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The X-Files – The Goldberg Variation (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.

Jeffrey Bell does whimsical very well.

The Rain King and The Goldberg Variation are perhaps Bell’s two strongest contributions to The X-Files, and they stand as some of the show’s most light-hearted episodes. In a way, Bell was the perfect new writer for a show moving from moody Vancouver down to sunny Los Angeles, with his best contributions to the show managing to preserve the weirdness that fans had come to know and love while turning up the brightness at the same time. They were episodes that felt much more applicable to the show’s new home in California.

Eye see...

Eye see…

The Rain King and The Goldberg Variation are bright episodes, and not just in a literal sense. There is an optimism that runs through both scripts, suggesting that maybe the world is not an inherently hostile place and maybe not every X-file is plotting to eat your liver or carve out your cancer. Strange things happen in the world on every day, and some times those strange things can be wondrous as well as terrifying. While quite far removed from the aesthetic of the first five seasons, The Rain King and The Goldberg Variation are no less true to the spirit of the show.

The Goldberg Variation is light entertainment. It is so light that there are points where it almost seems ready to float away. That may not be such a bad thing.

Sometimes you have to play the hand you're dealt...

Sometimes you have to play the hand you’re dealt…

To be fair, Jeffrey Bell’s approach is not entirely innovative. After all, Glen Morgan and James Wong had been trying since the second season to suggest that the paranormal need not be horrific or unsettling. The pair had written One Breath and The Field Where I Died as attempts to explore positive (or, at least, neutral) supernatural experiences. As much as The X-Files can be described as a “monster of the week” show, the series cast a much broader net that allowed it to tell a wide range of stories that were not always grim and pessimistic.

Similarly, Bell was not the first writer to script comedy for The X-Files. Two of the show’s strongest writers – Darin Morgan and Vince Gilligan – had written funny episodes in the past. Some of those episodes count among the best episodes that the show ever produced. Darin Morgan’s comedy tended to come laced with a sense of tragedy, as characters like Lannie or Clyde Bruckman or Jose Chung died alone and depressed. Vince Gilligan’s comedy could occasionally skew towards the mean-spirited, with Mulder and Scully getting passive-aggressive in Bad Blood.

It's where he launders his money...

It’s where he launders his money…

In fact, two of Chris Carter’s own scripts come quite close to approximating the tone of Jeffrey Bell’s two whimsical X-Files. In terms of tone, The Post-Modern Prometheus and Improbable are both rather bizarre and zany episodes. However, neither quite matches the wide-eyed innocence of The Rain King and The Goldberg Variation. There is an uncomfortable rape subtext running through The Post-Modern Prometheus, while Improbable has Scully and Reyes hot on the trail of a brutal serial murderer.

In contrast, The Rain King and The Goldberg Variation are positively cartoonish. While The Goldberg Variation lacks the same hypersaturation that lent The Rain King a particularly fantastical edge, the episode is populated with broadly-drawn archetypes more than fully-formed characters. There is a sick kid who needs a life-saving operation, a bunch of mobsters who look like they escaped from Oscar! rather than The Sopranos, not to mention the primary character’s elaborate Rube Goldberg machines.

"Why does getting HBO have to be so tough?"

“Why does getting HBO have to be so tough?”

The Goldberg Variation is a little heavier than The Rain King was. After all, Mulder and Scully had been dragged into The Rain King without a body to spur the case; although Daryl Dixon lost his leg in the teaser, the only death over the course of the episode had been that of the cow thrown through Mulder’s motel roof. In contrast, The Goldberg Variation features two characters getting hit by trucks and a couple of dead mobsters. Then again, given they have nicknames like “Angie the Animal” and are killed by their own actions, perhaps the audience shouldn’t get too upset.

Indeed, The Goldberg Variation can be seen as a return to the controversial “X-Files Lite” aesthetic that so polarised the fanbase during the sixth season, with an emphasis on comedy and wackiness more than horror and morbidity. The first stretch of the seventh season had worked quite hard to present a run of consciously old-fashioned “monster of the week” stories, to the point where the first episode produced – Hungry – had actually built itself around a monster of the week.

Engines of destiny...

Engines of destiny…

This was a consideration for the production team. The Goldberg Variation was the second episode of the seventh season produced, but the sixth to air; it was broadcast right before Christmas. In a way, it could be seen as something of an X-Files stocking filler. Although not as overtly Christmas as How the Ghosts Stole Christmas, it does have a decidedly feel-good vibe. According to Frank Spotnitz in The Official Guide:

The episode had a lot of humorous moments that we were afraid of doing because as many people who like the funny ones hate the funny ones. But the idea seemed so strong to us that we decided to push it to later in the season because we wanted to scare the hell out of everybody during the first few episodes.

It seems strange that so much effort was made to push back the first goofy script of the seventh season. While the first five broadcast episodes are conventional in tone and theme, the seventh season is no less “funny” than the sixth. The Goldberg Variation is just the first of a string of light-hearted “goofy” episode running across the season – from The Amazing Maleeni to First-Person Shooter to Hollywood A.D. to Fight Club to Je Souhaite.

"This plan is working like gangbusters..."

“This plan is working like gangbusters…”

The Goldberg Variation balances its tone carefully. The episode shrewdly casts Willie Garson in the role of Henry Weems, the luckiest man alive. Garson had previously appeared in a small role in The Walk, but it’s hard to complain about recycling actors when they are so perfectly suited to the role. Weems is a character who has the best luck in the world, but who remains somehow a tragic and put-upon figure. Garson so perfectly captures that earnestness and anxiety perfectly that it is impossible not to root for a character who already has everything going for him.

Weems could easily seem like more of a plot device than a character; after all, he arguably positions himself as the small wooden man in the middle of his own Rube Goldberg machine. Given that The Goldberg Variation is itself a gigantic Rube Goldberg machine, the episode could easily seem mechanical or impersonal. Certainly, the episode isn’t afforded an excess of personality by use of a sick kid to provide stakes and the use of cardboard cutout mobsters as bad guys. The Goldberg Variation largely lives or dies based on how the audience responds to Weems.

Fashioning a plan...

Fashioning a plan…

Garson does great work. After all, it should be very difficult to care about Weems; this is a character on the greatest hot streak in the history of mankind, it is hard to feel too worried about the possibility that he might lose. More than that, Weems could easily seem too passive or too calculating; too passive in his reluctance to actually take the steps to help Richie Lupone or too calculating in his decision to sadistically inflict bad luck on a bunch of mobsters. (“You don’t mind so much if a few criminals get hurt,” Mulder observes.)

Garson pitches it just right. Weems is sad without ever seeming too self-pitying; he is innocent without ever seeming too naive. Weems could easily become a two-dimensional saint-like figure, but Garson keeps him human. There is a sense that Weems is a passive observer of the world around him, but only through choice and calculation; Garson makes sure that Weems never seems foolish or oblivious. After all, his hobby is building devices designed to showcase elaborate (and improbable) cause and effect.

Shades of graze...

Shades of graze…

It helps that Bell’s script for The Goldberg Variations is self-aware. Much like The Rain King drew attention to its own artifice with its Wizard of Oz trappings, The Goldberg Variation is very consciously about narrative. In turning the world around Weems into a complex Rube Goldberg machine, The Goldberg Variation explains its own plot contrivances and narrative leaps as statistical improbabilities all building towards a predetermined outcome. The episode makes comparisons to Weems’ complicated machines.

Overtly, these resemble the work of cartoonist and engineer Rube Goldberg, whose work is populated with fantastic contraptions designed to execute simple objectives in the most convoluted manner imaginable. The phrase “Rube Goldberg” was recorded as early as 1931 as an adjective meaning accomplishing by complex means what seemingly could be done simply.” During the nineties, Goldberg’s work was among that commemorated through a series of stamps released by the U.S. postal service.

Don't leave him hanging...

Don’t leave him hanging…

Interestingly, Goldberg’s creations could be read as a sort of grim parody of an increasing automated and bureaucratic twentieth-century culture. The cartoonist himself described his work as examples of “man’s capacity for exerting maximum effort to accomplish minimal results.” Although that rather bleak subtext has been largely forgotten in favour of whimsy, it does render Rube Goldberg machines inherently tragic; there is a recurring sense that people (and other living creatures) are simply cogs slotted into a larger mechanism.

The Goldberg Variation touches on this idea a little bit, emphasising how little control Henry Weems exercises over his own life and the events directly around him. The first machine that Weems demonstrates to Mulder and Scully features a little wooden figure at its centre, literally trapped in the midst of a gigantic and complex apparatus. In a surprisingly dark touch for such a light episode, the central purpose of that machine is to open a trapdoor so that the little wooden figurine might hang.



However, Rube Goldberg is not the only focus of The Goldberg Variation. The episode uses the machines as an overt point of comparison, but also as a metaphor for a certain way of structuring stories. According to The Official Guide, writer Jeffrey Bell came up with the ending and worked backwards:

I pitched the episode as a teaser of a guy falling thirty thousand feet out of an airplane into the ground and walking away unharmed. I wanted the whole thing to be about good luck and bad luck. From the beginning I saw the whole plot functioning as a Rube Goldberg device, with luck centring around the kid he’s trying to help. I knew that the bad guy would die at the end and that his organs would be a perfect match for the kid. When you already have an ending, it helps.

As such, The Goldberg Variation becomes a metaphor for its own narrative construction. It is a series of increasingly contrived and improbable events that are structured in such a way that they build towards an inevitable conclusion.

"Right smack dab in the middle of town, I've found a paradise that's trouble proof... Up on the roof..."

“Right smack dab in the middle of town, I’ve found a paradise that’s trouble proof…
Up on the roof…”

After all, it is possible to resolve the plot in a much more straightforward manner. Richie Lupone needs an organ transplant; somebody dies with a matching blood type, and so Richie gets his transplant, or nothing happens and then Richie dies. These are fairly straightforward resolutions, and ones that are probably in line with most experiences of organ transplants. However, they don’t necessarily make for forty-five minutes of compelling viewing; they certainly don’t fit comfortably with the broader aesthetic of The X-Files.

So the plot becomes more complex and more convoluted by turns. The decision to have the organ transplant come from a character in the narrative leads to the addition of Jimmy Cutrona; the need to provide a happy ending and a sense of peril means that Cutrona becomes a bad guy; the need to tie him to Weems leads to the introduction of the poker game; the need for act breaks leads to the repeated attempts on Weems’ life. By the time the idea has developed from Bell’s original two-line pitch to a full draft, there are a lot of contrivances.

Scratch that.

Scratch that.

The idea that plot essentially serves as a Rube Goldberg machine is not a new metaphor; after all, the art of storytelling can often feel like extending a single line synopsis into something longer and more compelling. The machine becomes even more elaborate when writers are juggling multiple plots that have to intersect or overlap; the art of plotting is not unlike designing a complex Rube Goldberg machine. How many movies would be shorter if a character had a gun or a working mobile telephone at the right moment?

In fact, the metaphor even extends itself to warnings about such plot-driven storytelling. After all, the art of a Rube Goldberg machine is in creating something full of improbabilities and convolutions that works without the author’s hand appear too obvious. It plays well as a demonstration of the arbitrary nature of “suspension of disbelief.” At what point is a plot development too contrived or too forced? More than that, it also serves as a cautionary tale about reducing characters to simple storytelling cogs in a plot-driven machine.

Even mobsters love their mammas...

Even mobsters love their mammas…

The Goldberg Variation is a story that is well aware of its nature as a story. In fact, the climax of the episode features Mulder realising that the characters are trapped in a narrative building towards resolution. When everything suddenly looks bleak for Weems, it is Mulder who deduces that the plot has simply reached the nadir before the climax. “I’m saying that what looks like it might be bad luck may not be bad luck, but we can’t tell yet,” he argues. “We’re not in that position. We can’t see the forest for the trees.”

In fact, Mulder is able to figure out where Cutrona has his hostages by deducing that The Goldberg Variation is structured to lead to Mulder and Scully figuring out where Cutrona has his hostages. He exploits narrative convenience, literally opening the phone book to the right page and counting on the story to take them where they need to go. (Albeit with a nice gag where it is actually Mulder’s second guess that leads the duo to Cutrona.) Mulder and Scully seem almost aware of their existence as fictional characters caught in a story.

Everything's coming up aces...

Everything’s coming up aces…

“Scully, what if everybody that becomes involved in Henry Weems’ life somehow becomes an integral part of his luck, including you and I?” Mulder wonders at one point. After all, it would fit with the law of conservation of detail, the idea that stories should not contain too many superfluous or unnecessary elements. Scully shrewdly ties it all back to the metaphor of the Rube Goldberg machine, responding, “Mulder, you’re speaking as if we’re all trapped in one of those contraptions that he built.”

All of this lends The Goldberg Variation a bit more weight than it might otherwise have; although not too much weight, as Jeffrey Bell’s script and Thomas Wright’s direction conspire to keep it all light. If The Goldberg Variation argues that Weems’ lucky streak is itself a metaphor for storytelling an plot contrivance, then perhaps it also serves as a metaphor for the show itself. A lot of the dramatic tension in the episode comes from the possibility that Weems’ luck might run out, that his streak might come to an end. After all, stories tend to come to ends.

The eyes have it...

The eyes have it…

Scully is skeptical when Mulder suggests that Weems is basically impervious to harm. “Even if you believe in so-called lucky streaks you have to know they all eventually end,” she suggests. After Weems gets hit by a truck (with a four-leaf clover on it), Mulder concedes, “Maybe what you said about streaks is right. It looks like his has just about run its course.” It is interesting to consider this in the broader context of the early seventh season of The X-Files, when it seemed quite likely that the show itself would be coming to an end.

If this is a nod to the possible ending of The X-Files, the inclusion of Jimmy Cutrona and the stereotypical mobsters is an interesting element. It is, after all, very difficult to see a mobster on contemporary television without thinking about The Sopranos. David Chase’s HBO gangster drama had premiered much earlier in 1999, to significant critical acclaim. It is generally credited with starting a revolution in television storytelling, one of the earliest examples of prestigious auteur-driven cable drama. The Sopranos was the future of television.

Hang on in there...

Hang on in there…

In a way, its arrival made The X-Files seem even older. The X-Files had been a cutting edge prime-time drama when it first appeared, looking utterly unlike anything else on television. However, time erodes novelty; although no show could quite match or surpass The X-Files, the networks had flooded American television with knock-offs and imitations. While none of these succeeded on the same scale, they did make The X-Files look more and more like an example of the television old-guard.

The X-Files had been new and exciting in 1993; six years later, it was safe and familiar. The first season of The Sopranos had already knocked the sixth season of The X-Files off the ballot for the Outstanding Drama Series at the Emmy Awards in 1999. With the show missing its first Outstanding Drama Series nomination since its second season, Carter reflected, “I always felt that we were sort of the novelty choice four years running for nominations. I thought that this would be the year where there wasn’t room for us and I was right.”

"Tony who?"

“Tony who?”

Indeed, the arrival of The Sopranos – and the game-changer that it represented – had not gone unnoticed by the production team. In an interview at the start of the seventh season, Frank Spotnitz noted, “I look at The Sopranos, which is a great show, and I just think how I wish we were in their shoes, because they only have to do 13 episodes; that would be a more pleasant and rational working process.” When the time came to cast a new lead, Robert Patrick was only really open to the idea because The Sopranos convinced him that television was worth doing.

It is hard not to read Jimmy Cutrona and his goons as a tip of the hat towards a younger and hungrier HBO television show – particularly when the head gangster is killed operating a device marked “Cable In.” The goons in The Goldberg Variation are cartoonish, and intentionally so. Jeffrey Bell is not trying to mimic the complexity that made The Sopranos such a hit, instead basking in the relative innocence of network television. The script uses them as cannon fodder – little hanging men at the centre of a cruel Rube Goldberg machine.

Where's La Beouf?

Where’s La Beouf?

The Goldberg Variation is also notable because it features a guest appearance from a young Shia La Beouf. Part of the joy of watching The X-Files is the weird points of intersection that exist between it and modern pop culture; Octavia Spencer had a surreal cameo as a nurse named Octavia in Millennium, to say nothing of Michael Bublé’s cameo in Apocrypha. La Beouf is fairly solid, although it is not as if Richie Lupone is a particularly compelling role. He exists as motivation for Weems, and little more.

Cementing the sense that this might be the final season of the show, the seventh season features a version of Scully who seems increasingly comfortable with the paranormal. Over the course of the year, Scully seems more and more open to the idea of “extreme possibilities.” In Rush, she doesn’t immediately shoot down Mulder’s crazy theories that the magic super speed stuff only affects teenagers. “Well, that’s doubtful,” she concedes. “But no more so than any other theory. I mean, it’s worth checking out.”

A patchy theory...

A patchy theory…

In The Goldberg Variation, Scully even gets to propose a highly unlikely theory that just happens to be correct. She is the character who immediately jumps to the idea that Henry Weems is just unnaturally lucky. As Mulder tries to figure out how Weems survived the fall from the penthouse, Scully speculates, “My point is that if there’s a wind gust, or a sudden updraft and, plus, if he landed in exactly the right way, I mean, I don’t know. Maybe he just got lucky.” It is a delightful reversal of the standard X-Files format that has Mulder guess correctly immediately.

Mulder finds himself forced into the role of skeptic, one which he plays with more jerkish relish than Scully. “What if he got really, really lucky?” Mulder teases in disbelief. “That’s your big scientific explanation, Scully? I mean, how many thousands of variables would have to convene in just the right mixture for that theory to hold water?” Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine this same conversation playing out with the roles reverse only a year or two earlier, with Scully picking holes in Mulder’s improbable theory.

Stacking up...

Stacking up…

There is a palpable change in the dynamic between Mulder and Scully in the seventh season, with the two seeming much more relaxed with one another. At points, it seems like the binary “believer/sceptic” dynamic has been eroded almost completely. Mulder and Scully had always been flirty, with the show amping up the romantic tension in the sixth season. However, the seventh season dynamic is quite different; the tension seems to have evaporated. Mulder and Scully are still playful and flirty, but in a less self-conscious way.

In Rush, Mulder gets all defensive when Scully catches him eyeing up Chastity Raines. “What?” he responds, defensively; he doesn’t get a response. Here, Mulder arranges to surprise Scully when she arrives at the address specified in the case file. Both David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson seem to be having a great deal of fun with this looser and more casual mode of interaction. Mulder and Scully are still the recognisable archetypes that viewers know and love, but there is something much more relaxed about them this season.

Donor and dusted...

Donor and dusted…

Of course, the change in the dynamic has fueled all sorts of speculation. Due to several conscious choices made by the production team, it is impossible to precisely date the point at which Mulder and Scully stop being a platonic partnership and become a romantic couple; their sexual relationship is not explicitly confirmed until after Mulder has left the show. In a way, the nature and history of the relationship between Mulder and Scully becomes almost as mysterious as the finer workings of the conspiracy they toppled; viewers navigating a maze of denials and red herrings.

That said, the seventh season is structured so that Mulder and Scully don’t really have an extended interaction until Millennium, the episode that ends with the their long-delayed kiss. It is, as such, quite easy to suggest that the more casual dynamic between the two characters is evidence that they are now in something resembling a romantic relationship. The unresolved tension that powered the first six seasons of the show has finally collapsed under the weight of inevitability. After all, if this is to be the final season, there is arguably no bigger thread to tie up.

"You have no idea how much work it took to let me convince the department of public works to let me pull this prank..."

“You have no idea how much work it took to convince the Department of Public Works to let me pull this prank…”

However, there is a potentially awkward subtext running under this. If Scully’s more open-minded attitude to the paranormal is rooted in the fact that she is now in (or is about to be in) a relationship with Mulder, it undercuts her steadfast skepticism. The timing of this conversion could be read to suggest that the dynamic between believer and skeptic was always just about unresolved sexual tension; that Scully was only able to believe when she was willing to acknowledge the chemistry that exists between them.

At the same time, Scully’s willingness to consider extreme character growth does provide a clear example of growth and development. The X-Files was never a show particularly good at long-term character arcs. Taken in broad strokes, the character arcs of Mulder and Scully make sense across the nine-year run of the series, but they don’t always hold up to scrutiny; the reversal of the dynamic in the fifth season is the most obvious example, but so is the way that the show handles Mulder’s absence in the final season.

Left to his own devices...

Left to his own devices…

It is too much to suggest that Scully’s journey from skeptic to believer is entirely logical or organic; there are certainly moments where the character seems to push forwards or slide backwards depending on the writer. However, the seventh season does mark a clear point of transition; it is the moment in the series where Scully opens herself up to the strangeness of the world around her, finally accepting that world of The X-Files does not conform to the same laws of biology or physics that govern the real world.

This change in the character makes sense in both the contemporary context of the seventh season and in the way that the show eventually developed. At this point in production, it was still expected that the seventh season would be the final season of The X-Files; with that in mind, having Scully finally accept the X-files is a logical character beat. In The Pilot, Scully had been assigned to debunk the X-files; with that in mind, it makes sense to have her become a believer as the curtain draws down on the show.

"I'm a fan of this approach..."

“I’m a fan of this approach…”

However, the seventh season would not be the final season of the show. The failure of Harsh Realm saw to that. With David Duchovny declining to commit to a full eighth season of the show, Mulder would no longer be the show’s lead character. Having Scully accept the paranormal in the seventh season of the show positioned her to assume the “believer” role at the start of the eighth season. Inadvertently and accidentally, the seventh season does an excellent job of setting up Scully’s role opposite Doggett at the start of the following year.

It seems The X-Files was just lucky that way.

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

2 Responses

  1. Bell is the worst writer to be credited on more than two episodes of the series. So cartoony,

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