The X-Files has been playing fast and loose with its taglines this season. Before “Familiar,” only one other episode in season 11 closed out its opening credits with “The Truth Is Out There,” the go-to tag of the original series — and that was “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat,” an hour about questioning what constitutes a normal X-Files episode in the first place. As Darin Morgan gleefully punctured the premise of the show, he did so under the banner of a tagline that said his anarchy was as much a part of the show as anything.
“Familiar” isn’t nearly as meta, and when it sends us to commercial on “The Truth Is Out There,” it seems to mean it unironically. This is, well, a familiar hour of The X-Files — Mulder and Scully go to the woods, Mulder and Scully uncover a small town’s secrets, Mulder and Scully banter about the likelihood of spontaneous human combustion, Mulder eats evidence straight out of the dirt. But it’s also an hour about how trusted TV characters might lure us to our deaths, so it is a little self-aware. Familiarity can be blinding.
Still, while most of this season has focused on nostalgia, toying with memories of old friends in “This” or memories of everything in “Forehead Sweat,” here the first victim is a child. Andrew, the adorable (like, really adorable) little boy who wanders into the woods because he spots his favorite TV character, isn’t killed because he once loved the creep-tastic Mr. Chuckleteeth and hey, memory is a powerful thing. He’s killed because he loves Mr. Chuckleteeth right now, in an obsessive, clutch-your-stuffed-puppet-and-sing-him-a-song kind of way. So it’s fitting that this episode feels freshly delivered from an era when The X-Files was a right-now show, not a nostalgia vehicle, even if that bewitching familiarity obscures some of its faults. Mulder and Scully are off to the woods, as always. Let’s begin.
Any tale about small-town New England scandal worth its salt is going to involve an affair. Andrew’s mom, Diane, has been cheating on her cop husband Rick (Monk’s Jason Gray-Stanford) with his boss, the police chief. Even before the chief confesses to the affair, Scully suspects Rick — the cops are pushing an animal attack, but the signs on Andrew’s body are more consistent with being shaken to death by a man, and who better to cover that up than the cops? The chief insists Rick didn’t do it; Scully counters that friends and family are usually just as clueless about a criminal’s sick fantasies as everybody else. We never really know anybody, even in a small town — maybe especially in a small town, where a man can cultivate a certain image and then hide in plain sight.
Rick doesn’t help his case when he talks fellow cop Wentworth (repeat X-Files player Roger Cross) into sharing Scully’s profile of the killer (never give a grieving parent the profile, Wentworth!). Seizing on her suggestion that there may have been a sexual element to the crime, Rick scans the Registered Sex Offender Database and lands on Melvin Peter, who moved to town last year — right by the park where Andrew disappeared — but failed to register with the police. Rick speeds to Melvin’s house and busts in, throwing due process to the wind, but after Scully and the chief calm him down, they admit he might be onto something. When they get a warrant and come back to search the house properly, they find unsettling photos of Melvin working as a character at kids’ parties (never take off the costume head in front of the kids, Melvin), a room full of balloons, a caged monkey in a closet, and a literal Mr. Chuckleteeth costume. So of course Melvin didn’t do it.
Mulder is the only one to distrust all of this “perfect” evidence, and his gut instinct is right. His insistence on the “very democratic ideal that it’s better to let 10 guilty men go free than imprison one innocent man” is well intentioned, and his claim that this is a “witch hunt” ties this episode’s interest in mob mentality together. But it carries an unfortunate subtext in the #MeToo era, when “witch hunt” is the default cry of anyone looking to cast doubt on an accusation of sexual harassment, undermining a cultural shift that aims toward greater respect for victims. (This episode was filmed ninth in the season, far enough into the groundswell of the movement that it should have known what it was echoing.) Mulder’s argument to Scully has the hallmarks of a prepared statement: “You and this mob are re-convicting [Melvin] right here and now for the sins of his past, with a fervor that we see too often in this American experience of ours.” His sentiment is in line with the letter of the law, but he’s countering fervor with too much fervor of his own, treating the debate as more important than the people it affects.
And that isn’t a perspective that makes sense for Mulder, even if he’s made a similar argument once before (2008 movie The X-Files: I Want to Believe saw Mulder complaining that a psychic pedophile priest would go down in history as a pedophile rather than as a psychic. I didn’t buy it then either). Mulder is Mulder because he lost his sister when they were young; his sensitivity to victims, especially women and kids, is so defining that Scully has been scolding him to stop seeing his sister in everyone since episode 4. Even if he’s found closure in that area, it’s a stretch to suggest that he’d latch so passionately onto a convicted sex offender’s presumed “innocence” while ignoring the potential suffering of a child. Leave the letter of the law to Scully. (Next: Small-town justice)
“Familiar” does its best to make Mulder’s defense of Melvin more palatable. After Rick follows his suspect and throws him to the ground, Melvin yells, “It was statutory! I never hurt anybody!” The scenario reminded me of U.K. drama Broadchurch, about another small town undone by the murder of another small boy. There, too, the townspeople seize on revelations that a local man is a sex offender, and it ends badly. But where Broadchurch gave the situation enough detail and nuance to make it a tragedy, Melvin’s story remains ambiguous. Like a scene from the pages of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” the crowd stones and kicks Melvin as Wentworth tries to protect him, and when Mulder fires his gun into the air to stop the hysteria, Rick takes the opportunity to grab his own gun and shoot Melvin in the head.
Here, at least, The X-Files allows Mulder to make the anti-establishment commentary that suits him. Mulder predicts Rick will be released after his hearing, and he is, on bail; the judge even cites his “exemplary record” as a cop. “It’s small-town justice,” Mulder says. “They have their scapegoat, their predator.” Small towns and cops protect their own. It’s no accident that Wentworth, the only black cop featured in this episode, is the one to speak out against a police officer shooting an unarmed man without cause. “I didn’t become a cop to watch men get gunned down without due process,” he says, handing Mulder and Scully evidence that exonerates Melvin too late. The man was performing at a birthday party 40 miles away when Andrew was taken; Wentworth told the chief, but the chief didn’t seem to care.
Chief Strong has a lot on his mind: His daughter Emily was killed just as Andrew was, drawn to the woods by her favorite TV star, a Teletubby-like terror called a Bibbletiggle with a smeared-mascara face and dead alien eyes. Emily’s body is found outside a ring of salt in the woods, which Mulder identifies as a magic circle (“Mulder, stop”), used in witchcraft to protect a spell caster from spirits and demons (“Mulder, this is protecting no one”). He suspects that what the kids saw were familiars, conjured entities that are usually said to take animal form but can appear as beguiling humans, TV characters included. Scully sighs: “What do you mean a TV character?” Her affectionate naysaying is dialed up a notch tonight, like she just jumped out of the early seasons.
The only thing marking this script as a product of 2018 and not 1998 is the added resonance of absent children, and even then Scully had already lost a child (a daughter also named Emily). Mulder and Scully pause over Andrew’s body to acknowledge that it’s “hard not to take it personally” when “an innocent life is cut short.” They exchange a look when the chief’s wife, Anna, screams at him that it’s all his fault Emily is dead. And when Rick breaks into the Strongs’ nice home, hunting a shadowy figure with his gun drawn, the sequence mirrors the dream that led Scully to their son in “Ghouli”: a suburban house of horrors, a parent with no child to raise trapped in an endless maze of domesticity. The most loaded line of the hour sounds simple unless you know better: “I have a son,” Mulder tells Anna. “He’s grown though.”
That’s as explicit as the script gets with those comparisons, sticking instead to that classic X-Files approach of running right up against a big personal issue but never verbalizing it. There’s something refreshing about how standalone this episode is — after so many episodes that doubled as commentary on The X-Files, here this season relaxes into the sort of unselfconscious story that made up the bulk of the show — but a 10-episode season still isn’t 24. “Familiar” could have dug just a little deeper into those lost-child parallels to elevate the hour beyond typical monster-of-the-week fare and tie it in with what’s to come. Coming as it does so close to the end of this event series, this episode feels like it’s hiding inside a ring of salt and ignoring the fears that wait just beyond. (Next: Every store in Connecticut is out of candles now)
And so the more personal aspects of this case hover out of reach, not unlike a certain ghoulish TV character. Rick busts into the Strongs’ home to confront his boss about the affair, only to find himself face to face with Mr. Chuckleteeth and that infernal theme song. What is the logic of these familiars, exactly? Is each familiar a new spirit or the same spirit wearing a new face? (What I’m getting at is: Are there hundreds of TV characters just roaming the woods in Eastwood, Connecticut?) Old Chuckles isn’t a likely candidate to haunt the Strongs’ home, but maybe he’s here for Rick, taunting him with the face his son turned to when he was “feeling lonely/lonely as can be.” Anna mentioned to Mulder earlier that screens had become the new outdoors, stealing kids’ attention; there were shades of last week’s technophobia in her comment, but in “Familiar,” technology hasn’t replaced the paranormal — just changed its face. As long as there’s something we love out there, it can be turned against us.
By the time the night is done, the affair between the chief and Diane has claimed each of their families in full. Diane, fleeing her violent husband, gets behind the wheel when she’s emotional and possibly not sober, then flips the car when her son appears in the middle of the road. The chief, after shooting Rick dead in the Strongs’ doorway, passes the car wreck on the road and is beckoned into the forest by an unscathed Diane, even though her bloodied body is propped dead against a tree. And when he goes looking for his lover in the woods, he meets his wife, surrounded by candles, chanting a spell from the grimoire she claimed was his. Anna meant to curse her husband by cursing Diane, but she unleashed something dark, and it spun out of control. (“I can end this!” she screams; as if on cue, a hellhound jumps her husband and devours him.) In a story with so many shades of female victimhood, it’s a shame that a woman’s attempt to claim power is depicted through such a foolish gamble. When Mulder and Scully find her, Anna ignores their pleas to drop the book, and she spontaneously combusts right in front of Dana Scully’s skeptical eyes. Only the spell book is left unburnt, ready for the next jilted woman.
Mulder, not meaning a word of it, offers Scully a logical explanation: “Maybe it was the candles.” Scully counters, meaning every word of it: “Maybe it was the gates of hell.” The line between Scully and Mulder’s beliefs is blurred because figures of speech are made literal all the time: A witch hunt is obviously usually associated with the persecution of someone who casts spells, but a hysterical mob can cast spells all its own, using words (rumors, online comments) to turn fear into action. In Andrew’s memorial, the priest recites Matthew 18:20, calling on community as a force for good: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” But it’s just as easy for people to come together and manifest only destruction. Reckless passion or the gates of hell — what’s the difference?
“Familiar” is a scattered episode. But it leaves us with a great parting line: “There is no getting out of this town, Scully. Not these days.” It’s an idea that brings this hour into the present, where technology means kids spend more time in the home, and then what does it matter where that home is? Small towns are less isolated now than they were even in the ‘90s, making them both less distinctive and more omnipresent. A death in one town can start a national movement. But Mulder’s point is at odds with how localized this episode is; in Eastwood, crime still pulls people out of their homes, being well liked by your neighbors is a murder defense, and town tragedies can be monetized in the tourist literature. So the last thing this episode does is retroactively create tension around what a throwback it is, literally putting the town in the rearview mirror but knowing it’ll catch up sooner or later — just like the big picture of this season (whatever it is) will catch up with Mulder and Scully.
- Welcome, Holly Dale, to the small but growing club of female X-Files directors.
- “I….did not see that coming.”
- “You sure about that Mulder?” “I’m not sure about anything.”
- The Puritan midwife from Eastwood lore, Goody Bishop, is likely named after Bridget Bishop, the first person executed for witchcraft in the Salem Witch Trials.
- Every time Mulder says “I have a son” the Smoking Man falls down a full flight of stairs.
- “Yeah! You’re my homie.”