Saturday, December 31, 2016

Case 02, File 18: Fearful Symmetry

AKA: I Refuse To Make A Hamarabe Joke

The X-Files is rarely, if ever, maudlin. It gets sad sometimes, but the list of TV shows that don't is almost entirely restricted to sitcoms (and even those get sad sometimes). Being overly sad or mopey is sort of against the tone of the entire series, since it needs to stay light and exciting. But, there are subjects that are inherently so sad that it's hard for the series to overcome them to stay light, and one of the big ones is animals dying.

Our story kicks off in the town of Fairfield, Idaho, where an elephant rampages across the town and then dies, despite having been securely locked in its cage. Oh and it's invisible, that's an important detail. Mulder and Scully are called in and discover that the zoo is in danger of losing funding, that one of the handlers (Meecham) isn't a great guy and that they're under siege by a militant animal rights group. Oh and the head keeper, Willa, has a gorilla that knows sign language named Sophie, whom she is in a legal fight with the Malawi government to keep. I keep skipping the important details.

Anyhoo, Mulder gets some weird info from a Lone Gunmen cameo that Fairfield is known for UFO sightings and no animal pregnancy has ever been brought to term at the zoo, while Scully tracks down one of the militant animal rights guys as he breaks into the zoo and is immediately mauled by an invisible tiger. Mulder thinks all this is weird, and decides to have Scully perform an autopsy on the elephant, during which she discovers the elephant had been pregnant, despite never having even attempted to be bred.

"Hey Muld-you forgot we were in this episode, didn't you?"
The tiger takes this opportunity to pop up at a construction site, and despite Willa's best efforts to bring him back alive, Meecham shoots it. This, it turns out, is the proverbial last straw (although the camel is fine) and the board closes the zoo. Willa is distraught over this, as is Sophie who is apparently afraid for her baby, despite having never been bred properly, which gives Mulder his theory: Aliens are abducting the animals, impregnating them and keeping the babies to act as an off planet reserve.

Willa loses custody of Sophie and desperately goes to the leader of the militant animal rights group to help her keep Sophie, but he refuses. Later he goes to investigate Sophie and gets a crate dropped on his skull, while Sophie disappears. Mulder and Scully figure out that Willa and Meecham conspired to keep Sophie, but Mulder tracks down Sophie, and gets locked in with her going crazy for her trouble. Lucky for him, she gets abducted in front of his eyes, with her last words to him being "Man save man." She pops up a few miles away, gets hit by a car and dies, and the episode ends on a down note as Mulder muses about the aliens' motivations.

Fearful Symmetry is a bad episode, but it's one whose badness sneaks up on you. It has a solid premise, and you keep waiting to see how its going to turn out. It's only when the episode is over and you're looking back on it that you realize how jaggedly put together and awkwardly structured the whole episode is. It's not terrible, and there are certainly much worse episodes in the series and season, but it just feels like it's wasting a lot of potential.

"Isn't it lucky the camera fell facing this way, or else we'd assume I was killed by a visible tiger!"
The biggest problem is that structure and pacing. This episode has a lot of stuff to establish, from Sophie the sign language knowing gorilla, to the animal rights group, Willa and Meecham's relationship, the weird stuff going on at the zoo, and its rather inelegant solution is to front load a HUGE pile of exposition, which basically kills the pacing going forward. The episode tries desperately to get the story back into high gear, but it just takes too long, so it never really gets engaging.

This causes two major issues. The first is that front loading the ocean of exposition kills so much time that the episode has to barrel through its plot points as fast as it can. This makes the episode seem like its moving at light speed, but still never managing to get anywhere. It rolls through the tiger event with barely a pause to breathe, but you could slot the climax in immediately after Mulder and Scully arrive at the zoo and miss very little.

"She went crazy, just because I said my favorite King Kong was the 1976 version!"
The other major issue the wave of exposition causes is making them tell us everything, rather than show us, which gives us a huge emotional distance from all the proceedings. Sophie and Willa's relationship fuels the entire third act, but its a relationship we barely get to see, so it's one that means nothing to us, aside from our innate love of animals. Hanging an entire episode on our love of animals to keep the tension up is a recipe for us to feel manipulated and that's not a great feeling to have as we exit an episode. The (volatile) relationship between Willa and Meecham feels more real, if only because we actually get to see it.

The best parts of the episodes are all details, which probably makes the episode feel worse than it is. The actress playing Willa is very committed to her role and probably gets us as close as we actually do to believing in the relationship. The opening invisible elephant rampage is very well realized, and it's certainly got a very unique concept. As I said, there are much worse episode of The X-Files, but this one just doesn't have any meat on its bones.

Case Notes:
  • Dear cleaning dudes in the cold open: I am 90 percent certain that anyone watching the security camera footage would be more annoyed about you smoking while working than your buddy dancing while working.
  • The "Invisible elephant" effects are pretty solid in the opening.
  • Mulder is being extraordinarily sarcastic about the alternate options for "Invisible Elephant." I particularly love him entertaining the possibility of a black hole hitting town.
  • The zoo looks pretty crowded for a place that's supposedly on the brink of financial ruin.
  • I get what the WAO is getting at, but attacking the zoo (or Willa, more specifically) is exactly the wrong way to go about it.
  • I'd entirely forgotten about Mulder having a skype call with the Lone Gunmen.
  • On that note, why the hell would the Lone Gunmen have all that random information about a zoo in Idaho? I don't know that much about the zoo in Bridgeport, and I've lived in Bridgeport.
  • Mauled by an invisible tiger sounds like a punchline to a bad joke, but it's actually a pretty bad way to go.
  • Also, the fake tiger noises are terrible.
  • Scully performing an autopsy on an elephant is one of those sequences that sounds like it's going to be a lot more interesting than it is. Still, solid stuff.
  • I get why he felt he had to kill the tiger, but Ed Meecham is still a fucking asshole.
  • Mulder's theory about aliens abducting the animals is the most ridiculous thing Willa has ever heard. She should stick around him, I'm sure he'll top it.
  • Willa and Kyle's relationship needs more fleshing out. This episode has some good ideas, but it just doesn't have time to do anything with most of them.
  • Meecham leaves Mulder in the cage with Sophie to die. That's pretty hardcore man.
  • Mulder takes being slammed against the wall by a gorilla and left unconscious for an indeterminate amount of time pretty well.
  • As is perhaps appropriate for an episode with as many structural issues as this one has, the episode just sort of jolts to a stop with an anti-climax.
Current Celebrity Watch:

I'm sure he'd like us to forget this, but the guy who plays Kyle, Lance Guest, had a big part in Jaws 4: The Revenge as Michael Brody. I'm also sure he'd much rather we remember his role as Alex Rogan, the lead in The Last Starfighter. I just had to bring up Jaws 4 first because I am a bastard.

Future Celebrity Watch:

Jayne Atkinson, who plays Willa, is apparently on the Netflix version of House of Cards as the Secretary of State. Yeah, I don't remember her either.

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