Monday, April 10, 2017

Case 03, File 03: D.P.O.

AKA: 'Electric Slackers' Would Be A Good Name For A Rock Band

I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: One of the things that makes The X-Files so lasting is that, for the most part, it was pretty unstuck in time. It was a show that was at the pinnacle of cultural relevance at the time, but never really tapped into the cultural mentality of the time the way Seinfeld did. But that doesn't mean it can't be influenced by the way the culture was feeling at the time, and thereby tap into the zeitgeist, even accidentally.

D.P.O. kicks off with our title character, Darin Peter Oswald, hanging around an arcade late at night and getting bullied by an asshole. He takes it pretty well, and decides to electrocute him to death with his mysterious lightning powers. Since this is the fifth person to mysteriously get hit by electricity in the last month in this tiny town, Mulder and Scully head out to investigate, while getting a whole ton of unnecessary guff from the asshole town sheriff.

While investigating the arcade, they meet Darin's friend Zero and discover evidence that Darin, who was one of the five struck by lightning, was at the arcade the previous night. They go and interview him, missing him briefly acting like a pervert towards his former high school teacher, Mrs. Kiveat. He says he doesn't know anything, while Mulder's phone melts and then heads home to have an adversarial conversation with his mother and meets up with his friend Zero to...electrocute cattle?

The next day finds our intrepid heroes investigating the cattle death and discovering Darin's footprint burned into the earth where the lightning hit. Meanwhile, Darin and Zero are off hanging out at an intersection, causing car wrecks and generally being a little shit. Mulder and Scully find a picture of Mrs. Kiveat in Darin's porn (weird). Meanwhile, back the wreck, local car repairman Mr. Kiveat (also Darin's boss) has shown up to tow the wrecked cars away, but Darin kicks off a plan to make Mrs. Kiveat fall for him Mr. Kiveat a heart attack and then shocking his heart back into rhythm? I dunno, he's not the brightest.

"This is not the greatest episode in the wor-hor-horld. This is just a tribute."
Annnnyhoo, Mulder and Scully arrest Darin and go to see Mrs. Kiveat, who tells them that Darin is obsessed with her and mentioned that he had powers. Darin gets released by the sheriff and being the sensible level headed sort, immediately heads to the arcade to kill Zero. Mulder and Scully try to head him off by heading to the hospital, but he shuts down the power and comes from Mrs. Kiveat, who agrees to go with him to avoid violence, but she bolts (heh) at the first opportunity. Still being sensible, he electrocutes the sheriff to death and himself to unconsciousness. The episode closes out with him in prison, changing TV channels with his mind.

I warn you in advance, I got really pretentious and read wayyyyy too far into this episode, so I spend a lot of time time talking about theme and context, so if you just want to know what I think of the episode without wading through my pretentious nonsense: It's good. It's a really good episode, and due to all that stuff makes it occasionally flirt with being a great one.

So, pretentious stuff: In the early 90s, the reigning cultural feeling in America was that, since the Soviet Union, conflict was basically over and everything was going to be fine forever. Obviously this belief turned out to be bullshit, but it was the general feeling at the time (for good context, read The End of History and the Last Man, which is most bullshit too, but is a fascinating look into the way the culture was feeling). As a result, young adults of the then just reaching adulthood Generation X felt adrift, unsure of where they fit in with a world that didn't seem to have any place or use for them.

"Hi Sheriff, do you think you could go...literally anywhere else? Literally."
Lots of media of the time tapped into this feeling, from Clerks, to Trainspotting, to Reality Bites, to RENT to even Fight Club. Not all of this media is good, but they all tapped into that feeling, and I think D.P.O. manages to do that too. Take our titular character, Darin, and his relationship with his powers. He doesn't seem to be very interested in using his powers for anything great, good or evil, he most just uses them for petty mischief or revenge. Zero briefly floats the idea that they head off to Vegas to use it to make money, but neither of them seem to be under the impression that these powers will change their lot in life. They are doomed to a life of ennui and uselessness, and neither of them seem to care much.

This works its way into all aspects of the character and how he handles his abilities. Even his desire for his teacher, the closest he comes to real motivation, is treated like this. He doesn't care that she finds him repulsive and a little bit sad, he just knows that he wants her and he doesn't much care about anything else. I also like the decision to not even try to empathize with his desire for her, or treat it as romantic. It must have been tempting to make him sympathetic, but the episode never loses sight of the fact that he's a repulsive little turd who is using his powers to hurt people. His desire for her fits in overall with his other actions, which seem to be motivated by some vague revenge for his high school years (all of his victims were men of roughly his age). Mrs. Kiveat doesn't matter to him as a person, she's just someone who had power over him that he wants power over.

But that's all subtext, nothing the show directly addresses or talks about. But the episode is still good outside of all that. Ribisi is a great screen presence as the villain, the episode is well paced, the script is solid and the death scenes are universally well realized. If it has a flaw, outside a couple minor sequences that fall flat, it's the sheriff character. He hangs around the entire episode, being a MASSIVE asshole to Mulder and Scully, and we never get an explanation for what his issue is. Maybe generic Law Enforcement Territoriality (Territorialness? I dunno, you know what I mean) but it never comes to anything, except a vague feeling of satisfaction when he gets killed.

"Well now, I know that I'm coercing you into a relationship and that makes me a sexual predator, but I've decided I'm okay with it."
Aside from that, there's not a lot to say. D.P.O. is a solid episode, coasting on a good cast, a couple of great kill scenes and some entertaining subtext. And while I spent several paragraphs waxing poetic about the subtext, I dunno if that was necessarily intended, since all of that is attached to it in hindsight, I don't know if the writers were intentionally going for that. But hey, subtext is still subtext, and it works really well when it's attached to an engaging, entertaining episode. Not bad for a premise that supposedly came from a note pinned to Chris Carter's board since season 1.

Case Notes:
  • I may have grown up at the tail end of the age of arcades, but Anchorage didn't have too many, and not too many people to play at them, so I didn't have much in the way of experience with them, so I have no idea if fighting over machines was typical. I do recognize the game they're playing as Virtua Fighter 2.
  • Goddamn this cold opening is good. Excellent music, solid buildup, horrifying way to go, even great use of the darkness inside the arcade.
  • I'm watching this episode on Hulu for reasons not worth going into, and I nearly took notes on the ads.
  • I like how they just skip over Mulder and Scully getting the assignment to "Go check out the lightning deaths." Mulder's 'I just don't think it's lighting' explanation is just vintage Mulder though.
  • I had totally forgotten Jack Black's character was named Zero.
  • Do Arcade's really record the time and date of their high scores? Genuinely asking, I have no idea.
  • This whole episode is pretty music heavy. I remembered Ring the Bells, but I'd forgotten most of the rest of it.
  • When he's not being a murderer, Darin is frankly a little pathetic. I can't imagine how sad he must have been prior to becoming electric.
  • Mulder's cellphone overheated and nearly exploded. Must be a Samsung BA-DUM-TISH.
  • I like how Darin's main activity with his power is the lightning equivalent of Cow Tipping. It feels authentic.
  • Okay, fairly minor complaint, but the Sheriff throwing lightning facts at Mulder and Scully feels like a writer inundated with lightning facts who wants to find a place to jam it. Also, he's still being a massive asshole to our heroes.
  • Heh, the scene with Mulder and Scully getting footprints from the lightning is cute, I like it.
  • Mulder goes straight for Darin's pornography. Never change Mulder.
  • The X-Files: Knows more about how defibrillators work than your average medical drama.
  • "Don't worry Mr. Kiveat, I've seen how they do it on TV," doesn't seem like a creepy line, but the actor sells it so well, I wouldn't be surprised if Ribisi got the role based on his read of that line.
  • Mrs. Kiveat could stand to be a bigger part of the episode. She's such a huge chunk of Darin's motivation, I'd like to know more of what she thinks.
  • Darin having an excess of electrolytes as the explanation for his lightning powers is pretty lame, but they skip over it pretty fast, so I'll allow it.
  • I only just noticed Darin's massive scar, presumably from his lightning strike. Small detail, but good one.
  • And the Sheriff let Darin go. Seriously he is just awful. He needs to fuck right off.
  • Putting Zero's corpse in the elevator strains credulity. I know he has lightning powers, but Zero is a big dude, and Darin is kind of a scrawny guy. Wait, am I thinking about the credulity of an X-Files episode, what's wrong with me?
  • The confrontation between Scully and Darin is actually pretty solid, with Ribisi slowly getting more and more loud and angry, while Scully snarls downplayed fury. Solid stuff.
  • Darin's total lack of interest in Mrs. Kiveat's desires and thoughts is a good detail, since it indicates he doesn't really care about her as more than just an object.
  • The Sheriff gets killed by Darin at the end.
  • Heh, Darin is listening to a Vandals song. He wears like 10 Vandals shirts throughout the episode.
Future Celebrity Watch:

We've got one of our biggest ones here: Darin's friend Zero is played by none other than Jack Black. He had only recently formed Tenacious D, and High Fidelity was five years off, so he still seems very young to me here. And while he is nowhere near as famous as Jack Black, Giovanni Ribisi would go on to a very respectable career in secondary roles. He appeared briefly in both Avatar and Selma, just as an example.

Also, while it's stretching the definition a little bit, Sheriff Asshole is played by Ernie Lively, Blake Lively's dad.

Audio Observations:

As I said in the notes, this episode is pretty music heavy, and it does a lot. The cold opening kill is set to Ring the Bells by James. It's a good song, off a good album, although this version is a lot softer than the version I'm used to. Still, it serves as a great counterpoint, playing the excellent outro over the guy's brutal death. Good stuff.

Second off, Zero's death scene is set to Hey Man, Nice Shot by Filter, and Darin listens to it earlier in the episode. I'll be honest, I don't know much about Filter, as I'm not a big industrial guy, but it's a solid song I guess, and the musical difference between it and Ring the Bells helps underscore how the stakes have been raised.

Finally, during the final moments, when Darin is locked in the hospital, he's listening to Live Fast, Diarrhea by The Vandals. Not a huge Vandals guy, I tend to go for more classic punk or weirder stuff, but they've got a bit of Mindless Self Indulgence vibe to this song that I kinda dig. Good music choices across the board.

1 comment:

  1. I should point out a trivial thing

    Richard Patrick, lead singer of Filter, his older brother is Robert Patrick...yes that Robert Patrick