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.
The approach that The X-Files took during its third season was to hone what had worked during the first two seasons to a fine edge.
The second season had been quite playful and experimental – taking the time to figure out what did and didn’t work. Comedy episodes, like Die Hand Die Verletzt and Humbug, worked; making shows like Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose or Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” logical choices. Mythology-driven two-parters during sweeps had paid off, so those returned for the third season. In contrast, the heavy science-fiction of shows like Fearful Symmetry, Død Kälm or Soft Light didn’t work, and were largely forgotten.
The result is a third season that plays to the established strengths of The X-Files. Sure, there are still bold and experimental episodes – particularly those credited to writer Darin Morgan. However, the third season is markedly more conservative in tone than the second season – or even the fourth season. This conservatism can work very well. The third season has very few out-and-out bombs, and more than a few classics. However, it comes at a cost.
The Walk is a reasonably well-produced episode that feels a little bit overly familiar. This is the second “supernatural revenge” story that The X-Files has done in so many episodes. There’s a point where The Walk feels a lot less like a unique story than an archetypal “fill in the blanks” exercise, where a unique location and a new set of characters are caught up in an old-fashioned ghost story.
In particular, The Walk feels a lot like the story we saw in The List. Sure, The Walk swaps in an army hospital in place of prison death row, and the particulars are slightly different, but a lot of the dynamics are the same. Like Napoleon “Neech” Manley, Leonard “Rappo” Trimble has spent the last few years trapped in a confined location. Neech was a prisoner; Leonard is an amputee. As with Neech, Rappo is stepping outside his body to wreak a terrible revenge on those he holds accountable for his fate.
There are differences, of course. Neech tended to target specific people as part of his revenge ploy; Rappo is much more interested in collateral damage. Neech wanted to avenge his death in the electric chair; while Rappo wants to avenge the loss of his limbs and his current situation, he is also trying to force somebody to murder him. While the prison in The List was portrayed as a corrupt and decrepit institution, the army hospital in The Walk feels like a place that is genuinely trying to protect those under its care.
At the same time, the broad strokes feel quite familiar. Much like Neech’s revenge made an episode with heavy political subtext feel very personal, Rappo tries to disguise his own personal retribution as part of some grander political statement about the realities of warfare. As with The List, Mulder and Scully feel largely incidental to how The Walk plays out. While this was a central point in The List, it feels a bit clumsier in The Walk.
There’s a strange efficiency to The Walk, with the episode playing out in a manner that feels very well-structured. Guest characters are kept around until they are unnecessary, and are then killed off once they’ve served their purpose. Roach is never really a character, and only a plot point who gets tidied away once he has served his purpose. The show provides the obligatory guest-character-death-at-act-break to help the tension mount. Mulder and Scully uncover the evidence at just the right pace to keep the episode moving.
The Walk is the first script credited to veteran X-Files writer John Shiban. As with his frequent collaborators Vince Gilligan and Frank Spotnitz, Shiban would remain with The X-Files until the bitter end. The three would take a brief break in the eighth season to run The Lone Gunmen, but they would be folded back into the writing staff on The X-Files in time for the ninth season. Shiban is a pretty significant contributor to The X-Files, credited on twenty-four scripts across the final seven seasons.
And yet, despite that sizeable body of work, it is very hard to summarise Shiban’s contribution to the show. Sixteen of his twenty-four scripts were written in collaboration with other writers, making it very difficult to pick out the “Shiban” elements. Shiban’s solo contributions to the series tend to be highly variable in quality. His best solo script is probably The Pine Bluff Variant from late in the fifth season, a pulpy conspiracy thriller. However, even that has its share of problems.
However, Shiban would do well for himself. He would become a fixture of The X-Files writing staff. He would enjoy pretty steady and high-profile work after the series, becoming one of the first television writers to work on both Doctor Who and Star Trek spin-offs. He was also part of the writing staff on Breaking Bad, which probably shouldn’t be a surprise; Vince Gilligan has repeatedly expressed his appreciation of The Walk.
All of this makes a great deal of sense. Shiban’s contributions to The X-Files may be harder to pin down and less interesting to discuss than those made by contemporaries like Chris Carter, Vince Gilligan, Glen Morgan, Darin Morgan, James Wong, Howard Gordon or Frank Spotnitz. However, there’s no denying that Shiban’s output marks him as a very capable television writer – not in the “turn out a classic every week” sense, but in the “get something workable in front of the camera” sense.
Shiban has a set of skills that make him quite appealing as a staff writer. He can handle a brief. He clearly knows his horror tropes. He can structure an episode of television. He can work very well as part of a team. Looking at the volume of his contributions on The Lone Gunmen, he can turn a script around very quickly. These are all traits that recommend a television writer, even if the results aren’t always classic or brilliant.
Looking at The Walk, it is easy to see why Shiban fit in so comfortably. He knows his story beats. He knows the stock elements that make for a solid episode of The X-Files. He can pace a show so that it doesn’t move too fast or too slow. The Walk might be particularly innovative or genius, but it fundamentally works. It is solid. It hangs together, and it doesn’t embarrass the show. Given how much of its basic structure and formula it shares with Excelsis Dei, that is quite an accomplishment.
The Walk touches on issues related to the Gulf War. The X-Files was very much a product of seventies paranoia, informed by events like Watergate and Vietnam. As such, it makes sense for the show to offer a comment on the Gulf War of the early nineties. In many respects, Operation: Desert Storm was seen as a contrast to Vietnam. It was a major international conflict that had ended in an unambiguous victory for the United States. On paper, it was quite the success.
“By God, we’ve beaten Vietnam Syndrome once and for all!” George H.W. Bush famously boasted at the end of the conflict, acknowledging the national anxiety that still lingered around the Vietnam War. The end of the conflict saw Bush’s approval ratings climb to 89%. Even a decade after the Gulf War, the American public still considered the conflict to be “worthwhile”; even before 9/11, a small majority of American citizens favoured a new war to depose Saddam Hussein.
The overriding narrative of the Gulf War was one of American victory and superiority. As Andrew J. Bacevich wrote in America’s Persian Gulf Adventure Ten Years On:
Thus, in a single stroke, the war seemingly healed psychic wounds that had festered for a generation. Reflecting the views of many professional officers, General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, believed that the demons of the Vietnam War had at long last been exercised. Thanks to Operation Desert Storm, her wrote, ‘the American people fell in love again with their armed forces.’ Indeed, references to ‘the troops’ a phrase to which politicians, pundits and network anchors all took a sudden liking – conveyed a not-so-subtle shift in attitude toward soldiers, suggesting a level of empathy, respect and even affection that had been absent and even unimaginable since the late 1960s.
So, one might be forgiven for considering the Gulf War to be a massive success story, one that set the tone for America into the nineties.
However, this was not entirely the case. The existence of “Gulf War syndrome” was a point of contention. Approximately 250,000 of the almost 700,000 troops who served in the conflict developed symptoms. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs was accused of hampering research and investigation into the condition. It wasn’t until 2008 that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs explicitly acknowledged the existence of a syndrome.
The illness has been linked to toxins like sarin and cyclosarin, possibly released during the destruction of the Khamisiyah weapons dump during the Gulf War. There are also reports of the army choosing to ignore various chemical weapons alarms that sounded during the conflict. These reports and findings, coupled with a general reluctance to acknowledge the existence of Gulf War syndrome, has led to a vibrant culture of conspiracy around the disease and the conflict.
As Peter Knight argues in Conspiracy Culture, historical experience has made it easier for conspiracy theories to spawn around events like this:
If the operating principle in the clandestine world of the intelligence agencies is ‘plausible deniability’, a policy which ensures those higher up the chain of command are never connected to the dirty work of agents in the field, then for many in the normal world there is an air of what might be termed undeniable plausibility about rumours of government conspiracy. With hotly contended issues like Gulf War syndrome, the assumption for many Americans is that the government is not only responsible for whatever caused the illnesses originally, but is also covering up its culpability. In the light of the revelations about episodes such as the Tuskagee Institute syphilis studies, and the testing of nuclear radiation, LSD and Agent Orange on unsuspecting army personnel and civilians, it would come as no surprise, the argument goes, that the government would have conduct similarly callous experiments on servicemen and women during the Gulf War. Even if a particular conspiracy theory turns out to be wildly unfounded, for many people it is nevertheless a reasonable assumption that a conspiracy theory is an initially viable explanation for strange events and coincidences.
In a way, this demonstrates why The X-Files so successfully tapped into the nineties zietgeist. It perfectly captured that loss of trust in the government – the idea that these horrible events were as likely to be sinister government plots as simple ineptitude.
In many respects, this serves to make the army hospital in The Walk perfect for The X-Files. Mulder does not uncover any evidence of a government conspiracy against its own troops, but the possibility lurks in the background. Scully even repeatedly alludes to the possibility, referencing “what drew [him] to this case to begin with” before mentioning “the government’s complete disavowment of Gulf War Syndrome.”
It’s a nice touch that demonstrates how well she has come to know her partner. It also makes the episode’s subtext quite clear. As with The List, The Walk is not explicitly about Gulf War syndrome or the treatment of army veterans. Instead, those ideas are incorporated into the background of the script and left largely unspoken. Neech and Rappo are motivated by personal concerns, but the show sets these personal vendettas against a keenly political backdrop.
It is probably no surprise that Mulder’s final monologue was changed before the show went to air. Mulder’s closing sentiment was apparently altered so close to broadcast that his original dialogue appeared in the closed captions:
“Leonard Trimble was a casualty of the Gulf War. A victim of friendly fire. The wounds of war, however, can go beyond the physical and mental injuries of battle. There was a spiritual toll on the combatants, the attack against the psyche that leaves in its wake only bitterness and anger. It was war that destroyed Leonard Trimble’s body and released his phantom soul. And it was war that destroyed those parts of himself that make us civilized human beings … those better angels of our nature.”
That is a very political and pointed closing sentiment – one that seems to indict the Gulf War, and the public’s willingness to gloss over the material consequences of American involvement in that conflict.
Certainly, The Walk seems quite sceptical of the conventional narrative surrounding the Gulf War. While discussing the strange events with Mulder and Scully, Stans acknowledges his strange visions. “I never see him clearly,” he admits. “But he looks like a soldier… always standing at attention.” When Mulder asks if he is an American soldier, Stans replies, “Or one of Saddam’s boys… come back to hold me accountable.” This would seem to suggest some element of guilt or ambiguity around his involvement in the conflict.
Although the final speech was edited down, it is telling that Rappo was wounded not by the Iraqi army, but by friendly fire from his own side. The indication is that the army can do is much damage to its own troops as the enemy might – that the scars lingering on survivors are as likely to be inflicted by their own side as by the enemy they face. General Callaghan’s final conversation with Rappo suggests that Rappo’s pain is familiar to all those who served, even those not disfigured. “You’re going to suffer like the rest of us.”
Given the public support of the Gulf War, it seems quite likely that the network forced the change in dialogue. Mulder’s closing speech is edited heavily – words are moved around, and the result is a much more ambiguous final thought:
“It was war that destroyed Leonard Trimble’s body … but his wounds went deeper than the loss of his limbs. What destroyed those parts of him that make us human beings? Those better angels of our nature? I cannot say.”
If this were down to a last minute change, there’s a wry irony in having Mulder declare that he “cannot say” what caused Leonard Trimble’s moral decay and complete collapse. It’s certain an accurate statement.
The Walk is also interesting in its staunch refusal to make Rappo a sympathetic character. As with Neech in The List, it seems like the logical thing to do in The Walk would be to make Leonard Trimble a vaguely sympathetic monster, to get the audience on side. The Walk beautifully subverts this, by making Rappo a thoroughly dislikeable and self-righteous character. Rappo is a complete monster, and the episode very firmly upsets audience expectations by acknowledging this.
Rappo talks a good game. Discussing his plan with Roach, Rappo insists that he is doing all this for some greater good. “This isn’t about you and me, man,” he insists. “This is about all the grunts and all the crips and all the boys who came home in a box! The enemy must be defeated. And we’re going to do it! You’re going to do your part and I’m going to do mine.” Of course, it’s all self-serving lies. Rappo just wants to force somebody to murder him. He wants suicide by proxy.
While that’s a sympathetic enough motivation. The Walk has a surprisingly strong right to die subtext, with “he won’t let me die!” serving as arc words that have an ironic resonance once we discover Rappo’s motivations. However, murdering several fellow officers and their families is a pretty effective way to undermine any potential audience sympathy. If Rappo really wanted to die, why not have Roach do it? It’s clear that he is enjoying some element of the pain that he is causing.
One aspect of The Walk that was controversial was the death of General Callaghan’s child. Killing an infant is a very effective way of shocking an audience – it is a stock horror trick that The X-Files has used before. It is something that needs to be done carefully, because it can easily seem like a cynical story beat, a quick and cheap bit of emotional leverage. The Walk does this significantly better than The Calusari did, but it still feels a little awkward.
Director Rob Bowman does a great job with the scene, but he admitted his discomfort to X-Files Confidential:
“There was only one element of that episode that I didn’t agree with,” says Bowman. “A friend of mine lost his son in a beach accident where the boy was accidentally buried in the sand – he dug a hole and it caved in. There was a scene in the script that was very similar. I called the writers and said, ‘Hey, listen, I can’t shoot this scene.’ ‘Why?’ I told the story and said I didn’t want my friend to think I was using that tragedy for creative material. I was very averse to doing it and asked, ‘Why do we have to kill kids anyway? Can’t we think of a story that doesn’t involve killing a kid?’ I was opposed to it but had to shoot the scene, so I tried to be as oblique about it as I could.”
Bowman has some valid points, but he does shoot the scene in such a way that it never feels too trashy or pulpy or cheap.
In contrast, Shiban himself was relatively unapologetic about the sequence, as he explained to Trust No One:
Shiban admitted there was some concern about killing the general’s young son, though “it didn’t bother me,” he added with a laugh. “There were certain people on the staff who felt that was extreme, who didn’t want to see that. I felt the whole idea behind the story was one of empathy — this guy wanted his CO to feel how he felt: ‘You took my whole life away. I’ve got nothing.’ The only way to do that was to take everything away from the man, and what worse thing to lose than a child? It’s horrific, but to me, that’s what a horror story is about.”
It’s a reasonable argument, but it does overlook the fact that The Walk is not about the loss of Callaghan’s child; that there’s no room to properly process the death of the child in the narrative, and it seems like a convenient act break scare.
At this point in the show, it is very easy to take Rob Bowman for granted. If the motif of the third season is “taking what worked in the last two seasons and doing more of it”, then “have Rob Bowman direct stuff” definitely goes on the list. There are several fantastic and memorable sequences here, from the attack in the pool through to the final confrontation in the steam room, with the shape illuminated through the steam leaking burst pipes. Bowman is very good at suggesting something that isn’t there.
More than that, the way that Bowman shoots the hospital so that blinding light is always pouring in is a very smart directorial decision. It gives the impression that Mulder and Scully are shining a light on a legacy of the Gulf War that is often forgotten. Similarly, the recurring shots of feet and walking help to underscore Leonard Trimble’s loss. They remind the audience of how easy it is to take something like the ability to walk for granted.
The Walk is not one of the stronger episodes of the third season. It feels just a little bit too familiar and formulaic, despite its professionalism and efficiency. It is, perhaps, an example of the drawbacks of the show’s approach to its third season. That said, if the worst thing about this approach is that we get a much-improved and much-less-sexist-or-racist version of Excelsis Dei, it may not be the worst thing in the world.
- The Blessing Way
- Paper Clip
- Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose
- The List
- The Walk
- X-tra: (Topps) The Pit
- War of the Coprophages
- Piper Maru
- Teso Dos Bichos
- Hell Money
- Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”
- X-tra: (Topps) #14 – Falling
- Talitha Cumi
Filed under: The X-Files Tagged: | army, Gulf War, gulf war syndrome, john shiban, mulder, Peace, Rob Bowman, scully, the list, the walk, veterans, veterans' affairs, vietnam, vietnam syndrome, war, x-files