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The X-Files – Our Town (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.

A rare “monster of the week” script from Frank Spotnitz, Our Town could be seen as a mirror to Humbug. Humbug seemed to mourn the way that eccentric little communities seemed to be fading into history in the nineties – the loss of unique and distinct little hamlets. Our Town seems to offer a counterpoint, suggesting that perhaps the intrusion of the outside world into these tightly-knit communities is not a bad thing.

Inspired by the classic Spencer Tracy film Bad Day at Black Rock, Our Town sees Mulder and Scully investigating a small-town disappearance that eventually leads the duo to uncover a horrifying secret at the heart of the local community.

Fresh bones...

Fresh bones…

The small town with a dark secret has become a staple of horror fiction. It’s an outwardly idyllic (or at least normal-looking) locality that hides something sinister just beneath the surface. It’s a theme that recurs in pop culture, in a wide range of forms – although most imply some form of complicity from the wider community, suggesting that the bulk of the population at least passively enables (if not actively assists) whatever monster lurks in the darkness at the heart of the town.

It’s a place that might look fine to those passing through, but which is home to something deeply unpleasant. Perhaps the most obvious example as far as The X-Files is concerned is Twin Peaks, a series set in a picturesque town that houses all manner of uncomfortable truths lurking just below the surface. Of course, it’s also possible that the locals don’t take too kindly to strangers coming in and poking around. Steven Segal had a habit of wandering into these kinds of locations.

In the woods...

In the woods…

Of course, perhaps the most iconic “small town with a dark secret” in American popular culture is the town of Black Rock, as featured in Bad Day at Black Rock. In an interview with Cinefantastique, writer Frank Spotnitz has acknowledged that Bad Day at Black Rock was an influence on Our Town:

I was thinking of this old movie that I loved with Spencer Tracy called Bad Day at Black Rock. And I don’t think that anything in the episode remains that overly resembles Bad Day at Black Rock, but you’ll notice that the mental patient in the documentary Mulder and Scully watch, he’s only got one arm. My little tip to Spencer Tracy in having only one arm in that movie.

Even if that is the only explicit reference that remains to the inspiration, the themes are quite similar – a local community binds together to cover up a horrible crime from a prying outsider. (Or, in this case, prying outsiders.)

Stick a fork in this theory, it's done...

Stick a fork in this theory, it’s done…

Bad Day at Black Rock saw Spencer Tracy playing John J. Macready, a veteran who traveled to a small town to deliver a medal to the father of a Japanese-American soldier who had saved his life during the war. On arriving, Macready discovers that the community is hiding something. It turns out that the soldier’s father had been murdered by some of the residents in fit of misdirected patriotism after the events of Pearl Harbour. The entire town banded together to conceal the crime and protect themselves.

Dealing in allegory, Bad Day at Black Rock was able to speak to the concerns of fifties America. It dealt indirectly with the sense of shared culpability that existed over horrific events like the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War and even the McCarthy witchhunts and blacklisting. In this sense, the town of Black Rock stood as a metaphor for American society as a whole, a community that had been quietly complicit in some terrible deeds.

An axe to grind...

An axe to grind…

In a way, then, the town of Dudley feels like a small-scale reflection of the type of injustice that Mulder fights on a much larger scale. There is a conspiracy at play in Dudley, controlled by old white men seeking to exploit those weaker than them for their own benefit, while looking out for their own. Our Town seems to suggest that the sort of corruption Mulder faces is not confined to the corridors of power in Washington, but instead offers a broader commentary on society in general – such abuses occur at all levels.

At the same time, Our Town plays into the show’s recurring motif concerning these small and isolated towns. Episodes like Gender Bender, Die Hand Die Verletzt, Red Museum and Humbug have all suggested that small-town America was a unique and eccentric place. There’s an almost nostalgic exploration of these spaces, as if The X-Files conceded that innocence surrounding these communities could not withstand the forces of globalisation and communication.

If you can keep your head...  and those of some other people...

If you can keep your head… and those of some other people…

The small town is an enduring romantic image in the American consciousness. As Witold Rybczynski notes in Last Harvest:

The small town occupies an iconic position in American popular culture. All countries have small towns, of course, but in the United States the small town embodies a particular ideal of neighbourly democracy, self-sufficiency, and independence. In the mid-nineteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “the town is the unit of the Republic”, but the popular image of the small town really came into its own a hundred years later. Artists as disparate as Mark Twain, Thornton Wilder, Frank Capra, and Norman Rockwell stoked the small-town myth. So did Walt Disney, who made a small-town main street the centrepiece of his first theme park. Such images penetrated the public consciousness. When a 1990 Gallup poll asked people where they would prefer to live, despite the fact that four out of five of the respondents resided in a metropolitan area, small towns were strongly favoured over suburbs, farms, or cities.

It’s easy to see the appeal of these surroundings.

Bonfire of the vanities...

Bonfire of the vanities…

Of course, in the nineties, it became quite easy to subvert and toy with this idea of small town American life. Consider the irony employed in advertising, as William Severini Kowinski reflects in The Malling of America:

Consider the ads that contrast the friendliness and quality to be found at national chain outlets with the sleaziness and sloppiness of small-time independents, usually depicted as shiftless rubes and rude incompetents. These commercials turn the assumption of small-town community on its head: It is now the anonymous chain that “cares about you” and offers personal service, not a business from your own town run by somebody who knows you personally. Such ads respond to the facts: Most Americans live in large cities or suburbs, and see small towns only as they are passing through.

Much of Our Town could be read as a subversive twist on the nostalgia for the small town. After all, it’s a local community where very little seems to be particularly “local” – Dudley serves both as the home of a large national chicken processing empire and has imported a culture of ritual cannibalism from abroad.

Bones to pick with them...

Bones to pick with them…

That said, it is worth conceding that the “exposing a small community with a dark secret” does have some basis in reality – particularly into the nineties and beyond. Consider the revelations in the early nineties about thirteen murders of black men that had been covered up by the community of Conroe, Texas – a horrific event that only came to light in the early nineties. Or the discovery of genetic abnormalities among members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Arizona, preceding police raids exposing “systematic” abuse.

More recently, the community of Oniontown in New York State has become the focus of attention and speculation. After a bunch of teens were brutally attacked while visiting the town, the state police offered some chilling advice to non-locals. “My advice is simple,” said investigator Eric Schaefer. “If you’re not a resident of Oniontown, stay away.” This is a community about two hours car journey from New York City, suggesting that globalisation has not entirely eroded these sorts of isolated communities.

Food for the soul...

Food for the soul…

Of course, these sorts of communities with their own secrets are not unique to America. The Oscar-winning documentary The Cove explored the secrets kept by the town of Taiji, in Japan. The community covered up the large-scale killing of dolphins. The town of Vichy in France, while associated with collaboration during the Second World War, has struggled to come to terms with its own awkward history – local residents objecting to attempts to document the town’s history.

The X-Files was filled with those sorts of communities. Even if the whole town wasn’t in on the big secret, they were generally quite happy not to know. The show was packed with locals quite willing to look the other way until Mulder and Scully forced them to confront something deeply unpleasant at the heart of their community. Our Town takes the idea to its logical extreme. It seems like the entire town is more than passively complicit with the atrocities being committed – most are actively involved.

I suppose it's the Dudley equivalent of a severed head on a pike...

I suppose it’s the Dudley equivalent of a severed head on a pike…

Our Town is based around cannibalism, with Mulder and Scully discovering that the local community has been consuming outsiders for decades, preying on the innocent – people who won’t be missed. Fishing a massive pile of bones out of the river, Mulder notes that eighty-seven people have been reported missing in the region over the last fifty years. Before the disappearance of George Kearns, nobody had noticed. The one survivor had conveniently been sent to a psychiatric institution, his ranting and raving dismissed because that was easier than confronting it.

The residents of Dudley are methodical. Much like the chicken processing plant, it seems like they have set up a conveyer belt system. In the teaser, we see how this might operate. Paula lures the victim into the woods for a romantic rendezvous. Drawing them away from the car, the natives pounce. They host a barbeque, involving a massive bonfire, and then tidy up after themselves. The bones are dumped in the river. The cycle repeats.

Let's not play chicken...

Let’s not play chicken…

They have managed to get away with it because their system is so efficient. They have only preyed on outsiders, on drifters, on people who would not be missed. They protect their own. Justifying the decision to eat George, Chaco explains, “He was no good, Doris. He had no values. He didn’t fit in here.” This is an isolated little community that is simply looking out for its own interests, protecting itself from outsiders.

The episode suggests that Dudley is a very conservative town – one that is afraid of the outside world reaching in. George Kearns works for the Department of Agriculture, and seems to threaten the way that the town has been doing things. The community doesn’t seem to be run by a mayor or an elected council – it is all maintained by an aging patriarch. Chaco lives in a mansion that would seem at home in Florida or New Orleans, and is served by an African-American maid dressed in the tradition outfit. The set-up suggests a very old-fashioned set of “traditional” values.

Dudley is renowned for its trade in tribal masks and sharp bone-splitting axes...

Dudley is renowned for its trade in tribal masks and sharp bone-splitting axes…

There is a massive irony here. Chaco isn’t really preserving anything approaching “traditional” values. Indeed, Chaco has built his empire on values he appropriated from a foreign culture. Given its history as a tool of colonial propaganda, “cannibalism” falls into the category of “things that The X-Files needs to handle very carefully.” Much like Fresh Bones, the script for Our Town cleverly side-steps and inverts a lot of the colonial subtext by having old and powerful white men appropriate and distort foreign traditions for their own sinister purposes.

It is worth pausing to consider the notion of ritual cannibalism, which is a very awkward topic. It is a practice that evokes all sorts of unpleasant colonial subtexts, and plays to a certain sense of exoticism about foreign cultures. Perhaps for this reason, Amnesty International refused to publish information on cannibalism during the Liberian Civil War in the 1980s. The Korowai tribe in Papua New Guinea claim to still practice ritual cannibalism to this day. However, it has been suggested that the tribe is simply playing up to the expectations of Western tourists.

"Scully, you feel like we wandered into True Detective for a second?"

“Scully, you feel like we wandered into True Detective for a second?”

Still, despite this interest in cannibalism on foreign soil and by members of other ethnic groups, the practice also has a long history among the North American settlers themselves – forced on communities in times of desperation. There are several high-profile instances of communities practicing cannibalism, most notably the Jamestown settlement or the Donner party. These have become American horror stories. Perhaps that is why it is so disconcerting to see a small American community embrace the practice with zeal in Our Town.

That said, while cannibalism has traditionally been associated with “the other” – external cultures with strange customs – the past few decades have seen the practice aggressively redefined as a metaphor for capitalism and consumerism. Despite the protests about “the true sense of the word” by Doctor Millard Rausch, Dawn of the Dead gave us flesh-eating zombies wandering the mall. Soylent Green – to borrow a phrase from the film – “is people.” The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has been called a critique of “cannibalistic capitalism.”

By the bucketful...

They’re disappearing by the bucketful…

Our Town takes this idea to its logical conclusion, where the ritual cannibalism of the tribes of Papua New Guinea is appropriated by Chaco and converted into the cornerstone of his national business empire. While he keeps the ceremonial mask for flavour, the practice is stripped of a lot of the ritualism or spirituality that one would associate with a tradition from Papua New Guinea. Mulder finds a plastic fork near the remains of a cook-out, and the whole ceremony looks more like a community barbecue than a religious tradition from the other side of the world.

There’s a wry irony to all this. It would appear that unchecked capitalism consumes everything, even cannibalism. The process is ruthlessly efficient. Everything is part of the machinery. While touring the chicken processing plant, Harold assures Mulder and Scully that “any part of the bird we can’t package we process, use as feed.” There is no waste here. Based on the closing scene, the same is true of Dudley’s other specialty foods.

Bit of a numbskull, that Chaco fellow...

Bit of a numbskull, that Chaco fellow…

This adds a level of irony to Chaco’s insistence that he is a self-made man. “You know, when I came here after the war, Dudley was just a patch of dirt,” he proudly boasts to Mulder and Scully. “I built that plant and put my whole family to work there.” Of course, one might suggest that Chaco’s success is built off the work of his family members, just as much as his longevity can be credited to his victims.

Much like F. Emasculata, there’s a sense that the show has its finger on the popular pulse. As with Red Museum earlier in the season, Our Town invites the audience to wonder where their meat comes from. Although the broadcast of Our Town (narrowly) predates the first confirmed case of vCJD in a human, it aired as part of a climate where people were increasingly skeptical about what they were eating. The spread of BSE among British cattle had peaked in 1992 and 1993.

Where's the chicken?

Where’s the chicken?

Although the probable link between BSE and vCJD would only be officially confirmed in 1996, there was an understandable anxiety about the meat being consumed. The scare is credited with leading to radical reforms of European food policy. It has even been wryly noted that telling customers more about how their meat is produced was not the ideal solution – “when consumers found out more information about food production systems, they didn’t necessarily like the result.” Featuring CJD and a contaminated food chain, Our Town captures the moment perfectly.

If there is a problem with Our Town, it’s the decision to put Scully in danger again at the climax. It feels especially contrived because it relies on Mulder thinking the pair should split up in the middle of an investigation where they suspect that there is a large cult of cannibals at work. From the moment those bones were pulled from the river, there really should be a larger federal or state presence. However, this is a criticism that probably applies to quite a few episodes of The X-Files.

"Yes, Mulder. I'll wander off in the middle of the night by myself while you do the safe stuff. Great idea."

“Yes, Mulder. I’ll wander off in the middle of the night by myself while you do the safe stuff. Great idea.”

The bigger problem is that this is just the latest in a long line of “Scully in peril” climaxes, with Scully being rendered helpless for far too many second-season episode climaxes. Even Spotnitz himself concedes as much, in X-Files Confidential:

“I was very pleased with the way it was executed, and I think it was a good mystery,” he adds. “Some people have complained about seeing Scully in jeopardy again, and I’ve got to say that they have a good point. After having seen her abducted twice, beaten up, and all the thing s she had been through, I could understand why some fans didn’t want to see that again. If I had that to think over, I’d probably come up with another way to get out of that story.”

It’s not a problem with Our Town itself, but a problem with how Our Town sits in the season. While the show generally did a good job balancing Mulder and Scully, the second season had difficulty striking an equilibrium of peril.

"Wait! Duchovny earns HOW much?"

“Wait! Duchovny earns HOW much?”

Scully was abducted to punish Mulder in Duane Barry, and again as leverage against Mulder in Colony. She was strangled in a car while Mulder faced the main threat in Fresh Bones and thrown around the room while Mulder assisted an exorcism in The Calusari. This is compounded by the unfortunate reality that Gillian Anderson’s limited availability in the early episodes of the season suggested that The X-Files was really Mulder’s show, guest-starring Scully.

As, arguably, did the fact that Anderson was paid half of what Duchovny earned for the first three seasons of the show – although she only earned “slightly” less from the fourth season onwards. Still, that may be an argument for another time. Still, “Scully-in-jeopardy” is a little played out at this point in the show’s run. It would be a bit of a relief when Anasazi decided to balance the scales somewhat by placing Mulder in jeopardy repeatedly, and having Scully come to his rescue.

BBQ!

BBQ!

Our Town sees Rob Bowman concluding a pretty incredible run on the second season of The X-Files. The director is responsible for six of the final fourteen episodes of the season, a phenomenal workload. Bowman has maintained a fairly consistent quality all along, with Død Kälm probably being the weakest episode directed by Bowman in that stretch. It’s a phenomenal track record, and one that demonstrates just why Bowman was so highly regarded by Carter and the rest of the production team.

Inevitably, the fact that Bowman directed almost half of the second half of the season means that his style has really had a chance to establish itself. The second season of The X-Files has really been about the show attempting to define itself. This obvious applies to the writing and the plotting, but the influence of Bowman’s directorial style at this formative stage should not be under-estimated.

Everybody's a bit plucked now...

Everybody’s a bit plucked now…

There is a temptation to think of television as primarily a writer’s medium – in contrast to film, which is traditionally treated as a director’s medium. There are a lot of reasons for these preconceptions. Film traditionally has more production time, allowing the director to put more of their stamp on the show; the production can film a scene over a course of days. In contrast, a television director traditionally only had about a week to film the script that landed in their lap. Directors are brought in for a few episodes in a season, while writers oversee the whole show.

Part of the reason that The X-Files was able to gain and maintain a reputation as a particularly “cinematic” piece of television was because it encouraged directors to put their own stamp on a script and an episode. Not only does a James Wong and Glen Morgan script feel different from a Howard Gordon script, a Wong and Morgan script feels different filtered through David Nutter or Kim Manners. In a many ways, describing something as a Rob Bowman or David Nutter episode is as telling as describing it as a Chris Carter or Howard Gordon script.

Going off-road...

Going off-road…

The show got extremely lucky with its directors. While there’s a pretty deep talent pool stretched across the series – with acclaimed Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones director Michelle MacLaren earning her first directorial credit on John Doe the last season – the second and third seasons contain a compelling nexus of directorial talent. Rob Bowman, David Nutter and Kim Manners are the three directors who most effectively defined the look and feel of the show, with the help of R.W. Goodwin. And they were very important in the show’s formative years.

Our Town is an effective little X-Files horror story, and one that helps to close out the second season’s “monster of the week” stories on a high note.

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

2 Responses

  1. I quite like this episode as a sort of “background music” version of the X-Files, if that makes sense. It’s moody, creepy, not too dramatic, not too bombastic; it’s one I’ll put on if I “want to watch X-Files” but don’t necessarily want to pay attention to the TV the whole time. Sounds like damning with faint praise, but I do genuinely enjoy it. There’s a nice shipper moment when Mulder saves Scully at the BBQ.

    • I like it a great deal. You’re right about it’s archetypal quality, though. It’s like the statistical mean of the first three years of the show.

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