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The X-Files – Hungry (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

Hungry is an underrated episode of The X-Files.

Although it was the third episode of the season to air, it was actually the first episode produced, allowing David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson to ease themselves back into the demanding shooting schedule. As with Vince Gilligan’s script for Unusual Suspects, the idea was to write an episode that required as little of Mulder and Scully as possible. However, rather than building Hungry around an established member (or members) of the supporting cast, Gilligan decides to introduce a new character and make them the focus of the episode.

"I am sharkboy, hear me roar..."

“I am sharkboy, hear me roar…”

Hungry is not quite as experimental as X-Cops, but there is something deliciously subversive about telling a “monster of the week” story from the perspective of the monster. Gilligan is arguably building upon the work done by David Amann in Terms of Endearment, but Hungry is very much its own story. It pushes Mulder and Scully to the very edge of the narrative in a way that distorts many of the underlying assumptions about what The X-Files is and how it is supposed to work.

Hungry is proof that The X-Files still has legitimately great stories in it, even if the seventh season has a decidedly funereal atmosphere.

Brains...

Brains…

The seventh season of The X-Files has a rather strange mood. It lacks the same lightness and energy that defined the sixth season, but also lacks a lot of the atmosphere and anxiety that defined the first five seasons of the show. The seventh season feels very much like a season where the production team were willing to give almost anything a shot; not out of desperation or necessity, but simply because the show is reaching a ripe old age and there’s really no harm that can be done to it at this point.

The seventh season is packed full of “weird” episodes. There are a host of stories that seem rather surreal and strange in the large context of the show, even when compared to the experimental scripts of Darin Morgan or the playfulness of the “X-Files Lite” era. It is too much to describe the scripts as experimental or adventurous, but they almost defy context. This is a season of television which structured a loose adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ into the mythology two-parter that opened the season.

Keeping an ear to the ground...

Keeping an ear to the ground…

This weirdness is not a bad thing. At the very least, it keeps things fresh and interesting. On a more practical level, it does produce a few good episodes; Hungry and X-Cops are two examples of this trend. However, there are more divisive examples ahead. No other season could do The Amazing Maleeni, First Person Shooter, En Ami, all things, Hollywood A.D., Fight Club and Je Souhaite. Some of those episodes are uneven, some of them are mixed, some of them are terrible. However, the fact that they all come so close together suggests something about the season.

The seventh season was meant to be the last season of The X-Files. The show was expensive, David Duchovny wanted out and it seemed like The X-Files was coming off the crest of its wave of popularity. It seemed like Fox was finally willing to let Chris Carter fulfil his original plan to transition the show from a television series to a movie franchise. There was even talk of Harsh Realm as a possible replacement in the following year’s schedule. No official decision had been made, but interviews at the start of the season stressed the possibility.

Sinking his teeth into the role...

Sinking his teeth into the role…

Of course, it didn’t ultimately work out that way. Harsh Realm tanked, along with every other original drama produced by Fox during the 1999-2000 season. It turned out that the network could not afford to lose The X-Files at this point in time. This creates an interesting tension within the seventh season, which seems to desperately want to let things go and move along; only to accept that the show might continue going in perpetuity. If the sixth season was conflicted about the show’s immortality, the seventh season was frustrated by it.

Still, it is interesting to wonder whether the possibility of wrapping up the show encouraged the creative team to take chances and go for broke. This might be the last chance to tell a bunch of X-Files stories, so there’s no point holding back on an idea – no matter how insane it might be. Certainly, Vince Gilligan had been nursing the idea that would become X-Cops for years; the original plan had been to have Mulder and Scully cross over into an episode of Unsolved Mysteries played by lookalikes.

Appetite for destruction...

Appetite for destruction…

Incidentally, the seventh season’s recurring motifs play into this theme of uncertain mortality. If the sixth season treated time as elastic and was fascinated by the prospect of immortality, then the seventh season fixates on undeath. Understandably, then, zombies are a recurring fixture of the season. The seventh season’s fascination with zombies might be said to prefigure the post-9/11 boom in zombie horror, but it also seems to play to a set of concerns very particular to this show at this particular moment.

Both Millennium and Hollywood A.D. feature zombies. Outside of that, the walking dead played a significant part in plans for the season. Carter had hoped that George Romero and Stephen King would collaborate on a zombie episode for the season, a reimagining of Night of the Living Dead. Originally, Gilligan planned to build the episode around a zombie who didn’t realise that he was a zombie; while the episode changes Robbie to something resembling a “shark person”, elements of zombification remain. (The urge to eat people meat – particularly brains.)

Base(ball bat)less accusations...

Base(ball bat)less accusations…

This fascination with zombies perhaps reflects the anxieties of the seventh season. While the sixth season seemed conflicted about the show’s immortality, the seventh seems positively apprehensive. Perhaps the zombies are an expression of that fear, the concern that The X-Files could find itself transformed into a shuffling lifeless monster wandering aimlessly through a televisual wasteland. Undead and undying, but with the life drained from it. Even with the zombie elements toned down, Hungry touches on the idea of The X-Files as monstrous.

As such, Hungry sets the tone for the season ahead. It is one of the great “if this is the last season…” plots, allowing the production to invert the classic X-Files set-up by offering a monstrous protagonist and casting Mulder and Scully in the role of antagonists. Mulder’s fleeting interactions with Rob are downright menacing throughout the episode, consisting primarily with innuendos and veiled threats. Hungry shrewdly keeps the interaction between Mulder and Scully to a minimum, inviting us to see the duo from an outside perspective.

The bitterest pill...

The bitterest pill…

Much is made of the fact that Hungry is a story told from the perspective of the monster; less is made of the fact that Mulder and Scully are consciously framed as “other” or “alien” in the context of the narrative, characters who sweep into (and destroy) Rob’s life. According to The Official Guide, this was one of the appeals of the story to producer Frank Spotnitz:

I had always wanted to do a story where Mulder and Scully were the antagonists rather the protagonists. The idea was that Hungry would be solely from the monster’s point of view and that the only time we would be aware of Mulder and Scully is when it was through the monster’s eyes. I knew going in that this would be a real experimental type of episode. I wanted to take a bad guy and spend enough time with him to understand him so that he becomes sympathetic.

So Mulder and Scully are treated in a way similar to the monsters in a regular episode; they periodically arrive to raise the stakes, and appear to resolve the plot at the end of the episode. Kim Manners frames the episode shrewdly; the sequence where Rob eavesdrops on the duo examining the kitchen plays like the early tease of a monster in any other episode.

Finger-lickin' good...

Finger-lickin’ good…

In some respects, Hungry reaffirms that Gilligan is the most postmodern writer on staff at this point in the show. He is the writer most willing to play with the conventions and structures of The X-Files. In a way, Gilligan is continuing the trail blazed by Darin Morgan; a lot of Gilligan’s work can trace its roots back to Morgan’s scripts, whether in theme or tone or plot. Tithonus was built around a stray line from Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose. Bad Blood plays with some of the ideas from Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.”

Morgan’s scripts tended to play with the idea that Mudler and Scully are fundamentally odd characters. Humbug suggested that they were the truly eccentric figures while investigating a murder in Gibsonton. Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose pointed out that the characters probably shouldn’t be so cavalier about death. Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” had one witness describe Mulder and Scully as men in black, while another portrayed Mulder as a pie-eating weirdo. These are not characters who can pass as “normal.”

Food for thought...

Food for thought…

There is something decidedly uncanny about their appearances in Hungry. Both are markedly different when seen from outside the show’s usual perspective. Scully is not playful with Mulder, she is stern and silent in their interviews. Mulder is not cheeky and goofy, but menacing and unsettling. The two characters arrive without warning, offering no context for who they are or what they are doing. It’s a good thing that the viewer is familiar with the concept of The X-Files, as Mulder never explains it to Rob.

Again, there are echoes of Terms of Endearment here. Mulder’s aggressive-bordering-on-harassment pursuit of Rob is quite similar to his treatment of Dwayne. While Terms of Endearment focused on Dwayne’s experience, it made sure that the audience was still following Mulder’s story. Hungry offers a glimpse of what Mulder’s dogged determination might look like if perspective is shifted away from the character. Perspective is also a keen part of X-Cops, another story where Gilligan shifts perspective away from Mulder and Scully.

"Relax... I'm the good guy..."

“Relax… I’m the good guy…”

Gilligan drew his inspiration for Hungry from classic television, desiring to make an episode in the style of Columbo, featuring a monster in the role of the criminal:

“Originally, I wanted to do a story about a monster from the monster’s point of view,” the writer offers. “sort of like an episode of Columbo where you were following the bad guy throughout the show and then Columbo, or in this case Mulder, keeps coming in and asking questions that make it clear that he suspects our main guy. It seemed like a fun idea. What I really wanted to do, if it really worked correctly [was] to have it by the end of the show [that] you’re rooting for the monster. You’re sort of not happy every time Mulder and Scully show up because you don’t want the poor guy to get caught. I don’t know if it will work like that when you watch it but that was the intention.”

There is something decidedly Columbo-esque about Mulder’s appearances here. The agent tries to cultivate a sense of good-natured absent-mindedness with Rob, presenting himself as sympathetic while inevitably appearing as a threat.

Swimming with sharks...

Swimming with sharks…

One of the recurring motifs of The X-Files is the idea that monsters are running out of shadows in which they might hide; that globalisation is eroding and wiping away the eccentric spaces in America. Hungry is honest about Rob Roberts; his hunger poses a very real and credible threat to those around him, and Mulder and Scully are entirely justified in their attempts to apprehend him. At the same time, the character represents something unique that Mulder and Scully destroy.

The X-Files ironically suggests that Mulder’s attempts to observe and document the paranormal often end up removing it from the world. As much as The X-Files seems anxious about conformity and homogeneity, Mulder and Scully seem to be as complicit as the conspirators. Mulder and Scully might investigate the odd and quirky, but they also inevitably vanquish those elements. Mulder and Scully serve as exorcists, wandering the country and casting out the surreal and the sublime.

Live and let die...

Live and let die…

It could be argued that a lot of the classic X-Files monster stories have an element of tragedy to them. Humbug mourns the passing of the freak show into history; Quagmire hopes that some monsters can remain hidden, even from Mulder and Scully; Detour laments the desire to pave paradise and put up a parking lot. (Or a Blockbuster Video.) The stories mourn the loss of a unique American identity to strip malls and planned communities. There is a sense that something is lost in this desire to chart and map (and develop) everything.

However, there is also something innately tragic about the monsters themselves. Frequently, the monsters on The X-Files are portrayed as characters with an uncanny or uncomfortable hung. Tooms is perhaps the most obvious example, providing a template for “an X-Files monster” in the third episode of the first season. There are other monsters with unnatural hungers both literal and metaphorical; Virgil Incanto from 2shy, Samuel Abohah from Teliko, Leonard Betts from Leonard Betts. Rob Roberts is just the latest in the long line.

Walled off...

Walled off…

In PopLit, PopCult and The X-Files, Jan Delasara argues that such monster stories resonate on a cultural level:

The feeling that one has lost control to either outer or subconscious forces violates a conventional but deeply felt American belief in the importance of individual freedom and dignity. A person dominated by an obsession or a phobia, or who is driven to violate a potent taboo, has lost or relinquished his or her conscious volition in order to follow the dictates of the repressed unconscious elements of the psyche. The outcome for such ‘monsters’ illustrates the danger of unconscious contents to the integrity of one’s persona.

It is certainly an interesting theory on why so many of the monsters worked so well.

Going out...

Going out…

Of course, monsters are not just monsters. The monster has long been treated as a stand-in for “the other”, some terrifying concept that unsettles the mainstream. Although often derided as pure genre pulp, horror films often tease viewers with a glimpse of the cultural psyche at a particular moment in time. What unsettles a society is a window into the way that the society thinks; with a mandate to generate a response entrenched as deeply in primal emotion as rational thought, horrors can talk (at least obliquely) about what is really on society’s mind.

For example, the horror films of the fifties often played with ideas related to the Cold War. It was occasionally difficult to determine whether the horror film in question was more terrified of the communist threat or anxious about the response to said threat; fears about conformity and brainwashing (and replacement) could play as an example of “Red Scare” rhetoric or a criticism of the surrounding pandemonium. The same is true of any era, through to the present day. It is certainly true of The X-Files itself.

Happy eater...

Happy eater…

In his Thesis on Monsters, China Miéville reflects:

Epochs throw up the monsters they need. History can be written of monsters, and in them. We experience the conjunctions of certain werewolves and crisis-gnawed feudalism, of Cthulhu and rupturing modernity, of Frankenstein’s and Moreau’s made things and a variably troubled Enlightenment, of vampires and tediously everything, of zombies and mummies and aliens and golems/robots/clockwork constructs and their own anxieties. We pass also through the endless shifts of such monstrous germs and antigens into new wounds. All our moments are monstrous moments.

Monsters are whatever we need them to be, whenever we need them to be that.

"Putting in our contractually-obligated appearance..."

“Putting in our contractually-obligated appearance…”

In keeping with Gilligan’s increasingly postmodern sensibilities, both Hungry and X-Cops offer their own wry twist on the idea of a “monster as metaphor.” In X-Cops, Gilligan offers a monster that can literally transform itself into whatever its target fears the most; a self-service buffet of terror. In Hungry, Rob Roberts serves as a monster standing in for the idea of “monster as other.” There are any number of identities or metaphors that Rob Roberts could represent, and Gilligan is careful not to lean too far towards one or other.

The nature of Rob Roberts is kept decidedly ambiguous by the script. He looks like a young adult, but it is impossible to know his true age. The script is unclear as to the particulars of Rob Roberts’ situation. Was he born to human parents, or does he come from a long line of mutants? When Rob introduces himself to the overeaters group, he is intentionally vague. “I’ve always had these cravings my whole life and just… just recently, the last month or so they’ve just become too powerful to resist.” The script never reveals what Rob actually is.

Yeah, like "Rob Roberts" is his real name...

Yeah, like “Rob Roberts” is his real name…

Perhaps Rob Roberts is a metaphor for the non-white “other.” Certainly, Rob works hard to “pass” as a middle-class white teenager in the same way that some members of racial minorities do. He wears a wig and prosthetic ears so that he might get along in his life, hiding his true identity from his co-workers and friends. The phenomenon of passing was subject to renewed cultural focus in the mid-nineties, with the publication of Passing and the Fictions of Identity in 1996 and the release of The Human Stain in 2000. Rob Roberts could certainly be read in that context.

Of course, there are other aspects of Hungry that resist such a reading. As much as Rob alters his physical appearance to pass among his co-workers, he also tries to control and regulate his behaviour. Rob Roberts is not marked as different by what he looks like, but by what he does. Rob has urges that he cannot control. Gilligan compares this to overeating, but it is possible to read Rob’s unrelenting hunger as a metaphor for any number of other impulses. Hungry could be read as a metaphor for coming to terms with one’s sexuality.

Badge of honour...

Badge of honour…

Certainly, there is a long history of treating the homosexual as “other” in horror fiction. When other mainstream genres tended to render homosexual characters invisible, horror turned them into monsters. In Monsters in the Closet, Harry M. Benshoff argues:

In short, for many people in our shared English-language culture, homosexuality is a monstrous condition. Like an evil Mr. Hyde, or the Wolfman, a gay or lesbian self inside of you might be striving to get out. Like Frankenstein’s monster, homosexuals might run rampant across the countryside, claiming “innocent” victims. Or worst of all, like mad scientists or vampires, who dream of revolutionising the world through some startling scientific discovery or preternatural power, homosexual activists strike at the very foundations of society, seeking to infect or destroy not only those around them but the very concepts of Western Judeo-Christian thought upon which civil society is built. For the better part of the twentieth century, homosexuals, like vampires, have rarely cast a reflection in the social looking-glass of popular culture. When they are seen, they are often filtered through the iconography of the horror film: ominous sound cues, shocked reaction shots, or even thunder and lightening. Both movie monsters and homosexuals have existed chiefly in shadowy closets, and when they do emerge from those proscribed places into the sunlit world, they cause panic and fear.

It goes without saying that this approach does not reflect the horror genre’s finer sensibilities. It seems unlikely that any group feels particularly flattered to be “othered” by horror cinema, turned into a crass bogeyman so as to reflect mainstream society’s anxieties.

Fast (thinkin') food clerk...

Fast (thinkin’) food clerk…

The X-Files itself has hit this stumbling block on occasion. Certain scripts could be read as xenophobic, portraying the foreigner as a hostile invading force. Stories like Excelsis Dei, Teso Dos BichosTeliko and El Mundo Gira play into classic horror tropes in such a way that they open themselves up to interpretation as racist narratives about strange people from other countries who bring death and destruction to the Unite States. This is not to suggest any of the writers are racist, but to draw attention to the perils of the “monster as other” format.

Nevertheless, parts of Rob’s experience do fit with the idea of the monster as a stand-in for a minority that was largely ignored by mainstream pop culture during the nineties. In this light, it is worth nothing that Gilligan would include a (highly stereotyped) gay couple in his script for X-Cops later in the season. As a whole, The X-Files (and other Ten Thirteen shows) were remarkably low on queer representation. Viewed through a prism almost two decades later, the shows’ perspectives are predominantly white, middle-class, and straight.

He's gonna get chewed out for this...

He’s gonna get chewed out for this…

The nineties saw television become increasingly comfortable with non-heterosexual characters. Friends featured the first lesbian marriage on prime time television in 1996. Ellen DeGeneres came out in 1997. Channel 4 launched Russell T. Davies’ Queer as Folk in April 1999. This is not to suggest that gay characters were suddenly (or even are currently) proportionate represented on mainstream television, but it does indicate that pop cultural attitudes were shifting, albeit slowly.

So coding Rob as gay is problematic, in the way that coding any minority as monstrous is problematic. Nevertheless, there are a few notable signifiers. Rob explains that his impulses became particularly strong all of a sudden, perhaps reflecting the flood of hormones and the questions of identity with which all teenagers must wrestle. His attempts to “control” those impulses to fit in works as a metaphor for “the closet”, the idea of concealing a sexual identity so as to blend in. (He literally hides in Derwood’s closet.)

Jacob really Lost his way, eh?

Jacob really Lost his way, eh?

Rob listens to a self-help tape that helps him to sublimate his urges and to repress his identity. The nineties saw a boom in the so-called “ex-gay” movement, which believed that a person could alter their sexual orientation with the right combination of therapy and coaching. The movement became a rallying call to the religious right; in 1998, such groups funded a $600,000 advertising campaign for the practice. Even at the time, “conversion therapy” was ethically questionable at best; in the years since, it has been completely and utterly discredited.

Rob’s attempts to conceal his identity are not just a means of deflecting attention away from himself. They are also a form of self-denial; rather than coming to terms with his identity, Rob tries to deny it. Rob clearly feels shame and guilt about who he is. At the end, Rob confesses to Mindy that maybe he has to embrace his “biological imperative.” She reflects, “Sounds like you’re saying you’re tired of feeling guilty.” Rob agrees wholeheartedly, “Bingo. I am sick and tired of pretending that I’m something that I’m not.”

A script with bite...

A script with bite…

Of course, as noted above, the monster metaphor doesn’t entirely work as a metaphor for the experience of a minority trying to “pass.” After all, Rob actually poses a real and credible threat to those around him; Rob is not a victim of racism or homophobia, but from the perfectly rational belief that people should be able to conduct their business without the fear of being eaten by a “shark person.” This is one of the more common problems with various fantasy allegories for the minority experience; particularly, say, Marvel’s X-Men franchise.

Still, the allegory doesn’t have to map perfectly to have resonance. It is perfectly reasonable to point out the logical flaws in using science-fiction or fantasy constructs to address issues as complicated and nuanced as human identity. At the same time, it is nice to have stories that can deal with these ideas in an abstract way. A question like “have tried not being a mutant?” (or “have you tried not being a monster?”) packs a punch because removing the homophobia (or racism) from its original context makes it look even more ridiculous.

Shark in the closet...

Shark in the closet…

In his Theses on Monsters, China Miéville proposes that this universality and lack of specificity is a strength of monsters:

Monsters demand decoding, but to be worthy of their own monstrosity, they avoid final capitulation to that demand. Monsters mean something, and/but they mean everything, and/but they are themselves and irreducible. They are too concretely fanged, toothed, scaled, fire-breathing, on the one hand, and too doorlike, polysemic, fecund, rebuking of closure, on the other, merely to signify, let alone to signify one thing.

This is certainly true of Rob in Hungry.

Seeing red...

Seeing red…

Much like the X-Men have evolved from being a metaphor for a persecuted minority to being a metaphor for any persecuted minority, there is some value in the decision to play Rob’s monstrosity as broadly as possible. For one thing, Gilligan’s refusal to treat Rob as a stand-in for a particular “othered” group means that Hungry avoids falling victim to the same homophobia or racism that characterises those other classic horror stories. It also allows the story to cast the widest possible net, allowing Rob’s story to stand in for any number of experiences of “otherness.”

Indeed, Rob could just as easily represent the universal teenage experience of otherness; the sense of lack of belonging that most children feeling during adolescence. After all, puberty finds a child coming to terms with strange changes to their body and weird impulses; most teenagers feel like outsiders who either don’t belong or aren’t understood. It is facile to attempt to boil teenage life down to a few universally shared experiences, but most adults can empathise with a teenage character who feels like a monster.

Good talk...

Good talk…

Of course, it is entirely possible that Rob is just a monster. Indeed, Hungry is arguably the most “monster of the week” episode ever shot, to the point that the monster is itself the point of the story and Mulder and Scully are reduced to secondary characters. The fact that Hungry was produced as the first episode of the seventh season is quite telling; it is perhaps the seventh season episode most firmly removed from the “X-Files Lite” aesthetic that generated so strong a backlash during the sixth season.

The decision to position Hungry towards the start of the season is perhaps a statement of intent from the production team. Hungry has any number of great jokes (“we only wear them on Fridays – for ‘free fer’ Fridays”), it is an episode packed to the brim with classic X-Files touches – from the attack on “hungry dude” in the teaser to the reveal of Rob’s true face to Derwood. As much as Hungry might play with some of the ideas underpinning the “monster of the week” structure, but its tone is much more traditional than something like Triangle or The Rain King.

Knock on wood...

Knock on wood…

This was a big aspect of the publicity around the initial broadcast of Hungry, with the cast and crew playing up the idea that Hungry was a return to good old-fashioned scary X-Files. Director Kim Manners noted of the experience:

“I think the fans are going to love the show because it’s scary,” he states. “We’re having a chance to shoot scary, [with] tight eyes, a guy waiting, points of view, a lot of tension. I think that’s what the fans like. I know it’s what I like as an audience member. I want to do more shows like Home-shows that when the audience turns them off they go, ‘Wow’,” Manners says, adding, “I think that’s what I’m going to try to do this year.”

It seems that Manners was not the only member of the production team working to make The X-Files scary again. It is debatable to what extent the attempt actually worked, but early episodes like Hungry, Millennium, Orison and Signs and Wonders suggest that it was a conscious effort.

Et, Fin.

Et, Fin.

In fact, Gilligan made a point to mention this shift in tone between the sixth and seventh season. Commenting on the seventh season’s stories, he reflected, “Last season we didn’t have any conscious intention to make it lighter, it just sort of wound up that way. I think we heard lot of people saying they missed the old-time scary ones, so we probably tried a little harder this season to make them scarier.” It is perhaps an indication that The X-Files was still engaged with (and informed by) its on-line fanbase.

Hungry is a season seven highlight. It has a great concept, a wonderful script, tense direction, and a fantastic central performance from Chad Donella as Rob. Hungry is a sign that the creative team still has some energy left in them. They’re still hungry.

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One Response

  1. It’s wonderful that you are getting thoughts from this paragraph as well
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