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The X-Files – Unrequited (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.

Unrequited opens with Mulder and Scully’s attempts to stop an assassination attempt by an invisible man, before jumping back twelve hours to explain how our heroes got into this situation. With that set-up, Unrequited falls into a lot of the narrative traps associated with an in media res teaser. After all, there’s not really anything special about the teaser. There is no mystery to be solved, no strange behaviour to explain. What questions are we meant to ask, based on that opening scene? How are we meant to look at the rest of the episode differently, knowing what we know?

Sure, Mulder and Scully are protecting Major General Benjamin Bloch. That would seem to be a little bit outside the remit of “the FBI’s most unwanted”, but that is not too strange a situation for the duo. They are FBI agents, so there is a certain flexibility in their job description. The Field Where I Died – an episode with a much more effective non-linear teaser – featured Mulder and Scully collaborating with the ATF. So it isn’t as if the set-up should be striking or compelling.

Stop, or my Mulder will shoot!

Stop, or my Mulder will shoot!

It seems like we are meant to focus on the monster of the week – Vietnam veteran Nathaniel Teager. Teager has the ability to turn himself invisible, which is quite something. Sure enough, the teaser to Unrequited offers a glimpse of that ability in action. But why is it important to have show us that ability in a scene from the climax of the episode? With a few adjustments, Teager’s first murder in the back of the limousine would serve the same purpose; introducing the audience to his powers without the need to recycle several minutes of footage from the climax.

After all, the most dissatisfying aspect of the in media res teaser is not the fact that it is completely inessential. Instead, the decision to use footage from the climax means that the audience has to sit through the same sequence twice. The teaser for Unrequited works well enough the first time around, but the sequence is not clever or inventive enough to merit a live-action replay towards the end of the hour. It just saps momentum from episode, rendering the final sequences somewhat tedious. That is the biggest problem with the opening of Unrequited, even beyond laziness.

Flags of our father figures...

Flags of our father figures…

Business as usual.

What is most striking about Unrequited is how completely it stands apart from the episodes around it. There is not a single mention of Scully’s cancer. To be fair, Scully’s cancer was not mentioned in Kaddish, but Kaddish was written and filmed before Never Again, let alone Leonard Betts or Memento Mori. It is very hard to blame Kaddish for not following up on a plot point that did not exist during its production. However, production and broadcast order of the fourth season are now in synch; Unrequited has no excuse.

Rallying for the cause...

Rallying for the cause…

To be fair, Unrequited has an excuse prepared. The episode informs us that we are watching events that occurred in December 1996. Although harder to place chronologically, it appears that Scully’s battle with cancer took place a month or so later, in early 1997. The internal dates on Never Again suggest that it took place in January 1997 and Tempus Fugit takes place around Scully’s birthday in early February 1997. Completely apart from broadcast or production order, there is an art to figuring out the internal chronological order of The X-Files.

Of course, this feels like something of a band-aid, an oh-so-clever way from the production team to write around something they want to avoid. There is absolutely no reason to set Unrequited earlier than the other episodes of the season – and to be so explicit about doing so – other than an attempt to avoid dealing with the fallout from Memento Mori. Instead, Unrequited is absolutely committed to maintaining the boundary between the show’s mythology and stand-alone episodes. Unrequited is just a monster of the week; nothing more to see here.

It's like pulling teeth...

It’s like pulling teeth…

This is one of the problems with Scully’s cancer arc, and an aspect of The X-Files that clearly defines it as a product of the mid-nineties. It is hard to imagine a modern television show – even a largely procedural or episodic show like CSI or Law & Order – treating a major character trauma so casually. While the arc was scripted into the fourth season of The X-Files at very short notice, it would not be too difficult to include a reference to Scully’s recent experiences – even a line or two acknowledging Scully’s health troubles, or a quick shot of Scully considering treatment.

However, instead of being written into Scully’s cancer arc, Unrequited is written around the arc. While the central mythology of The X-Files really helped to popularise the idea of long-form storytelling on American prime time television, the series itself never completely embraced serialisation. The wall that D.P.O. imposed between the mythology and the standalone episodes never truly came down. Rather than opting to be a purely episodic show or a purely serialised show, Unrequited opted for elements of both approaches.

I can remember standing by the wall...

I can remember standing by the wall…

In some respects, The X-Files was trying to have what would have been considered the best of both worlds for mid-nineties television. It was episodic enough to lure in casual and part-time viewers, but serialised enough to cement an enthusiastic and invested fanbase. In Rewriting Popularity, Reeves, Rodgers and Epstein describe this approach as an “episodic/serial straddle”, describing the conspiracy plot line as “a sort of mini-serial within the series.” While the approach is dated from a modern perspective, it makes a certain amount of sense in context.

Still, while Unrequited is the kind of episode suited to syndication and reruns on networks around the world, it does feel rather unsatisfying when examined in the context of everything happening around it. The idea to give Scully cancer was a bold and daring twist that gave the fourth season a sense of weight and gravity that were lacking from mythology episodes like Herrenvolk, Tunguska and Terma. However, such gravity comes at a cost; switching it off so casually – pretending that it didn’t happen, even while adhering to continuity – weakens the show.

A Major problem...

A Major problem…

Unrequited is written in such a way that a casual viewer could randomly tune in for the episode and never realise that Scully had cancer. Even though it is hard to divorce it from the context surrounding it, it makes sense to treat Unrequited as a pretty standard “monster-of-the-week” story like Kaddish before it. Unfortunately, Unrequited is a fairly generic example of a “monster-of-the-week” episode. It has a number of really great and clever ideas, but no real sense of what to do with them.

In fact, Unrequited is packed full of ideas that seem “clever” – little touches that are very smart on paper, but which ultimately draw enough attention to themselves that they become self-defeating. The idea to set it before Scully’s cancer diagnosis in order to avoid having to deal with the fallout from Memento Mori is one example of this approach – an idea that capitalises on the format of the show, but does so cover up for a weakness. The teaser is another such example, with Unrequited opening at the moment of maximum conflict, and then jumping back in time.

Shooting blind!

Shooting blind!

This is a classic narrative technique. Opening in media res was a favoured storytelling tool of the poet Homer. Both The Iliad and The Odyssey open with events in full swing, the narrative jumping back in time to explain how the show reached this point. The structure of a standard television episode encourages the use of this device. The use of a teaser before the opening credits is common on American television; the approach relies on a memorable or striking image to capture the audience’s attention before they can change the channel.

There are lots of shows that attempt to pull the audience in by cutting right to the chase, so to speak. It is an approach that has been popular for decades. The Rockford Files would feature a montage of clips from the episode before the opening credits. Quantum Leap would frequently have its protagonist leap into a new body at a crucial and tense moment so as to hook the viewers. Even Breaking Bad had a habit of teasing fans with out-of-context glimpses from later in the episode, or even the season.

He didn't play his card right...

He didn’t play his card right…

There are a number of reasons why this approach can work very well. For one thing, it can add an air of mystery; it can provide an opportunity to see our heroes in striking situations – why are they doing that? – before jumping back and explaining how this unlikely set-up came to pass. For another, it can provide very effective foreshadowing; if we know roughly where the story is going, we can assign significance to different parts of the story. Finally, it can be a clever piece of subversion; showing the audience an out-of-context clip is a great way to wrong-foot them.

However, as with any popular narrative technique, it is easy to abuse the in media res opening. At its worst, it serves an excuse for not having an interesting or compelling starting point. By jumping to the climax, the story seems to concede that the beginning is actually boring. It provides an excuse for a slow start or an uninspired premise. Similarly, it can also serve to eat up time, particularly if the climax simply replays the sequence that the audience have already seen in the teaser. Seeing something vaguely exciting twice undermines a lot of the excitement.

Hear him out...

Hear him out…

Unrequited opens with Mulder and Scully’s attempts to stop an assassination attempt by an invisible man, before jumping back twelve hours to explain how our heroes got into this situation. With that set-up, Unrequited falls into a lot of the narrative traps associated with an in media res teaser. After all, there’s not really anything special about the teaser. There is no mystery to be solved, no strange behaviour to explain. What questions are we meant to ask, based on that opening scene? How are we meant to look at the rest of the episode differently, knowing what we know?

Sure, Mulder and Scully are protecting Major General Benjamin Bloch. That would seem to be a little bit outside the remit of “the FBI’s most unwanted”, but that is not too strange a situation for the duo. They are FBI agents, so there is a certain flexibility in their job description. The Field Where I Died – an episode with a much more effective non-linear teaser – featured Mulder and Scully collaborating with the ATF. So it isn’t as if the set-up should be striking or compelling.

Deal with it...

Deal with it…

It seems like we are meant to focus on the monster of the week – Vietnam veteran Nathaniel Teager. Teager has the ability to turn himself invisible, which is quite something. Sure enough, the teaser to Unrequited offers a glimpse of that ability in action. But why is it important to have show us that ability in a scene from the climax of the episode? With a few adjustments, Teager’s first murder in the back of the limousine would serve the same purpose; introducing the audience to his powers without the need to recycle several minutes of footage from the climax.

After all, the most dissatisfying aspect of the in media res teaser is not the fact that it is completely inessential. Instead, the decision to use footage from the climax means that the audience has to sit through the same sequence twice. The teaser for Unrequited works well enough the first time around, but the sequence is not clever or inventive enough to merit a live-action replay towards the end of the hour. It just saps momentum from episode, rendering the final sequences somewhat tedious. That is the biggest problem with the opening of Unrequited, even beyond laziness.

Dogs of war...

Dogs of war…

Still, there are some good ideas here. Vietnam haunts The X-Files, much like it haunts the American psyche. In many respects, the Vietnam War is seen as a moment of lost innocence for the nation – a moment where the United States came down to earth following the romance of the Kennedy era’s “Camelot.” Coupled with Watergate, it represented a moment where the American public learned to become less and less trusting of the government; where it became credible (instead of paranoid) to question whether those in power had the best interests of their people at heart.

Many of the writers on The X-Files came of age in the shadows of Watergate and Vietnam; those twin tragedies inform a lot of The X-Files, directly and indirectly. Howard Gordon, Glen Morgan and James Wong are all fond of including references to Vietnam in their scripts. In E.B.E., Deep Throat claimed to have killed an extraterrestrial who had crashed in Hanoi. In One Breath, Walter Skinner confirmed that he enlisted for Vietnam, and that the experience changed him. In Never Again, Scully contemplates her mortality in the shadow of the Vietnam War Memorial.

Tag 'em and bag 'em...

Tag ’em and bag ’em…

In a delightfully abstract reference created by trimming exposition from the broadcast episode, Howard Gordon’s script for Ghost in the Machine included a line on Scully’s computer about how “Vietnam created a riff that never healed.” Standing alone in the episode, it feels like an almost Lynchian non sequitur. Howard Gordon wrote the script for the first episode of the show to directly engage with the consequences of the Vietnam War; Sleepless focused on the dehumanisation and exploitation of American soldiers. It is no surprise that Gordon pitched the idea that would become Unrequited.

It is clear that the Vietnam War holds a deep fascination for the writers working on The X-Files. Even when the conflict is not explicitly mentioned, it looms rather large in the background. As such, Unrequited is an interesting example of the show actually engaging with the legacy of the Vietnam War. While the episode does not work as well as it might, it is still interesting to see all of that subtext pushed to the fore; Unrequited grappling with conspiracy theories rooted in the Vietnam War.

"Hm. The toy car is gone."

“Hm. The toy car is gone.”

The idea of a war veteran who can turn himself invisible is a great metaphor. After all, these sorts of soldiers are frequently ignored or overlooked, disenfranchised or belittled. As James T. West noted in Communication and Abused Women:

… after the Vietnam War ended, Vietnam veterans were disenfranchised. They were marginalised because they were viewed as a painful reminder of a far that America had lost. They were given no parades, no memorials, often had their claims of post-traumatic stress disorders ignored, and illnesses related to Agent Orange dismissed. Their viewpoint was silences. Initial mass-media products telling the public how we should think about this group reflected the old established military views associated with World War II veterans.

Indeed, Vietnam veterans were still largely ignored for decades following the conflict, with efforts being made to remedy this into the new millennium. Between 1999 and 2004, for example, the number of veterans receiving disability support for post traumatic stress increased by 79.5%. During the same period, payments increased 148.8%.

Eye see...

Eye see…

To be fair, the final scene of the episode lays it on a bit heavy, as Mulder gets indignant about the way that the establishment has treated Teager. “They’re covering the lies with more lies,” he advises Skinner, “trying to make him invisible.” I see what he did there. Nevertheless, Nathaniel Teager’s ability to render himself invisible is an effective metaphor for the experience of many Vietnam veterans who returned home to find their sacrifice and service largely ignored by the rest of the population.

More than that, there is something quite cool about the specifics of Teager’s gift. As with the cancer monster in Leonard Betts, the pseudo-science behind Unrequited is just specific enough to sound vaguely plausible; even as it remains completely absurd. Teager does not make himself invisible; he makes it impossible for others to see him. The idea of a monster (or a man) who can hide in a person’s blind spot is a rather clever twist on a fairly classic movie monster set-up.

The not-so-invisible man...

The not-so-invisible man…

Director Rob Bowman does his usual good work with this – treating Unrequited as if it were a movie. At several points, Bowman invites the audience to catch a fleeting glimpse Teager out of the corner of their eyes, only to disappear as soon as we have registered him. It is a very old trick, but it is one that is quite difficult to pull off. Similarly, the rally sequences are very effective and very well staged. They add a sense of scale to the story that is not quite deserved.

Interestingly, Unrequited continues the season’s engagement with the militia movement, acknowledging the paranoia and mistrust that Mulder shares with such organisations. Here, we are introduced to “a radical paramilitary group called The Right Hand, whose stated aim is violent revolution.” The ground does not seem too different from the organised and armed groups glimpsed in Tunguska or The Field Where I Died, a collection of violent and paranoid individuals with no trust in the government, and a desire to protect themselves from the influence of the state.

An ace up his sleeve...

An ace up his sleeve…

While Tunguska was quite careful to differentiate Mulder’s quest for the truth with the violent paranoia of these groups, it is worth noting that Unrequited seems a little sympathetic to Denny Markham. He helped to rescue Nathaniel Teager and his conspiracy theories are proven ultimately correct. In fact, despite his possession of illegal firearms and his “stated aim” of “violent revolution”, Unrequited presents both Markham and Teager as more sympathetic figures than Major General Bloch.

“How many other TV shows ever cast a militiaman in a positive light?” Tom Piatak asked in an article for Taki’s Magazine. He has a point. However, Unrequited feels decidedly uncomfortable in the context of early 1997. After all, the Oklahoma City Bombing and the crazy paranoid ramblings of Timothy McVeigh were still fresh in the public consciousness. If The X-Files was going to engage with the militia movement, it seemed that something more thorough and more insightful was necessary; Unrequited feels far too casual in its treatment of the Right Hand.

A monumental cover-up...

A monumental cover-up…

Of course, Unrequited is built around conspiracy theory. Nathaniel Teager is a prisoner of war was abandoned by his government after the Vietnam War, playing into the popular theory that American soldiers were left behind enemy lines at the end of the conflict. This conspiracy theory remains controversial and deeply emotional, as the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs noted in their 1993 report:

Underpinning all this, the POW/MIA issue is alive today because of a fundamental conflict between the laws of probability and the dictates of human nature. On a subject as personal and emotional as the survival of a family member, there is nothing more difficult than to be asked to accept the probability of death when the possibility of life remains. Since Operation Homecoming, the U.S. Government has sought to avoid raising the hopes of POW/ MIA families; it has talked about the need to maintain perspective and about the lack of convincing evidence that Americans remain alive. But U.S. officials cannot produce evidence that all of the missing are dead; and because they have been so careful not to raise false hopes, they have left themselves open to the charge that they have given up hope. This, too, has contributed to public and family mistrust.

It is easy to understand the appeal of such a belief. Everybody wants to believe that their loved ones survived, against all odds. As such, the rumours about surviving prisoners of war have lingered on in public consciousness, another open wound left by the Vietnam War.

"Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others!"

“Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others!”

Ironically, these rumours were largely stoked and encouraged by the United States government. Richard Nixon himself pushed the issue of prisoners of war in a bid to shore up public support for the increasingly unpopular conflict:

Whatever the daily frustrations, Nixon’s “go public” campaign clearly helped to make the POWs a dominant issue in American politics. By the early 1970s tens of thousands of bumper stickers appeared on cars. Hundreds of supportive resolutions were introduced in Congress. And no presidential speech on Vietnam was complete without a pledge not to “abandon our POWs and our MIAs, wherever they are.”

As such, it makes sense that the public would fixate on the idea of prisoners of war. Nixon had hammered the point as a way to justify continued involvement; unfortunately, the issue does not go away just because the war is over.

A veteran agent...

A veteran agent…

In fact, once the prisoners came home following the cessation of hostilities, the public quickly noticed a sizeable discrepancy between the number of prisoners returning home and the number that Nixon claimed were being held:

Operation Homecoming returned 587 American prisoners of war—but Nixon had by then settled on the number “1,600” as the number of Americans as “POW/MIA.” So where were the other 1,013? The brigadier general who supervised the repatriation announced that he “did not rule out the possibility that some Americans may still be held in Laos.” The secretary of defense promised, “We will not rest until all those still known captive are safe and until we have achieved the best possible accounting for those missing in action.” Holding the government to that pledge had now become the raison d’être of the League of Families—an organization now all the stronger, thanks to its recent history as a veritable White House front group. Bracelets continued to be sold, now with the names of MIA on them. Next came that flag—POW-MIA: you are not forgotten—soon flying over VWF and American Legion posts across the fruited plain. And barely months after the Operation Homecoming propaganda triumph, Chicago MIA families declared that the administration was “abandoning” men “seen in photos coming out of Indochina or who have been reported alive by returning POWs.”

Coming the midst of the disillusionment around the Vietnam War as a whole and before the earth-shattering revelations of Watergate, the issue of prisoners of war became one of the most deeply-rooted American conspiracy theories of the twentieth century.

Yes. He actually says "freedom isn't free."

Yes. He actually says “freedom isn’t free.”

Even after the war had ended, the Nixon administration continued to fuel these rumours for their own tactical advantage. In February 1973, Henry Kissinger presented a list with eighty names of unreturned prisoners to North Vietnam. However, it has been suggested this list was simply a cynical piece of realpolitik, a way to weasel out of obligations:

Having no intention of honoring the U.S. pledge of aid, Nixon made accounting for the MIAs the issue.  But accounting is a meaningless issue unless there is some belief in the possibility of live POWs.  Hence each postwar Administration tried to exaggerate this possibility of live POWs.  But no administration could afford to claim there actually were POWs, because then it would be expected to rescue them.  True believers, however, knew that reconnaissance, espionage, and the debriefing of defectors would have to reveal POWs to U.S. intelligence.  Hence by the late 1970s the POW myth was beginning to incorporate belief in a government conspiracy precisely the opposite of the real one.  While the government was pretending that there might be POWs, the POW/MIA myth saw the government pretending that there might not be POWs.

There is a horrific irony to the whole situation. The Nixon administration exaggerated the issue of prisoners of war in order to serve their own political purposes, but those exaggerated statistics and possibilities took on a cruel life of their own.

Wall of denial...

Wall of denial…

Every once in a while, something would occur to stoke these rumours and spur them on. Events like the return of accused collaborator Robert Garwood in 1978 would become focal points for debate or speculation. As recently as 2013, a man claiming to be John Hartley Robertson was recovered; he was subsequently exposed as a fraud. It is easy to see why the conspiracy theories surrounding these lost American troops endure; why they remain so popular decades after the end of the war.

Interestingly, Unrequited does touch some established historical fact. Although there are no records of American prisoners left in the hands of the North Vietnamese, the American withdrawal from South Vietnam left many of their local allies exposed. It has been estimated that one hundred thousand South Vietnamese allies died in the aftermath of the American withdrawal from Vietnam; whether during the fighting that followed, or in officially sanctioned executions. That is a phenomenal cost, and one frequently ignored or overlooked in discussions of Vietnam.

"Well, there goes my career..."

“Well, there goes my career…”

Indeed, these failures to protect allies and associates during the withdrawal were known as early as the mid-seventies:

U.S. officials also are anxious to contain unhappy news from Vietnam, because it will reveal how inadequate the American evacuation program was, as well as how the U.S. failed its allies.  According to Frank Snepp, a CIA analyst who served in Saigon, the American Embassy wasn’t able to destroy its top-secret files during the frantic evacuation, and among the: information that fell into Communist hands was a list of 30,000 Vietnamese who had worked in the Phoenix program, a U.S.-sponsored operation responsible for the elimination of thousands of Communist agents. A full report on the massacre of those 30,000 Phoenix cadres is said to have reached the desk of the French ambassador to Saigon by late 1975; he communicated it to Washington where nothing was done with it.

Unrequited explicitly acknowledges this under-reported facet of the war, with Marita Covarrubias referencing “a recent news story, extremely embarrassing to the US military, about the disposing of South Vietnamese soldiers.”

Marching orders...

Marching orders…

I Want to Believe suggests that news coverage of these issues in the mid-nineties ultimately inspired Howard Gordon to script Unrequited:

Last year, CBS’s 60 Minutes aired a segment reporting that in the 1960s and 1970s the Central Intelligence Agency had cruelly abandoned and declared dead hundreds of South Vietnamese secret agents it knew to have been captured by the North Vietnamese.

This so intrigued and inspired executive producer Howard Gordon that even though he wasn’t scheduled to write his next episode until 4×19, he ended up writing Unrequited during the show’s Christmas break.

It is an interesting example of The X-Files drawing from real life, even if the somewhat rushed nature of the script bleeds through into the episode.

Feeling fenced in...

Feeling fenced in…

While Unrequited doesn’t do much with a solid foundation, it is notable for including the recurring motif of the infamous Ace of Spades – the “death card” used to mark kills in Vietnam. In fact, this isn’t the first use of the “death card” in a Ten Thirteen production this season; it also appeared in an episode of Millennium. Writers Glen Morgan and James Wong incorporated it into The Thin White Line. While it is used in a different context, it does feel like an awkward similarity between the two shows; it seems like something somebody should have caught at some point.

Nevertheless, the “death card” is a rather iconic piece of Vietnam lore, and a striking visual image. While stories about the United States carpet-bombing North Vietnam with copies of the playing card as a form of psychological warfare are likely unfounded, it is true that the army would order the card in bulk for its soldiers. The cards would frequently be placed on dead North Vietnamese soldiers as a way to “mark” and to “claim” a kill. Over time, the use of the card became an effective metaphor for the dehumanisation associated with the Vietnam War.

He's not all there...

Now you see him…

Of course, the actual impact of the ace of spades on the North Vietnamese soldiers is open to debate. As James McManus notes in Cowboys Full, it might be an example of cultural relativism at play:

Captain Revis himself called it “a bad idea and a case [of] transposed symbolism. We Americans look at the ace of spades as the death card, but to the Vietnamese is is more like a phallic symbol and if anything might suggest we are involved in necrophilia.” Another soldier called it “just another example of cultural ignorance on the part of brass that hardly ever got out of their air-conditioned headquarters and the Circle Sportif.”

Yet even if the ach bich failed to scare Charlie, many U.S. troops loved the idea of marking their territory with calling cards. As one young grunt put it, “Did it work? I’m not sure. Did it help our morale? I definitely think so! In our company and others throughout Vietnam, I think the cards did something to encourage the men that were just trying to survive during a difficult time.”

It should be noted that the ace of spades would likely have been alien to the North Vietnamese, who did not include it in their own card games.

Next for the chopping Bloch...

Next for the chopping Bloch…

Unrequited is a damp squib of an episode, which is a shame given all of the interesting little elements at play. Sadly, it does not come together as well as it might.

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

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4 Responses

  1. Great review as usual. I wanted to point out that- which maybe a clever meta reference on your part- the first four paragraphs are repeated word for word about half way through the review. Thanks for writing, no one else on the internet is giving these episodes such a focused and in depth analysis

    • Thanks Sean!

      That is a meta thing, I’m afraid. In fact, they’re more republished at the top of the article above the “more” line out of context, like the opening teaser to the episode. I’m a little disappointed you’re the first person to notice it. But, in their defense, it is a very lazy meta thing. 😦

      I think this is the first time I tried something like that. (I’ve tried splitting two parters thematically, and I did do something vaguely experimental with the Owls/Roosters two-part for Millennium. But I’ve got something nice planned for Monday.)

  2. I see what you did there–very clever! Also, I like any review that mentions Quantum Leap.

    • Thanks Cathy!

      I do a couple more reviews like this later on. Nothing too obvious or distracting, I think, but I’m quite happy with how some of those experiments turned out.

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