Mulder gets his spooky groove back in this offbeat gem

By Jeff Jensen
February 02, 2016 at 04:32 AM EST
Ed Araquel/Fox
S10 E3
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I loved “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you didn’t. The premise of Mulder questioning his faith in all things freaky and his career as a paranormal muckraker seemed as bogus as a jackalope coming one week after “Founder’s Mutation” depicted him fully engaged in old crusades. Since the episode was mostly about Mulder beating back his version of mid-life identity crisis (alt title: “How Spooky Got His Groove Back”), Scully got short shrift despite a handful of small, fun beats. (“I’m immortal,” she quipped to Mulder, winking at a fan theory.) She served as midwife to Mulder’s spiritual rebirth, flipping the one female stereotype she often plays, the wet-blanket scold, with another. Scully’s most memorable moment came when she appeared in the sex fantasy of our Monster of the Week, an ancient horny reptilian infected with an ugly masculinity, existential crisis and the life-sapping banality of seersucker-suited modernity. I imagined a nation of ‘shippers beholding the spectacle of Scully getting her freak on with that piece of strange and fuming: That should be Mulder, dammit!

Truth is, Guy Mann was so well realized he threatened to upstage both Mulder and Scully as the story progressed. The episode also did that thing where the show separates Mulder and Scully for long stretches to investigate different aspects of the mystery, a maneuver that denies us the pleasure of their shared company and defies the expectation of anyone who thought the revival (now half over!) would be scratching the ‘ship itch nonstop. Oh, for an epic sequence that would strand the pair on a rock in the middle of a lake and make them connect with each other, just as the show did in the season 3 gem “Quagmire” (which this episode flicked at in various ways; see: Queequeg). Toss in a choice or two worthy of a critical headshake, like the dubious inclusion of a crack-addicted transgender prostitute played for laughs and murky thematics, and there’s an argument to be made that this fable about estrangement from society, nature, other, and self was itself slightly out of step with the audience, with the revival’s narrative flow, and with the times.

But I won’t be making it. Have I completed the due diligence of acknowledging the perceived, possible, and certifiable flaws of this offbeat outing? I hope so because it’s time get busy crushing on it. “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” left me as giddier as a stoner huffing spray paint in the pale moonlight. It was a worthy addition to my favorite X-Files subset, the Darin Morgan episode, and the first installment in the revival truly worthy of the franchise.

Morgan, who broke into The X-Files playing one of the show’s iconic monsters, The Flukeman, is best known to fans for authoring a quartet of adventurous scripts marked by twists, humor, and philosophical ideas that also knowingly played with or commented upon Mulder and Scully, all while remaining entertaining X-Files episodes. He won a writing Emmy for “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” and his success inspired the series to get more risky with tone and storytelling, from “The Post-Modern Prometheus” (written and directed by Chris Carter) to “Hollywood A.D.” (written and directed by David Duchovny; it was the one where Hollywood made a sci-fi/horror/comedy riff on Mulder and Scully starring Garry Shandling and Téa Leoni) to assorted scripts by Vince Gilligan, who became the designated “funny X-Files writer” after Morgan left. (Check out Darren Franich’s interview with Morgan here.) 

Morgan’s final credited script was my favorite X-Files episode ever, “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.” The episode was dense with Morganishness: a fixation with storytelling and death, the Rashomon-esque nature of truth and experience, the need for connection, pessimism about human nature offset by grace for it. In a Morgan episode, the “truth” that’s “out there” to find or create is meaning that may or may not exist. “Jose Chung’s” wasn’t technically a mythology episode, but it was a comic comment on X-Files mythology* in a heady, heartfelt story about our need for mythology.

“Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” compliments “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” by making bittersweet comedy, philosophical complaint, and meta-commentary out of the show’s other modality. It was a Monster-of-the-Week episode that deconstructed certain metaphors common to the sci-fi and horror genres, specifically that of the alienated outsider. Guy Mann, a gentle but still troubled version of the “underground man” archetype, crippled by self-awareness and warped by modernity, could be used as a case study in an Existentialism 101 class that includes Dostoevsky, Camus, Wright, Sartre, Hesse, and, of course, Lee/Kirby. It cleverly subverted some of the show’s problematic perspectives — the romance with conspiracy thinking; the allegory for religious faith — and just as cleverly reorganized them around better, sounder ideas, like wonder for the natural world (still a treasure trove of secrets) and empathy for the strangers among us. And yet, it was sugared with a sincere, knowing love for the show: the presence of comedian/actor/podcasting X-Files fan Kumail Nanjiani; Mulder’s ring-tone is The X-Files theme song (I’m guessing it came from that “Hollywood A.D.” flick); and the grave marker for Kim Manners, the late, great X-Files director, whose credits include Morgan’s first script, “Humbug,” the aforementioned “Quagmire,” and the show’s most delightfully disturbing hour, “Home.” The underlying message: the Monster-of-the-Week episodes really were the best, weren’t they? To paraphrase that headstone: “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” kicked it in the ass.

*When “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’” aired, I remember being so satisfied by Morgan’s take on the alien conspiracy that I wanted to believe the show was slyly using this winky lark to clarify what was already, by the end of season 3, a pretty muddy bit of business. Without spoiling the twists, Morgan presented a version of the conspiracy that was wholly the project of evil human beings, not a collaborative effort with colonizing EBEs. I bring this up because it appears Carter has basically adopted this perspective on the mythology for the revival. “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” really does it explain it all! When Fox releases the revival on DVD, they should include the episode as a prologue.

NEXT: The Mystery of Missing Episodes, or: Why does the “I Want To Believe” poster belong to Scully?

   

In the final moments of “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” Mulder begged the titular author not to publish the titular book — a skeptical investigation into an alleged UFO abduction — because he feared it would “do a disservice to a field of inquiry that has always struggled for respectability” and that, despite Chung’s gifts as a writer, “no amount of talent could describe the events that occurred in any realistic way because they deal with alternative realities that we have yet to comprehend and when presented in the wrong way, in the wrong context, the incidents and the people involved in them can appear foolish, if not downright psychotic.”

Morgan’s lines, written nearly 20 years ago, ironically frame his take on the 20-years-older Mulder of the revival. We found him the basement office, poring through old crimson-jacketed case files and grieving the fact that science had explained away their extraordinary claims of exotic possibilities over the past two decades. The Amarillo Armadillo Man, The Hairy What’s-It? of Walla Walla, The Death Valley Race Track — all humbug (and taken from real-life ridiculata), all fish stories fabricated by bored, attention-seeking pranksters; no “alternate realities” to be discovered there. With every folder flung aside, Mulder punctuated his frustration by throwing a pencil at the new “I Want To Believe” poster mounted on the wall. Ever-expanding scientific knowledge had left him feeling like a fool — feeling like Charles Fort, the turn-of-the-century researcher of anomalous phenomenon who inspired generations of “Forteans” and who, according to Mulder, was so swamped with doubt late in his days that he wondered if he’d wasted his life. Mulder could already relate. “I’m a middle aged man, Scully…. I’m thinking it’s time to put away childish things.”

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So basically “Mulder and Scully Meets the Were-Monster” was a cleverly coded complaint of behalf of philosophical skepticism and atheism. In a scene that had Mulder doubting his faith, it was ironic (a word I’ll be using a lot in the recap) that he expressed himself by pulling from the Bible. 1 Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.” The color of those red* case folders stuffed with silly speciousness struck me as intentional, too. The X-Files themselves were now red-herring stories, a willful distraction from true things in the world deserving and demanding our attention. Here, for a scene, at least, we have Morgan mocking the cultural values of the show? suggesting that Mulder’s worldview — which allows for gross conspiracies and magical thinking — is fundamentally immature. I think many people would agree with that perspective these days. We also have Morgan creating a metaphorical critique of religion, with Mulder perforating the “I Want To Believer” poster and Scully’s bemused line: “Have you been taking your meds, Mulder?” Think about that one. If you understand Scully’s line to mean that sober, suddenly reasonable Mulder was off his drugs, Mulder on drugs = Mulder, The Loony Believer = What Marx said about religion and opiates and all that jazz.

*The color red showed up in one other memorable instance in this episode: the shot of Mulder in bed, wearing only tight, cardinal underwear. That’s one way to illustrate Mulder’s injured manhood, deflated hero project, and spiritual impotence. I assume everyone read it the same way. Right?

The scene that opened the episode also satirized mania, misdirected yearning, and intellectual tomfoolery. We got two stoners in the forest huffing (fool’s) gold spray paint — their practice and glittering mouths reminiscent of the mad-to-the-max War Boys who served the cult leader Immortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury Road — and gazing at a full moon, that inspiration for so much great science and so much lunatic myth. One beheld the natural beauty of this celestial object and wondered if they should be doing more with their small lives. The other pined to be a werewolf. Who got high all the time. Lost in the foggy woods of their own minds, they were distracted to paralysis by an encounter with an anomaly that defied their understanding, which, in turn, left them vulnerable to an all-too-human predator… but we’re getting ahead of the twists here, aren’t we?

Scully had just the thing to cure Mulder’s crisis of confidence. “We’ve been given another case, Mulder. It has a monster in it.” So many layers here. Here was Scully, the avatar of reason, trying to rehab her ideological opposite to his worldview. But the Catholic Scully has also been the show’s representative of faith or, at least, conventional religious faith. (Mulder doesn’t believe in God; it’s the one far-out concept he can’t easily deem plausible.) Scully needs Mulder to believe because his belief is essential to their work, and that work is important to her on many levels. It keeps them together. It also allows her to keep searching for proof for a belief system she wants/hopes to be true.* And it also gives her joy. “I had forgotten how much fun these cases could be,” she would say later. Forget the tortured psychology. Forget the righteous crusades. Forget my intellectualizing. Mulder and Scully need no other motivation for investigating weird stuff than it’s fun. Of all the ideas in the episode, that very simple one might’ve been my favorite.

*Wanting to save her “I Want To Believe” poster from further abuse might have also motivated Scully. And as Scully made clear, that poster belonged to HER. (“Mulder! What are you doing to MY poster?!”) We last saw Mulder kicking and ripping the poster in the premiere during a visit to the office, which at that time was in ruins. When did they move back into their old home? When Mulder get the files back? When did Scully get a new poster? It’s possible these questions will be tackled in next week’s episode, entitled “Home Again,” written and directed by Darin’s brother, Glen. “Home Again” was supposed to follow the premiere (“Founder’s Mutation” was originally the penultimate episode) but Chris Carter and Fox decided to shuffle the order to better service a larger thematic arc for the miniseries. Personally, I think they’ve confused the show’s arc, at least here in the first half: If “Home Again” presents a Mulder still getting back to being the Mulder, then “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” — which was always supposed to air third — makes more sense as it completes Mulder’s “born again’ metamorphosis.

NEXT: “You seen one serial killer, you seen them all.”

“Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” hinged on two interlocking twists that were well disguised with great narrative misdirection…which is to say, red herrings. Let’s take the second one first: Who killed the moony stoners? When Mulder and Scully got to the scene of the crime in Shewan, Ore., they found the bodies of two victims — and a third, a man stripped of clothing — located in a structure built from windfall. Mulder, now flushed with hard-science and cynicism, was convinced that an animal was responsible for the deaths, like a pack of gray wolves, or a mountain lion, or a bear. Or all three at the same time! (“That’s how I would like to go out,” said Mulder. Seriously, I think. Fun Fact Learned! Mulder wants to die in an episode of Zoo.) But Scully suspected a “human element” — specifically, a serial killer, in particular the ones who leave multiple victims at single location. (For example: Gary Leon Ridgway, a.k.a. the Green River Killer.) Mulder had earned his place in the FBI by being an ace serial killer hunter, but that work bored him, too. “I gave up profiling before I gave up monsters,” he said. “You seen one serial killer, you seen them all.“ Mulder wanted to bag it and go home. Scully appealed to humanitarianism, justice, and professionalism. C’mon, Mulder! This isn’t all about you, you narcissist! Do your damn job, already! 

So profound was Mulder’s funk that it blinded him to the fact that Scully was right: The murderer was, indeed, a serial killer. Pasha, the local animal control officer, was originally introduced to us as an eyewitness to the murders as he happened to be in the woods that night, allegedly hunting for strays, when he saw a three-eyed* humanoid creature covered with spikes attacking the victims. That creature-feature part of his alibi was true. The lie was his reason for being in the woods. In truth, Pasha was a predatory psycho who identified way too much with feral, rabid canines. Morgan gave us plenty of clues, from the tell-tale markers of serial killer pathology to allusions to other serial killer pop. Example: The motel at the truck stop, decorated with a creepy abundance of taxidermy and managed by a peeping tom — all very Psycho. The sets and lighting also looked Twin Peaks to me, particularly Scully’s room, adorned with a variety of stuffed birds, including more than a few owls. As in: “The owls are not what they seem.”

*The location of the third eye was on the forehead. Fitting symbolism for an episode about different kinds of enlightenment (supernatural; psychological; scientific), and about characters hurting for self-awareness (the clouded, broken Pasha), or stricken with self-consciousness (Guy Mann), or searching for clarity of vision (Mulder).

As Mulder gained eyes to see through the mystery, he began to regain his old self. In a delightful scene in Scully’s room, Mulder laid out a theory, presented in the form of a classic Mulder/Scully crazy versus reason argument in which he played both parts. Positing that their quarry was half man, half horned lizard, Mulder asked: “What if this creature that we’ve stumbled upon is here to give us a whole new understanding of a paradigm for life itself? A GMO experiment run amuck by some military-agro-big pharma corporation?” (Notable: 1. The show hitting anew the conspiracy worldview spelled out in the premiere and nourished by “Founder’s Mutation.” 2. Man, this show sure is paranoid about the pharmaceutical industry. Timely, though.) Mulder continued: “Maybe this guy is [the project’s] chief geneticist, who recklessly experimented on himself and transformed into a fiend that feasts on human flesh? To which I know you’re going to say: ‘But Mulder! That sounds like the lunatic ravings of a paranoid mad man!’ I don’t know what it is, Scully! All I’m saying is…it’s a monster!”

“Yeah,” said Scully, “this is how I like my Mulder.”

Not that she believed him, of course — “NO! You’re bat-crap crazy!” — but she was thrilled to know that the man she adored was coming back online and the balance of their opposites-attract chemistry was becoming restored.

Mulder found a clue to the were-monster’s true identity in the room he kept at their motel, a bottle of anti-psychotics prescribed by a shrink named Dr. Rumanovitch. (The name of the pharmacy: LYCAN. More werewolf shadings there.) There, Mulder continued to reclaim his identity — even as the psychiatrist told him that his old identity was kinda crazy. Dr. Rumanovitch told Mulder a story about a village tormented by a man-eating lizard creature and the local constable who saved them all by slaying the monster with a lance made of green glass…and killing himself. The twist: The constable was really the monster all along. For the good doctor, the story is a myth of Enlightenment — about science puncturing superstition with sharp and pointy reason (think again: Mulder throwing pencils at Scully’s poster), or with the help of a highly-paid psychiatrist. Oh, and it was also a metaphor for erectile dysfunction, too: ”Obviously, our ancestors were as obsessed with impotency as we are!” More seriously: “It’s easier to believe in monsters out there, in the world, than to accept that real monsters dwell within us.”

“Not everything can be reduced to psychology,” argued Mulder.

“That’s what you think.”

Dr. Rumanovitch said the alleged were-monster went by the name “Guy Mann” and that he treated him by prescribing clozapine and suggesting he take a sobering stroll through a cemetery — a reminder that all problems are eventually conquered by the eternal sleep of death. For those who know Hamlet — or old X-Files — you know the fancy Latin for this: Memento Mori.* “Remember that you must die.” He then prescribed some clozapine for Mulder, too. “Who is more in need of an anti-psychotic: a man who claims to turns into a were-lizard or a man who believes that man?” Wisdom for anyone who subscribes to conspiracy theories to rationalize the dispiriting boggle of evil, suffering, systemic breakdown, and perceived chaos. But maybe I digress.

*”Memento Mori” was that episode where Scully was forced to confront her own mortality and her own crisis of confidence and identity when she learned she had cancer. According to X-Files lore, Chris Carter and three other producers had to write the episode quickly after they learned that they wouldn’t be getting a script from one Darin Morgan. The result was a series classic that won Gillian Anderson an Emmy and earned Carter, Vince Gilligan, John Shiban, and Frank Spotnitz an Emmy nod for writing, too. I love how Darin Morgan inspired X-Files innovation even when he was falling down on the job.

NEXT: Life’s but a walking shadow that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Or not!

Long story short (though I’ll probably find a way to make it longer), Mulder went to the cemetery, and there he found a man in a seersucker suit and pork pie hat walking among the tombstones and drinking from a green glass bottle. Mulder needed to get his suspect to spill his guts, so he swiped some flowers from another grave and approached a marker near Guy Mann, a headstone of black rock with the name KIM MANNERS, his dates, and the quote “Let’s kick it in the ass!” The ebony marker evoked The Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey and the scene from the film we saw in last week’s episode, when the mysterious object imbued early man with intelligence that goosed their evolution, for better, for worse. Not an inappropriate reference to make here, given Guy Mann’s woeful tale of sudden-onset human consciousness and limp masculinity. He’s played by the fine New Zealand comedian/actor Ryhs Darby, and I can’t help but wonder if Morgan’s impishness is such that he’d cast a “down under” actor with a foreign accent to play his take on the underground man, the alienated outsider, the existential misfit, the impotent male. (There are other ways to interpret what this “Guy,” this “Mann,” this white, straight, retrograde creature and his poignant-pathetic identity crisis. I will not be covering all of them here.) 

Once Mulder got the miserable man talking, and after this suicidal Guy failed to manipulate Mulder into slaying him per Rumanovitch with a lance of green glass, the were-monster revealed the episode’s other major twist: He wasn’t a man who had become a monster, but a product of nature who had became man — and found the human condition to be somewhat monstrous. “He” was, in fact, an abnormal horned lizard, recently stirred from hibernation. While nibbling a long weed and enjoying the full moon, this innocent, unfallen product of nature encountered toxic Pasha in the woods — and was bitten by him. The mutant lizard ran, collapsed, and passed out and, at daybreak, awoke to discover that he had become infected with humanity. He had become a man. Guy Mann!

The narration written by Morgan for Guy/Darby was carefully shaped to catch lots of resonance. “I became conscious of my consciousness — self-consciousness. I had my very first thought: I’m naked! I was overcome by some irrational need to cover up,” he said, evoking Cartesian dualism (as I weakly understand it), Sartre’s concept of “Nausea” (as I barely understand it), and the Biblical fall of man (as I think I understand it) in a few scant lines. From there, Guy described what I call the “Bitter Sweet Symphony Theory of Life.” Which is to say: “You’re a slave to the money, then you die.” Once clothed, Guy’s survival instincts kicked in, and he felt a crazy compulsion to…get a job. He found one with ridiculous ease (the privilege of whiteness?), selling cell phones, despite having no clue how they worked. “Smart Phones Is Us” even made him manager! (The name of employer is a joke aimed at our dumbing down, our surrender to our machines, our own were-morphing into something inhuman.) The bulls—, bulls—ting business of business exhausted him so much he had no energy to replenish with anything but fast food. Was he abusing himself with grease? Like he abused himself each night watching porn? All he knew as that he was raging-against-the-alarm-clock angry and shrink-seeking depressed. He wanted to quit. He wanted to change his life. He wanted to write a novel! But he couldn’t. There were bills, mortgage payments, and retirement plans to service…or that he felt the need to service. And it was too late for him to make meaning by being an artist, anyway. You know: that lie. So he got a puppy instead. “Daggoo.” A character from Moby-Dick, just like Scully’s old dog, Queequeg. Daggoo made him happy. Then Daggoo ran away. Full of rage at existence, Guy got the chance to get revenge against his cruel, unholy maker when he came upon Pasha one night near the truck stop. He moved to kill him — and stopped when he saw Pasha killing someone else. Oh, the inhumanity! Oh, the terrible God that would make such such evil! Surely that must mean that there was no God at all, that there was neither “internal logic” nor “external logic” to creation, that everything is meaninglessness. A few fleeting moments of happiness wasn’t worth this pain. And so he wanted to die. 

Mulder had promised to mercy-kill Guy Mann if he told him his story. But he couldn’t follow through on his end of the deal. Not that he would have, anyway. But Mulder was too bummed out by Guy’s tale to take action even if he wanted to. Like Dr. Rumanovitch’s parable about the monster-slaying constable, Mulder’s confrontation with Guy Mann was a confrontation with himself. “You and me, we’re the same guy,” said Mulder, before elaborating on his true meaning: Mulder actually didn’t buy a word of Guy’s story. He considered it a silly myth to explain a busted life. Guy was the modern mad man as schlubby Munchausen fabulist — and a fellow fallen Fortean.  “We both want to believe in things that aren’t real or even possible,” said Mulder. There was some effort to find hope in that quote from Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than dreamt of in your philosophy,” but Guy punctured that balloon by revealing that in the original folio of the play, the line was “our philosophy.” (Apparently Pasha’s bite also imbued Guy with Shakespeare omniscience.) ”Hamlet’s not just calling Horatio an idiot,” said Mulder, puzzling it out, “but all of us idiots?” Yep.

If this were The Plague, this would be the part of the story when Guy and Mulder would find solidarity and kinship in shared existential plight. But then Guy learned that Mulder was an FBI agent and that he intended to arrest him for murders that he didn’t commit, for thinking him a monster when he was really a mirror twin, and he turned on this would-be friend, branding him a “human ratfink,” a traitor to their common struggle. “What kind of monster do you think I am? You’re the monster! J’accuse, Monsieur Mulder!” So much for philosophical optimism. Somewhere, an old and rugged Positivist weeps. The lesson of “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” was seemingly affirmed anew: Ultimately, we are all alone…

Mulder slumped back to Scully, who had located and nabbed Pasha on her own, all by her lonesome, with no help from mopey Mulder, and she rewarded herself by claiming Daggoo. Mulder put some things together and realized maybe Guy Mann wasn’t lying after all. Third eye blazing, Mulder roared into the woods and found Guy just as he was about to settle down for a 10,000-year nap. When Mulder blanched at that idea, Guy accused him anew of doubting him. Mulder meant no offense. In fact, he desperately needed Guy to be everything he claimed to be — a beautiful freak of nature. “I want to believe,” said Mulder. A risky line — and Duchovny pulled it off. And so Guy shed the togs of his strangling, constricting humanity — seersucker suit, neck tie, tighty-whities — and approached Mulder with hand extended. Mulder took it, and suddenly, the last of “Guy Mann” fell away, and the were-monster stood before Mulder in the moonlight, naked and unashamed.

“I’m glad to have met you,” said the one.

“Likewise,” said the other.

Mulder was left alone, in awe, with faith renewed.  

And for a week, so were we. Good job, X-Files. Now: more. As always, give me your thoughts below or on Twitter: @EWDocJensen.

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