Monday, October 31, 2016

Case 02, File 12: Aubrey

AKA: There's No One Named Aubrey In This Episode

While The X-Files usually tends to have more fantastical subject matter (I mean our last episode was about old people using mushrooms to become spirits to attack people), a lot of the more notable episodes tended to bring things down, downplaying or even removing the supernatural elements. These episodes tend to stand out a little more, since they go against the grain of the average X-Files episode. And while I could just as easily be talking about the next episode, I have another intro in mind for that episode, so it falls to this one.

Aubrey opens in the titular town of Aubrey, Missouri (which isn't a real place, but never mind) where a horrible murder has just taken place, but the Sheriff, Tillman, and one of his detectives, B.J., are distracted by the fact that their affair has resulted in B.J. being pregnant. Tillman and B.J. head out to a hotel to discuss it, but a vision tells B.J. to head on our into the middle of a field where she discovers a body. Mulder and Scully get called in when it's discovered that the body belongs to one of a pair of FBI Agents from the 40s who were out in Missouri investigating a serial killer, and it's off to the races.

Things get more complicated when Tillman realizes that the details of the murders from the 40s, that of a woman being murdered with a razor and having the word "Sister" carved into her chest, match the murder that just happened, and that the FBI agent was killed in the same way (only with Brother carved into his chest). The murder immediately expands into murders, when another body is found, and B.J. recognizes it from the dreams she's been having.

Mulder and Scully begin investigating B.J.'s dreams, while B.J. begins checking out mugshots, and recognizes one Harry Cokely from her dream. It turns out Cokely was arrested and convicted for sexually assaulting a woman and carving "Sister" into her chest...back in 1945. Mulder and Scully go investigate him, only to find him elderly and tied to an oxygen tank. Meanwhile, B.J. awakens to discover that "Sister" has been carved on her chest and sees a young Cokely in her bedroom. She responds to this, rather reasonably, by having another vision, heading to some random lady's house and discovering the bones of the other missing FBI Agent under the floorboards of the basement.

"Hey Scully, we're examining dental records. It's almost like we're real law enforcement!"
After talking with B.J., Mulder and Scully decide that it's time to talk to the woman Cokely assaulted, Mrs. Thibedeaux, where Mulder intuits that she had a child as a result of the assault, and theorizes that Cokely's grandchild is responsible for the current murders. That's when the big twist hits: B.J. is the grandchild! Mulder figures out she's going after Mrs. Thibedeaux, which she is initially, but changes her mind and goes after Cokely. Mulder rushes to stop her, but instead arrives in time to capture her, and the episode ends with her in jail and Scully musing that her pregnancy might have been the catalyst for her getting Cokely's personality.

After a rash of mediocre or messy episodes following One Breath, we finally get back to what The X-Files does best, making solid horror with a unique hook and engaging direction. It's one of those episodes where it doesn't anything exceptionally great I doubt Aubrey will make anyone's top 10 best episodes ever, but right here, it's a great reminder of why I love The X-Files.

It's a sign of how good the episode's writing is that I'm actually not convinced the hook is that great. On paper, it's a variation on the "Revenge from beyond the grave," conceit that was so popular last season, and the added element, that of B.J. inheriting Cokely's evil, is just silly on the face of it. The script and the actors do a lot to make up the difference though, with the script focusing more on the mystery than the actual supernatural goings on. Hell, up until the revelation that B.J. is Cokely's descendant, the only supernatural element is B.J.'s visions, which by X-Files standards is basically nothing.

They never do come up with a solid explanation for how this happened.
The other major element that gives the episode a huge boost is the acting. Deborah Strang in particular is giving a great performance as B.J. (she was submitted for Emmy consideration for the performance). She's the focus for most of the episode and she has to hold up a lot of scenes on her own, like her initial finding of the body or her waking up with the word on her chest, and she manages to sell her panic and horror basically all on her own. She even manages to do really well playing B.J. at the end when she's gone full Cokely, although I wish she hadn't decided to do the Psycho Growl, as I think the dialogue would have been all the more disconcerting coming out of B.J.'s normal voice.

Also worthy of note is Morgan Woodward as Cokely. He doesn't actually DO anything as Cokely mind, since he plays the old version, confined to a chair and dying. But given that all he does is sit in a char and talk, he does it incredibly, oozing menace with every word. When he's on screen, snarling and creepily calling Scully "Little sister," it's hard to watch anyone else. By comparison, Terry O'Quinn, and even Mulder and Scully, kind of get lost in the shuffle, as Tillman doesn't seem to do a whole hell of a lot, and Mulder and Scully only seem to get involved in the plot towards the end.

That might sound like a slam on the script, but it's not. For the most part the script is extremely well written, finding small moments to build on B.J.'s character, as well as Mulder and Scully's. It also does a good job communicating a lot of character in a short time frame, especially in the cold opening. It begins to fall down on that count in the third act, when it begins barreling towards it's conclusion and Mulder begins making some wild logical leaps to get us to our answer, but that's a minor thing, especially when the episode is running on a time limit. Plus Mulder making absurd logical leaps is like, 2/3rds of what everyone loves about The X-Files.

"Why would Clorox give me a burn that looks exactly like Cokely's face rash?"
"Cause the director thought it looked cool, now shut up."
Combined with some good direction, especially in the beginning and ending, the episode is one of those good episodes that doesn't excel at anything, but does almost everything well. With a little more focus on the screenplay, which sort of falls apart in the third act, it might have been something truly special. But hey, given that it has to go directly before one of the all-time-classic episodes, I think Aubrey does okay. And since we're now two episodes in a row about horrible things happening to women, I'm sure the next episode will be OH GODDAMMIT!

Case Notes:
  • That is a very low, fairly long, tracking shot that kicks off our cold open. We don't see tracking shots a lot in The X-Files so this one really stands out.
  • The cold open of this episode does a fairly good job establishing a lot of information about our important characters very quickly. It's also fairly effective at being creepy, using a pounding score very well. Overall a good cold open.
  • Digging up a crime scene with your hands is VERY poor form for an investigator.
  • Okay, slashing a word into your victim's rib cage is pretty nasty in Thomas Harris kind of way. Not as nasty as next episode, but still.
  • Scully figuring out that B.J. and Tillman are having an affair is a nice little detail.
  • I get that they're going for a reveal moment, but how did no one ever make the connection between the murders in 1942 and the ones going on now before Mulder and Scully show up?
  • "Dreams are answers to questions that we haven't yet figured out how to ask." Does Scully reference that line again later, or am I misremembering?
  • I love how Mulder knows the symbols of the 1939 World's Fair just off the top of his head.
  • Scully and Mulder's conversation in the car is a nice example of how this episode is surprisingly good at the in between moments. It's one of those things that makes this episode solid entertainment.
  • The sequence with B.J. waking up to find herself cut and then going to find the other body is an excellent sequence. Strang is selling the hell out of it, it's well paced, and it does a lot of work with the lighting.
  • I love how Mulder and Scully just come along with Tillman to see B.J. in the random family's basement.
  • My notes kind of trail out in the last half because this episode is good and I want to watch it.
  • Even Joy Coghill is killing it, goddamn this episode is well acted.
  • The bleach giving B.J. the same rash as Cokely's is cheesy, but it works, so I'll forgive it.
  • As intense as the finale is, it's undercut slightly by the fact that Mulder is rushing to save a rapist and a murderer. He fails though, which is a fine with me.
  • Scully's closing narration suggests they're doing genetic testing on B.J. but I'm not sure what she's looking for. The Evil Gene?
Current Celebrity Watch:

Cokely is played by Morgan Woodward, notable for playing Boss Godfrey in the 1967 classic Cool Hand Luke. The dude who always wore sunglasses? Yeah, you know who I mean. He also appeared a lot on a radio drama called Gunsmoke and had a recurring role on Dallas, neither of which I have any experience with.

Future Celebrity Watch:

Straddling the line between future and current is Terry O'Quinn, who is perhaps best known currently for playing John Locke on Lost (a show I stopped watching part way through the 2nd season and never returned to). I would like to recommend the underwatched 1987 stalker flick he starred in, The Stepfather. It reminds me a little of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, in a good way.

Audio Observation:

The climax of the cold open features some POUNDING drums, but it works great alongside the direction, helping the otherwise reasonably low key events (B.J. digging in the dirt) feel intense and exciting.

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