Thursday, June 30, 2016

Case 02, File 03: Blood

AKA: No, It's Not a Vampire Episode

The X-Files usually avoided doing episodes that were of their moment in history, which usually worked out for the better. "Ripped From the Headlines" tends to date your story, while except for the the technological limitations, most episodes of The X-Files are timeless. There are a couple of exceptions, most notably The Field Where I Died, which pulled most of its plot from the Waco standoff. But, while Blood doesn't pull much of its plot from then-relevant events, it seems to get dated by its details.

The plot kicks off with our combination villain and victim Ed, a postal worker, who's afraid of blood, being laid off and starts seeing instructions to kill in his readout. Turns out he's not alone, and several people have seen the kill instructions, but unlike Ed, elected to follow them, leading to a series of spree killers, notably a claustrophobic man in an elevator. The famously non-violent town thinks that's weird, and calls in Mulder to investigate, while e-mailing Scully for advice.

While Mulder is trying to figure out what's going on, a lady starts getting kill orders from a screen at a repair garage and kills the mechanic. Mulder finds the lady who did it, but she attacks him and is killed by Mulder's cop friend. Meanwhile, Ed is still getting kill orders and is growing more and more unstable, eventually buying a rifle.

Mulder keeps digging, and figures out, with the help of the Lone Gunmen and Scully's autopsy, that the county is being sprayed with LSDM (basically LSD that makes you scared) to stop flies from damaging the crops and it's working in combination with orders from computer screens to convince people to kill, as part of some sort of bizarre experiment.

No, no, no, it's Kill THEM All. Just because you're telling people to kill doesn't mean you can skip grammar.
The county begins blood testing people to determine who's likely to go crazy, which sets off Ed, and he heads off to the local college blood drive to start sniping people from the clocktower. Mulder gets up there, and wrestles him to the ground, putting an end to the entire experiment, with him receiving a last sign off from the conspiracy on his cellphone.

In addition to the aforementioned dating via some very oddly placed details, Blood also suffers from the old affliction of being too similar to another, better, episode. In this case it bears too close a resemblance to the season 3 episode Wetwired, which winds up being a much better execution of the same basic concept. Blood isn't bad, but it suffers in comparison, and the dated cultural references certainly don't help.

The biggest issue comes in the story structure. The episode has a good concept, but damages it with a sloppy story structure. On some level, the episode anticipates it, giving itself a plot that allows for new murders to just sort of happen, allowing Mulder to react to it, but even outside that, it feels like it's loosely constructed. The explanation for what's going on is just handed to us, 10 minutes before the end of the episode, and then gets immediately dropped to get the climax going. Mulder discovers the mayor was illegally dropping pesticides on the town, and it was just dropped.

"I know you're both armed with guns, but I have elected to try and kill you with a knife, because I'm bad at murder."
Which is a shame, because the episode is pretty clever, conceptually. The premise of having a conspiracy randomly turning people into killers is a nice horror concept, especially with the creepy addition of the instructive messages (which is the episode's one major advantage over Wetwired). It also has a couple of nicely visceral action beats, and a generally good sense of atmosphere.

Okay, Blood does have one other major thing over Wetwired and that is a central non-Mulder/Scully character. Ed is a minor part of the episode, but a very strong one. William Sanderson is excellent in the role, doing a good job at selling Ed's slowly dissolving stability. He starts out as a mild mannered postal employee and ends up atop a clocktower, trying to mow down civilians, but Sanderson sells it so well that the progression feels natural, and we even see hints of the character we saw initially inside the raving madman at the end of the episode.

Outside of Sanderson's performance, Ed winds up in an interesting position. He's halfway between being the villain of the episode, and being the victim of the conspiracy, which is an interesting place for a character to be (I seem to recall the season seven episode Hungry pulling a similar trick, albeit with a much heavier focus on the monster). I mentioned way back in Fallen Angel that having a human face to put on the machinations of the conspiracy is a good move, and it works pretty well here. Watching as a fundamentally decent guy be slowly turned into a killer is a good way to make us dislike the people doing it to him.

"...Anyone else seeing this brainwashing footage? Just me?"
Outside of that, the episode does have its issues though. Scully is barely in the episode, even less than the previous two, and her appearances feel very perfunctory. The exposition is clunky and obvious, although some of it is well delivered so I'll try to be forgiving It's also really heavy on the dated references. Not stuff that anyone necessarily will have forgotten, but stuff that puts it very firmly in its moment in time, which doesn't help.

The episode as a whole is based on the malathion spraying controversy of the time (I'd say look it up, but it's not particularly interesting) which gets name dropped at one point. But there are other things, such as a persistent, and very weird, use of the OJ Simpson murder trial as a reference point for awful things. Ripping storylines from current events doesn't need to be bad (as I mentioned above, very good season 4 episode will take a lot of inspiration from the Waco standoff) but here it's just weird. The malathion thing was so limited in scope that most people probably forgot it (or never knew about it) and while OJ's trial remains a very well known moment in history, it's not like it has a ton to do with the episode.

Whatever, the episode isn't great (certainly not the equal of the previous one) but it's pretty good. It definitely has its moments, and a couple of very effective scenes (the scene in the garage in particular is very well shot). I feel like it would be better with Scully more in on the action so she could bounce off Mulder, since it would feel less like Mulder is wandering around just doing random shit until he gets to his solution (the episode hands him a sheriff sidekick who is so perfunctory and uninteresting that I basically ignored him this entire review...something I'm going to continue doing). But Gillian Anderson is still unavailable, and you work with what you got. And the result is certainly acceptable.

Case Notes:

  •  I apologize for any typos or issues with the pictures, both my desktop and laptop are down so I had to figure out other ways to get this written, and I don't know other keyboards as well as I do the other two.
  • The guy firing Ed in the cold open is terrible at firing people. I mean, for starters, you wait till Friday to fire people.
  • I know claustrophobia is a real thing, but even before the crazy messages start showing up, the elevator guy is a wreck. How do you get through daily life with that little resistance to being in an elevator.
  • Mulder looks strangely dejected at the crime scene.
  • Since colonial times there have only been three murders in that town? Nah-uh, calling bullshit on that.
  • Uh, X-Files? Small town people definitely drink and do drugs. Trust me on that, I've been to towns of 4,000 with huge alcohol problems.
  • It takes forever for Ed to break under the brainwashing messages, which actually goes to prove how strong willed he is.
  • The scene in the garage is actually really well shot, and uses light and shadow really well. Color me impressed.
  • Up until the point where the readout was advising the lady to kill the garage guy, it was actually giving good advice. He is totally lying to bilk her out of more money.
  • This episode has the least amount of Scully yet, which is very depressing to me.
  • Jesus, the lady's adrenaline levels were 200 times normal? How did her heart not explode?
  • With the exception of Manson, all of the brainwashing images on the TVs in the not-Wal-Mart are incredibly tied to the 90s. LA riots, Wako, OJ Simpson. Maybe that's why this episode isn't super well regarded.
  • Holy crap, it's the Lone Gunmen, I totally forgot they were in this episode.
  • "Guy who spreads poisoned flies" has got to be one of the worst job descriptions ever.
  • Also in our "Exposition drop" segments is Byers rant about DDT. Yes, DDT was real and yes it was awful, but there's no way Mulder wouldn't be aware of it, it was purely for the audience.
  • The fact that the county is being illegally sprayed by LSDM is proven and then just completely dropped.
  • I wonder what it says about me that, when Mulder was seeing the "Just Do It" ad, I half expected it to end with "Examine your scalp for ringworm."
  • Mulder and Scully wander into Ed's house without anything resembling probable cause. I expect this from Mulder, but I am surprised at Scully.
  • Speaking as someone who's used bolt-action rifles before, Ed is handling the rifle really badly. He's also a really bad shot, but in the context of the story, I think that's a bad thing.
  • Mulder got something akin to the first text, from the conspiracy, and it's such a middle finger.
Current Celebrity Watch:

Again, I feel like I'm stretching the definition again, but Ed is played William Sanderson, who played J.F. Sebastian in Blade Runner. It's a minor enough role that I normally wouldn't mention it, but it IS my favorite movie, so I feel obligated.

Slightly more unique is the fact that the woman who murders the mechanic is played by Ashlyn Gere, who was at the time a reasonably well known Adult Film Star. She stopped working around the time I was 13, so I'd never heard of her before, but it's at least interesting. She was also apparently on something called Space: Above and Beyond, which I normally wouldn't mention, but there were several other X-Files alums on it (both Harriet Sansom Harris from Eve and Doug Hutchinson from Squeeze/Tooms were on it, and several of the main cast members are going to pop up here and there).

Future Celebrity Watch:

What, my incredibly detailed Current Celebrity section didn't satisfy you?

Audio Observations:

I actually have one this week: I get what they were going for, but using the same audio cue for every message from a machine means that it begins to loose its efficacy by the end of the episode, especially since they do a separate one for each shot. By the end of the episode it was starting to feel kind of silly.

No comments:

Post a Comment