Monday, October 17, 2016

Case 02, File 11: Excelsis Dei

AKA: Respect The Elderly, Even When They're The Worst!



Trigger Warning: The inciting incident of this episode is a sexual assault, and while I will try to be respectful of the subject, it's basically impossible to review, or even talk about, this episode without it coming up. If you don't want to read about that, I recommend checking out here and tuning back in for our next episode.

The X-Files doesn't really do sexual assault. I mean, it could in theory, but it doesn't, and that's not really a bad thing. The show never takes itself THAT seriously, with even the darkest episodes featuring a fair amount of levity or humor, and that's not really something you can do with rape. As such it tended to stick to more humorous, wholesome things, like murder (you know what I mean) and leave sexual assault for Gaspar Noe. There are exceptions though, and this is both one of the more notable, and one of the more clumsy.


Excelsis Dei opens with Michelle, a nurse at the titular nursing home, who begins the cold open fending off sexual harassment from the elderly residents and ends it being sexually assaulted by an unseen entity. Scully gets a hold of her case and wants to look into it, but Mulder thinks she's just blanking out the face of her attacker, despite the fact that she can identify him: Arden, the elderly resident who harassed her.

After some digging around, and some truly repulsive behavior from Arden, Mulder is ready to call it quits, until the patient who assaulted Michelle dies suddenly, after surreptitiously taking a pill being used by his roommate. Mulder is still ready to leave, but Scully wants to hang around, certain that something weird is going on, and wants to hang around and figure it out. While they're wandering about, they find that all of the residents have been part of a clinical trial on Alzheimer's, and have been improving rapidly, including one who used to be a painter and Arden's roommate.

Something is rotten in the state of...Massachusetts I guess, as Arden's roommate, furious about being forced to move out of the home and in with his relatives, tries to take off. When an orderly pursues, he winds up getting flung off the roof by an invisible entity, because the invisible entities in this movie are disgruntled customers. Mulder continues his investigation and discovers a room in the basement where one of the orderlies, a man named Gung, has been growing weird mushrooms, as well as the corpse of the last orderly.

Yes, choke you sexist old bastard.
It turns out Gung has been giving the residents medicine from his home country, and that's what's been curing their Alzheimer's, but they've become addicted and since the drug is used to contact the spirit world, the veil between it and this world has been getting thinner, and spirits have been taking revenge on the orderlies who mistreated them. More or less immediately, the shit begins to hit the fan in a major way, as spirits begin showing up and Michelle gets attacked in a bathroom and trapped there with Mulder, as it begins to fill up with water. Meanwhile Arden's roommate has a seizure, which Scully and the local doc manage to quiet down. Once he does, the spirits go away and the episode closes with Scully detailing how the clinical trial got shut down and all the patients regressed back to dementia.

Excelsis Dei is an episode that doesn't seem to understand how to handle its story in a way that could create real tension. It's got theoretically everything it needs to make a good episode, but it fumbles the elements and focuses on the wrong things, in addition to trying to place the sympathy in the wrong places. The result is an episode that's confused and jumbled, with elements that don't gel very well with each other and a moral that doesn't fit with the rest of the story.

The biggest fumble, in my opinion, is what's eventually revealed to be the theme of the episode, the idea that old people should be treated with respect. It's a good moral, one that should pop up more often, but it falls flat because the old people in this episode are horrible. When Arden is being questioned by Mulder and Scully, he harasses and exposes himself to Scully, brushes off the harm inflicted by his harassment of Michelle and just generally acts like an asshole. The others aren't much better, pressuring Gung to give them more medicine or hoarding it like misers.

Yeah, this seems like an appropriate punishment for "Occasionally being rude."
Maybe the theme would land a little more if they were being treated worse, but without meaning to be insensitive, the orderlies aren't being that bad. The residents aren't, as far as we can see, being beaten, starved or frozen, and while the orderlies are occasionally rude, it's nothing that would get you fired from McDonalds. Maybe I'm just more sympathetic because they're explicitly making 5.50 an hour to feed, clothe and bathe them, or maybe it's because the first instance of rude behavior (Michelle strapping Arden into his bed) comes as a response to him groping her without her consent.

Some of this might be excusable if the episode as a whole was better, but it just isn't. It's not without its moments (I really like the reveal of the creepy mural) and the recurring subtext that Scully is taking the rape case a lot more seriously than Mulder is interesting, even if it never develops into anything, but the majority of it is just eh. Aside from the opening sequence (which is an extremely distressing scene, even by X-Files standards) there's no real scares. The big climax just comes off as cartoonish (for fuck's sake, they're trapped in a bathroom with the water rising) and the rest are just cliched. How many times have we seen an invisible entity kill someone, on The X-Files alone?

"When he came to us, he could barely draw a circle!"
"This is not an improvement."
Whatever, it's a bad episode. What makes it more annoying is that it represents the series' one and only attempt to tackle sexual assault as an inciting incident (unless I'm forgetting one), and they completely bungled it. But I think it's actually a good idea that they didn't go trying again. Bad attempts at covering sexual assault do more damage than not covering it at all, and this is a bad attempt, especially since it completely loses interest in Michelle once Mulder and Scully hit the nursing home.

Reading about this episode's backstory just made me sad. There are hints of a better episode in the making of this, such as a draft of the script that focused more on Michelle (she was apparently a lesbian in an early draft, which is kind of beside the point, but at least it's interesting, and could have added another dimension to the hospital's distrust of her) but the episode as a whole is unwilling to commit to either the evil orderlies or the evil old people and ends up just boring.

Case Notes:
  • The nurses watching boxing might as well read "Doing generic guy stuff" in the script.
  • The ghost assault is unusually dark for this show. I don't think that's a complaint though, as the woman who plays Michelle is selling it pretty hard.
  • Okay, not gonna lie, Mulder's porn reference after the opening theme made me laugh. Wait, Mulder watches porn at work?
  • I feel like the episode is trying to treat sexual assault with care. It's not doing super great, but at least it's trying, and the fact that Scully has explicitly been in the office since 6AM researching it is a nice touch.
  • Arden can go fuck himself. Seriously, even outside the whole "Ghost assault," he's sexually harassing Michelle, exposing himself to and harassing Scully, brushing off the harm of it all as being part of the "Sexual harassment fad," that doesn't let "Men speak their minds." He can't die quick enough.
  • I like the repeated hints that Scully is taking this significantly more seriously than Mulder. I dunno how much of that is the script and how much of it is Anderson, but it's a nice touch.
  • I feel like the episode would be better off focusing on Gung. The doctor is spouting gibberish (it's probably real stuff, but it's mostly gibberish to me) and the other nurses and elderly people are just assholes, but Gung seems like he's an interesting character.
  • Okay, the Marble Rye lady is pretty nice too. A little bit of a busy body, but at least I detect a soul.
  • Man, Scully is 100 percent more into this than Mulder. Even when they're leaving, she's coming up with (mostly correct) theories, while he's giving up.
  • Man, given how her superiors ignore her, Michelle gets more sympathetic every scene she's in.
  • Okay, credit where it's due, the reveal of the creepy mural is a very solid shot. And the mural is SUPER creepy.
  • Mulder finds a locked door and just cracks it open with a shovel. Never change Mulder, never change.
  • Gung's backstory might as well read "Generic Asian backstory." He never even says where he's from just says "My country."
  • "The orderlies treat the residents worse than dogs." And the residents treat the orderlies like shit, so fair's fair Gung.
  • Gung's main role in the story (aside from actually, you know, causing it) is to come in the third act and explain everything, but the explanation feels kind of weak, since it was never referenced before now and his lecture about the moral of the episode just falls flat cause of how the residents act.
  • The climax, where Mulder and Michelle are trapped in a bathroom that's filling with water, feels like something out of a cartoon. Especially the end where they come flying out of the bathroom after the door opens.
  • I do like how Stan's daughter is trying to get everyone to drop what they're doing and help him when he's A, the one causing it and B, trying to kill innocent people. He can die too lady.
  • Another (still fairly rare) Scully voiceover is actually an okay way to close out the episode this time, since there's not a lot of stuff to wrap up. I do like that Michelle finally got the money she was owed.
Current Celebrity Watch:

The woman playing Dorthy is Frances Bay, an actress who worked with David Lynch a lot, most notably in Blue Velvet. People of my generation probably know her better as the lady Jerry steals a loaf of Marble Rye from in Seinfeld.

Future Celebrity Watch:

Teryl Rothery, who plays Michelle, would go on to play Janet Frasier in Stargate SG-1. I've never watched it, so I have no idea how big her role was, but I've heard good things about the show.

Audio Observations:

Nothing jumps out at me, but the soundtrack was pretty minimal across the board.

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