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The X-Files – Dreamland II (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

Morris Fletcher is (and remains) one of the more interesting aspects of the Dreamland two-parter.

Fletcher would go on to become perhaps the most unlikely recurring character in the history of The X-Files. Michael McKean would reprise the role for a brief cameo in Three of a Kind at the end of the season. As with Kersh, he would disappear from the show’s world for the troubled seventh season, but would return the following year. He made a guest appearance in All About Yves, the finalé of The Lone Gunmen. Fletcher would then follow the Lone Gunmen back to The X-Files, appearing in Jump the Shark during the final season.

And the shippers went wild...

And the shippers went wild…

A large part of what makes Fletcher work is the wonderful guest performance of Michael McKean. McKean is a veteran actor with a long history of great work, dating back to his breakout role as Lenny (and Squiggy) on the sitcom Laverne and Shirley. Along with the move to Los Angeles, the sixth season of The X-Files began to drift away from Chris Carter’s initial reluctance to cast recognisable actors in significant roles. The X-Files: Fight the Future had featured guest appearances from Martin Landau, Blythe Danner, Armin Muller-Stahl and Glenne Headly.

The two-parter built around Michael McKean paves the way for appearances from Ed Asner, Lily Tomlin and Bruce Campbell. These are all superb guest performances, and consciously play into the idea that the sixth season of The X-Files has taken on a more playful or vaudevillian style. It is too much to describe these guest roles as “stunt casting” in the same way that putting Jerry Springer in The Post-Modern Prometheus or Burt Reynolds in Improbable was stunt casting, but the casting decisions are part of a broader change in the show.

Our man Morris...

Our man Morris…

On paper, Morris Fletcher could easily come off as a one-note creep. After all, he is a character who thinks nothing of using his body swap with Fox Mulder to cheat on his wife of twenty years. There is a creepy and pervy banality to his evil, one that mirrors that of Eddie Van Blundht in Small Potatoes. However, while Small Potatoes felt a little too sympathetic to pathetic Eddie Van Blundht, Dreamland strikes a better balance in its portrayal of Morris Fletcher. McKean plays Fletcher as a very human character, but one who is no less creepy for his well-practiced charm.

It goes almost without saying that Michael McKean’s guest performance is a major reason why Dreamland (mostly) works.

Not particularly reflective...

Not particularly reflective…

Dreamland owes a lot to Small Potatoes, Vince Gilligan’s first comedy script for The X-Files. Both are essentially body swap stories, with a villain swapping places with Mulder and attempting to seduce Scully under false pretenses. Both make all sorts of criticisms about the life choices of Fox Mulder, picking up on Darin Morgan’s well-observed criticism that there is a limit to just how pathetic a character played by David Duchovny can ever truly seem. However the differences between Small Potatoes and Dreamland are quite interesting.

There is the structure of the episodes. Small Potatoes is a single episode, one which limits the body swap to its second half. In many respects, the script takes so long to reach the switch that there is not really enough time to explore Eddie’s take on Mulder’s life with any real depth. Small Potatoes crams a great idea into a space far too small. Dreamland takes the opposite approach. It is a two-parter, with the body swap taking place in the teaser of the first episode. If anything, it affords too much space to an idea that the show has already touched upon.

"C'mon? I'm at least as good as Robert Patrick, right?"

“C’mon? I’m at least as good as Robert Patrick, right?”

This is perhaps the strongest criticism of Dreamland, beyond the somewhat contrived “reset button” ending. Dreamland does not have enough to say about the life of Fox Mulder to justify a full two-parter. Dreamland feels padded by an intrigue subplot at the base, with accusations the Mulder!Morris is a mole. Dreamland would arguably make a much tighter single episode, or might have worked better to push the body swap into the middle of the first episode rather than the teaser. There must be a “goldilocks” Mulder body swap story out there somewhere.

However, other aspects of Dreamland work a little better than corresponding aspects of Small Potatoes. The climax of Small Potatoes relied on Mulder bursting through the door to save Scully from the attentions of Eddie!Mulder. While the padding means that Scully can’t figure out the body swap until Dreamland II, at least Dreamland has Scully save herself from Morris!Mulder’s attentions. Dreamland might not offer the most sympathetic portrayal of its female characters, but the scene where Scully exposes Morris!Mulder helps the episode.

Life, the universe and everything...

Life, the universe and everything…

That said, there is also a significant difference in how Small Potatoes chooses to portray Eddie Van Blundht and how Dreamland chooses to portray Morris Fletcher. Although Small Potatoes does end with Eddie in prison and added to the sex offenders register, there is a sense that the script is somewhat sympathetic to its guest star. In particular, Eddie!Mulder gets a particularly touching scene with Amanda, the woman he impregnated while pretending to be Luke Skywalker.

The performances from Darin Morgan and David Duchovny help to create the impression of a guy who is really not that bright, with Morgan in particular making it very easy to pity (and even like) the guy. Even in his final scene with Mulder, Eddie demonstrates that he will always be something of a loser – talking about how the other prison inmates beat him up and take his hat, but his “court-appointed therapist” always issues him a replacement. There is a sense that Small Potatoes is painting Eddie as a guy who just can’t win.

The seeds of something greater...

The seeds of something greater…

Although there were faint shades of the characterisation that Gilligan brought to antagonists like Robert Patrick Modell or Jerry Schnauz or John Lee Roche, Eddie Van Blundht felt very much like Gilligan was attempting to filter that through the characters who tended to populate Darin Morgan scripts. Eddie Van Blundht came across as suffering the same existential loneliness that clawed at Lannie or Clyde Bruckman or even Harold. The casting of Darin Morgan in the role of Eddie helped to solidify this impression.

In contrast, Morris Fletcher feels like much more of a traditional Vince Gilligan character than Eddie Van Blundht; even though Gilligan wrote Small Potatoes alone and wrote Dreamland with two other writers. Morris Fletcher is very much a little man who wishes that he were big. He is a fiendishly clever and ruthless individual, but one with no real ambition or backbone. Dreamland repeatedly iterates that Fletcher will do anything to save his own skin. He rats on Mulder and Scully to Kersh, and will rat on General Wegman the moment he gets back in his body.

Gotta love the recurring "mandroid" fixation in the Lone Gunmen headlines...

Gotta love the recurring “mandroid” fixation in the Lone Gunmen headlines…

That said, there are elements of Dreamland that do feel indebted to the work of Darin Morgan. The decision to have Morris Fletcher narrate the teaser to Dreamland II feels like a nod towards Darin Morgan’s script for Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” in the second season of Millennium. As with Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense”, Dreamland II opens with a wry guest character offering a humourous monologue that feels like an affectionate riff on some of the show’s more ponderously purple prose.

Some of Fletcher’s commentary on Mulder might even have come from Chung. “None of that hard work made up for his sister, though. It was just a way of putting her out of his mind. Finally, the way I figure it, he went out of his mind and he’s been that way ever since. Fox Mulder pissed away a brilliant career, lost the respect of supervisors and friends and now lives his life shaking his fist at the sky and muttering about conspiracies to anyone who will listen. If you ask me, he’s one step away from pushing a baby carriage filled with tin cans down the street.”

Father of the year...

Father of the year…

Nevertheless, there is a banality to the evil of Morris Fletcher. He slips into the role of Mulder with incredible ease, simply by demonstrating a willingness to do avoid rocking the boat. Fletcher doesn’t use the body swap to do anything particularly spectacular; he cheats on his wife and plays golfing simulators. While Mulder finds himself struggling to stay alive in a completely different world, Fletcher simply coasts by the body of Mulder. He never takes a principled stand; he never tries to protect anybody else.

The truth is that Fletcher would not have the energy or enthusiasm to organise something like his body swap under his own recognisance. He just goes along with it. It is tempting to look at Breaking Bad as the pinnacle of Vince Gilligan’s writing career, and Morris Fletcher goes through a similar enough arc. Much like Walter White uses his cancer to justify becoming the man he probably always was, Morris Fletcher uses the body swap to engage his baser instincts. Indeed, both Walter White and Morris Fletcher demonstrate the survival skills of cockroaches.

Family portraits...

Family portraits…

Dreamland is never really ambiguous about how much a jerk Morris Fletcher actually is. Mulder!Morris’ conversations with Joanne Fletcher suggest that she really is trying to fix their marriage. In contrast, one of the first things that Morris!Mulder does is to sleep with Kersh’s secretary. Michael McKean’s performance is a large part of this. Morris!Mulder might whine to Scully about his mortgage or his ungrateful kids, but McKean plays them as the hollow self-rationalisations of a selfish man.

The script and McKean’s performance help to pitch Fletcher very carefully. He is funny and pathetic, but also obnoxious and self-serving. While it is possible for the audience to pity Fletcher, that response is measured against the hatred and loathing that he engenders. Dreamland II does feature a reconciliation scene between Morris and Joanne, but that is erased by the rest at the end of the episode. His cameo in Three of a Kind towards the end of the season suggests that he is just as much of an opportunistic jackass as ever.

"Granma topgun" really needs her own spin-off...

“Granma topgun” really needs her own spin-off…

Interestingly, McKean was not the first choice for the role. According to Vince Gilligan in The End and the Beginning, the writers had originally written the role for another actor:

“It started last season,” he adds. “We knew that David Duchovny was good friends with Gary Shandling, and we loved Gary Shandling and the all the episodes he did with David on The Larry Sanders Show. And we thought it would be really cool to have an X-Files episode with David Duchovny – as Mulder – and Shandling together. We didn’t know for sure whether Shandling would do it, but we thought he’d probably do it – well, let’s say we hoped he would do it.”

It is interesting wonder how Dreamland would have worked in the role of Morris Fletcher. Nevertheless, Shandling would appear on The X-Files just over a year later in Hollywood A.D., an episode written and directed by Duchovny.

Stalling for time...

Stalling for time…

Coincidentally, the role of Morris Fletcher was not the first role that was offered to actor Michael McKean. McKean had been a big fan of the show dating back to his time working on Saturday Night Live in the early nineties:

I’d become an X-Files fan when I was doing Saturday Night Live because the show was on Friday nights to begin with, which is when the last-ditch rehearsals for SNL take place. What that means is that you get there at, I don’t know, probably 6:30 p.m., and they just work you until they decide to let you go home, which usually isn’t until about 3 a.m. And if they don’t get to your stuff right away, too bad, you have to be there. So I was there in my dressing room, and, you know, if other people weren’t doing anything, we’d hang out. I liked everybody on the show, but sometimes it was just me, sitting on my ass in my dressing room, watching The X-Files.

I think The X-Files was a very important moment in TV history. Shows like thirtysomething had already proven that you could make a really good-looking show every week, but they were shot in health clubs and parking lots and in homes. The X-Files was the first time when they said, “We can make a really big-budget, good-looking show where the special effects are %$#!ing amazing and draw you in like it’s that kind of movie every week.” That’s what they really did. They kicked it all up, and from then on you couldn’t have special effects like you had in the original Star Trek or… Logan’s Run. I mean, look at Logan’s Run now, and you’re like, “Uh, okay, whatever.” But they really kicked it upstairs with The X-Files. And the scripts were really interesting, and the casting was so great, so off-brand. It was just a wonderful show. So when they called… actually, I think I had to say “no” the first time, but I’m glad I did, because it meant that I said “yes” when Morris Fletcher came along.

It seemed that the show was also very fond of him. Dreamland treats Morris Fletcher as a one-time guest star, with absolutely no indication that he will ever pop up again. However, in spite of this, he became a recurring fixture in the show’s final years.

Lights in the sky...

Lights in the sky…

As if foreshadowing that the show is closer to the end than to the beginning, the early sixth season seems to hint towards Vince Gilligan’s career after The X-Files. Drive was the first collaboration between Gilligan and Bryan Cranston, while Michael McKean would go on to become a series regular on Better Call Saul. It is a nice combination, and one that illustrates just how influential the production of The X-Files turned out to be on contemporary television.

Dreamland is notable for its commentary and criticisms of Mulder as a character. One of the key points of Dreamland is that Mulder’s life would be a lot easier if he just learned to get along. Morris!Mulder is willing to bend whichever the wind happens to be blowing, but it seems to help him get by. His easy-going manner helps him to flirt with office secretaries and to appease Assistant Director Alvin Kersh. With the good looks of David Duchovny and the clever blandness of Morris Fletcher, the sky is the limit.

Fletcher in the driving seat...

Fletcher in the driving seat…

Of course, Dreamland is somewhat undercut by the fact that we have heard all of this before. Dreamland is a two-parter that really emphasises the age and maturity of The X-Files as a television show, and that plays out in the way that it approaches Mulder as a character. The X-Files had been on the air for over five years when Dreamland was broadcast. The audience watching the episode already knew Mulder inside and out. There is very little that Dreamland offers that the show has not covered more meaningfully in earlier episodes.

When Darin Morgan began chipping away at Mulder in episodes like Humbug, Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, War of the Coprophages and Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”, his arguments really resonated. The show had never really tackled these ideas before, and even broaching them seemed provocative. When the show first pointed out that a man who looks like David Duchovny can never really be an outsider, it seemed to question the basic premise of the show. The X-Files took Mulder and his quest with such seriousness that the suggestion seemed to undermine it.

"I hear it happens to a lot of guys..."

“I hear it happens to a lot of guys…”

However, these questions were first raised over three years earlier. These observations are no long wry subversions, but familiar refrains. Mulder’s life is a mess, but only because he allows it to be. If Mulder were willing to play well with others, he would have no difficulty accomplishing what he wanted. There is no excuse for Mulder’s personal or professional failure, and he is only really an outside because he insists upon making himself an outsider. This no longer feels like a revelation or insight; it is just part of Mulder’s character.

To be fair, that is probably to the credit of the show. It is a testament to the writers that Mulder and Scully have been so well-developed that even the most cynical interpretations of their characters can be folded into a larger portrait of the agents. Six seasons (and a movie!) is a long time in television, allowing for all sorts of interpretations and reinterpretations of the characters. By the time that Dreamland aired, all of its big observations about Mulder felt almost trite and simplistic.

They can't take their hands off each other... really.

They can’t take their hands off each other… really.

The only potentially novel aspect of Dreamland‘s treatment of Mulder is the way that it seems to circle back around – it almost subverts ideas that were initially subversive themselves. Episodes like War of the Coprophages and Small Potatoes suggested that Mulder was profoundly dysfunctional and incapable of taking advantage of the opportunities for happiness and satisfaction presented to him. Dreamland seems to suggest that this might be a character strength, rather than weakness. Mulder’s unwillingness or inability to blend in is a virtue that should be celebrated.

Dreamland demonstrates that  Mulder could never allow himself to become as weak-willed and compromised as Fletcher. He would never turn over his sources to Kersh; he cannot bring himself to leave a wounded man in a damaged convenience store. While that closing scenes of War of the Coprophages and Small Potatoes suggested Mulder was wasting his opportunities, Dreamland seems to imply that some avenues are better unexplored. Mulder would never declare – even bitterly and sarcastically – that he is no Morris Fletcher.

"Eddie Van Blundht was much less annoying."

“Eddie Van Blundht was much less annoying.”

The biggest reveal in Dreamland II is the fact that Mulder doesn’t have a bedroom, a nice character detail that draws attention to his tendency to snooze on his own couch. Morris Fletcher is shocked to discover it in Dreamland II, suggesting that his tryst with Kersh’s secretary in Dreamland I was really informal. “I didn’t even know you had a bedroom,” Scully observes, speaking for a significant portion of the audience. It is a good joke, but it doesn’t really tell the audience anything that hasn’t already been suggested and explored.

Then again, there is something comforting about hearing all of this through a new voice. Morris Fletcher is just cynical and snarky enough that his quips and his monologues are entertaining enough that they don’t have to be particularly astute. “He had parents who loved him, a cute kid sister,” Fletcher reflects on Mulder’s childhood. “He had a roof over his head, got all his flu shots, had all his fingers and toes and aside from being stuck with the name ‘Fox’ which probably taught him how to fight– or not– he pretty much led a normal life.”

"Never thought I'd see that face again..."

“Never thought I’d see that face again…”

Outside of that, there really isn’t too much to talk about in terms of Dreamland I and Dreamland II. It is a light and frothy two-parter, in a light and frothy stretch of the season. It is a fun little diversion at a point where The X-Files seems to be taking nothing but diversions. Some of the jokes are familiar and hackneyed, and some of the comedy is ill-judged; but a lot of the jokes land, and there is a joy to be had in watching a well-oiled machine working really well. Gillian Anderson and Michael McKean play well off one another. David Duchovny is a great comic actor.

The script never gets too heavy, and director Kim Manners keeps things moving along. There are a number of ver impressive shots pairing Duchovny and McKean. According to The End and the Beginning, it took twelve takes for the duo to get the dance right in Dreamland I, but the sequence where Mulder!Morris enters the bar and sees the reflection of Morris!Mulder is particularly impressive – shot as a long take, it seems to require Michael McKean to be in two places almost simultaneously.

More Morris? Please!

More Morris? Please!

Dreamland doesn’t even pretend to tie back into the mythology in any meaningful way, and continues to exploit the show’s new location. The men in black and the emphasis on Area 51 help to connect Dreamland back to the alien thread that runs through the mythology, but Dreamland is perhaps the closest thing to a stand-alone two-parter in the entire run of the series. It stands even more disconnected from the mythology than Tempus Fugit and Max or Christmas Carol and Emily.

Dreamland is an episode that is easy to like, even if it is hard to love.

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