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The X-Files – 2Shy (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

A lot of the success of the third season of The X-Files came for learning what had worked earlier, and trying to hone that.

So, for example, the epic mythology of Colony and End Game enabled episodes like Nisei and 731 along with Piper Maru and Apocrypha. Shows like Die Hand Die Verletzt and Humbug had proven that the show could do comedy, so it wasn’t as big a risk to commit to stories like Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose or Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.” Even episodes like Fresh Bones had helped to define what a standard “monster of the week” should look like.

Freak like me...

Freak like me…

This approach to the third season had its drawbacks. It seemed like the first chunk of the first season was stuffed with supernatural revenge stories, to the point where it is surprisingly easy to confuse The List and The Walk on the basis of title and theme alone. However, it was a very effective way of producing television. It is very hard to fault any approach towards television production that could turn “fat-sucking vampire” into a premise that works.

The genealogy of 2Shy is quite easy to trace. It is the obvious synthesis of Tooms and Irresistible, two of the more memorable and effective monster stories of the first two seasons. 2Shy may have some very serious problems, but it does what it says on the tin.

Fresh bones...

Fresh bones…

On paper, “fat-sucking vampire” seems like a recipe for disaster, along with concepts like “invisible zoo animals”, “butt-dwelling Indian fakir” or “two Kathy Griffins for the price of one.” And 2Shy walks a very narrow line. Serial killer narratives often have difficulty navigating issues of gender. It is very easy for a story about men who prey on women to play into sexism or misogyny. Slasher movies often have a great deal of difficulty walking that particular line.

So a story about a serial killer targeting fat women needs to be particularly careful. There is an argument that prejudice against the obese – particularly obese women – is “the last acceptable prejudice in America.” This suggestion is backed up by statistics exploring popular attitudes held by people about the overweight. It has been suggested that children are already prejudiced against fat people by the age of four.

All about chemistry...

All about chemistry…

One need only look at the attitudes that are expressed toward actresses who do not conform to standards of beauty and weight. Oscar-nominated actress Gabourey Sidibe is a frequent target for these sorts of comments. In his review of Precious, David Edelstein observed that her “head is a balloon on the body of a zeppelin, her cheeks so inflated they squash her eyes into slits.” Stay classy. Actresses like Mindy Kaling and Alyssa Milano have also had to confront the issue.

Of course, The X-Files is not a show about public service announcements, and it doesn’t necessarily want to get bogged down in the politics about this sort of prejudice. Much like The List was able to make points about institutionalised racism without labouring the point, 2Shy could offer commentary without feeling heavy-handed. Unfortunately, the episode feels like it never quite explores the issue, instead playing into stereotypes.

Does not compute...

Does not compute…

After all, the women targeted by Virgil Incanto in 2Shy don’t seem particularly fat. They conform to what Hollywood considers to be “fat” – what might be classed as “Hollywood pudgy.” Incanto’s first victim weighs 165 pounds according to her driver’s license and had put on a little more weight. While this is definitely overweight, it is well shy of what the Centre of Disease Control would consider “obese.” The average weight of women recruited for Joseph Proietto’s study on obesity at the University of Melbourne was 200 pounds.

Surely, if Incanto needs fat to survive, it would make sense for him to target heavier ladies? It seems a bit strange that all his victims fall within the realm of what television and cinema traditionally defines as “acceptably fat”, suggesting that – even within the confines of an episode explicitly about the victimisation of fat people – there are limits on how fat a woman can be on television. This is to say nothing of the episode’s subtext about how overweight women need to find date on-line.

Monitoring it all...

Monitoring it all…

2Shy muddles things up a bit with a completely irrelevant subplot that has Scully as the victim of sexism from Detective Cross, who seems to take exception to a woman working a serial killer investigation. “It’s nothing personal, Agent Scully, I’m just old-fashioned in certain regards,” he states, in a moment that feels like he may as well have said ‘I’m not sexist, but…’ He explains, “The truth is, I question the wisdom of assigning female law enforcement officers to certain types of cases.”

It seems a bit weird that Cross could have worked in his field for so long – this is the mid-nineties – and still been surprised at the idea that Scully was not only a law enforcement official, but also a medical doctor. Next thing he knows, there’ll be women drivers or something! Never mind that – by 2001 – over one-fifth of all pathologists were women. The whole subplot between Cross and Scully feels awkward, never going anywhere. It seems as if the script is trying to say something about sexism, but can’t work it out properly.

Building the bones of a case...

Building the bones of a case…

Similarly, the character of Jenny seems a little bit excessive. Jenny is the daughter of Incanto’s landlady. She is a little blind girl. From the moment that she appears, it is clear that 2Shy is simply setting up some tense scene towards the climax. Dutifully, the scene arrives. After Incanto has murdered her mother, Jenny visits her lodger. There is a tense scene where Incanto and Jenny converse with her mother’s body in the floor in the background.

The problem is that Jenny is a character who exists solely so the episode can have that very tense little scene. She’s a storytelling tool, rather than a character in her own right. 2Shy would lose very little outside that scene if Jenny were removed, and the story would arguably be streamlined. As with the conversations between Scully and Cross, there’s a sense that 2Shy is trying to do something interesting and worthwhile, but is bungling the execution a little.

Putting her necklace on the line...

Putting her necklace on the line…

Still, the climax does make a point to have Incanto defeated by two women. Mulder runs off on a wild goose chase, leaving Scully and the victim alone in the apartment. When Incanto attacks, Scully fends him off and the victim shoots him with Scully’s gun. Sidelining Mulder is a smart move, as it allows Scully to get an action climax to herself. In the second season, Scully was largely a victim in shows like AscensionIrresistible, The Calusari, End Game or Our Town.

Admittedly, some of that was down to production decisions necessitated by Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy, but even the second half of the season featured a lot of “Scully in peril.” One of the smarter things about 2Shy is how it twists that around, letting the female characters save themselves from the serial killer. It is a bit disingenuous to present it as an explicitly feminist moment, but it does a lot to undercut the potential problems with a story like this.

Scratching the surface...

Scratching the surface…

In some respects, 2Shy could be seen as the definitive X-Files serial killer story. It isn’t the best – it is a messier and more awkward story than shows like Tooms, Irresistible or Grotesque. However,  2Shy takes a lot of the themes and ideas in Tooms and Irresistible and contextualises them within the broader sweep of The X-Files. As a nineties television show, The X-Files often has a vaguely funereal atmosphere, as if Mulder and Scully are pushing back the shadows and witnessing the death of many monsters.

In the nineties, the world was getting brighter. People were more closely connected than ever before. The eccentric spaces that had been so prevalent across America were disappearing, replaced by something more homogeneous and generic. It is a theme of many X-Files episodes – from Humbug to Home. It seems like the monsters and the freaks are being slowly driven out by advancing civilisation. What is interesting about 2Shy is that it seems to explicitly identify the serial killer as one such monster.

Some of the extras from The List make an appearance...

Some of the extras from The List make an appearance…

Of course, The X-Files had done serial killer stories before. Squeeze and Tooms had suggested that Victor Eugene Tooms was a predator who had evolved specifically to thrive in the urban environment. Irresistible presented viewers with a monster who was all too human. Donny Pfaster was remarkably only in his averageness. People projected their own demons on to Pfaster, but the show suggested he was only human.

Virgil Incanto feels like a synthesis of those two characters. Like Victor Tooms, he is an evolved vampire – a traditional monster who has adapted to the modern world. Instead of blood, these new monsters fed on different parts of their victims. Tooms consumed the liver, before a period hibernation. Incanto consumes the adipose tissue. He feeds off the fat of the women he kills. He secretes stomach acids so he might be able to pre-digest his food.

Here's Virgil...

Here’s Virgil…

Interestingly, the idea of vampires who feed on fat is not novel. As Laura L. Enright writes in Vampires’ Most Wanted:

Tribes in South America had a particular fear of such vampires that seemed to arise after the Spanish conquered that part of the world. The tribes thought the demon would often enter the body and suck away fatty tissue. Whatever it didn’t finish, it would take and sell to businessmen, who would use the tissue for machinery and cosmetics. The Kallawaya tribe believed that the kharisiri stole fatty tissue from the liver of an intoxicated person and sold it to bishops and hospitals. The nakaq, found in Peru, would not only steal a woman’s fat; he would rape her first, then take whatever fat was left and sell it to white businessmen.

So Incanto is not a creature without precedent.

It's a lot to digest...

It’s a lot to digest…

2Shy is endearingly explicit about Incanto’s vampirism. The script is charmingly on the nose about such things. “From a dry skin sample you’re concluding what?” Scully demands. “That he’s some kind of fat-sucking vampire?” Even the opening scene plays with vampire iconography. The first sign that all is not right with Incanto comes from a quick glimpse of a scar on neck. His first victim wears a lucky necklace – but it’s “a clover leaf” rather than a crucifix. “How blatant can you get?” she asks.

2Shy is not a script that does subtle. While this causes problems when it tries to tackle issues of sexism, it does lend the episode a pulpy charm. Even the detective pursuing Incanto is named “Cross.” Virgil Incanto himself – expert in Italian renaissance poetry – is named in an homage The Divine Comedy, that most quintessential of Italian renaissance poetry. Virgil was Danté’s guide through the Inferno, and that poem was written in cantos. It’s hilarious to think the publishers writing cheques never found it a tad convenient.

As luck would have it...

As luck would have it…

Squeeze and Tooms suggests that Victor Eugene Tooms was a mutant predator who had evolved to thrive on urban society – a creature whose biology and pathology was shaped by the horrors of industrialisation. There’s an element of that to Incanto as well. We never discover how old he is, or how long he has been doing what it is that he does. However, 2Shy implies that he has been at it quite a while. The episode ends with him claiming an A4 page of victims almost casually. “They’re all mine.”

Incanto is a creature who preys on the vulnerable, exploiting the sense of isolation and remoteness of the urban sprawl. In a way, he can be traced back to other iconic and horrific serial killers like Jack the Ripper or H.H. Holmes. Holmes practically industrialised serial killing by building a building best described as a “murder hotel” in the middle of Chicago to prey on tourists and other visitors under the anonymity of city living. Tooms and Incanto are monsters, but they are monsters that speak to urban anxieties.

At least he insisted on getting the cheque. He's not a complete monster.

At least he insisted on getting the cheque. He’s not a complete monster.

In this respect, The X-Files was perhaps in line with the times. The eighties and nineties saw a shift in the language used in the mainstream do describe such opportunistic offenders, as Philip Jenkins notes in Decade of Nightmares:

During the 1990s, the language of sexual ‘predators’ moved from the pages of sensational true crime books to the formal titles of state and federal laws. Clearly, the term predator is a metaphor – a predatory animal is one that survives by hunting and eating other animals, and only by analogy is this compared with the pursuit and sexual exploitation by humans of less powerful strangers. But the concept of sexual predators was increasingly associated with sexual violence and stalking, the other monstrous hunting metaphor that entered the legislative code in these years. (The concept first entered the popular consciousness in 1989, and California passed the first anti-stalking law a year later.) Between 1989 and 1992, a number of sensationalised cases revived the older panic about monstrous serial killers, with Jeffrey Dahmer as its new symbol. Hollywood helped publicise the revived fears, most spectacularly in the film The Silence of the Lambs, the title itself suggesting images of predation.

It could be argued that The X-Files represented the next step of evolution from those sorts of word choices and fears. The X-Files suggested that these “predators” who “stalked” their prey may actually be literal – rather than simply metaphorical – monsters.

A sketchy character...

A sketchy character…

In light of all of this, it would be very easy to interpret 2Shy as a story about internet panic. There’s undoubtedly an element of that to the episode. At the same time, it is also made clear that Incanto has been working this routine for a long while now. Mulder seems to suggest that the internet is just a new medium for him to exploit. “Our killer may have moved out of the personal columns and onto the internet,” he reflects.

The X-Files can be dated as a nineties show in a number of ways – from fashion to phones to politics. It existed at the dawn of the internet age. Although the internet itself dates to the seventies, it only reach reached the public in the nineties. That is how “Al Gore gave America the internet” could become a stock joke. The penetration of the internet into normal middle-class American life only really occurred during the Clinton administration.

So, no third date, then?

So, no third date, then?

To give a sense of scale: in 1990, there were 313,000 American computers on the internet; in 1996, there were ten million. New technology brought new fears. Just as rock-and-roll would corrupt children and television would rot brains, the internet was presented as a terrifying place full of predators and serial killers just waiting to strike. If you believed some corners of public discussion, connecting to the internet gave serial killers and child molesters a gateway into your home.

The advent of on-line dating brought its own sets of fears and uncertainties, particularly for vulnerable women using these services. In a line that seems particularly ironic in light of 2Shy‘s plot, the HBO documentary When Strangers Click: Five Stories From the Internet suggested that “women are afraid of meeting a serial killer; men are afraid of meeting someone fat.” Written and broadcast a decade-and-a-half earlier, 2Shy seems wryly prescient.

"Sorry, I sometimes get a good star going..."

“Sorry, I sometimes get a good stare going…”

An oft-cited never-sourced statistic during the nineties claimed that there were approximately 50,000 child predators on-line at any given moment. In Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, Dan Gardner critically explored that popular myth:

The expert Dateline spoke to was FBI agent Ken Lanning. When NPR asked Lanning about the magic number, he said, ‘I didn’t know where it came from. I couldn’t confirm it, but I couldn’t refute it, either, but I felt it was a fairly reasonably figure.’ Lanning also noted a curious coincidence: 50,000 has made appearances as a key number in at least two previous panics in recent years. In the early 1980s, it was supposed to be the number of children kidnapped by strangers every year. At the end of the decade, it was the number of murders committee by Satanic cults. These claims, widely reported and believed at the time, were later reveals to be nothing more than hysterical guesses that become ‘fact’ in the retelling.

While there was never any real evidence to back all this up, it is easy to see why people would be nervous around the internet.

A web of death...

A web of death…

On 5th July 1993, The New Yorker published a cartoon by Peter Steiner, boasting, “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” The cartoon perfectly captured the nineties anxieties about computers and the internet. After all, if people could not know if you were a dog, they had no chance of figuring out if you were a serial killer or a fat-sucking vampire. A lot of nineties media tried to tap into that fear, to capitalise on it.

Movies like Hackers or The Net demonstrated that an inability to understand how the internet worked would not stop movie companies from trying to cash in on anxieties and uncertainties. Films like Enemy of the State demonstrated how vulnerable people were in the era of surveillance culture and easily-accessible information. Two years after 2Shy, Chris Carter’s Millennium would offer its own internet anxieties in The Mikado.

Cutting to the heart of the matter...

Cutting to the heart of the matter…

Unsurprisingly, writer Jeff Vlaming suggests in X-Files Confidential that using the internet was Chris Carter’s idea. Carter always had his finger on the pulse. In Trust No One, he explains his logic:

These chat rooms on the Internet are filled with people who are pretending to be what they aren’t,” Carter observes. The show examines that phenomenon, he says, commenting not on The X – Files’ fans but rather on people who might be, to quote the song, “looking for love in all the wrong places.”

There are elements of these perfectly understandable fears to be found in 2Shy.

Chewing the fat...

Chewing the fat…

After all, the show is about a serial killer who is able to stalk his prey through his internet connection. He is able to exploit their vulnerability and lure them to their deaths. He is able to make all these connections anonymously, writing to several women under several different names in order to best “farm” his victims. The title refers to one of his on-line handle, and we also see him seducing another potential victim under the alias “Timid.”

Of course, the episode also subverts this internet paranoia slightly. After all, the internet isn’t the only place where Incanto can take advantage of anonymity. Incanto doesn’t seem to exist in the real world any more than he exists on-line. “His name is Virgil Incanto,” Mulder tells Scully. “At least that’s what it says on his rental agreement. There’s no record that the guy even exists – no DMV, no birth certificate, no Social Security, not even a bank account.”

Some neck...

Some neck…

There’s no paper trail to prove that Incanto exists at all. “He’s a translator of Italian literature,” Mulder tells Scully. “Freelance, but his publisher pays him in cashier’s checks.” With anonymous personal ads taken out in papers, paid for in cash, it seems like Incanto would be even more difficult to track down in the flesh than he is on-line. After all, the noose only really begins to tighten around him when he moves into the digital age.

It is clear from the outset of the episode that the ground is shrinking underneath Incanto. He is new to the internet, and doesn’t seem to be very good. He opens his next account using the credit card belonging to the last victim, creating a clear paper trail. More than that, his sketch is circulated on-line among members of the community. The internet may enable him, but it also helps to catch him. The survivor is alerted by the photo-fit.

Quite apart(ment) from it all...

Quite apart(ment) from it all…

In this respect, 2Shy is arguably ahead of the curve, predicting that the internet has not enabled serial killers so much as endangered them. The on-line community and sharing of information makes it harder to maintain the sort of anonymity that suits such monsters:

What role has the internet played in reversing this trend? Mike Aamodt, a psychology professor who has studied serial killers, says the web has created a new paradigm. “There is an identity layer that exists now which prevents predators from moving between communities and staying unnoticed as they did in decades past,” he tells The Verge. “A Google search makes it more difficult to simply leave your history behind.”

While there are documented cases of predators using the internet to find and exploit victims, it is also the case that the internet has made that tougher for them.

If that face doesn't say "trust me"...

If that face doesn’t say “trust me”…

In a way, it could be argued that the serial killer – that most mythical of American monsters – is an endangered species. “It does seem the golden age of serial murderers is probably past,” Harold Schechter, a professor at Queens College of the City University of New York, has argued. In this respect, then, 2Shy could be seen as the defining commentary on serial killers within the context of The X-Files, suggesting that such monsters were losing ground and would find themselves threatened by globalisation and exposure.

After all, despite his supernatural trappings, Virgil Incanto is every bit as much a serial killer as Donny Pfaster was. The only real difference is that Virgil Incanto’s compulsion is biological rather than psychological. Even that theory assumes that serial killers are not physiologically different from so-called normal people – something some evidence disputes indicating that psychopathy and sociopathy can be transmitted genetically. Incanto just literalises this difference and compulsion.

On the record...

On the record…

“We’re looking for some kind of genetically different human being,” Mulder explains. “A creature who may be responsible for who knows how many missing person cases throughout the United States.” He could just as easily be describing a serial killer whose psychopathy is rooted in genetics. It’s an obvious exaggeration – the general consensus is that genetics and environmental factors play a role in the manifestation of psychopathy – but it makes a very clear connection.

“It’s just a theory, but what if he’s not doing this out of a psychotic impulse but rather out of physical hunger?” Mulder ponders. This is a common pop cultural portrayal of serial killers. Here, it happens to be body fat. However, the writer Thomas Harris was very fond of serial killers who treated other human beings as raw material. Hannibal Lecter is the most obvious example, turning people into food. However, Jame Gumb was killing women in order to fashion his own “people suit.”

"Hey, at least I don't put personals up on Craigslist..."

“Hey, at least I don’t put personals up on Craigslist…”

(The X-Files shares a long connection with the work of Thomas Harris. Scully very heavily draws from the character of Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. Mulder’s connection to Will Graham from Red Dragon is discussed less frequently. Chris Carter’s Millennium drew more heavily from Harris’ work. It seems appropriate that The X-Files and Millennium are a major influence on Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. 2Shy writer Jeff Vlaming is on staff, Gillian Anderson and Lance Henriksen have appeared in the show.)

Incanto fits comfortably within that mould of a nineties serial killer, just one whose pathological needs are genuinely biological rather than simply psychological in nature. Incanto’s evokes Ted Bundy in the same way that Donnie Pfaster did. He is superficially charming and very manipulative. He presents a very handsome and well-maintained exterior to conceal his darker impulses. However, while Pfaster seems to evoke Bundy at his peak, Incanto seems to be modelled on the later stages of Bundy’s violent spree.

Shades of grey...

Shades of grey…

While Bundy could be charming and well-organised, his pathology devolved as his killings came to an end. Far from being smooth and under the radar, Bundy’s last days of freedom were chaotic and random. He found it harder to focus and control his violent impulses, putting less effort into concealing his crimes and showing less concern about being caught. Incanto seems to be falling apart over the course of 2Shy, demonstrating a similar lack of focus.

When he is unable to feed, he preys on a prostitute – but he’s so desperate that he doesn’t bother to conceal the body before he starts feeding. As a result, he is disturbed and is left hungry. Later, when he murders his landlady in his own apartment, he makes little attempt to conceal his crime. Even though she is only a child with no real fat on her bones, the landlady’s daughter recalls sensing Incanto’s violent impulses so close to the surface. “I was scared that he’d hurt me. I could tell he wanted to when he grabbed me.”

"Look, if you can't trust a stranger with an ominous name who drove you out to an abandoned pier in the middle of the night, who can you trust?"

“Look, if you can’t trust a stranger with an ominous name who drove you out to an abandoned pier in the middle of the night, who can you trust?”

In a way, then, Incanto allows The X-Files to suggest that the serial killer is just another of the monsters retreating to the rescinding shadows in this age of globalisation and information technology. Incanto seems like a much more pathetic figure than Tooms or Pfaster, a monster who has yet to realise that his time is over. The episode doesn’t end with Incanto dead, it ends with him in custody. Unlike Pfaster, he doesn’t even maintain his mystique in captivity.

Instead, handcuffed and in prison overalls, Incanto seems like a sideshow freak – a pathetic excuse of a man who is wasting away under the harsh lights of his prison cell. Locked up an unable to feed, his skin seems to shed. He is no longer able to “pass” as a normal person – removing a lot of the danger that he posed while free. In that final scene, Virgil Incanto isn’t a creature to be feared or anxious about. Instead, he’s just another curiosity – a boogeyman who is no longer as scary as he once was.

Mulder takes his window of opportunity...

Mulder takes his window of opportunity…

2Shy benefits greatly from wonderful direction by David Nutter. The director had helmed the first two episodes of Space: Above and Beyond, returning to The X-Files for a few episodes of the third season. Sadly, this would be Nutter’s last year working on the show. 2Shy demonstrates a lot of what makes Nutter such a great and atmospheric television director. It is a genuinely unpleasant and uncomfortable episode.

The show also has the advantage of a genuinely creepy supporting performance from Timothy Carhart as Virgil Incanto. Carhart is perhaps best known for playing the would-be rapist in Thelma and Louise, but he enjoyed a string of television and movie appearance where he played slimy and creepy characters. Among the most memorable were a small role in Star Trek: The Next Generation and a recurring role on the second season of 24.

"What do you mean you find Donnie Pfaster creepier?"

“What do you mean you find Donnie Pfaster creepier?”

Carhart makes Incanto seem delightfully unpleasant. It is easy enough to believe that the character can hide behind a mask of normality, but Carhart offers a lot of little tics and quirks that suggest how ruthless and self-centred the monster must be. Incanto is completely unrepentant and monstrous. Despite his compulsion, it is hard to feel too sorry for him. Carhart makes Incanto’s cold opportunism and methodology seem unsettling and uncomfortable in a way that really enhances the show.

2Shy is an episode that is surprisingly strong, despite its flaws. It is not perfect, and more than a few elements feel superfluous or clunky. However, it does offer a delightfully horrific villain and a slightly more nuanced take on nineties internet anxiety than most contemporaneous popular culture. The result is a show that demonstrates the strengths of the third season of The X-Files. It is using what has already worked for the show to do interesting and intriguing things.

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

2 Responses

  1. I love the x-files “2shy” & it is my favorite it.

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