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The X-Files – Agua Mala (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.

Agua Mala means “bad water.” It also makes for a bad episode.

Agua Mala is perhaps the most infamous turkey of the sixth season, beating out Alpha (and – depending on who you ask – Milagro) for that honour. This is the sixth season equivalent of Space or Excelsis Dei or El Mundo Gira or Schizogeny. Conveniently enough, it arrives at around the same point in the season. It is just around the half-way through the year, near the Christmas break. There is a sense of desperation and fatigue to proceedings; it is as if the entire production team just want to get something in front of the cameras to meet the season order.

Choking the life out of him...

Choking the life out of him…

Agua Mala doesn’t really work on any level. The structure is a mess, the plotting is generic. The bulk of the cast are not introduced until half-way through the episode, and climax of the episode takes place off-screen. The monster is ridiculous, and the script decides to compensate by aiming for broad comedy. However, Agua Mala might be the least funny “comedy” episode that the show has produced up to this point in its run. It is an episode that is fundamentally and undeniably flawed.

It feels almost a waste that Agua Mala was broadcast directly after Two Fathers and One Son, representing something of a return to “business as usual” for the show. If this is the new “business as usual”, it is quite unsettling.

Somebody got slimed...

Somebody got slimed…

Agua Mala feels like something of an anti-climax. It is a non-event. Mulder and Scully spent the first half of the sixth season separated from the X-files. The division had been closed in The End, and had been reopened under the jurisdiction of Jeffrey Spender and Diana Fowley in The Beginning. Mulder and Scully had spent the first stretch of the sixth season covertly investigating the paranormal in their spare time, as Spender and Fowley squandered their work on the X-files.

After spending so long away from the X-files, it seems like returning to the basement should be a big deal. Instead, it is an after-thought. Two Fathers and One Son ends with Jeffrey Spender suggesting that Mulder and Scully should be reassigned to the X-files before he is murdered in his own office, creating a convenient job vacancy. There is no official announcement that Mulder and Scully are back on the X-files at the end of One Son or the start of Agua Mala. In fact, Agua Mala doesn’t even feature a scene set within the iconic basement office.

A shirt thing...

A shirt thing…

There is a reason for this, to be fair. Agua Mala was not the episode filmed directly after One Son. Instead, Arcadia was shot between the two episodes. It simply was not ready to air in time. Mulder even refers to the case in Arcadia as the duo’s “first catch back on the X-Files.” There is something quite hilarious about following up Two Fathers and One Son with a “business as usual” episode that basically harks back to the spirit of the zany paranormal romantic comedy that defined the show from Triangle through to The Rain King.

However, switching Arcadia out with Agua Mala sends a different sort of message. If Arcadia seemed to troll fans waiting for the show to fall back into its traditional style and format, then Agua Mala argues that the reopening of the X-files is no big deal. There are no trumpets and fanfare; there is no parade. This isn’t anything out of the usual. Mulder and Scully’s reassignment back to the basement is very much a muted affair. In fact, the first case they investigate after being reinstated is directed to Mulder’s apartment by a colleague rather than to his office.

There's an Art to it...

There’s an Art to it…

One of the interesting aspects about the decision to remove Mulder and Scully from the X-files in The Beginning was how incredibly casual the show was about the whole thing. Unlike the second season, there was no big push to get Mulder and Scully reinstated; there was no sense that Mulder was obsessed with reclaiming his office. Instead, Mulder and Scully very casually investigated their paranormal cases on their own time in their own way. The show seemed to be stressing just how inessential the X-files were to The X-Files.

Agua Mala reinforces this sense of triviality. In fact, Agua Mala could easily have aired before Two Fathers and One Son. Certainly there is no big difference between how Mulder and Scully stumble on to this case as compared to how they stumbled on to the case in The Rain King. In fact, Agua Mala would arguably have had more of an impact had it arrived before the big two-parter. Certainly, Arthur Dales’ enquiry as to whether Mulder is “the X-files man” that he claims to be would have an extra layer of irony were Mulder still reassigned away from the basement.

Scully remains skeptical...

Scully remains skeptical…

Indeed, Agua Mala never references or acknowledges the recent controversy surrounding the X-files. It is unclear whether Arthur Dales was even aware of the attempts to undermine and diminish his life’s work. It reinforces the sense that the X-files are really not that important in the grand scheme of the show. Although Agua Mala makes much of Dales’ long history with the department, he is presented as something akin to a wacky (and possibly tragic) uncle to Mulder and Scully. He does not seem like a professional predecessor to the duo.

There is something slightly frustrating about all this. It is perhaps an indicator of the limits of serialisation on The X-Files. For all that the show got a lot of credit for pioneering long-form serialisation on prime-time drama, the series was never particularly good at dealing with big changes in the short term. There was a very strong wall in place between the show’s central mythology and the regular “monster of the week” stories. That wall firmly separates the consequences of Two Fathers and One Son from the set-up of Arcadia or Agua Mala.

He has got all this locked down...

He has got all this locked down…

This is not the first time that something like this has happened. The last time that Mulder and Scully were reunited after the reopening of the X-files came in the middle of the second season; Firewalker felt similarly unsatisfying in its efforts to explore the consequences or fall out of Duane Barry and Ascension, as the show slipped back into its comfortable episodic mode. In a way, the transition to Agua Mala is worse than the transition to Firewalker; at least  Firewalker alluded to Mulder and Scully’s trauma by mirroring it through Daniel Trepkos and Jessie O’Neil.

Still, Agua Mala would be a disappointing episode even if it didn’t feel like an incongruous transition from Two Fathers and One Son. The episode is a disaster on multiple levels. It is the second script credited to David Amann, who acquit himself quite admirably on Terms of Endearment. Unfortunately, Agua Mala does not work nearly as well as his previous script. It feels like Amann was asked to suture together a script from a wide variety of conflicting elements that never really gel.

Deputy do-right...

Deputy do-right…

The End and the Beginning suggests as much, explaining that Amann’s original monster idea was radically reworked and retooled during the pitching process. Unsurprisingly, Arthur Dales was a character inserted into the narrative because the production team wanted to include actor Darren McGavin rather than because he fit organically with the story being told. This makes a great deal of sense, as Dales’ interactions with Mulder and Scully seem to bookend the narrative; although the show hints at the possibility of bringing him into the story, he remains outside it.

There are a number of interesting aspects of Arthur Dales’ appearance in Agua Mala. The character had been introduced in Travelers as the agent who “discovered” the X-files and who cultivated the department. He was firmly established as a piece of the show’s history and back story; even the framing sequences of Travelers that allowed Mulder to interact with Dales were set in 1990, eight years behind current X-Files continuity. There was a sense that their conversation in Travelers served as a passing of the metaphorical torch.

"We might be a little lost..."

“We might be a little lost…”

This decision to define Dales as part of the history of the X-files (and The X-Files) made a certain amount of sense, from a practical perspective. If Dales had been an active FBI agent in the early fifties, he would be pushing seventy in the early nineties. It was a reasonable choice to treat Dales as a character rooted in the show’s past, particularly during the fifth season – when it seemed like The X-Files was particularly fascinated with the nooks and crannies of X-files history and back story.

However, the sixth season has a very different perspective than the fifth season on matters like the passage of time. The fifth season tended to express its anxieties about the future by filling in gaps in the past and by focusing on the children who would shape that future. The sixth season is much more interested in the idea of the future as shaped by immortality; the idea of a perpetual moment that seems to stretch beyond the “now” and into the future. The sixth season suggests that it is possible for a moment to last forever.

A sting in the tale...

A sting in the tale…

This idea finds expression in Fellig’s (and Scully’s) imortality in Tithonus, the reset in Dreamland II and the constant repeat in Monday. The concept is suggested by the overlap between past and present in Triangle and in the way that the idea of eternal love underscoring How the Ghosts Stole Christmas. The incorporation of Arthur Dales into Agua Mala is arguably just an extension of the theme. Given how little Dales actually contributes to the plot, his presence is the point of itself. Dales is no longer simply a relic of the past, but part of the present as well.

Arthur Dales (and Darren McGavin) are important to Agua Mala because they demonstrate that the show can connect its past and its present with no real buffer. Dales appeared in a single episode of the fifth season isolated from the present moment by eight whole years. The sixth season planned to include Dales in two present-day episodes. Sadly, Darren McGavin’s health problems prevented him from appearing in The Unnatural, a sad reminder of the differences between the way that time passes in the real world as opposed to in the world of The X-Files.

Laugh it up, fuzzball...

Laugh it up, fuzzball…

Dales exists to suggest that The X-Files is ultimately timeless. Conversing with Mulder and Scully at the end of the episode, he seems to consider the possibility that his successors might be doing this job for a long time to come. He confesses, “It takes a big man to admit this, but… if I had had someone as savvy as her by my side all those years ago in the X-Files I might not have retired.” The implication is that Mulder and Scully could find themselves chasing down monsters until the end of time itself.

This is a recurring anxiety in the sixth season. Dales seems to be responding to Scully’s deep-set fear from the teaser to Dreamland I, the idea that Mulder and Scully will never get out of the car and will never have a life beyond this particular moment. With the massive success of the series and clear indications that it still had years ahead of it, it is understandable that the show might find itself a little afraid of immortality and the gravity of a familiar status quo that would always pull the show back to a recognisable format.

Doctor Scully's improvised home surgeries!

Doctor Scully’s improvised home surgeries!

After all, the opening stretch of the sixth season seemed to suggest that even burning the X-files could not stop Mulder and Scully from investigating the paranormal or supernatural. Arthur Dales stands in contrast to Mulder and Scully. Dales is a character who has essentially been allowed to complete his arc, an agent who has served his country and retired gracefully. In contrast, it seems like Mulder and Scully will find themselves unable to fully escape this status quo, no matter how hard they try. The show’s success traps them in that perpetual “now.”

Sadly, Dales adds nothing to Agua Mala beyond his presence. David Amann’s script makes a number of small nods and hints that Dales might have an arc within the story, but instead he sits comfortably at either end. At the start, he provides Mulder and Scully with a nice gateway into the story, and appears at the end of the story to reinforce the idea that the world of The X-Files is oddly timeless. He does appear once in the middle of the story, listening to the drama unfold over his old wireless radio. Unfortunately, he never wades into the action directly.

An ex-X-files man...

An ex-X-files man…

Agua Mala offers a few indications of a larger plan for Arthur Dales. The script repeatedly suggests that Dales has succumbed to alcoholism in his later years, making him something of a tragic figure. Scully finds bins full of empty bottles. “I think that Mr. Dales’ story is fueled by more than his imagination and not much deeper than the bottom of a highball,” Scully reflects. On discovering Dales summoned Mulder and Scully to investigate, Deputy Greer observes, “I got a call from him, too. Drunk as a skunk. What’s new?”

It is hard to tell what exactly Agua Mala is trying to do with Dales’ alcoholism. The episode might be trying to position it as a comedy punchline. After all, Mulder does not seem too concerned about his predecessor’s addiction. It provides a lazy punchline at the end of the episode, as Dales opens a bottle of whiskey for a toast. Pouring himself a glass, he doesn’t seem too eager to share. “A little of the… oh, uh… anyone for water?” he asks. Mulder and Scully respond in unison with a very forceful “no.”

"So, this sunshine getaway went horribly wrong..."

“So, this sunshine getaway went horribly wrong…”

It is worth pointing out that the idea of the comic drunken figure is a rich tradition in popular film and television. As Joan Silverman notes in Images of Alcoholism and Temperance in American Popular Culture, it dates back to the earliest days of American cinema:

Americans through the years have loved to laugh at the boozer. His misadventures, his staggers, his rolling and reeling, his pratfalls have all caused the public to laugh heartily. The screen ands stage drunk is a staple figure of fun from Rip [van Winkle] down to Charlie [Chaplin]. Whether he is outwitting his wife who is presented as a killjoy or enjoying and evening on the town with a buddy, he gains the sympathy of his audience who tend to regard him with friendly indulgence. Tipsiness in the comedies is usually of a periodic or binge character and is meant to be hilarious. Drink is seen as a delightful means of escape from a female-dominated world. It brings good fellowship and impulse release. (When women get drunk, by chance, they too become fun-loving and less formidable and fearsome.) . . . The drunks in the comedies are not real drunks. Members of the same audience when confronted with the genuine article would cross the street, walk hurriedly by, fish a dime out of their pockets or in some cases, summon the police or an ambulance. The last thing they would do is laugh.

There is a bit of a disconnect in how Agua Mala deals with Arthur Dales’ drinking problem. There are points where it seems to play it as something approaching comedy, but the jokes aren’t funny. As a result, it wanders into unrealised tragedy, with Mulder seemingly oblivious to the deteriorating lifestyle of a man who is a metaphorical father figure.

Shedding some light on the disappearance...

Shedding some light on the disappearance…

Then again, the fact that jokes aren’t funny is a recurring problem with Agua Mala. The episode is a mess from a structural perspective. Because the episode decides to spend so much time with Dales, it takes a while to get into the actual plot. Thanks to the awkward set-up, our lead characters do not arrive at the condominiums until around the twenty-minute mark. As a result, Mulder and Scully do not cross paths with most of the guest cast until almost the half-way point. The show does not have time to flesh out the characters, reducing them to stereotypes.

Dougie is a looter who cannot be trusted. He is introduced stealing a television set, and also promptly steals a watch and the group’s method of escape. George Vincent is a paranoid gun-touting loner with a short fuse and a host of anxieties. Deputy Greer is a well-intentioned law enforcement officer who simply is not too smart. Walter Suarez and Angela Villareal are a young Hispanic American couple expecting their first child in the middle of a thunderstorm. The characters are thinly-drawn. At best.

Walter's PPK...

Walter’s PPK…

In particular, Walter Suarez and Angela Villareal feel like something of a racist stereotype. Angela is the stock female hispanic character; she is forceful, loud, domineering. Walter seems to be bullied and cajoled. “Oh, Walter here doesn’t have a car,” she informs Mulder and Scully. “Not to mention a job.” That is a happy family. Even Dougie finds himself on the receiving end. “Now, who are you?” she demands. When Dougie replies that he is “nobody”, Angela responds, “Oh, well, it is so nice to be surrounded by so many great men.”

It all feels somewhat ill-judged. The X-Files has been prone to making unfortunate decisions in its portrayal of minorities in episodes like Teso Dos Bichos, Teliko, El Mundo Gira and Badlaa. It really feels like somebody should have paused during the production and pointed out that Walter Suarez and Angela Villareal are not funny; they are just racist caricatures. That said, it is not as if there is anything particularly funny happening around them. Dougie and George are also unfunny “comedy” supporting characters, they just happen not to be racial stereotypes.

Welts and all...

Welts and all…

According to director Rob Bowman in The End and the Beginning, the decision to play up the comedy came quite late in the creative process:

“It had a couple of tricky elements in it,” he says. “The first was the big squid. I didn’t know if it was going to look scary or not. The second was the rest of the story. I didn’t know if it would be compelling enough. But, in the end, we wiggled the camera and had the creature come in and out of the lights quickly to make it scarier. Then we played up the humor, to let the audience know that not all of this was supposed to be hard-edged drama – and I think it all came out very well; a hell of a lot better than I was afraid it might.”

It makes sense that Agua Mala might struggle so fiercely with its own comedy elements. The production team only decided to play them up when it was clear that the episode would not work as a horror story.

When it rains...

When it rains…

There is something quite rote and familiar about the comedy elements of Agua Mala. The gags are broad and overly familiar. The revelation that Angela Villareal is pregnant all but guarantees that she will give birth at the climax. It feels a bt cliché that Scully is the one to deliver the child. Her medical background and her grounding in the real world makes her a logical choice. If Agua Mala had to do the “pregnant woman in a disaster” cliché, it would have been funnier to have Mulder deliver the baby. It might not have saved the bit, but it would have been less predictable.

Then again, a lot of Agua Mala suffers from the sense that the script is incomplete. The filmed script feels like a first draft, the rough outline of an idea rather than the finished product. This is most obvious in the awkward structuring of the sequences at the condominium. The story keeps cutting away from the moments of genuine tension, as if David Amann is unsure exactly what should follow. Instead, the script jumps from these high-tension moments to the next plot point or piece of exposition.

Back in the basement...

Back in the basement…

For example, one of the acts breaks with a tentacle lashing out at Mulder from the ceiling. Instead of picking up from this tense moment, the next act picks up with Mulder already stunned by the creature and wandering through the corridors when Scully finds him. It feels like the script is making a conscious effort to avoid the kind of suspense that might come from Mulder’s confrontation with the sea monster – or, perhaps, that the script is acknowledging the limitations of the show’s special effects department.

The problem resurfaces at the climax, when the creature finally begins its assault on the survivors trapped in the condominium and Mulder lies dying in the hallway. As Scully delivers the baby, she tries to manage the situation through Walter. “Shoot out the sprinklers!” she insists. “Just point and shoot! Shoot out the sprinklers!” As Walter shoots, the episode cuts to black. The episode then picks up with Mulder and Scully conversing with Arthur Dales about their lucky escape.

"And now you know the rest of the story..."

“And now you know the rest of the story…”

The script tries to fill in the blanks with dialogue, as if the climax that the script wanted was too budget-restrictive and so the production team had to make do with three actors on a closed set. “Well,” Scully exposits, “you wouldn’t have known to go out in the rain if I hadn’t pointed it out that to you that it was the fresh water that killed the organism…” Mulder rejects that assertion, “I saw the Shipley’s cat.” The episode never shows us Mulder crawling into the rain, just like it doesn’t show us Scully defeating the monster.

In fact, Agua Mala doesn’t even fill the audience in on what happened with any of the characters beyond the baby – “Leroy Walter Villareal Suarez, Junior.” It seems reasonable to assume that Walter did not accidentally shoot George and that George was cured by the water from the sprinkler system, but the episode seems completely disinterested in the fates of those characters. They have served their narrative purpose of bringing the episode close to its forty-five minute runtime. There is no further use for them.

"My God," thinks Sully, "this is like looking into Mulder's future."

“My God,” thinks Sully, “this is like looking into Mulder’s future.”

Truth be told, Agua Mala just seems glad to be over. A sentiment with which a lot of the audience might empathise.

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5 Responses

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this episode–it was funny, scary, and that last exchange was priceless.

    • I’m a bit less keen myself, but I’m glad that you enjoyed it. (Different strokes for different folks.)

      • I guess so! At least production and writing were solid 😉

      • I’m rewatching the whole series, so today I had my patience tested by this episode, and it’s really terrible; perhaps this was a recurrent problem back in the nineties when TV shows (not only The X-Files) had those maratonic seasons of 20 plus episodes with many crappy fillers. “Agua Mala” seems so desperate to be funny that ends up being annoying. It’s a total mess, and has this very awkward moment when Scully doesn’t give a damn about Mulder’s life rather spending precious minutes delivering the baby of a complete stranger. Anyway, thank you very much for these reviews, I read them everyday keep the good work!

      • Thanks for the kind words, Johnny! I’m glad you’re enjoying them!

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