X-Files Retrospective: Vince Gilligan’s Proving Ground
On The X-Files, Vince Was The One Who Knocked
In my retrospective on Darin Morgan, I argued that ninety percent of the fans would be inclined to rank him as the best writer for the series. The other ten percent would no doubt line up behind another choice: Vince Gilligan.
Now to be clear: all of these fans would recognize that both men are geniuses and that both do have a clear mandate to be considered the best writer for the series. Neither side, however, would argue that Morgan was better than Gilligan or vice versus. Because while both men are absolutely and unqualified geniuses (remember that Howard Gordon spoke of both men in the same tone) they are different kinds of geniuses. Morgan will probably get more credit by fans because we all wonder of just what might have happened if Morgan had the patience to keep working in television for more scripts than he ended up writing. We don’t doubt his talent; we’re just frustrated we didn’t get more examples of.
That same argument doesn’t apply to Gilligan simply because he loves working in television. He stuck with The X-Files longer than any other writer on the series, with the exception of Carter and Frank Spotnitz. (Both Spotnitz and Gilligan — along with Morgan — joined the staff in Season 2; Gilligan and Spotnitz stuck with the series until the end of its original run.) As a result Gilligan has a far larger body of work than almost any other writer on the series: thirty scripts, either on his own or as part of a collaboration. Unlike Morgan, whose entire body of work is essential satiric, there are nearly as many episodes that Gilligan wrote that are different in tone, many of them essentially becoming outright horror at times. And Gilligan, with the exception of any writer but Howard Gordon, has been the most successful with his work outside of The X-Files, creating two of the series that rank among the greatest of all time: Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. It is mainly because the latter has just ended, concluding another phase in Gilligan’s career (few would dare argue that its close to finished) that I think it is worth taking a close look at Gilligan’s career on The X-Files, what made him the most consistently brilliant of the series during its run and how his tone was unique among the writers among the series — even that of Morgan.
It’s important to relate before we get started that Gilligan and Morgan do have quite a few commonalities. Both men began their careers for The X-Files late in the second season. Gilligan’s initial script aired, as it happen, just three episodes after Morgan’s debut in ‘Humbug’. Neither man had anything really to do with the mythology that would slowly but surely become such a morass than it was fray apart at the scenes. In Morgan’s case, that is mainly because he left the series in Season 3. In Gilligan’s, while he collaborated on many scripts that were at least perfunctorily related to the larger story, almost none of them had anything to do with the conspiracy and the ones that did had to do with stories that were more character based (Scully’s diagnosis with cancer in Season 4 and the unexpected fall-out of it in Season 5) And both Morgan and Gilligan were satiric geniuses who absolutely no problem, poking fun at some of the more ridiculous aspects of the show they wrote for. (As we shall see it’s impossible not to think that Morgan was passing the torch to Gilligan in that regard.)
But there the similarities end, and that’s particularly clear in the tone of their writing. For all the brilliance of Morgan’s comedy, all of his episodes have a fundamentally dark view of humanity and the idea that death is the only certainty. Gilligan’s comic episodes are generally more cheerful than Morgan’s and that’s because — and this will stun those of you who only knew him through the sage of Walter White and company — he was The X-Files most optimistic writer. Morgan’s comedy seems to be fundamentally deconstructionist; Gilligan’s essentially wants to poke fun at the series he’s working in without tearing it down. He also believed far more than any other writer in the humanity of even the monsters he wrote for and that in many ways their supernatural aspects did not make them any less human. In the seventh season episode ‘Hungry’, he took this point of view to its natural end by telling the story entirely from the point of view of the monster and making our favorite FBI agents look kind of dick-ish. (Mulder in particular looks like a man who is toying with his prey, and its credit to Gilligan that when the end comes, our sympathies are with the ‘villain’. )
I think that because Gilligan stayed with the series until the end but had no real involvement with the mythology, he learned from Chris Carter what not to do when you’re telling a serialized story. (Howard Gordon departed the series in Season 4, but by then the mythology was spiraling out of control, and I’m fairly sure he took those lessons with him when he joined the staff and later showrunner of 24.) One of the most important lessons Gilligan took away: if you must do a mythology, make sure its about the characters front and center and have a plan, even on the throwaways. Anyone who watched the final season of Better Call Saul can see just how good a job Gilligan and his staff did when it came to all the aspects of Jimmy/Saul. And it’s worth noting that both Morgan and Gilligan, though neither dealt with it directly, thought the mythology could be ridiculous. (Morgan made a joke about it in ‘War of the Coprophages about killer bees being part of an alien conspiracy. I really wonder what he thought when after he left the show, Carter made it part of the mythology.) Gilligan was more gentle about it which he made clear in the penultimate episode of Season 7 (which many thought would be the last monster of the week episode) and Season 9 (which actually was.) It’s not worth summarizing the plot of either but suffice to say, both episodes were humane comedies who essentially argued that the real point of the series was not some complicated search or aliens or proof of the paranormal, but the people and human connections you made along the way. In both cases, you can’t help but wish Carter had taken the lesson to heart when he wrote the final episode.
There are countless examples of why Gilligan is the premiere writer on the series, but I think the season that demonstrates how much of a genius he truly was is Season 4. His body of work is comparative to Morgan during Season 3, which in the latter case, cemented the argument he was a genius. In Season 3, Morgan wrote three episodes considered among the greatest of all time (Clyde Bruckman, War of the Coprophages, Jose Chung’s From Outer Space) and had uncredited rewrites on a fourth. (‘Quagmire’ which has many easter eggs from earlier Morgan episodes to imply his work.) Gilligan wrote three scripts on his own and collaborated on two more. He received his only Emmy nomination for ‘Memento Mori’ (which he co-wrote with Carter, Spotnitz, and John Shiban) but I’m not going to include it because I’m not sure of the nature of his involvement. Instead, I will deal with the three he wrote and the parts of the fourth I’m positive he worked on.
‘Unruhe’ is a ‘conventional’ MOTW which features a relic from the analog world: instant cameras. Mulder and Scully are called in to investigate the abduction of a woman and the murder of a man, but Mulder’s interest is because moment before the woman disappeared, she took a passport picture — and the photo is hopelessly warped. Mulder believes that the photos are evidence of the person behind the killings that follow — and that they represent insight to his psyche.
Eventually, the victim is found not dead, but having received what amounts to an icepick lobotomy. She keeps muttering to herself ‘unruhe’ (German for ‘unrest’). When a second girl is abducted, Mulder follows up on the photography but Scully eventually tracks down the man responsible: Gerry Thomas Schnauz. (The way Scully figures it out is one of her greatest moments as a detective, and I wouldn’t dream of revealing it.)
Schnauz is played by the brilliant character actor Pruitt Taylor Vince, and we eventually learn that he has abducted these woman to save them from what he calls ‘the howlers.’ It becomes clear that both he and his sister (who committed suicide) were victims of horrific abuse by their father, and that Schnauz has essentially deflected that into believing that these howlers were the cause. Eventually Schnauz escapes from custody and targets his next victim — Scully.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler that Mulder saves Scully in the end (by this point in the series, the ‘Scully in peril trope’ was already becoming tired.) What is significant about the episode is how many of the Gilligan tropes are present in it: how he manages to make the ordinary seem threatening, how he can work magic with the emotions of both Mulder and Scully (Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny routinely did their best work in Gilligan’s scripts) and in what will be his overriding theme for his monsters and Season Four in particular: the ordinary villains whose supernatural powers don’t make any less ordinary.
Gilligan’s next script, ‘Paper Hearts’ is one of the masterpieces of the series, most notably because he decides to take what has been a pillar of The X-Files since the Pilot — that Samantha Mulder was abducted by aliens — and turn its on its side. He wants to convince us that Samantha was never abducted by aliens, was never the subject of a plot by his parents and the government conspiracy that has followed, but instead was abducted and murdered by a serial killer that Mulder himself helped catch when he was just a profiler for the FBI. It is a measure of Gilligan’s ability as a writer that not only does he almost convince us this is a real possibility, but actually makes us think that all things considered, it might be a better solution for Mulder if it was.
Mulder has begun to have dreams that after several nights lead him to the body of a dead girl. She is a victim of John Lee Roche, a vacuum cleaner salesman who confessed to strangling thirteen girls and cutting a cloth heart from their nightgowns. The trophies were never found and Mulder wanted to find and count them. His dreams lead him to Roche’s car — and he finds sixteen hearts. The next dream we see is one we’ve seen before of Samantha’s abduction that plays out exactly the same — except this time Roche is in the room.
Roche is played by that memorably creepy character actor Tom Noonan, who even when he’s playing good guys just unsettles you. From the moment we meet him in prison, we’re unsettled just by how comfortable these two men act around each other. Mulder is convinced by his dreams that Roche did kidnap and kill Samantha and is so desperate to find out the truth that it wrecks him immensely.
Duchovny gives one of his greatest performances in ‘Paper Hearts’ and what’s amazing is that it’s one where Mulder is at his most unprofessional. He hits Roche, he gives into his demands for a release, and is eventually tricked by him into letting him go and him taking his badge and gun. Roche eventually abducts yet another young girl and Mulder corners him in a garbage dump. Mulder is given the choice that comes so many times in The X-Files — to get answers or to do the right thing. As is usually the case, the hero does the right thing — but in this case, that means shooting Roche in the head. Mulder is no more certain at the beginning of the episode than he is at the end as to whether Samantha Mulder was one of Roche’s victims, and the look of utter desolation on his face at the end is one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever seen. So often during the series run Duchovny would get a bad rap for his acting, often accused of sleepwalking with his blank expression and monotone voice being mistaken for lack of talent. No one who ever watches this episode could dare accuse Duchovny of that.
Because ‘Leonard Betts’ aired after the Super Bowl in 1997, it ranks as the most watched episode in series history. When an episode gets this kind of lead-up, it’s frequently an anti-climax. No one who ever saw it could say that of this episode of The X-Files — and not just because of the last five minutes.
I don’t know how much of the episode was Gilligan’s direct influence (he co-wrote it with John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz, his most frequent collaborators) but there’s a lot that I think is clearly his. Most of it comes from the character of Leonard Betts. In the opening, Betts is an ambulance driver who is decapitated in a hit-and-run. That night, it seems his body had somehow walked out of the morgue. Mulder and Scully are called into investigate — and the episode goes from there.
This episode fundamentally plays like a grisly comedy for most of the run, which I think is Gilligan’s influence as Mulder has to gag his way through a hospital disposal unit and Scully has to deal with a decapitated head blinking (and then telling Mulder that) Even wilder is the change to the format. Usually the teaser gives us a hint as to just what kind of monster we are in for and its up to Mulder and Scully to catch up with the audience. In Leonard Betts, we’re spending most of the episode catching up with Mulder and Scully because the weirdness behind Leonard just keeps getting weirder. By the halfway point, things have gotten so bizarre that when we realize Leonard is essentially using cancer to survive, we barely blink when we learn his car has a trunk full of tumors. “Snack food,” Mulder almost cheerfully explains.
What helps us keep us with this is, like Gilligan’s other characters, Leonard is ordinary and in a way, more human than most of the monsters we encounter on the series.(It will stun you to know that Leonard is played by Paul McCrane, who later that year began his stint on ER playing a human who really was monstrous.) For the first half of the episode, no crime has been committed and Leonard’s subsequent deaths are done basically to survive and with genuine regret each time. Who among us can ever forget him saying to a chain smoker he’s about to kill: “I’m very sorry, but you’ve got something I need.”
Of course, that’s not the reason we forget. Near the end of the episode, Scully finds out that Leonard, who they think has escaped is actually on top of the ambulance she’s in. We immediately roll our eyes thinking, “Oh joy, Scully’s in danger.” And the irony is she is — but not the way we think. Before Leonard approaches, he says exactly what he said to the smoker. And it hits Scully — and the audience — like a ton of bricks. Scully has the presence of mind to fend off Betts, but she doesn’t tell Mulder what she said. The problem is, she won’t be able to forget. The last scene of the episode shows her in bed, just having coughed up blood.
This was a triumph that would have stunned both those viewers who had first been exposed the series with this episode — and those, like me, who were long time viewers. Because as a reminder, these things didn’t happen to character on TV series in the 1990s. The fact the writers had essentially told us in a mythology episode nearly two years earlier that this was almost certainly going to happen to Scully was something the viewer either forgot or just didn’t think the writers would follow through on because — this wasn’t going to happen to a show with two leads. I never agreed with much of the arc that followed through Season 4 (I’ll get to in a future post) but you can’t deny the power of it at the time or in hindsight.
Gilligan’s final episode of Season 4 was Small Potatoes, held up by many as one of the greatest episodes in the show’s run. (In a listing of TV Guides 100 greatest episodes of all Time later that year, this episode was on the list.) In it, Gilligan officially takes the baton from Morgan as the show’s comic writer — and Morgan is there to give it to him.
The episode is practically a delight from start to finish, as we go to a delivery room with a mother about to give birth saying that the father of the child is ‘from another planet’. Before we can process this, the baby is born — and she has a tail. The OB-GYN just says: “Oh no, not another one.”
Mulder and Scully are called into investigate, mainly because Mulder thinks aliens are involved. When Mulder questions the mother (played by legendary voice artist Christine Cavanaugh) he asks her why she said the father was from another planet. She acknowledges he was, but he just dropped by her house. The father is, you see, Luke Skywalker. I don’t know what’s more delightful about this scene, Mulder’s face falling or Scully’s wonderful follow-up: “Did he have his light-saber?” (Incidentally, the mother has seen Star Wars nearly four hundred times. Then she was considered a lunatic. Today, she’d have her own YouTube channel.)
Admittedly, there is more going on: all five children have the same father, but four of the families went through artificial insemination. They got to visit the doctor where all the families are complaining (Mulder and Scully are initially mistaken for another unhappy couple). Mulder spots the janitor, who when he bends over and reveals — well, you know — there is the sight of a snipped tail. Mulder asks to talk to him, the janitor says sure and runs away. Before he runs after him and catches him, Duchovny gives a perfectly timed eye roll.
The father is Eddie Van Blundht (Morgan himself) As he keeps saying over and over: ‘The H is silent.’ Now the main problem with this episode, which to be clear is hard to ignore, is that we eventually learn that Eddie is a rapist. Sadly, The X-Files had a lot of problems with the issue with consent in many of its stories (it’s actually a sick joke at the center of Jose Chung, for example) and I can’t deny that the fact that so many of these episodes are ostensibly comedies is something that a lot of fans now (and at the time) had trouble with. I will deal with this in a separate article on the show, but in the case of Small Potatoes, the fact that this is never made obvious is something that had to be done for the sake of the comedy. When I get to the punchline you’ll understand.
Eddie, you see, has the ability to shape-shift. Not like the aliens we’ve seen throughout the episode, but this is something true to how he can use his muscles. As a result, he can take the form of anybody he chooses for a while. In a sense, Eddie is the natural conclusion Gilligan has been working towards in Season Four, as a man who despite the ability to become anyone he can, is still himself. Everything considers Eddie a loser — indeed, the woman who he thought he was Luke Skywalker was his old high school girlfriend, and she still considers him such. He imitates his father to fool Mulder and Scully at one point, and does so basically by having ‘Eddie Senior’, call his son ‘Small Potatoes’. This is terribly sad and indicates just how little love he got.
But to be clear, the episode is a masterpiece when Eddie decides to impersonate Mulder. (Morgan, who plays Eddie, takes another opportunity to tweak him by calling him ‘a damn good looking man’ just before he takes over his life.) Duchovny, as you might guess spends much of the episode playing Eddie-as-Mulder, and its one of his very best performances as the viewer realizes the point. Mulder is a bigger loser than Eddie. He’s the most handsome man in the world, he has geeks for friends, and he hasn’t had the good sense to make a pass at Scully for four years. (I love the scene in Mulder’s apartment where ‘Eddie’ just utterly lays into the spartan lifestyle Mulder has.)
This is also the first episode where the series acknowledges the chemistry between Mulder and Scully (that’s a different column and I’ll get to it) in which Eddie comes to Scully’s apartment with a bottle of wine and asks Scully if they ever talk. The next scene is wonderful, in part because it is fan-service, but also because it turns everything we’ve seen about Scully in peril on its head. I also think this is why Gilligan had to downplay Eddie being a rapist as a storyline; if he had, then we’d be worried about her. Instead, when the real Mulder breaks the door down, just at ‘Mulder’ is about to kiss Scully, this storyline is now a joke as Mulder realizes he has not saved Scully from a danger, but from a kiss.
There’s also something fundamentally sad about Eddie, which we should question. Throughout the episode whenever we see Eddie with another woman (Scully included) he is capable of being charming, sweet and a good listener. We find ourselves questioning whether Eddie thinks he is one not because of what’s wrong with him, but because he believes the hype. At the end of the day, he always comes back to being Eddie no matter how bad things get. When Mulder confront him with the gun, he doesn’t even try to fight back. He just sighs resignedly and shifts his face back to himself. This was a vacation that had to end.
And in a rarity for the show, the ‘monster’ is alive in the end and actually has a conversation with Mulder in which he lays down the facts that the episode has made clear: “I was born a loser, but you’re (Mulder) one by choice. Treat yourself.” Watching Eddie throughout the episode, you get the feeling he might have actually been a better — and certainly happier — Fox Mulder if he’d kept the job. The fact Mulder and Scully both try to dismiss this — and are ignoring everything that happened — just proves how much denial their in — especially about each other.
Gilligan is one of the great talents of television, and if he had only written for The X-Files alone, that would still be the case. To paraphrase Melville, The X-Files were his Harvard and Yale where he would learn the crafts to turn him from ‘only’ one of the greatest writers on genre television to one of the greatest writers on television, period.