Roland is an episode that works much better than it really should. On the surface, it has many of the same problems as Born Again, to the point where it seems like “angry spirits” take up a disproportionate amount of Mulder and Scully’s case load. The filming and broadcast of Born Again and Roland in rapid succession probably points to the kind of pressure that Carter and his crew were under towards the end of the first year – both episodes play a lot better spaced out, and having the room to shuffle the production order on the two stories probably would have helped them seem less derivative.
And yet, Roland is elevated by a superb guest performance. Željko Ivanek isn’t the first stellar guest star that we’ve seen this year. Doug Hutchinson was perfectly cast as Tooms, and Brad Dourif did a marvellous job as Luther Lee Boggs. However, Ivanek might be the first guest star on The X-Files to elevate an otherwise bland episode through the sheer force of his performance.
That’s probably over-selling it. Roland has a lot more going for than Born Again did, and a variety of little interesting hooks that never seem particularly brilliant or inspired on their own, but add up to much more than the sum of their parts. Roland isn’t an episode that redefines the show. It doesn’t even inject any substantial energy into a first season that has been winding down since the half-way point. However, there are lots of little playful details that make it seem like an episode that veers almost imperceptibly from template.
At a casual glance, Roland is quite indistinguishable from Shadows or Born Again, but – when you look up close – it seems like a charming riff on a familiar concept. The basic outline is the same. A deceased individual is using a living person as a conduit to strike back at those he feels wronged him in life. In Shadows, a surrogate father-figure protects a young woman from harm and exposes a corporate conspiracy that staged his suicide. In Born Again, a betrayed cop strikes back at the corrupt officers who brutally murdered him.
Roland looks like it might be following the same rough template. Dr. Arthur Grable died under suspicious circumstances, and he has returned to wreak terrible vengeance on those he believes to have wronged him. It’s a fairly standard horror set-up. There’s just one small catch to this most typical of horror stories: Arthur Grable doesn’t seem like an especially nice person. In fact, far from seeming like a sympathetic victim, Grable seems like a bitter and twisted sociopath.
We’re first introduced to Grable as a vaguely sympathetic character. It turns out that Roland is his twin. Grable sought his long-lost brother out and brought him to work at the lab with him. The implication is that Arthur wanted to reconnect with Roland in some way, to help heal a rift between the two of them, and to bring them back together. Sure, there’s something a little odd in the way that Grable insisted the staff and residents call him “Dr. Grable”, but genius doctors are allowed their eccentricities, and Grable wasn’t likely to have been exceptionally personable.
There’s also the unspoken implication that Grable was murdered hanging over the first half of the show. When discussing the death of Surnow, Mulder points out that another doctor died in another inexplicable accident – since we know Surnow was murdered, the suggestion is that Grable was killed as well. “The police report on the auto accident that killed Arthur Grable is woefully incomplete,” Mulder tells us, as if to set our paranoia off. “The dry road surface, no mechanical problems found. The body was never admitted to the county morgue and there was no funeral.” It sounds like a cover-up.
Playing off our familiarity with these kinds of stories, it seems like we’re being set up for a big reveal: Nollette, Keats and Surnow obviously killed Grable so as to take credit for their work. Surnow tells us that Keats and Nollette “can’t wait to see [their names] in print!” Coupled with the fact that Nollette has a shady academic history and something of a temper, it all adds up to a pretty clear case against him. The obvious implication is that Nollette somehow murdered Grable to take credit for his work, and that Grable is avenging himself from beyond the grave. Except that isn’t the case.
Nollette is stealing Grable’s work, but it’s never even implied that Grable suspects his old friend of trying to murder him. Rather, it seems that Nollette’s plagiarism of Grable’s work was opportunistic, and it’s made quite clear that Grable isn’t hear to avenge his untimely death, just to avenge himself upon those who would take credit for his work. “You… took my work!” Grable accuses Nollette at the climax, making it clear that this is the driving force of his hatred and anger. For his part, Nollette concedes to stealing Grable’s theories, but to nothing more. “What good was your work going to do you? You died before you could finish it, before you could publish it.”
Of course, plagiarism is a pretty serious offense, and it’s always nice to see justice done. However, killing three colleagues for plagiarism seems a bit excessive – particularly when Grable doesn’t seem too bothered about asserting his own credit. Through Roland, he completes formulas on black boards, but without signing his name to it. There’s something very malicious about Grable’s violence. His first victim is Surnow, who actually seems like a pretty decent guy, for the two minutes we see him. He seems unsatisfied with the short cuts taken by Nollette and Keats, so killing him off seems especially ruthless.
And then there’s the mechanism of Grable’s revenge. Grable uses his twin brother Roland to commit the murders. In Shadows and Born Again, the vengeful spirits stopped just short of having their hosts commit murder. The little girl in Born Again seemed to use the psychic ghost powers inherited from the dead cop, while the secretary in Shadows was just as freaked out by the paranormal goings-on as anybody else. Roland, on the other hand, is physically and directly responsible for the murders. He locks Surnow and Nollette in the chamber. He holds Keats’ head in the liquid nitrogen.
More than that, Grable shows no hint of sympathy or compassion. When one of Roland’s friends shows an interest in him (“who’s Arthur?”) Grable responds by trying to coerce his brother into murdering her. It’s a more directly abusive and exploitive relationship than we’ve seen in other “vengeful ghost” stories, and Roland never seems to try to excuse Grable’s conduct. He’s not some romantic figure who is trying to make amends for past wrongs. He’s a psychopath willing to exploit his developmentally challenged twin in order to punish a bunch of plagiarists.
Roland also has an advantage in the fact that the ghost story element is grafted over a vaguely interesting plot. In Born Again, the supernatural element was clumsily pasted over a familiar cop show set-up. Here, there’s very much a sense that Grable is a ghost-by-way-of-a-mad-scientist, one of those lovely novel twists on classic horror ideas that the show does so very well. We’ve already had mad scientists this season – Eve and Young at Heart come to mind – but Grable’s back story is so delightfully bizarre that it feels fresh.
Most obviously, there’s the wonderfully surreal revelation that Grable is controlling all of this as a brain floating in a jar. Okay, that’s not entirely fair – a head preserved in cryo-stasis. It’s just an updated variant on a familiar horror trope or image, with the catch being that Grable is locked inside a steel bin rather than a glass case. Grable seems like the perfect modern take on a mad scientist. even before his death, Nollette assures us that, “on top of all his brilliance, he had a genius for executing elaborate schemes.” Roland is pretty damn elaborate.
Roland uses cryonics (often erroneously described as “cryogenics”) as a background element here, perhaps another demonstration of just how nineties the series was. Cryonics is a staple of science-fiction storytelling, but it’s also a field of science that was popular at the fringe in the early- to mid-nineties. The industry had been featured in episodes of shows like Miami Vice and Picket Fences, so Roland is hardly on the cutting edge here – but the use of cryonics as a plot element feels like something that anchors the show in the late eighties or early nineties, like the AIDs panic subtext of Gender Bender.
Cryonics became quite popular in the nineties. In 1990, California recognised the right to have your body frozen so that it might be revived at a later date, a landmark legal moment for the fringe science movement. Alcor, the world’s leading cryonics company, saw its membership triple between 1987 and 1990, as the science pushed itself closer and closer to the mainstream, feeling less and less like a plot element from classic science-fiction films (and urban legends about Walt Disney) and more like a viable field of study.
There’s an argument to be made that, despite massive growth and recognition in the later eighties and early nineties, the fringe science never really broke through. It seemed like a scientific movement largely confined to California, with one fifth of Alcor’s clientèle coming from the Bay Area. Most of the professed proponents of the movement come from the technology sector, linking the expansion and development of the field to that of the emergence and success of Silicon Valley.
The cryonics subplot is basically a wonderful way for Roland to play with classic horror storytelling, but in a modern context, firmly establishing the story as a piece of nineties horror. It makes Roland much more interesting than it might otherwise be. Coupled with the clever decision to subvert audience expectations by turning Arthur Gable into a sociopath, it gives the episode a lot more flavour than Born Again had, even if it suffers from following that episode so directly.
The episode also feels rather direct and to the point. The opening scene gives us a guest character wandering into a room with a giant fan. The show doesn’t wait too long before it finds a way to make that pay off. Roland has an endearing nasty streak, taking sadistic pleasure in Gable’s revenge plan. Even dunking Keats in liquid nitrogen feels more brutal and memorable than any part of Shadows or Born Again. Roland doesn’t mess around. It’s about revenge, so it embraces the grotesqueness of the set-up, running with the grim premise.
That said, what really elevates Roland is the supporting performance of Željko Ivanek. Ivanek would go on to become a fixture of naughties television, with a recurring guest spot in 24 and numerous appearances in shows like Lost and CSI before winning a well-deserved and long-overdue Emmy for his role on Damages. Ivanek is a guest star who is always a pleasure to see on screen, and I’m hard pressed to imagine a role where the actor didn’t make an incredibly efficient impression.
The X-Files really had some wonderful. Duchovny and Anderson have great chemistry, and both are fantastic in their lead roles – even if I think Anderson tends to try a lot harder than Duchovny at times. The supporting cast is pretty excellent, with the recurring actors picked to play to their strengths. Skinner and the Lone Gunmen, for example, are cast pitch perfectly. However, given the almost anthology nature of much of the show, the guest casting deserves particular credit.
The show featured a variety of superb performers long before they broke into the mainstream. Few became super stars, but man of these actors are among the strongest character performers working today. Ivanek is a great example, a versatile actor that most cinephiles and television addicts will be able to place. Similarly, this first season has also featured a young Seth Green, Felicity Huffman and Xander Berkley. The third season would feature Giovanni Ribisi and Jack Black. Bryan Cranston pops up in the sixth year. Even Michael Bublé pops up for a split second.
The casting is so good that I have no problem conceding that The X-Files‘ guest casting can save several subpar episodes. Roland is really the first example of a show that has heaped so much on a single one-off performer, but Mind’s Eye also comes to mind – featuring wonderful work from Lili Taylor that helps paper over a pretty flawed script. While the plot and story choices help make Roland seem a little more interesting than usual, it’s the character work from Ivanek that really elevates what would otherwise be a fairly bland throw-away episode.
Characters with developmental problems are very difficult to write and very difficult to play – if you need evidence of this, you need only look to Ivanek’s co-star Kerry Sandomirsky, who struggles with her role a bit. Indeed, the only point where Roland veers into overly-sentimental manipulative nonsense comes in the scenes between Ivanek and Sandomirsky, as it seems quite clear that the teleplay is trying to play up audience sympathy for these two characters without putting in any substantive work to develop their relationship.
The fact that the sequence between the two developmentally challenged guest characters doesn’t quite work only reinforces the stellar work that Ivanek does as Roland. Disabled characters can often come across as patronising and generalised portrayals in popular culture. It’s hard to fully capture the nuance and the complexity of these conditions within forty minutes, especially if you are trying to tell a story on top of it all. As such, the actors often end up doing a lot of the heavy lifting, and the weight is disproportionately placed on their shoulders.
Ivanek is phenomenal. He is quite possibly the best guest performer in this first season, with only Brad Dourif coming close to that level of intensity and quality. Ivanek himself is reportedly quite proud of his work here, as well he should be. “And it’s still on my demo reel,” he’s admitted, “it’s still one of my favorite things, and… I don’t know what else I remember about it. It was just really completely different for me, like nothing I’d done before or even since.”
Ivanek’s performance feels earnest and sincere. It’s never forced or overplayed, never showy. It has a powerful integrity that lends Roland a dignity that is often lacking in the portrayal of those dealing with these sorts of problems on network television. Roland seems like a real person rather than a plot device. A bit of that is down to the way that the script handles his character, but the heavy lifting is done by Ivanek. Ivanek’s performance pretty much makes an episode that would otherwise feel inessential.
It helps that Roland also puts Mulder to good use. We’ve already seen in this season how Mulder seems more sincere and more human in the presence of victims or those exploited. He has a sympathy for those who have been used and abused – something that was very much at the centre of the show’s very first Mulder-centric episode in Conduit. Given how Mulder can come off as arrogant or paranoid towards others, including Scully, it’s nice to see his more human side pushed to the fore.
Duchovny does some wonderful scenes of Mulder trying to get through to Roland, happily and generously giving Ivanek room to perform. “Hey, Roland, you’ve got more shirts than I do,” Mulder jokes at one point, before picking a pretty naff one from the wardrobe. “I think this one would look stylin’ today. What do you think?” Roland thinks better of it. “The green one,” he suggests. In a surprisingly heart-warming moment, Mulder is able to comfort Roland, “Your dreams are bad, Roland, not you. You’re a good person.”
Roland is never about Mulder. Indeed, using Roland as a plot device to give us insight into Mulder would feel cynical and exploitative, and the show is smart enough to avoid that pitfall. At the same time, though, the episode does give us some nice insight into Mulder. It reaffirms Mulder’s sympathetic side, and it also provides some nice foreshadowing of Mulder’s relationship with his father – despite the fact that Bill Mulder won’t appear until well into the show’s second year and Mulder has yet to directly interact with the Cigarette-Smoking Man.
“You know,” Mulder confesses to Roland, “I had a dream last night. I dreamt I was swimming in this pool. And I could see my father underwater, but when I dove down, the water stung my eyes. Then there was another man at the pool, watching me. He upset me. He was asking me questions I didn’t want to answer. And I had to leave. I couldn’t find my father.” It’s a nice little character monologue that makes sense in context, but also provides a neat summary of Mulder’s pending character arc, something that would be hinted at soon and wouldn’t be resolved until the sixth season.
That said, given how Carter and his production team seemed to work, it seems unlikely that the writing staff had Mulder’s arc mapped out that far in advance – especially since the Cigarette-Smoking Man has had about one line so far this season. Instead, it seems to have developed organically from the underlying themes of the first season, themes that would reach their logical conclusion in the very next episode, The Erlenmeyer Flask.
Roland might be a story about the toxic relationship between two twins, but The X-Files is a show generally more interested in the dynamic between fathers and their children. Given the first season’s preoccupation with history, and the legacy left to the current generation of American citizens by their parents and their rulers, it makes a great deal of sense to suggest that Mulder has daddy issues. After all, E.B.E. confirmed that Deep Throat was a father surrogate for Mulder, and The Erlenmeyer Flask has Mulder even describe himself as a “dutiful son” to his informer. That’s hardly the healthiest of relationships.
The X-Files is a show about the current generation trying to come to terms with the dark secrets being slowly exposed to the light, dealing with the consequences of decisions made by those in power long before they were born. Deep Throat famously had the informant assure Mulder that “they” have been here “a very long time.” As such, the show isn’t about stopping current wrongs so much as it is about exposing past injustices and trying to come to terms with the realisation that the past is much more complicated than we might like it to be. In short, the perfect fodder for stories about dysfunctional daddy dynamics. (For both Mulder and Scully.)
(As an aside, Mark Snow continues to do excellent work on the soundtrack. His ability to change the aural sound scape of the show from week-to-week is a massive part of the appeal of The X-Files. I found it particularly interesting that this episode’s sound track seems to hint at elements that Hans Zimmer would use in his work on Hannibal. I’m not suggesting anything unwholesome, and I’m probably hearing things. The presence of Ivanek probably made me a little extra sensitive to such things. Still, it’s pretty great work.)
Roland is far from the best episode of the season, but it works a lot better than it really should. Part of this is down to a script playing with the conventions of this sort of X-File story, but most of that is down to a beautiful central performance from a great guest actor.
You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of The X-Files:
- The Pilot
- Deep Throat
- The Jersey Devil
- Ghost in the Machine
- Fallen Angel
- Beyond the Sea
- Gender Bender
- Young at Heart
- Miracle Man
- Darkness Falls
- Born Again
- The Erlenmeyer Flask
Filed under: The X-Files | Tagged: Arthur Grable, born again, Brad Dourif, cnn, games, Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, Grable, Mach number, Roland, Roland Martin, Shadows, Steve Spurrier, Super Bowl, Tooms, video games, X-File, Željko Ivanek |