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The X-Files – Fresh Bones (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.

Written by Howard Gordon and directed by Rob Bowman, Fresh Bones is a superbly constructed piece of television. Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that Fresh Bones is the best “traditional” episode of The X-Files produced since Scully returned to the fold. While episodes like Irresistible and Die Hand Die Verletzt have been bold and adventurous in their attempts to expand the show’s comfort zone, Fresh Bones is perhaps the best example of what the show was missing while Gillian Anderson was unavailable – proof the familiar formula still works.

It’s a great example of what might be termed “the standard X-Files episode” – a demonstration of how all the moving parts come together to produce an episode of the show, offering an example of the series’ standard operating practice. If you were to pick an episode of the second season to demonstrate how a “standard” episode of The X-Files should work, Fresh Bones would be perhaps the most appropriate example. (Aubrey and Our Town are perhaps the only two other examples.)

Grave danger...

Grave danger…

In keeping with Bowman’s approach to the series, Fresh Bones feels like a forty-five minute movie. The show atmospherically shot with some wonderful kinetic sequences – such as Mulder’s pursuit of Chester on the pier or Scully’s attack in the car. The Voodoo subject matter lends Fresh Bones a wonderfully pulpy atmosphere, although it seems like Howard Gordon has done his homework. The script to Fresh Bones averts many of the awkward stereotypes you’d expect in a show about Voodoo starring two white leads produced in Vancouver.

The result is a superb piece of television, an example of what The X-Files is capable of.

A bone to pick...

A bone to pick…

As a rule, the third season of The X-Files tends to be regarded as stronger than the second. There are a number of reasons for this. The mythology seems a lot more confident in the third season, with Carter and his team cultivating a sense of forward momentum and continuity. The third season is also able to keep Mulder and Scully together for the entirety of its twenty-four episode run, while the second season takes longer to settle into a familiar groove.

However, the third season also benefits from a set of stronger episodes as a whole. The third season is packed with stand-alone episodes that are able to work from a certain baseline level of quality and consistently knock the ball out of the park. Even the generic monster-of-the-week shows feel a little more confident and comfortable than they did during the first two seasons. Even the season’s weaker episodes feel like isolated missteps, rather than show struggling to figure out what works.

Weapon of mass destruction...

Weapon of mass destruction…

The second season is a little more uneven when it comes to monster-of-the-week stories, perhaps hindered by the fact that it can only really begin producing “standard” episodes of The X-Files from about half-way through the season. For a variety of reasons, Excelsis Dei and Red Museum are not really examples of what the show should be aspiring towards, and are unfortunately produced almost immediately after Gillian Anderson’s return, right at the point where the show needs reliable and engaging monster-of-the-week shows more than ever.

All of this is a roundabout way of arguing that Fresh Bones is really the first time it feels like The X-Files has cracked the technique for producing a successful monster-of-the-week case. While the show has done successful standalone horrors before (like, you know, Squeeze, the show’s third episode), Fresh Bones stands out as an example of an episode that probably would have been an unmitigated disaster earlier in the show’s run.

"That Voodoo that you do so well..."

“That Voodoo that you do so well…”

It’s a story that is packed with the sorts of familiar horror tropes that The X-Files has struggled with in the past. Given how The Jersey Devil struggled with cryptozoology, Shadows bungled ghosts, Shapes messed up werewolves and 3 screwed up vampires, an episode about Voodoo, ghosts and other apparitions really should be a spectacular misfire. It’s also an episode about another culture. Given how Shapes basically twisted Native American mythology into a very western werewolf story, a show about Haitian Voodoo should give everybody pause.

And yet, despite all these concerns, Fresh Bones works beautifully. It’s not that the episode represents The X-Files doing anything particularly novel, it’s that the the episode proves that the show can do familiar things better. Fresh Bones is an episode that establishes a level of quality for standalone monster shows that the series will hit pretty consistently over the next two (or three, if you’re feeling generous) seasons.

Fresh meat...

Fresh meat…

Of course, this is something of an over-simplification of Fresh Bones. As much as it remains an exemplar of the stand-alone X-Files format, it also has a considerable contemporary resonance to it. If Die Hand Die Verletz is a rather scathing satire of certain attitudes towards religion, then Fresh Bones feels like a horror story ripped from the headlines. Fresh Bones was broadcast in early February 1995, while United States forces were still deployed as part of Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti following a military coup d’etat in late 1991.

In late 1994, the United States deployed a military force to help manage a transition of power from the junta back to the nation’s democratically elected officials. United States military forces remained in Haiti until late March 1995, when their peacekeeping role was assumed by the United Nations Mission in Haiti. Although only a single American serviceman was killed during the operation, three others committed suicide. A report concerning two of these suicides prompted Howard Gordon to write Fresh Bones.

They're always after his lucky charms...

They’re always after his lucky charms…

Operation Uphold Democracy was an interesting experience from the perspective of the United States. It was one of the first times that the military confronted the difficulties unique to peacekeeping as opposed to combat, demonstrating the challenges posed. As Carrie H. Kennedy and Jeffrey A. McNeil note in A History of Military Psychology:

Peacekeeping missions have their own unique characteristics and impact on military personnel. Stress control units have been regularly utilised for those deployed for peacekeeping operations since Operation Restore Hope in Somalia in 1992, given that peacekeeping forces often face an unfriendly populace, come under fire, live in unhygienic conditions, and are separated from their familiar. In addition, peacekeeping missions put more strain on individuals who may be vulnerable, have a preexisting mental health condition, abuse alcohol, or are experiencing relationship problems. These have been deemed risk factors for suicide in peacekeepers specifically.

Given the political realities of the post-Cold War era (which Charles Krauthammer described as “the unipolar moment”), the United States would arguably see itself dealing with these issues on a more frequent basis.

A marked man...

A marked man…

Wharton touches on these issues during his initial conversation with Mulder and Scully. “We’re soldiers,” he tells them. “We’re not prison guards. And we’re being asked to police a hostile population of foreigners without the resources to feed or house them. There are bound to be some conflicts.” Indeed, Wharton’s argument has surprising resonance with the American military experience in the wake of 9/11, where foreign entanglements seem to forced the America military into unfamiliar roles.

However, Fresh Bones is very much a product of the nineties. During the administrations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the United States pushed the United Nations to triple its international peacekeeping budget. Similarly, the idea of Haitian refugee camps conjures up the debate about “boat people” in the eighties and nineties, and America’s response to this crisis. While by no means the central point of the episode – “Wharton will not let us return home,” Bauvais tells the agents, “which is all we ask…” – it remains part of the subtext.

The community's really gone to the dogs...

The community’s really gone to the dogs…

The beautifully shot sequence of Mulder and Scully walking through the freezing refugees invites the viewer to wonder about the promises about “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” that were engraved on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty. When Mulder confronts Mr. X with the reality of what is going on, X wryly references that oft-quoted inscription. “In case you haven’t noticed, Agent Mulder, the Statue of Liberty is on vacation. The new mandate says if you’re not a citizen you’d better keep out.”

Given the fascination that The X-Files has with the realities (or, at the very least, the mood) of a post-Cold War era, it seems appropriate for the show to explore these themes and ideas. One suspects that The X-Files works best as a cultural artifact of the nineties, one of the many problems hounding its final troubled seasons. Here, the show moves away from explorations of small town America and its own internal insecurities, instead touching on the relationship that exists with external cultures and countries.

Shadows and symbols...

Shadows and symbols…

How does the United States relate to foreign countries, particularly those with very different cultures from its own? It is worth noting that the United States and Haiti have a very complicated relationship, one that extends far beyond military interventions in the nineties. “My country was born on the blood of slaves,” Bauvais explains. “Freedom is our most sacred legacy.” The line inevitable brushes against America’s complicated relationship with its own history of slavery, even if it doesn’t articulate how that relationship relates to the United States’ relationship to Haiti.

After all, President Thomas Jefferson had refused to acknowledge Haitian independence. He tried to embargo trade with the emerging nation. The United States would not officially recognise Haiti as a nation until after the Civil War, in 1862. This was fifty years after Haiti declared its own independence and more than thirty years after France itself had recognised Haiti as a nation. This does not represent an auspicious start to relations with Haiti.

Citizen X...

Citizen X…

In 1915, America formally occupied Haiti in order to secure its own interests and to act against the perceived expansion of German influence in the region. It remained an occupying force until the thirties. As Robert F. Baumann notes in The Historical Context of American Intervention, there were immediate culture clashes. Particularly in areas related to Haitian religion:

Many complexities of Haitian culture, however, particularly those rooted deeply in African tradition – Voodoo and its distinctively intertwined relationship with Catholicism, the role of secret societies, and rich interpretations of the spirit world – were simply unknown, ignored, or prohibited by the Americans. The ban on Voodoo, not always strictly enforced in practice, illustrated American disregard for a fundamental part of Haitian religious and spiritual life. The American rationale for the ban was based on the historic connection between clandestine groups and the instability of Haitian political life. The actual impact of the prohibition on Voodoo ceremony, of course, worked in a way diametrically opposed to its intent. By stubbornly applying their own sociopolitical template to analysis of Haiti, Americans often found themselves unable to gain compliance with their prohibitions except through use of force or intimidation. Ultimately, the occupation energised civil opposition to the American presence that resonated as far away as Harlem, a gathering place in the United States for many prominent oppositionist Haitian emigre. Student strikes at Haiti’s schools of agriculture, medicine, and law in 1929 garnered popular support against the occupation. The situation deteriorated rapidly as U.S. Marines lost control of an unruly crowd of protesters on December 5 in Les Cayes, opened fire, and killed about a dozen Haitians.

It is worth noting that this was also something of a concern when the United States military launched Operation Uphold Democracy in the nineties. It has been suggested that, due to a lack of proper communication and information about the nation, “many soldiers saw all Haitians as Voodoo sorcerers ready to throw magic powders in their face.” Voodoo has been cited in various post-traumatic stress disorder cases taken in the wake of the military operation.

A cool cat...

A cool cat…

Fresh Bones touches on this unease. Attempting to explain a riot at the refugee camp, Wharton offers, “All I know is Voodoo caused a riot in my camp. One night they held some secret ceremony. The next day all hell broke loose.” Wharton doesn’t acknowledge that the refugees might have legitimate concerns, or that the riot might be rooted understandable conflicts between the guards and the refugees.

Fresh Bones is a story that could easily become problematic. It could easily devolve into something messy and xenophobic and uncomfortable. It is, after all, a show about Voodoo featuring Haitian refugees on American soil. The show had briefly considered location shooting in Haiti, but that had not been possible. That may not be a bad thing. In a way, setting the story in North Carolina creates a more effective juxtaposition for the episode’s Voodoo trappings.

A handy trick...

A handy trick…

As Paul A. Cantor observes in Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization, Howard Gordon’s script rather deftly side-steps a lot of the problems traditionally associated with these sorts of horror stories:

Normally in this kind of Voodoo story, an American must intervene in a foreign community to save it from itself, often with the specific twist that a white American is necessary to liberate black natives from being tyrannised by other blacks. But in The X-Files, to the extent that the Haitians get any justice at all, they must act on their own. Mulder and Scully uncover the wrongs being committed at the refugee camp, but the episode shows that they will not be able to do anything about them.

As with Die Hand Die Verletz, Mulder and Scully are completely ineffective in resolving the situation. Indeed, they serve more as witnesses to the events of the episode rather than as active participants in then.

Shedding some light on the matter...

Shedding some light on the matter…

More than that, though, Howard Gordon’s script rather cleverly avoids the most obvious clichés associated with this sort of story. Fresh Bones shrewdly plays with audience expectations. Given the Voodoo set up, the refugees, and Wharton’s tales about Bauvais, the audience expects the deaths to be the result of Haitian Voodoo. The set-up is like something taken from a trashy horror. These Haitians want to go home, and are willing to conjure up dark forces to help them do that. It’s the most uncomfortable and xenophobic of clichés, and Fresh Bones beautifully subverts it.

It turns out that the Bauvais is not avenging himself on the soldiers using the magical power of Voodoo. Indeed the only elements of Voodoo that originate from the Haitian characters in in Fresh Bones are explicitly benign. The ghost of Chester Bonaparte helps to guide the agents on their investigation. The charm sold by Chester helps to protect Scully during the attack in the car at the climax. Bauvais’ resurrection saves Mulder from Wharton.

A different beast entirely...

A different beast entirely…

In contrast, all the damage and harm caused by Voodoo in Fresh Bones is caused by Wharton’s attempts to appropriate the religion for his own ends. The symbolism is quite effective – Voodoo only becomes a horror stereotype when culturally appropriated by an outside force. Wharton uses the religion in a manner much more associated with Hollywood’s standard depiction of Voodoo – he jinxes things, he murders people, he hosts dark ceremonies defiling graves. It is a very clever way of defusing some of the potentially troubling aspects of Fresh Bones.

Indeed, in many ways, Wharton becomes another foreigner attempting to exploit Haiti for his own ends. He is willing to keep the refugees in terrible and inhumane conditions until he gets what he wants, with little regard for their own wants or needs. All that matters to Wharton is that he gets what he wants. He provides a dark mirror to American intervention prior to 1994. In 1915, the American military occupied Haiti to secure its own interests. Indeed, what meager support Thomas Jefferson offered the Haitian rebellion as leverage for his own realpolitik.

A bloody business...

A bloody business…

It’s also interesting how Gordon uses Fresh Bones to reinforce some of the more standard X-Files tropes – mistrust of authority and concerns about abuse of power. Wharton’s exploitation of the refugees and exploitation of the military mindset seems even more potent in the wake of scandals like Abu Ghirab. The officers under him follow his orders almost unquestioningly. “I don’t think he’s in any condition to talk,” Private Kittel offers after beating Bauvais to a bloody pulp at Wharton’s behest. Wharton replies, “That’s right, Private. You don’t think. You follow orders.”

Although not directly part of the show’s larger government conspiracy, Fresh Bones suggests that the military is part of the same culture. It enjoys the same protections and safeguards. Mr. X suggests that those in power are enabling and protecting Wharton despite his abuses. “You’re saying the military’s sanctioning Wharton’s revenge?” Mulder asks. “These people are innocent civilians. Some people in Congress might have a real problem with that.” X responds, matter-of-factly, “By the time they get a committee together it’ll be as if none of this ever happened.”

Barking up the wrong tree...

Barking up the wrong tree…

There are a few minor hiccups here. For one thing, the inclusion of Mr. X seems quite superfluous, even if Steven Williams is great. It recalls the way that Howard Gordon used Deep Throat as an expository device in Ghost in the Machine. It is something that contributed to the sense that Deep Throat was a crutch for the show, and led the staff to kill him off in The Erlenmeyer Flask. Using X so casually feels like it might be making that same mistake again. The show needs to be more careful with its info-dumps.

Aside from that, the scene where Scully is attacked in the car feels a little contrived. It’s a great special effect, but having Scully wait behind for Mulder during the climax seems like a decision that was made so the episode could have another “man, Voodoo is weird” moment. It’s not that big a deal (it’s a great visual, after all), but it does weaken the climax a little. It seems to exist because the show needs a scary “moment”, even though it’s very tough for the show to reach that moment.

Digging up the dirt...

Digging up the dirt…

Still, these are minor concerns. Fresh Bones is an exemplary piece of television, and a demonstration of just how skilfully The X-Files is finding its groove.

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

2 Responses

  1. Great episode and very detailed review!

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