Thursday, May 19, 2016

Case 01, File 23: Roland

AKA: Gold Medalist in the Gross Ways to Die Event

I mentioned a couple episodes back that The X-Files has an awkward history of addressing non-white races, and I was all prepped to say the same thing about its attempts to address people who are mentally challenged, but that might be a little unfair, because that issue is far from isolated to The X-Files. The Hollywood system means that people who have mental challenges rarely get to write, direct or act their own stories, so its left to writers trying to write them from the outside, which can lead to an over-reliance on cliches and ugly stereotypes, which can not only perpetuate said stereotypes but can damage the overall story the writer are trying to tell.

Roland opens at an aerodynamics lab, where a group of scientists are trying to crack Mach 15. When their latest experiment is a failure, one of them remains behind, when their mentally challenged janitor Roland, locks him in the room, turns on the turbine and finishes the equations while the scientist gets sucked into the turbine (gross). Mulder and Scully get called in on the thinnest of pretexts (they drop some quick nonsense about it being a top secret, government funded, project) and we're off to the races.

As Roland was the last person in and out of the room, our heroes go to talk to him and find out if he could be responsible for either the death or the finished equations, but he has violent visions that look like a fit and Mulder and Scully leave, Mulder stealing some of his writing to compare writing samples, but they don't match, so Mulder and Scully abandon the theory. But it turns out they shouldn't because the moment they do, Roland goes in, murders the other scientist by sticking his head in liquid nitrogen (also gross) and then proceeds to finish up some of the last of the equations.

Mulder and Scully, after being surprisingly glib about the guy's death, begin to investigate the death of one of the scientists who died a few months ago, and after some digging, find out that he sought out Roland specifically, and begin to believe that the dead scientist (named Arthur) faked his death and is manipulating Roland to knock off the other scientists, a theory that is quickly nixed when they find out that Arthur has been reduced to a cryogenically frozen head in a jar. Meanwhile Roland is still having violent visions and trying to keep himself from hurting other members of his house.

"Help! My death is going to be memorable but also kind of silly!"
It turns out Arthur and Roland were twins and his head is psychically controlling Roland, something Mulder puts together when he's interrogating Roland and Roland bolts. Roland returns to the lab, to finish Arthur's calculations, while the last surviving scientist figures out what's going on and sabotages Arthur's head-jar. Roland finishes the calculations, gets the engine finished and tries to kill the last surviving scientist for...stealing his work? I dunno, that's pretty vague, but Mulder and Scully arrive, convince Roland to stop him and Roland is taken off in an unusually somber ending.

I expected to really dislike this episode from my memories of it, but upon watching it, I found that it's not without its charms. It's not a classic or even an exceptionally good episode, but it has its moments, a couple truly memorable deaths and a great lead performance from Zeljko Ivanek, which manages to overcome a weak script and a directionless plot.

Okay, that's not entirely fair, the plot is better than some other recent episodes. I mentioned in the last episode that it failed to use the asymmetry of information in an interesting way, but it actually manages to use it okay this time around. The audience knows Roland is responsible for the murders, but we don't know why he's doing it or how he's doing the rocket science, so we get the tension of know who's doing it while still getting to join Mulder and Scully on their investigation. So that works okay.

I'd hate to have to be the guy who has to put down tape indicating where pieces of head went.
Outside of that though, the plot is kind of meandering. Aside from its (admittedly memorable) death sequences, and a solidly memorable involving sequence involving Roland and his care home semi-romantic interest, Tracy (more on that in a moment) the plot mostly consists of Mulder and Scully standing around waiting for enough pieces to put the puzzle together. There's some minor procedural stuff, and a quick bit involving Mulder figuring out a password, but that's about it. Aside from figuring out that Roland is the murderer and why, they don't participate much, although Scully talking Roland down by appealing to Roland (as opposed to both Mulder and the last surviving scientist, who appealed to Arthur) is a nice touch.

In a way, I'm not surprised that the episode is named after Roland, because he's definitely the star. Ivanek brings it hard in the role, and while he does indulge in some tiresome cliches about mentally challenged people, he manages to find a lot of humanity at the center of the character. Outside of the death scenes, the most memorable moment of the episode is when Arthur is trying to force Roland to hurt or kill Tracy, which is memorable because Ivanek is so intensely into the moment.

Unfortunately the episode manages to let down his performance in a couple of ways. The biggest, from where I'm sitting, is the massive let down in what turns out to be Arthur's motivation. I kept expecting to hear that one of the other scientists was responsible for his car crash or something similar, but no, he's just annoyed that he's not getting credit for his work after his death, which just turns him into a petty douchebag and kind of kills the momentum of Ivanek's performance. The episode tries to excuse this with a brief bit of exposition about Arthur loving elaborate pranks, but it doesn't help.

"This is where we're keeping Arthur. It turns out he's not out for revenge, he's just a dickbag."
It's also not a very well written episode, outside of its handling of the mystery. Its dialogue and character work are clunky, and the episode is so overloaded with exposition it starts leaking out at every turn, occasionally in some extremely odd places. Right after the liquid nitrogen death Scully starts explaining what liquid nitrogen does to a person and it's just such an odd thing to feel you need to explain.

It's a bit of a shame. The plot is reasonably well handled, it's centered around a great performance, and we're beginning to see some of that weird creativity that would underpin a lot of the best episodes of the series. With a little more attention to detail, or maybe just another run through on the script, we might have had a legitimately great episode here, as the season winds down. Instead, we're left with an episode that's merely okay.

Case Notes:
  • Poor safety precautions is what allows the death at the beginning of this episode to happen. It also gave us Dr. Manhattan so I guess the lesson is to make sure your crazy experiment has the proper safety precautions.
  • Heh, Mulder and Scully discussing a wedding Scully attended at the beginning is cute, I like it.
  • Can I use Good Will Hunting as a verb? Roland Good Will Hunting'd the math on the board.
  • This episode is trying so hard to be sensitive about the mentally challenged thing, and it's failing so badly.
  • Hey, handwriting analysis, IE actual police work. Handwriting analysis is mostly bullshit from what I understand, but police work happens so very rarely in this show, that I'll take it.
  • Heh, one of the scientists is listening to rock music on his headphone while working. That's a fun little detail.
  • My knowledge of how mentally challenged people have been treated in America throughout history is limited, but Roland's backstory seems unlikely.
  • I feel like Arthur's backstory of being fond of elaborate schemes is unnecessary. Fun, but unnecessary. Revenge from beyond the grave doesn't need backstory.
  • I had totally forgotten Arthur's head is being cryogenically preserved. That's totally awesome.
  • God this seasons is fond of the computer program that allows you to generate or alter a person's appearance.
  • I dunno if Mulder is making the dream up to get information out of Roland, but I hope not, it's a good moment of characterization.
  • Nolette manages to conceal his ID card's identity when he turns off Arthur's capsule by putting a chewing gum wrapper on it. That's so absurd that I'm not even mad.
  • Roland writing math equations with both hands at once is similarly so patently absurd that I love it.
  • Why would the cryo freezing place call Scully to tell her about the sabotage? I guess just to move the plot forward, whatever.
  • Nolette just rolls with Arthur controlling Roland's body. No disbelief or anything, just "Alright, now this is happening, gotta handle it."
  • Wait, I thought I remembered that Nolette or someone was responsible for Arthur's death. They're not? He's just being a dick about not getting credit after he's dead? What the hell?
  • By the second time it happens, I absolutely refuse to believe there's no way to shut off the turbine from inside the tunnel.
  • When they're trying to save Nolette, they ask Roland how to shut off the tubine, but couldn't they ask Nolette? Yeah he's probably distracted by hanging from the wire thing for his life, but he's also motivated to get them the information.
  • The Tracy/Roland relationship is sweet, but I wish it got more screen time, it feels kind of underdeveloped.
  • The bit where Roland combs his hair to look like Arthur's is an odd beat to end the episode on. I get what they were going for, but it's only repeat viewings that I figured it out, and it doesn't really land either way.
Current Celebrity Watch:

Straddling the line between current and future celebrity is Zeljko Ivanek, one of those really great TV actors who works all the time because he's really good. At the time he was best known for playing Ed Danvers on Homicide: Life on the Street. Nowadays he's hanging around Madame Secretary with Duchovny's ex-wife Tea Leoni. He's also wound up in a lot of great movies over the years (Dogville, Seven Psychopaths, Argo).

Future Celebrity Watch:

This is stretching the definition of "Future Celebrity" to its limits, but I can't help but note it: Kerry Sandomirsky, who plays Roland's semi-love interest Tracy, will wander her way back onto this show 2 seasons down the line in 2Shy.

Audio Observations:

The sad piano music that plays over the opening is interesting. I'm certain it'll pop up later, and it's possible it popped up before and I didn't notice. It's a pretty enough theme, and it certainly works to establish the mood quickly. Maybe when I have a little more money and time, I'll track down the soundtrack to figure out the song titles.

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