Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Case 02, File 04: Sleepless

AKA: Not in Seattle Though

The X-Files
' has a tendency to dehumanize it's villains, even its more human villains. That's not really a complaint, most of them ARE literal monsters, but it occasionally struck me as a missed opportunity. Some of the best episodes are ones where we got to see inside the mind of the monster. And even when we don't devote the episode to it, the episodes are usually better when we get some insight into the monster, even when they're not particularly sympathetic.

Sleepless kicks off with a doctor named Grissom getting trapped in a fire in his apartment, eventually dying, despite the fact that there wasn't actually a fire. Mulder gets a tip that he should check it out, but he gets assigned to work with a green agent named Krycek, who Mulder immediately tries to ditch, so he can check out Grissom's sleep lab. But when Scully examines Grissom's body she finds that his body has all the secondary characteristics of a body that burned to death, with no damaged skin.

Meanwhile, a Vietnam vet named Henry meets a slightly deranged acting former comrade of his, who talks about all the horrible things they did together, and then summons some phantoms of dead Vietnamese soldier to shoot him. Mulder finds his body, only to discover that his body reacted like it was shot, without the actual bullets. Some detective work later, they find out that Grissom and Henry were together on Parris Island before Henry was sent off to Vietnam, and go out to find the last survivor of Henry's squad Augustus Cole (AKA Preacher), only to discover that A, he's in isolation in a mental institution for disturbing other people's sleep and B, he disappeared.

"I'm here to betray everyone I work with and chew bubblegum. And I'm all outta bubblegum."
At this point X, the mysterious figure who has been helping Mulder finally appears, and gives Mulder files on Henry's squad, telling him that his squad was given surgery so they didn't need to sleep, that they had a combined kill count of over 4,000 and that one other member of the squad is still alive. The police corner Preacher, but he causes two of the officers to shoot each other, and escapes. Mulder and Krycek go and talk to the last survivor, who talks about all the horrible things they did in 'Nam.

This leads Mulder to his theory: That Preacher's lack of sleep gave him the ability to project his dreams onto other people, causing illusions so intense they can kill. Mulder and Krycek figure he's after Girardi the other doctor who worked on them, wanting to punish everyone who was involved. They rush to Grand Central to save Girardi, but Preacher uses his powers to capture Girardi and escape. Mulder tracks him down and saves Girardi, but Krycek shoots Preacher. Oh and then he steals all the files Mulder had on the squad before anyone can be punished for what they did to the soldiers, because it turns out he's working for the Conspiracy!

Sleepless rarely turns up on the list of great X-Files episodes, but for my money it's pretty great. It's a cool concept, well executed and based around a fantastic performance from Tony Todd as Preacher. It dips its toes in some cliches, IE the guilt the culture felt about Vietnam (rightly so I might add) but it never feels like those cliches are weighing it down.

I wanted to get a screenshot of this scene because it's just so cool, but most of the memorable parts are uh...pretty grim.
I mentioned Tony Todd's performance a moment ago, so he's as good a place to start. The X-Files rarely, if ever, pulled big names for its secondary characters, but Tony Todd is only big in certain circles, so he's not really an exception (in the same vein, they'll pull Bruce Campbell in a few seasons down the line). And damn if Tony Todd doesn't bring it. He gives an incredibly intense performance throughout the episode, alternating being righteous fury and exhausted despair, even if the despair is pushed off to the margins for most of the episode.

Outside of Todd's great performance, the episode has a fairly solid number of things going for it on the technical side. The mystery is a little too easy to figure out (it starts pushing the sleep thing too hard too early, which is a major tip off) but the death sequences are well realized and edited, and the script is well written. It also moves at a good pace, hopping from plot point to plot point without stopping in any major way, but never feeling like it's moving too quickly. I think the rather lengthy death scenes allow the script to slow a bit, and give the surrounding plot some impact.

And then there's the two major arrivals in this episode, X and Krycek. Both of them would alter the series in some very profound way, so let's address them both. First is X, who is Mulder's new informer, replacing the recently departed Deep Throat. X was, as far as informers go, a very different animal to Deep Throat. Whereas Deep Throat was something akin to a father figure to Mulder, gently pushing him this way or that, X always seemed much more resentful of his role, often being surly or outright violent towards Mulder. He also lasted a lot longer than Deep Throat, so maybe being a jerk is a good survival strategy. Steven Williams always managed to make the role his own though, giving his character a resentful edge that made him a memorable element of the show.

"I'm not even in this episode and I'm totally fed up with everyone's bullshit."
And then there's Krycek. Over the weekend, in conversation with a friend, I said that Alex Krycek betrays people like it's a bodily function, and I stand by it. Krycek is mostly, in this episode at least, a body to give Mulder someone to bounce ideas off of, but he'll become a major player in the conspiracy, alternately working for and against the larger conspiracy, basically depending on the episode. By the end of the series, he had amounted to a plot fixer, wandering in whenever it was convenient, so that he could do whatever the writers needed him to do to move the plot forward. Which might have been a bigger problem if Nicholas Lea wasn't such a joy to watch. He's not given much to work with this episode, but he'll grow into the character as the series goes on.

The episode isn't perfect. Scully's absence is still felt very keenly, at least by me, and the logic leaps to how Preacher got his power set don't make a ton of sense to me, but I can roll with both those things. Sleepless is a fine little episode, tense and engaging and anchored with a great performance. It's not the best episode, but it's a good way of setting up the upcoming three episodes, and the season as a whole.

Case Notes:
  • Vancouver has a remarkable ability to look like a lot of other cities, but it begins to run thin a tiny bit if you know the city it's pretending to be. What I'm saying is, I don't buy the shots of Vancouver pretending to be NYC is the opening.
  • I like how X doesn't give Mulder any chance of not getting the clue. Article is circled, tape is included, you will understand what I'm telling you Mulder.
  • This show has such contempt for Mulder's run of the mill assignments that it can't help but make them appear awful. All of his wiretap recording we hear sounds just so very dull.
  • It's hard for me to be unbiased about Krycek, given what I know about him, but I think Mulder is acting like a douche to him for no real reason.
  • Hey, Grissom worked in Stamford, CT. I live near there, and I've worked in Stamford before. This doesn't add anything, it's just a note.
  • The fact that Grissom works at a sleep clinic is such a clear giveaway at what's going on, especially when the lady starts dropping exposition on sleep disturbances.
  • Okay, leaving Krycek in DC while Mulder jets off to NYC is a fairly major dick move, no two ways about it.
  • Scully is a lot more open minded about weird theories now that she's not hanging with Mulder anymore. She even proposes the solution to the episode.
  • Tony Todd is really intense as Preacher, but the guy playing Henry manages to sell his misery pretty well too.
  • The sequence with the dead Vietnamese guys killing Henry is really good, very creepy, very unsettling.
  • Mulder acts the doctor treating Preacher how he would disrupt the other patients' sleep, and the doctor just flat out refuses to answer. Rude.
  • I'd forgotten how much of a complete dickbag X is.
  • The squad got 4,000 fucking kills? A 13 man squad? Fucking hell, that is goddamn insane.
  • Heh, X says he's not willing to die to help Mulder. I have got some bad news for you friend.
  • The episode is pretty into it's premise, but it kind of skips over how Preacher developed his psychic powers. It's just "He's been awake for a while, he can project his dreams, deal with it."
  • Mulder and Scully so clearly miss each other in their conversation about Krycek. It's sweet.
  • This episode is pretty dark, both thematically and content wise. We don't get a lot of gore, but otherwise, it's pretty grim all around.
  • Okay, the episode does a not-terrible job at disguising Vancouver as NYC, but that completely falls apart when they start pretending the train station is Grand Central; It looks nothing like Grand Central.
  • I honestly wish the episode was more focused on Preacher. Tony Todd is so compelling as the character, but his regretful, tired element only seems to come out at the end and I wish we'd seen more of it.
Current Celebrity Watch:

Our Villain this week is, as mentioned above, is played by veteran actor Tony Todd. He was best known at the time for playing the villain in the Candyman franchise (he would go on to a major role in the Final Destination movies, but I'm not a huge fan of those). He's the kind of regular actor who turns up in a ton of stuff (his wikipedia page lists everything from Hatchet to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) and even when it's not good (see...well the previous two examples) he's very good in it. And he's really excellent here.

Future Celebrity Watch:

Nothing this week.

Audio Observations:

The soundtracks on the kill sequences is really solid, brooding and intense. We are only a couple episodes out from my first real audio observation, so thank you for bearing with us.

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