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The X-Files – Arcadia (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.

Arcadia was originally produced directly after Two Fathers and One Son. It was moved later in the broadcast cycle because it needed more post-production work than Agua Mala or Monday. Looking at the finished product, one suspects that the garbage monster posed no shortage of problems for the production team. Whatever the reason, Arcadia was shifted down two slots in the broadcast order. This is a shame on multiple levels. Most obviously, “Mulder and Scully go undercover as a suburban couple” would have been a great sweeps episode.

More than that, though, there is something delightfully subversive in the idea that Arcadia is the first case that Mulder and Scully are assigned after reclaiming their iconic basement office at the end of One Son. The decision to reassign Mulder and Scully to the X-files would seem to promised a return to the status quo after a weird stretch earlier in the season (from Triangle to The Rain King) where The X-Files turned into a weird paranormal romantic comedy. Fan reaction to this stretch of the show was (and still is) polarised.

So happy together...

So happy together…

However, instead of reassuring those fans wanting a return to more traditional X-Files aesthetic, Arcadia reasserts the “quirky domestic comedy” tone of shows like Dreamland I, Dreamland II or How the Ghosts Stole Christmas. In fact, it’s telling how completely disinterested Arcadia is in the fact that Mulder and Scully are back on the X-files for the first time since the end of the fifth season. There’s a quick exchange referencing their reassignment, but no examination of the fallout of One Son. There is not even a single scene set in the familiar basement set.

As such, Arcadia seems quite cheeky. It celebrates the return to the show’s classic status quo by ignoring it almost completely. Arcadia is a silly little relationship comedy that could easily have aired in the first stretch of the season, its positioning here feeling like a playful tease of those fans clamouring for the return of a classical approach to the series. Unfortunately, a lot of that gets lost in the shuffling of the episode around in the broadcast schedule. Using Agua Mala and Monday to insulate Arcadia from Two Fathers and One Son undercuts its cheeky charm.

There goes the neighbourhood...

There goes the neighbourhood…

The post-production delay on Arcadia hurts the episode. Instead of a cheeky tweaking of fandom’s nose, Arcadia becomes a fairly middling mid to late season instalment. It is not as limp and lifeless as Agua Mala or Alpha, but not as insightful and fun as Monday. In fact, while Arcadia contains a few chuckles, the episode lacks the charm of something like Triangle or How the Ghosts Stole Christmas (or even The Rain King). Arcadia feels like it takes the cheesy teasing of a Mulder/Scully relationship just a little too far.

In many ways, The Rain King represented the point at which the show should have pressed forward with a romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully; regardless of whether the viewer is a shipper or a noromo, the teasing had reached critical mass, and it was time to commit one way or another. Arcadia instead insists that the show remains decidedly noncommittal, trying to have the best of all possible worlds. There comes a point where the show feels like it is just “trolling.”

"Well, this is easy enough..."

“Well, this is easy enough…”

It is worth stressing just how controversial the sixth season was when it was originally broadcast. It was a period of great transition for the show. Not only was The X-Files coming off of a massive feature film and its highest-rated season ever, the production had also moved to Los Angeles at the behest of David Duchovny. Not only did the move to Los Angeles increase the show’s budget, it also radically and dramatically changed the look and feel of the show. Longer days and desert climates meant The X-Files became literally brighter.

It also became figuratively brighter as well. The tone of the show seemed to change to match its new surroundings. The Beginning and Drive worked hard to reassure viewers that the show had not changed completely, but then the sixth season launched into a string of adventurous and silly episodes that were utterly unlike the dark and brooding show that so many fans had come to love. It was a rather sharp left-turn for the series, which had risen to prominence as a dark and gloomy show with a rich and moody atmosphere.

Maybe he spent seven years in Tibet...

Maybe he spent seven years in Tibet…

Fandom reacted to this predictably. It seemed like the fans were all but ready to mutiny at the changes that had taken place. This frustration really came to the fore during the seventh season, when the sarcastic nickname “X-Files Lite” became part of the discourse around the show, but it was deeply rooted in the sharp change of tone and mood in the sixth season. As Richard Preece noted in his defense of the era:

Interestingly though, most of the complaints regarding ‘lite’ episodes occurred during season six, the reason for this is fairly obvious. The season contained more ‘lite’ episodes than any other and contained a succession of five ‘lite’ episodes (Triangle, Dreamland, Dreamland II, How The Ghosts Stole Christmas, and The Rain King) with only one serious episode (Terms of Endearment) to separate them.

To be fair, this really is a legitimate complaint. ‘Lite’ episodes work best as an occasional relief from ‘ordinary’ episodes and I for one would hate to see ‘lite’ episodes every week – they work far better in moderation. Having said that, nobody disparaged season four (which contained the Scully ‘cancer arc’) because it was too depressing and after six years I don’t begrudge the writers the chance to have a little fun with their characters.

This reaction to the sixth season of the show was so strong that the production team actually took note of it during the production of the seventh and the eighth seasons of the show. In particular, it is revealing that the eighth season of The X-Files is perhaps the most dour and sincere that the show had been since its first year on television.

My grandmother used to do the same thing...

My grandmother used to do the same thing…

However, while it seems like The X-Files would eventually acknowledge and work through these fanbase anxieties, it feels like Arcadia was written specifically to tease them out. Arcadia was produced right after One Son put Mulder and Scully back on the X-files. However, there is a minimal acknowledgement of this massive return to the show’s classic status quo. In fact, the sixth season is so disinterested in Mulder and Scully’s return to the basement that we don’t even get to see them reassigned. Spender suggests the idea; and then they are back.

Fans hoping that reassigning Mulder and Scully to the X-files would bring a sense of normality back to the show would inevitably be disappointed by an episode that featured Mulder and Scully playing house together. The script is very keenly aware of just how much it is upsetting those traditional viewers, with Mulder whining about how this “isn’t an X-file” – a sentiment that undoubtedly resonated with countless angry newsgroup users growing more and more frustrated with what the show had become.

Luckily, Mike has a power hose...

Luckily, Mike has a power hose…

In fact, Mulder and Scully’s argument seems to be a none-too-subtly veiled acknowledgement of fandom’s growing impatience. “Mulder, if we ever go undercover again I get to choose the names, okay?” Scully informs him. “It just tells me that you’re not taking this seriously.” Mulder responds, “I just don’t understand why we’re on it. It’s our first catch back on the X-files. This isn’t an X-file.” Scully retorts, “Sure it is. It’s unexplained. What do you want, aliens? Tractor beams?” Mulder answers back, “Wow. Admit it: you just want to play house.”

It is a conversation that feels designed to highlight the perceived split in X-Files fandom between those fans who watch for the dynamic between Mulder and Scully (hoping they might “play house”) and those who are more interested in the procedural weird science stuff (“aliens? tractor beams?”). This is perhaps a gross generalisation of the show’s fanbase – people can like two things! – but it does accurately capture some of the debate and discussion happening around the sixth season of the show.

Down the drain...

Down the drain…

The argument about whether The X-Files is a show about Mulder and Scully hanging out or a show about two FBI agents investigating weird stuff can be read as a gendered debate within fandom. In her exploration of shipping within West Wing fandom, Rebecca Williams argued that these sorts of debates played out as power struggles within fandom about the “right” way to read the material, with certain approaches described as “wrong”:

As Bird points out, melodramatic texts are often deemed to be vulgar and manipulative and often associated with the feminine and shipping has often been perceived as a culturally feminised fan practice due to its associations with romance, love, and emotionality. It is thus possible that any insinuation that ‘quality’ drama programmes are connected to these activities may tarnish those genres, correlating them with culturally feminised, and often devalued, notions of love and romance. Furthermore, the gender politics of fandom continue to be debated and despite much work on the positive ways in which female fans can use their fandom, many fan communities continue to be subject to differences in how male and female fans respond to both the fan object and to one another. In many fandoms any perceived feminisation of a fan object is dismissed by male fans who remain keen to maintain the boundaries of ‘appropriate’, often masculinised, fan discourses.

Arcadia goes out of its way to argue that any fandom of The X-Files centred around the joy of watching “Mulder and Scully have wacky adventures together” cannot be wrong. Just because Mulder and Scully are back in the basement does not mean that the show is going to ease up on the throttle. Arcadia exists to suggest that episodes like Triangle and The Rain King were not simply “off-format time-killers” between The Beginning and One Son. This is the show.

Through the looking glass...

Through the looking glass…

While it is interesting to see The X-Files engage so directly with the schism taking place within its own fanbase, there are a couple of uncomfortable elements to all this. The most obvious concern is purely practical. David Duchovny had already made it clear that he was growing more and more anxious about life beyond The X-Files. He has signed a two-year contract at the end of the fifth season, dragging the production with him to Los Angeles. He was quite clear in interviews that he was still not entirely satisfied with a long-term future on the show.

The emphasis on the dynamic between Mulder and Scully in the sixth season feels a little ill-judged in light of this simple production reality. It already seemed quite unlikely that David Duchovny would be departing the show in just over a year. Tying the premise of the show to his character so forcefully feels like a miscalculation. If the sixth season argues that The X-Files is more about Mulder and Scully than about the X-files themselves, what happens when there is no Mulder? It is a very risky position to endorse so completely.

Worst neighbour ever...

Worst neighbour ever…

It could be argued that the show had already pinned its colours to the mast with the closure of the X-files at the start of the second season, but those early second season episodes have a different emphasis and tone than the sixth season episodes. Likely due to Anderson’s pregnancy, those early second season episodes seemed to say “The X-Files is about Mulder investigating weird stuff and occasionally Scully is there!” In contrast, the early sixth season episodes seem to say “The X-Files is about Mulder and Scully hanging out and then weird stuff happens!”

In a way, the emphasis on the relationship between Mulder and Scully at the start of the sixth season would cause severe problems for the show going forward. The eighth season was able to hold itself together by making the search for Mulder it’s primary narrative concern before David Duchovny actually showed up towards the end of the season. The ninth season had no such luck, effectively turning The X-Files into a show that was primarily about a character who could not be bothered to turn up.

"Shhh... I'm supposed to appearing in the E.R. sweeps episodes right now..."

“Shhh… I’m supposed to appearing in the E.R. sweeps episodes right now…”

There are other more pressing problems with this approach. It forces Mulder and Scully into traditional gender roles. In the self-aware discussion of what does and does not constitute an X-file, Mulder becomes the voice of stereotypical masculine fandom. It is Mulder who complains that this is not really an X-file, and who is angry at Scully because she is happy to go along with this and to “play house.” It feels like Arcadia gender stereotypes both the internal debate about what the show should be and Mulder and Scully.

After all, one of the most striking aspects of the dynamic between Mulder and Scully is the way that it tends to turn gendered stereotypes on their head. Mulder is cast as the sensitive and emotive member of the duo, while Scully is stoic and rational. Mulder seems to cry at the drop of a hat, while Scully works hard to maintain a detachment from her work. The inversion of masculine and feminine stereotypes was one of the most striking aspects of the partnership between Mulder and Scully.

Ironic...

Ironic…

It feels like Arcadia presents a more generic and normative depiction of the dynamic between Mulder and Scully, forcing the duo into more conventional roles as they go undercover as a married couple. As Elyce Rae Helford notes in Scully Hits the Glass Ceiling:

The sixth season is dominated by “virtual marriage” episodes that woo the fans with self-parody, nostalgia, and fantasy romance. These take place in alternative universes or liminal spaces: for instance, a ship caught in a Bermuda Triangle time warp in the 1940s, where Mulder finds a Scully look-alike (Triangle), a suburb in Area 51 where Mulder changes identities and acquires a family (Dreamland), and a house haunted by a comically co-dependent ghost couple who talk Mulder and Scully into reenacting their love death (How the Ghosts Stole Christmas). All these episodes are nuclear family sitcoms, X-Files style. Arcadia employs a “feminist” text as a cover for the following fan teaser: Mulder and Scully, investigating mysterious disappearances in an upscale, oppressively conventional gated community (The Stepford Wives was one model), pose as a married couple named after the Dick Van Dyke Show’s Rob and Laura Petrie. After the requisite clutching and cooing in public, with Mulder uriously overacting his role as protector/possessor and Scully wincing and flinching away, they get ready for bed and fall to bickering. We get the sitcom-ish clichés (the toilet seat dispute, squeezing the toothpaste wrong, wife in the mud mask), with Mulder and Scully reacting as if this were nothing new for them – the point being that Mulder and Scully virtually are an old married couple. As Lyda, the ghost, explains to Scully, “Your only joy in life is proving [Mulder] wrong.” These episodes broadly mock the Freudian family sitcom but in doing so replicate it in nostalgic detail, reassuring the audience that it is (quite firmly) in place. The X-Files has been infected with a virus called Ally McBeal.

The problem is not so much that Arcadia goes for these stereotypes to provide cheap laughs, but that it is indicative of a larger pattern in how The X-Files is treating the relationship between Mulder and Scully.

"I see a mailbox and I want to paint it white..."

“I see a mailbox and I want to paint it white…”

There is a sense that Mulder and Scully are being forced into more conventional gender roles in order to facilitate a more conventional romantic relationship. The sixth season does not only have a romantic theme running through it, it has a very conventional heteronormative stereotypical romantic theme running through it. Earlier episodes hinting at a possible romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully tended to emphasise the differences between that relationship and a supposedly “normal” romance.

Perhaps the most obvious example, War of the Coprophages suggested that Mulder and Scully might be perfect for each other because there really is no alternative for either of them. However, it played through other episodes. Quagmire offered Mulder and Scully something of a shared vacation, in which they took the pet dog, and spent a long evening talking about how Scully might be Starbuck to Mulder’s Ahab. Detour suggested that the two characters occupied a space between working partners and cohabiting couple.

Next for the chopping block...

Next for the chopping block…

In contrast, the sixth season repeatedly suggests that Mulder and Scully are a much more conventional romantic couple. After all, The Beginning takes the duo away from the X-files, as if to suggest that they hang out for other reasons. In How the Ghosts Stole Christmas, Mulder and Scully are juxtaposed with the immortal spirits of lovers Maurice and Lyda. In The Rain King, they are contrasted with the unspoken love between Holman Hardt and Sheila Fontaine. In Arcadia, the duo are explicitly sent undercover as a middle-class married couple.

There is a weird sense that The X-Files is not just teasing a romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully, it is teasing the most generic romantic relationship possible. One of the more interesting facets of the relationship between Mulder and Scully in the first half-decade of the show was the sense that they were consciously avoiding the standard romance narrative. They both had their own apartments, their own lives, their own careers. They did not conform to the depictions traditionally associated with television power couples.

Putting the matter to bed...

Putting the matter to bed…

Up through the end of the fifth season, it was quite possible that the two were in a more than platonic (perhaps even sexual) relationship that simply took place between the scenes of the show. The shared motel room in Detour, the flirting in Schizogeny and the jealousy in Bad Blood all suggest something more than a professional relationship. However, the almost!hallway kiss in The X-Files: Fight the Future and the denial of anything more than platonic friendship in The Rain King seem like a conscious attempt to reframe the debate.

As such, it seems like the sixth season represents a step backwards for any possible romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully, because it suggests that a non-normative relationship is simply not worth the same level of attention or interest. Episodes like How the Ghosts Stole Christmas, The Rain King and Arcadia suggest that the relationship between Mulder and Scully needs to be conventional in order to be valid. As with the emphasis on Mulder and Scully, this is an approach that will cause problems in the longer term.

"Dinner for schmucks..."

“Dinner for schmucks…”

The future seasons of The X-Files run into a great deal of difficulty when they try to transition Mulder and Scully from two dysfunctional adults in a rather strange relationship towards a more conventional definition of a nuclear family. The ninth season has many problems, but one of the biggest issues with the season is the difficulty that the show has with the change in emphasis. It struggles with the idea of Mulder and Scully as a romantic couple, and as parents. It quickly becomes clear that the show has no idea where to go with that particular take on the dynamic.

Scully is particularly affected by this shift in emphasis as the show moves on. It seems like a major part of pushing Mulder and Scully towards a more conventional relationship is pushing Scully into a more traditional feminine role. Scully has been characterised in an increasingly stereotypically feminine manner since the end of the third season and into the fourth. Episodes like Revelations, Christmas Carol, Emily and All Souls emphasised the idea that Scully desperately wants to be a mother. First season episodes like The Jersey Devil had rejected the idea.

"Mulder, it's okay. I can wait here. You go fight the poop monster."

“Mulder, it’s okay. I can wait here. You go fight the poop monster.”

In Arcadia, Mulder jokes that she wants to “play house.” While Scully seems less than amused by Mulder’s snipe, the script seems to support his position. While Mulder has a great deal of fun with the set-up, Scully goes above and beyond the call of duty in committing to their suburban life. While there is undoubtedly an element of professionalism to it, she remains “in-character” when they are alone. Scully falls quickly into the role of shrewish wife wearing her face mask as she berates her partner for leaving the toilet seat up. (“Third warning.”)

It is not as if this the only way that Arcadia feels like a disservice to Scully as a character. The climax of the episode finds Scully trapped in a closet while Mulder deals with the monster that has been brutally murdering the residents of the Falls at Arcadia. It is a rather cringe-worthy sequence, because it feels like it harks back to those early X-Files episodes where Scully was never allowed to see the monster because it might undermine her position as the resident “sceptic” of the duo. It feels like the show should be past lazy tricks like that in the sixth season.

There is also a considerable irony in the fact that so much of Arcadia is written to spoof and parody conformity within suburbia, while the episode continues a trend to “normalise” the increasingly romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully. It feels like there is a tonal dissonance at the heart of the episode, suggesting that that conformity is only acceptable in matters of romance and sexuality. That said, it is quite amusing that Skinner came up with the idea of Mulder and Scully posing as husband and wife. As with Paper Hearts, it feels like Skinner is definitely a shipper.

It is a shame, since there are some interesting ideas here. As with Dreamland I and Dreamland II, there is a weirdness to putting Mulder and Scully in a domestic situation. When The X-Files launched in 1993, it was a show that prided itself on being “young” and “hip.” It was a show for young professionals with a taste in trendy entertainment. It was fun and exciting and dynamic. However, The X-Files is a much older show than it once was. It is no longer a young pup, but a veritable institution.

I'd making a wedding night video quip here, but Mulder beat me too it.

I’d making a wedding night video quip here, but Mulder beat me too it.

Almost six years later, the show’s audience has grown up. So have David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson; when Arcadia aired, Duchovny was thirty-eight and Anderson was thirty. However, as the sixth season loves to point out, Mulder and Scully have not grown up at all. Dreamland I suggested that they might spend their lives in a car driving from strange case to strange case; Monday suggested that the duo might be caught in their own personal time loop, with no real sense of forward progress or momentum.

There is something amusing at looking at Mulder and Scully forced to deal with some of the pains of grown-up living, moving out of their apartments and retiring to a quiet life in the suburbs. It’s fun to see Mulder and Scully making banal dinner table conversation with another couple or dealing with local residents’ associations. Even seeing Mulder and Scully out of their stylish suits and dressed in casual wear makes for a striking visual. As with Dreamland I, there is a sense that this is the closest that our heroes might come to living a grown up life.

I like Mike...

I like Mike…

In a way, Arcadia emphasises just how little the audience has actually seen of Mulder and Scully outside of working hours. Sure, there is the odd celebratory birthday dinner like in Tempus Fugit, but Mudler and Scully really don’t seem to have a life outside their work. As Michael Valdez Moses points out in Kingdom of Darkness:

It is remarkable how infrequently in The X-Files and Millennium we see any of the main characters engaged in the activities of civil associations. Carter’s protagonists are not members of local sports clubs; they don’t attend concerts or perform in amateur musical groups; they don’t volunteer time for charitable organisations; they don’t participate in the activities of local business associations or trade groups; they rarely, if ever, attend or throw parties.

This is arguably as much down to economy of storytelling as it is to a clear creative or thematic decision. The reason Mulder and Scully likely never developed a life outside the X-files in the first few seasons is because there was likely no time to waste on fleshing out that life. However, the show itself seemed to realise and capitalise on this idea, emphasising Mulder and Scully’s relative isolation from the world as the show went on.

He just... didn't fit in.

He just… didn’t fit in.

Episodes in the fourth season like Never Again, Memento Mori and Tempus Fugit made a point to emphasise the relative isolation of Mulder and Scully from the outside world, underscoring how much both characters had sacrificed for each other and for their cause. In contrast, the sixth season seems to suggest that Mulder and Scully might be willing to tentatively venture back into the world together on their own terms. Even the wrapping up of the conspiracy in Two Fathers and One Son seemed to clear their social schedules for other fun.

The Rain King has them playing matchmaker in a small Kansas town; Arcadia has them playing house in a California suburb; The Unnatural will find them playing baseball together. Even the first stretch of the sixth season is essentially Mulder and Scully sharing weird paranormal date nights after hours. It is a very different take on The X-Files than anything attempted in the first five seasons, and so it has a novelty value to it. More often than not, these playful sixth season episodes are flawed experiments; but they are generally enjoyable despite these problems.

A dirty secret...

A dirty secret…

Arcadia also taps into the recurring fear of conformity that ripples through the entirety of the show’s nine-year run. This anxiety is reflected in the mythology’s fixation on issues like cloning and shape-shifting, but also plays out through various monster of the week stories. In particular, Terms of Endearment was a story about the horrors committed by a monster who just wanted to a “normal” family. In Arcadia, these fears of conformity are reflected in the vast sprawl of suburbia. “Be like the others,” Mulder is warned, “before it gets dark.”

The homogeneity of life in the suburbs was a recurring anxiety in American popular culture, but it seemed to build to a crescendo in the nineties. Millennium devoted a loose triptych of episodes in its first season to exploring the evils lurking in suburbia – The Well-Worn Lock, Wide Open and Weeds. American Beauty would be released only a few months after Arcadia was broadcast, and would take home the Best Picture Oscar a few months later. Arcadia plays on similar ideas.

Partners in more than just crime-fighting?

Partners in more than just crime-fighting?

According to The End and the Beginning, writer Daniel Arkin was inspired by his own experiences in crafting the story:

The idea for this semi-comedic story  – the first  X Files written by first-year staff writer Daniel Arkin  – came partly from  a 1991 incident in which Arkin, then an instructor at New York University, moved into a co-op apartment in Manhattan’s  Greenwich Village.

“Our movers were late,” says Arkin , “and we didn’t start moving in until 4 p.m. Little did we know – not having read all  three hundred pages of our CC and Rs – that we were going to be fined for moving in after 5 p.m. It cost us a thousand dollars.”

Over the following years, adds Arkin, several of the more successful friends moved out of their apartments and older  houses and into uptight planned communities  – a development that he frankly found “kind of frightening.” In other words, good raw material for an X-File.

In fact, Mulder and Scully encounter their own move-in deadline on arriving at the eponymous suburban development.

That's like thirty percent of The X-Files right there...

That’s like thirty percent of The X-Files right there…

The themes underscoring Arcadia are so quintessentially X-Files that it is possible to read this planned community as a microcosm of the show’s central conspiracy storyline. In this case, a powerful white man conspires with forces he cannot control in order to impose his own order on the world. To paraphrase a more recent television series, both the conspirators and Gene Gogolak seem like men who would burn down the world if it meant they could be kings of the ashes. Or, in Gogolak’s case, the garbage heap.

The similarities extend beyond the broad plot. At a dinner with members of the local community, Gogolak excuses the women from the table before talking business. Much like the show’s central conspiracy, there is a clear undercurrent of misogyny to the workings of the Falls at Arcadia. The imagery flows in the other direction as well. When the conspiracy returns over the Biogenesis three-parter, The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati reimagines the conspirators as a group of suburban neighbours holed up together as the outside world burns.

Going green...

Going green…

These sorts of exclusive estates impose their own order on their members, a homogeneity that created the impression of little communities sequestered away from the hustle and bustle of the modern world. There are points where this over-zealous community maintenance can seem xenophobic. In 1997, two years before Arcadia aired, the community of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia became the site of such a racially-charged conflict. Michelle and Barry Burton, two African Americans artists, came under fire when they opened an art dealership in the community.

Myrna Pope of the Aesthetics Committee argued that the shop’s bright storefront “works beautifully in the southern climates, but it doesn’t work in the northern climates.”  The incident was a minor national controversy. The Burtons soon left the community. in Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia. Myrna Pope is still there. “It is thanks to the Aesthetic Committee especially Myrna and Patricia that we have a McDonald’s that doesn’t look like the highway model,” reads an article from 2012, praising her work in maintaining the community’s atmosphere.

What a couple of winners...

What a couple of winners…

As Gareth Doherty noted in Urbanisms of Color, the control is not restricted to communities with long histories and can even extend to even the colour of the house:

New gated communities that have no claim to history or taste of elite families often control exterior colour not to reify one group over another but to modulate choice within a limited range to maintain property values. Uncertainty, the enemy of real estate values, is avoided by controlling any choice that might deviate from the normative masking identity differences. In Summerlin, a master-planned community in Las Vagas, Design Review Committees are part of the corporate management structure. Like Historical and Aesthetics Committees in old communities, they seek to assure “the continuity of character which helps preserve the property appearance and seeks to protect the overall value of every property.” Most choices are limited to variations of what might be termed “oatmeal architecture” – a bland palette of shades of tan with accent colour earth tones. In the fast-changing commercial world, the ubiquity of oatmeal architecture reifies a bland, soulless, corporate world and is as controlled as Pleasantville.

Doherty alludes to the film Pleasantville, another late nineties exploration of the smothering power of suburbia. In Pleasantville, two modern-day teenagers find themselves transported into the greyscale world of a fifties suburban soap opera.

One of the recurring themes of Pleasantville is the connection between smaller-scale suppression of the individual and larger societal trends. “This movie is about the fact that personal repression gives rise to larger political oppression,” director Gary Ross observed of the film. “That when we’re afraid of certain things in ourselves or we’re afraid of change, we project those fears on to other things, and a lot of very ugly social situations can develop.” It is an idea that reverberates through Arcadia, where the community’s darker impulses take the shape of a poop monster.

The idea that the community featured in Arcadia was built on landfill is delightfully clever – on a number of levels. On the most superficial level, it plays quick skilfully on the old trope of building something on “an ancient Indian burial ground.” In a way, it is simply a variation upon a theme; what is a structure built on “an ancient Indian burial ground” but a symbol of the destruction caused by the “civilisation” brought by the European settlers? It is an inherent commentary on the way that the United States was built upon the genocide of the Native Americans.

Arcadia applies that sentiment on an even broader level. The Falls at Arcadia is built on a literal dumping ground. All the astroturf in the world cannot cover the rot nestled in the community’s foundations. It is the perfect signifier of the decay and filth that underpins the suburban estate. Admittedly, the episode doesn’t necessarily realise this idea particularly well – the monster at the heart of Arcadia is one of the least impressive monsters of the show’s run, even shot in shadows – but the idea running through it is interesting.

In a way, this is indicative of Arcadia as a whole. It is an episode with a wealth of great ideas, but one which doesn’t always execute them in the most compelling or exciting of manners. The result is an uneven episode that tends towards extremes. Like the eponymous community, it seems quite impressive from a distance, but there are problems just beneath the surface.

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

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4 Responses

  1. This ep was particularly frustrating to me because I early on I read Mulder and Scully playing house as a clever way to demonstrate how throughly the characters and their relationship subverted traditional roles and definitions. The tone of the episode’s first act–Hot Fuzz-esque in it’s winking over-the-top-ness, with Mulder and Scully rolling their eyes while playing into the charade–seemed to confirm this reading.

    However, like you pointed out, the ep doesn’t wind up making good of this set up and in fact forces it towards normalization, even as it seemed to point out earlier why that wouldn’t work. This ep seems like a pretty fitting encapsulation of how the show doesn’t know how it wants to navigate Mulder and Scully’s relationship anymore–Growing pains, I guess. Great review, as always.

  2. I really enjoyed your review. You put your finger on just what bothers me about this episode. I don’t like that Mulder’s unflattering stereotypical male behavior (Woman, make me a sandwich), is clearly a joke, but Scully’s unflattering stereotypical female stuff (toothpaste/toilet seat/face mask) is presented as really Scully. Cheap stunt, beneath what I expect from the show.

    One other thing I need to address. You talk about the “shared room” in Detour, and you’ve referred to this in other reviews. Now, I’m a shipper to the core and would love to imagine Mulder and Scully sharing a room, but I just don’t think it happened in Detour. When Scully came to the door carrying wine and cheese, she knocked. Clearly she was intending to spend time in the room with Mulder, but if they were sharing the room she wouldn’t have knocked. And the next morning when she went back to pack their things, she was packing up two separate rooms. I’ve probably spent far too much time thinking about this…please tell me if I’m missing something…I’m willing to adjust my head canon if necessary.

    • That’s a fair point. Looking back, Mulder’s line is “I must remind you this goes against the Bureau’s policy of male and female agents consorting in the same motel room while on assignment.” Consorting could obviously apply to just having the wine and cheese. And probably does. Although I did find it odd that the two agents weren’t partnered up with their male and female team-building partners.

      I love The X-Files a lot, but there are moments when the show can feel quite retrograde. I think some of the Mulder/Scully “relationship” stuff in the sixth and seventh (and particularly ninth!) stuff plays into that. Which is paradoxical, given that their ambiguous relationship in the first five seasons felt very much of the times; at a time when romantic and sexual relationships were less readily coded, Mulder and Scully seemed to capture the spirit of the nineties.

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