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The X-Files – The Jersey Devil (Review)

And with The Jersey Devil, the first season of The X-Files hits its first major snag. The first four episodes have done an efficient job laying down the character arcs and the ground rules for this new conspiratorial series. The rest of the season – like a lot of first seasons – has a great deal of difficulty trying to figure out a formula that works using those elements.

The Jersey Devil is, by all accounts, an episode that should work. It has a nice pseudo-scientific premise. It is written by the creator of the show, and who – at this early stage – could claim a better idea of how the series works than Chris Carter? It gives us some personal insight into both of our protagonists, and it sort of clarifies that Squeeze is not going to be the exception – that there will be a lot of anthology-style episodes.

And yet, despite all that, it doesn’t quite work. The premise is never as interesting as it should be. Chris Carter confirms that while he is a fantastic ideas man, he is not the strongest writer on his own staff. The best of these insights into Mulder and Scully were already made much better in Squeeze, and the rest feel somewhat trite. Despite the fact that it’s only the show’s second anthology-style episode, The Jersey Devil feels like it’s trying to hard to stick to the framework outlined by the three UFO episodes in the series’ opening quartet.

Casting light...

Casting light…

The Jersey Devil isn’t a terrible episode, by any means. There are worse episodes of the show to come. It isn’t even the weakest episode of a massively uneven first season. It’s just a mess. It’s an unsatisfying mess because the potential is very clearly there to make something much more interesting and compelling than the show that actually made it to air. Even the show’s staff seem to concede as much, with Morgan and Wong joking that Never Again would be “up there with Jersey Devil” if not for the work of Rob Bowman and Jodie Foster.

Some of this mess is apparent even in the episode’s basic premise. Like Shadows, The Jersey Devil seems to suggest that the early episodes of The X-Files were hedging their bets slightly by trying to feature the most familiar of horror tropes and conventions. Squeeze featured a radically new type of monster for our FBI agents to face, but The Jersey Devil takes its name from one of the more recognisable pieces of East Coast folklore. Similarly, Shadows was mandated by the network so that the show’s first half-season could feature a familiar ghost story style episode.

Ah, paperwork, the most rewarding part of Mulder's job...

Ah, paperwork, the most rewarding part of Mulder’s job…

And yet The Jersey Devil feels like a cheat. It’s a bait-and-switch from Carter, so that he can suddenly shift the episode to start talking about biological relicts, which is an interesting topic in its own right. However, the characters in the show seem to know next-to-nothing about the Jersey Devil mythology – or perhaps the in-universe mythology is just radically different. Indeed, the lack of awareness of the characters was so great that it was the first question posed to Chris Carter in People‘s first web chat.

Using the Jersey Devil as a springboard to something Carter is far more interested in discussing counts as fair game. However, it feels a little awkward, as if the story that he wanted to tell might have worked better with Bigfoot – whose mythology is a lot more adaptable to the ideas that Carter includes here. To be fair to Carter, there is some basis for the Bigfoot-esque portrayal of the Jersey Devil seen here, but most portrayals of the creature tend to suggest it’s more like a winged goat than a monkey.

Location shoot...

Location shoot…

That said, there’s a lot of good ideas here concerning the Devil. I love the decision to open the episode in 1947, giving us something of a historical X-File. It gives us a sense of context, and creates the notion that the surreal and paranormal have always been lurking in the darkness, they don’t just suddenly exist as products of the post-Cold War American subconscious. The X-Files would go on to play heavily with American history, particularly the history following the Second World War. So the opening of The Jersey Devil feels almost like foreshadowing of the show’s fascination with the spectres from that period of American history.

However, this can’t quite get past the fact that Chris Carter is not the strongest writer. It’s hard to be too critical of Carter, given how vitally important he was at finding a niche in the zeitgeist for the show, but he is quite a weak script-writer. Often, his work is carried more by good ideas than by decent execution. Indeed, the best Carter scripts aren’t the ones with the best twists or the best dialogue, they are the episodes with the strongest core ideas. (I’m a huge fan of the whole Redux trilogy, despite its flaws.)

Devils and dust...

Devils and dust…

Carter’s scripting problems are obvious here. For one thing, the whole “what if it’s a girl?” reveal makes for a pretty terrible twist. It closes an act with a dramatic cut to black, but it doesn’t really change too much. Is the fact that the monster has a different set of reproductive organs supposed to change the playing field? The big reveal here should the suggestion that it’s a whole family or even community hiding in the wild, but Carter’s delivery drops the ball a bit, and thus makes it seem a little bit sexist.

“I just had an amazing thought, maybe it isn’t a beast-man we’re looking for after all,” Mulder suggests to Scully, overlooking the fact that there was probably a fifty-fifty chance of that from the outset. It’s not a bad idea, as the reveal that there is a family of these creatures raises the dramatic stakes. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t properly convey it, and so the whole moment falls a bit flat in execution.

An artist's rendition...

An artist’s rendition…

This is arguably the least of Carter’s dialogue problems. His script is loaded with awkward exposition. Mulder’s discussion with Doctor Diamond is written more like a cryptozoology FAQ than an actual conversation. Mulder exists just to prompt philosophical statements from the biologist, with lines like “why is that?” and “what’s this chart?” and “why?” The scene exists to convey information to the viewers, but Mulder seems more like a cypher than a character, so Diamond can expound on his theories on the “universal wild man myth. A symbolic fear of our dual natures as humans, as creators of life and destroyers of it.”

However, Carter doesn’t just use exposition to provide plot points in the most clunky of manners. He also invites his characters to discuss their own philosophies at length – more as monologues than as dialogue. Often, Mulder or Scully seem to exist as mouthpieces for Carter’s world view, in the most irritating of manners. “What if it is a female Scully?” Mulder wonders in the middle of the episode’s chase sequence. “How close is she to you or me? Does she feel emotion? Or are her days just spent looking for food?”

Mulder goes undercover...

Mulder goes undercover…

He continues, “Eight million years out of Africa, I don’t think we’re all that different.” When Scully suggests that mankind has achieved wonderful things, Mulder’s train of thought will not be budged. “While we over-populate the world and create new technologies to kill each other with. Maybe we’re just beasts with big brains.” This is the type of speechifying that Duchovny would mercilessly lampoon when he guest-starred on The Simpsons, and the fact that it is so obvious in the show’s fifth episode is not a good thing.

In fact, Carter’s script for The Jersey Devil suffers because he tries to make it fit the pattern he established back in The Pilot and in Deep Throat. There’s a sense that Carter believes every episode of The X-Files must involve some paranoid conspiracy or cover-up. Confronted with the local police department’s refusal to consider his theories, Mulder’s accusations are less-than-subtle. “Oh is that your job,” he taunts, “or is it to keep the dice rolling, keep the tour buses rolling in? You can’t fill those casinos, this town disappears like a quarter down the slot.”

Here come the brainy specs...

Here come the brainy specs…

Of course, The X-Files’ fascination with government conspiracies and black helicopters seems more than a little paranoid, but it is a lot easier to swallow than a local government cover-up of a monster appearance. Mulder acts like it’s unreasonable for the police not to seriously pursue reports of a supernatural force at work. Of course there is, but Mulder has the luxury of being a protagonist in a show about this sort of stuff. Painting the local cops as crooked seems a lot less reasonable than portraying them as simply close-minded or even inept.

After all, one imagines that more concrete rumours about the Devil would be a tourist boon – like the way that Loch Ness has cultivated an international tourist industry around Nessie. As it stands, the Devil is already a bit of a tourist attraction in certain parts of the state. While no local government official would blame the beast for murder, allowing rumour to circulate would only draw more media attention and tourism to the state.

Be very quiet, we're hunting Jersey Devils...

Be very quiet, we’re hunting Jersey Devils…

Mulder alludes to this by suggesting, “Any publicity and you’re got the streets crawling with the kind of people who aren’t here to play the crap tables.” However, he suggests that the two kinds of tourism are mutually exclusive. Given that Las Vegas is the gambling capital of the world and has a sordid history of violent crime, it’s not as if it wouldn’t be possible to cultivate Bigfoot-levels of business out of a monster that lends its name to the local ice hokey team.

Another of the problems with the script is that Squeeze already did the whole “Scully sacrifices her life outside the X-Files” thing rather well, and The Jersey Devil seems like a pale imitation. Carter tries to suggest that chasing monsters will always be cooler than going on dates with boring guys, but it feels like a weighted comparison. We’ve all gone on bad dates, but that doesn’t mean every date is mind-numbingly boring, and the notion that Scully is suddenly completely happy to devote her life to Mulder because of one boring dinner conversation feels a little shallow. Morgan and Wong would handle Scully a lot better in their later episodes centring on the character.

Mulder does some probing of his own...

Mulder does some probing of his own…

At the same time, The Jersey Devil never feels like a complete failure. For one thing, it does something important. It kicks off a run of episodes centring around mysteries-of-the-week rather than a larger alien conspiracy. Squeeze did that as well, but it was nestled between several alien episodes. In many respects, The Jersey Devil solidifies The X-Files as an anthology show for the nineties, as John Kenneth Muir argues:

But the creator of The X-Files, Chris Carter was able to make the show almost an anthology.  You had Scully and Mulder every week, – so it wasn’t an anthology, but you had a different monster every week.  One week it was the Fluke Man, another week it was the Jersey Devil.  It was an anthology of monsters, featuring regular characters.

The anthology “monster-of-the-week” episodes were quickly overtaken by the conspiracy “mytharc”, but I suspect that history has been a lot kinder to the standalone adventures. The Jersey Devil is a vitally important part of the show defining its own identity.

Holding on to some trace of a normal life...

Holding on to some trace of a normal life…

And, despite the clunkiness of Scully’s character arc, Carter at least has a handle on the relationship he wants his characters to have with each other. The opening gag about Mulder’s porn habit would become a lot funnier (and subtler) in later years, but The Jersey Devil makes it quite clear that the show is going to play up the sexual tension between Mulder and Scully. Scully blows off a date for Mulder. Mulder is possessive of Scully.

“Hey, what do you say we grab a hotel, take in a floor show, drop a few quarters in the slot, do a little digging on this case?” he asks, his desperate loneliness almost painful. When Scully blows him off, he’s immediately wounded. “You got a date?” he asks, a hint of jealousy in the question. The fact that he underscores the point by throwing keys across the hood of the car at Scully and letting her drive home alone speaks volumes about Mulder’s attitude to Scully. He doesn’t see her as somebody he works with.

Let's face it, Scully was going to get a call like this sooner or later...

Let’s face it, Scully was going to get a call like this sooner or later…

Carter would tease the relationship for over seven years, only revealing retroactively that the duo hooked up – an ending that feels less satisfactory that the convoluted climax of the alien mythology. He’s very clearly in teasing mode here, as Scully’s friend tries to set her up. A divorced dad fits the bill, but Carter has Scully’s friend explicitly ask, “What about that guy you work with?” Scully answers, and then qualifies her answer – suggesting some conflict there.

There are also lots of little touches that work very well. The wonderfully shot sequence where Mulder stumbles upon an urban wasteland on the edge of the city – what New-Jersey-ite Springsteen might refer to as “the darkness on the edge of town” – suggesting the very human consequences of urban decay. It seems almost like Mulder might just wander into The Wire if he just goes a little further, and there’s a rich atmosphere to Mulder’s investigations into the homeless community.

The real horror...

The real horror…

It does a lot to humanise Mulder’s character, which has been defined as occasionally petty and stubborn – it’s a nice reminder that Mulder’s heart is in the right place even if he can be a little headstrong and confrontation. (He’s not a consensus-builder, is our Mulder.) The scene where he gives his hotel room key to one lucky homeless person is just a bit much, but it’s the one hackneyed moment in an otherwise effective and strangely moving sequence. The Jersey Devil might have been stronger had it kept focus on this abandoned community.

The Jersey Devil also has one hell of a strong central premise. There’s something delightfully twisted about the idea of an evolutionary missing link existing at all. However, placing that missing link in New Jersey rather than “the jungles of New Guinea” or some such is a rather ingenious twist, blending the majestic with the mundane to create the sense of a strange other world where even the woods of New Jersey still hide some magical creatures.

A strange beast...

A strange beast…

The Jersey Devil isn’t the worst episode of the first season, and it has a rake of good ideas and does a number of important things. However, it’s the first time it feels like the show has missed a step, and we’re entering a stage in the season where that will become a lot more common.

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

One Response

  1. “Another of the problems with the script is that Squeeze already did the whole ‘Scully sacrifices her life outside the X-Files’ thing rather well, and The Jersey Devil seems like a pale imitation. … We’ve all gone on bad dates, but that doesn’t mean every date is mind-numbingly boring, and the notion that Scully is suddenly completely happy to devote her life to Mulder because of one boring dinner conversation feels a little shallow.”

    Although I agree with most of this review, I think this comment misses the real significance of Scully’s date with Rob. As I wrote in my review of this episode, “The Jersey Devil” gives us a concrete example of Scully exercising sexual agency – something we hardly see at any other point in the series. Unfortunately, later episodes tend to shoehorn her into sexist clichés: consider “Never Again”, in which Morgan & Wong suggest that Scully’s devotion to Mulder is simply a result of her unresolved daddy issues; or “Milagro”, where Phillip Padgett assumes that her lack of a social life must leave Scully love-starved and sexually frustrated. What these men are doing is falling back on stereotypes about women: that they all basically desire sex, marriage, and motherhood, and that going without these things must be a “sacrifice”. But “The Jersey Devil” suggests something much more radical: that Scully simply isn’t interested in sex, marriage, and motherhood. That, given the opportunity to have all the things women are supposed to want, she actively rejects them in favour of celibacy and mutant-hunting. And she rejects them, not just because of one boring date, but because mutants just genuinely appeal to her in a way heterosexuality does not. Rob’s not exceptionally dull; he seems pretty average. What Scully is rejecting isn’t specifically him; it’s the whole heteronormative system that he represents. It’s a positive choice she makes to live her life in a non-normative fashion, and I think that deserves to be celebrated, even if nothing else in this episode does.

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