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The X-Files – Kitsunegari (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

Kitsunegari hits on a lot of fifth season anxieties for The X-Files.

The episode is rather clearly a sequel to a beloved third season installment, featuring a returning monster of the week for the first time since Tooms brought back Victor Eugene Tooms. In this case, Kitsunegari is built around Robert Patrick Modell, the mind-controlling psychopath from Vince Gilligan’s first script as a staff writer. Given the level of Gilligan’s skill, the affection for the episode, and the charm of actor Robert Wisden, Kitsunegari really should be a “can’t miss” script for the series.

Painting the town...

Painting the town…

However, Kitsunegari proves to be a surprisingly joyless experience. The script hinges on incredibly coincidence and contrivance, everything feels a little too familiar, and even Robert Wisden seems relegated to a small supporting role. (It is telling he earns an “and” credit instead of heading the guest cast.) Kitsunegari has a host of memorable set-pieces and effective visuals, but it feels curiously hollow. It feels like a script going through the motions, rather than trying to say something new or intriguing.

Then again, there is a sense that this is the point. Kitsunegari plays beautifully as a self-aware critique of soulless sequels, of half-hearted follow-ups and cash-ins on popular monsters and villains. Kitsunegari is almost an ingenious parody of these conventions, teasing the viewer with what it might look like if The X-Files began to eat itself. It teases the audience with a trashy sequel to a classic episode, and then delivers exactly that. Kitsunegari does not just demonstrate the law of diminishing returns, it practically revels in it.

Pushing the Pusher...

Pushing the Pusher…

After all, Pusher was an episode about a man with complete control of his own story. Robert Patrick Modell was able to change the world using nothing more than mere words, crafting a new identity and persona for himself, casting himself in role of a criminal mastermind pursued by dogged investigators. It is no wonder that Kitsunegari portrays Modell as exhausted and strung out. Kitsunegari is essentially a story about how Modell has lost control of the narrative, how it has begun to control him. In a way, he gives voice to the same concerns that haunt The Post-Modern Prometheus.

Of course, all this postmodern self-awareness is ingenious, but it still leaves one sizable problem with Kitsunegari. Kitsunegari is so effective at mimicking a soulless sequel that is almost indistinguishable from the real thing. The result is a well-constructed and clever little episode, but one that is not particularly enjoyable or fun.

"I'm blue, dabba-dee-dabba-di."

“I’m blue, dabba-dee-dabba-di.”

By early 1998, The X-Files was a cultural force. It was a massive success by just about any measure. There was a feature film due in theatres, there was merchandise in stores. The viewing figures were at the highest that they would ever be. The fifth season of The X-Files is generally a very slick, very professional production. However, there is also just a hint of insecurity visible beneath that polished exterior. There is a sense of concern or anxiety about what that success actually means.

After all, according to Chris Carter’s original plans for the series, The X-Files should have been winding down at this point. The ideal had always been five seasons before transitioning to a series of feature films. However, that was clearly not the case. The fifth season was a juggernaut, and there was no way that Fox was going to let Carter stop this particular gravy train. While this was undoubtedly a success story, there was a sense that the show had perhaps gathered enough momentum that it was outside of anybody’s control.

Waring them out...

Waring them out…

These anxieties come out in a variety of subtle ways across the fifth season. The Great Mutato in The Post-Modern Prometheus is an obvious stand-in for The X-Files as a television show – something that had evolved beyond the control of its creator. The opening of Emily features Scully wandering around in the desert, concerned that she is lost and moving in circles. Running a show like The X-Files is a tightrope balancing act, and there was a sense that the fifth season was straining against its creators.

Writing for The X-Files was a notoriously tough job. Specifically referencing the turnover during the fifth season, producer Frank Spotnitz described it as “the revolving door.” Although most of the original writing staff – with the exception of Carter himself – had departed the show at this point, the series would have difficulty recruiting and keeping young talent. Writers like David Amann, Jeffrey Bell and Steven Maeda would enjoy multi-season tenures on staff, few would be considered successors to Glen Morgan, James Wong, Darin Morgan or Howard Gordon.

"I want to speak to the writer."

“I want to speak to the writer.”

Kitsunegari was co-written by Tim Minear, the only fifth season new-hire to make it all the way through the season. Minear had written a spec script for The X-Files that got him a job on Lois & Clark, and then moved to The X-Files after the end of Lois & Clark. Commenting on his time on The X-Files, he noted how hard it was to write for the show:

It was more restrictive in some ways. Lois and Clark was more fantasy due to its comic book nature. It was harder to come up with stories for The X-Files. Plus, by the time I got there they had already done 100 episodes. It was hard not to repeat.

With so many episodes behind them, it was very tough to come up with ideas that hadn’t been done before. The temptation to revisit classic stories must have been overwhelming at times. It is fascinating that the show never brought back Flukeman and that it took so long to return to Donnie Pfaster.

We've seen it before, but I'll give it a PASS.

We’ve seen it before, but I’ll give it a PASS.

The presence of Robert Patrick Modell makes Kitsunegari stand out from the crowd. The X-Files had built up an impressive and complicated mythology, but continuity between the stand-alone adventures was not quite as tight. While the fourth season brought back first season mythology characters like Scott Blevins and Max Fenig, Kitsunegari is only the second monster-of-the-week to put in a second appearance. Even Eugene Victor Tooms appeared at either end of the first season.

It is very hard to talk about Kitsunegari in any context outside of Robert Patrick Modell. The X-Files was so sparing with its continuity outside of the mythology that his reappearance is a big deal. After all, the teaser waits a little while to reveal the character’s face, well aware of just how much excitement that shot will generate among fans of the show. Kitsunegari really can’t be anything but “Pusher II”, for better or for worse. The script ultimately seems to embrace this reality and offer a decidedly cynical sequel.

" I think the word for that particular shade is Cerulean, actually. Cerulean Blue. Cerulean makes me think of a breeze. A gentle breeze."

“I think the word for that particular shade is Cerulean, actually. Cerulean Blue. Cerulean makes me think of a breeze. A gentle breeze.”

Oddly enough, Minear’s original pitch for the episode did not include Modell at all. In fact, according to Resist or Serve, it was an original idea that Minear had been nursing that was ultimately altered at the request of Frank Spotnitz when production realities demanded:

Since the beginning of his stint on show, Minear had been carefully nurturing a story line about a hardened prisoner – an atheist – who hears the voice of God. God commands him to kill an evil force at large in the world; the man is then mysteriously transported outside the prison walls. Hundreds of lawmen seek to recapture or kill the man; all except Mulder, who suspects that the prisoner is a genuinely changed man, that this mission is a vital one, and that something horrible will happen if he’s not allowed to continue.

“So I pitched it,” says Minear. “And I was going to do it, eventually, until we found ourselves at a point in the year where we needed a script really fast. At that point it was Frank Spotnitz’s suggestions then that the guy should actually be Modell, from Pusher.”

Somewhat ironically, that pitch comes quite close to describing the idea that the producers would use when they brought back Donnie Pfaster for Orison in the seventh season. Nevertheless, it is clear that changing the character to Modell fundamentally alters the script, exerting a gravity that would not otherwise be present.

Snakes in the open...

Snakes in the open…

Minear was joined on the script by veteran writer Vince Gilligan. Gilligan had created Modell for Pusher, and has conceded that Kitsunegari did not necessarily turn out as well as he might have hoped:

“That one made me a little gunshy about sequels, because sequels to favourites are very tough, as are sequels to hit movies. What do you do as an encore? How do you top the first one? What I like about Kitsunegari is that we didn’t give the audience the same thing twice. We TRIED to throw viewers a curve ball,” VG says. “Robert Modell is actually a good guy in this episode. But I don’t think that approach was well-received, because the audience was probably hoping to see one of their favourite villains, Modell, do more of the stuff that made him famous in the first place.”

Gilligan makes it clear that Kitsunegari was consciously constructed as a sequel – playing with all the expectations of a sequel. It was not a story that happened to feature Robert Patrick Modell. It was a sequel to Pusher.

Running rings around the detectives...

Running rings around the detectives…

Kitsunegari is very loud and very proud of its status as a sequel. It trumpets its nature from the rafters. It is full of lots of references and homages, inversions and subversions. It is structured in such a way that it really makes very little sense with Pusher, to the point where various characters spend entire scenes reiterating just how awesome Pusher was. Extended and repeated references are made to what happened last time. Modell is not introduced as an old acquaintance like Luther Lee Boggs or John Lee Roche, but as a superstar with a tangible history.

“What if Modell plans to pick up where he left off?” Scully asks early in the episode. “Where does that leave you? You were his prime target. Should you even be heading this investigation?” It is language that is consciously designed to frame this as a second encounter, restating the big ideas of Pusher as a primer for new (or simply forgetful) viewers. “That it’s exactly what he wants. That once again you’re playing his game.” Of course, it will eventually turn out that this is not Modell’s game at all, but the set-up is very clearly for a sequel.

Meeting a shocking end...

Meeting a shocking end…

Characters draw attention to the contrived nature of the set-up. “Mulder,” Scully reflects, “I’m amazed he’s even alive. The condition that we last saw him in, comatose with a bullet in the head…” When Mulder asks the perfectly reasonable question about how exactly Modell recovered from a coma after being shot in the head, Scully acknowledges the somewhat forced nature of Modell’s reawakening. “Well, apparently one day about six months ago, he simply woke up. It’s unusual, but it’s not unheard of.”

Modell himself is treated as something of a celebrity within the narrative itself. The episode opens with an older guard offering some sage life advice to a younger counterpart. “You want to last here more than a week, you don’t ever underestimate this man. Never trust him, never let your guard down around him. Never.” When Mulder insists that nobody approach Modell without adequate back-up, he is asked to define adequate back-up. “Every cop you can lay your hands on.”

Pushed into a corner...

Pushed into a corner…

Of course, the central point of Kitsunegari is that Modell is nowhere near as imposing as all of that. Whenever we see Modell over the course of Kitsunegari, he is presented as a zombie – pale and sickly, barely able to walk. Kitsunegari eventually features the mercy-killing of Robert Patrick Modell, a rather brutal and almost mean-spirited subversion of all the hype that the first act built up around the character. Modell is very much a passenger, caught up in something far larger than himself.

Kitsunegari repeatedly calls attention to its nature as a sequel or successor. At one point, Mulder correctly figures out that Modell was at a sporting goods store because he recovers a “Carbo Bar” wrapper, an obvious shout-out to Pusher. “From the makers of Carbo Boost,” it even boasts. Although Kitsunegari is not able to make that same promise to viewers, it does include a rather blatant shout-out to Pusher director Robert Bowman. The Bowman family wind up playing a pretty significant part in Kitsunegari.

Oh, brother!

Oh, brother!

Inevitably, Kitsunegari offers the audience more of what they’ve seen before – lots of homages and references and subversions and inversion of the tricks from Pusher. Nearly every set-piece exists in reference to Pusher. Instead of covering himself in petrol, Nathan Bowman covers himself in paint. Instead of writing “Pass” on her lapel, Linda writes “Nurse.” Instead of exciting her brother’s heart to the point where it causes him to die, Linda relaxes Modell’s heart to the point where it causes him to die.

There is even a payphone trace that Modell doesn’t care about, and a climactic stand-off between Mulder and Scully. On paper, Kitsunegari really is the perfect sequel to Pusher, offering slight twists on familiar routines. However, there is something decidedly sly and self-aware about how Kitsunegari delivers on all of this. It offers the audience exactly what they would want from a sequel to Pusher, while repeatedly emphasising and stressing how forced and contrived the whole story is.

An industrious script...

An industrious script…

It is worth pausing to acknowledge how surreal the plotting of Kitsunegari actually is. It turns out that Robert Patrick Modell has a twin sister. He was separated from her at birth. She just so happened to develop the exact same brain tumour as her brother, which gave her the same mind-control powers. Having recently discovered the existence of Robert Patrick Modell, she embarks on a quest for revenge against those responsible for his incarceration. All of this seems remarkably convenient.

It is interesting how Kitsunegari chooses to impart this information to the audience. This information is not carefully foreshadowed and set up ahead of time. It is not gradually revealed, like pulling back the layers of an onion. All of this information comes from an exposition dump by Scully at the very end of the episode. It is not offered as a plot so much as an explanation. It is little more than a justification for a sequel to Pusher. Indeed, Kitsunegari conspires to hide all this information from us for as long as possible.

Happy families...

Happy families…

That is not suggest that the reveal lack emotional weight. It does retroactively explain why Modell felt the need to mount an escape attempt from prison, even in his debilitate position. It also explains why he consciously left a finger print at the murder of Nathan Bowman and why he convinced Skinner that he posed a clear and present danger to Linda Bowman. It also adds an even heavily emotional undercurrent to their final scene together in the hospital. Nevertheless, the basic plot – and the reveal of that – is structured as exposition that justifies a sequel to Pusher.

After all, Linda’s plan for revenge seems almost byzantine. She has the ability to convince Nathan Bowman to cover himself in paint and to drink the rest of it. So why does she need to marry him in the first place, and why does she wait two months before enacting her fiendishly evil plot? The answer is quite apparent. Linda is setting up her own sequel to Pusher, adhering to plot logic more than any practical concerns. However, it appears that Linda Bowman’s influence is great that it extends beyond even herself and into the narrative as a whole.

The most convincing evidence to date, bar none.

The most convincing evidence to date, bar none.

A large part of Pusher was about Robert Patrick Modell trying to bend the narrative to his will. He was trying to cast himself as a super villain facing a worthy adversary for an epic battle between good and evil. He drew from classic archetypes – although he adopted the term “ronin”, the master-less samurai, he also seemed to respond to “Pusher.” With his distinctive blue suit and his secret origin, Modell tried to present himself as a character who escaped from the pages of a comic book.

It is no coincidence that bringing back Robert Patrick Modell diminishes him, in the same way that bringing back popular and iconic monsters like Freddie Krueger or Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees must diminish them. Modell feels very much like he exists at the fringe of the narrative. In his weakened state, he cannot exert too much control over the events around him. He is relegated to a supporting role in a story nominally about him, painted more as a boogey man or an ideal than as a character.

Feeling rather blue lately...

Feeling rather blue lately…

The law of diminishing returns applies across genres, but it seems to particularly apply to horrors or thrillers. As Tasha Robinson argued:

So horror fans should keep this in mind: Series and franchises work on recognition and comfort, not on fear. Studios love movie franchises because they keep people coming back. Financially speaking, they’re considered the safest bets. And good horror isn’t about safety. It’s about a sense of tangible threat. It’s about wondering what’s under the bed—not knowing from long exposure what’s down there, and hoping it makes a few good wisecracks this time around. Every original horror film starts out as an unknown factor, a coaster that hasn’t been ridden, a dark little vial that could be full of juice or poison. Even the ones that turn out to be disappointing at least feel like risks at some point in the process. That’s where horror comes from—the unnerving but delicious anticipation that maybe this time the rules will get broken, and the unknown will fully, finally take hold of us all.

Asked why he only directed the first Halloween film, John Carpenter replied, “I didn’t think there was any more story, and I didn’t want to do it again.”

He's not going to take this lying down...

He’s not going to take this lying down…

Kitsunegari is essentially the story of a man being forced to do it again. The show opens on the sight of Modell pushing a circle, perhaps a nod to the self-perpetuating nature of these stories. Modell tries his hardest to break out of the story. “Don’t play the game,” he urges Mulder. “Whose game?” Scully responds. “His?” Mulder is unconvinced, “I don’t think so. I’m not even sure he’s playing a game.” Modell finds himself playing Pusher II, even though he doesn’t particularly want to get caught up in it again.

Linda Bowman is very clearly constructing her own horror sequel, adhering to the classic template. Like Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th: Part II or the shark in Jaws IV: The Revenge, the template for Kitsunegari is the good old-fashioned revenge sequel. “After what they’ve done, do you think I’d let them get away with this?” Linda asks Modell. “I’m gonna finish what you started.” Modell wants absolutely no part in any of this. He urges her, “No. Stop now. Stop…” Ultimately, Modell is not strong enough to stop the sequel.

"Put a gun against his head, pulled the trigger now he's back."

“Put a gun against his head, pulled the trigger now he’s back.”

Kitsunegari repeatedly draws attention to just how awkwardly the story is shaping itself into a sequel. After a sit-down with Linda, Mulder is convinced that she is a wannabe super villain. “Her husband’s ‘brush’ with greatness, she doesn’t want to ‘paint’ him as being impulsive. Who the hell talks like that?” Confronted with a body covered in blue paint and an idiom scrawled across the wall, Mulder deadpans, “I’m going to take a wild stab here and guess this is a clue.” When it’s revealed that the idiom means “fox hunt”, Mulder replies, “That’s a little on the nose, don’t you think?”

As with so many sequels, Kitsunegari teases its audience with all sort of contrived narrative leaps. Mulder is forced to hand over his gun after an encounter with Modell to generate tension, despite the fact that Modell’s power has never been demonstrated to have long-term effects. When Mulder arrives to show the prison therapist a picture of Linda, which would help his case immensely, she is prevented from immediately identifying Linda because she is “as blind as a bat.” While she searches for her glasses, she gets a conveniently-timed phone-call from Linda that kills her off.

Painting him as a villain...

Painting him as a villain…

Perhaps most telling is the character of Linda Bowman herself. Linda is identified at the end of the story as Modell’s twin sister. As such, Kitsunegari is adhering to one of the oldest structural elements of the horror sequel: focus on a relative of the classic monster as a way to expand the story. Kitsunegari is just a slightly classier title than “Sister of Pusher.” It is an approach that dates back to the earliest days of Hollywood. Son of Kong was rushed into production so that it could be released only eight months after King Kong.

It is far from the only example. The first wave of Universal Horror film sequels were all themed around monstrous family members. Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein completed a trilogy with James Whale’s Frankenstein. It is an old joke that The Ghost of Frankenstein should have been called “The OTHER Son of Frankenstein.” Frankenstein was not the only Universal horror franchise to start a dynasty. Dracula spawned Dracula’s Daughter and Son of Dracula.

Cleanest. Headwound. Ever.

Cleanest. Headwound. Ever.

Of course, for all that Bride of Frankenstein is considered a classic, it chould probably be noted that director James Whale was reluctant to commit to it. In his autobiography, No Leading Lady, writer R.C. Sheriff recalls Whale telling him:

“If they score a hit with a picture, they always want to do it again. They’ve got a perfectly sound commercial reason. Frankenstein was a gold mine at the box office, and a sequel to it is bound to win, however rotten it is. They’ve had a script made for a sequel, and it stinks to heaven. In any case, I squeezed the idea dry on the original picture, and never want to work on it again.”

It appears that Whale eventually overcame his anxieties, partially by fashioning Bride of Frankenstein into the most gleefully subversive of the Universal horror films. (It even opens with a scene drawing attention to the artifice of the sequel.)

Wheels keep on moving...

Wheels keep on moving…

Even outside of the Universal horror era, the idea of a horror sequel driven by a relative of the monster has lasting appeal. Films like Bride of Chucky might just be affectionate homages to Bride of Frankenstein, but the trope was played rather straight with the introduction of Jason Voorhees in the second Friday the 13th film. The idea of centring a horror sequel around a relative is perhaps a way of getting around the idea of constantly reviving the same monster over and over again. (It may also be a cynical way of getting around casting issues.)

Both Gilligan and Minear are writers with a keen understanding of pulpy genre tropes. Unsurprisingly, there is a decidedly “comic book” feel to Kitsunegari, in keeping with the aesthetic of Pusher. Tim Minear had arrived on The X-Files after a stint on Lois & Clark, so he was well-versed in comic book storytelling – he would go on to enjoy a long and fruitful collaboration with Joss Whedon, whose work also overlapped with comic books. Vince Gilligan’s first two scripts for The X-FilesSoft Light and Pusher – arguably play as super villain origin stories.

Family matters...

Family matters…

Given that Pusher presented Robert Patrick Modell as something of a super villain, so it makes sense that Kitsunegari should turn the villain into something of a legacy character. One can imagine a “Who’s Who” guidebook of The X-Files helpfully identifying Linda Bowman as “Pusher II” in the same way that Paul Sloane is “Two-Face II” or Matt Hagen is “Clayface II.” She is a character with a firm connection to the original and identical powers, allowing her to be used in a similar fashion. It is a conceit that draws attention to the artificiality of the story.

Of course, there is a larger cultural context for Kitsunegari. The X-Files was a show very much anchored in the nineties, and one very much in tune with the times. Although the ideas of sequels and prequels and remakes and reboots had been around since the earliest days of Hollywood, it seemed like they were becoming more and more common as the millennium approached. Kitsunegari was the first episode of The X-Files to broadcast in 1998, the year which saw the spectacular flops of contemporary remakes of Godzilla and Psycho.

Trying to revive an old episode...

Trying to revive an old episode…

Although it’s hard to throw a stone these days without hitting a film pundit who doesn’t bemoan the death of creativity or originality, the late nineties were similarly caught up in a wave of nostalgia. Indeed, the late nineties were populated with successful re-releases of classic films. As William J. Palmer deadpans in The Films of the Nineties:

It was, perhaps, understandable that the Star Wars trilogy, the Godfather trilogy, and four restored Hitchcock masterpieces could be rereleased and find some remarkable box-office success, but in 1998 the musical Grease was also rereleased for a new generation of John Travolta fans.

In September 1998, a rerelease of Touch of Evil earned a higher per-screen average than the opening weekend of Rush Hour. In December 1998, Gus Van Sant released a shot-by-shot remake of Psycho that left many scratching their heads. Martin Landau, who would appear in The X-Files: Fight the Future, wondered, “How is anyone going to make a Hitchcock movie better than Hitchcock?”

Guess whose back?

Guess whose back?

While these events occurred months after the broadcast of Kitsunegari, they are the culmination of a mood and atmosphere that had been building throughout the nineties. Kitsunegari reads very much as a response to this larger cultural context – a self-aware and cynical sequel episode that revels in its own awkward contrivances and coincidences. Everything about the episode screams “sequel!” at the top of its lungs, and the episode is meticulously structured so that it hits all the big sequel tropes.

Kitsunegari avoids giving the audience what they want by giving them exactly what they think they want. It is a cautionary tale with that most classic of morals – “be careful what you wish for.” It is a sequel that rather glaringly and consciously points out the limitations that come with the territory. It is no wonder that Kitsunegari euthanises Modell towards then end of the episode – killing off the character permanently so there can be no Pusher III. It is no coincidence that it would be another two years before the show would try to bring back another classic monster-of-the-week in Orison.

Who guards the guardsmen?

Who guards the guardsmen?

Of course Kitsunegari ends up feeling like a rather lifeless sequel to a beloved episode. Kitsunegari is a decidedly ironic piece of work, a fact which accounts for its somewhat muted reception on initial broadcast. While Kitsunegari is perhaps a little too perfect in its mimicry of a formulaic sequel, there is an almost playful self-awareness underpinning the stock references and rote plot points. The result is an episode that is perhaps more interesting than it is satisfying, more intriguing than it is enjoyable.

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

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