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.
Aubrey doesn’t necessarily a make a lot of sense. Even as episodes of The X-Files go, “serial killer genes that skip a generation” feels like a logical leap. The idea that not only memories but personalities can be passed from grandfather to granddaughter is absurd even by the standards of a show that just did “magic mushrooms that cure Alzheimer’s and give people telekinesis and open portals to another world.” Perhaps it’s the fact that Aubrey tries to root its story in genetics that makes it seem so ridiculous.
And yet, once you get past that logical leap, Aubrey is a fascinating little episode. Aubrey works on quite a few levels that are disconnected from the story itself. For one thing, it is a Rob Bowman episode, and he is clearly pushing himself. For another, the guest cast features superb performances from Deborah Strang, Terry O’Quinn and Morgan Woodward. There’s also the fact that Aubrey connects almost perfectly with both the underlying themes of The X-Files as a show and of the second season in particular.
The X-Files is a show that is absolutely fascinated with American history in the wake of the Second World War. Constructing an elaborate and cynical narrative the weaves through global politics from the forties through to the present day, The X-Files is a show that explores the landscape of American popular culture and heritage in the aftermath of the Second World War as America emerged as the defining global power of the second-half of the twentieth century.
The larger and more global aspects of this play out in the background the show’s expansive mythology arc – particularly during the third season. Paperclip is obviously rooted in the secreting of Nazi scientists back to America in the aftermath of the conflict. Nisei and 731 touch on the oft-overlooked instances of Japanese scientists being recruited and removed by American forces after the end of the war. However, these are just the more obvious examples.
The X-Files traverses the length and breadth of American culture after the Second World War. From The Unnatural to Travellers, the show probes at different facets of the American experience. Even throw-away episodes like Shapes establish that the X-files themselves are a product of the late forties, suggesting that a lot of the paranoia and insecurity that we take for granted emerged in the last sixty years of the century.
Here, Mulder and Scully find themselves picking up a case from that era, exploring a secret origin of modern serial killer investigative techniques. “Forty years before the Bureau started profiling violent criminals, Chaney and his partner Tim Ledbetter would work on their own time investigating what were then called ‘stranger killings’ — what are now called serial murders,” Mulder informs Scully. “They disappeared while investigating three murders in Aubrey, Missouri in 1942.”
We see very little of Chaney, but what we see makes a number of obvious connections to Mulder. When B.J. attacks Mulder, she sees flashes of Chaney’s face. The exhumation of his body uncovers a journal kept by Chaney. “One must wonder how these monsters are created,” it suggests. “Did their home life mold them into creatures that must maim and kill, or are they demons from birth?” It appears Chaney even got his version of Mulder’s pretentious closing monologues.
This sense that modern American history only began following the Second World War is cemented by the reference to “the symbols of the 1939 World’s Fair”, sketched almost in abstract from a half-remembered dream. The New York World’s Fair took place between 1939 and 1940, and offered a glimpse into the future that was somewhat overshadowed by the outbreak of the Second World War. As the pamphlet insists, “These are the tools with which the World of Tomorrow must be made.”
However, the bright future presented at the World’s Fair was almost immediately obsolete. In Imagining the Twentieth Century, Walter L. Arnstein notes:
The fair of 1939-40 could poignantly serve at once as a last act of an ‘age of innocence’ in American life, as a declaration of closure on the ravages of the Great Depression, and as a defiant assertion of neutrality in a world becoming polarised by conflict in Europe and East Asia. By the time the fair closed many of the sixty nations who were exhibitors were caught up in World War II; and the pavilion representing Czechoslovakia had been made redundant by Hitler even before the fair opened its doors.
As such, Aubrey seems like an episode meditating of the loss of innocence that The X-Files associates with the outbreak of the Second World War.
Aubrey is very much an episode about the legacy of evil – the aftermath of horrific events. Harry Cokely might be a lonely old man trapped in his own house, but his evil deeds continue to have consequences. His crimes, tucked away and forgotten, left a lasting impression. Even years after the fact, the bodies are still being exhumed and Mrs. Thibedeaux is still coming to terms with what happened to her.
B.J. herself is a victim here – trapped in a cycle of violence that began with acts committed by a man she had never met before the events of the episode. It’s an effective metaphor that underpins the somewhat hokey science at the heart of Aubrey. There’s a sense that these past sins inevitably come back to haunt us. This is obviously true on a macro level, as the characters featured in the show’s conspiracy arc would attest, but here it plays out on a much more intimate stage.
Blame and responsibility are a recurring theme in Aubrey, as Cokely refuses to take the blame for any of his actions. Even his attacks represent an attempt to shift blame on to another person. “Someone’s gotta take the blame, little sister,” he insists, “and it’s not gonna me.” He killed two FBI agents to cover up his crimes. Confronted by Mulder and Scully years after the fact, seemingly only a few inches from death, Cokely refuses to own up to his past actions.
When the duo make reference to Mrs. Thibedeaux, Cokely responds, “I don’t remember much about that.” He follows up with other deflections. “Doctors said I was sick back then. They gave me some pills. I served my time, and now I’m better.” He’s so disengaged from his own treatment that he doesn’t even know that much about his treatment. When asked what pills he is taking, he responds, “Red ones.”
(The episode is also quite clear that the authorities must share some portion of the blame here. Cokely lives relatively close to the site of the original murders and Mulder and Scully are able to connect him to those killings almost immediately. However, he was never tried for those murders – despite the fact that they bear an uncanny resemblance to the rape and assault of which he was convicted. Even Mulders is aghast that nobody bothered to make the connection. “And the police never made the connection to the 1942 homicides?” he asks.)
B.J.’s actions are a direct result of Cokely’s crimes. As Aubrey makes clear, she cannot be held responsible for what she has done or what she is – the legacy of a horrific crime. “Martin used to say not to blame the child, that it was just a little thing… an innocent,” Mrs. Thibedeaux tells Mulder and Scully. “But it was the spawn of evil. I couldn’t keep it… in this house, the memory of him.” However, even during the climactic assault, Mrs. Thibedeaux cannot blame B.J., “He’s done this to both of us. No! You don’t know what you’re doing! He’s the one to blame!”
These are some pretty heavy themes, representing perhaps the most bleak exploration of the show’s approach to legacy and guilt. B.J. confronts an idea that amounts to original sin, facing guilt she inherited by an accident of birth. Her entire life has been tainted by the actions that Cokely took long before she was born. Statistically speaking, Cokely only accounts for one quarter of B.J.’s genetic make-up, but his crimes weigh rather heavily upon her. This legacy is enough to taint B.J. (And, appropriately enough, this is all prompted by B.J.’s pregnancy.)
In many respects, Aubrey feels like an episode that does a lot of a stuff that Excelsis Dei wanted to touch upon. As with Excelsis Dei, a sexual assault rests at the heart of Aubrey. However, the difference lies in how the event is depicted and the way that the show deals with the aftermath. The sexual assault in Excelsis Dei provides a visually effective opening sequence, but ultimately gets shuffled into the rest of the episode with no real exploration of the consequences of that assault.
In contrast, the assault that provides the basis of Aubrey takes place off-screen, but the entire episode is based around the consequences of that event. Despite Cokely’s obvious psychosis and the serial killer signature of carving a word into the chest of the victim, Aubrey never feels quite as sensationalist as Excelsis Dei. The characters are better drawn and the episode is very much about the consequences of these actions, rather than using them as a springboard to generic horror tropes.
Aubrey is just one of a number of stories featuring victimisation of female characters in the middle of the second season, perhaps providing a mirror to Scully’s experiences back in Ascension. However, Aubrey does a much better job than Excelsis Dei or Firewalker, because it reflects on the consequences of this violence. In some ways, it feels like an appropriate lead-in to Irresistible, the show that will finally try to address Scully’s experiences earlier in the season.
B.J. herself seems like an effective counterpart to Scully. There’s a subtext of reproductive horror to her experience, just as there was with Scully’s abduction. B.J. is the result of a rape, and her own issues are triggered by a pregnancy that she faces alone, without the support of her partner. Scully’s abduction was masterminded by powerful men who will never face justice for their crimes. While Cokely served time for the rape that led to the birth of B.J.’s father, so many of his past crimes are left unanswered.
Even Tillman himself comes across as an unsympathetic character. A married man having an affair with one of his investigators, Tillman seems rather dismissive of B.J. until she mentions her pregnancy. He seems more concerned with protecting his own status and position (and marriage) than he is with B.J.’s well-being. He pushes for her to have an abortion, and he seems to have coached her in her story about the body in the field.
If B.J. is a mirror to Scully, does that make Tillman a reflection of Mulder? Over the course of the show, Mulder is shown to be exceptionally unaware of Scully’s emotional state of mind. He’s seldom mean-spirited towards her, but he very rarely seems to acknowledge that Scully has her own life and her own problems outside of his own. He’s obviously not as controlling or as domineering as Tillman, but he can occasionally be as patronising or condescending.
That said, despite this interesting development of the show’s attitudes towards gender and feminism, Aubrey does feature one shockingly ill-judged line. Scully is quite attuned to the dynamics in Aubrey, Missouri. She skilfully picks up on both B.J.’s illicit relationship with Tillman and B.J.’s unplanned pregnancy. Mulder is – typically – blissfully oblivious to these inter-personal dynamics. However, when Mulder asks Scully how she could deduce this, she responds, “A woman senses these things.”
It would make more sense to have Scully remark that her hypothesis is based on personal observation and a willingness to explore evidence that exists outside Mulder’s focus on the immediate case. After all, the show has been quite consistent in suggesting that Scully is a lot better at dealing with people than Mulder, and that Mulder’s emotional intelligence (and emotional maturity) is quite low.
After all, one of the more intriguing gender dynamics on The X-Files is the way that it inverts traditional gender traits – Mulder is much more emotionally volatile, while Scully is rational and logical. To have Scully fall back on such a gendered observation feels a little shallow. After all, there is enough evidence in her conversation with B.J. and Tillman to support her hypothesis, which is based on observation of people.
Even overlooking that awkward line, Aubrey is a ropey episode. Very little of it makes any real sense. Why did Aubrey wait so long to go after Mrs. Thibedeaux? After all, she has not changed her address in the years since the assault. She doesn’t need Mulder and Scully to lead her to the survivor. If she can dig up bones Cokely buried in “a field the size of Rhode Island”, she can likely find Mrs. Thibedeaux’s address. Mulder suggests that she “might be trying to finish what Cokely started”, so why wait? Well, apart from the fact that it makes for a more suspenseful final act?
The episode itself seems to acknowledge its own relaxed approach to logic. When Scully wonders who carved the word “sister” into B.J.’s chest, Mulder shrugs it off. “I can’t explain everything,” he offers. What does he look like, a law enforcement official? “Maybe she carved them on herself, or maybe it’s some kind of weird stigmata. Whatever it is, BJ is not herself.” The obvious thing would have been to have B.J. carve it into herself, but that would raise all sorts of logistical and evidential questions about how she did it without leaving obvious evidence.
However, the material is bouyed by a number of factors. As discussed above, it’s a fascinating exploration of some of the show’s recurring themes – one that feels anchored in the show’s second season. The guest cast is fantastic. Chris Carter submitted Deborah Strang for Emmy consideration, even if she did not actually receive a nod. Terry O’Quinn has very little to do as Tillman, but makes an impression. Indeed, this is the start of a long working relationship with 1013 Productions. Morgan Woodward is suitably creepy as Cokely.
Similarly, director Rob Bowman uses Aubrey as a springboard to all sorts of experimentation. The camera twirls and zooms and pans and moves. While it may not be quite as dynamic as David Nutter’s work, Bowman is consciously trying to lend the show a cinematic feel. As with Gender Bender in the first season, there’s a sense that Bowman is elevating the material. With David Nutter about to leave to work on Space: Above & Beyond, and moving away from the show in the years that followed, Bowman will soon define the look and feel of The X-Files.
In particular, the shot of the investigators finding the victim inside a drained swimming pool is delightfully eerie, as the camera swoops around to give us a sense of space and strobe lighting pours in from an adjoining room. It doesn’t matter that we never get a context for the strobe lighting flashing through to door in the background – particularly given that this is now a crime scene – it provides a suitably ominous atmosphere. As with a lot in Aubrey, sheer style and skill cover for some logical holes.
Aubrey might not have a story strong enough to support its big ideas and interesting themes, but it is a superbly produced piece of television, and a sign that The X-Files might be getting closer to finding its feet.
- Little Green Men
- The Host
- Duane Barry
- One Breath
- Red Museum
- Excelsis Dei
- Die Hand Die Verletzt
- Fresh Bones
- End Game
- Fearful Symmetry
- Død Kälm
- X-tra: (Topps) Trick of the Light
- The Calusari
- F. Emasculata
- Soft Light
- X-tra: (Topps) #4-6 – Firebird
- Our Town