Part 1: How Do We Deal With It if It’s a Monster of the Week — And A Classic Comedy
Like any series made thirty years ago, there are many episodes of The X-Files that are, shall we say, problematic. No I don’t mean from a plot standpoint; every procedural has those and that’s the same with science fiction. No I mean the kind of issues that I will often try to ignore in my articles on series with the ‘different time’ scenario.
The problem is that, while that it’s applicable in the 1950s or even up to the 1980s, it starts become a real issue in my own lifetime. When you’re a genre show, some of the better monsters are from other cultures. The problem is, no matter how well you step into them at best they come off as heavy handed and as worst not working. From the Native American wendigo story in Shapes, the illegal immigrant story in ‘El Mundo Gira’, the African who drains other African-Americans of their pigmentation in ‘Teliko’, there are quite a few episodes that really make you wish Mulder and Scully stayed in their own lane.
But the more troubling ones are those that involve sexual assault or rape as part of their storylines. There were more than a few that handled this badly but most of them were such mediocrities that was the least of their problems. It’s harder to confront when the episodes are not only among the greatest in series history but when they are also comedies in every level. Most fans — myself included — have tried to deal with the issue of that from not long after they debuted until the present day, and now I think it’s time I tried too.
The three episodes in question are well known to every fan of The X-Files and I’ve mentioned two of them in some detail in my previous articles in this series. They are Darin Morgan’s “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’ in Season Three; Vince Gilligan ‘Small Potatoes’ in Season Four and Chris Carter’s ‘The Post=Modern Prometheus’ in Season Five.
The first one chronologically is somewhat more complicated because of the nature of Morgan’s narrative. The story deals with an incident involving two teenagers, Harold and Chrissy, who at the start of the episode are on their first date. Their car comes to a stop, a flying saucer hovers overhead, and two aliens walk to them. The aliens make motions and Chrissy and Harold pass out. As they are walking the kids to their craft, another craft pulls up to adjacent to them, and a larger, more menacing alien gets out. One of the aliens says: “What is that thing?” One says back: “How the hell should I know?”
Trying to explain what happens in this episode is impossible because it is never clear to anybody: much of the story is told by Scully to Jose Chung (Charles Nelson Reilly) and he himself tells us that no two stories coincide. “Truth is as subjective as reality” he says before the story begins. In that sense, Morgan gives us some cover for not taking any of what we’re about to see at face value. The problem is, a lot of it mostly in the first act, is troubling.
Chrissy wakes up in her car with bruises and her clothes on her inside out. Chung says that these are symptoms of alien abduction (or experiences, as he prefers) but Scully makes it very clear its more likely Chrissy was raped. Indeed they get called into the investigation because Chrissy accuses Harold of rape and Harold is brought in by the police. One of the darkest jokes of the episode is that Harold is such a nice boy people think it is far more plausible that he and Chrissy were abducted by aliens than that he raped her. It’s one that is easy to miss (I myself didn’t get until decades later) but it’s there all the same.
Furthermore Harold sticks to his story, even taking a polygraph — until Mulder and Scully get there and he decides to say that Chrissy is right, even though he doesn’t seem so sure any more and won’t take a polygraph to prove he raped her. This is where it is troubling that Mulder decides to believe Harold’s first story than his confession.
The episode basically leaves the idea of the sexual assault behind after that story but there’s something just as troubling. After relaying ‘his version’ of what happened to him and Chrissy after they were taken (I can’t explain it to those who haven’t seen the episode; even those who have can’t truly explain it) Scully, who has been lacking patience asks Harold if he and Chrissy had sex that night. Harold pauses, and says: “If her father finds out, I’m a dead man.” In other words there’s a possibility that Harold and Chrissy might have fabricated the fact to hide from their parents that they had sex on their first date. Considering that there have been cases like this more often then we want to admit — particularly given overprotective parents — that something this implausible as a story might be used is not that strange.
The episode than (joyously) basically leaves the two kids behind for the rest of the way episode. Morgan has a delightful story to tell and it’s more than fun getting there even if we still have no idea what happened then we did at the start (Again, see this episode if you haven’t. You’ll probably love it even if you’ve never watched an episode of The X-Files.) But it takes on a touch of pathos in the final moments when it returns to Chrissy and Harold.
Chrissy seems able to move on from this experience but in the final scene Harold comes to her window and throws rocks at it. Harold tells her despite everything: “I still love you.” Chrissy is dismissive: “Love. Is that all you men think about?” Then Chung, whose monologue is revealing the fate of many of the characters, talks about Harold — but in a way he’s talking about Morgan’s own point of view:
“Then there are those who care not for extraterrestrials, searching for meaning in other human beings. Rare or lucky are those who find it. For although we may not be alone in the universe, in our own separate ways, on this planet, we are all alone.”
It breaks your heart to hear this. It might be problematic that the episode sympathizes most often with Harold, who might very well be a rapist. Perhaps if you look it that way, his action might have destroyed whatever they bond might have. The difference is it reverses the dynamic. The man can’t find a way through what happened but Chrissy, the bigger victim, becomes a survivor.
I think that’s why the episode is not truly that problematic (aside from the fact of the ambiguity that is at the center of it). Chrissy has no explanation for what happened to her, but she can find a way to pick up the pieces even after this violation. Morgan is clear on this the bigger crime is not what might have happened to her body, but to her mind: “He’s stealing my memories’ is in effect one of the most haunting lines we’ve heard in the entire context of the X-Files.
In that sense Morgan is dealing with trauma in the greatest form (which is a common theme of all his scripts). And while your sympathy for Harold may differ depending on what version of events you believes, there’s something tremendously sad about the image of him at the end of the episode alone with no way forward.
‘Small Potatoes’ is also problematic but in a different way, and in a sense it’s so subtle that even years after the fact people may not have picked up on it. Most of that is due the fact that Eddie Van Blundht (as he constantly reminds us ‘The H is silent’) is one of the most sympathetic monsters of the week the show has ever created.
Gilligan always had a gift for creating sympathy for the monsters, showing them as little men whose supernatural abilities just showed how human they were. You get this very clearly with Eddie who despite being able to shape shift into anybody he can, is basically considered a loser by everybody. Some of them are very painful. In one scene Eddie is impersonating his father, who rather than try to be nice to his son, heaps abuse on him for not being special. It says a lot that Eddie Junior, even impersonating his father, doesn’t believe he could say anything nice about his son. It’s also done hysterically when Amanda, Eddie’s high school girlfriend, has a conversation with Eddie impersonating Mulder. Amanda, in case you had forgotten, has seen Star Wars over 400 times and is deluded enough to think that Luke Skywalker seduced her and impregnated her. She still thinks that she is superior to Eddie and has no problem telling ‘Mulder’ that. Even Mulder, who usually is astonished by everything he sees, can’t help but make a dig at Eddie. By now shapeshifters are part of the mythology but when Scully asks if Eddie’s an alien, Mulder is quick to dismiss it: “Not unless aliens live in trailer parks. (This is clearly a dig by Gilligan as to how the show differentiated between mythology and monster of the week; Mulder seems to be insulted at the idea that a janitor would be part of a global conspiracy.)
Now to be clear we have to think that Eddie is harmless for the main joke of the episode to work. One of the many reasons Small Potatoes is beloved, in addition all the other great things about it, is that in the final act Eddie impersonates Mulder, takes on his life, and attempts to seduce Scully.
Now it’s worth noting that we are getting a sense as how Eddie has done business: he listens to Scully, he clearly pays attention and is clearly kind. That’s why when Mulder busts in at the end of the episode, he is not saving Scully from a monster but from a kiss. This too is a poke in the ribs by Gilligan at the format. Mulder saving Scully was even now such a tired trope that he is clearly poking fun at it: this is the first time Mulder’s busted the door down, and really wished he hadn’t been there to save Scully. Furthermore, he doesn’t have to shoot Eddie or even threaten him: Eddie just sighs and assumes his normal face.
Gilligan wrote the episode this way for the punch line to work. But in order to do so, we have to feel an immense amount of sympathy for a sexual predator. Now Eddie isn’t one in the sense we would see on Law & Order: SVU a few years later. Eddie did not ‘rape’ any of his five victims the way we consider it. He didn’t force them or drug them, and while he came to their houses, he was technically invited and none of the women refused him. A good attorney might even be able to argue all five women did consent to have sex. The problem is, of course, four of them thought they were having sex with their husbands and the fifth was so mentally deluded she really thought the father was a fictional character.
We can write all of this off easier than Jose Chung because Eddie does pay for his crimes. In the last minutes of the episode, Mulder is visiting Eddie in prison. You could also say Mulder’s final line to Scully after she tells him he ‘s not a loser “But I’m no Eddie Van Blundht, am I?” is actually a compliment. Mulder may not be the kind of man smart enough not to have made a pass at Scully in four years, but he’s certainly not the kind of man who would lie to her in order to sleep with her. (He took far too long to get there, of course… but that’s another story.)
But by far the most problematic episode of the three is ‘The Post-Modern Prometheus”. I should mention that while Jose Chung and Small Potatoes have always been considered classics by fans and critics, Prometheus has always been trickier even for die-hard fans. No one can deny that it’s not a brilliant episode of television, and the Emmys certainly didn’t: the episode by far received the most Emmy nominations of any single episode in the show’s canon: seven, including two for Carter for both his direction and writing. And even the viewers who despise is can’t deny it’s not one of the most dazzling technical achievements in the series history. Shot as a retelling of the Frankenstein, the story is shot in glorious black and white with some of the most dazzling special effect, cinematography and music the series would ever do. It is one of the most brilliant technical episodes in the entire canon of The X-Files, along with episodes such as Triangle in Season 6 and X-Cops in Season 7. It is an incredible episode to look at.
The problem with it is the plot. Because while in the previous two episodes, the possibility of rape was always secondary to the overlying story. In Prometheus, it’s basically front and center to the entire show. We see it in the teaser, it’s why Mulder and Scully are called on to the case, and its more or less the punch line to the episode. I have a reason why I think the episode works despite this, but I have to explain why it’s so problematic.
Shaineh Berkowitz sends a letter to Mulder and Scully in which she tells them that seventeen years ago, her house went dark, she was knocked unconscious and didn’t wake up until three days later — after which she was pregnant with her son Izzy. She’s now writing him because that same thing happened again — we saw in the teaser. Even that’s not the weird part — not long after giving birth to her son, Shaineh had her tubes tied. You might ask how she could have gotten pregnant again, and Carter never sees fit to answer that question. (My theory, for the record, is a better explanation.)
As the show goes on we believe that this is a stunt by Izzy to promote his comic book character The Great Mutato. We learn of a mad scientist named Dr. Polidori, who has been performing radical genetic experiments for decades in this town. As the episode continues, Polidori’s wife is blacked out, and she too is raped.
At the climax of the episode we learn the horrible truth — and its truly horrendous. Polidori’s father rescued Mutato as a baby. He has spent his life since then trying to come up with a friend or mate for him. In doing so, he has essentially spent the past twenty years impregnating the parents of the entire down with…farm animals. (Yes, you read this write. It gets worse.) However, the last two assaults — Shaineh and Mrs. Polidori — were performed by Mutato himself.
When Mutato gives his speech at the end of the episode, he is meant to come off as sympathetic claiming ‘he has never harmed a living soul.’ We’re somehow supposed to forget that he has raped two women — and to be clear, the show makes it very clear at the end that’s happened. (Though again, I have a theory that might explain it.) Somehow everybody ignores this fact and lets him off the hook — including it’s worth noting Mulder and Scully, who actually seems depressed that they have to take Mutato to prison rather than release him to search for his mate.
Those who defend this episode argue that there is justice served to the larger plot. Polidori goes to prison for killing his father, the grandfather has paid for his sins with his life and Mutato will go to jail for his crimes and be friendless and alone. There are, to be clear, other moral ambiguities that you can read into this if you want to appreciate the episode. But I have had a theory about Prometheus that I think makes more sense — one that in a real way, may not make the moral quandaries any easier, but might be able to help you understand why this is a different episode.
I don’t believe anything we see in ‘Prometheus’ is real. And no, I don’t just mean that The X-Files is just a TV show; I don’t think what happens falls under the purview of an X-File.
Here is my theory. Shaineh never told the truth about how Izzy was born. Maybe she was raped; maybe she never really knew who the father was. So Izzy, in his search for answers created the legend of the Great Mutato. He heard of Mulder and Scully on TV (they have been on the news before) and in order to come up with an explanation for his childhood, he created a comic book in which everything we see in the episode takes place.
The episode, as those of you who remember it know, is framed as a comic book. But there’s more to it than that. While most episodes tell us where the show is taking place, the most we know is that it’s somewhere in Indiana. With the exception of the Berkowitz, none of the other characters have a full name. Polidori has no first name and none of Izzy’s friends are given a name at all as is even Polidori’s father (he’s just called the Old Man). And somehow, even though he raised him from childhood, Mutato himself has no name.
When you consider that none of the characters save for Shaineh as human beings, this is fitting with the world of a comic book. It also explains the often ridiculous reactions of the characters which are more in context with a comic than reality. A prime example comes when Polidori’s wife, who has been begging for her husband for a baby, reacts to the fact of her rape not with dismay but joy because she might be pregnant. (And for the record, if my theory isn’t true, Chris Carter really has some ‘splaining to do about he views the modern woman.)
But the reason I am convinced that this episode isn’t real is the ending. Mulder, dismayed about having to lock up Mutato, seems to break the fourth wall and say: “Where’s the writer? I want to speak with the writer.”
And in the last scene Mulder and Scully and the entire town drive to Memphis to see Cher sing. (Mutato loves Cher.) We see Shaineh and Mrs. Polidori on Jerry Springer with their babies, who look like little mutatoes. Cher sings to Mutato, and Mulder and Scully, smiling bigger than we’ve ever seen them before, start dancing. The episode closes on a drawing of the two of them, and the comic book being closed.
Now even the most devoted fan of the episode will acknowledge that last scene didn’t happen. So if you’re going that far, why can’t the whole episode be a fiction? Mulder asks to speak the writer at the end of the episode and we all know Izzy is one. And all teenagers want a happy ending to their stories.
I think Izzy is working through whatever trauma really happened to him the best he can and whatever the truth is, he’d prefer to believe the fiction. And in the world of fiction, the bad guys always pay for the crimes, the monsters aren’t evil and everyone gets a happy ending. We’ve watched The X-Files long enough by now to know that’s just not the case. But for some people, they want to believe — even if it isn’t real. That’s part of the makeup of The X-Files too. That’s my theory as to the episode.
Of course while consent as part of the Monster of the Week is a hard enough thing to deal with, it’s infinitely worse when it comes to the mythology. And the reason for that is because how much it involves Scully. In the sequel to this installment in the series, I will deal with Scully’s abduction and how it led to some of the most problematic storylines in the entire series — which is saying a lot.