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The X-Files – The Rain King (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.

I do not “gaze” at Scully.

Somewhere over the rainbow...

Somewhere over the rainbow…

In many respects, The Rain King serves to close off an interesting and eccentric run of episodes that began with Triangle. The episode even acknowledges as much, inheriting the Wizard of Oz motif from Triangle. In Triangle, Mulder entered a possibly imaginary world populated by familiar faces after a near-death experience. In The Rain King, tornadoes tear through rural Kansas as a high school reunion takes an “over the rainbow” motif. Judy Garland’s iconic musical number even plays towards the end of the episode.

This lends The Rain King a sense of symmetry with Triangle. After all, Triangle is the episode where Mulder all but explicitly confirms his interest in Scully, kissing her doppelganger in 1939 and professing his love upon returning to 1998. The Rain King offers Scully a similar moment, talking to Sheila about how suddenly you can see your closest friend as something more than a friend. It is a rather blatant moment, perhaps even more overt than the infamous “almost kiss” in the hallway during The X-Files: Fight the Future.

A white wedding...

A white wedding…

Although The Rain King was technically produced in the slot before How The Ghosts Stole Christmas, it was broadcast later. As such, it seems to close out a cycle of X-Files episodes that focus on the potentially romantic aspects of the relationship between Mulder and Scully. From this point onwards, the show reverts to a much more traditional form. S.R. 819 has Skinner involved in conspiracy shenanigans, while Tithonus is a more traditional X-Files episode in the style of Terms of Endearment.

After that, things get firmly back to the idea of business as usual with Two Fathers and One Son, which offers the return to the status quo that had been looming over the show since The End. Although the second half of the season contains a fair share of teasing the audience with the possibility of a romantic hook-up in episodes like Arcadia or The Unnatural, the sixth season pulls back a little bit from its emphasis on an all-but-inevitable romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully.

Holy cow!

Holy cow!

There is no real ambiguity in these episodes. The show is really pushing Mulder and Scully together, to the point where even the most ardent “noromo” would have difficulty imposing a strictly platonic reading on their relationship. The Rain King offers perhaps the most overt reading on this yet, with the guest cast repeatedly confusing them for a romantic couple and the episode consciously mirroring them to Holman and Sheila. The sequence of Mulder and Scully swaying together (yet separately) might just be the best encapsulation of their relationship.

All this is apparent even before Scully gives her big speech that is in theory about Holden and Sheila, but is really about… well, c’mon. “Well,” Scully explains, “it seems to me that the best relationships – the ones that last – are frequently the ones that are rooted in friendship. You know, one day you look at the person and you see something more than you did the night before. Like a switch has been flicked somewhere. And the person who was just a friend is… suddenly the only person you can ever imagine yourself with.”

It's good to be the king...

It’s good to be the king…

It was quite clear where the show wanted to go with all of this. The “will they?”/“won’t they?” atmosphere of the early seasons had given way to “when will they?” The suspense in the relationship was no longer whether either or both wanted to develop the relationship further, but when they would find the courage to act upon that impulse. In a way, the mood of the early sixth season of The X-Files reflects that of the second season of Friends, with the show consciously aligning its power couple for that big romantic moment.

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, it is interesting to wonder whether The X-Files missed its big moment. After all, the relentless teasing of Ross and Rachel during the first two seasons of Friends paid off in The One With the Prom Video, even if the show ultimately decided that there was more tension in having the two separate rather than together. The X-Files never really offers fans a glimpse of what life is like for Mulder and Scully as a romantic couple; the closest it comes is fleeting closing shots in Existence and The Truth.

I wish it would rain down...

I wish it would rain down…

Interviewed towards the end of his tenure on the show in early 2000, David Duchovny was highly critical of the approach adopted towards the relationship. Asked about the kiss in Millennium, he explained that felt that the writing staff were largely running in place as they waited for an ending:

I thought that was, like, a cheap ratings gesture. Don’t you? I think everything is up in the air because of the movie-franchise aspect. If we truly knew that it was ending this year, next year or whenever, you could actually write toward an ending. I think you could actually disrupt the nature of Mulder and Scully’s relationship and make it sexual–make it something–and actually deal with it, in that case.

But because everybody involved in the writing and producing end of the show wants to keep it a lucrative enterprise, they want to keep it the way it is. But it’s tough to do–seven years, keeping people in exactly the same spot.

Duchovny could be quite critical of The X-Files during his final years on the show, but some of his criticisms seem quite fair and reasonable. It is hard to disagree with his observations about the show’s central couple.

"I think I see some character development."

“I think I see some character development.”

Reflecting on the sixth season, producer Frank Spotnitz would concede that the production team mercilessly “teased the audience.” It is an admission which acknowledges the lack of any truly satisfying pay-off the the recurring romantic arc. When the revival was announced, Chris Carter was still getting questions about the relationship. “That relationship was kind of mysterious,” he explained. “Did they get together? Didn’t they get together? If they’ve got a child together, when did they get together? These are questions that we will deal with and answer in good time.”

“Good time” was a subjective a measure. The X-Files was not particularly fond of closure, and it seemed that this reluctance to resolve anything applied as much to character dynamics as vast alien conspiracies. Even shows that made a point to separate their power couples to build romantic tension would normally accept that it was a good idea to bring them together in the end. That way, the audience are allowed to presume that the two leads live happily ever after, but the writers are spared the difficulty of writing the relationship in a compelling way.

Sway with me...

Sway with me…

“The only thing we absolutely knew from very early on was that we had to get Ross and Rachel together,” confessed David Crane of the finalé to Friends. “We had dicked the audience around for 10 years with their ‘will they or won’t they’, and we didn’t see any advantage in frustrating them.” It seems that The X-Files did not share that belief, with the take on the Mulder and Scully relationship across the second half of the show proving quite frustrating to a lot of fans on both sides of the “shipper” and “noromo” divide.

However the show decided to address the issue of a romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully would inevitably upset a significant portion of the fanbase. There is a sense that the show was reluctant to take so bold a step in either direction, and so it seems like the nature Mulder and Scully spends more than two years in limbo, only to be addressed when the threat of cancellation looms. And then only fleetingly. The swaying in The Rain King was as good as it was going to get for a while. At least explicitly.

Opening the door for a future relationship...

Opening the door for a future relationship…

But why the reluctance to commit to the idea, since the sixth season was pushing so firmly in that direction? It was possible that Chris Carter was still not entirely over his own reluctance to pair the two characters up, as expressed in early interviews. It was also possible that the dreaded spectre of Moonlight was hanging over The X-Files, as it did over every show with a strong romantic tension between the two leads:

Today, as slow-motion courtships proliferate onscreen—see the Kate-Jack-Sawyer triangle on Lost, Jim and Pam on The Office, Grissom and Sara on CSI—it’s important to remember that we’re living in the Moonlighting era. Almost 20 years after the Bruce Willis-Cybill Shepherd detective series ended, it is Moonlighting’s post-coital flameout that keeps the Joshes and Donnas of the world fully clothed. The show had been on for less than two years when US Magazine—not a weekly yet, if you can remember such a world—screamed “Do It, Already!” in a February 1987 cover story. A month later, David and Maddie obliged, before an astonishingly large audience of 60 million viewers. (The Friends series finale drew 52.5 million.) From there, Moonlighting seemed almost cursed. Shepherd’s pregnancy absented Maddie from the story for months the following season, and then a 1988 writers’ strike caused all television production to shut down. When Moonlighting came back after a nine-month absence, it had a terrible 13-episode fifth season, crawled into the forest, and died.

Moonlighting is frequently cited as justification for drawing out a prolonging romantic tension between lead characters, particularly in the cases of romantic sitcoms like Cheers or Fraiser. There is a sense that once a show commits to romance, the tension and excitement is gone. Whether or not such an accusation is warranted is a matter of much speculation and debate.

"Well, the first assignment of the Fox Mulder Dating Agency has been a bit of a disaster..."

“Well, the first assignment of the Fox Mulder Dating Agency has been a bit of a disaster…”

It should also be noted that there is a prevailing sense in popular culture that stable relationships are difficult to write in serialised media. In films and novels, it is easy to have the lead characters hook up at the end, because there is no need to follow through. In contrast, committing a character to a relationship in television or comic books forces the writers to a long-term status quo. It can often feel stilted or awkward, particularly to those writers who would argue that conflict is the essence of drama. By that logic, stability is the antithesis of drama.

This is perhaps why there has been a tendency in mainstream superhero comics towards reversing or undoing those long-term relationships. Peter Parker married Mary Jane Watson in 1987, but the marriage was clumsily undone in One More Day in 2007. Marvel editor in chief Joe Quesada argued, “A married Peter just cuts off too many avenues for good soap opera.” Similarly, Clark Kent married Lois Lane in 1996, but that marriage was wiped from continuity with the DC reboot in September 2011.

I think we all know who we're really talking about...

I think we all know who we’re really talking about…

Even beyond all these possible justifications for keeping Mulder and Scully separate, it seems quite likely that The X-Files was just comfortable with the status quo as it existed. Time and age are a recurring concern across the sixth season. Triangle suggested Mulder and Scully were a temporal constant. Dreamland implied that the show’s reality was like a rubber band, always ready to just snap back into shape, no matter how it might bend. How the Ghosts Stole Christmas cheekily subverted the idea of two young star-crossed lovers frozen in time.

This concern with the status quo extends beyond the romantic plots of the first half of the season. Tithonus will make Scully immortal; Monday will trap Mulder in the same day. Even Field Trip threatens to break the reality of the show by demonstrating that any real growth and development on the part of Mulder or Scully would likely involve leaving the other behind; and so reality snaps back into a familiar shape at the end of the episode. The sixth season seems to acknowledge that the status quo can be frustrating, but always returns to it.

A pressing engagement...

A pressing engagement…

And so The Rain King largely feels like a moment blowing by, a potentiality caught in a light breeze. That temperate weather seemed to be ready to roll in, but a low pressure system intervened and steered it wildly off course. The Rain King is not the beginning of a new chapter in the relationship between Mulder and Scully. In a way, it closes the book on all this playful flirting and cheeky comedy. It doesn’t make a big deal of packing all of these elements away for another day, but it does feel like a frustrating missed opportunity when examined in hindsight.

Still, The Rain King is an enjoyable episode. It is more than a little silly, but it is firmly rooted in the aesthetic that has driven the sixth season since Triangle. Ultimately, The Rain King feels of a piece with the light fantasy of Dreamland or How the Ghost Stole Christmas. It is an episode that spends most of its run-time with goofy grin on its face. “We also had a lot of fun doing The Rain King,” director Kim Manners recalls. “That was a ball. It was such a different episode of The X-Files, strictly a fantasy. I felt like we were telling a fairy tale.”

"We're partners. Just not, y'konw, in that way..."

“We’re partners. Just not, y’know, in that way…”

The Rain King really typifies the fascination that The X-Files has for small town rural America. Reflecting the anxieties and uncertainties of the nineties, it often seemed like The X-Files was concerned about the encroaching forces of globalisation and modernity into the eccentric spaces at the heart of America. As Brian Phillips noted in a retrospective piece, the vision of America presented in The X-Files was on deeply rooted in the nineties:

The world of small-town X-Files episodes is still that older world of extreme locality, where everyone in town grows up knowing that the rules here are different and we handle it ourselves. Children vanish or trees kill people or bright lights appear in the sky, but there is no higher authority to appeal to and it has nothing to do with what goes on 10 miles down the road. In my hometown we knew that the spillway by the lake was where you painted a memorial if your friend was killed in a drunk-driving crash. It’s the same thing. Here is here. And this, it goes without saying, is just the opposite of the here-is-everywhere world inhabited by the conspiracy, which is global in scale, utterly connected, and ruled by pseudonymous men whose flat-affect, no-eye-contact meetings were almost the personification of a chat window.

There is a wonderful naivety and innocence to the vision of small-town America presented by The Rain King. It seems like Mulder and Scully might have flown over the rainbow in that flimsy little plane that flies them into the local airfield. Kroner is just as unstuck in time as the Queen Anne in Triangle. Kroner is a quirky and ethereal space that is populated by eccentric characters invisible from the passenger jet windows through which most Americans might see it.

Makin' it rain!

Makin’ it rain!

The X-Files is a surprisingly nostalgic and backwards-looking show. One of the central themes of the mythology is the consequences that accrue from past actions. The big blockbuster movie bridging the fifth and sixth seasons is called Fight the Future. The show seems genuinely nervous about what the future will bring. In particular, it is nervous about globalisation and homogenisation. There is a fear that a creeping and pervading monoculture will strip the eccentric spaces in America of their uniqueness.

In a sense, The X-Files might have been right. We live in a culture where it seems like every moment everywhere is meticulously recorded and documented. Phones are more than just a communications device; they put a camera in the pocket of almost every human being in the United States. It seems like every inch of the country has been charted and is being watched. However, the era of the mobile phone has not brought an increase in UFO sightings or Big Foot reports. The ease with which we can document the world has revealed how mundane it must really be.

Far afield...

Far afield…

The X-Files was fascinated with a romantic vision of the United States that was rapidly fading into history, an almost mythical landscape that was being explored and catalogued. The Rain King seems to celebrate just how remote Kroner really is. The region does not even have a proper airport to connect it with the rest of the country, and Mulder and Scully are forced to fly in the back of a tiny passenger plane. There is a sense that it takes a bit of effort to reach Kroner, that Kroner exists distinct from the “real” and well-documented world.

The nineties is very much the last moment at which Kroner could have existed. Even a decade later, the events in the region would have become a YouTube sensation shared on Twitter with millions of people around the globe. It would have been impossible for Holman Hardt to keep his secret with people taking selfies next to the cow thrown through the roof of the motel. Kroner would have rapidly been chewed up and spit out by a culture where everything was suddenly local and nothing was too far removed from the everyday.

"The Dana Scully Dating Agency, by contrast, was a roaring success..."

“The Dana Scully Dating Agency, by contrast, was a roaring success…”

The Rain King presents version of Kansas that seems to have culturally arrested itself in the mid-thirties. Sure, the technology has moved on and Holman Hardt is a well-educated meteorologist, but the culture itself seems frozen in time. Kroner is a small community that still celebrates The Wizard of Oz as an idealised depiction of Kansas life. This is a small space at the very centre of the American heartland where everybody has just accepted the weird happenings around them as the way that the world works.

It is a community that operated under its own rules and customs. When Mulder and Scully first arrive, the mayor arranges a gymnastics display to welcome two visiting out-of-towners – suggesting that visitors (and federal employees in particular) are a somewhat uncommon sight in this neck of the woods. When Holman Hardt is shocked to discover that the whole town knew that Daryl Mootz was drunk driving and covered for him; apparently the community reached a consensus that justice had been served; he had “suffered enough.”

Bovine homicide is more common than you'd think...

Bovine homicide is more common than you’d think…

There is something rather old-fashioned about all of this. The idea of a man and woman working together seems absurd to just about everyone in the community, who assume that Mulder and Scully must be partners in a more romantic sense. Even the title and the subject of The Rain King hark back to the Great Depression. After all the desperation of the Dust Bowl fueled all sorts of myths and stories about traveling rainmakers who would pull water from the sky – perhaps the spiritual successor to the prospector who hoped to pull gold from the soil.

Tex Thornton was perhaps the most famous of the depression-era rainmakers, traveling the dustbowl and promising to bring water to those who needed it. Thornton was not the only such rainmaker wandering the country. In 1950, N. Richard Nash would write The Rainmaker, the story of a fast-talking con artist who boasts that he can bring the rain to a drought-stricken community during the Great Depression for only $100. The play became an instant classic, adapted into a popular film and even a musical.

All hail the King...

All hail the King…

That said, Darryl Moots is following in the footsteps of an even earlier entrepreneur. Moots is not the first man to call himself “the Rain King” while bringing water to the Kansas. Australian George Melbourne took the name for his own rainmaking efforts in towards the end of the nineteenth century. If anything, Melbourne was a more industrious sorcerer. Also known as “the Rain Wizard” or “the Rain Fakir”, Melbourne worked across Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado. All of this helps to create the romantic impression that Kroker is unstuck in time.

The episode’s closing image reinforces this, looking like something taken from a post card. All the signifiers of rural America are there; the clear blue sky, the bountiful fields, the rustic barn. The Rain King even adds to this idyllic image, offering the sight of a rainbow and the sound of Judy Garland singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow. It looks like the sort of wholesomely all-American image that Glen Morgan and James Wong subverted so effectively in the teaser to The Time is Now.

Sparks fly...

Sparks fly…

There is a strong trace of nostalgia to all this, which seems ironic given the hardships that places like Kansas endured during the Great Depression. However, Kroker represents something of an idealised version of thirties Kansas, one appearing to pop culture memories of the American heartland. Robert Wuthnow observes in Remaking the Heartland:

That America’s heartland is a thing of the past is a long-standing refrain in treatments of the region. The reigning motif is nostalgia for a pastoral village-based America – a longing that grew among people who had never lived there, or had lived there only as children, and who viewed it from the standpoint of cities and suburbs that were constantly in flux. The image in this rearview mirror is of simpler times, of hayrides and strolls down country lanes, fading into the distance as life speeds ahead. Regret hangs heavy over the scene. The heartland retains only vestiges of that slow-paced time when people were less materialistic than they are now, less worried about crime, better equipped to instill values in their children, and more supportive of and supported by their neighbours. Life then was a Lake Wobegon existence, recognisable as myth and yet held fondly in memory.

In many ways, The Rain King presents Kroker as the antithesis of the town of Home from Home. This is a small rural community with a deep nostalgic yearning and its fair share of secrets, one isolated from the passage of time around it. While Home brutally deconstructed this sort of affectionate nostalgia for a past that never actually existed, The Rain King practically wallows in it.

He hasn't got a leg to stand on...

He hasn’t got a leg to stand on…

For all that The Rain King is a relatively light piece of television, it is also fun. It is pure and unadulterated cotton candy, packed with larger-than-life characters and heart-warming moments. The idea of Mulder acting as a love guru is hilarious, particularly because his advice backfires so spectacularly. It is perhaps telling that it falls to Scully to do the hard work, as the most grounded of the duo. She is the one who gets Holman and Sheila dancing together, and it is Scully who convinces Sheila that friendship can be a foundation for – rather than a deterrent to – romantic love.

The performances in The Rain King are broad to the point of becoming cartoonish. Neither Holman nor Sheila seem like real people, instead feeling like archetypes. It is a choice that fits reasonably well with the broader mood of the episode. The Rain King is the sort of giddily self-aware lighthearted adventure that would have seemed perfectly in tune with Bruce Campbell’s conventional performance style. It is not too difficult to image a larger-than-life Bruce Campbell chewing down on scenery as Daryl Mootz.

His rain of terror is over...

His rain of terror is over…

However, veteran character actor Clayton Rohmer is cast in the role. Rohmer is a very stylised performer, one with a very theatrical approach to the craft. It is precisely the sort of knowing and arch performance that one might expect from William Shatner, one that draws attention to absurdity of the construct around it. It is a style that does not necessarily work in every situation, but it gels quite perfectly with the story around it. Rohmer is perfect cast as the dim-witted self-aggrandising huckster.

Rohmer is really the breakout actor in The Rain King, to the point where it feels like knocks the rest of the episode off-balance. The title clearly alludes to Daryl Mootz, but the script treats the character as a red herring. He is a way to get Mulder and Scully to Kromer, but he is also meant to fade from the narrative once the focus shifts to Holman and Sheila. After all, Daryl is exposed as a charlatan at the same point that Mulder correctly deduces that Holman is the person actually manipulating the weather.

All hail love...

All hail love…

The problem is that Rohmer is such a force of nature that the audience has difficulty letting Daryl go. The second half of the script is focused on Mulder and Scully playing the role of matchmaker for Holman and Sheila, but the episode is never quite as alive as when Daryl appears on screen. Daryl’s pathetic attempts to attack Mulder add a jolt of energy to the script that even the sparks at the climax cannot match. The fact that Rohmer is such a joy to watch is actually the biggest problem with The Rain King, because the episode only really needs him for the first half.

Still, it is not the worst problem for an episode to have. The Rain King is overtly aware of the fact that Daryl holds the audience’s attention, so he even gets a happy ending at the climax of the episode. It is a woefully under-developed ending that comes out of nowhere and which gives Daryl a happy ending that he never really earns, but The Rain King is a light enough episode that this never feels like a severe problem. It never undermines the episode, because the episode itself practically floats off the ground.

Blame it on the weather man...

Blame it on the weather man…

The Rain King is also packed memorable images and distinctive visuals. If the episode is to be a fairy tale, it at least looks like a fairy tale. Nobody who has seen The Rain King will forget it. It is a very distinctive episode of The X-Files. The show has just moved to Los Angeles, but it is very hard to think of an episode that feels as bright and colourful as The Rain King from the rest of the show’s nine-year run. The only other episode that comes close is Sunshine Days, which is just as consciously stylised.

The Rain King offers a number of recognisable set pieces that play well into the themes of the story. Nothing says “the paranormal weirdness of rural America” like a cow thrown through a motel roof by a localised twister. The opening sequence is also rather perfectly put together, with the heart-shaped hailstones appearing just quirky enough to indicate where the show is going and just weird enough to lure the audience in. The teaser to The Rain King is a perfect example of The X-Files setting the mood for the episode ahead.

"This is not the worst motel we've had..."

“This is not the worst motel we’ve had…”

Like Terms of Endearment before it, The Rain King welcomes a new writer to The X-Files. While David Amann would remain with the show until the bitter end, Jeffrey Bell would stick around for three seasons before joining the writing staff on Angel. Working on The Rain King was an eye-opening experience for the young writer:

“Frank [Spotnitz] really encouraged me to be on the set the whole time, which has been a great learning experience, seeing how they do it, seeing how big it is,” he says. “I had no idea it was this big. Here’s one example. We make it rain one day, and so you write the word ‘rain.’ You don’t think it takes 25,000 gallons of water and three cranes to do that. You don’t think it’s 50 tons of ice, three ice chippers and about 40 guys throwing ice, staying up all night as you do it. Sort of the reality of how a simple word can become [something that] takes a lot of labour, it just makes you think about what you write next time.”

Bell would prove to be one of the stronger writers when it came to light-hearted episodes in the final seasons of The X-Files. The following season, he would write The Goldberg Variation. His track record with more traditionally scary episodes would be a bit less consistent.

"Don't worry. There'll be plenty of shipping episodes in the future."

“Don’t worry. There’ll be plenty of shipping episodes in the future.”

The Rain King is an odd little episode that closes out a rather strange chapter in the life of The X-Files. Things would get back to normal after this point, which feels like something of a missed opportunity. The Rain King is a fun and light-hearted episode, but also one that feels like it is standing on the cusp of a very different show. This is as far out as the sixth season of The X-Files will go before the writing staff start reeling it back in and forcing it into a more conventional shape.

If you were to imagine a point of divergence that would radically redefine the last years of the show, The Rain King seems like an episode with more radical potential than even Two Fathers and One Son. Unfortunately, it winds up being unrealised potential.

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