Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Case 02, File 15: Fresh Bones

AKA: Go Do That Voodoo That You Do So Well

The X-Files is a Canadian production, which is varying degrees of obvious throughout the series, at least if you know what you're looking at (personally I've always been fond of the Vancouver SkyTrain showing up briefly in Ghost in the Machine). This isn't a bad thing, nor a good thing, it's merely a thing; A lot of stuff is shot in Canada. But I think in this case, and in some specific other ones, it's useful, because it gives them a certain distance from American politics to criticize some of our...less savory actions.

Our episode kicks off with Private McAlpin being belligerent and borderline abusive to his wife and child, before a series of hallucinations send him crashing into a tree with a weird symbol on it. Despite how awful he was, his wife seems a little put out by the fact that military won't investigate his supposed suicide, so she calls in Mulder and Scully. It turns out McAlpin was guarding an INS compound that's holding Haitian refugees, where another guard also committed suicide, so Mulder decides it's probably voodoo.

Upon investigating they discover that there was a riot there a few weeks ago, resulting in the death of one of the refugees, and that both the refugees and the guards are completely unwilling to talk, up to and including the supposed leader of the refugees, Bauvais and the leader of the guards, Wharton. Oh and McAlpin's body has been replaced by a dog corpse. Having hit a dead end, Mulder and Scull discover their next clue: Private McAlpin, wandering the streets in a fugue state, and very distinctly alive. Our heroes think that's a little on the odd side, so they decide to dig up the body of the other guard who killed himself, but find that they've been beaten to it, and his body is gone.

"Ugh! We had maggots for breakfast yesterday!"
While at the graveyard, they find one of the refugees who was at the compound and decide to interrogate him via fries (look, he's 10). They also get some info about how voodoo can and will fuck you up from another guard named Dunham, after which the kid bolts. X wanders into the plot briefly to tell Mulder that the government is basically holding on to these refugees because Wharton wants to punish them for some shit that went down the last time the US was in Haiti and then leaves. Mulder returns to his hotel to find Dunham's body in his bathtub and McAlpin wandering around with a bloody knife, while Wharton has Bauvais beaten to death.

Mulder and Scully try to interrogate him, but McAlpin has apparently already confessed. It's here that we get our big bombshell: Dunham has given McAlpin's wife (remember her?) proof that Wharton was involved with voodoo when he was in Haiti. Mulder and Scully head to his office and find the skeleton of the soldier who killed himself there. They then rush to the graveyard to confront him, but are taken out of the action via voodoo. All seems lost when Bauvais suddenly comes back to life and takes out Wharton, and the episode ends with the Haitians being sent home, Mulder and Scully learning that the kid who helped them was a ghost all along and that Wharton is still alive while being buried.

Fresh Bones was an episode I was expecting to dislike on rewatching, as my memories of it are not super positive, but on this particular viewing, I found more to like than I was expecting. It's a breezy episode, not great or memorable by any means, and its plot is a mess of misdirection and red herrings, but it's still got some great moments, and it can be quite engaging when watching. Sure it fades more or less immediately, but what are you going to do?

"Don't worry, I just got kidnapped by Tuco and am faking a fugue state to get out of trouble."
I think my biggest issue with it, honestly, is how some skewed priorities remove a measure of depth and interest from the plot. Private McAlpin's death is supposed to drive the plot, but our first and only look at him prior to his death paints him as a belligerent abusive asshole, who I don't care even a little about. The episode eventually inserts some stuff about how the stuff he's being forced to do are damaging his psyche and how he's not usually like that, but as they say, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and McAlpin's first impression is bad.

But what's worse is that the focus on the soldiers removes any focus on the Haitian refugees. I suspect they tried to shove them into the background to try and keep you from guessing the twist that it was Wharton all along, but I'm much more interested in their plight than most of the other character. Bouvais in particular gets a bit of the short stick, as his motivation and performance are compelling, but he only gets like 2 scenes before he's dead, and his impromptu resurrection to end the episode don't do enough to make up for it. There's also a lot of depth possible in the subtext of how America often fails its refugees, or just sanctions the awful things the military can do just because of our inherent patriotism, but aside from X's quick lecture, it just sort of sits on the wayside, never really coming to anything.

But I guess that's the ultimate problem with the episode, it's full of so many misdirections that you start to recognize that not all of them can be the solution, so you start trying to look where the episode is trying to keep you from looking. This can sometimes work with movies or books, where you have time to flesh out the misdirects and make them look like more than misdirects (Prisoners is really good at this) but in a 45 minute episode, you end up tossing them out so fast that they just call attention to themselves. Chester, the 10 year old ghost kid, is probably the worst case of this and the fact that I nearly omitted him entirely from my episode summary is a sign of that.

"Alright, it's time for a good old fashioned Voodoo Off!"
But the episode still has some effective moments, like the opening where McAlpin sees his face rotted and missing skin like his lawn ornament or the dude coming out of Scully's hand. A couple of good scares can go a long way, and these ones hit pretty hard. It's also got some good acting, with Bauvais, Chester, Wharton and even Dunham all putting in good work. The episode's plot is a mess, but the characters and scares are engaging enough to keep you interested...which means you're paying more attention to the plot, so it's kind of a wash, I guess?

Anyway, it's hard to get worked up about this episode's flaws or strengths, because there's just not too much to the episode. It looks a little worse compared to the episode that preceded it, but that's not its fault, it's just the episode order. Maybe it's just because I didn't think I was going to enjoy it, but I don't dislike this episode at all. There are much worse episodes of Season 2 to watch.

Case Notes:
  • The bit where McAlpin's face looks like the lawn ornament, with the skin hanging off, is a solid effect, and I approve.
  • The cold open victim's wife is much more sympathetic and engaging as a character than the guy who actually died.
  • I wonder how much being a mostly Canadian production influenced The X-Files' willingness to portray the US government as handling things (like the Haitian refugee issue) poorly.
  • The lucky charm (and the kid that gives it to them) are such obvious Chekov's guns, that they kind of draw attention to themselves.
  • The episode is trying a fairly major misdirect with Colonel Wharton, so it's trying to make him appear helpful, but the actor is making him seem like an asshole. Or maybe that's just because I know the twist.
  • I don't know shit about voodoo, so I have no idea how accurate any of this is, so I won't comment.
  • I actually totally dig Bauvais. The actor is giving a solid performance and his motivation is rooted in Haiti's history, which is good stuff.
  • This episode brings up Tetrodotoxin, which is media's go-to "Fake death" compound, as a zombificiation poison, and Mulder even brings up Wade Davis' book on the subject by name. Most of what I've read has suggested that it's bullshit, but hey, they didn't know that then so we'll roll with it.
  • This might be one of the few times where we have a gravedigger character who turns out to not only be totally innocent but also pretty sympathetic.
  • Private Dunham's story about his fiancee is a little too Campfire Story for such an otherwise serious episode, especially when it comes on the heels of him revealing Colonel Wharton is ordering beatings on the refugees.
  • I get where the episode is coming from, but Wharton's motivation is so thin, it kind of falls flat until we get to the second twist.
  • X's appearance in this episode is pretty useless, but the way he contacts Mulder is clever.
  • "The new mandate is, if you're not a citizen you better keep out." X gives a pretty solid speech in this episode, and it's kind of relevant given the...current political climate.
  • The photoshop job on the photo Mulder and Scully are given towards the end of the episode is pretty bad. I dunno why they didn't just take a picture with the two actors.
  • The final twist makes the story more interesting, but it kind of undercuts the episode thematically. Ah well, can't have everything.
  • I'm not sure why Scully gets targeted at the end, but the most effective scare in the episode is probably the dude coming out of her hand, so I can dig it.
  • Hey, the refugees are being returned to Haiti. Mulder and Scully accomplished something!
  • Chester turning out to have been dead the whole time is again, kind of Campfire Story, and the episode hints at it a little too hard in the leadup.
  • Okay, Wharton being buried alive is pretty horrifying, good job episode.
Current Celebrity Watch:


Future Celebrity Watch:

In the voice actor arena, we have Peter Kelamis as Lieutenant Foyle, who would go on to play Goku in the Funimation Dub of Dragonball Z and Jamil Walker Smith as Chester, who would go on to play Gerald in Hey Arnold! In live action we have Callum Keith Rennie as the gravekeeper, who played Leoben on Battlestar Galactica and, more amusingly, Lew on Californication, alongside fellow X-Files alum David Duchovny.

Audio Observations:

That tribal music shows up again? I duno, it's good music.

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