt failed, but Teager disappeared and hasn’t been seen since.
Elsewhere, Teager himself meets a Mrs Davenport, who’s leaving flowers at the Vietnam memorial. He gives her dog tags belonging to her husband Gary and says Gary is still a POW in Vietnam. Then he disappears right before her eyes. Mulder and Scully arrive to speak to her later. She identifies Teager from the photo, but Skinner says there are records confirming Teager is dead. Mrs Davenport becomes upset and blood collects in her eye. Mulder wonders if this could be linked to the way Teager seems to vanish “in plain sight”. Scully goes with her to the hospital while Mulder goes to check out Teager’s remains.
Teager was identified using dental records, but his cause of death is marked inconclusive. The doctor who pulls the files for Mulder says the record was partially destroyed. Mulder notes that a General Steffan signed off on the record and contacts him to warn that his life may be in danger. He sends two agents to accompany Steffan to the Pentagon, but Teager manages to slip past the guards. When Steffan reaches his office, he finds a skull card on the desk and calls Mulder. Teager steps out of the shadows and shoots him while he’s on the phone. Mulder rushes over and spots Teager, but he disappears as fast.
Scully calls to say that Mrs Davenport has a floating blind spot in her eye, though there’s no obvious cause and she’s never noticed it before today. Mulder thinks this might be how Teager is hiding from everyone. They look over the surveillance footage and spot Teager walking right into the Pentagon. The guards didn’t see him, but he doesn’t disappear on the tape. He goes to Covarrubias for more information. She tells him that Steffan and McDougal were connected—namely, they were two-thirds of a three-man commission facing charges over abandoned US spies in Vietnam. The third man is a Major General Bloch, who’s speaking at the event in DC that week.
As the event kicks off, Scully spots Teager near Bloch’s car but he vanishes. Mulder takes her and Skinner aside and says this may all have been orchestrated. The government dumped the protective detail on the FBI, hoping they’d fail, as this would allow them to maintain the policy of silence over ugly doings in Vietnam. Mulder and Scully would be brought in given the unusual nature of the case and in turn be discredited. Skinner is even more frazzled than usual, and agitates further when Bloch insists on giving his speech despite the dangers involved.
At the speech, Teager is spotted by an old friend named Leo Danzinger. Danzinger thought he was dead, but Teager says that’s what “they” want him to believe. He was abandoned without rescue, he says, and letting him die was easier than admitting the truth. He gives Danzinger a list of names and then vanishes.
Bloch steps up to the pulpit, finding a skull card on it. Unfazed, he continues speaking. Mulder, Scully, and another agent all spot Teager in the crowd before losing him as fast. Mulder twigs that Teager might only be able to hide from people when they’re looking directly at him. Skinner pulls Bloch aside and everyone retreats to a backstage area, where Bloch’s car is waiting. Teager is in the driver’s seat. He tries to hit Bloch but Skinner shoves him out of the way. Although no one can see Teager, one of the agents shoots at the driver’s seat and eventually the car rolls to a halt. Teager spills out of the door. Scully hurries over to examine him, and he begins repeating his name, rank and service number before dying. (I’m guessing this is a reference to soldiers being trained to repeat certain information if they’re being tortured. Thanks for that one, Captain America, I learned things from you!) The camera pans out to show the American flag fluttering in the breeze.
Later, Mulder meets Skinner at the Vietnam memorial. The Pentagon is claiming the shooter was a man named Thomas Lynch, a disturbed individual who was on the Right Hand’s mailing list. Markham has positively IDed him, apparently. Mulder is enraged and wants to subpoena Bloch to demand the truth. Skinner says the case has been turned over to CID. Mulder, still appalled, says they’re denying Teager’s death as well as his life and cautions that it could have been Skinner himself in the dead man’s shoes. Walter looks troubled and gazes at the memorial wall as the camera fades to black. Meep.
Well hell. This is another one that, for all its supernatural elements, seems ultimately grounded in truth and a damning one at that. While the ability to disappear in plain sight is probably pushing it, as an allegory for the abandonment of veterans by government this episode is incredibly powerful. Teager’s being left behind by his superiors is a narrative we’ve come to know only too well in the real world, as reports of homelessness, mental illness, and unemployment abound among former soldiers. Granted, there’s probably an implicit risk of being disavowed if you’re a special forces type but this episode creates a deeply realistic motivation for his actions. Teager doesn’t target innocent people; just the men who he feels left him for dead. (Not that killing in any form is acceptable, but at least he’s not taking his anger out on everyone around him.) He takes time to visit the wife of one of his men and returns a personal item to her. His treatment is contrasted in the presence of Skinner, a fellow vet of some equally heinous missions, who nevertheless was able to return and reintegrate with society and even forge a career in a position of authority. Teager’s rescue came in the form of a violent band of extremists—this subtly underlines the way desperate and angry people can be driven into the clutches of manipulative terrorists, but even at that, Teager doesn’t appear to have been particularly taken with them. He disappeared after being rescued and only surfaced again when he decided to attack his former superiors. The showdown even unfolds against a speech in which Bloch references the cost of freedom and what must be sacrificed for it to thrive. Taken as a whole, the episode is chilling, with an emotional heft this show does so well in the most unexpected of circumstances.
I find it interesting to note that this episode appears to have received mixed responses from critics. To my mind, Teager—and Peter LaCroix’s performance—was incredibly expressive, though perhaps it helps that in Skinner’s allusions to his time in Vietnam we’ve already learned a lot about shady goings-on. Nevertheless, it’s good to see the FBI actually being agents and banding together on a mission. Mulder and Scully operate so independently most of the time that we don’t get an insight into the organised structure behind them (except for the disciplinary side of it). Skinner the authoritarian makes me happy. He finally takes charge on something instead of sitting in the background fretting over how his work got to be so complicated. I do feel this episode has aged well, to boot, though that itself is a sign of the times we live in and the various ill-advised military operations which continue across the globe, leaving shattered lives aplenty in their wake.
Only two episodes this week, peeps, due to a hectic IRL schedule. Business as usual next time. Stay spooky!
—Please make note of The Mary Sue’s general comment policy.—
Have a tip we should know? firstname.lastname@example.org