Monday, April 11, 2016

Case 01, File 19: Shapes

AKA: The Lone Ranger and Wolfman Fistfight in Heaven

The X-Files has a, shall we say, spotty history of depicting other cultures. It tries its hardest, but more often than not it fumbles. It never tips over the line into outright racism though, and given that it screws up other myths just a frequently (made the Jersey Devil into a cave person, remember?) that its occasional slip ups read as charming, rather than offensive. At least when the episode is good.

Shapes jumps right into the action when a rancher and his son living in Montana shoot what they think is a wild animal while trying to defend their cattle but it turns out to be a Native American guy named Joe Goodensnake. Mulder and Scully are called in to investigate, I assume to solve the various issues that come with jurisdiction between tribal police and regular police.

But Mulder has ulterior motives, predicting them finding stuff like shed human skin and Joe having wolf teeth, even as he butts heads with the tribal sheriff and the victim's sister, Gwen. Eventually he reveals that he'd expected this based on some early X-Files, but seems like he won't be able to prove it as the victim's body is being cremated. But then, dun dun dun, the rancher is violently attacked,  Gwen is missing and the rancher's son is found asleep, naked, outside the house, which no one seems to think is weird.

Scully takes the rancher's kid to the hospital while Mulder and the local sheriff go and consult wit the local old wise man (because of course they have one). Mulder discovers that the old wise man (named Ish, and he's awesome) saw the subject of Mulder's old X-File changing into a wolfman back in the day, at which point Gwen wanders back into the plot and tells how she saw the rancher get attacked.

I had a funny caption planned here, but I can't remember it, Scully's face is just too funny to me.
Okay, home stretch: Mulder tries to contact Scully and finds out that the rancher's kid had traces of his dad's blood in him, which could only get there via ingestion (ew). Surprise, surprise, the son transforms into a wolfman and attacks Scully, Mulder comes to the rescue, the sheriff shoots him and Mulder and Scully wander on back to Washington DC, with Ish delivering a very Twin Peaks-ish last line.

Shapes is not a great episode by any measure, but it's one I've always been fond of. It's got some major issues, especially in terms of how it portrays Natives (although, the Native Alaskans I knew didn't seem particularly unhappy with how it portrayed Natives so maybe it's not terrible? I don't have much to work with here, if you want to write in, please do) but it's got a solid number of good points too, and I generally enjoy watching it. Previously I could just leave it at that, but now that I'm doing this blog, I have to back engineer that feeling, so away we go.

"You aren't going to try and solve cases by throwing rocks at jars are you?"
Well, on the list of things I really like about it is definitely not the story. It's not terrible, just predictable and cliched. It tries to give the audience a bit of the runaround in terms of who the culprit turns out to be, and it does try to push its monsters closer to Native American Skin-Walkers rather than straight werewolves. But at the end of the day, the story is a pretty straightforward werewolf narrative, with Native American elements slotted into the gaps. 

The script is up and down, never quite finding a balance between the conceptually silly story and the serious tone (the best X-Files scripts are able to walk that line very well). The best parts of the script, hell the episode, are the interactions with the Natives, to the point where when the white guys wander back into the plot, the episode almost always grinds to a halt. The Native dialogue crackles with subtext and nuance, with the Natives being openly (and rightfully) distrustful of the Federal Government, as well as Gwen's grief for her brother and the Sheriff having to keep the tribe trusting him. The white dudes just feel kinda bad about shooting Joe Goodensnake.

I think the element that gives it more of a boost than any other is the cast. The Native cast are all incredibly game for what amounts to a very silly script. Being totally invested in talking about how you saw a werewolf as a kid takes a lot of work, and it takes even more work to make it an intense and engaging monologue. I'm continually disappointed that none of the Native actors worked much after this episode (one notable exception aside). And while the Native cast are all clear standouts, even the pair of white dudes are pretty good, if not exactly jaw dropping.

"Oh god, I saw Johnny Depp playing Tonto, oh god."

Maybe what works more than anything about the episode is subtle: Direction and atmosphere. The dark visual style and grey rainy background give the episode a consistent visual tone that enhances the already dark story. The episode's handful of monster moments look pretty good, in a dark, concealed "We didn't have much of a budget, so the monster looks like shit" kind of way. Art from adversity and all that.

So the episode's not exactly anything great, but it remains one I always look forward to on a rewatch. It's well paced and engaging, with some good acting and visual styling across the board. It's not enough to make up for the deficiencies in the story and script, but it's enough to keep said deficiencies from sinking it. It is, in other words, quintessential early X-Files.

Case Notes:

  • I promise I won't explain my jokes too often, but this one is important: The AKA title is a reference to Sherman Alexie's book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which was adapted into the movie Smoke Signals, which included in the case the voice of Pocahontas (and fellow Anchorage native) Irene Bedard. They're both excellent and I recommend you check them out.
  • The dialogue-less opening of this episode is pretty effective overall.
  • You can tell this is an unrealistic show, because everyone is actually concerned about the death of a Native American.
  • Hey, brief reference to the 1973 Wounded Knee incident. I could spend several paragraphs ranting about that, but let's just say it was a clusterfuck of legendary proportions.
  • I love the contrast between how much the Parkers are willing to trust Mulder and Scully, vs. how cynical and closed off the Natives are.
  • There's got to be some local statute about cremating a body before its murder trial is resolved, but Sheriff Tskany doesn't give a fuck.
  • Mulder wanders into this episode carrying a sign reading "It's werewolves" from the word go.
  • All of the Native actors in this episode are killing it, Renae Morriseau and Michael Horse in particular.
  • They work pretty hard to keep the werewolf off screen as much as possible this episode. I know it's because the effect looks like shit, but it works for the episode to keep it mysterious.
  • Hey, brief continuity reference to Scully's dad dying. Those don't happen often.
  • The scene where Sheriff Tskany and Mulder go and talk to Ish is really solid. Jimmy Herman is great, and the slow zoom in on him is really solid too.
  • The doctor is really nonchalant about informing Mulder that Lyle had somehow ingested his dad's blood type.
  • The transformation sequence has some damned good special effects for an early 90s TV show. It's a shame the fully transformed werewolf looks so silly. 
Current Celebrity Watch:

Sheriff Tskany is played by Michael Horse, best known for playing Deputy Hawk in Twin Peaks (I told you, a huge chunk of Twin Peaks' cast shows up in The X-Files). And while neither of them really got big roles after this, Jimmy Herman, who plays Ish, had a minor role in Dances With Wolves and Renae Morriseau who played Gwen Goodensnake, will show up later in the series.

Future Celebrity Watch:

Uh... I  guess Ty Miller, who played the werewolf, had a recurring role on Without a Trace? I have never heard of that show before, so I have no idea if his role was a big one.

Audio Observations:

I guess the sound design is okay?

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