“If The Future’s Already Written, Why Bother Doing Anything?”
How A Classic X-Files Episode from 1995 Tells Us What A Controversial Philosophic Theory Could Play Out In Real Life
A few days ago I read an article online about a theory held by a certain branch of philosophers known as ‘the clockwork universe’. Trying to sum it up would be difficult for those of who don’t even know what philosophy is, but basically it comes down to the idea that the theory of ‘free will’ — that we have complete and utter control of our actions — is nothing more than a mental delusion. That everything decision we think we make for ourselves is based on a chemical reaction that is determined by previous ones going all the way back to the creation of the universe.
This is a controversial theory, to say the least — so much so that even the people who believe in it don’t think it should be widespread. By even suggesting in some circles the articles reveals they’ve received obscene calls and emails and it’s hard not to imagine a few death threats. Among the least controversial ideas of this philosophy is that, if it’s true, we have no right to punish criminals for their actions because they had no choice in the matter. It takes the statement ‘the devil made me do it’ to new levels, if you merely substitute: “The universe made me do it.’
The ideas of free will and determinism have been at the center of a lot of Peak TV and because it’s such a serious subject, it’s usually only done through science fiction or fantasy. It was at the core of so much of the action of Lost, Buffy and Angel frequently had its characters pondering it, and its hard to think of Battlestar Galactica’s catchphrase — “All of this has happened before’ and not think of the clockwork universe. But I think the truest and bleakest idea of that theory was stated in one of the greatest X-Files episodes ever written — and its telling that it’s also one of the funniest.
Before I delve into this, a little backstory. There were many great writers to come out of The X-Files over its near decade run, but fans of the series like me consider the two geniuses of the show to be Vince Gilligan and Darin Morgan. But while Gilligan is known to the world because of he subsequently created one of the greatest series of all time — Breaking Bad — Morgan is unknown to all but those of who remember his work for Chris Carter. This isn’t surprising because the entire body of Morgan’s work basically comes down to four scripts he work for the X-Files in Seasons Two and Three, along with one story credit and one he’s believed to have quietly rewritten, as well as two episodes he penned for Carter’s follow up series Millennium. Yet those of us who’ve seen his work know that he was one of the greatest writers of all time, the JD Salinger of Ten-Thirteen. (Morgan’s ability is also one of the major reasons I don’t consider the recent revival of the series a waste of time; anything that provided the world with ‘Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster’ can not be considered worthless.
Morgan’s writing is known for two key factors for The X-Files, both related. First was his decision to write the series that was fundamentally dark and play it is as screwball comedy. I really don’t believe The X-Files would have become the cultural phenomena it was without the ability to be hysterically funny at times, and Morgan was the groundbreaker in that regard. Just as important was how he did it — by decided to tear apart and subvert all of the tropes Carter and his fellow writers had spent two years building up. One of the best examples of this comes in the episode I wish to discuss
‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose’. A group of detectives are discussing out of town help they have called in. One of them says that he’s a publicity hound, the other says he worked on him with a case — ‘very spooky’ which basically Mulder’s nickname. At that moment, Mulder walks into the room and music plays that you would associate with the hero walking on. The detectives look at him for a moment, and then one says: “Who the hell are you?” They’re not waiting for Mulder, but rather a TV psychic known as The Stupendous Yappi. (There’s just as wonderful a moment when Yappi does arrive, but this one I wouldn’t dream of giving it away.)
Which brings me to the episode I want to discuss. Couple of details first. Clyde Bruckman is considered not just one of the greatest episodes of The X-Files, but in television history. Morgan won an Emmy for Writing it that year. It was ranked as one of the 100 Greatest Episodes of all Time by TV Guide in 1997 and again more than a decade later. For all that, it is no better than any of the other episodes Morgan wrote for the show which tells you how much of a genius he was. Second of all, it’s a brilliant comedy but it has a very bleak view of human nature which ties in to this new philosophy school.
A man is killing fortunetellers and cutting out their eyeballs and entrails. There’s no mystery to who the killer is; we meet him before the opening credits role. (Actually, there is a mystery as to who he is, but I’ll get to that in a moment.) We see him at a fortuneteller, asking plaintively why he’s going to be doing the things he doing. “I think I’ve gotten a glimpse of my own future…I see myself doing things that not only do I not want to do them, I can’t imagine myself doing them. Yet there I am doing them.” The fortuneteller stars to panic (and loses her fake accent in doing so) about him hurting her. In the same voice, the killer says: “I know. But you’re a fortuneteller. Honestly, you should have seen this coming.”
By the time Mulder and Scully are called on to the scene, the killings have been going on for awhile. In the midst of this another victim is found by Clyde Bruckman. (In my humble opinion this is Peter Boyle’s finest hour, and the Emmy voters agreed giving him his only win in his long career). We already know that he’s a psychic and he clearly has an insight into the nature of the killer. He sees that the man truly thinks he’s a ‘puppet’ and has no control over what he does It’s pretty clear that you can see one version of what this ‘clockwork universe theory’ would be in this killer. He’s been killing these people for the sole purpose of finding out why he’s killing these people.
Bruckman who has a similar gift views with utter disdain if not contempt. When Mulder asks him if its gift, he throws it back in his face: “The only trouble is its not’s returnable.” Bruckman’s only ability seems to be to see how everybody he meets will die and it’s clearly sucked all the joy out of his life. This is clear in what is probably the most pertinent exchange:
BRUCKMAN: “If the future wasn’t already written, how could I foresee it?”
MULDER: “But if the future’s already written, why bother doing anything?”
BRUCKMAN (smiling sadly): “Now you’re catching on.”
One views the two psychics in this episode as two of the major possibilities of what would happen if this knew theory were to become mainstream. People like the killer would just go on killing because they felt they had no choice but too. People like Bruckman would barely be able to function in life because they felt there was no changing anything.
Am I being too dark? Consider this. Near the episode of the killer and Bruckman are in the same room. The killer talks to Bruckman and asks him plaintively the same question he’s been asking all his victims: “Why do I do the things I do?”
Bruckman tells him the truth: “You do the things you do because you’re a homicidal maniac.”
Two things more. Morgan — who in his career as a writer was very specific in how he named his characters (Clyde Bruckman was the name of silent movie screenwriter who ultimately committed suicide) very deliberately didn’t give the character of the killer a name. And second, in every scene where a body has been discovered you can see him in the crowd. The director doesn’t focus on him, but he’s clearly there. I think the message is clear: the killer might as well be anybody. In that sense, we’re all just some version of this little man. And Bruckman doesn’t seem to think there’s a point in even trying to change things. When the killer spares his life to kill a detective who had the misfortune to be on the commode, Bruckman goes home and commits suicide. Why? Because he saw himself doing it.
But for all the bleakness in this story — and as funny as it is, it’s very dark — there’s actually a note of optimism in it. Something that I think speaks entirely to the series theory of free will overcoming fate.
At the climax of the episode, the killer corners Mulder in the kitchen. Bruckman foresaw this in an earlier vision, but focused on the kind of pie Mulder stepped in and refused to tell him that in the vision Mulder died. Mulder has a knife to his throat when the elevator opens and Scully appears. She pulls her gun and when the killer refuses to move his knife, shoots him dead. As he dies, the killer actually seems more surprised than angry — his last words are: “Hey, that’s not how it’s supposed to happen.” And when Mulder asked Scully how she knew he was here, she says: “I didn’t. I got on the service elevator by mistake.” For all Bruckman’s certainty that the future was set in stone, he died not knowing that it was possible to change it.
And it is that level of possibility — of the fact that for all things may seem like they are bleak and hopeless, we must believe in the idea of fate. Morgan himself must’ve thought differently when you consider how he got the job as a writer in the first place. He was a nobody actor whose big brother was a staff writer on the show. He was cast in a role to play a Monster-of-the-Week and had to wear an uncomfortable rubber suit and romp in the sewers — a role that would have been done by CGI had the series not been so low-budget. His brother asked him to help with him a script and he had an idea which got him a job on the writing staff. It is hard to imagine that and not see it as some kind of destiny but Morgan looked at it as part of a sign for free will for his finest hour in television.
As anyone who watches The X-Files knows, the key catchphrase was: “I Want to Believe.” Whether you chose to believe in science or the supernatural, the series made clear there was room for both in your philosophy. And the series time and again made it clear that belief in the individual over the either of something larger. We have to believe that there are always small things that had stand against the larger ones — whether it’s a pair of lonely FBI agents against a government conspiracy or a custard pie saving your life. And art like this makes the point. I’ll close this article with a quote from Robert Sherman, whose book Wanting to Believe is one of the best books ever written about The X-Files, with his thoughts on the episode and the questions it poses:
“Fundamentally the troubled questions that Morgan poses here are best answered by the writing of the episode itself. Life might seem random, a cruel joke. FBI agents may feel relieved to know they won’t die of lung cancer, but only because they don’t know they’ll be knifed to death on the toilet moments later…But if you can create something special, a little piece of art like Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, you’re doing something right. Because an episode like this isn’t random — it’s finely wrought and thoughtful and compassionate and is a triumph of individualism.”
Things like that are why I write this column. And what I want to believe in.