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The X-Files – Sleepless (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

Vietnam casts a long shadow over The X-Files, just as it casts a long shadow over the rest of American popular culture. It was a conflict that left a scar on the American psyche, prompted no small amount of soul-searching and naval-gazing, forcing the country to contemplate its role on the global stage. The issues of war guilt and veterans rights haunted America well into the nineties, with films like Forrest Gump and Heaven and Earth still trying to make sense of it all.

Along with Watergate, Vietnam came to embody the disillusionment and disengagement of the seventies. While public discomfort with American involvement the Korean War never climbed above 50%, public disapproval of American involvement in Vietnam would reach almost 75% in March 1990. Vietnam remains a boogeyman, with memories of Vietnam arguably informing Clinton’s reluctance to commit American ground troops to foreign theatres during the nineties and serving as a frequent point of comparison to twenty-first century entanglements in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Howard Gordon’s first solo teleplay for The X-Files, Sleepless is an episode that explores Vietnam as a perpetual waking nightmare.

Preaching to the choir...

Preaching to the choir…

It should be no surprise that Vietnam heavily informed the writing of X-Files creator Chris Carter. Carter had been at the right age in the seventies to soak in the cultural shift that came with Vietnam and Watergate. Indeed, Carter’s first screenplay was about the legacy of the Vietnam War:

It was called National Pastime, and it was about three kids going off to Vietnam, from my socioeconomic level, and the injustices of who goes and who doesn’t. When I go back and read it today, I cringe, because I really didn’t know my craft then like I do now. But there’s still a story there to tell.

If The X-Files is about holding up a mirror to nineties America, where the country’s fears and insecurities might be reflected back upon it, then the show was going to have to engage with Vietnam directly. To be fair, a stray bit of computer text acknowledged this in Howard Gordon’s Ghost in the Machine, with a bit of barely-glimpsed text suggesting a lingering scar.

Ghosts of wars past...

Ghosts of wars past…

The show would go on to reveal that Walter Skinner was a Vietnam veteran in One Breath. It further explore the legacy of the war in stories like Unrequited, a story that was (coincidentally or otherwise) scripted by Howard Gordon and Chris Carter. However, Sleepless is really the first episode of The X-Files to delve into the long-term consequences of that conflict and the damage that it caused to the American psyche.

Indeed, while the insomnia afflicting the soldier in the episode was induced before they saw combat, insomnia is reported in up to 91% of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. While Preacher and his fellow soldiers committed atrocities in Vietnam, Preacher seems to suggest that there’s some measure of collective guilt accruing. He doesn’t target combat veterans exclusively, he pursues those who supported and enabled the atrocities.

Mulder holds the line...

Mulder holds the line…

“He had to pay, Henry,” Preacher explains. “All of us have to answer for what did over there—can’t get away from it.” The wording is somewhat ambiguous. Preacher could easily be referring to the members of the squad, or the armed forces… but he could also be referring to society in general. After all, wars like Vietnam do not happen in a vacuum, and there is some measure of collective guilt that must build up from actions conducted by a democratically-elected government in the name of its citizens.

Indeed, Sleepless has plenty of blame to go around. The episode is sympathetic to Preacher, with Mulder painting him as an “avenging angel.” However, it is implied that Preacher himself must be held accountable for his actions. “You can’t hold me responsible,” Geraldi begs Preacher. “I was following orders, just like you.” Although Preacher tries to shout down Geraldi, the doctor makes a cutting observation that Preacher doesn’t deny. “No one made you do anything. You volunteered.”

In darkness dwells...

In darkness dwells…

Guilt and blame are complex things, and everybody who volunteers as part of a system must hold some small measure of accountability for the horrors committed. It’s to the credit of Howard Gordon – writing his first solo script for the show – that Sleepless feels so rich and complex and ambiguous. The Vietnam War casts an incredible shadow over contemporary America, and Sleepless offers a very thoughtful exploration of that.

The soldiers in Sleepless are the product of experiments designed to build “super soldiers.” In practical terms, soldiers who do not need sleep are more efficient, able to work more hours in a day. However, the implication is that the United States government simply wanted soldiers that could not leave reality; who could not by haunted by nightmares or visions or any of those other things that happen when the brain tries to process through various actions during its downtime.

Things heated up...

Things heated up…

When Preacher asks Willig how he is doing, Willig suggests that his lack of ability to sleep has left him unable to work through his issues and his guilt. “How am I doin’?” he repeats. “I’m, uh,—tryin’ to forget. You know. I’m trying to get it out of my head.” Without the ability to sleep and to dream, there is no way for Willig to come to terms with what happened, to face his demons and hopefully come out the other side.

As such, it’s telling that Preacher finds a way to offer Willig closure by allowing him a chance to imagine facing those whose lives he destroyed. Willig is killed by a nightmare he was unable to experience for decades after the events. The soldiers are, in effect, zombies; shuffling and defeated men who have lost the ability to dream. It has been argued that the Vietnam represented “a crisis of faith in the American Dream”, and perhaps Sleepless makes this literal.

Studying Scully's body of work...

Studying Scully’s body of work…

The government took these soldiers’ nightmares, but it also took their dreams. It’s worth noting that these soldiers all appear to have come home and faded into the background. Preacher was in an institution; Willig was watching late-night infomercials in a crappy apartment; Matola was washing dishes at a pretty trashy diner. These are characters who don’t have to sleep – as Matola points out, that’s like getting to live two lives. However, when they returned home, they never got to take advantage of the sorts of opportunities that the experience should provide.

Sleepless introduces the concept of “super soldiers” into the mythology of The X-Files. It’s not particularly relevant immediately, but it’s interesting considering the sharp turn that the show’s mythology arc would take in its final year. Indeed, Preacher and the characters featured in Sleepless feel a lot more fleshed out and developed – not to mention tragic and complex – than any of the characters introduced in that final season. It may have been interesting to try to build that arc out of Sleepless, which casually throws out the idea of “super soldiers” as if it is nothing.

Things are looking up...

Things are looking up…

Of course, “super soldiers” have a long history in American popular culture. Perhaps the most obvious example is Captain America, the comic book super hero created as a super soldier to help the Allies win the Second World War. As befitting the popular image of that war, Captain America is an unambiguously heroic character – a champion of truth and justice who represents the very best of America as he battles against tyranny.

Over the years, the pop culture idea of a “super soldier” has become a lot more ambiguous and provocative. Comic book writer Grant Morrison would suggest that the “super soldier” for the Vietnam era – effectively a later-day Captain America – would have been a psychotic super villain named “Nuke.” Even the mythos of Captain America has been expanded to critically explore the idea of a super soldier, with writer Robert Morales’ Truth positing that Captain America was merely the most successful in a long line of human experimentation conducted on American soldiers, including African American soldiers.

Soldiers of unforgotten wars...

Soldiers of unforgotten wars…

Interestingly, “super soldiers” aren’t confined to fiction. The United States government has invested billions in trying to produce a more advanced and more powerful soldier. It’s worth noting, in the context of Sleepless, that the idea of reducing the amount of sleep necessary for a soldier to function is among the primary goals of this project. This is a wonderful example of a horror story built off a premise that is at least partially rooted in reality.

Sleepless was released a decade before author Jon Ronson published The Men Who Stare at Goats, an insightful account of some of the more eccentric military programmes and initiatives funded by the United States government. Figures like Jim Channon and Glenn Wheaton were working to create more advanced and effective soldiers. The conducted research into psychic projection, remote viewing and directed dreaming as a means of building the soldier of tomorrow.

It rings true...

It rings true…

Indeed, many of the more unorthodox programmes documented in The Men Who Stare At Goats were rooted in post-Vietnam anxiety. Jim Channon was a veteran of the conflict, and Ronson’s account of events suggests that the military support for such “outside the box” thinking was anchored in the humiliation and desperation that existed in the wake of the Vietnam War. In a way, Sleepless seems like a rather insightful piece of paranoia, touching on a very really trauma that exists in the American psyche.

It is also worth noting that Sleepless is the first X-Files episode to focus on a black character. The first season of The X-Files was typically built around mysteries and horror stories involving white characters – there were characters of other ethnicities involved, but typically in supporting roles. (Reggie from Young at Heart comes to mind.) With the second season, The X-Files broadens its perspective a bit. Sleepless is the first story with an African-American as the focus character. (It also introduces one of the show’s most prominent recurring black characters, Mr. X.)

The corridors of power...

The corridors of power…

As Karen Backstein contends in Flexing Those Anthropological Muscles, the choice to make Preacher an African-American is a very clever and pointed choice, and the episode’s portrayal of the character is fascinating:

As such, it is important that Cole’s actions, rather than being evil, come from his own victimisation; no killer he, but avenging angel. Physically, he is large and silent, rich in mystery and strength, and his lack of emotionalism (until the very end) makes him a figure of pure justice. Cole also embodies the war’s pain and guilt, and his final “suicide” through dream projection marks the end of nearly a quarter century of agony due to guilt and sleeplessness literally inflicted on him by the government, military, science.

As Backstein observes, it is very hard to look at Preacher without recalling injustices like the government’s experimentation on African-Americans at Tuskagee.

Smoke and mirrors...

Smoke and mirrors…

Indeed, Preacher’s Vietnam unit appears to be quite diverse. Willig appears to be white, but Preacher is African-American and Matola is hispanic. This is an insightful portrayal of the realities of Vietnam. As Patrick Hagopian note in The Vietnam War in American Memory, the conflict involved a disproportionate amount of minorities:

Vietnam was said to be a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight; critics pointed out that the front-line troops and the casualties in the early years of the war came disproportionately from poor backgrounds and racial and ethnic minorities. As one black veteran said, “Hey, the blacks were the ones that had to do all the fighting. Out of all the guys in the jungle, more than half was black.” Over the course of the war, a greater proportion of blacks than whites saw heavy combat.

Sleepless addresses the issue without labouring the point. Similarly, Chris Carter’s third-season script The List would do something similar with the racial demographics of death row – never explicitly drawing attention to it, but treating it as something that cannot help but be apparent.

Curb your enthusiasm...

Curb your enthusiasm…

Rob Bowman’s direction of Sleepless is absolutely fantastic – it’s easy to see why the director became one of the most distinctive to work on the show. While directors like David Nutter and Kim Manners produced some absolutely fantastic hours of television – and tended to play to the strengths of the medium – Rob Bowman was the director who tended to push The X-Files towards cinema. Bowman’s episodes are probably the ones that feel most suited to that “a blockbuster movie every week” label frequently applied to The X-Files.

And Sleepless looks beautiful. It looks like a feature film. The locations chosen are atmospheric and moody – from the stadium where Mulder meets Mr. X through to the site of the final confrontation with Preacher. Bowman shooting them in a wide and cinematic style. Even the diner where Matola works looks almost ethereal. There are some fantastic compositions here, particularly the scenes where Preacher visits Willig or kills Geraldi, scenes that are lit in and framed in a very stylish and confident manner.

"You won't believe how much the Syndicate spends on atmospheric lighting budgets each year..."

“You won’t believe how much the Syndicate spends on atmospheric lighting budgets each year…”

Like a lot of these early second-season episodes, Sleepless works very well as an X-Files episode on its own term while also pushing the overall story arc forward a little bit. Sleepless heavily focuses on the dynamic of Mulder and Scully, reinforcing suggestions made in The Host that the two characters must be destined to work together. As with The Host, Sleepless lays this on pretty heavily – consciously playing up the idea of romantic and sexual tension between the partners.

Mulder phones Scully at work, using the alias of “George Hale”, a nice shout out to Little Green Men and an example of the little continuity touches that the show does so well. Calling Scully’s work and using an alias to arrange a clandestine rendezvous is a pretty explicit attempt to evoke the imagery of a romantic affair. “National airport,” Mulder explains. “Catching the shuttle up to Laguardia in a half an hour. How do you feel about joining me in the Big Apple for an autopsy?” Oh, you romantic!

Unfriendly fire...

Unfriendly fire…

Of course, Scully can’t just give everything up and run away with Mulder. She has obligations and responsibilities that prevent her from getting swept off her feet by even so charming a gentlemen. “I can’t do it today,” she admits. “My last class isn’t until four-thirty.” Still, Mulder – ever the romantic – suggests that perhaps they can get take-out. “That’s fine. I can have the ME wrap the body to go.”

Rather tellingly, even Krycek is introduced more as a romantic foil than a professional replacement for Scully. Sleepless lays the subtext on pretty heavy. Krycek is ticked off when Mulder stands him up. “I paid off your cab,” he passive-aggressively snipes. “Hey, I don’t appreciate being ditched like someone’s bad date.” Mulder replies, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.” Krycek responds, bitterly, “Where do you get off copping this attitude. You don’t even know the first thing about me.”

Krycek's involvement in Duane Barry and Ascension makes a lot more sense if you think of him as a jilted lover...

Krycek’s involvement in Duane Barry and Ascension makes a lot more sense if you think of him as a jilted lover…

The scene almost plays like Krycek just caught Mulder cheating on him. Director Rob Bowman, who brings a wonderfully cinematic perspective to the show, plays up this angle in the scenes with Mulder, Krycek and Scully – framing Krycek as something of a third wheel, kept distant from Mulder and Scully during their conversations and discussion. The scenes seem to treat Krycek as the new boyfriend forced to watch the easy repartee between his partner and his partner’s ex.

Krycek even alters the dynamic between Mulder and Scully, as if to emphasise that their past relationship did have a romantic subtext to it. Scully asks after Krycek in a way that seems like she’s inquiring about her ex’s new partner. “Sounds like your new partner’s working out,” she observes, trying to be casual. “He’s all right,” Mulder concedes. “He could use a little more seasoning and some wardrobe advice But he’s a lot more open to extreme possibilities than…” Awkward silence.

Against the wall...

Against the wall…

Mulder has just compared his current partner to his ex-partner, one of those truly horrific relationship moments. “Than I was?” Scully finishes for him. Mulder tries to salvage the conversation, “… than I assumed he would be.” And then the polite-but-passive aggressive conversation kicks in. “Must be nice not having someone question your every move, poking holes in all your theories,” Scully remarks. The two then laugh it off, while awkwardly remembering how things used to be, before Krycek.

Indeed, watching Sleepless, it is easy to see why certain aspects of fandom have seized upon the idea of a romantic association between Mulder and Krycek, to the point where Krycek’s introduction in Sleepless has been re-written as piece of homoerotic fan fiction. The episode makes that subtext pretty explicit and constructs the relationship in such a way that it invites those comparisons. The X-Files is a show that has consciously been created with one eye on internet fandom. The Red and the Black even explicitly acknowledges the “shipping” of Krycek and Mulder by giving fans a long-awaited kiss.

The outside, looking in...

The outside, looking in…

Sleepless also introduces the character of Mr. X. It’s an interesting choice. After all, the show had killed off Deep Throat in The Erlenmeyer Flask, accepting that giving Mulder and Scully such a highly-placed contact undermined the show a bit. It’s hard to get too invested if Mulder simply goes in the direction set by a government insider, and who can count on a secret friend to help him out of an awkward situation. After all, Deep Throat was popping up far too frequently towards the end of the first season, serving as a lazy plot device in episodes like Ghost in the Machine and Young at Heart.

So replacing the character of Deep Throat so soon feels like a mistake – it feels like the sort of plot development that will just lead to the same problems that existed with Deep Throat. Indeed, some of the later episodes of the second season – like Fresh Bones or Soft Light – make similar use of Mr. X as a convenient exposition machine. It seems like Mulder could have gone more than three (or one, if you count the character’s voice-only cameo in The Host) episodes without a high-level informant.

A horrific war...

A horrific war…

On the other hand, Mr. X instantly feels like a more interesting character than Deep Throat. While Glen Morgan and James Wong added layers to Deep Throat’s character with E.B.E., he very frequently seemed like a generic surrogate father-figure to Mulder. He was generally quite benign and polite. He seemed perfectly reasonable. As such, there wasn’t really too much dramatic tension to be wrung from Deep Throat.

In contrast, Mr. X is a much rougher character. His brief appearance in Sleepless makes it clear that he is a lot more paranoid than Deep Throat. His sense of anxiety makes the character more fascinating – suggesting that he has more at stake than Deep Throat ever did, and that he may not be quite as altruistic and dependable as Mulder’s last contact. He makes it clear that he has no interest in being martyred for Mulder’s cause, which makes his decision to assist with the investigation all the more compelling.

Partners in crime-fighting...

Partners in crime-fighting…

There’s a far greater sense of mystery with Mr. X. While we find out quite a lot about Deep Throat over the course of the show – with Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man even positing a possible first name – we never discover too much about Mr. X. He’s a somewhat cranky individual who never seems too happy that he has to deal with Mulder and Scully, even though we never find out why he is helping Mulder.

Mr. X implies that he knew Deep Throat, so is it a debt that is being repaid? Is Mr. X actually altruistic, underneath that cynicism? Is Mr. X just using Mulder to pursue a personal crusade of his own? While Deep Throat seemed to genuinely support Mulder’s work exposing government conspiracies, it’s not implausible that Mr. X has his own personal motivations that just happen to overlap with Mulder’s. For all we know, this is his revenge for a promotion he never received.

The X-factor...

The X-factor…

It helps that Steven Williams is brilliant in the role. Williams takes a rather generic informant character and imbues him with a delightfully cynical no-nonsense attitude. The character gets some absolutely wonderful lines over the course of the show, but its Williams’ delivery that helps to sell them. It’s a shame that the show didn’t keep Williams around in the same way that it kept Jerry Hardin around, but Williams does a wonderful job defining and characterising Mr. X.

Sleepless continues a rather strong run of episodes that open the second season, closing with a coda that teases perhaps the most ambitious X-Files story to date.

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

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2 Responses

  1. Excellent review as always. Mr. X is an interesting bird. On the one hand the mystery and ambiguity really adds to his character, but on the other hand I’d love to know more about him. What was his relationship with Deep Throat, or for that matter Marita Covarrubias, or even CSM? What was his ultimate agenda and how did Mulder fit into that? Maybe that’s something for the new comic series to cover. I enjoyed the observations on Krycek as well. As someone who wasn’t active on the net during the show’s original run I never picked up on that subtext, and wondered what that kiss was all about. Looking back, it adds an interesting dimension to his character (as does the deleted scene between him and CSM in Two Fathers).

    Oh, one minor point of contention – it’s Jon Ronson, not Jim Ronson!

    • Good spot, corrected, cheers!

      I’ve been watching and reading a lot of Star Trek, and that comes with the whole pairing of Kirk and Spock, so I think that may have coloured my reading of Krycek, but the show definitely teases something between the two. Duane Barry – written and directed by Chris Carter – has Krycek meeting Mulder in his tight red speedos.

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