Thursday, February 9, 2017

Case 02, FIle 22: F. Emasculata

AKA: No One Is Getting Emasculated, I Don't Know Why It's Called That

The X-Files is a paranoid show. I don't really know how to defend or elaborate on that premise, it's just so blindingly obvious to me. The premise of the show is literally that the government is, in fact, out to get you (although the cognitive dissonance that is the fact that the two leads are government agents is something the show consistently fails to deal with). What I do wish it did more of though, is spend some time acknowledging that, while the government can be evil sometimes, it has nothing on what the private sector can do.

Our episode kicks off with three separate mini cold opens (although only one takes place before the opening credits). In our first, a scientist in South America gets infected by an exploding pustule on a dead animal and dies soon after, his corpse covered in similar pustules. In our second, a prisoner gets mailed a dead animal leg covered in the same pustules and gets infected. And in our third, two prisoners use the resulting chaos in the prison as a cover to escape. At this point Mulder and Scully get called in to help with the manhunt.

Mulder decides to go out with the Marshals, trying to find the escaped prisoners, who murder a man and steal his RV. Scully hangs out at the prison, investigating the mysterious CDC who are hanging around the prison. The marshals eventually track the prisoners down to a gas station, but find that they assaulted the attendant and stole his car. When Mulder finds out that one of them had the mysterious pustules, the CDC-esque people show up and spirit away the attendant, while Mulder investigates the possibility that one of them contacted their girlfriend outside the prison.

Back at the prison, Scully discovers that the prisoners there have been suffering from a mysterious infection, that leads to the pustules and kills 36 hours after infection. Scully thinks that's worth investigating, but one of the doctors tries to stop her, only to get a face full of goop from one of the pustules for his trouble. Back on the outsider, Mulder's suspicion that one of the prisoners contacted his girlfriend proves correct (he always is) but by the time they get there, one of the prisoners is dead from the infection and the other has bolted, leaving behind his girlfriend and kid.

"Alright, I admit, this particular mission could have gone better."
Mulder has a brief confrontation with Skinner and the Cigarette Smoking Man over the public being lied to, which is a cool scene, but doesn't really come to anything. As Mulder tries to find the missing prisoner, the doctor Scully was hanging around with reveals he's infected, that he's in fact with a pharmaceutical company who infected the prisoners on purpose and that Scully might be infected.  She isn't, but by the time she figures that out, the doctor who told her is dead and no one else will back her up. Mulder realizes that the only way to catch the pharmaceuticals company is for the prisoner to make a statement.

Mulder tracks the prisoner to a bus depot and convinces him to let the other passengers go and make a statement, but he is shot and killed before he can. Mulder plans to go public with what he knows, but Scully reveals that the first prisoner infected had the same name as the scientist who died in the cold open, covering the company's ass completely. Mulder is, understandably, a little peeved about this, but the episode ends with Skinner pledging continued support of him.

That description sounds a little on the dry side, so let me be clear, most of F. Emasculata's good points relate to how intense and engaging it is, especially in the first half. It's rare to see The X-Files taking its cues from action movies as opposed to horror movies, but the rest is still pretty good. It's not quite a perfect episode, but it's definitely got more than a little going for it.

"Okay, we're looking for a guy named Heisenberg. He's bald, wears a black hat and has a hell of a lot of Emmys."
The intensity and excitement of the first half of the episode are built primarily on the story's extreme forward momentum. I made a crack about how the episode has basically three cold opens (and we don't even get to see Mulder and Scully getting assigned the case) but it works, letting them establish the peril quickly, and then thrusting us right into the action. The episode is also pretty good about making sure we still have a firm grasp on the peril, and ratcheting up the stakes at the appropriate moments.

It's also filled with small, but noticeable moments of great direction. The sequence where the gas station attendant gets taken away really sells the chaos of the manhunt hard, and I'm an oddly huge fan of the scene where Scully first goes into the incinerator room. Scully looks small against the huge, fire-lit doors, Dr. Osbourne running down the hall away from it. It's not showy (I doubt most TV shows have the time or budget for showy direction) but it works really well, and it helps keep the momentum up.

Unfortunately, that momentum begins to wane a little bit in the third act. Part of what was keeping it going forward so hard was the concurrent storyline of Scully trying to solve the mystery of the outbreak, so once all the cards are on the table and Mulder is just trying to catch the prisoner, it doesn't have as much intensity. Oh it's still got some stuff up its sleeve, primarily a lengthy meditation on the morals of lying to the public in the interest of public safety, but I found myself longing for faster paced opening.

The big selling point, aside from the intense pace of the first half, is the special effects behind the pustules, and they are quite impressive. It's no easy feet to create pustules on a face that actually pulse, especially on a TV budget. One of the things I've always liked about The X-Files is their tendency to not cut away from some of the grosser stuff and this episode is so incredibly proud of its swelling and exploding pustules, it feels the need to throw them up front and center every opportunity. That's not a complaint, by the by, it's just an observation, I really do like the effect. It's also a REALLY gross effect, and ties back in to my comment in the last episode about how the last few episodes of season 2 were all pretty brutal.

They had an explanation for why they need to use the insect to test if Scully is infected, but I didn't follow any of it.
If there is a complaint, I'd say it's in how unfocused the episode is, especially as it relates to Scully. After Mulder leaves to go track down the prisoners, he and Scully almost have almost no screentime together, and as the situation outside the prison gets more and more involved, her subplot about figuring out what the pharmaceutical company is up to feels more and more like filler. The nadir of its redundancy is when she spends several scenes hanging around trying to find out if she's infected, which seems to conveniently forget that she's not showing symptoms and therefore is just wasting our time.

Still, the episode is engaging and exciting, and while the musings on the nature of lying to the public could stand to either be more in depth or a little shorter, I think it's still a solid enough episode. Being weird, gross and unsettling might usually be a negative, but for The X-Files those are all selling points. The X-Files will experiment with genres beside horror, as we've seen in the last few episodes hitting comedy and action, and these little steps outside its comfort zone will prove invaluable. So if nothing else, I'm grateful; to this episode for that.

Case Notes:
  • I have to wonder why whoever is in charge of the scientist in the cold opening sent a lone dude to discover new types of bugs to use in medicine, instead of, you know, a team?
  • I am only going to point out that everyone in this plot leans in to look at the pulsing white pustule on whoever or whatever has it, rather than acting like a rational human. It keeps the plot going, so I can swallow it, but it gets ridiculous by the end.
  • How come the vultures don't get infected when the pustule bursts?
  • Sending the infected leg to a prisoner is a really roundabout way to test it.
  • I'm not gonna lie, the pustules look exquisitely painful and incredibly gross. Good job makeup team, good job.
  • The prison escape is pretty lame, but again, I can deal with it since it helps the plot get going.
  • Mulder and Scully get basically shanghaied into this plot after the prison break, which actually adds another layer of interest; Mulder out there pursuing the prisoner, Scully inside trying to figure out what's going on.
  • Scully just bullies her way past the door and the doctor guarding it, I love it.
  • Say what you will about it, this episode is good at keeping the tension high throughout the episode. Stakes are established very quickly and raised constantly, lot of engaging sequences, and consistently evolving mystery to keep us interested.
  • Hey, I think this is the first time Mulder's badge number is spoken aloud.
  • The scene where the mysterious CDC shows up and takes the gas station attendant away is also good, if only because of how the Marshal freaks out.
  • Scully trying to trace the package is very amusing to me, today in the day of the online tracking numbers.
  • Man, Mulder and Scully's are barely in the same room at all in this episode.
  • I'd forgotten that Mulder has a rare confrontation with the Cigarette Smoking Man in this episode. It's kind of a plot cul-de-sac, but it's a good one.
  • I mentioned this in a picture caption but I did not follow Osbourne's explanation of how the test works at all.
  • Elizabeth giving Mulder a lecture on how he's not telling the truth feels kinda forced.
  • Is the escaped prisoner unaware that he needs a passport to get to Toronto, or is he not thinking that far ahead?
  • Mulder's plan failing because the prisoner was in the bathroom is a small thing, but it feels real, so I like it.
  • The guy playing Paul has been mostly doing generic prisoner performance, but he actually manages to do some good acting in the final moments.
  • The final twist of the knife, that the drug company can blame everything on a postal error, is pretty good to go out on, as is Skinner's ending comment.
Current Celebrity Watch:

Dr. Osbourne (the doc Scully pals around with) is played by Charlie Martin Smith, who played Terry in American Graffiti.

Future Celebrity Watch:

The head marshal in this episode is played by Dean Norris, currently best known for playing Hank in a little known series called Breaking Bad. That'll be a lot funnier when you find out who directed the next episode.

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