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The X-Files – Quagmire (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.

Quagmire is a delightful little episode, one of third season episodes that most effectively embodies what casual fans (or even those who have never seen the show) think of when they hear the words The X-Files.” In Wanting to Believe, author Robert Shearman describes Quagmire as something akin to a “live action Scooby Doo, and he’s not far wrong. This is Mulder and Scully searching together in the darkness, looking for a monster that may or may not be there. You don’t get more archetypical X-Files than that.

One of the defining features of the third season of The X-Files has been a sense of consolidation. It feels like the show experimented a great deal in its first two years, but the third season is very much about cementing and solidifying its identity. It is no wonder, then, that the third season has such a high concentration of archetypal episode – episodes you can show an interested viewer and say this is The X-Files in a forty-five minute nutshell.” In that respect, Quagmire ranks with D.P.O. or Pusher or Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose as a great introduction to the show.

There's something in the water!

There’s something in the water!

Of course, Quagmire is a very good introduction to The X-Files for new viewers, but it is also something of a farewell. It is Kim Newton’s last script for the show. Newton had joined the writing staff at the start of the third season. Her other major credit was Revelations. Like Revelations, there is a sense that Quagmire was heavily re-written before it made it in front of the cameras. In this case, it is something of an open secret that Quagmire received a fairly significant polish from departing story editor Darin Morgan, whose fingerprints are all over the finished draft.

If Darin Morgan bid farewell to The X-Files with Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”, then Quagmire serves as something of a coda to his time on the show. If that is the case, it makes for an uncharacteristically upbeat postscript to Morgan’s work on the show.

They really collared the bad guy...

They really collared the bad guy…

Writing a television show is quite different from writing a novel or a short story or a comic book or even a movie. In all of those cases, an author may end up over-written and re-worked. It is a reality of the business. In novels and short stories, tinkering with an author’s prose is generally minor or a last resort – it is quite common for an author to be given notes to polish their own work. In movies, in contrast, a story can go through so many drafts that the movie as filmed bears little resemblance to the script written by the credited writer.

In television, re-writing is even more prevalent and even more accepted. With rooms full of writers, there is a tendency to share ideas and suggestions, to help “punch up” a script. Showrunners have to balance the voice and ideas of the assigned writer with their own vision and ambition for the show. Given the tight schedule and the high standards, there is not always time to get a writer to revise their own script. Occasionally entire scenes will be written by uncredited writers; perhaps even entire scripts.

Toad the line...

Toad the line…

So it is very difficult to know precisely how much of Quagmire came from Kim Newton and precisely how much came from Darin Morgan. There are lots hints and indicators, though. Newton’s last episode – Revelations – had been deeply problematic for the production team, and had been somewhat heavily revised. The basic shell of the episode is perhaps more explicitly typical of The X-Files than any other Darin Morgan episode, suggesting that the basic premise did not come from him.

At the same time, there are elements that definitely feel like Darin Morgan elements. Quagmire is more interested in the idea of monsters than in monsters itself, taking a core part of the show and engaging with it on a relatively abstract level. The “conversation on the rock”a sequence so iconic that even Gillian Anderson recognises the fandom acronym “CotR” – feels very much in line with Morgan’s take on the characters. Even Farraday talks very much like a Darin Morgan character, full of blistering cynicism and borderline misanthropy.

Photo finish...

Photo finish…

The reappearance of the two surviving stoner characters from War of the Coprophages and Queequeg cement this sense that Quagmire is affording Morgan the opportunity to tidy up his loose ends before he departs the show. Scully inherited Queequeg in Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, and the dog does not seem to exist outside of Morgan’s episodes – much like the show’s central mythology no longer seems to exist outside “conspiracy” episodes.

Morgan has carved out his own little corner of The X-Files, which is curiously well-defined. Characters like the two stoners and the Stupendous Yappi and Queequeg lend an interesting sense of internal continuity to Morgan’s episodes, a sense that these stories can be loosely chained together as their own skewed version of The X-Files. Reteaming Morgan with director Kim Manners, engaging with the very concept of monsters, and allocating the third act to an extended philosophical conversation between Mulder and Scully, Quagmire feels like closure of some sort.

Somehow, I sense the fact that he is flying low is the least of his problems...

Somehow, I sense the fact that he is flying low is the least of his problems…

Perhaps what is most striking about Quagmire is how romantic it seems. In some respects – and not just the choice of Manners as director – Quagmire feels like a bookend to Humbug, Morgan’s first script for the show. Humbug mourned the loss of the eccentric, the death of those small little hamlets of the bizarre nestled snugly in the American countryside. It implied that homogeneity and conformity were inevitable and entropic forces – the world gets a little less strange, every day. The episode closed with two self-identifying freaks packing up their cauldron and moving on.

In contrast, Quagmire suggests that there are still eccentric spaces out there. There are still spaces on the map where you can write “here be monsters” or “here be dragons” – although, historically, these markings were not as common as you might think. In a world that is increasingly becoming “normal” or “generic”, this is not a bad thing. There is a sense that Quagmire empathises with Ottoman Admiral Piri Re’is, who marked the Atlantic with “here are monsters – all harmless souls.”

An FBI agent and her dog...

An FBI agent and her dog…

Although Quagmire has all the trappings (and the suitably high body count that is expected) of a standard “monster of the week” tale, there is a sense that the episode very much wants to believe in the myth of Big Blue. Although it ends with the revelation that an alligator was responsible for all the deaths around the lake, it teases the audience with a closing shot of the sea monster – as if to assure us that such romantic creatures can exist.

Indeed, Quagmire plays with this idea quite a bit, devoting considerable time to exploring why the idea of Big Blue might be a bad thing. The episode makes the point that the idea of Big Blue is ripe for exploitation by less-than-scrupulous individuals. Ted, the owner of the local convenience store has turned Big Blue into an industry, regaling visitors with stories about horrific encounters. “Those stories must sell a lot of T-shirts,” Scully deadpans. Appropriately enough, Ted dies in the middle of a hoax gone wrong.

Following the signs...

Following the signs…

However, there are more serious problematic aspects of something like Big Blue. When Mulder brings up the subject of Big Blue during an interview, Farraday gets immediately defensive. “See, this is what always happens,” he remarks. “The deflection, sleight of hand. See, whenever an issue requires any real thought, any serious mental effort, people turn to UFO’s, and sea serpents and sasquatch.” Such folklore becomes a distraction from issues that actually are important, a way to shift focus on to trivial matters.

There’s also the fact that such monster stories reflect fear and anxiety – Scully suggests that such creatures are “folk tales born out of some collective fear of the unknown.” There is a debate to be had about whether creating metaphorical bogeymen to deal with very real concerns is a constructive pursuit. On the surface, Quagmire builds a very strong case against Big Blue, even before you get into the fact that the monster appears to be killing people.

Everything will snap into place...

Everything will snap into place…

Certainly, Morgan’s portrayal of Mulder here is no more flattering than his take on the character in scripts like Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose or War of the Coprophages. Morgan tends to treat Mulder as a character who is more interested in his pursuit of the truth than in the people around him. He sees Clyde Bruckman as a hypothesis rather than a person, and he does little to manage the panic in a town in the grip of paranoia. Here, Mulder is explicitly compared to Ahab.

When Mulder and Scully discover Farraday has been wounded by the creature, Mudler doesn’t seem too concerned about the victim. “Did you see it?” Mulder demands. “Where did it go?” Scully is the one who shows actual concern for Farraday. “I think you nipped an artery,” she remarks. “We’ve got to get him to a hospital, he’s losing blood.” Mulder doesn’t seem too bothered. “You take care of him, Scully.” He continues in pursuit of the monster, out to prove his own theory.

His footprints are all over this...

His footprints are all over this…

In conversation with him, Scully describes Mulder’s future as a man “listening only to himself, hoping to catch a glimpse of the truth, for who knows what reason.” There is something quite horrifying in the idea – but not entirely hard to believe. In Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, the clairvoyant suggested that Mulder would die alone during a botched sex act. Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” offered a glimpse of Mulder alone watching footage of Big Foot. It is hard to imagine a happy ending to Mulder’s quest.

In Quagmire, Scully makes the point explicitly. “It’s the truth or a white whale,” she reflects. “What difference does it make? I mean, both obsessions are impossible to capture, and trying to do so will only leave you dead along with everyone else you bring with you. You know Mulder, you are Ahab.” Given that Avatar demonstrated what happens to people unfortunate enough to support Mulder, it’s a fair point.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

As Christine Leigh has pointed out, Mulder and Ahab are both defined by their desire to prove – rather than to discover. Mulder already knows that aliens exist. He already knows there is a conspiracy. He just wants absolute incontrovertible proof. If Mulder is Ahab, does that make Scully Ishmael? Alfred Kazin’s introduction to Moby Dick would imply so:

Ishmael’s thought consciously extends itself to get behind the world of appearances; he wants to see and understand everything. Ahab’s drive is to prove, not to discover; the world that tortures Ishmael by its horrid vacancy has tempted Ahab into thinking that he can make it over. He seeks to dominate nature, to impose and to inflict his own will on the outside world – whether it be the crew that must jump to his orders or the great white whale that is essentially indifferent to him. As Ishmael is all rumination, so Ahab is all will. Both are thinkers, the difference being that Ishmael thinks as a bystander, has identified his own state with man’s utter unimportance in nature. Ahab, by contrast, actively seeks the whale in order to assert man’s supremacy over what swims before him as “the monomaniac incarnation” of a superior power.

Scully is a character who will lose a lot to Mulder’s quest. There is a clear sense that Darin Morgan sees Scully as the show’s accessible, sympathetic and viewpoint character – one drawn into Mulder’s craziness. There is a sense that all of this – down to Scully’s association of both Mulder and her father with Ahab – is all building towards Glen Morgan and James Wong’s Never Again.

Rocking their world...

Rocking their world…

Mudler’s quest has made him somewhat blind to the needs of the people around him. Scully is clearly despondent following the death of Queequeg. “I’m sorry about Queequeg,” Mulder assures her, before clumsily seguing into his latest monster-centric hypothesis. When he reaches the end, the still glazed-over Scully replies, “Could you repeat the last part again? I kind of faded out.” When Mulder asks which part, Scully answers, “After you said I’m sorry?” It’s an effective illustration of how disconnected Mulder is from personal matters.

And yet, despite this, Quagmire eventually seems sympathetic to the beast. Even Scully eventually seems to realise that her assessment of the monster as an expression of collective fear was a bit harsh. The belief in Big Blue is driven as much by hope as it is by fear. “Well, there’s still hope,” Scully reflects at the end of the episode, as if to suggest that she has reached an understanding of and sympathy towards Mulder’s need to believe. “That’s why these missing stories have endured. People want to believe.”

Following a lead...

Following a lead…

Ultimately, Quagmire works very hard to preserve the romance of Big Blue, to the point where it reveals that Big Blue is not a menace to the local community at all. It is the alligator doing all the killing. As Joseph Andriano reflects in Immortal Monster:

In Quagmire, ferocious Leviathan and docile Behemoth split: the alligator is the former; Big Blue becomes the latter. We want the actual animal, the familiar gator, to be the killer, while the fantastic creature, the Cretarous holdover, last of its kind, is Puff the Magic Dragon, perfectly benign – except perhaps to frogs, which he eats in abundance. Dread becomes wish fulfillment.

Big Blue is not a predator or a killer – but an ideal or an aspiration. Big Blue is pure and romantic, something that exists quite apart from the mundane horrors of the natural world.

Just when you thought it was safe to go reasonably near the water...

Just when you thought it was safe to go reasonably near the water…

Big Blue defines itself in opposition to the realities of the natural world. Stranded on a rock in the middle of the night, Scully reflects, “Living in the city you forget a lot of things. You know what I was just thinking about? Being mugged or hit by a car. It’s not until you get back to nature that you realize that everything is out to get you.” It seems like a fairly reasonable observation, particularly on The X-Files. Episodes like Darkness Falls, Firewalker and F. Emasculata suggest that nature really is trying to kill mankind.

As a show that frequently pitches itself as a horror, it makes sense that most of the supernatural forces encountered by Mulder and Scully are terrifying and destructive and brutal. However, it is nice when the show occasionally subverts this expectation – as it did in One Breath – by offering a brief glimpse at a supernatural force that is not actively harmful towards mankind. Big Blue is an impossibility that is as beautiful as it is bizarre.

Hopping along...

Hopping along…

Early on, Scully dismisses the belief in such monsters as childish. When Mulder points out she seems to know a lot about sea monsters, she replies, “I did as a kid. But, then I grew up, and became a scientist.” The implication is clear: sea monsters are for kids to worry about, while grown-ups are more concerned with pressing grown-up stuff. The belief in Big Blue is akin to the belief in Santa Claus, it is a story that people tell children as a way of encouraging them to see the world as a magical and mystical place – one almost without limits.

Quagmire seems to suggest that this is not inherently a bad thing. Despite Scully’s cynicism, Quagmire retains some sense of idealism. The episode suggests that perhaps such fantasies need not be completely shuffled away with the arrival of adulthood. It seems like Quagmire is suggesting that even “silly” and “irrational” beliefs can have their place. As C.S. Lewis wryly observed, the freedom to be a little childish is part of growing up.

Queequeg goes sniffing around...

Queequeg goes sniffing around…

This optimistic conclusion – tempered as it is by bursts of cynicism and skepticism – feels almost strange coming from Darin Morgan. The writer’s scripts have typically been pessimistic in outlook. His scripts are typically stories about isolation and loneliness in a cruel and unfeeling universe. In contrast, Quagmire emphasises how connected everything really is. “If you alter one life form in an ecosystem, the rest is necessarily affected, either by an increase or decrease,” Mulder deduces at the end of the episode, a revelation that helps him crack the case.

Given how Morgan’s key characters – from Clyde Bruckman to Lannie to Harold Lamb to Jose Chung to the demons in Somehow Satan Got Behind Me – all end up alone in the world, it seems strange that Quagmire should emphasise how important it is that Mulder and Scully have each other. Even when the duo end up stranded in the middle of a lake alone, with the world against them, they are still only a short walk away from safety in the darkness. It is, given Morgan’s other work, a curiously upbeat notion.

More details surface...

More details surface…

After all, Quagmire emphasises the idea of Mulder and Scully as a family unit. They even take Scully’s dog with them on a trip to a tourist hotspot. When Farraday finds them in the middle of the night, he suggests that there is something more than professional going on here. When Mulder is coy about his interest in the case, Scully sees through his evasive answers. “What are you leaving out?” she asks, knowing Mulder well enough to know there’s something up. And she knows why they are there the moment she sees a sign for Big Blue. “Oh, tell me you’re not serious.”

There’s also a sense that Quagmire is at least broadly sympathetic to Mulder as a character, much more than Morgan’s other scripts. There is a sense of understanding and empathy here. It seems like Scully comes away from Quagmire with a more sympathetic understanding of Mulder, and it feels like Morgan might have as well. After all, Morgan’s scripts tend treat Scully as grounded and reasonable; she makes a more logical viewpoint character that Mulder.

Out of the Big Blue...

Out of the Big Blue…

Mulder’s pursuit of the truth is defined as a spiritual crisis, an attempt to fill a void in his life – to find meaning or purpose. When he remarks that he would like a peg leg, he reflects, “I mean, if you have a peg leg or hooks for hands then maybe its enough to simply keep on living. You know, braving facing life with your disability. But without these things you’re actually meant to make something of your life, achieve something earn a raise, wear a necktie.”

Mulder grapples with the same disillusionment that recurs throughout Morgan’s scripts – the same sense of listlessness associated with Generation X. The Cold War is over, the economy is thriving. Mulder is part of a generation that was told anything was possible. That is bound to lead to a certain sense of ennui or disconnect. When you are told that you can be anything, there is an enormous pressure to be something.

Swamped...

Swamped…

In many ways, The X-Files was written for (and largely by) members of Generation X, capturing the mood of people who had been born in the seventies and became the professionals of the nineties. The portrayal of Mulder here is not uncharacteristic of the general perception of the group. Writing in 1993, Newsweek described Generation X as “the whiny generation”:

Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, the twentysomethings were indulged with every toy, game and electronic device available. They didn’t even have to learn how to amuse themselves since Mom and Dad were always there to ferry them from one organized activity to another. If we baby boomers were spoiled, the Whiny Generation was left out to rot. They had it all.

That’s the essence of the Generation X problem. We have a generation (or at least part of a generation) whose every need has been catered to since birth. Now, when they finally face adulthood, they expect the gift-giving to continue. I’m 28 and I’ll never own a house, whines the Generation Xer. I’m 25 and I don’t have a high-paying job, says another.

Are these realistic expectations? Of course not. It’s the rare individual in the last 40 years who had a high-paying job and owned a home prior to his or her 30th birthday. But the Whiners want everything now. A generation raised on the principle of instant satisfaction simply can’t understand the concepts of long-term planning and deferred gratification. What’s their reaction when they don’t get what they want? That’s right–they throw a tantrum.

That is perhaps a rather cynical take on matters, but it seems to capture Mulder’s angst quite well. An over-achieving prodigy who graduated from Oxford and was considered a bright young thing, Mulder now finds himself in the middle of a freezing lake in the dead of night, looking for proof of a monster that may not exist. His feelings of disillusionment make sense.

Has Mulder finally snapped?

Has Mulder finally snapped?

In some respects, Quagmire feels like an appropriate postscript to Darin Morgan’s body of work on The X-Files. Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” had encapsulated a lot of the writer’s core themes, while shrewdly undermining several of the show’s sacred cows. The episode made it very hard to keep a straight face while looking at the show’s mythology, and one that even offered some pretty heavy questions about the show’s central premise. It succinctly summarised the themes that Morgan had been working on since he first joined the staff. However, it was also quite harsh.

Quagmire has a much softer edge to it, and seems written with more genuine affection for The X-Files than shone through the rest Morgan’s work. It isn’t that Morgan dislikes the show, or is trying to blow it apart or anything like that; he just seems to feel that the most interesting stories are the ones that invite the viewers to ask tough questions about the series. Morgan is a very cynical, very astute and very wry writer; however, Quagmire is perhaps his warmest script when it comes to the show itself.

Film fun!

Film fun!

(It would be disingenuous to suggest that Morgan ever seemed completely skeptical or cynical. Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose has an incredible amount of sympathy for its protagonist – to the point where it seems much more sympathetic towards him than to the rest of the show. Even Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” has a great deal of compassion for the lost and lonely Harold Lamb, the young man whose life is destroyed by something he can never understand. Morgan’s scripts just seem quite willing to play with the conventions and tropes associated with The X-Files.)

Quagmire feels like the first time that Morgan is broadly sympathetic and affectionate towards both Mulder and Scully. There are a lot of potential reasons why this may be the case. That may be a result of working within the script as originally drafted by Kim Newton, or because  of his pending departure, or because he had completed his interrogation of the series in Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.” Whatever the reason, Quagmire feels like a perfectly fitting coda to his work, one that takes a little of the edge of Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.”

Keep watching the skies...

Keep watching the skies…

It helps that Quagmire is transparently Jaws but with a giant alligator.” The X-Files owes a considerable debt to seventies cinema, and Morgan has admitted to being a major cinephile. He named one of his central characters Clyde Bruckman, and homaged both Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.”  So it makes sense that Quagmire should reference Spielberg’s classic so freely.

Quagmire offers us frequent glimpses of the alligator attacks from the perspective of the creature. It gives us a floating trap stacked with meat. It gives us a half-eaten body. It even gives us a local official with their head in the sand. The sheriff stops just short of saying that he can’t close the lake during tourist season. “I think I can tell you what’s going on,” he insists. “Same thing that goes on every year. Fishermen get drunk, they drown, men get run over by power boats. Hell, on a lake this size, you’re going to have eight, nine deaths in a season. That’s just statistical fact.”

And thus ends Tyler Labine's brief stint as a recurring guest star on the show...

And thus ends Tyler Labine’s brief stint as a recurring guest star on the show…

Even the episode’s attitudes towards conservation and the natural eco-system are almost upbeat. Farraday is rather cynical about the state of affairs, arguing for the conservation of the local frog population. “You’d find a way for the cute, furry little mammals we were talking about,” he protests – and he may have a point. Farraday is acknowledging an interesting divide that exists within the conservation movement, even today.

British wildlife present Chris Packham has argued that the conservation movement devotes too many resources towards “totemic symbols of cuteness”, neglecting the less visually appealing endangered species. There is some evidence to support this assumption – with humanity’s aesthetic standards likely to play a role in determining the fate of certain species. There have been attempts made to rectify this.

Holding on to your head under pressure...

Holding on to your head under pressure…

However, even with Farraday’s cynicism, Quagmire is oddly optimistic in outlook. As Mulder points out, there are a few well documented examples of “lazarus” species – creatures thought to be extinct that have been found. High-profile examples include the Coelacanth, a fish thought extinct 65 million years ago and re-discovered in 1938. There is also the Giant Palouse earthworm, a creature that was not only thought to be extinct, but one that generated considerable debate as to whether it ever actually existed.

Perhaps the most genuinely downbeat note in Quagmire is the death of Queequeg, Scully’s pet dog. Killing animals – particularly dogs – is something of a minor taboo in horror. Like killing children, it can be seen as cheap or exploitative. It can be a very easy way to get a reaction. There have been points where The X-Files has seemed a little exploitative when it comes to the death of children – The Calusari is perhaps the most obvious example, but only Rob Bowman’s direction really saves The Walk.

What a croc...

What a croc…

So killing the dog off is something about which the show needed to be careful – it could easily seem crass or cheap. The production team were mindful of this fact in drafting Queequeg’s death scene. “You can kill a legion of men and women, but no dogs,” Vince Gilligan told Trust No One. “People go nuts.” Nevertheless, the sequence plays quite well enough. Manners and Morgan show a lot of discretion in framing the scene – leaving a lot to the viewers’ imaginations. The shot of the collar is a very tasteful and effective way of making clear what happened.

Nevertheless, Queequeg’s death works well in context. Given that the dog was introduced to Scully feeding on its dead master, it seems appropriate that it should be eaten itself. In keeping with the Moby Dick themes of Quagmire, it makes sense that Queequeg serves as a sacrifice to Mulder’s quest for the truth, like his literary counterpart dies in service of Ahab’s quest. It also makes sense for Darin Morgan to tidy up after himself on the way out the door, to put his toys back in the box.

A duck shoot...

A duck shoot…

Of course, Gillian Anderson tells it somewhat differently. In a sadly under-reported on-set tension, it turns out that the dog playing Queequeg was not the most appealing of co-stars:

That dog killed people with its farts and it deserved to die a nasty death in the mouth of that alligator or whatever it was. Ugh. I had to shampoo it, or walk away every few seconds, because these puffs of nastiness kept happening.

There’s a “Behind the X-Files” special just waiting to happen, exploring the tumultuous relationship between Queequeg and the rest of the production team.

They are each other's rock...

They are each other’s rock…

Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” remains Darin Morgan’s magnum opus on The X-Files. It is a gigantic and thoughtful ode to the show, full of insightful reflections and wry observations about the world of The X-Files and the ideas underpinning it. However, Quagmire feels like something of a coda – a story with more room for romance and optimism about the show’s general philosophy and outlook. There may be monsters out there; but that may not necessarily be a bad thing.

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

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2 Responses

  1. Wonderful review!

    I always loved this episode, the romance of it all. I used to believe strongly in the Loch Ness Monster and while I can no longer convince myself she’s there I know if was ever by that shoreline I’d be looking out across the lake and hoping…

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