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The X-Files – Elegy (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.

The first two-thirds of Elegy count as the best episode of The X-Files that John Shiban has written at this point of his tenure on the writing staff. Elegy starts out as an episode that leans into Shiban’s strengths. It is a very traditional and old-fashioned horror story, the first tried-and-tested ghost story that The X-Files has told in a while. The idea of a haunted bowling alley is so wonderfully weird and so quintessentially American that it fits The X-Files perfectly. For its first thirty minutes, Elegy is funereal and sombre, haunting and enchanting.

Elegy is a story packed with potentially interesting concepts. It is overflowing with clever ideas and memorable images. Shiban is a writer who has a great deal of affection for classic horror, and that affection shines through into Elegy. There is a slow and sorrowful atmosphere to the early stretches of the episode. Transparent grey spectres are a staple of the horror genre, but they work very well in this context. The X-Files has been quite reluctant to handle traditional monsters, so there is something rather strange and affecting about seeing such a classic depiction here.

Here there be ghosts...

Here there be ghosts…

Then things go to hell. To be fair, the problems with the last fifteen of Elegy are very much suggested from the start; they are just pushed to the fore. It becomes quite clear that Elegy has no idea how to resolve a “haunted bowling alley” story, so the script hastily and clumsily transitions to an “abusive care home” plot. The first two thirds of Elegy are not that interested in the character of Harold Spuller beyond his use as a plot device; a fact that becomes quite apparent in how the final third callously disposes of him.

Elegy is an episode that brushes against greatness. Its best ideas rank with the highlights of the fourth season. Unfortunately, all of that is undercut by a truly terrible final act.

Blood on the mirror...

Blood on the mirror…

The idea of setting an episode of The X-Files in a bowling alley is inspired. It is no wonder that – according to I Want to Believe – this episode began as an index card labelled “Haunted Bowling Alley” on John Shiban’s bulletin board. There is something inherently fascinating about bowling alleys: the constant noise, the bright colours, the group activities, the friendly competitiveness, the structured order of the fun as it occurs. All of this is juxtaposed against the cold mechanics of the environment: the pins that sort themselves, the scoreboard, the ball returning to you.

There is a wonderful scene in Elegy as Mulder chases Harold Spuller through the bowling alley. It begins at the entrance to the building, with the lighting and the noise that one expects. Catching sight of Harold, Mulder gives chase. Suddenly, Mulder and Harold move from the painted and brightly lit surroundings of the bowling alley to the dark industrial mechanics that underpin it. All that fun and joy is maintained by large inhuman engines. Behind the pins and enjoyment sits a world of shadows and machines. It is an effective and unsettling juxtaposition.

Wax on, wax off...

Wax on, wax off…

Of course, there is something more to the use of the bowling alley. In many respects, The X-Files is a reflection of nineties America. In the nineties, bowling way largely seen as an affectionate and endearing pastime – a somewhat eccentric “safe space” for Americans. It was a wholesome environment where the rules – and the lines – were quite clear. Bowling was a recreational pastime that could function in just about any social capacity; a night out for family or friends, a date, just hanging out.

The nineties saw something of a resurgence in pop culture’s interest in bowling. Elegy was broadcast in the middle of 1997, which puts it firmly in the middle of this resurgence. As with episodes like F. Emasculata or The List, the show is still very much engaged with the zeitgeist. In fact, 1996 had seen the release of two films centred around competitive bowling, Kingpin and The Big Lebowski. Although both films presented bowling as a somewhat strange and unusual group activity, they portrayed the hobby affectionately and sympathetically.

Television's greatest criminal...

Television’s greatest criminal…

Bowling alleys were a level playing field, a place where all the troubles of the world could be set aside like outside shoes. In their treatment of The Big Lebowski in their collection of essays Hollywood Blockbusters, David Sutton and Peter Wogan draw attention to how safely disconnected bowling alleys were from real-world concerns:

Amidst all the miscommunication and “%!#$ing language problem(s)”, a state of polytemporality in a society which, unlike San Carlos Apache, does not value temporal ambiguity, the phrase “let’s go bowling, Dude” stand as a balm even in the worst of times. The comfort of the bowling alley, surrounded by friends and a set of familiar rules, is held out as a reconciliation similar to that suggested in Field of Dreams between Ray and Terence Mann. The Sixties activist (co-author of the original Port Huron statement) and the Vietnam vet, an image for two of the many divergent historical trajectories and divergent masculinities that coexist in the present moment, are brought together in a game that involves much clearer line and simpler rules than baseball (though these lines too, can be crossed). Bowling, the simple framework of which involves setting them up and knocking them down, in a limited number of combinations, resembles a functionalist ritual, the repetition of which provides the comfort that promises a Durkheimian social glue on a society that would otherwise spin apart in too many divergent directions. Setting them up and knocking them down.

Elegy presents the bowling alley as an innocent space. The owner, Angie Pintero, is never presented as anything less than a thoroughly decent human being, and Harold is ultimately a victim. It is a place to which the spirit of Penny Timmons can retreat, so that she might be heard.

I think the ghost is trying to tell us something...

I think the ghost is trying to tell us something…

As such, the violation of the bowling alley in Elegy is quite shocking. The first time that Angie Pintero steps outside the safety of the alley, he finds himself at the scene of a murder. The bowling alley is the place where Harold Spuller goes so that he can avoid the abuse of Nurse Innes. There is something almost sacred about the bowling alley; it is no wonder that Angie Pintero has a heart attack when Harold Spuller is accused of murder. The bowling alley is such an idealised place that the evil of the outside world is shocking and horrifying.

So the sequence where Mulder chases Harold into the mechanics of the bowling alley is also uncomfortable; it feels almost like pulling back the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. It reveals the mechanics that most people take for granted; behind the bright façade out front is a cold and automated process, gears and levers and dust. Elegy works best when contrasting the bubbly and bustling front of the bowling alley with the creepy space lurking just behind those pins and gutters.

Good luck, Chuck...

Good luck, Chuck…

After, despite the presentation of bowling as a communal pastime in film and television during the nineties, the reality seemed to be quite different. In 1995, Robert D. Putnam published Bowling Alone, an essay exploring the social and economic realities of contemporary America, using bowling statistics as a starting point. As the title suggests, he discovered that bowling trends pointed towards isolation and anomie:

The most whimsical yet discomfiting bit of evidence of social disengagement in contemporary America that I have discovered is this: more Americans are bowling today than ever before, but bowling in organized leagues has plummeted in the last decade or so. Between 1980 and 1993 the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10 percent, while league bowling decreased by 40 percent. (Lest this be thought a wholly trivial example, I should note that nearly 80 million Americans went bowling at least once during 1993, nearly a third more than voted in the 1994 congressional elections and roughly the same number as claim to attend church regularly. Even after the 1980s’ plunge in league bowling, nearly 3 percent of American adults regularly bowl in leagues.) The rise of solo bowling threatens the livelihood of bowling-lane proprietors because those who bowl as members of leagues consume three times as much beer and pizza as solo bowlers, and the money in bowling is in the beer and pizza, not the balls and shoes. The broader social significance, however, lies in the social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza that solo bowlers forgo. Whether or not bowling beats balloting in the eyes of most Americans, bowling teams illustrate yet another vanishing form of social capital.

It is a rather delightful economic and social observation, one which captured the attention of the public in the nineties. It has been suggested that Bowling Alone served as the opening salvo of the social sciences renaissance that would lead to Freakonomics. Putnam would expand Bowling Alone into a full-length book, which he published in 2001.

Bowled over with sympathy...

Bowled over with sympathy…

This observation makes the bowling alley an even better setting for The X-Files as an exploration of nineties America. One of the recurring themes of The X-Files has been the idea of isolation and alienation in contemporary America – a sense of loneliness and listlessness among a disaffected and disconnected generation. Elegy suggests that even one of the country’s most popular and social activities can become something haunting and unsettling. It presents the bowling alley as a place that appears communal, but ultimately becomes weird and creepy.

If “haunted bowling alley” is enough to keep the first two acts of Elegy afloat, the focus on Scully’s mortality is icing on the cake. The X-Files has struggled a bit with how best to portray Scully’s cancer. Memento Mori was a last-minute addition to the season, a script quickly cobbled together when Darin Morgan proved unable to provide his own story. As such, the revelation that Scully had cancer was not something that the show had plotted into a larger arc, and certainly not something it had planned as part of the season’s story.

Blood on her hands...

Blood on her hands…

As such, the fourth season struggles to deal with Scully’s cancer. The shuffled broadcast order meant that Never Again played into the cancer arc despite being written and produced before the team decided to give Scully cancer. It may not have pleased Glen Morgan, but it fit comfortably enough. Kaddish was a bit more awkward, airing directly after Memento Mori, despite being filmed long before. The first episode produced after Memento Mori, Unrequited, bent over backwards to avoid dealing with the plot thread.

Scully’s cancer was touched upon in the later mythology episodes. It was a nice thematic detail in Tempus Fugit and Max, the late-season two-parter about the sacrifices made by others in Mulder’s pursuit of the truth. However, it was only in the final stretch of the season that the writers had time to write the cancer into their scripts. When Gillian Anderson was unavailable due to her commitments filming The Mighty, Howard Gordon and Frank Spotnitz cleverly positioned Zero Sum as a follow-up to Memento Mori, focusing on Skinner’s deal with the Cigarette-Smoking Man.

Life in the fast lane...

Life in the fast lane…

It is a bit of a problem that Scully’s cancer only really becomes a part of The X-Files at this late stage of the season, with three episodes before the big finalé. It recalls the difficulties that the second season faced dealing with the aftermath of Scully’s abduction. As with the decision to give Scully cancer, it was a last-minute fix by the writing staff with no real long-term plan in place. It wasn’t until Irresistible that the show addressed Scully’s abduction, using the same mechanism that Elegy does; Scully attends a therapist. It is even the same character.

There is something interesting in having Scully confront her own mortality; acknowledging that she may pass away. After all The X-Files deals with paranormal day-in and day-out. It must be hard not to focus on your own looming death when confronting a case like Kaddish. Elegy is the rare monster of the week story with a ties to the larger mythology; it explicitly recognises Scully’s cancer as something that affects her even outside of stories that are explicitly about the conspiracy.

Problem is hard to pin down...

Problem is hard to pin down…

Like Irresistible before it, Elegy makes its connects through allegory and metaphor. Here, Scully is investigating the murder of young women for some senseless purpose. Much emphasis is placed on their interchangeability. “She is me,” we are told, repeatedly. “Three victims – all women, all approximately the same age, height, weight, hair and eye colour,” we are told. “His victims were probably strangers to him… symbols representing other women in his life… perhaps all women.”

Episodes like Nisei and 731 suggested that the crimes against Scully were part of a larger and more systematic abuse of women; it has been suggested that the third season helped refocus the central mythology as a feminist narrative about the exploitation of women. Elegy does not feature any of the usual trappings of a conspiracy episode, but its emphasis on interchangeable female victims helps to connect it back to Scully’s own experience. (In fact, for all the second season’s difficulty dealing with Scully’s trauma, it was filled with metaphorical stand-ins.)

There are plenty of ghosts here...

There are plenty of ghosts here…

That said, the episode does run into some trouble when it has Scully witness one of the apparitions herself. On paper, it is a nice thematic link to the case herself; Scully is near death, so perhaps she is allowed to peer through the curtain. In practice, it becomes a very clumsy character beat as Scully is reluctant to tell Mulder about her vision and Mulder is allowed to become indignant and patronising about it. “You can believe what you want to believe, Scully, but you can’t hide the truth from me because if you do, then you’re working against me… and yourself.”

To be fair, this is mirroring a similar plot beat in Beyond the Sea, where Scully also has a supernatural experience and is reluctant to admit it. However, she does admit it to Mulder almost immediately in that case. More than that, Beyond the Sea was set when Mulder and Scully had been together for less than a year. Their first conversation in Elegy confirms that they have been together for four years by this point. So the decision to have Scully so vigorously deny the vision feels a little clumsy. This is Scully-the-caricature, as she appears in Kaddish or Synchrony.

Who is the kingpin of this horrific crime?

Who is the kingpin of this horrific crime?

Still, aside from the character problems caused by vision, Shiban does do some solid work with Mulder and Scully. Once again, the script seems to suggest that Scully sees Mulder as something of a distant father figure, one to be pleased and to grant approval. In conversation with her therapist, Scully seems to accept the possibility that her uncertainty about how to respond to the vision is related to Mulder; specifically, it ties back to her “fear of failing him.” As uncomfortable as Never Again might have been in the portrayal of the relationship, it was not inaccurate.

Similarly, Shiban portrays Mulder as a little disconnected from Scully, a little oblivious. On arriving at her apartment after she went to the hospital, Mulder jumps right into exposition about the case. “I needed your help on something,” he tells her. “I needed your medical expertise.” After a moment, he pauses, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t even ask you. What did your doctor say?” While the final patronising lecture to Scully feels just a little too self-centred and too self-righteous for Mulder, Elegy is not completely off-base in its portrayal of Mulder.

Interrogating the episode's portrayal of those with disabilities...

Interrogating the episode’s portrayal of those with disabilities…

Elegy also benefits from the fact that it is a simple and straight-forward ghost story. The X-Files has been a little wary in dealing with traditional horror movie monsters. The first couple of seasons are packed with failed attempts at bringing classic creatures to life – Shadows, Shapes, 3. However, there is something almost old-school about how Elegy presents its ghosts as transparent and desaturated spectres. These are ghosts as they might appear in an old Roger Corman film.

John Shiban has always had a fondness for classic cinema and horror tropes. This is an impulse that brings out the best and worst in Shiban as a writer. To pick the low-hanging fruit, his fondness for classic exploitation can lead to somewhat offensive and outdated portrayals of foreign characters in episodes like Teso Dos Bichos, El Mundo Gira or Badlaa. However, his classic horror sensibilities work quite well in the context of Elegy, with bleeding ghosts and bloody mirrors.

"How can you have any pudding...?"

“How can you have any pudding…?”

Unfortunately, Shiban’s fondness for classic cinema serves as a weakness in Elegy. The episode centres around Harold Spuller, a man suffering “from pervasive developmental disorder, which is sometimes called atypical autism” who has also been diagnosed with “severe ego dystonic obsessive-compulsive disorder.” To be fair, The X-Files has featured developmentally disabled guest stars before; Roland featured Željko Ivanek as a handicapped supporting character.

While Roland may not have been progressive in its portrayal of mental disability, Elegy feels almost cynical. Harold Spuller exists primarily as a walking stereotype. He is a character has some mystical powers, serving as a red herring suspect before inevitably becoming a victim. Elegy is never interested in Harold Spuller as a character in his own right, it is telling that the episode promptly kills him off-screen once he has served his purpose and helped the plot transition from “haunted bowling alley” to “abusive care home.”

"Wow, it really doesn't stain!"

“Wow, it really doesn’t stain!”

The last act of Elegy is nothing short of a disaster. Clearly influenced by films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Shiban’s script falls back on stereotypes about these sorts of institutions. With about ten minutes left on the clock, the script reveals the identity of the real killer. It turns out that all of those women were murdered by Nurse Innes, one of the staff at the care home where Harold Spuller lives. The twist comes out of nowhere; Innes was little more than an extra before the revelation she is the killer. She had one line, urging Harold to speak with the agents.

Elegy rushes to fill in the blanks using the broadest strokes possible. Much of Nurse Innes motivations and reasoning are suggested by a clunky exchange by Mulder and Scully after she is already captured. “Why did you even suspect her?” Mulder asks.  “Well, I went in to talk to Harold’s roommate and he said that Harold thought that she’d been poisoning him,” Scully relates. “So I went in to confront her and she just went off.” That seems a bit convenient. It seems like the episode realised that there were only three minutes left before the credits.

Night, nurse!

Night, nurse!

“Why do you think she killed those women?” Mulder asks, as if reading a cue-card prompted by the audience at home. “I don’t know,” Scully replies. “I mean, maybe in some drug-addled way, she was trying to kill happiness, Harold’s happiness, his love for those women, maybe trying to destroy something she thought she’d never have again.” It seems decidedly hazily and awkward. It certainly requires more than thirty seconds of exposition from leads who really seem like they have better things to be doing.

To be fair, this approach to serial killers can work. The X-Files has featured less-defined offenders before. Oubliette is singularly disinterested in its killer because it has decided that the victim is the plot’s focal point. However, Elegy does not seem to make this disinterest a plot point; it is certainly no more interested in Harold Spuller. Instead, it just seems clumsy and lazy. Nurse Innes is very much drawn as a crude stereotype, one that viewers are meant to recognise from popular culture. She is the abusive and vitriolic nurse figure, the one who hates her patients.

The nose knows...

The nose knows…

This is a very old cliché associated with healthcare. Even Charles Dickens was writing evil nurses in this style, with the character of Sarah Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit standing out. In fact, the stereotype of the saintly good-natured devoted caregiver actually dates later than the stereotype of the bitter and twisted matron:

The speech-mangling, cucumber-guzzling, gin-tippling, patient-brutalising Mrs Gamp could well be Dickens’s finest grotesque, although he thought of her as highly realistic. In his preface to Chuzzlewit, Dickens wrote that Mrs Gamp was, “four-and-twenty years ago, a fair representation of the hired attendant on the poor in sickness,” and she was so popular with Victorian readers that it took Florence Nightingale’s efforts in the Crimea to steer the public perception of nurses away from the Gamp stereotype.

Of course, the simple fact that a stereotype of the evil and spiteful nurse exists does not mean that it is impossible to write a story featuring a villainous nurse; it just means you should probably develop her as a character.

Right up his alley...

Right up his alley…

The stereotype has never quite gone out of fashion. In fact, it seems likely that John Shiban was heavily influenced by the portrayal of Nurse Ratched as “a battle-axe” in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. As Carol J. Huston points out in Professional Issues in Nursing, the stereotype is uncomfortably common and has the faint trace of misogyny to it:

Battle-axe stereotypes of nurses have always existed; however, they seemed to hit their peak in the 1970s and 1980s. There are, however, still multiple images of battle-axe nurses available on the Internet. It is also of interest that the battle-axe counterpart of male physicians in medicine is viewed less negatively. For example, the television show House stars a drug-addicted, rule-breaking, rude, and crude male physician whose bad behaviour is excused by his brilliance and ability to often cure patients when all hope is lost.

It doesn’t help that Nurse Innes is a woman who kills women because she hates men. Scully seems to identify her as the killer based on the fact that she lives alone after her husband abandoned her and took her child. It really seems like the script for Elegy could have used another pass, and some serious tightening and tidying.

Parting shot...

Parting shot…

While on the subject of “things that don’t help”, Nurse Innes is established as the villain in a scene where she tries to convince Harold Spuller to take his medication. Scully suggests that Nurse Innes was trying to destroy Harold’s happiness, and she seems to mock his idea of love. “Take your poison, Harold,” she orders, before turning the conversation to the murder victims. She taunts, “Did you tell them how you were in love?” The link between destroying emotion and taking medication feels like another unfortunate narrative convention.

Fiction often has difficulty when it comes to portraying the treatment of people with mental illness. Medication is frequently demonised; it is frequently implied (or outright suggested) that taking medication to deal with a serious mental condition somehow diminishes a person. Fiction tends to suggest that taking medication is effectively consenting to around-the-clock sedation. At their most extreme, these stories suggest that medication somehow diminishes or reduces a person, taking away what makes the person in question “special.”

Innes and outs...

Innes and outs…

Elegy is an episode with a wealth of potential and fascinating ideas, but one that stumbles clumsily in the execution of those same ideas. it is a script that simultaneously demonstrates the strengths of John Shiban as a writer, while also showcasing his weaknesses.

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

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3 Responses

  1. An interesting review, with some interesting points. I especially liked your analysis of the bowling alley as a safe place from the horrors outside, and the Mulder-Harold chase as pulling back the curtain in the Wizard of Oz. I think that Scully’s denial of seeing a ghost does make sense; although she is starting to accept the paranormal, she on the one hand has still spent most of her life as a skeptic, and on the other hand, her cancer would probably make her seek refuge in the familiarity of science. I also think that it is a good thing that we don’t quite understand Nurse Innes’ reasoning for her actions; I certainly hope that we can’t truly understand a disturbed individual!

    • Fair point, but I do think that it’s a copout to suggest that villains should be beyond our comprehension. It is possible to do that well, but I think even the most horrific monsters have something that the viewer can recognise and understand. Heath Ledger’s Joker is a monster, but he really just needs to prove to himself (and everybody else) that the entire world is as weak and monstrous as he is. Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter is a primal and animalistic force that has somehow found a way to pass as a perfectly-mannered human; it is the part of us that recognises him as polite and so restrained that recoils in horror at his brutality when it shows. Frankenstein’s monster simply wants to be accepted. In most adaptations, Dracula wants to find love and peace.

      Even on The X-Files, Vince Gilligan’s fourth season monsters – John Lee Roche or Jerry Schnauz – are horrific, but they are also well-written and fully-formed. They make sense, as uncomfortable as it might be to make sense of them. Nurse Innes, I think, shows up and rambles because the script is one act away from the end credits and it is time to start wrapping all that up.

      • I don’t think it’s a cop-out, but I agree that, even if we can’t understand them, villains can still have something that the viewer can recognize and understand. Interestingly enough, Nurse Innes’ actions are explainable: she is jealous and can’t handle how no one, not even Harold, idolizes her.

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