A Series On The Serial Killers On TV, Part 2
You Might Be a Monster, But That Doesn’t Make You Special: The X-Files, Millennium and the Banality of Evil
Whenever Mulder and Scully got involved in an investigation, there was a very good chance that there was already a high body count. Often the teasers of the episodes would show at least one of the murders, what was strange about it, and occasionally the killer himself. By the time they showed up on The X-Files, the FBI had been called in for the reasons they usually are — the local law enforcement suspects there’s a serial killer. When they hear the theories that Mulder gives, they wonder if the inmate is searching for a fellow escapee.
During The X-Files nine years on the air, the series would deal with quite a few serial killers. The lion’s share were supernaturally enhanced, to be sure, but that did not necessarily make them particularly remarkable. Indeed Vince Gilligan, who began writing for the series in 1995 and would stay with the series until it ended in 2002, was a master craftsman when it came to creating killers who, despite their strange powers, were a lost closer to be ordinary than you thought. In ‘Pusher’, the killer Robert Modell had the ability to inflict his will on others, forcing them to kill themselves by hearing his voice and letting them feel every bit of it. One of the most horrifying murders in the series history comes when one of the agents chasing him is literally willed into having a heart attack while to trace a call he is making — and after the man dies, Modell cheerfully gives the number up to a furious Mulder and Scully. Later on we would be Gerry Schnauz, a serial killer whose psyche was so warped it had to borrow to let films show the horrors of his mind (Unruhe) Leonard Betts, a man with regenerative power who killed only to survive and was genuinely unhappy every time he did (no one will forget the words he used before one murder: “I’m very sorry, but you’ve got something I need.”) and in one of the most haunting episodes in the show’s history, we met John Lee Roche, the ‘Paper Hearts’ killer, who had confessed to the murders of thirteen young girls, but was actually guilty of three more — one of whom might have been Mulder’s sister. (I’ll be getting back to him and the villain he represented in a minute.) Gilligan would take this to its logical endpoint in ‘Hungry’ a Season Seven episode that tells the story entirely from the point of view of the monster, Rob Roberts. Rob is a man who has to live on brains in order to survive, who is trying to avoid threats (including an FBI agent who seems to be toying with him every time they meet) and cover his tracks of the murders he never wants to commit. This sympathy for these monsters pervaded almost all of Gilligan’s work and is at the core of so many of the characters in his later masterworks Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.
Every so often, The X-Files would take a break from pursuing actual monsters and look at human ones. Indeed, some of the very best episodes in the series history dealt with Mulder and Scully investigating actual serial killers. This in itself was not strange, Mulder was a master profiler and indeed had profiled many of the same criminals that later returned. (He had, in fact, created the profile that led to Roche’s original arrest in Paper Hearts.) What’s interesting in hindsight is that, while the series was inclined to find wonder in so many of the paranormal monsters, both Mulder and Scully were dismissive of the actual ones.
In ‘Beyond the Sea’, a first season episode widely considered The X-Files first masterpiece, Mulder is called to investigate the claims of a serial killer he put away named Luther Lee Boggs, who is claiming to have psychic ability. In perhaps the first true example of this in the series history, Mulder is convinced Boggs’ is lying, and most of it is because of what he knows about him:
“When he was thirty, he strangled five family members over Thanksgiving dinner, and then sat down watch the fourth quarter of the Detroit/Green Bay. Some killers are products of society, some act out past abuses. Boggs kills because he likes it.”
Throughout the episode we end up feeling just the slightest bit of empathy for Boggs (it helps that veteran character actor Brad Dourif gives a masterclass of a performance as him) but nobody forgets what a monster he is, or the kind of killer he represents.
In the next season, Chris Carter himself wrote ‘Irresistible’ another masterpiece involving a serial killer actually modeled on Jeffrey Dahmer. Carter wanted him to be a necrophiliac but the network censors refused to allow it. Instead Donnie Pfaster (Nick Chinlund) was a ‘death fetishist’, who started by clipping a lock of hair from a corpse and eventually progressed to killing prostitutes and cutting off their hair and fingers. Scully would be troubled from this case from the beginning, and eventually end up being abducted and nearly killed by him. Throughout the episode was strikes you about Pfaster is the utter ordinariness of him (we never see him kill or even hurt anybody) He could be the boy next door. But none of this changes Scully’s opinion about him; in a sequel five years later, she says about him: “Donnie Pfaster is just pure evil.”
The banality of evil is a card The X-Files played very well over the years, and it is approach that comes through perhaps the best in one of their finest hours, and indeed one of the greatest episodes in TV history: ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.” Mulder and Scully have been called into investigate a series of killings of fortune tellers, where only the victims’ eyes and entrails are being left behind. In a rarity for the series, we actually know who the killer is before the teaser begins (sort of, I’ll get to that) as we see him kill a fortune teller in the teaser. We also see him as a lookie-loo in every one of the crowd scenes surrounding the discovery of every body, but not so you would notice if you weren’t looking for him. We learn he thinks he is a puppet of fate who has caught a glimpse of his own future, who thinks he’s a psychic and asks all of his victims why he’s doing the things he does. In the last act, we learn he is the bellboy at the hotel where Mulder and Scully have been keeping fellow psychic Clyde Bruckman into protective custody.
Both men know who the other is, and they have a civilized conversation. The killer asks Bruckman why he’s doing the things he does. Bruckman looks him dead in the eye and says: “Don’t you get it? You do the things you do because you’re a homicidal maniac.” The killer actually seems relieved, even happy to learn this.
A couple of things that you should know: Darin Morgan, the genius who next to Gilligan may be the greatest writer The X-Files ever produced is always very particular about the names he gives even the most minor characters in every single episode he wrote. The killer is never given one. This has to be a deliberate choice, which I think represents two things. By not even giving him the dignity of a name, Morgan is saying that the killer is just a caricature and not the least best special. In one sense, this is horrible (Mulder and Scully literally walk by him before they know who he is) but in another far larger sense, I think Morgan is making a general statement about these kinds of killers. That there’s nothing particular special about them, no deeper meaning to what they do, and maybe we should stop saying they have any.
More than twenty years later, when the X-Files returned for two more seasons, Morgan was invited back to write another episode for each year. The sole existence of these episodes more than justified this reboot in my opinion. None more so in the instant classic ‘Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster’. In this episode Morgan, who in every episode he wrote for Ten-Thirteen utterly destroyed the pretensions the show was proud of (we’ll actually get to how he did that for another series) decided to attack the serial killer trope that now everywhere. This is shown in two ways: we eventually learn that ‘Guy Mann’ is a ‘were-beast’ who has suffered the most horrible fate of all — he was bitten by a human and now must turn into one every day. He must deal with the horrors of getting a job, being a meat-eater and lying about his sex life.
Obviously, this is hysterical. What is nearly as funny is that the murders that make up the investigation are being caused by an animal control agent (Kumail Nanjani, obtaining a life-long dream). Once Scully catches him, he begins to relate his tale of woe — and both agents cut him off before he even gets started. They’ve heard it all before, and there’s nothing he — and by extension, any one like him — can tell them that is unusual or even interesting. Morgan is dismissing so much of the obsession with serial killers and profiling — magnified by television exponentially between the original and the continuation — as a waste of energy, saying that the human monsters are not worth the candle.
There is a certain irony to this because one of the major series that helped escalate the fascination with the serial killer was created by Chris Carter and staffed by many fellow X-Files writers. I have written occasionally about Millennium a confused and frustrating but often brilliant series that aired for three seasons, starting in 1996. It focused on Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) and the consultations he did for the Millennium Group, but what the group represented and by extension what the series was actually about was never truly clear from season to season. This constant shift in tone often confused and frustrated Henriksen; he expresses as much on many of the extras attached to the DVD and interviews on the subject, and at times you can actually see that frustration spill over in to his performance on the show.
The general agreement about Millennium is that the stories that Black did involving the profiles of serial killers were by far the best, mainly because they were the most simple. (That didn’t make any of them any less pretentious at times, but there’s something to be said for basics.) That said, for all the level of deviousness behind many of those killing, Carter and his writers could often do a lot to remind the audience that their opinions about the banality of evil weren’t that different than they had been on The X-Files.
One such episode was ‘The Thin White Line’ an episode in which Frank Black is investigating a series of murders that were connected to a killer that Black once captured — and was the only survivor of an attack that left three fellow agents dead. In an eight minute interrogation sequence that is one of the highlights of the show Black interrogates Hance in the maximum security prison in which he is being held. Hance is utterly without charm or imagination; his sole demand for the constant, fluorescent lights he is held under all day to be turned off, and to be portrayed in a TV movie — not by Anthony Hopkins, but Gary Busey. Similarly, in the Season One Finale ‘Paper Dove’, Black is investigating murders of women being killed by a man named Henry Dion, which actually comes across almost as black comedy. Dion is quiet, almost inoffensive in appearance, and actually less dangerous when there is a dead body around. In one of the few absolutely hysterical scenes in the series, a mother and daughter come across Dion in the woods, and the viewer is by now conditioned to expect the worst. But it turns out, with a dead body in the leaves, Dion is perfectly safe: he bandages the young girl’s cut and even makes jokes with both of them. And indeed, we eventually why he’s the way he is — we meet his mother and she will never shut up. By the time Dion finally kills her, the audience is actually rooting for the woman to die. Even when the killer is caught, Dion makes us laugh with his final line: “We finally found a way to communicate.”
Eventually, the grandmaster of The X-Files Darin Morgan, who retired after becoming exhausted with the network television process after a mere four scripts, was wooed out of retirement by his equally brilliant brother Glen (now co-running Millennium with his collaborator James Wong) out of retirement for two more scripts, both of which Darin would also direct. Like his work for The X-Files, both of his scripts are works of genius, notable on a series whose only note was grim for being utterly and pure fun, as well as utterly demolishing the pretensions of the series he was working for. (Darin Morgan may have invented ‘meta’ before anyone knew there was a term for it.) In ‘Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense’, Darin Morgan utterly destroys everything that the writers seem to think the series should stand for: He says the only thing we are guaranteed from the new millennium is ‘another thousand years of the same crap’ and has a character say one of the greatest lines in history: “Evil incarnate can’t sue.”
But it is his second episode ‘Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me” that deals most pertinently with the serial killer trope and just how ordinary these people are. In a story that’s part of an anthology, a literal demon relates to his companion just how easy it is to convince people to do evil by relaying a recent experience. In his familiar as an old man, he picked up a hitchhiker who expressed admiration for a serial killer, who held the record for most murders. The demon than almost casually mentioned that this young man had all of the basic characteristics of a serial killer already, and just by telling him this was enough to persuade this man to become one. (The demons cluck at the lack of effort it takes these days to persuade someone to become a monster these days.)
This young man shows less imagination as a killer, only killing prostitutes and hurrying his way through it to the record. (Just for laughs, the demon gets him to kill a satanic worshipper, but he just goes back to prostitutes) Eventually the demon gets so tired of the killer’s company that he throws a clue out the window of a moving car, which Frank Black ends up finding. (In the one linking theme within the episode, Black encounters all four demons who tell their stories — and is the only one who can see past the faces that everyone else can.) Black arrests the killer and he goes to prison — before one last twist that I wouldn’t dream of giving away.
At the end of the day, the writers of X-Files and Millennium seemed utterly certain that while there was a lot to marvel and wonder at in the world, there was nothing particularly remarkable or interesting about the serial killer. This was not a lesson that most of the procedurals in the 1990s would take — as we shall in the next part that features perhaps the greatest offender of that trope.