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The X-Files – Squeeze (Review)

Squeeze is the first “monster of the week” episode of The X-Files, and also the first episode that wasn’t written by creator Chris Carter. Instead, Squeeze came from the word processors of James Wong and Glen Morgan. Wong and Morgan would become a hugely influential (if not always successful) writing duo during the nineties. They’d write some of the best scripts for The X-Files, but they’d also leave (briefly) to run their own short-lived science-fiction drama in Space: Above & Beyond.

After Fox cancelled that show, the pair would briefly return to The X-Files before taking over Chris Carter’s other Fox drama Millennium, for that show’s second season. I’d argue that Wong and Morgan’s Millennium was one of the most inventive and insane seasons of television produced by any network in the nineties, and it’s a shame that Carter would have to re-assume the reins for the show’s third and final season. After that, the pair found considerable success creating the Final Destination film series.

However, all of that was in the future, but you can clearly see their creative talent at work here. Squeeze isn’t just the first episode of The X-Files unrelated to the show’s alien mythology, it is also one of the most memorable episodes ever written, creating a monster so iconic that he would wind up bookending the first season when he returned in Tooms.

Eye see you...

Eye see you…

Of course, Squeeze presented its own problems. Writers Glen Morgan and Jim Wong did not get along with director Harry Longstreet, and the final product was the result of a long and painful process:

That episode, the director, Jim, and I just did not get along. Jim and I left. You have a location [tech] scout with all of the department heads where everybody rides around in a van, and you go to all of the locations, and sets. Everybody talks about what is going to happen. He went out of his way to be very belittling to us, and left the tech scout, so we went down to Vancouver and had lunch in Chinatown, going “Well, we’re fired from this show. What are we going to do?” So he filmed it and there were problems, but Jim is like an outstanding editor, and so we resolved those problems in editing. There was stuff in there, with that show, that could have been so much better. But anyway, with that director we did not get along.

However, the episode works quite well. Part of this is probably due to the fact that the tense sequences are relatively confined and that Tooms himself is pushed very much to the background. Indeed, Squeeze is – as the third episode of the series – still largely concerned with contextualising and defining the world of The X-Files.

Mulder's latest theory is a bit of stretch...

Mulder’s latest theory is a bit of stretch…

Tooms himself is apprehended relatively quickly here, and Mulder is able construct a convincing case on the fly, but the drama of Squeeze stems from the institutional and political conflicts around the investigation, rather than from Victor Tooms himself. As such, the presence of the sequel Tooms towards the end of the season actually enhances Squeeze, because it takes a fascinating concept that had been largely relegated to the background of Squeeze and expands it properly. So both episodes are the better for it.

Still, there’s no denying that Tooms is a fascinating creation and a rather wonderful first monster for the series. His hook is suitable macabre and compelling, but he isn’t so complex that his origins require too much exposition. Indeed, Doug Hutchinson is all the more effective for that fact that Victor Tooms hardly speaks throughout the episode. Even in custody, the killer is mostly silent, his most dialogue-heavy scene consisting of one-word answers to a polygraph test.

Freeze! You're in the opening credits!

Freeze! You’re in the opening credits!

Tooms also serves as yet another connection between The X-Files and The Silence of the Lambs. Whether intentionally or not, Carter’s decision to have Tooms feed on liver can’t help but evoke Hannibal Lecter – regardless of the story logic (the liver is associated with regeneration) or the background story (Carter had been in France eating foie gras) behind it. Indeed, Hutchinson himself confesses that Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter was a major influence on his performance:

“It was a very sweet challenge for me,” he says. “I’m a very animated person, and I tend to bring a lot of animation to my roles. This was a particularly good challenge because I felt there was a stillness to this character. I had been intrigued by stillness for quite a while since seeing Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter” – another fan of raw human livers – “in The Silence of the Lambs. He captured the art of stillness so well, and I was inspired by his performance.”

Hutchinson’s portrayal is effective and unnerving and it plays into the episode’s rather minimalist use of Tooms. Victor Tooms is easy enough to catch and simple enough to explain, so the episode has a chance to delve into the politics of the X-Files within the FBI.

Mulder goes on the record...

Mulder goes on the record…

Of course, Tooms works because he’s a very clever creation. Morgan and Wong have confessed to being influenced by Jack the Ripper. According to The X-Files Book of the Unexplained:

In the quest to create a villain who would challenge the Agents and terrify the viewers, writers Glen Morgan and Jim Wong drew on their love of the macabre including Jack the Ripper and a story in the LA Times about a retired detective obsessed with a 30-year-old homicide case.

Every since Jack the Ripper, and probably before, serial killers have been treated as a dark shadow looming in the urban landscape. This has been explored quite a bit in fiction, with perhaps The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America serving as the most notable example – juxtaposing the story of murderer Dr. H. H. Holmes and architect Daniel H. Burnham in Chicago in the late nineteenth century. There is reportedlt a film adaptation on the way, from Leonardo DiCaprio.

If Santa Claus can do it...

If Santa Claus can do it…

There is a reason that serial killers work so well as an expression about the fears of urban living. A lot of people, living on top of one another, anonymously in a noisy environment provides an ample hunting ground for a human predator. It’s notable that the victims in Squeeze are all killed in places where they should have been safe – inside their apartment or their office. They died locked away from the world, anonymously and without anybody noticing what was going on. “The last incident, two days ago, high security office building, nothing on the security monitors, janitor spoke to the victim minutes before the murder, didn’t hear or see a thing out of the ordinary.”

Tooms is a hyper-evolved predatory ideally suited to urban living. He can slink through the pipes and the air vents and the chimneys. He can worm his way through all those impossibly tight places in order to get to you. He is perfectly adapted to the city – arguably better than the humans who designed it and who inhabit it. If the serial killer is generally seen as an urban predator, then Tooms is an urban superpredator.

See you in about twenty episodes...

See you in about twenty episodes…

Perhaps the one point where Morgan and Wong over-egg the pudding comes when they try to compare Tooms to the attempted genocides around the world. Recalling one crime scene, former detective Briggs notes, “When I first heard about the death camps in 1945, I remembered Powhatan Mill. When I see the Kurds and the Bosnians, that room is there. I tell ye… it’s like all the horrible acts that humans are capable of somehow gave birth to some kind of… human monster.”

The idea is sound. Tooms is, after all, a thematic extension of the serial killer as an urban predator. He’s the bastard love child of Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer and the Yorkshire Ripper all rolled into one. He’s the primal fear that we can never actually catch, and so never really goes away. He just hibernates until he reappears again. He can find us anywhere and lurk in any tight space, because he really just stores himself away in the darkest corner of our imagination.

"Look, Agent Scully, FBI does not stand for F%&#in' Bizarre Investigations..."

“Look, Agent Scully, FBI does not stand for F%&#in’ Bizarre Investigations…”

That’s what Tooms seems to be, the product of over a century of horror stories about what people can do to people in a tight urban space. “How do we learn about the present?” Mulder asks. “We look to the past.” Scully’s relatively rational theory about Tooms even acknowledges this idea, suggesting that Tooms is literally the progeny of a serial killer (or two). “Genetics might explain the patterns, it also might explain the sociopathic attitudes and behaviours. It begins with one family member, who raises an offspring, who raises the next child.”

However, linking Tooms to genocide feels a little bit too much. It feels like Squeeze is trying to make Tooms the boogey man of everything, which seems a little greedy. We do have a whole season of possible monsters to come, so it feels a little much to make the very first monster of the week into the personification of absolute human evil. I don’t think Tooms is strong enough to support that, but I do think he works well enough to be the ultimate serial killer.

Shedding some light on the matter...

Shedding some light on the matter…

Anyway, as noted above, Squeeze is really more concerned about the Mulder and Scully dynamic. I think you can make a fair argument that a lot of the writers of The X-Files tended to favour one of the leads over the other. Wong and Morgan wrote Mulder quite well (they did write Little Green Men and The Field Where I Died), but the pair tend to write a stronger version of Scully. Squeeze is the show’s first Scully-centric episode, as Scully finds herself put in the position of having to choose between Mulder and the rest of the FBI.

To be fair, Mulder doesn’t come across particularly well here. In quite a few of Morgan and Wong’s Scully episodes, Mulder tends to come across as an incredibly emotionally unaware individual, completely oblivious to the crap that he puts Scully through as a consequence of being his partner. Here, he’s antagonistic to Scully’s old friends, making remarks about aliens who like liver in order to play up to his eccentric reputation. He gets territorial and adversarial, apparently over the X-File in question, but possibly over Scully herself. “We had it first,” he remarks of the case, like a kid in a school yard.

The X-Files really spotted a gap in the market...

The X-Files really spotted a gap in the market…

It’s notable that – despite Mulder’s gift as a profiler – it is Scully who comes up with a profile that allows the FBI to catch Tooms. She suggests staking out the last murder site. Mulder is dismissive, in that jerkish way that Mulder is always dismissive of everybody else’s crazy theories. “He’s not coming back here,” he tells Scully. “His thrill is derived from the challenge of seemingly impossible entry. He’s already beaten this place. If you’d read the X-file on the case, you’d come to the same conclusion.” That last remark is the ultimate sort of nerdish complaint, the “I’m more familiar with the source material so I know more” argument.

However, Mulder still shows up at the crime scene. If he doesn’t believe Tooms is going to be there, the only reason for Mulder to show up is to tease Scully. It is, as Scully points out, less than professional. “Mulder, you are jeopardising my stakeout,” she warns him. Later, when Mulder pushes the issue of Tooms’ age with the other officers, Scully points out that Mulder isn’t making any friends, that his refusal to deal with political realities is actually damaging the investigation. “You knew they wouldn’t believe you, why did you push it?” she demands. This becomes a plot point again, in Tooms, when Mulder sabotages Tooms’ hearing by going full!X-File on it.

Opening new doors...

Opening new doors…

Mulder can offer all the justifications for his conduct that he wants, but Wong and Morgan seem to suggest that it isn’t just an incredibly vast government conspiracy that has confined Mulder to the basement of the FBI headquarters. He might claim that the rest of the FBI started this passive-aggressive conflict, but he perpetuates it. His inability to compromise and to play well with others – coupled with his ego and difficulty sharing – all make it hard to believe that Mulder would ever have been an ideal FBI agent, even if he had never become “Spooky” Mulder.

At the same time, however, there’s a hint that Mulder does care about Scully. For all his arrogance and brash egotism dealing with her fellow agents, there’s a pang of insecurity as Mulder asks, “Do you think I’m Spooky?” For her part, Scully has made her choice. She is working with her partner, and she doesn’t need anybody in the FBI to watch her back or to rescue her from that dank basement. Scully is loyal, and she’s willing to offer Mulder more trust than he can probably bring himself to afford her at this point in the show. Between this and her badass rescue of Mulder in Deep Throat, Scully is off to a strong start.

... and he doesn't even make the top of the page...

… and he doesn’t even make the top of the page…

Even the episode’s climax, which hinges on Mulder racing to save Scully, avoids the temptation to play Scully as a helpless victim. Comparing the almost!bath scene here to the almost!shower scene in The Pilot, there’s a very clear shift in how the show views Scully. She’s a lot less sexualised, and a lot less treated like the damsel in distress. The show would be shrewd enough to avoid victimising Scully too much, and Scully would often come to Mulder’s rescue, but the first few seasons do tend to put Scully in danger a bit more. It’s something the show would wisely grow out of.

The two leads are clearly much more comfortable in their roles here. In particularly, Duchovny is channelling Mulder’s detachment much more effectively than he did in the pilot, a conscious choice by the actor:

Duchovny plays it cool. ”Sometimes I have to fight, because [directors] say, ‘Here’s this dead body, how come Mulder’s not more emotionally involved?’ Everybody’s aghast, and I’m detached, like, ‘Look at those beautiful maggots.”’ He’s more scientist than G-man: ”Like in the episode with the liver-eating squeeze guy who could elongate himself through chimneys, the director wanted me to be mad about this horrible serial killer. I was like, ‘No, this is an amazing discovery! He’s not morally culpable, because he’s genetically driven.’ I judge no one.”

A sign that Duchovny had a good grip on his character even this early in the run.

Another green-eyed monster...

Another green-eyed monster…

There’s a perception, early in the series, that the mythology episodes actually started out stronger than the stand-alone “monster of the week” narratives. That sentiment probably developed later in the season, with any number of dodgy stand-alone tales serving to pad out the mythology stories that seemed to be gaining momentum. However, Squeeze gets those stand-alone stories off to a strong start, and just builds off the momentum of the opening episodes of the first season.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of The X-Files:

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