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The X-Files – Lazarus (Review)

And, with Lazarus, we enter a long mediocre stretch in the second half of the first season of The X-Files. To be fair, none of the episodes in this run are anywhere near as bad as Space, but – with the exception of E.B.E., Tombs and The Erlenmeyer Flask – they all feel a little flat. It’s as if the first half of the season was more experimental, as The X-Files tried to figure out what it wanted to be, with the second half dedicated to settling into its particular groove.

Lazarus isn’t terrible. It just feels a little rote, a little paint-by-numbers, a littler average and safe. It’s a conventional enough supernatural (or psychological) thriller, but it lacks that extra “umph” to make it something particularly worthy of a viewer’s time.

The mask is slipping...

The mask is slipping…

To be fair, I suspect that Lazarus suffers because it’s a Scully-centric episode from a creative team that doesn’t really do a great job with Scully-centric episodes. Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa have a pretty impressive track record so far in this first season. They wrote the stand-out Mulder-centric episodes Conduit and Fallen Angel. I’m fonder of Ghost in the Machine that most, because it feels wonderfully ethereal and surreal.

The duo originally conceived Lazarus as a Mulder-centric episode. “We’d wanted Mulder to experience the soul switch,” Gordon concedes in The Truth is Out There: The Official Guide to the X-Files. This makes a certain amount of sense from a storytelling standpoint. Mulder was a criminal profiler in the past, a key plot point in Gordon and Gansa’s Ghost in the Machine. If he spent so much time crawling around inside the mind of a psychopath, isn’t it possible that the psychopath might wind up crawling around inside his own?

She's on telly!

She’s on telly!

This isn’t a bad hook. Indeed, the show would explore similar ground in the third and fourth seasons, with episodes like Grotesque and Paper Hearts. Much is made of the similarities between Scully and Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs, but Mulder seems quite heavily influenced by the character of Will Graham from Red Dragon – a brilliant criminal profiler who had a nervous breakdown that forced him away from his work and left him a shell of a man. Of course, Mulder’s breakdown was triggered by his repressed memories of Samantha’s abduction, but the comparison holds.

In fact, Paper Hearts seems to consciously play off that comparison, casting Tom Noonan as Mulder’s antagonist – a nod to Noonan’s role in Manhunter, Michael Mann’s adaptation of Red Dragon. Noonan’s killer even leaves markings on natural objects in the same way that the muderer from Red Dragon did, albeit engraving “Mad Hat” rather than a mahjong symbol. That said, it’s worth noting that Will Graham was a much greater influence on Millennium than on The X-Files, but there’s still a clear link.

Talk about giving Willis the finger...

Talk about giving Willis the finger…

There’s no way to know if Lazarus might have been a stronger episode if Mulder had been infected, rather than the guest star of the week. It might have raised the dramatic stakes a bit, and provided a nice avenue to explore Mulder’s history as a behaviour profiler, but it could also have felt contrived. After all, you’d imagine that – with or without Deep Throat’s protection – he would have had a hard time keeping his job after behaving like a serial killer. (That said, there’s nothing to suggest this early idea would have played out in a manner even remotely similar to the version that made it to screen, but it’s fun to imagine.)

Of course, the network’s refusal to allow Mulder to be possessed is probably the safer option, minimising the risk that the show might go completely off the rails. As a result, Lazarus feels a little too “safe” for its own good, a little too insulated and protected. A lot of the monster-of-the-week episodes of The X-Files live or die on the strength of their guest stars, and Agent Willis simply isn’t interesting enough to make us care about what happens to him.

Making a comeback...

Making a comeback…

Christopher Allport does good work in the role – particularly playing the initially disorientated Dupre-in-Willis’ body, but the character is more a collection of familiar tropes than a functional character. When Scully talks about him, it doesn’t sound like she’s describing an ex-boyfriend so much as a list of archetypal attributes of “driven FBI agents.” She tells Mulder, “It was always so hard for Jack to relax. It was impossible for him really. He was always so intense, so relentlessly determined.”

It all feels rather generic – an efficiently-constructed episode lacking the sparks necessary to elevate it. Even the obligatory teaser foreshadowing feels a little obligatory rather than inspired. “I can feel them,” Willis explains to Scully. “I’m inside their heads.” Scully replies, “Just as long as you keep yours.”

When most men say that death itself couldn't keep them from their loves, I'm going to guess they're bluffing...

When most men say that death itself couldn’t keep them from their loves, I’m going to guess they’re bluffing…

That said, I do like that Lazarus maintains at least a hint of ambiguity about what happened to Jack. Sure, Dupre convulsing on the next bed and Willis knowing intimate details of Dupre’s relationship with Lulu suggest that there’s no reason for this which isn’t paranormal, but the episode at least maintains the pretense that this could just be Willis having a massive psychological breakdown – what with his clear and thinly-veiled envy of the lifestyle that Dupre and Lulu are living.

Scully’s explanation doesn’t tie together everything, but it gets to make more sense than usual. And – at a point where the series seems to have given up any hint of balance between the competing ideologies of the two leads – it’s a nice touch. It’s good to see an episode where Scully doesn’t look like a moron at the end. Even if she spends most of the episode chained to a radiator after ignoring all the obvious signs that her ex-boyfriend is going through what is (at the least) a very severe psychological breakdown.

The boy with the lizard tattoo...

The boy with the lizard tattoo…

Lazarus is not a great Scully episode, and it’s clear that Gordon and Gansa don’t have quite the same grip on Scully as a character that they have with Mulder. While episodes like Conduit and Fallen Angel defined Mulder’s character for the entire run of the series, the only piece of information we get about Scully here is that she likes older (possibly damaged) men. Willis was, we’re informed, her “instructor at the Academy.” It’s something that remains true of her characterisation throughout the show (with Scully even conceding it herself in En Ami), but it feels somewhat trite.

(And, again, it makes Scully look grossly incompetent. I can buy Mulder trusting an old girlfriend when he really shouldn’t, but Scully is far too trusting of Willis. Mulder has noted a strange shift in behavior – switching from right-handed to left-handed. Scully has confirmed that Willis was responsible for a post-mortem mutilation of a criminal he’d been stalking for years. Even agreeing to follow Willis on a “tip”, let alone trusting him to call back-up or allowing him to take her gun, seems reckless and out of character. She doesn’t believe Mulder’s crazy resurrection theory, but it’s clear that Willis is going through some sort of psychotic break.)

Off-the-cuff remarks...

Off-the-cuff remarks…

It’s worth noting that director David Nutter makes the best of the material available to him. He can’t turn the episode into a classic, but he keeps it moving. While the teaser features far too much slow motion, there are some wonderfully effective shots – Dupre’s mask sliding along the back floor, the body convulsing in time in the background. Even the siege on Lulu’s hideout looks quite stunning, as Mulder and is fellow agents seem to stalk through an urban wasteland.

I talked a bit in Gender Bender about how The X-Files developed from an exploration of post war anxieties into a tour of American popular legends – an ode to all those strange local myths that were being pushed further and further away with the advent of the internet, mobile phones, live streams and the twenty-four minute news cycle. It seemed that we could shine a bright piercing light absolutely anywhere at any time, forcing local folklore to sink deeper and deeper into the darkness.

You, me and Dupre...

You, me and Dupre…

Dupre and Lulu are very clearly meant to be a riff on the outlaw couple of Bonnie and Clyde, tapping into the romanticised iconography of two rebels living their lives completely free of societal obligations or the rules imposed from above. Willis himself creepily articulates the appeal of their life style in recordings left behind:

I feel myself getting into their heads and I’m scared by what I’m feeling. The intoxicating freedom that comes from disconnecting action and consequence. Theirs is a world where nothing matters but their own needs, their own impossible appetites and while the pleasure they derive from acts of violence is clearly sexual, it also speaks to what Warden Jackson called their operatic devotion to each other. It’s a love affair I almost envy.

Aside from demonstrating that Mulder and Scully aren’t the only characters who can churn out pretentious monologues, it also taps into why the public has been so fascinating with these sort of outlaw couples, despite the fact that they are… not nice people.

Has a nice ring to it...

Has a nice ring to it…

Scully’s account of the case history makes it clear that Dupre and Lulu aren’t some romantic ideal. They are vicious psychopaths. “The sixty-five-year-old female teller was pistol-whipped,” she recalls of one incident. “Died from a massive subdural hemorrhage all because she didn’t put the money in the bag fast enough.” As Mulder deadpans, “Lovely couple.” One of the stronger parts of Lazarus – and something that doesn’t get nearly enough space – is the exploration and subversion of that romantic ideal.

There is a sense that we romanticise these monsters. After all, the hideouts used by Bonnie and Clyde have become tourist attractions – with various rumours and speculation built up around various locales. Apparently 20,000 souvenir hunters showed up Bienville Parish the day after the pair were killed.  There is an annual festival held to celebrate the duo. While Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde didn’t skimp on the violence associated with the couple, it still played into the romantic fantasy by casting Hollywood hunk Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow.

That is the face of a healthy agent...

That is the face of a healthy agent…

Lazarus plays with this archetype, suggesting that perhaps the love felt by these outlaw couples isn’t quite as pure as we might like to believe in our own narratives. The episode opens with Dupre waxing poetic about his love for Lulu, but it ends with the revelation that Lulu sent him out like a lamb to the slaughter, leaving her “a lot of money now that she doesn’t have to split it two ways.” The relationship between Dupre and Lulu feels like it should be the centre of the story, unraveling the fantasy of the romantic outlaw couple, but the script never manages to make it as central as it needs to be.

Interestingly, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers riffs on many of the same themes as Lazarus. The movie was released a few months after Lazarus aired, and there’s nothing to suggest any significant link between the two productions. Indeed, Stone’s film is a lot more ambitious and a lot more interested in the relationship between the media and the myth of this romantic outlaw couple. Still, it demonstrates how these ideas were very much anchored in the mid-nineties zeitgeist.

I can feel your heartbeat...

I can feel your heartbeat…

David Duchovny had appeared in another “outlaw couple roadtrip” film – this one released in late 1993. The underrated Kalifornia starred Duchovny as a young journalist touring famous crime scenes with his girlfriend, romanticising the brutal violence of past outlaws. Naturally, Duchovny’s character and his girlfriend get to experience that sort of brutality close up and discover that it’s nowhere near as romantic as it might seem. The movie featured a young Brad Pitt and co-starred Natural Born Killers’ Juliette Lewis.

This all lends Lazarus just the faintest hint of relevance, much like Gender Bender feels like a product of a whole host of mid-nineties anxieties. It’s not enough to elevate the episode, as Gordon and Gansa don’t develop their ideas well enough to make Dupre and Lulu compelling guest stars. Lazarus isn’t a bad little episode, and perhaps that’s the best that can be said about it.

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

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