Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Case 02, File 24: Our Town

AKA: Cannibal Summer

I've mentioned before that The X-Files is a very subjective show. There are episodes that we all know are good, there are episodes we all know are bad, and there is a rainbow of a hundred different quality levels in between, and how you feel about individual episodes can be up to a myriad of different factors. This is my long form way of saying, I really like this episode, but I have trouble quantifying why.

Our Town kicks off with a guy named George following his girlfriend into the woods, only to get cornered by some dude with a weird mask and an axe. Weeks later, Mulder and Scully are called in to investigate his disappearance, with Mulder suspecting that it's Foxfire due to the fire a lady saw on the highway. It turns out George worked as an inspector at the local chicken factory, Chaco Chicken (company motto: We're Not KFC, Shut Up!).

After briefly speaking with George's wife, who knew George was cheating on her and doesn't seem to care about that or his disappearance, out heroes head off to the chicken plant, where George's girlfriend, Paula, is working and hallucinating. The shift supervisor tells Mulder and Scully that George was trying to shut them down, but the other inspectors had no problems with the place. While Mulder contemplates that info, Paula attacks the supervisor and is shot by the local sheriff for her trouble. Scully wants to do an autopsy, but they have to get permission from Mr. Chaco himself, since she was his granddaughter, DUN DUN D-oh wait, that doesn't need a Dun Dun Dun.

Anyway, during the autopsy, Scully discovers that Paula was suffering from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, also known as "Oh god, am I spelling that right, it doesn't look right" disease. Or mad cow. Anyway, since George had similar symptoms to her prior to his disappearance, Scully is weirded out wondering how they could both have it, and further weirded out when she finds out that Paula, who looks to be in her 20s, is actually nearly 50. They head off to the county records to confirm, but nearly get run off the road by a truck who's driver is also suffering from Creutzfeldt-Jakob.

When those militant vegans said the meat industry was full of murderers, I don't think this is what they meant.
Scully comes up with the theory that George was ground up in the chicken feeder and fed to the chickens, leading to the disease spreading, but Mulder is working on another theory and suggests that the river be dragged. When they do, they discover dozens upon dozens of bones, all of which are missing their skulls and have polished ends, leading Mulder to his full theory: That the people in the town have been cannibalizing people, leading to the spread of the disease and why Paula looks so young. When Mulder and Scully try to go find out her age at the courthouse, they find that the birth records have been incinerated.

At this point the town begins to turn on itself: George's wife calls Mulder and implicates Mr. Chaco, but is attacked before Scully can arrive to get her. Mulder goes to arrest Mr. Chaco, but it turns out he's gone to kidnap Scully and Mulder finds that his cabinet is full of the heads. Chaco takes Scully to the town's cannibal cookout, run by the shift supervisor, but is killed by the townsfolk. Mulder arrives in time to stop Scully from being executed, the shift supervisor is killed in the resulting stampede. The episode ends with Scully musing that they never found Chaco's body, but that dozens of townsfolk have contracted the disease.

Where Soft Light was an episode where I knew it had many good points, but was unable to get into, Our Town is an episode that I'm aware is probably deeply flawed, but I've always been exceptionally fond of. Not "Best of the series" (or even season) fond, but fond. On watching it again, two things became abundantly clear: One, that I am still very fond of it and two, it was going to be very difficult to articulate why.

"Yep, looks like you've got Super Mutants. I can take care of 'em, but it'll take at least 3 or 4 mini-nukes."
If I had to come up with a singular thing that makes me like this episode it's how fully it uses all of its elements. It doesn't have any single standout elements, like Soft Light did with Shalhoub, but it also doesn't have any hanging elements that go underutilized or are poorly handled. The whole episode just fits together, each strengthening the other.

If there is something I wish was better developed, it's the satire of America's obsession with small towns. As I've said before, Season 2 was where The X-Files really began to get into its groove of Americana as horror, and with that comes some satire of American culture, of which our worship of "Small town America" is probably the most fertile subject.

Obviously the show will plumb this basic concept later in the series to much greater effect (IE an episode that actually IS one of the best in the series) but this episode isn't as interested in digging into the concept, mostly keeping it in the margins until it's the third and it's time for the town to...ahem...cannibalize itself, and by then there's barely any time left over for it. If the episode felt like digging deeper into that concept (or into a deeper satire on KFC) then it might be truly great.

On the flip side, if there is one element that elevates all the proceedings, it's how surprisingly subtle the entire episode manages to be. A lot of episodes of The X-Files revel in their gore (at least as much as a TV-13 show can get away with) and there's nothing wrong with that, I love me a good gory episode of The X-Files as much as the next guy, but this episode gets so far by keeping its horror off screen and in suggestion. It works so well that the shift supervisor wiping his mouth in the episode's final moments are unnerving, just based on the implications.

So wait, does this make his cannibalism cultural appropriation or am I overthinking it?
The rest of the episode doesn't really have much in the way of exceptional elements, but neither does it have any bad elements. The premise is creepy as hell, and the mystery unfolds in a natural way, dropping just enough hints here and there to keep the audience clued in (like George's spasms in the car or the fork in the bonfire spot), without revealing too much. Mr. Chaco strikes a good balance of paternal and creepy, and the rest of the town manages to hold on to the sense that they're hiding something throughout the entire episode.

The issue I think a lot of people take with this episode is that it's a very...breezy episode. The mystery is fun and there's a lot of cool scenes and neat concepts, but the episode doesn't make a ton of impact on you. The characters, aside from Mr. Chaco, are pretty one note and don't seem to have much in the way of inner lives (I cracked above that George's wife doesn't seem super put out by the fact that he was cheating on her, or by his disappearance). I guess it's a casualty of the episode's efforts to hide the conspiracy that we don't get to see the effort the characters put in to maintaining it until the episode is nearly over. Like the aforementioned satire, a little more time devoted to the conspiracy of silence would help a lot (that's one of the things that made Arcadia work).

Whatever, Our Town isn't a great episode, but it's an episode I like. Maybe it's the quietly creepy tone, maybe it's the satire on small towns, maybe it's the cannibalism, maybe it's just the shot of Scully walking into the room full of bones with the bucket full of chicken, who knows? It scratches an itch. The X-Files is my favorite TV show for a reason, and even this breezy, weightless episodes have a quality that I never get sick of.

Case Notes:
  • I know why she brought him out there, but I can't imagine wanting to go out into the woods to have sex. You'll get twigs fucking everywhere.
  • I love how the episode really briefly drops the fact that George is sick but dwells on it so little that you don't pick up on it until repeat viewings.
  • Not gonna lie, the torches in the trees still unnerves me to this day.
  • I love how completely the episode devotes itself to the Foxfire/Fire Demon misdirect in the opening, while still dropping small hints to what's actually going in.
  • The creepy documentary footage is neat, but it never gets resolved. I guess the implication is that he escaped being cannibalized but went crazy from the experience?
  • The plastic fork in the burned area is a great hint, not gonna lie.
  • George's wife is absurdly blasé about the fact that her husband was cheating on her and the fact that he's missing. No wonder she didn't know he was sick.
  • A chicken factory is a really great horror setting. Cold metal, chicken corpses everywhere, sharp objects. I'm surprised we don't see more horror movies or tv shows use that kind of setting. Hell, I'm surprised this episode doesn't do more with it. Guess slaughterhouses take all the credit.
  • The sequence where Paula grabs the shift supervisor hostage is pretty short, but pretty solid. They put enough space between her freakout with the head and her attack to make it sudden.
  • Mr. Chaco is such an obvious Colonel Sanders joke, but the episode never plays it too hard and make it kitschy.
  • Chaco's monologue about how he built the plant and wouldn't have been able to do it with people like George around is basically him saying "I killed him!"
  • The revelation that Paula (and thus George) suffered from Creutzfeldt-Jakob is cool, but I don't think they ever address how George got it. I also love how quickly Mulder drops his foxfire theory when he realizes what's going on. 
  • I know why the sheriff doesn't want to drag the river really, but I sympathize with his given reasons too, dragging that river sounds awful.
  • The net full of bones is a great visual and a solid lead in to the third act.
  • Scully walking in with the big tub of chicken and then putting it down at the end of the scene is one of my favorite little touches in the episode.
  • Hey, Mulder references the Anasazi tribe in this episode, which as you may know is what the next episode takes its name from.
  • Come on Mulder, you know better than to split up in the third act of an episode.
  • The mirror pointing at the cabinet full of heads is a little obvious, but as far as third act contrivances go, I can roll with it.
  • You can tell the guys aren't thinking straight when they think they can just kill 2 FBI Agents and not expect anyone to come looking for them.
  • The shift supervisor getting trampled is a tiny bit on the nose, but I can deal, it's a solid way to end the episode.
Future Celebrity Watch:

This one is such a loose definition it's basically non-existent, but it's something that interested me: Gary Grubbs, who played the Sheriff, had a semi-recurring role on Angel as Fred's dad. He also apparently had a recurring role on Treme which...I'll be honest, I only really know it from a 30 Rock gag. Also: The actress who played Paula will have a brief reappearance in Syzygy.

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