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The X-Files – Miracle Man (Review)

The biggest problem with Miracle Man is that it’s a Howard Gordon script. I don’t mean to diminish Gordon’s contributions to the show. Gordon is one of the strongest contributors to this rocky first season (only Morgan and Wong can claim to be stronger, and they also have their misfires), and he – along with frequent partner Alex Gansa – seems to have the strongest grip on Mulder as a character. And therein lies the most fundamental problem with Miracle Man, the horribly clumsy and muddled ending aside.

Miracle Man feels like it focuses on the wrong lead. It tackles themes and subject matter the show would revisit more successfully in the years ahead, in episodes like Revelations and All Souls. However, the religion-themed episodes in the years ahead would typically focus on Scully – contrasting her religious faith with her scientific skepticism to provide Anderson with some of the best work she’d do on the show.

Instead, Miracle Man digs its character hooks into Mulder, tying back to the disappearance of Samantha for no reason other than “well, this story needs to be about Mulder for some reason.”

Symbolism!

Symbolism!

To be fair, you get the sense that Miracle Man was really one of the most obvious choices for the first season of The X-Files. A new show about the mystical and paranormal? Religious belief is obviously fodder for a show. After all, it’s a widely-accepted and mainstream belief in the supernatural and paranormal, a belief that is more widespread and mainstream than belief in whatever strange creature Mulder is tracking from one week to the next.

Given that The X-Files is fascinated in exploring the American popular consciousness – from E.B.E.‘s residual guilt over sins past to to Eve‘s discomfort in suburbia – religion should make great fodder for an episode. Indeed, The X-Files is a product of the mid-nineties, with many of the show’s more memorable episodes riffing on popular concerns and anxieties. So far this season, Fallen Angel dared to suggest that America would invent its own enemies in the wake of the Cold War, whereas Gender Bender played over all manner of sexual uncertainties.

Taking the matter in hand...

Taking the matter in hand…

Miracle Man is based around that loudest of American religious institutions – the televangelist faith healer. Reverend Samuel Hartley doesn’t seem to broadcast on television, although his sermons are recorded and he seems to relish the attention. Still, Hartley’s conduct and presentation – a fancy suit, nice cars, expensive jewelry and a powerful theatricality – can’t help but evoke some of the excesses associated with televangelism.

It’s worth noting that faith healing has a long history in the United States. The first half of the first season of The X-Files seemed primarily interested in post war anxieties, like eugenics or suburbia or atomic energy or technology-gone-wild. In contrast, the second half of the season delves into more primal fears rooted quite deeply in the American psyche. Darkness Falls suggests that perhaps the settlers still haven’t tamed the wilderness. Shapes features a Native American myth come to life.

Once burnt...

Once burnt…

The notion of healing the sick through religious rite dates back to time immemorial. It has been cemented in American popular consciousness for quite some time. Various stereotypes about the mystical healing powers of the Native Americans play into all sorts of prejudices, but the settlers also brought their own mysticism. In the late nineteenth century, Mary Baker Eddy established Christian Science, placing the notion of faith healing directly at odds with more scientific medical doctrines.

Many would argue that Christian Science peaked with approximately 350,000 members in the 1930s, and that there are currently fewer than 100,000 adherents in the United States. However, faith healing remains a popular avenue for those suffering from illness. Indeed, many states have laws actively recognising the rights of parents to refuse their children medical care in favour of prayer and faith – refusing to treat such cases as neglect. Between 1974 and 1983, states were required to write such exemptions into law in order to qualify for grant money.

And the only boy who could ever reach me, was the son of a preacher man...

And the only boy who could ever reach me, was the son of a preacher man…

It remains a hotly contested issue to this day. The topic became a point of contention in 1996 and 1997 with updates to the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. In July this year, the 2009 conviction for reckless homicide against a couple who had refused their daughter proper medical care was upheld. This is just one facet of the “culture wars” that played out across America in the last two decades, between particular schools of religious belief and certain ideological viewpoints over the influence of religion on public life.

The trappings of Hartley’s ministry also call to mind a slightly more modern sort of religious fervor. Televangelism is a weird blend of religion and popular culture which is truly something to behold. It was a movement that seemed to go from strength to strength in the seventies and into the eighties. Rex Humbard helped pioneer televangelism during the fifties, and had his sermons broadcast in 91 languages at the peak of his influence, and his sermons were broadcast on Sundays from 1953 to 1999.

He has seen the light!

He has seen the light!

Of course, televangelism was racked with scandals in the late eighties and early nineties. Part of this was down to the lifestyles lived by many of these preachers – using donations and contributions to invest in sports cars seemed a little gratuitous. Part of this was down to various investigations into the conduct of various high-profile figures. Robert Tilton had “the fastest-growing ministry in the country” in 1988, making the exposure of his scams on PrimeTime Live all the more devastating. Religious groups like the Trinity Foundation were heavily involved in exposing these schemes.

As such, you might expect Miracle Man to offer a rather cynical portrayal of Reverend Hartley’s miracle ministry. Certainly, the episode starts pointing in that direction. Mulder and Scully are drafted in to investigate a wrongful death. Much is made of Hartley’s material wealth. Observing one of his sermons, the duo catch sight of the collection plate. “Apparently miracles don’t come cheap,” Scully deadpans.

They've got a lot on their plate...

They’ve got a lot on their plate…

And yet Miracle Man tries to have it both ways. I like that Gordon, despite being a writer who favours Mulder, tends to have written many of his early episodes ion such a way that a skeptical reading is possible, if implausible. This was also the case in Gordon and Gansa’s Lazarus, where Scully could make a reasonably strong case that Jack Willis was going through a pretty severe mental breakdown.

Sure, there are occasional signifiers which push the plot out of the realm of possibility. In Lazarus, Willis suddenly grows a tattoo, one that disappears quickly and conveniently. Here, we actually see a ghost appear to torment his killer. That said, it’s perfectly possible to argue that the camera isn’t being entirely honest – that these are simply hallucinations glimpsed by the characters, or visual short-hand to fill in the audience. They seem a little goofy, but they don’t destroy the ambiguity.

He's on telly!

He’s on telly!

In Miracle Man, there’s a perfectly rational explanation offered for most of the events – from the mysterious deaths to the plague of locusts in the court room. There’s enough here to allow a skeptic plausible deniability. Even Mulder admits this towards the end of Miracle Man, suggesting that he’s not as blinded by the paranormal as we might think. “I think people are looking hard for miracles… so hard that maybe they make themselves see what they want to see.”

Proving that Gordon has a great handle on Mulder, it’s also just a tad self-aware – as close as Mulder has come to admitting that his belief in aliens and conspiracies might just be rooted in his own insecurities and desire to make it all make sense. This ambiguity is a nice touch, and something I like about Gordon’s work on this first season, even if the scene with the ghost – regardless of whether you argue that it is a hallucination or not – derails that a bit.

Smoke and mirrors...

Smoke and mirrors…

Still, the final act lays the whole Christ stuff on far too heavily. As Samuel is beaten to death in his prison cell, abandoned by his father, he’s shot in silhouette as to evoke crucifixion. The man who betrayed him to the law is driven to suicide, but knows that he is also forgiven for his trespass. By the time the line “Samuel’s body is missing from the morgue” is uttered completely unironically, it’s hard to stop involuntary eye rolling.

Of course, the revelation about the traitor feels a little obvious. It has become unfortunate visual shorthand to equate physical disfigurement with moral perversion, so making the horrible burn victim into a bitter and angry man feels a little too trite. Having the character dress in black in an episode saturated with bright colours also makes the revelation seem a little clumsy – “man in black” is also a handy visual shorthand, one undermining the inevitable revelation.

Piecing it together...

Piecing it together…

It’s a shame, because there’s some quality stuff in here. In particular, I like the short scene between Samuel and his father back stage before the show. It would be easy to make Hartley a cynical cliché, but the episode generates some small amount of ambiguity around his conduct. “I’m a preacher, son,” he tells Samuel. “That’s my gift. But all the preaching in the world could not equal even a small miracle in consolidating the faith and hope of these people.”

There’s a sense that Hartley knows that faith is in crisis, and is trying to help the community preserve their belief. Hartley benefits from that faith, so he has a credible motivation for trying to convince Samuel that what they do is worthwhile, but there’s something decidedly romantic in the idea that this might all be hokum, but it might also be about rewarding and renewing faith. It’s a nice moment, albeit one undercut by the bluntness of the final few scenes – right down to the sheriff’s suffering wife echoing his scepticism back at him.

Cue obligatory "plague of lawyers" joke...

Cue obligatory “plague of lawyers” joke…

There’s also a very clear sense that Miracle Man focuses on the wrong lead. Though there has yet to be an entire episode devoted to it, Scully’s faith has been a major background component to this first season. Her crucifix is already a recognisable piece of apparel pointing to a conflict at the heart of her character. In The Jersey Devil, we discovered that she has a godson, indicating that Scully is reasonably involved in the life of her Catholic community.

So exploring fringe Christian theology might have provided an interesting glimpse at Scully’s faith. Instead, her own personal beliefs are relegated to a small exchange with Mulder, more of an after-thought than anything else. “Do you think the boy really did it?” Mulder asks.  “No,” she replies. “I was raised a Catholic, and I have a certain familiarity with the scripture. And God never lets the Devil steal the show.” She speaks as though her Catholicism is quite distant from her life, and it seems the writers hadn’t yet figured out how crucial it might become to her character. (That said, there’s something awesome that The Exorcist is one of her favourite films.)

Putting the matter to bed...

Putting the matter to bed…

And so Miracle Man makes the somewhat surreal choice to focus on Mulder, and the loss of Samantha is used to generate some emotional investment in what would otherwise be a fairly routine case. The problem is that bringing Samantha out like this feels like the show is desperately fishing for a strong hook, and diminishes her importance to Mulder. Samantha’s absence should also be present in the background, but only pushed to the fore in the most intimate and stressful of circumstances. Mulder has been living with this pain for years, so it seems surreal that something as mundane as this investigation might bring back particularly painful memories.

So the hallucinations here feel a little shallow, a bit trite. Perhaps the network were right when they shot down Gordon and Gansa’s original pitch for Lazarus, with the killer reincarnating inside Mulder’s resuscitated body – perhaps it would have weakened the plot to make it personal in so obvious a way, like carting out Samantha here. Still, it feels like Miracle Man is trying to get us to care about something that really isn’t worth the time or the focus.

He seems to have an invisible touch...

He seems to have an invisible touch…

Miracle Man isn’t terrible. It just doesn’t have anything to really recommend it. There are a few good ideas, but they are buried among heavy-handed religious symbolism and trite emotional manipulation. Given the interesting angle the show would take towards religion in later seasons, it feels like a bit of a misstep.

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

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