Charmed, I'm sure
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)