Mulder and Scully battle grief, guilt, killer art, and gooey Band-Aids
What is our responsibility to society and each other? What is our responsibility to what we create and release into the world? When does that responsibility end? Does it ever? Most importantly: Am I super-bad person for loving my Keurig? “Home Again” presented these questions and a few more in a monster-of-the-week mystery about a piece of graffiti that took on a subversive and vengeful life of its own, a Banksy-esque totem turned dark-knight golem idolized by the forlorn and downtrodden. His fans called him the Band-Aid Nose Man. I want to call him Trashman, because of the implicit homage to a certain politically loaded Trashman of underground comix and because “the Band-Aid Nose Man” is just a terribly awkward moniker for an otherwise cool monster of the week.
Broadening the episode’s themes: A subplot about Scully ministering to her dying mother, Margaret, whose only thought in her last hours was for her youngest child, a lost prodigal from whom she was estranged. The hour brought it all home, so to speak, with our heroes grieving the decision long ago to give up their son, William, to adoption, just as they did in “Founder’s Mutation.” This time, though, they did it together.
Like other installments in the revival, “Home Again” tried to do too much. Still, I was moved, provoked, and spooked by this creepy and overtly political hour. I was also impressed by the story’s mordantly articulated interest in culture making and cultural consumption. It was an episode in which a bogeyman radical murdered and mutilated a political hypocrite and wanton K-Cup abuser in a sequence set to Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” Bravo. I think. It recalled the scene in the gross-out classic “Home” in which the inbred Peacock brothers murdered to an oldie, “Wonderful! Wonderful!” by Johnny Mathis. “Home Again” — written and directed by Glen Morgan, who co-wrote “Home” and helped pioneer the show’s monster-of-the-week format — also shared “Home’s” mourning for the Americana ideal of places where safety, community, and neighborliness reign. While not the equal to “Home” (a tough benchmark to match!) or last week’s outing, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” (written and directed by Glen’s brother, Darin), I thought “Home Again” was a strong piece installment and superior to the revival’s first two episodes.
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Morgan’s story took us to Philadelphia and gave us a portrait of an American city where brotherly love is very much not the organizing principal. In the prologue, we watched Joseph Cutler, a rep for the U.S. Department for Housing and Urban Development, direct the fire department to clear the streets of homeless people* by blasting them with high-pressure water hoses, a loaded image that evoked memories of the Civil Rights movement of the sixties. He was facilitating “a relocation program,” which was part of a larger program of urban renewal driven by big business, represented in the prologue by a heartless suit gulping down soup. The date: Today. Feb. 8, 2016. Lincoln’s Birthday, Recognized. A more optics-savvy politico might have chosen a different day to start hosing the disenfranchised and dispossessed. But Cutler — neither old school Republican or new era liberal — had no heart for the unfortunate. After finishing his political wetwork, he made like Pilate and literally washed his mitts of it. With hand sanitizer. From his POV, the homeless people he had hosed into the gutter only had themselves to blame. They had been warned! A close-up on the flier, illuminated with siren lights, opened the show. The headline: YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE! So began an episode prickly with progressive complaint.
And then The Trashman Cometh. Later in the evening, a garbage truck growled to a stop outside the HUD field office, located on a street crowded with a different encampment of homeless people. A stiff, chilly breeze blew a YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE! notice off a wall and forced the squatters to take shelter inside their tents. They knew exactly the storm that was coming. When the truck rumbled away, it left behind a tall, shadowy figure dressed in a shoddy trenchcoat. Cutting to a long shot, the figure seemed to blend into the surroundings. We didn’t detect him again until he moved. It was as if the shade had emerged from streets itself.
This well-shot, increasingly suspenseful sequence continued into Cutler’s office, where this agent of The Man became keenly aware that something wicked was his way coming. Something swarming with flies. Something smelly, too. So rancid, it made him gag. Something like HIS GUILT. Or trash. “Home Again” hit the trash motif really hard. Like over-the-head hard. Still, it worked. Cutler armed himself with the gun he kept in his drawer. But the creature stalking him was immune to bullets. He was a gestalt being, a symbol made incarnate, indestructible and incorruptible. Somewhere in exile, Bruce Wayne slow claps, then sips a cappuccino with Anne Hathaway. The door blew off its hinges. Before Cutler could fire a shot, the hulking intruder had ripped off his arms. In footage not seen, the monster also ripped off Cutler’s head and dunked it into a garbage can, Darryl Dawkins style. The phantom menace then returned to his phantom garbage truck. It threw Cutler’s arms into the back and climbed in after them and nestled into the rubbish. The cruncher began to crunch, and the mystery machine rolled away…
*Among the homeless people who got hosed, one had a sign that read: “I am a mad scientist who lost my marbles. I discovered the cure for cancer, but the government cut my funds. I need HELP!” Back in the original run of the show, The Syndicate had found a way to cure cancer — and all disease — using alien technology. See: “En Ami,” season 7, episode 15, written by Cancer Man himself, William B. Davis.
NEXT: A call you never want to get
Enter Mulder and Scully. Heroically! We got a low-angle shot of the agents extending their IDs to camera. Withdrawing their badges, they stand revealed in signature attire. This image might have had more power if “Home Again” had aired as the revival’s second episode as originally planned; it would have represented the first time we saw Mulder and Scully returned to proper X-Files form. Chris Carter says he reshuffled the order to give the miniseries a stronger arc. But I’m not sure “Home Again” would’ve made for a great second episode, anyway, at least in terms of scratching the itch of seeing Mulder and Scully back on the job because within minutes of arriving together, the story split them up. While examining Cutler’s beheaded corpse, Scully got a call. Her eyes played a trick on her when she looked at her iPhone. The name that popped on the screen was “William,” her son. She was mistaken: The name was really “William Scully, Junior,” her big brother. He was calling from Germany with news about their mother in Washington D.C. She was in the hospital — heart attack — and fading fast. Scully had to get there to represent her wishes. “Go,” said Mulder gently. ‘Ship swoon. More would come.
We stick with Mulder for now. While gazing out the window of Cutler’s office, he noticed graffiti on a nearby billboard, a stencil of a man dressed in a black gown. It was our Trashman, all right. The ominous figure appeared to be dangling from a hangman’s rope, evoking a variety of street art produced by socially conscious image makers both known (Banksy, obviously) and unknown or anonymous (see: the Las Vegas artists who took aim at Wall Street in 2012 by tagging billboards and hanging dummies). In light of later evidence, what looked to be a thick cord rising up from Trashman’s neck was most likely a deep crack or crease in the panel. As Mulder mulled the image, he wondered about the strength needed to tear a man asunder. Back in the days when people were drawn and quartered, he said, it took four horses running at full speed to accomplish the violence. Hanged, drawn, quartered — an old punishment for high treason. An interesting allusion for a story indicting society — us — for betraying our obligation to each other.
Curious clues accumulated. A bloody footmark that lacked any identifying skin print. A Band-Aid gooey with sticky, gum-like material. The surveillance cameras had failed to record the murder — our magical golem could short-circuit electronic devices — but they did provide Mulder with one revelation: Trashman wasn’t on the billboard at the time of Cutler’s killing.
Hitting the streets to investigate, Mulder came upon a squabbling pair who in any other murder mystery might have been suspects, but here were only used to flesh out social critique and provide victims for our righteous monster. “And who are these two fine representatives of the city of brotherly love?” quipped Mulder. Daryl Landry, The Soup Sucker, had been working with Cutler to develop a 10-story apartment building in the downtown area, a project that required banishing the homeless to a hospital-turned-shelter in Bucks County. Nancy Huff, appalled by Landry’s treatment of the homeless, was trying to stop him. (She called him a “douchebag,” which prompted Mulder to joke about the bickering pair being married. I found this more odd than funny. Guess Mulder has a pretty low opinion of marriage. Or husbands. Or wives?) Yet despite an annual act of charity serving Thanksgiving dinner to Philly’s unfortunate, Nancy wasn’t motivated by altruism. She was president of the Bucks County School Board; she didn’t want “the downtown people” anywhere near the high school just two blocks from Old Franklin Hospital — especially if one of them was now ripping people apart.
Mulder coolly shamed their selfishness. He slammed both for appearing to care about the homeless when really they only cared about their agendas. “What I don’t hear is who speaks for them?” A vagrant lurking near a dumpster provided an answer: “The Band-Aid Nose Man,” he said, slinking away. Think: Band-Aid solutions to social problems that fail to treat underlying causes and only make problems worse. Perhaps think: destructive solutions to problems, i.e. “cutting off the nose to spite the face.” Definitely think that maybe I’m totally overthinking this. Anyway, this entire conversation took place in an alley below the tagged billboard. But when Mulder looked up, he saw that a panel was missing, and the Band-Aid Nose Man was gone.
NEXT: Are you there, Margaret? It’s me, Scully
While Mulder searched for answers, Scully found herself swamped with more poignant and ultimately more elusive mysteries at the bedside of her ailing mother. Gillian Anderson rocked the handful of scenes given to this subplot, even the ones with awkward if powerful reminders that while she’s a doctor, scientist and skeptic of all things Mulderesque, Scully, a Catholic, does proceed from a specific supernatural worldview. “Please, Mom, don’t go home yet,” she said, referring to heaven. In begging her mother to remain with her on this side of eternity, Scully was acting out of her own fear and pursuing her own interest, but she also believed she was executing Margaret’s advanced directive to be kept alive at all costs. Margaret made this choice after Scully’s miraculous return from near-death back in “One Breath” is season 2. So Scully was surprised and devastated to learned from the ICU nurses that Margaret had amended her wishes one year earlier. The document, witnessed by “two retired naval officers,” now requested that she be removed from life support in the event that nothing more could be done for her. Who were these witnesses? Why did Margaret request to see her estranged son Charlie before lapsing into coma? What was the significance of the quarter on a chain found on her neck? Scully wanted her mother to wake up and answer the questions — and to connect with her one last time.
She didn’t have to despair alone. Mulder showed up to rock the ‘ship again! His arrival had been presaged by another moment in which her phone rang and she mistakenly saw “William” pop up; it was actually “Mulder.” As they sat vigil with comatose Margaret, Scully asked Mulder if they ever encountered a someone or something in their adventures that had mastery over death. Mulder made a claim to necromancy, saying he had invented the skill in “One Breath,” when he sat by her bedside and beseeched her to come out of her coma. Scully: “You’re a dark wizard, Mulder.” He laughed. “What else is new?” This tender exchange might have be my favorite moment so far in the entire revival…
Charlie called. After a brief, tense negotiation, Scully convinced the prodigal son to speak to their mom via speaker phone. Margaret’s eyes fluttered open — and she looked at Mulder. “My son is named William, too,” she said and then fell back into a coma — and then into death. Scully reacted with hostility when the medical staff came to cart Margaret away; perhaps she wanted to make sure Bill Jr., en route from Germany, had a chance to pay his respects. But Mulder reminded Scully that Margaret was an organ donor and the hospital needed to harvest what was valuable ASAP. (A corollary to the Band-Aid Nose Man. Some people put things of themselves into the world that take life; others people put things of themselves into the world to save lives.) Regardless: Scully just couldn’t deal. The experience had pushed so many buttons that she was emotionally tweaking and overloading. She wanted to run; she wanted to go to Philadelphia; “I need to work,” she told Mulder. “Right now.”
Up until this point in the story, Mulder didn’t think they were dealing with a conventional X-File case, which is to say, he didn’t suspect any sort of unconventional evil at play here. He had heard the legend of the Band-Aid Nose Man, how the “downtown people” believed that he was an avenger to the homeless, a literal toxic avenger, at that. The monster not only stank, but it oozed pools of maggots. (We would later see, in close-up, that it kept the Band-Aid under its nose, allegedly to hold the face together. But the visual also suggested someone trying to keep from smelling their own rotten stench. Another metaphor for denying problems instead of engaging them in a meaningful way.) What Mulder believed was that the artist responsible for the stencils — who signed his work “Trashman” — was a “mission-oriented killer who thinks he’s helping the homeless” by eliminating those who threaten them. He believed Trashman would kill again.
But the monster already had. While Mulder was in Philly with Scully, the Band-Aid Nose Man had pulped three more victims. They included a pair of hustlers responsible for stealing the billboard right from under — or rather above — Mulder’s nose. They made a living swiping street art and selling the pieces to collectors and auction houses. (This bit of business raises the hotly debated question: Who owns street art?) In yanking limbs and heads, the Band-Aid Nose Man made some (splatter) art of its own. Nice. Even better, but meaner: the Petula Clark-scored death of Keurig-swilling Nancy Huff, in her safe and secure home in Bucks County.
NEXT: Portrait of the underground artist as a…well, underground artist
Trashman shared a name with a character created by the late cartoonist Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez. I know nothing about this character because, to my shame, I don’t know as much about underground comix as I should. But Wikipedia tells me that Trashman was “a hero of the working classes and a champion of the radical left cause,” made into a super-powered super-being by hooded agents of a mysterious underground “anarcho-Marxist organization.” Apparently, Trashman killed a lot of rich, powerful, oppressive people. The Trashman of “Home Again” certainly fancied himself a hero of the people in his own cracked mind. Mulder and Scully tracked him to the basement of a dilapidated tenement in a blighted part of Philly.* Descending into this underworld, the agents found a bearded man whose bald head was tatted with a blue web. He was an illuminated madman who talked as if he was profoundly connected to the world and wired to its concerns, though to be honest, I could barely understand his mumble. He ranted on behalf of the homeless (“they got no voice, man!”). He raged against unchecked consumerism and environmental ruin (see: all those K-cups, plastic overwhelming landfills and poisoning the earth). He lambasted man’s lack of personal and social responsibility. “If you don’t see a problem, there isn’t a problem,” he said. And: “We treat people like trash.” He believed his graffiti and his wax sculptures had taken on lives of their own and were now a danger to others and a danger to him. If he didn’t look them in the eye, he said, they left him alone.
*Mulder and Scully found Trashman by following his young assistant. The kid, African-American, escaped them during the downward spiral into the underground. This following dialogue took place. Mulder: “I wasn’t going to shoot the kid, and I don’t do stairs.” Scully: “Back in the day, I used to do stairs in three-inch heels.” Mulder: “‘Back in the day?’ Scully, back in the day is now.” The moment played to our nostalgia and revival excitement, especially when Mulder lit up his high-powered flashlight. But given the political/social themes of the episode, I wonder if the lines were meant to subversively evoke the times. Cops shooting kids? Specifically African American kids? That’s not a thing of the past. That’s still our now.
But Trashman accepted only limited responsibility for the Band-Aid Nose Man. The artist believed he was merely a conduit for a Tulpa, a pre-existing thought form that came to him from the realm of ideas. Mulder wasn’t having any of this. He noted that “Tulpa” was something that the Theosophists, those quacky techno-pagan spiritualists and hustlers, had stolen from Tibetan culture and perverted. (Just like those art thieves.) Scully was even more disturbed by Trashman’s testimony. In her mind, she kept making connections to her son, William, a gift from God, a gift she gave away. Did Trashman’s social critique of personal responsibility indict her, too? She didn’t have an opinion on the mystic mechanics of the Band-Aid Nose Man, but she did think Trashman’s head-in-the-sand, if-I-don’t-acknowledge-it-then-it-won’t-hurt-me attitude made him a hypocrite. He was just as bad as all the people he resented for pushing and shipping their problems away, out of sight, out of mind. She also believed this: “If you made the problem — if you made the idea — then you’re responsible.”
Mulder and Scully realized that the Band-Aid Nose Man had one last target: Daryl Landry. The soup-slurping suit had succeeded in overturning the injunction preventing him from relocating “the downtown people” to Old Franklin Hospital. Could Mulder and Scully get there in time and stop the Band-Aid Nose Man from dismembering and decapitating Landry? A taut, race-against-time sequence answered the question definitively:
In one epilogue, Trashman gathered his stuff and fled his fetid basement. He tried to cap the psychic leak of his perverted Tulpa by replacing the grim, nose-plugged death’s head with a bland ball of happy face — a cheap, cheerful thought to drown out the toxic catharsis he had unleashed upon the world. As he skulked away from the tenement, we saw a stencil of the Band-Aid Nose Man on another building, looking down on him, watching him run away. Ominous. Do you agree with the story’s perspective on personal and social responsibility? What is the responsibility of culture makers to influence, consumption, and precipitant of their work? When do parents stop being responsible for their kids? And perhaps most important: Is Keurig responsible for the K-Cup apocalypse? Or am I? Because guys, I looove my Keurig.
In another epilogue, Mulder and Scully went to the beach to scatter Margaret’s ashes to the ocean. They sat and talked and processed. She knew now why her mom needed to talk with wayward Charlie before she passed: Margaret needed to know this fallen, flawed life she birthed and put into the world would be okay. “He’s her responsibility.” She then connected this to Margaret’s words about William. “That’s why she said what she said to us. She wanted to make sure we would be responsible and know that William’s okay, even though we can’t see him.” They made their choice to offer William for adoption out of concern for his safety, to give him a better shot at flourishing. But she felt the loss and felt guilty all the same. After telling “Fox” (I loved how she used his first name here in this intimate, exposed moment) that she believed he would get his answers about the big mystery about that marked his life (i.e. the alien conspiracy), she gave us this, a speech that spoke for many different kinds of parents, but specifically and especially for ones like her, mothers who will never know their children. “My mysteries, I’ll never have answered. I won’t know if he thinks of me, too, or if he’s afraid and wishes I was there. Does he doubt himself because we left him? What questions does he have of me? The same I have of this quarter?” And then, after a pause, Gillian Anderson ended the episode with a line that if given by any other actress, I think would have sounded terrible, but because she is Gillian f—ing Anderson, it did not: “And I want to believe — I need to believe — that we didn’t treat him like trash.” She leaned into Mulder, and he embraced her, and we faded out on the two of them once more taking shelter in each other. Home again.
Let me know what you thought of the episode in the comments or on Twitter @EWDocJensen.