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The X-Files – Milagro (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.

The teaser establishes the mood quite quickly. It is a rather striking opening sequence for an episode of The X-Files, focusing on a writer staring at a blank page. The sequence cuts through time as the writer searches for inspiration, trying to take his cue from the index cards helpfully arranged on the wall. Eventually, the writer makes a grand gesture. He reaches into his chest, and pulls out his heart. It is a very effective opening sequence, one that makes it clear that Milagro will not be a normal episode of The X-Files.

The sequence also makes it clear that Milagro will not will it be a subtle piece of television. The teaser is not a particularly elegant metaphor, but it is an effective one. What is writing but tearing out a piece of yourself? Sometimes you have to wear your heart on your sleeve; sometimes you have to put it on the page. The teaser to Milagro is a very earnest piece of work from Chris Carter, a clear acknowledgement that what follows is a deeply personal piece of work.

Burning heart...

Burning heart…

To be fair to Milagro, it does work reasonably well on its own terms. Asked to cite some of his favourite work on the show, director Kim Manners pointed to Milagro as a story that resonated with him:

“I’ve always been keen to do a Western,” he says enthusiastically. “Or just a good human interest story. I’d have cut my arm off to be able to direct The Green Mile. Did you see that movie? Truly amazing. And American Beauty. I would have loved to have done that. Simple stories — those human interest pieces really appeal to me. That’s why I enjoyed doing Milagro, because Milagro was a character study.”

Milagro is more than just a “human interest piece” or a “character study”, but it hangs together quite well when viewed through that particular lens.

Drawing a blank...

Drawing a blank…

The character of Phillip Padgett is very much a creep, but he is a sympathetic and nuanced creep. He feels very much like a companion to characters like Alfred Fellig from Tithonus or Clyde Bruckman from Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, perhaps explaining why Scully might be drawn to him in spite of his creepiness. One of the recurring themes of The X-Files is a sense of isolation and alienation in the nineties, the idea that perhaps everybody is alone in their own way. Padget’s empty apartment suggests an empty life, one quite removed from any human attachments.

Phillip Padgett is another in the long line of eccentric and dysfunctional X-Files guest stars who seem truly adrift in the modern world. Padgett lives in a tiny apartment with a view of a red brick wall through his window. “A view only a writer can appreciate.” Padgett’s existence seems to be an expression of anomie, of a deep-seated purposelessness. Padgett’s writing is just a way of putting order to chaos, a safe filter through which he might process an otherwise hostile and alien world outside of his sparsely-decorated room.

Watching her like a Hawkes...

Watching her like a Hawkes…

Milagro benefits from a superb guest performance from character actor John Hawkes. Hawkes had already guest starred in The Judge from the first season of Millennium. Hawkes would go on to become one of the most recognisable supporting actors of his generation, enjoying supporting stints on shows like 24Lost and Deadwood. His breakthrough arguably came almost a decade and a half after Milagro, earning back to back praise for his work in Winters Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Sessions in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Hawkes gives Padgett a sense of humanity and complexity that might otherwise have been lacking. For all that the episode dresses it up in fancy language and romance, Padgett is essentially an obsessive stalker with an unhealthy fixation on Scully. It is only thanks to Hawkes that Padgett really works at all, with Hawkes bringing out the pathetic aspects of the characters. Hawkes makes it clear that Padgett is a desperate loser. When Naciamento asks Padgett why he created a psychic surgeon villain, Hawkes really sells the response. “I want to feel love.”

Listening in...

Listening in…

Singling out Milagro as a highlight of his time working on The X-Files, producer Frank Spotnitz observed that it was a very intimate story:

Milagro is, to my mind, an underappreciated episode. That’s why it’s there. It’s also, for us, somewhat autobiographical. By season six of the show, we had spent so many hours thinking about Mulder and Scully and fascinated by them and every aspect of who they were, that we could identify with the writer character, Milagro. And it’s really about the power of writing, and the power of fiction. In this episode a fictitious character actually becomes real and is capable of operating in the world. It’s about how what you write reflects who you are. It’s so personal, in fact, that the cards that are on the writer’s wall are the same format that we wrote The X-Files in. We would use those same cards when figuring out stories for the series. And those cards are in my handwriting because the prop guy couldn’t do it as well as we could because that’s really the way we did it. It’s a very emotional love story and it’s really about our love for these characters as writers.

There is something very raw about Milagro, a sense that Chris Carter is really opening himself up and pouring a lot of himself on to the page.

Be still my beating heart...

Be still my beating heart…

Milagro is structured as a love story to the idea of writing. The episode is absolutely fascinated by the craft. The index cards on the wall of the apartment mostly reference Ezra Pound’s epic poem Three Cantos III. In keeping with the theme of Milagro, Pound’s Three Cantos I opens with the author meditating on the writing an epic poem. (“I stand before the booth, the speech; but the truth is inside this discourse—this booth is full of the marrow of wisdom.”)

In the graveyard scenes, there are clearly visible tombstones for “Salinger” and “Lee”, two great American authors who were very much alive at the time that the episode was broadcast. However, J.D. Salinger had not published a new work since 1959, and Harper Lee had never published another book after To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960. Salinger and Lee had been massively influential figures in the world of American literature, but the use of the tombstones in Milagro suggests that a writer who no longer writes might as well be dead.

A rye observation...

A rye observation…

Of course, the realities of media production mean that the writer’s intent is not the entirety of the finished product. Milagro might be deeply personal, but it is also behoven to other less artistic concerns. Most notably, the episode was designed to help keep the season’s budget under control:

In order to save money, the producers came up with some creative solutions. “We ended up trying to devise stories that could be shot economically using existing sets,” reveals Spotnitz. And that’s a challenge on a show were you are out in different parts of the country every week, investigating completely different [cases].” Relatively self-contained episodes included How the Ghosts Stole Christmas and Milagro.

Moving the production to Los Angeles at the start of the sixth season had pushed costs on The X-Files up significantly. Although the show’s budget had been increased, there was considerably more financial strain on The X-Files than there had been in Vancouver.

"This is the worst re-write ever..."

“This is the worst re-write ever…”

Milagro does feature some location work – a grove, a church, a graveyard – but it is designed to take advantage of the show’s existing sets. The episode spends a lot of time in Mulder’s apartment and apartment building. Padgett tells Scully that there was no available apartment in her building, but it seems that putting Padgett next to Mulder was due to the fact that the show already has standing sets. “It’s not like you spent a lot of time at home,” Padgett remarks, perhaps acknowledging that the show hasn’t got a set as detailed and well-used as Mulder’s apartment.

Introducing Padgett as Mulder’s new next-door neighbour is quite a canny idea from a production standpoint. Watching the episode, it seems like Padgett’s apartment might be a redress of the same sets. At the very least, the set looks to be constructed from similar elements and materials, saving a lot of design overhead. Milagro spends a lot of time in a relatively finite number of sets and a small number of locations, which allows the production team to avoid unnecessary complications and to keep the budget under control.

Medalion man, for your medalion needs...

Medalion man, for your medalion needs…

Then again, necessity is the mother of invention. As with How the Ghosts Stole Christmas, the script for Milagro cleverly uses these restrictions to its advantage. Milagro doesn’t feel like a budget-saving episode, instead foregrounding its core concepts and big ideas to distract from the limited number of sets and locations employed in its production. Discussions of Milagro inevitably focus on its themes and its motifs, suggesting that it fulfils its budget-saving purpose with considerable grace.

Milagro is a story about writing. The episode is centred around Phillip Padgett. Padgett is a writer who wanders into the orbit of Mulder and Scully, who finds himself writing a paranormal murder mystery centred around Scully. Because this is The X-Files, the crimes described by Padgett begin to occur in real-life. Ironically, Mulder jumps to the rational explanation that Padgett is working with an accomplice. Milagro itself plays with the idea of recursion; do the events happen because Padgett writes them, or does Padgett write the events because they happen?

To the heart of the matter...

To the heart of the matter…

The episode remains ambiguous on the issue of precisely who is in control of the narrative; whether Padgett is driving the story or the story is driving Padgett. As Margaret Kaner ponders in Believing the Lie:

Padgett’s intuitive grasp of his characters – if that’s what it is – does not seem to include a conscious rationale for their actions. The events as he sees them simply take place simultaneously with his writing, surpassing understanding. Milagro hinges on putting into question the causal relationship between the author and the narrative. Does the story come true because the writer predicts behaviour perfectly through close observation, and if so, how far could that predictive power be pushed? Here it is pushed well into the paranormal when Padgett’s novel causes impossible events to come true, but (with his knowledge of Scully, the only character he believes to be “real”) it hovers just at the boundary of the paranormal. While Scully apparently retains autonomy over her unlikely actions – visiting the painting of the burning heart at the church, then coming to Padgett’s apartment, just as he described her doing in his story – his description and/or prediction of her is so perfect that it is impossible to tell whether he is reading her actions or writing them.

It is a very interesting metaphorical question, one that asks the viewer to consider how they approach the craft of writing. Is writing itself the act of creating? Or is it simply documenting something inside oneself?

In the cards...

In the cards…

There is a sense that Chris Carter is channelling the work of Darin Morgan in the scripting of Milagro. Morgan has been a major influence in how his fellow writers approach the show, with Carter’s script for Syzygy in particular owing a lot to Morgan’s work. In particular, Milagro feels heavily influenced by a key sequence from Darin Morgan’s sadly underseen Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense”, a second-season episode of Millennium in which Morgan resurrected the writer character from Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.”

At one point in Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense”, the story jumps between three very different writers trying to structure their own account of events. Frank Black is writing a profile; Jose Chung is writing a novel; the Selfosophy Psycho is writing a screenplay. The montage cuts cleverly between the three vantage points, but it quickly becomes clear that the characters are steering the montage from inside the story. The question becomes whether they are simply predicting the story around them, or whether they are directing it.

Cigarette-Smoking writer...

Cigarette-smoking writer…

As Todd VanDerWerff observed in his review of Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense”:

I like the way that Chung turns into, basically, Clyde Bruckman, predicting not only his own death but the deaths of others, simply by coming up with the story he thinks would be most interesting. And I love the episode’s constant self-referentiality, the idea that this is all a story taking place in someone’s head somewhere. The hero of Goopta’s early crime fiction was a freelance forensic profiler, wandering the country and solving crimes. Chung dismisses this idea as ridiculous, and we agree with him, until we realize that, hey, that’s pretty much Frank’s job description, too. Chung comes along with Frank on his investigation, and wouldn’t you know it, just making up the killers’ motivations seems to work pretty well, suggesting that Chung almost willed the man who will later kill him into existence, a form of literary suicide.

In a way, Milagro plays out as a much more overt meditation on similar themes.

"At leact Chung had the decency to change his characters' names. Poorly, mind you, but still..."

“At leact Chung had the decency to change his characters’ names. Poorly, mind you, but still…”

At one point, Padgett gets into an argument with one of his characters about the nature of what he does. “Why do I want their hearts?” Ken Naciamento demands of his creator. Padgett has no response to Naciamento’s question. “You tell me,” Padgett urges. “Why do you do it?” Naciamento rejects this attempt to deflect responsibility. “I’m your character,” Naciamento responds. “You tell me. My reason is your reason.” The climax of the episode hinges on how much control Padgett can leverage over Naciamento, and how much autonomy Naciamento enjoys.

The episode plays with this idea of recursion in other ways. At the start of the episode, Padgett uses the airvent connecting his apartment to Mulder’s apartment to spy on Mulder and Scully. Later on in the episode, Mulder and Scully use the same vent to spy on Padgett. Padgett seems to be able to invasively intrude on Scully’s personal life; Mulder steals Padgett’s mail to get a better understanding of his neighbour. The relationship between author and characters becomes blurred and uncertain, a two-way street either might traverse.

He's behind you!

He’s behind you!

Milagro is an interesting episode of The X-Files. It feels incredibly intimate and personal, touching on a lot of the themes that have been bubbling through the show since around Gethsemane. It is an episode that is quite candidly about the relationship between a writer and their work; however, it is very particularly about Chris Carters’ relationship to The X-Files. This has been a recurring motif through the fifth and sixth seasons of The X-Files, as Carter finds himself facing the immense popularity and success of his creation.

In Gethsemane, Carter seemed to suggest that The X-Files was immortal. He could open an episode with Mulder’s apparent suicide before exposing the show’s mythology as lies, but the show still would not die. In The Post-Modern Prometheus, Carter seemed to suggest that The X-Files was his child and that it had developed and grown beyond his expectations for it. It was a monster, but it was a glorious monster. Milagro finds Carter exploring the show through the most direct method yet. He suggests that The X-Files is a story.

Listen up!

Mulder vents his frustration…

As Robert Shearman observes in Wanting to Believe, Chris Carter’s script for Milagro fits within the larger existential context of the sixth season:

The sixth season has been about re-examining what Mulder and Scully are; they’ve been reimagined in a domestic setting, they’ve had their lives swapped. They’ve lived the same day over and over again, giving us the chance to look at every minute aspect of what they do in minute detail. You can see immediately how Milagro fits into this, an episode in which they’re explored as fictional characters of a frustrated writer.

Of course, Field Trip will also play with the idea of The X-Files as a story, later in the season. It is telling that both Milagro and Field Trip wonder what the end of The X-Files might look like.

"Damn fine cup of coffee..."

“Damn fine cup of coffee…”

Of course, the ending of The X-Files was purely hypothetical at this point in the show’s life-cycle. The X-Files was still a massive success for Fox, and its final episode was over three years away. David Duchovny and Chris Carter had signed contract extensions to the end of the seventh season, with the studio considering the release of a second film in the summer of 2000. In April 1999, it was almost inconceivable that the show would ever end. It seemed like the series could continue in perpetuity. To some extent, this must have seemed horrifying to Carter.

In interviews, Carter had advocated for an approach of five seasons before springboarding into a series of feature films. By the time Milagro aired, The X-Files had already lived far beyond Carter’s original plans for the show. It had already passed the end point that Carter had planned for it. The sixth season is absolutely preoccupied with the idea of death and immortality. The first episode of the season is called The Beginning. The show teased the end of the mythology in Two Fathers and One Son, even though most of the important characters and threads endured.

Padgett is not the only one asking that question...

Padgett is not the only one asking that question…

“A story can have only one true ending,” Padgett reflects towards the end of Milagro. “Even as the stranger felt compelled to commit his final words to paper he did it knowing they must never be read. To see the sum of his work was to see inside his own emptiness the heart of a destroyer not a creator.” It is a rather bleak conclusion to a story about a novelist, but it does seem to articulate a lot of the ideas running through the sixth season as a whole. The sixth season of The X-Files is fascinated with the idea of endings that are not really endings.

Dreamland I and Dreamland II suggested that any sufficiently large change to the status quo would eventually be reset by powers beyond even those of a vast international conspiracy, to ensure that Mulder and Scully were always going to remain frozen in their most iconic moment. How the Ghosts Stole Christmas is a story about two ghosts who spend eternity haunting the same mansion. Monday features Mulder and Scully literally trapped repeating the same day over and over and over again.

Arresting development...

Arresting development…

The climax of Milagro features Naciamento trying to murder Scully. “There can only be one true ending if it is to be perfect,” he assures Padgett. Padgett reaches the conclusion simultaneously. “She dies?” However, Scully cannot die for reasons both internal and external to the narrative. Scully cannot die because Gillian Anderson is a series regular and because there was no way that The X-Files was going to kill off a series lead so ignominiously. Scully also cannot die because Tithonus made it pretty explicit that Scully is immortal.

(It does play into the ambiguities of the script. On the most obvious level, the final sequence of Milagro suggests that Padgett destroys the script and kills himself so as to save Scully. However, it is possible to argue that the opposite is actually what happens. Within the world of The X-Files, Naciamento could never kill Scully, just like Padgett could never make it out of the end of the episode. For all Padgett’s power to manipulate and control the story, the narrative remains stronger than him.)

The perfect ending.

The perfect ending.

Once again, Milagro stresses that there is no ending for Mulder and Scully. The sixth season has hit on the idea that Mulder and Scully could essential keep doing this forever, given the popularity of the show. The sequence where Padgett has to sacrifice his “perfect” ending in order to keep Scully alive is highly symbolic. Carter might have wanted to end The X-Files and provide a sense of closure, but that was all but impossible at this point in the show’s life-cycle. It seems like Padgett confronts a similar existential crisis.

The conversation between Padgett and Naciamento alludes to the idea that the climax of Milagro is really about the end of The X-Files. When Padgett explains that he writes because he wants to feel love, Naciamento corrects him, “You had it right up to there. You were a tool of the truth. And when it finally arrives– when I arrive– you don’t want to see it.” It is worth noting that Naciamento could be talking about the end of The X-Files. After all, the show is over the moment that “the truth” actually “finally arrives.”

Pinning it down...

Pinning it down…

Padgett’s anxieties about the arrival of “the truth” perhaps mirror those of Carter. Given that the opening credits of most episodes promise that “the truth is out there”, the actual material arrival of the truth would mean the end of the show. That applies to both capital-T conspiracy “Truth” and more intimate personal truths. Sacrificing his perfect ending to preserve the show – the characters on it on an abstract level, but also the staff working on it on a more practical level – is a big gesture.

In a way, what Padgett does is similar to what the production team did with Two Fathers and One Son. Two Fathers and One Son promised its own arrival of truth and its own ending. However, the two-parter proved stunningly indecisive. It was somewhat ambiguous as to what had actually ended with the episode. Plans for colonisation seemed likely to continue, and clearly would. The Cigarette-Smoking Man and Alex Krycek survived to fight another day. Mulder and Scully found themselves back where they began, assigned to the basement.

His prose is enlightening...

His prose is enlightening…

As such, Milagro feels like a symbolic expression of that tension at the heart of The X-Files. It seems like an acknowledgement that Chris Carter had sacrificed the “perfect” ending and “the truth” contained therein so that Mulder and Scully (and the show) might live on. At this point, it seems like The X-Files is already in uncharted territory, existing beyond any space where it would be possible to wrap up the show in a satisfactory manner. The Truth becomes the price that everybody pays for four extra seasons of The X-Files.

At the end of the episode, Padgett destroys the book and frees the characters trapped within it. Carter has always been an extremely generous writer and executive producers, allowing most of his writing staff to have their own takes on Mulder and Scully rather than imposing an entirely consistent approach. The ending to Milagro is a hugely symbolic gesture, as if the writer is detaching himself completely from the characters. They are not his any longer, at least in any way that could be considered exclusive.

Write on.

Write on.

Asked whether the writer chooses the character or the character chooses the writer, Padgett muses, “By their nature words are imprecise and layered with meaning. The signs of things, not the things themselves. It’s difficult to say who’s in charge.” After all, the true power of words is in the interpretation or meaning which is ascribed to them. As the show has suggested in episodes like Unusual Suspects or Tithonus, even the act of processing or connecting pre-existing information is a minor act of creation.

So it is interesting to contemplate to whom Carter is releasing Mulder and Scully at the end of the episode. Is it to themselves and their own agency, even acknowledging that there are outside factors that will govern their stories? Is it to the actors, given that Milagro aired right before David Duchovny’s first script credit on The Unnatural? Is it the other writers on the staff, who already enjoy a lot of autonomy in characterising the duo? Is it even to the fans, whose own interpretations of Mulder and Scully might be just as valid as those held by anybody on staff?

His heart in his hands...

His heart in his hands…

Milagro invites the viewer to wonder about these sorts of questions and possibilities. Perhaps it doesn’t matter to whom Carter is releasing Mulder and Scully. Perhaps it is simply the gesture itself that matters, an acknowledgement that Carter has created something so vital and so compelling that it lives beyond him. In many respects, Milagro is a companion piece to The Post-Modern Prometheus, an acknowledgement that Carter has crafted something that is big enough to take on a life of its own.

There are points in Milagro where it feels like Carter is articulating some very intimate concerns and anxieties. In the sequences between Naciamento and Padgett, it seems like Carter is really grilling himself about the work that he does. Naciamento is highly critical of Padgett’s self-image, arguing that the writer is not the man that he claims to be. After all, Padgett identifies the writer character in his novel as “the stranger”, as if to suggest how little he understands himself.

Dark matters...

Dark matters…

“Man imagines that he, too, can open up his heart and expose the burning passion– the flames of charity– like the creator himself,” Naciamento reflects. “But this is not in his power.” Padgett is understandably discomforted by this idea. “But I have love in my heart,” Padgett replies. Padgett had confessed that he only wrote so that he might know love, perhaps the most brutally honest confession a writer could make. Naciamento responds, “Yes, as a thief has riches, a usurer money. You have it… but man’s only power, only true power is to destroy it.”

There is a sense that emotions filtered through ink and paper are somehow diluted or diminished; that they are imitations of life rather than captured moments of it. Is writing predatory or exploitative? Is it parasitic? Do writers steal from life, and is there a moral dimension to all of that? These are questions up which Darin Morgan’s scripts occasionally touched, and it seems that he was not alone in his anxieties. There are points where Milagro reads almost as a confession or a crucible.

Not Scully's type...

Not Scully’s type…

Naciamento holds his creator to account for his actions. “You imagine me so perfectly in every way,” he explains. “So perfectly that you bring me to life. Why did you choose me?” It seems like the kind of conversation that Carter might have had with Mulder and Scully countless times since 1993. Padgett responds, “She’d be horrified by what you do.” Naciamento agrees. “I’m horrified. I just want to know why I do it.” Even fictional characters are not immune from existential crisis.

The X-Files is very much a show about faith in the nineties – about trying to make sense of the universe in an era where a lot of the assumptions that were taken for granted have been removed. Mulder’s quest for the truth is quite blatantly religious and spiritual in nature; even the rational Scully is defined by her faith. In Milagro, it seems like this crisis of faith is something that is not unique. Both characters and authors suffer the same insecurity and paranoia, both authors and characters are looking for the same basic connections or sense of purpose.

Holding it up to scrutiny...

Holding it up to scrutiny…

The actual scripting of Milagro is interesting. It is occasionally hard to tell when Carter is being entirely self-aware and when he is indulging his own authorial tendencies. There are certainly points where it feels like Milagro is playing its pseudo-profundity entirely straight. “This could be the perfect crime,” Mulder reflects at one point. Scully responds, “Well, a crime is only as perfect as the man or the mind that commits it.” It is a very forced piece of dialogue, one that would immediately halt any real-life conversation. Instead, Mulder and Scully carry on.

The script is packed to the gills with the sort of purple prose narration that weighed down episodes like Redux I and Redux II, but it’s never clear if Milagro is trying to convince the audience that Phillip Padgett is a good writer or a bad writer. It seems impossible to imagine reading an entire book composed of his monologues. Whatever the reason, there is no excuse for the observation that “if she’d predictably aroused her sly partner’s suspicions Special Agent Dana Scully had herself become… simply aroused.”

"I knew I should have gone into television!"

“I knew I should have gone into television!”

To be fair, the script does acknowledge that Padgett might not be the best writer in the world. When Mulder asks Padgett if he wrote anything that he would know, Padgett responds, “I don’t think so.” When Scully repeats the question later on, Padgett is more explicit, “No. They’re all failures.” At the same time, Milagro suggests that his current novel will be different. “I think I’m getting it right,” he tells Scully. When he asks Mulder whether he liked the novel, Mulder replies, “Maybe if it were fiction.”

At the same time, the script is structured in a playful manner. The episode emphasises the artifice of the scenario. Early on, Mulder and Scully are struggling with a case that provides no clues. “Did anybody see anybody?” Scully asks. Mulder responds, “I mean, it’s like there’s nowhere to start on this case. Nothing to ask, nothing to say.” In a way, it feels like writers’ block. There is no way for the plot to move forward, for the story to progress. No action from any of the characters that might spur it forward.

Grave danger...

Grave danger…

However, right as Mulder and Scully are having that conversation, a clue conveniently arrives. It is a medallion that leads Scully to the church where she meets Padgett, which leads to Mulder’s investigation of Padgett, which leads back to the case. It is not a logical or organic arc, but the contrivance of it all is part of the point. Pondering the arrival of the medallion, Mulder wonders, “Why would he do something as heavy-handed as this?” He could be just as easily talking about the writer as the killer.

Indeed, Milagro suggests a connection between the two in a number of ways. The episode touches on ideas of guilt and responsibility as they apply to ideas. Is an author responsible for the consequences of their work? Is Padgett to blame for Naciamento’s violence? Can Naciamento be blamed for his crimes if he is directed by Padgett’s writing? These are interesting philosophical quandaries, asking the audience to consider whether guilt and responsibility accrue from thought or action.

And the beat goes on...

And the beat goes on…

That is even reflected in the short scene that we spend with two victims of Naciamento. As the young couple sit in a car in a secluded area of the city, it seems clear what Kevin has in mind. “That’s why I didn’t want to come here, Kevin,” Maggie states. Kevin gets defensive, “I’m not even doing anything.” Maggie responds, “You’re thinking about it.” The episode wonders whether it is entirely fair to blame Kevin for a thought upon which he has not (and perhaps even will not) act.

There is also something quite appealing in the way that Milagro so effectively ties together both the high-brow and the low-brow tendencies of The X-FilesJose Chung’s “From Outer Space” could reference works as diverse as Star Wars and Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Talitha Cumi demonstrated that The X-Files is a show that can comfortably reference Dostoyevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor in a sequence with a shape-shifting alien. Milagro is simultaneously a postmodern thesis on writing and a story about a serial killer in a raincoat who removes peoples’ hearts.

Listen up, Phillip.

Listen up, Phillip.

It feels like Milagro demonstrates just how wide The X-Files could pitch its net. The show never really ascribed to a divide between high culture and low culture, frequently suggesting that it was possible to be both smart and popularist. The X-Files was a show that was always accessible, but never illiterate. The series was utterly unashamed of its pulpy roots and horror aesthetic, but it was not afraid of ambition and experimentation. Milagro is a thoughtful and introspective piece of work, but one that never balks at the trashier side of The X-Files.

That said, there are some problems with Milagro. Most obviously, the episode’s fixation on Scully is a little creepy. As much as Milagro is about The X-Files as a story, it seems much more interested in Scully than in Mulder. This has the unfortunate side effect of filtering an author’s love for their work through the lens of a Padgett’s creepy stalkerish lust for Scully. Mulder feels very much like a secondary concern in the story, to the point where it seems like Mulder might be outside Padgett’s control. Did Padgett write Mulder’s interruption of the seduction of Scully?

A heated debate...

A heated debate…

For all that Padgett spends paragraph after paragraph fixating on Scully’s “titian hair” or “muscular calves”, Mulder barely registers. Padgett acknowledges Mulder by name once, asking whether he liked the book. The monologues about Scully only make oblique reference to “her partner.” Even when Padgett acknowledges that he could never come between them, he still frames it around Scully. “In my book, I’d written that Agent Scully falls in love but that’s obviously impossible. Agent Scully is already in love.” Mulder and Scully are not in love. Scully is in love.

If Milagro focuses on Scully as a character, the script suggests an equivalence between Mulder and Padgett. When Mulder suspects Padgett of complicity in the killings, Scully points out that Mulder is not too different from the creepy writer. “No one can predict human behavior,” Mulder insists. “No one can tell you what another person’s going to do.” Scully replies, “Well, isn’t that what you do, Mulder, as a behavioral profiler? You … you imagine the killer’s mind so well that you know what they’re going to do next.”

"So, how come I didn't get a sex scene?"

“So, how come I didn’t get a sex scene?”

In fact, it is possible to frame the whole creepy Scully romance in Milagro as part of the character’s unresolved father issues that have been treaded through the show since Lazarus and implicitly acknowledged in relation to Mulder in Quagmire and Never Again. Scully responds to the authorial figure in Padgett, but Padgett seems to suggest that Scully also responds to the pseudo-authorial figure in Mulder. The decision to tie all of this into a story about the relationship between writers and their characters adds a distinctly uncomfortable subtext to Milagro.

After all, Milagro plays out Padgett’s creepy sexual fantasy about “doing the naked pretzel” with Scully. Although Scully insists that this never happens, the script is sure to include it. Given the meta-fictional aspects of the script, it is debatable just what material difference exists between a “real” make-out scene and an “imaginary” make-out scene. In the larger context of the series,the fact that the make-out scene between Padgett and Scully is in keeping with the show’s efforts to keep Scully chaste – to deny the character any sense of sexual identity.

"Well, I've had bad reviews before, but..."

“Well, I’ve had bad reviews before, but…”

Mulder bursts into Padgett’s apartment before anything can happen, seemingly preserving Scully’s virtue and stopping the sequence from playing out as Padgett imagined. Given the question marks that linger over Scully’s agency in the episode and whether Padgett is actually driving or simply predicting the plot, this is probably for the best. Certainly, it would have made discussions of the episode rather more fraught – could Scully consent? At the same time, the decision to include the “imaginary” scene feels like an attempt to have the cake and eat it.

Mulder’s last-minute “save” of Scully serves as a reminder of how often this thing happens on The X-Files, and just how awkward the series can be in approaching Scully’s sexuality. Episodes like Gender Bender or Small Potatoes featured similar sequences of Mulder rescuing Scully from a potential sexual predator, presenting Scully as a character who needs to be “saved” from her own sexuality. It is telling that Mulder’s sexuality is never treated in the same way. Scully doesn’t get to “save” Mulder from Fowley in The Sixth Extinction.

"Chicks dig intensity, right?"

“Chicks dig intensity, right?”

Part of the creepiness of Milagro comes through in the way that Carter consciously builds the episode around the template of Never Again. The episode Never Again was the last script that Glen Morgan and James Wong wrote for The X-Files, featuring Scully’s attraction to a recently-divorced man. Scully was going through an existential crisis related to her work with Mulder, and sought some measure of autonomy from her partner. The script for Never Again became highly controversial, with Carter censoring a sex scene between Scully and Ed Jerse.

As with Never Again, the script for Milagro acknowledges the occasionally awkward dynamic that exists between Mulder and Scully. Early in the episode, Scully attempts to assert her own autonomy in the face of Mulder’s attempts to direct her. “You’ve got a 9am with the DC medical examiner,” Mulder advises her. “He’s going to let you autopsy the latest victim.” Scully responds, sarcastically, “Thank you for making my schedule but I think I’m going to have to be late for that appointment.”

"Don't count on a welcome basket."

“Don’t count on a welcome basket.”

Similarly, both Never Again and Milagro rely heavily on the funace at the heart of an apartment complex. In Never Again, Ed Jerse uses the furnace to dispose of evidence and to burn off the tattoo on his arm. In Milagro, Phillip Padgett is haunted by the image of a burning heart in the furnace at the start of the episode and uses it to destroy his manuscript at the climax. The furnace in the basement of an apartment building is a potent metaphor for the passion that simmers just below the surface.

However, the most striking similarity between Never Again and Milagro comes in the way that both episodes approach Scully’s sexuality. Glen Morgan and James Wong had written a very graphic and visceral sex scene between Scully and Jerse. However, Chris Carter overruled it. The episode cuts from Scully and Jerse kissing passionately to Scully sleeping alone in bed while Jerse sleeps on the couch, as if to insist that absolutely nothing happened between Scully and Jerse that night, despite the passionate kiss.

"Enough dancing around the point. Let us talk as men. With exquisitely crafted goatees."

“Enough dancing around the point. Let us talk as men. With exquisitely crafted goatees.”

The decision to include the “imaginary” sex scene between Scully and Padgett in Milagro feels like a similar choice. It feels like Carter and the production team are only willing to nod towards Scully’s sex drive without ever actually acknowledging. One of the recurring issues in the way that The X-Files approaches sex is the fact that Mulder is allowed to have one-night stands and affairs, while Scully is not. Mulder tends to hook up with victims or fellow law enforcement officials, while Scully is often paired off with the monster.

However, these parallels between Milagro and Never Again only serve to draw attention to the creepier aspects of Milagro. Certain fans (and even members of staff) might argue that Scully’s attraction to Ed Jerse was “out of character”, but Never Again worked very hard to explain and to justify it. Scully’s attraction to Jerse was rooted in her own sense of listlessness or purposelessness. While Never Again did flesh out Jerse into a fully-formed character, the decision to pursue the romance said more about her than it did about him.

"I'm not bad. I'm just written that way."

“I’m not bad. I’m just written that way.”

In contrast, it is harder to account for Scully’s reaction to Phillip Padgett in Milagro. He isn’t just mysterious or damaged, he is downright stalkerish. The level of detail with which he “imagines” her life might be “frightening”, but only because it suggests an obsession that could quickly turn violent. Padgett claims to have deduced a lot about Scully based on a few pieces of information, but it seems more likely that he simply followed her around and observed her actions.

Watching Milagro, it seems like the only reason that Scully doesn’t warn Padgett that she is an armed federal agent is because Padgett might be controlling her. The idea that Scully could be intrigued and “simply aroused” by a guy who rents an apartment next-door to her partner in order to stalk her hurts the episode’s attempt at ambiguity. It is hard to argue that Padgett is not literally controlling events when it seems like the only way to explain why Scully doesn’t treat him as a potential threat.

"It could certainly do with an edit."

“It could certainly do with an edit.”

As with The Post-Modern Prometheus, there is a sense that Milagro is a deeply personal piece of work from Chris Carter that touches on a lot of the complexities of his relationship with The X-Files. Unfortunately, as with The Post-Modern Prometheus, Milagro is undercut by some rather unfortunate issues around gender and sexuality. It is a fascinating watch, but a very mixed bag.

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

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5 Responses

  1. Hi!
    I was surprised to find out how many people dismiss this episode. I find it so meta and endearing but then I’m a writer myself it might be that it was written for us.
    I love your review but I have a small quip with this particular paragraph

    “Mulder’s last-minute “save” of Scully serves as a reminder of how often this thing happens on The X-Files, and just how awkward the series can be in approaching Scully’s sexuality. Episodes like Gender Bender or Small Potatoes featured similar sequences of Mulder rescuing Scully from a potential sexual predator, presenting Scully as a character who needs to be “saved” from her own sexuality. It is telling that Mulder’s sexuality is never treated in the same way. Scully doesn’t get to “save” Mulder from Fowley in The Sixth Extinction.”

    Scully has ‘rescued’ Mulder from female advances in syzygy and the rain king. The show has a habit of invalidating or killing the lead’s potential romantic partners any chance they get. The vampire girl Mulder has sex with kills herself. Phoebe and Mulder are about to hit it off again until we find out she is sleeping with the married rich guy. Diana who was an ex was murdered offscreen. Scully’s police ex was taken over by a rober. At least Ed got to live even if in jail. So I think is not that Scully has to be chaste but more of our leads are going to show they have the same normal appetites that anyone their age should is just never going to work no matter what. Typical ship teasing, IMO.

    Great review!

    • That’s a fair point, but I do think there’s a big difference between Scully saving Mulder in Syzygy and The Rain King versus Mulder saving Scully in Gender Bender or Milagro. Most obviously, the former is played as comedy and the later as drama. (More to the point, Mulder tends to hook up with victims or bystanders, while Scully tends to hook up with monsters. I do think the production team are a lot more comfortable with Mulder’s sexuality than Scully’s.)

      Thanks for the kind words!

      • Maybe you should do a post about the ships and potential romantic interest along the years and we can make a comparison? I think is more even than with both of them having their fair share of Not compatible/Not good/monster. Phoebe was a cheater and Diana played Mulder and almost got him killed so they are neither victims or bystanders.
        In Scully’s case the cute scientist that had a crush on her was depicted as a nice guy until he was killed so yeah I think this is a case of ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar’ they needed to find a way to keep our leads single and they came with different scenarios some of them might look more of a problem than others but I doubt that was the intent.
        I’m more worried about the fact that Mulder and Scully is the real relationship and they never actually acknowledge it. I can forgive the wrong ships for being crappy but the lead ship should be shown as the good loving choice or else I doubt the writers can even write a ship on the first place. Just my two cents!

        You are welcome!

      • I think I did something like that around season three, as a supplement around Syzygy.

        I should ‘fess up that I’m relatively shipping agnostic, in that I think that a relationship is probably the best that either character could manage at this point, but that – for the first five or six years of the show – Mulder needed Scully a lot more than Scully needed Mulder, I think there’s some truth to Morgan and Wong’s argument in Never Again at the relationship helps Mulder but hurts Scully; in that Scully affords Mulder a human connection he would never otherwise have, while working with Mulder gradually alienates Scully from anything resembling a healthy and happy life.

        But, yeah, I think the writers have no idea how to write a stable relationship. Which is a problem with a lot of television writers from the eighties and nineties in general. See Ross and Rachel on Friends, for example, or Cybil and Bruce on Moonlighting.

      • I think I did something like that around season three, as a supplement around Syzygy.

        Oh will look for it.

        I should ‘fess up that I’m relatively shipping agnostic, in that I think that a relationship is probably the best that either character could manage at this point, but that – for the first five or six years of the show – Mulder needed Scully a lot more than Scully needed Mulder,

        I have to agree with that. He definitely needed her more at the beginning of their relationship.Fight the future speech was on point.

        I think there’s some truth to Morgan and Wong’s argument in Never Again at the relationship helps Mulder but hurts Scully; in that Scully affords Mulder a human connection he would never otherwise have, while working with Mulder gradually alienates Scully from anything resembling a healthy and happy life.

        Is true that without Scully Mulder would had ended up like Max living on a trailer chasing UFOs for the rest of his life.
        But when Mulder pays enough attention to realize that he always asks her to leave him and have that life she always claim she wants and she keeps choosing him over and over again even on her deathbed. In fact in the first season when she has the chance to start dating Rob Whitebread she declines and invites herself to go with Mulder instead. So there is an argument that Scully is happy with him regardless of the drawbacks or else she would had left all the chances she has had. No to mention that when she did she just buried herself in work just like he used to do.

        But, yeah, I think the writers have no idea how to write a stable relationship. Which is a problem with a lot of television writers from the eighties and nineties in general. See Ross and Rachel on Friends, for example, or Cybil and Bruce on Moonlighting.

        True maybe it was for the better that the show was not about the ship I cannot imagine Mulder sleeping with someone else because ‘they were on a break’ landing well on the fandom. LOL!

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