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The X-Files – Oubliette (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.

There’s a plausible argument to be made a large part of The X-Files‘ third season is doing what worked in the first and second seasons, only better.

The Walk feels very similar to a less racist and sexist version of Excelsis Dei. 2Shy decides to split the difference between Tooms and Irresistible, with David Nutter directing. The show keeps the mythology two-parters during sweeps, and David Duchovny gets to contribute to two key stories over the course of the season. It’s not a bad approach, and it pays dividends. There is a reason that the third season of The X-Files works as well as it does. It’s a ruthlessly efficient television production machine.

Drowning his sorrows...

Drowning his sorrows…

If that argument holds water, then perhaps Oubliette can be seen as an update to Aubrey. Both stories build on the idea that horrific crimes leave very lasting consequences, and that women often have to live with the scars inflicted by men. More broadly, they are shows about our relationship with history – the idea that the past cannot ever be escaped, and that violence and pain tend to linger on years after they are initially inflicted.

Given the broader themes of the mythology in the third season, about the secret shameful legacy of America’s conduct in the aftermath of the Second World War, Oubliette plays like a thematic prelude to Nisei and 731. However, that doesn’t do the episode justice. Oubliette is a thoughtful, moving and sentimental episode that tempers its darkness with the very faintest traces of optimism. While it is a story about abuse and exploitation and neglect and failure, it is also a story about empathy.

Shining some light on the issue...

Shining some light on the issue…

Oubliette is the only writing credit for X-Files supervising producer Charles Grant Craig. Indeed, Oubliette is Craig’s last credit as supervising producer on the show. He had joined The X-Files at the start of the third season, and departed eight episodes in. Despite that, he was included on the show’s Primetime Emmy nomination at the end of the year. Oubliette makes a compelling argument for his inclusion.

Oubliette is very clearly influenced by the abduction and murder of Polly Klaas, which took place in California in October 1993. There are a few acknowledgements in the teleplay, but perhaps the most obvious is in the teaser. One of the most unsettling aspects of Polly Klaas’ abduction was the fact that she was taken from her own bedroom while there were other children present. Here, Carl Wade abducts Amy Jacobs while her sister is present in the room and her parents are in the house.

Into darkness...

Into darkness…

According to Trust No One, Fox was wary of this overt connection, and forced some changes to the story:

Fox’s standards and practices department did issue a number of notes expressing concern regarding aspects of this episode, which as initially written involved the abduction of a 12-year-old girl, which in the network’s eyes offered some uncomfortable parallels to the widely publicized Polly Klaas case. “We cast this girl, and after we did the network went, ‘Absolutely not’ – that she has to look at least fifteen or sixteen,” recalls Manners. In additional, the network was “very frightened that we would play her terrified,” Manners says, so a point was made of trying to downplay Amy’s ordeal.

Interestingly, while the network insisted that Amy Jacobs be played as “fifteen or sixteen”, actress Jewel Staite was only thirteen when the show was shot.

Seeing red...

Seeing red…

In X-Files Confidential, producer R.W. Goodwin conceded that Oubliette might hit a little closer to home than most episodes of The X-Files, drawing on some very primal fears:

Oubliette was terrifying because it was a little more reality – based than most of our shows. The abduction of a young girl and holding her hostage in the basement and all of that stuff just touched on reality. A terrible thing had happened two weeks earlier up in Vancouver to a little girl who was a friend of our construction coordinator’s daughter. She was abducted and killed, so it hit very close to home. I remember that being a sombre experience.

This is a very palpable fear and anxiety, one that very much defined Oubliette in the eyes of contemporary reviewers like Sarah Stegall, who acknowledged the show hit quite close to home.

Not at all watered down...

Not at all watered down…

Interestingly, this was not the first time that The X-Files had drawn on the Polly Klaas case. After an investigation in late 1993, it turned out that Polly Klaas had been murdered by repeat offender Richard Allen Davis. This partially inspired Glen Morgan and James Wong to write Tooms. “It was around the time of the Polly Klaas kidnapping, where a man was released from prison and commits a horrible crime again,” they told Cinefantastique. “We thought, ‘Tooms — what a perfect person to release,’ so all that played into that show.”

High-profile cases like the abduction of Polly Klaas were part of the national news cycle into the nineties. These incidents captured public attention, and tapped into anxieties in the nineties. Many of these cases led to rapid and dynamic changes to the law. “Megan’s Law” and “Amber Alerts” are both high-profile legislative changes named for the tragic cases that inspired them. The abduction of Polly Klaas is largely credited with galvanising public support for California’s controversial three-strikes law.

Trying to (tire) iron out some differences...

Trying to (tire) iron out some differences…

Child safety is a very primal fear – one with which any parent can empathise. Although this concern about vulnerable children had always been a round,  these anxieties only intensified during the nineties. The claims of Satanic Ritual Abuse that had inspired Die Hand Die Verletzt had stretched into the early part of the decade, and the high-profile abductions of young children during the decade only heaped more anxiety on top of these fears. As with so many nineties fears, The X-Files had its finger on the pulse.

As with a lot of these primal fears, these anxieties are not always grounded in fact. The fact that no child has ever been kidnapped from a Disney park does not ease the anxiety felt by parents. Fear is not a rational creature, one that can be subdued or placated with statistics or evidence. It is not unique to parental fears, either. Despite falling crime rates, people do not really feel safer today than they did twenty years ago.

Halfway out of the darkness...

Halfway out of the darkness…

That said, it is worth pausing to note the realities of child abduction statistics, and the gap that exists between the public perception of child abduction and the documented reality:

Only a tiny minority of kidnapped children are taken by strangers. Between 1990 and 1995 the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children handled only 515 stranger abductions, 3.1 percent of its caseload. A 2000 report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Programs reported that more than 3/4 of kidnappings were committed by family members or acquaintances of the child. The study also found that children abducted by strangers were harmed less frequently than those taken by acquaintances.

Statistics at the turn of the century suggest that 50,000 children are abducted by strangers annually, as opposed to 200,000 by noncustodial parents.

Going down to the woods today...

Going down to the woods today…

As such, there is a clear correlation between the high child abduction figures in the nineties and the rapidly climbing divorce rates of the seventies and eighties. “If a mother is afraid that her child might be abducted, her ironclad rule should not be ‘Don’t talk to strangers’,” quipped David Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center. “It should be ‘Don’t talk to your father.'” Although it may seem quite flippant, the claim is backed up by statistics.

It seems quite possible that the focus on “stranger danger” and the relative lack of attention given to abductions by noncustodial parents reflects ananxiety around familial collapse; it’s easier to believe that a stranger is a greater threat than a member of the nuclear family. One of the recurring themes of The X-Files – and one articulated quite effectively by Oubliette – is the idea that past traumas tend to leave permanent marks.

Photo finish...

Photo finish…

In a broader context, The X-Files explores the scars left by Watergate and Vietnam on the American psyche. More intimately, Mulder’s family has been torn apart and divided by secrets and betrayals across the decades. Indeed, the abduction of Samantha Mulder was presented in the first season as the ultimate stranger abduction, only for Paper Clip to reveal that Mulder’s father had been involved her kidnapping.

Indeed, the ghost of Samantha Mulder haunts Oubliette. Mulder is distinctly more sympathetic towards Lucy Householder than any of his fellow law enforcement officials – including Scully. Scully insists that Mulder is too close to the case to be objective. “You don’t think I’ve thought of that?” Mulder replies. “I have. And not everything I do, say, think, and feel goes back to my sister. You, of all people should realize that sometimes motivations for behavior can be more complex and mysterious than tracing them back to one single childhood experience.”

Wading into trouble...

Wading into trouble…

This represents a substantial evolution from the approach to Mulder’s characterisation in the first season of The X-Files, particularly in episodes like Conduit. As Rob Shearman and Lars Pearson noted in Wanting to Believe:

The complexities of a man cannot be traced back to one key moment, and his pity for Lucy Householder is based upon a genuine horror of what she went through as a child and a wonder that she has survived in society since. It’s a call for recognition that Mulder is a real character, not just a series of impulses which relate to some series bible backstory – it’s the antithesis of episodes like Conduit, where the fate of a young girl is given extra depth only by making it a clumsy metaphor for Mulder’s own mission.

It is a prime example of how the third season seemed to take a lot of what had worked in the first two seasons, and tried to do it better. As Kumail Nanjiani and Rhea Butcher noted on The X-Files Files, the first season episodes tended for that simplistic cause and effect approach to Mulder and Scully’s characters, something later seasons got away from.

He went down to the river...

He went down to the river…

According to Chris Carter, that line was actually improvised by Duchovny on the set:

Mulder’s link the two [Lucy and Samantha] is obvious from the very beginning. When Amy’s mother asks him angrily, ‘How could you know, really know how I feel?’ the camera comes around Mulder and we all know how he could know. That sets up the whole story, including the scene later on when Scully says, ‘This is about your sister,’ and Mulder gives her a speech about not everything coming down to a childhood incident. David and I talked about that. He actually ad-libbed that big speech. He didn’t want Mulder’s motivations to be so simple. We had been there before, in Conduit and there was new terrain to be discovered. It was a good choice.

It is a very simple piece of dialogue that adds a lot to the episode.

Let's see how this develops...

Let’s see how this develops…

This simple – but effective – addition is a nice example of Duchovny working to deepen and expand Mulder’s character. With the notable exception of Avatar, Duchnovny’s contributions in the first three seasons were typically to broaden Mulder’s back story. Three of the four episodes crediting Duchovny in the second and third seasons – Colony, Anasazi and Talitha Cumi – all offer a glimpse at life within the Mulder family.

Oubliette brings Mulder’s empathy to the fore. Mulder can be a tough character to like some times. He tends to focus in on his own quest for the truth, with little consideration for other people. He tends to take Scully for granted, and he is a terrible employee from Skinner’s perspective. He doesn’t play well with others, and is absolutely terrible at the sort of compromise and give-and-take that is a pragmatic reality in the field of federal law enforcement.

Light at the end...

Light at the end…

And yet, despite that, Mulder has an incredible sympathy for victims. Mulder has a very sensitive side tucked away beneath his cynical exterior, something that comes to the fore when dealing with those who have been victimised or exploited by those with more power. Mulder bristles with rage and anger and sympathy on a broader level – his quest for truth is in part an attempt to do right by and to vindicate those victimised through years of systemic abuse and neglect. However, it also works on a more personal level, when Mulder interacts with victims directly.

In a way, this is Mulder’s most sympathetic and endearing character trait. He typically has difficulty dealing with people in authority, but he empathy for those who have been hurt and exploited makes him very easy to like. Here, he is the only person who speaks for Lucy Householder, a woman who was a victim but becomes an easy suspect. “I don’t want Lucy Householder treated like a suspect in this case until it’s absolutely certain she is one, okay?” he asks his partner. “Lucy is a victim, Scully, just like Amy Jacobs. If she’s got any connection to this case that’s the extent of it.”

Because this is a man you let photograph children...

Because this is a man you let photograph children…

Empathy is recurring theme of Oubliette. Mulder is able to connect to Lucy Householder through an empathy that Scully and the other law enforcement officials lack. “You’re becoming an empath yourself, Mulder,” Scully accuses. Lucy Householder’s connection to Amy Jacobs is explicitly described as “empathic transference.” Lucy is able to take Amy’s suffering on to herself. “She bled Amy Jacobs’ blood?” Eubanks asks, an accurate summary of the situation in spite of his incredulity.

The episode features a recurring “peeping” motif, as characters stare through peepholes at things. Carl Wade’s eyes peer at Amy Jacobs through a hole in the floor; Mulder stares into Carl Wade’s forest home through a peephole in the door; Mulder guides Lucy out of the basement and into the light; Carl Wade tries to capture Amy Jacob on film. These suggest limited or restricted views, as if to imply that nobody can see into anybody else’s world completely. All we get are fleeting glimpses. There are – in too many cases – limits on empathy. Limits that Mulder and Lucy transcend.

Never give Mulder an opening...

Never give Mulder an opening…

In some respects, this could be seen as another nod that Oubliette makes toward the Polly Klaas case, acknowledging the phenomenal outflow of sympathy and support that the public generated in response to Polly’s disappearance. Over 4,000 local people volunteered to help in the search. International newspapers sent journalists to California to cover the case. Polly Klaas’ missing poster was circulated on-line, just in case somebody might be able to help. The case drew such sympathy that Polly Klaas came to be known as “America’s child.”

In many respects, this distinguishes Oubliette from the traditional serial killer narrative, although the “terrifying a young woman in the dark” sequence feels like a shoutout to The Silence of the Lambs. Horror movies and television procedurals have a tendency to luxuriate in the serial killer story, teasing the audience with shots of the killer stalking his prey, or using a convenient character death to close an act.

One breath...

One breath…

There is something quite numbing and relentless about that – procedurals like CSI or Criminal Minds focusing relentlessly on the methodology of a killer, with little consideration for the victims in question. In far too many movies and television shows, victims – particularly female victims – exist purely to get the audience’s blood pumping; it is as if the audience is being invited to witness some grim spectacle.

In that respect, then, Oubliette feels like a welcome relief. The show focuses more on Carl Wade’s victims than on Carl Wade himself. We never learn much about Carl Wade and his pathology beyond the fact that he is a very sick man who was once institutionalised for his problems. The show is not particularly fascinated in his reasons for what he does. This is obvious even in the closing scenes; while Mulder and Scully try to save Amy and Lucy, Carl Wade is left discarded, face-down in the river. His body is found snagged on some branches, an afterthought.

Carl has truly washed up...

Carl has truly washed up…

In Elizabeth Kubek’s exploration of gender and generational strife in The X-Files, “You Only Expose Your Father”, she suggests that Oubliette is a story about how we must see victims as individuals and people rather than merely objects or symbolic stand-ins:

Significantly, while the voyeur Carl Wade represents a symbolic logic of duplication (the girls he kidnaps are the same age, and he photographs them obsessively), Mulder is able to resist reading Amy/Lucy/Samantha as simple equivalents (he denies that his sympathy for Lucy is strictly related to his sister’s loss and suggests that Lucy’s death is an escape as well as an exchange).

Lucy can save Amy by feeling the young girl’s pain. Mulder is willing to see Lucy as a person, rather than simply as an object of interest in this investigation or a surrogate for Samantha. Oubliette is a story that puts empathy and compassion at the core of a very dark little tale.

A shot in the dark...

A shot in the dark…

Oubliette also plays as something of a spiritual successor to Aubrey from the second season. As with Aubrey, the trauma inflicted by a sexual offender lingers on for years. Carl Wade abused Lucy Householder for years, and it is impossible for Lucy to ever fully recover what was taken from her. As with Detective Morrow, Lucy still suffers from wounds inflicted by a man she cannot even bring herself to remember.

There is a sense that these types of wounds never fully heal, and that cycles of violence repeat. The past is inescapable, even if we try to forget it. “I feel like it’s happening all over again,” Lucy confesses to Mulder. Even though she escaped Carl Wade, she was never entirely free. This is literally the case when it turns out that Wade can still hurt her through Amy, but also apparent through the difficulties that Amy has had integrating with society in the wake of her abduction.

Lucy ends...

Lucy ends…

Aubrey blurred the line between victims and abusers, suggesting that those victims or products of these abuses might find themselves drawn into the pattern of violence. Violence begets violence. Morrow may have been innocent, but she was tainted by Cokely’s violence. Oubliette is a bit more sympathetic, if just as cynical; it suggests that victims are likely to find themselves trapped in their own cycle of victimhood, never entirely escaping their tormentors, except through the most dramatic of means.

These themes about history and legacy play out across The X-Files. One of the show’s recurring themes is that the sins of the past inevitable visit themselves upon the present. In particular, Oubliette was broadcast right before the Nisei and 731 two-parter, a show that reaffirmed the horrific legacy of the Second World War, examining how the American government built a lot of its post-war scientific advancements on the work of war criminals and monsters.

A Fox-y profiler...

A Fox-y profiler…

Oubliette takes the larger thematic arc of the third season and makes it more personal. Shows like Paper Clip and 731 suggest that the country itself is tainted by the horrific actions taken in its name, and that the past cannot simply be erased or forgotten. Oubliette plays with the same themes in a more intimate setting. In this case, it is a single victim who finds herself unable to escape her past torment, except through death itself.

Oubliette is a touching, haunting, terrifying piece of television – one that is brutal and shocking, but tempered with sympathy and compassion. It is a story about the legacy of violence, and the fact that not all scars can heal as well as we might like, and not all wounds are purely physical. At the same time, it is a story about empathy and connection, and how important those are in the darkest of times.

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

4 Responses

  1. Very insightful and interesting — thanks!

  2. I found Sully’s lack of empathy here startling (particularly after seeing the video of Lucy after she escaped). Scully is often skeptical of paranormal explanations, but that doesn’t usually come across as lack of empathy. Do you think the point was to contrast with Mulder? It just missed the mark for me in what was otherwise an excellent episode.

    • I’d agree with that, Cathy. I think the show has a tendency to push the “secondary” agent out of focus a bit for stories focusing on one rather than the other.

      I think you could make an argument that such characterisation is stylistic or subjective; Scully’s relative lack of empathy here (which is out of character) is filtered through Mulder’s surplus of compassion, in the same way that Mulder’s self-centredness in Never Again (which is definitely not out of character) is filtered through Scully’s midlife crisis. The narrative in episodes like these tends to pick a side, which I think is reasonably in keeping with the show’s emphasis on subjective experience.

      (After all, there’s an argument to be made that the characters of Mulder and Scully vary wildly based on who is writing them; Morgan and Wong have a very different take than Carter, for example, who has a different take than Gordon, and so on. The Mulder who features in Memento Mori is very different than the Mulder who features in One Breath, for example. The Scully in Unrequited/Synchrony is very different from the one in Paper Hearts.)

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