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The X-Files – Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

“No great man lives in vain. The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

– Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History

Light 'em up...

Light ’em up…

Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man is the third fourth-season episode from the creative team of Glen Morgan and James Wong. This time, Morgan is writing the script solo while Wong directs. However, in practice, it is still a very close collaboration between the duo – Wong was heavily involved in planning the script, while Morgan was heavily involved in production. This is James Wong’s first credit as director, although he had done some second-unit stuff on Space: Above and Beyond, first stepping behind the camera at the last minute to provide a “hero shot” for Dark Side of the Sun.

In many ways, Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man makes it quite clear that Morgan and Wong are largely finished with The X-Files. To be fair, this was already heavily implied with their first two scripts for the season. There was an anger underpinning Home and a sadness running through The Field Where I Died, both suggesting that the two could not slot back into the writing staff The X-Files after having spent a year running Space: Above and Beyond – despite what Fox might have wanted. Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man and Never Again just make it explicit.

With great power, comes great loneliness...

With great power, comes great loneliness…

There is a sense that Morgan and Wong were trying to “break” the show in their final year on staff. They wanted to push The X-Files outside its comfort zone, moving in bold directions, stretching it to the limit of what the show could do. It is no wonder that their episodes for the fourth season are divisive among fans. Ask a random bunch of fans for their opinions on these four episodes, and you’ll undoubtedly end up with a very diverse (and very strong) opinions about them. For any flaws they may have, none of the scripts are Teliko or Unrequited.

It is worth pausing to note that trying to “break” the show is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is quite a good thing. Darin Morgan had spent most of his time on the writing staff figuring out what he could and couldn’t do with The X-Files. This sort of experimentation keeps a show young and fresh. It could be argued that the biggest problem with the later seasons of The X-Files was a reluctance to experiment or to push the show in these sorts of strange directions. Much like Darin Morgan’s scripts, each of the four fourth-season scripts by Morgan and Wong served to add another feather to the show’s bow.

Write and wrong...

Write and wrong…

Speaking of Darin Morgan, Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man plays like a companion piece to Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.” Both stories play with the show’s over-arching conspiracy storyline and themes, reducing The X-Files to something of a cruel joke. Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” was primarily a story about how “the truth” may not be out there, at least not in an objectively verifiable form. Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man is largely a story mocking the show’s conspiratorial mindset, playing with the logical conclusions of this sort of approach.

Indeed, the conspiracy narrative had become a booming industry by the mid-nineties, in the wake of the Cold War. The X-Files was perhaps the most high-profile example, but American pop culture was positively fascinated with the idea of murky figures and dark figures lurking on the edge of history. Oliver Stone captured the mood quite effectively with his two presidential-themed films of the decade. JFK helped to reignite public speculation about the assassination, while Nixon even suggested that Richard Nixon had met with some of the parties involved.

An alien experience...

An alien experience…

The implication was that all of history was a tangled web, but one tied together by a few crucial strings. History was not the result of large impersonal social forces acting on a societal level beyond the control of individual actors; instead, history was the result of powerful men meeting in dimly-lit rooms to decide the fate of the world. Conspiracy theories create order from chaos, as Barna Donovan argues in Conspiracy Films:

The further society advances, the more sophisticated its technologies become, the more rational, orderly, safe and peaceful it should become, we would like to believe. But why is there more disorder, instability, uncertainty and chaos? Someone must be responsible for this, the conspiracy theory argues. The dawn of the twenty-first century should be a world advancing towards utopia. However, it’s not. Environmental devastation, disease, terrorism, war and economic uncertainties are the order of the day. There must be a hidden hand orchestrating all this misfortune.

Conspiracy theories suggest that there is some ordering principle at work, some secret force that is driving the world in a particular direction. There are powerful people using their power to reshape the world to their will. Forces so much more powerful than ordinary people are re-shaping and re-modelling history to suit their own sinister agendas.

Everybody wants to rule the world...

Everybody wants to rule the world…

Robert Dallek, historian and author of Camelot’s Court, makes a similar argument for the popularity of the conspiracy theory in recent decades:

Mr. Dallek is more intrigued by the apparent need to believe in a conspiracy. “They can’t accept that someone as inconsequential as Oswald could have killed someone as consequential as Kennedy,” he said. “To believe that only Oswald killed Kennedy — that there wasn’t some larger plot — shows people how random the world is, how uncertain. And I think it pains them; they don’t want to accept that fact.”

History cannot be random. History must have purpose. It must be controllable. Otherwise, what is the point of anything?

The future goes down the drain...

The future goes down the drain…

Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man is quite a clever and sarcastic little episode, mercilessly lampooning conspiracy theory by making the Cigarette-Smoking Man responsible for just about every morally unconscionable act in postwar history. He killed John F. Kennedy. He killed  Martin Luther King. He trained those involved in the Bay of Pigs. He moved the Rodney King trial to Simi Valley. He has been scheming against the Buffalo Bills winning the superbowl for decades.

Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man is an odd beast – a curious blend of Oliver Stone’s paranoia played out like a twisted parody of Forrest Gump. Released in July 1994, Forrest Gump had been a massive success – following a simple-minded young man as he waded through the sixties and seventies, Forrest Gump was an affectionate (and nostalgic) trek through American pop history. The film famously beat out both Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption for the Best Picture Oscar, but it was an American fairytale about how a simple Alabama boy could find himself at the centre of history.

They should call him "so damn insane", amirite?

They should call him “so damn insane”, amirite?

Forrest Gump has inspired no shortage of critical debate since its release. Is it an attempt to “simplify” a complicated and multifaceted phase of American history? Or is it an ironic parody of such attempts? The title character manages to become one of the most important and influential characters in American history. Is this unlikely story a straight-up example of American exceptionalism, or a wry subversion? Nevertheless, the decision to structure Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man as a hyper-exaggerated inversion of Forrest Gump serves a very clear purpose.

Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man is populate with discussion of “extraordinary men.” These are the kinds of men who exert enough force of will to alter the path of history. “Now, most people, common people, really… can barely manage to control their own self-centered, myopic existence,” General Francis reflects early in the story, setting up the theme. “There are extraordinary men… those who must identify… comprehend, and ultimately shoulder the responsibility for not only their own existence, but their country’s, and the world’s as well.”

Theatre assassination...

Theatre assassination…

As Alan Edelstein notes in Everybody is Sitting on the Curb, the great man theory of history has a certain appeal to it, and an interesting historical pedigree:

The great man theory is a nineteenth-century European creation, inspired in all likelihood by Napoleon Bonaparte. Certainly Georg Hegel was awed by the French emperor’s power and his conquests, and perhaps Friedrich Nietzsche was following Hegel’s lead when he too supported a theory of the great man in history. Henri Bergson argued against historical determinism – the antithesis of the great man view – and for the vitality of the individual. In the United States, William James argued a weaker form of this theory, acknowledging the power of social forces but retaining the view that the individual has the power to shape, in whatever degree, his own fate.

The theory is massively controversial, and subject to a great deal of criticism. Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man cleverly plays with it, recognising the thematic overlap that exists with a conspiracy theory approach to history.

Dialing it back...

Dialing it back…

“How many historic events have only the two of us witnessed together, Ronald?” the Cigarette-Smoking Man asks Deep Throat later in the story. “How often did we make or change history? And our names can never grace any pages of record. No monument will ever bear our image. And yet once again, tonight, the course of human history will be set by two unknown men… standing in the shadows.”  Here, conspiracy theory and the great man theory intertwine, creating a fictional history where the horrors of the postwar era can be laid at the feet of men who are “great”, if only in influence and stature.

Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man suggests that the link between these two ideas is American exceptionalism, the belief that anybody can be special or important. Anybody can change the world. We are told that the eponymous villain had a fairly banal childhood, living as “a ward of the state, sent to various orphanages in the Midwest. Didn’t make friends, spent all his time reading… alone.”  It sounds almost like a super hero origin story – the idea that even a person from the most humble of beginnings can ultimately alter the course of history. Rags-to-riches; anything is possible.

A black-and-white issue...

A black-and-white issue…

One of the more interesting aspects of conspiracy theory is how completely ineffective it is. In Touching, Feeling, Eve Sedgwick recalls a conversation she had with a colleague about the conspiracy theories surrounding AIDS in the nineties:

Sometime back in the middle of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, I was picking the brains of a friend of mine, the activist scholar Cindy Patton, about the probable natural history of HIV. This was at a time when speculation was ubiquitous about whether the virus had been deliberately engineered or spread, whether HIV represented a plot or experiment by the US military that had gotten out of control, or perhaps that was behaving exactly as it was meant to. After hearing a lot from her about the geography and economics of the global traffic in blood products, I finally, with some eagerness, asked Patton what she thought of these sinister rumors about the virus’s origin. “Any of the early steps in its spread could have been either accidental or deliberate,” she said. “But I just have trouble getting interested in that. I mean, even suppose we were sure of every element of a conspiracy: that the lives of Africans and African Americans are worthless in the eyes of the United States; that gay men and drug users are held cheap where they aren’t actively hated; that the military deliberately researches ways to kill noncombatants whom it sees as enemies; that people in power look calmly on the likelihood of catastrophic environmental and population changes. Supposing we were ever so sure of all those things—what would we know then that we don’t already know?”

As interesting as it is to explore these theories and possibilities, they ultimately seem to have little impact on the status quo. (The NSA is still listening to us, after all.) It has been argued that this is largely because conspiracy theory is not so much a political philosophy as a narrative theory.

Smoke 'em if you got 'em...

Smoke ’em if you got ’em…

Discussing this relative ineffectiveness of conspiracy theory as a political ideology, Jeffrey L. Pasley suggests that conspiracy theory does not serve to undermine core American narratives, but to buttress and support them:

How has a political phenomenon so politically ineffectual nevertheless remained so common? The reason, I would argue, is that ideologically conspiracy theory has often been immensely useful, but more to dominant political ideas and myths than to the dissident ones we might expect. Far from fundamentally challenging the basic structures of American culture, conspiracy theory in the United States has frequently functioned to preserve a sense of basic ideological consensus and ultimate social harmony. In particular, it has often protected what scholars have termed “American exceptionalism,” the widespread conviction that North America has been exempted by Providence (or some other force) from such chronic Old World problems as inequality, scarcity, revolution, or, indeed, of any deep, inherent, or irreconcilable sociopolitical divisions. This idea has been rather unpopular with historians in recent decades, but still retains a significant following in some quarters of the social sciences. More importantly, it seems to have not only survived but grown stronger than ever in the larger culture, being invoked by presidents and constituting a major element of the ongoing public backlash against the so-called revisionist histories that modern museums and academic historians have often served up in a pesky devotion to historical veracity and professional scholarship.

And so Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man plays this thematic overlap to its logical conclusion, offering a story of a nobody who became the somebody lurking in every space, every ellipsis, every hesitation, every pause of the official history.

Oswald hasn't got the bottle...

Oswald hasn’t got the bottle…

Musings of the Cigarette-Smoking Man is overtly political. All the crimes committed by the Cigarette-Smoking Man are justified in service of his country. “I’ve never killed anybody,” he tells Deep Throat at one point. While Deep Throat accuses him of lying, there is a sense that the Cigarette-Smoking Man believes his own rhetoric. After all, his murders have been in the service of the state, allegedly divorced from his own desires and ambitions. Using that logic, the Cigarette-Smoking Man is really just a tool – a cog in the machine.

However, there is an argument to be made about his participation in state-mandated violence. Early in the episode, he remarks that he would happily have served as the state’s executioner in the execution of his own father. “My only regret, sir, is I was too young to throw the switch myself.” Later on, the Cigarette-Smoking Man divorces his own feelings on Martin Luther King when he deems the country to be at risk. “If this were only a civil rights issue, I’d vote for a King/Benjamin Spock presidential ticket,” he explains. “I respect King. He’s an extraordinary man.” That is not enough to stay his hand.

Of course he's reading The Manchurian Candidate...

Of course he’s reading The Manchurian Candidate…

The colours of red white and blue pervade the episode, from the teaser. The Cigarette-Smoking Man can see all three colours out of the window where he spies on the Lone Gunmen. His meeting with the conspirators involved in the Kennedy assassination is bathed in white light, as is the alien on the operating table in 1991. His cigarettes come in a red and white pack. He dressed in a blue blazer while setting up Lee Harvey Oswald as a patsy. Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man is fascinated by American narratives and imagery.

Of Morgan and Wong’s four scripts for the fourth season, the first three are overtly (and pointedly) political – concerned with American history and its connection to the present day. Home is a scathing attack on a certain school of nostalgic conservatism that would portray the past as a romantic ideal, featuring relics of the Civil War bleeding into the present. The Field Where I Died sees an ATF and FBI siege of a militia compound unfold upon a Civil War battlefield. Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man confines its focus to the postwar era.

Red, white and blew him away...

Red, white and blew him away…

We are told that the Cigarette-Smoking Man first appeared – as if out of thin air – in August 1940. At that stage, the Second World War had been waging in Europe for a year. “August twentieth, 1940, Mexico City,” Frohike narrates. “A Stalinist agent assassinated Leon Trotsky with an icepick. At that same moment, a thousand miles north, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he appears.” Although conducted by the KGB rather than the CIA, the assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City was actually plotted in a Sante Fe drugstore. Extra-legal violence and assassination as a tool of state policy.

In playing into the “great men of history” theme that runs through the episode, this was also the date that Winston Churchill made his famous speech about the heroism on display during the Battle of Britain. “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” Churchill told the House of Commons. In a way, this provides a nice counterpoint to the “great man” theory. More than five hundred British pilots gave their lives in a battle that changed the course of the war and of world history. Although their names are a matter of public record, few will ever know them.

To the book depository!

To the book depository!

However, after his rough childhood during the Second World War, we are told that “he appears to have vanished… until a year and a half after the Bay of Pigs.” Of course he reappeared in the chaotic sixties, following the general order and disciplined prosperity associated with the fifties. As with Space: Above and Beyond, there is a palpable nostalgia to Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man – a sense that Morgan and Wong are looking back to the idealism and optimism associated with the sixties. The sixties were far from ideal, as Mad Men revels in reminding us, but they were bristling with potential.

Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man features the death of that potential. Bill Mulder boasts that his son’s first word was “JFK.” This sounds unlikely, but fits with the mythic tone of the time. John F. Kennedy spoke of untapped American (and human) potential in his “new frontier” speech. While Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man does not quote from that piece of rhetoric, the death of Martin Luther King is set against a playback of his “promised land” speech. Martin Luther King may have suspected that he would not arrive at the promised land, but is the rest of America that much closer now than it was before?

In the sights...

In the sights…

It is no wonder that the Cigarette-Smoking Man takes his first cigarette after the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald. As Roddey Reid observes in Globalising Tobacco Control, the cigarettes (and the associated cancer) make an effective metaphor for the show’s political themes:

The sheer indifference of those grey-haired men to the lives of fellow citizens and foes alike is relentlessly signified by cigarettes, which destroy both their users and those around them. If, according to the traditional ideal of government, the government of others always involves as its precondition the government of oneself, then smoking signifies the greatest violation of that principle. The Cold War logic of mutually assured destruction is identical to the logic of smoking cigarettes: in the words of an anti-smoking billboard in California featuring a lit cigarette, it is “a weapon that kills at both ends.” And like cigarettes, there is nothing more collectively significant and entailing of others, yet nothing more intimate and personally involving, than the Cold War and its legacy of a deeply flawed industrial modernity.

As such, it feels appropriate that the Cigarette-Smoking Man should light up for the first time after he murdered John F. Kennedy, an almost mythological figure representing the sheer potential of what has been described as “the American century.” He tries to quit as the Cold War winds down. It doesn’t hold.

The lives of others...

The lives of others…

Even as Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man parodies “the great man theory of history”, it also undermines and erodes it. As much as the Cigarette-Smoking Man might claim to be an important man who alters the course of human history, the episode is somewhat ambiguous on the matter. For somebody who seems to control history, the Cigarette-Smoking Man seems to hold very little control over his own life and his own choices. The fact that he holds on to the picture of Teena and Fox Mulder, his admission that he might want “a second chance”, suggests he is trapped by events rather than directing them.

It is heavily implied that his hyper-patriotism was a reflexive response to his father’s betrayal of his country. “Your father’s actions were totally out of your control,” General Francis assures him. “Each of us in this room stands a life eviscerated by the actions of another.” Francis reflects that the Cigarette-Smoking Man is probably more like his father than he might like. We are also told that his mother died of lung cancer, which seemed to play a role in his attempts to avoid smoking. However, he cannot resist that urge forever. He eventually gives in.

Puffing along...

Puffing along…

Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man was quite a controversial episode among fans, and its production was notably difficult for all involved. It served to bring Chris Carter into conflict with Glen Morgan and James Wong, causing considerable friction:

The next indication that problems were mounting at Ten-Thirteen was the colossal continuity problems of Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man. Stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were reportedly delighted to learn that an entire episode would be filmed without them, giving them a much-needed ten day break – “It’s like the fourth season and they’re really burned out,” commented James Wong at the time. “And we thought, wouldn’t it be great to do a show that they’re not even in?” – but writer Glen Morgan was less than happy, for several reasons. Firstly, that no-one on the staff had picked up on the errors; secondly, that Carter had changed the original ending, refusing to allow Morgan to kill off Frohike, whom Morgan had created; finally, that Carter had dismissed the entire story as being apocryphal as soon as the continuity issue was raised.

Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man is a rather strange episode that is hard to quantify. Even if it didn’t create a few continuity errors with episodes like Apocrypha, it would be hard to reconcile with the rest of the X-Files canon.

Making history...

Making history…

It seems weird that continuity would even be an issue with Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man, an episode that revels in its cheeky absurdity. It is an episode that is consciously aware of its own fictionality, drawing the audience’s attention repeatedly to its status as an episode of a television. In order to block out the eavesdropping Cigarette-Smoking Man, the Lone Gunmen deploy “the CSM-25 countermeasure.” The fact that “CSM” is a three-letter acronym for “Cigarette-Smoking Man” that is popular in on-line discussions seems a bit obvious.

More than that, the story is heavily and consciously stylised. The story is structured into clearly-defined acts, which are labelled for the audience. The sequences set before the Kennedy assassination are bright and hyper-saturated, evoking typical depictions of the decade in film. The sequences set before the Martin Luther King assassination are filmed in black-and-white. Old footage from The Pilot is integrated in without any real effort to make it gel. The Cigarette-Smoking Man eavesdrops on Mulder and Scully, playing back dialogue from old episodes like a devoted shipper. He’d love tumblr.

On the bench...

On the bench…

Similarly, the character’s letter of resignation is dated November 12, 1996 – five days before Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man aired. This is a relatively rare instance of the show’s story overlapping with broadcast date of a given episode. Coupled with the decision to make the Cigarette-Smoking Man a frustrated writer – building to complaints about how the ending of his story was changed without his consent – it feels like Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man was always tweaking the nose of the audience.

So, with all that in mind, it seems strange that the issue of continuity would creep into it. It is very hard to take Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man entirely seriously, and it seems strange to imagine there would be serious debate on how the episode was meant to integrate with the show’s established continuity. After all, that would seem to be the joke here. As with Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”, Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man takes the show’s core mythology and runs wild with it. An absolute ruling on the episode’s “canonicity” – one way or the other – seems to miss the entire point of the exercise.

Meeting expectations...

Meeting expectations…

After all, there is a fairly significant link between the idea of conspiracy theory and narrative continuity. What is narrative continuity but an attempt to order connect disparate plot points in a way that a conspiracy theorist might link facts? As Allan Megill writes in Historical Knowledge, Historical Error:

Yet what is striking is the degree to which people seem driven to construct narratives out of scattered fragments of information. For example, the Web has been the matrix out of which conspiracy theories have been constructed – such as the alleged conspiracy to suppress the alleged fact that Trans World Airlines Flight 800 out of New York to Paris on July 17, 1996, was shot down by a missile, possibly one launched by the United States Navy (other conspiracy theories, burgeoning after September 11, 2001, abound). A conspiracy theory, of course, is nothing other than a tightly ordered narrative.

The X-Files rather consciously plays into that, inviting the viewer to try to solve the conspiracy along with Mulder. To Mulder, it’s a vast alien conspiracy involving the highest levels of government manipulating American society; to the viewer, it’s the mystery at the heart of a popular television show.

Picture this...

Picture this…

Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man brings the two ideas together, serving as a parody both of the idea of vast over-arching conspiracy theories and the central narrative of The X-Files itself. Both are inherently absurd, with the caveat that the central narrative of The X-Files is structured to make these absurdities possible and (mostly) reconcilable. The X-Files is always acutely aware of its own continuity, to the point where the conspiracy plotline even comes with a number of “outs” that can excuse perceived continuity errors. Characters lie; details that don’t add up become misinformation or misdirection.

It is worth noting that Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man is careful to remain in continuity with Glen Morgan and James Wong’s earlier episodes. Making the Cigarette-Smoking Man responsible for the death of John F. Kennedy builds off his conversation with Mulder in One Breath. We get to see Deep Throat commit the murder that haunted him in E.B.E. If a lie is convincingly buried between two truths, Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man is carefully calibrated to offer just the right amount of truth.

Not his type...

Not his type…

In real life, the idea of the same man killing John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King while rigging the superbowl would be absurd. In the world of The X-Files, it’s not quite as implausible. As Glen Morgan noted in his defence of criticisms of the episode’s “continuity”, Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man emphasises these eccentric aspects of the show:

“The episode is a parody of conspiracy theories, yet in context of the television show, I would like to think that it happened to him,” Morgan said. “The episode does makes it like it could be Frohike’s or Cancer Man’s imagination, but to me I think it would have been the real thing. It’s just as believable as anything else we’ve seen on the show.”

“I approached it as if the events were real,” added Wong. “It was kind of a self-parody, in that we were having a little bit of fun with the show, but I had to approach it like it happened. The script is written in such a way that you can take it for how you want it. It’s not rock solid that yes, this actually happened, but on the other hand, we’re not winking to or nudging the audience. It is ambiguous enough for the audience to go, ‘It could be his overblown memory of who he is or his overblown feeling of how powerful he is or what he’s done in his life” Or it could be Frohike telling who he thinks the Cancer Man is.”

However, the show itself worked hard to downplay this flippancy towards the mythology and the iconic character. Creator Chris Carter and actor William B. Davis were apparently uncomfortable with the script as it was originally written.

Alien experience...

Alien experience…

To be fair, Davis has mellowed on the episode in the years since it was filmed. “In retrospect, I like it better than I did,” he conceded towards the end of the show’s broadcast run. “It was whimsical, fanciful, and yet kept asking real questions.” Indeed, Davis’ autobiography – Where There’s Smoke… – takes its subtitle from the episode. In that biography, he concedes that he was a little worried about the episode:

The original title of the episode when I received it was “Memoirs of a Cigarette-Smoking Man”, suggesting that the events in the story should be taken as real, or at least so it seemed to my modern mind. Perhaps I needed to approach the script with a more postmodern referential lens, but still some of the events of the script would be inescapable, not least that in this first version of the script I killed Frohike, the lead Lone Gunman. I suppose James Wong having originally created Frohike and cast Tom Braidwood in the role felt he had the freedom to kill him off if he chose.

The changing of the title from “Memoirs” to “Musings” late in production was a clear attempt by Carter to mark the episode as apocryphal, to suggest that it somehow mattered “less” than “real” mythology episodes like Tunguska or Terma. However, the disagreement over the fate of Frohike is perhaps more compelling, as it hints at conflict over issues of ownership.

Taking aim...

Taking aim…

As Davis points out, Morgan and Wong had created the character of Frohike (and the Lone Gunmen) as background characters in the episode E.B.E. Despite only appearing once in the show’s first season, the Lone Gunmen became popular characters. They would spin off into their own show during The X-Files‘ eighth season. They had remained a vital part of the show after Morgan and Wong left in the second season, and would stay a vital part of the show after the duo departed again in the fourth. (Notably, the pair would try to introduce a similar character when they took charge of the second season of Millennium.)

Having worked on The X-Files for most of the first two seasons, the duo had made considerable contributions to the mythos. They had created Eugene Victor Tooms as the first monster of the week. They had introduced Scully’s mother, father and sister. They had given Mulder and Scully a conflicted supervisor in Walter Skinner. The had given the Cigarette-Smoking Man his first big dialogue scenes. It is impossible to state how much Morgan and Wong had given the The X-Files, had contributed to the mythos.

Staring down the barrel of a gun...

Staring down the barrel of a gun…

The business realities of television mean that these characters will never belong to Morgan and Wong in any practical sense. That is the way the industry works, and it makes sense from a logistical perspective. Morgan was once asked about the death of Melissa Scully, and responded rather pragmatically:

He told me that most networks have what’s called “character payments”. If a character that a writer created returns in another episode, they get a couple hundred bucks. This doesn’t happen on FOX, so there goes any cash for the Lone Gunmen, Skinner, Tooms, Scully’s Ma…etc. “If we did get character payments, I would have been more bummed that they killed Melissa. Now I just feel bad for Melinda who is a wonderful actress and a really nice person… sorry if I sound greedy but it’s sort of joke between Jim and I.”

Nevertheless, the attempt to kill off Frohike at the end of Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man feels like an attempt to reassert some control of a character that they helped to create. Not in a particularly possessive manner, but in a way that would have drawn a line under their time on The X-Files.

Our Cigarette-Smoking Man (who totally wasn't) in Havana...

Our Cigarette-Smoking Man (who totally wasn’t) in Havana…

Killing off Frohike would have allowed Morgan and Wong to close the book on one of their creations. There is a sense that Morgan and Wong were not planning to remain on The X-Files for much longer. They had been drafted in by Fox after the cancellation of Space: Above and Beyond, enticed with the promise that Fox would produce their pilot for The Notorious Seven. They had been assigned four episodes, and Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man was the third of these four. Certainly, Never Again seems to close out their work on the show.

Although Fox would not take The Notorious Seven to series, Morgan and Wong would not return to The X-Files past the fourth season. Finishing out their time with Fox, the duo would take the reins of Millennium into its second season. After that, they would work on The Others for NBC before producing the Final Destination films for New Line Pictures and a string of other films. The two were almost finished their work on The X-Files, and the death of Frohike might have been an effective way to underscore that.

Enlightening...

Enlightening…

However, Chris Carter was understandably reluctant to have the Cigarette-Smoking Man kill Frohike. After all, the Lone Gunmen were popular characters and this would be a rather trivial way to dispatch one of the original three members. Indeed, Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man wasn’t really about the Lone Gunmen, and so would have positioned the death of Frohike at a very odd point in the show. These sorts of character deaths tend to occur in big mythology-advancing episodes, rather than eccentric character pieces.

After all, where would the show have gone with this? Would it have forced the remaining writers to re-tool the Lone Gunmen? Given that Frohike would have been shot in the last moments of the episode, would there have been an episode later in the season to deal with the fall-out? The death of Frohike would have worked quite well in the context of the arc of the Cigarette-Smoking Man in this episode – as Morgan and Wong have both argued. However, it would have caused considerable problems for the show going forwards.

It is easy to understand why Morgan and Wong wanted the death, but it is also easy to understand why Carter vetoed it. Nevertheless, the end of Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man caused some frustration at Ten Thirteen, with Wong and Morgan both scheming separately to slip the death into the episode, only to be foiled:

They figured that if they filmed the scene their way, and cut it into the episode, it would be so powerful that Carter would have to agree with them. Morgan called Wong up in Vancouver and told him to take a few crew members while everyone else was at lunch, and get some shots of blood spattering on the sign to the Lone Gunman offices. Wong decided against the stealth approach; instead, he filmed William B. Davis pulling back on the trigger, and Tom Braidwood, as Frohike, getting a bullet in the head. Morgan nearly panicked when he heard what his partner had done; he was certain word of it would reach Ten Thirteen down in Los Angeles. His fears were justified. Wong recalled: “I was in the editing room, and I said to the editor, why don’t we print up the B negative? We’ll cut it in and show Chris. [The “B” negative was the negative with the footage of the Cigarette Smoking Man pulling the trigger and Frohike getting shot.] And the editor told me, ‘You can’t do that.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, we can’t do that? Just print the B negative.’ He said, ‘Well, it’s been taken out of the lab. It can’t be found.” In a move worthy of a scene from an X-Files episode, someone had deliberately removed the negative without telling Morgan and Wong, and they had no idea where it was. The two weren’t quite ready to give up. “We put up pieces of green board behind the editing building and we were splattering chocolate syrup on it. We thought we would manufacture the blood splattering on the Lone Gunmen sign and make it blow up with that one shot. Then we could turn it into the network and everyone would go, ‘Wow, how powerful!’ But,” Morgan sighed, “It just never worked out.”

There is a sense that Morgan and Wong were skirting the boundaries of their authority; that they were taking advantage of the fact that Carter’s attention was focused on Millennium to do what they wanted. There is a sense that the duo had moved past the point where they were entirely comfortable playing in boundaries set by others.

Nevertheless, despite all the behind-the-scenes friction, Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man is a highlight of the fourth season. It is a reminder of just what Morgan and Wong have to offer the show. The beauty of the episode is the way that it constantly balances on a knife-edge between comedy and tragedy. The larger details are obviously absurd, with Morgan parodying everything from conspiracy theories to Oscar-winning movies. However, the heart of the story is about a man who gradually lost his soul in the service of a higher ideal.

Musings of a Cigarette-Man is almost playful in the way that it ups the ante. The first act implicates the Cigarette-Smoking Man in various murky international government operations conducted overseas, building to his assassination of Kennedy. This is a big deal, but it still feels like something that could be played straight. The next act ups the ante, having the character also assassinated Martin Luther King. The credibility is at breaking point. The third act just swings right into farce, with the character rigging the Oscars and the superbowl.

However, it never loses sight of the character at the centre of the story. It often finds a way to double the comedy and the tragedy. It is quite sad that the Cigarette-Smoking Man will spend Christmas alone, but his decision to get his employees matching ties is hilarious. The character’s lighter in the teaser is engraved with the worlds “trust no one.” It feels like a sly reference to the show’s increasingly ubiquitous merchandising, but those are also the dying words of the character’s last true friend. The Cigarette-Smoking Man likely ordered the murder of Deep Throat – “Ronald.”

Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man is hard to integrate with the rest of The X-Files, and for reasons entirely distinct from questions of continuity. It is a provocative and eccentric piece of work. Like The Field Where I Died before it, it is proof of just what can be done with the format of The X-Files.

“This isn’t the ending I wrote. It’s all wrong.”

– C.G.B. Spender, 12 November 1996

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

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2 Responses

  1. Great review!

    This might actually be favourite episode, even though – or perhaps because – I have some sympathy with the Great Man school of history. It was charming and intriguing.

    I will say Carter made the right call on not killing Frohike, more for the sake of the Cigarette-Smoking Man than Frohike himself. The ending we are given is delightfully ambiguous, just like eveything else.

    • I think it’s massively underrated, but I think that of every Morgan/Wong script from the fourth season that is not Home. (Which is quite rightly considered a masterpiece.)

      The Great Man theory has a certain romance to it. One of the things I find fascinating about that debate is the way that it seems to try to impose narrative logic on history – it is an argument, I think, that history itself has protagonists. (Now that I think about, imposing narrative logic on history is also part of what conspiracy theory does.)

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