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The X-Files – The Amazing Maleeni (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.

The Amazing Maleeni is light and fairly unobjectionable.

There is nothing necessarily bad about the episode. It is inoffensive and effective. It is a story about magic that features any number of magic tricks, twisting and turning as stories about magic are contractually obligated to twist and turn. There are betrayals and double-crosses, gambits and reveals. Nobody is who they claim to be, and everything is suspect. Individual events are never what they initially appear to be, creating a sense that the audience is watching the dominos cascade. The Amazing Maleeni does almost everything that it needs to do.

Top it all off...

Top it all off…

At the same time, there is something lifeless about the final episode; something almost routine. The Amazing Maleeni feels like a rough sketch of a much stronger episode. The mechanics of the trick are in place, but the performance needs a little more polish. There is no dynamism to the episode. The Amazing Maleeni sacrifices momentum for whimsy, charm for engagement. As an episode of television, The Amazing Maleeni is a pleasant way to pass forty-five minutes. Ultimately, it leaves no real impression.

The Amazing Maleeni is more illusion than magic.

Give the man a hand (cuff)!

Give the man a hand (cuff)!

The idea of doing a show based around magic came from producer Frank Spotnitz. The veteran staffer had been harbouring the idea of doing an episode about illusionism for quite some time before The Amazing Maleeni made it into development:

I had wanted to do a magic show all by myself, starring Ricky Jay, for years, and this is what I was talking about earlier – I couldn’t possibly do it by myself, and we needed a script. So John, Vince, and I scrambled to develop the story together, and wrote it amazingly fast. We were desperate to get Ricky Jay, and begged him for weeks before he finally agreed. As far as we’re concerned, that’s what made the episode. But we liked it too.

There is a palpable sense of “why the hell not?” to The Amazing Maleeni, as if the production team were aware that this might be the last chance to tell this particular story. As such, it was better to tell it now than to take the time to hone it a little further. This feels entirely in keeping with the broader aesthetic of the seventh season.

Handing it to him...

Handing it to him…

It was quite possible that this would be the last season of the show, so there is a genuine sense of getting around to unfinished business; the writing staff are tidying up loose ends. Frank Black gets closure in Millennium, Donnie Pfaster returns in Orison; Frank Spotnitz finally gets to write his magic episode, Vince Gilligan finally gets to write his crossover with Cops. It isn’t as if the show is desperately scrambling for ideas, it is just more willing to let the writers finally follow through on things they’d wanted to do for a while.

The decision to structure The Amazing Maleeni as a caper makes a great deal of sense. After all, the art of illusion has a lot in common with the structure of a caper film; it is populated with red herrings and misdirections, twists and turns, betrayals and reveals. Magic is a very comfortable fit for a heist or caper story. Despite the film’s storytelling shortcomings, the genius of that basic union between illusion and hustle was enough to secure Now You See Me two sequels.

What a wand-erful world...

What a wand-erful world…

However, the caper structure causes problems for The Amazing Maleeni. Most obviously, it is very difficult to pull off a high-stakes complicated caper within a single television episode. The law of conservation of narrative works against such storytelling in a forty-five minute instalment; every detail is important and packed close together, so it is harder to legitimately set up a clever twist without tipping the episode’s hand. This is perhaps most obvious in casting, where it quickly becomes clear who the con artist are and who the marks are.

Indeed, The Amazing Maleeni struggles to fit in all the plots and reversals, to the point that the episode’s biggest reveal unfolds as an exposition dump from Mulder to Scully about what almost happened. There is something anticlimactic about watching a caper story where the central caper is foiled simply by confiscating a bit of evidence from the evidence locker and explaining the long con two minutes before the credits roll. It might have been more dramatic to see Maleeni and LaBonge attempt to execute the con, only to foiled at the last-minute.

How to get a head in marketing...

How to get a head in marketing…

Then again, there is something quite clever about the revelation that the ultimate goal of this elaborate caper is an electronic funds transfer. After all, what are electronic funds but an illusion; they are a representation of money, rather than money itself. More than that, there is something quite funny in the idea that all the convoluted plot mechanics of The Amazing Maleeni were put in place so that Maleeni could ultimately just push a button on a computer and get filthy stinkin’ rich.

The problem is not the idea itself; the idea is as clever as building an episode about a caper around two huckster magicians. The problem is the execution of the idea. After all, LaBonge manages to get ahold of Mulder’s badge quite early in the episode; Maleeni gets Mulder’s thumbprint the first time that they cross paths. Why did LaBonge and Maleeni wait so long to execute their gambit? Why did they risk so much to set up Alvarez when they could simply transfer lots of money and get out of dodge? After all, the teaser establishes all that they need to execute the con.

A royal con...

A royal con…

(More than that, the resolution of the episode seems rather pat. Mulder and Scully know that Alvarez did not steal the money, LaBonge and Maleeni did. If Mulder is willing to let LaBonge and Maleeni go free, does that mean that Alvarez is going to take the fall? That seems like pretty terrible police work, but it also suggest that the duo’s moral lapse in Orison was not a freak occurence. If this is to mark a point where Mulder and Scully effectively “break bad”, it seems only appropriate that “Marine Craddock Bank” puts in an appearance.)

Of course, all of this is perhaps nitpicking. The Amazing Maleeni does not work as well as it might, but it works well enough. The episode might lack a clear forward momentum or any sense of stakes, but the script is charming and whimsical. Maybe The Amazing Maleeni would work better if The Goldberg Variation had been broadcast earlier in the season, or if the magic caper episode had itself been put back. Given the tone of Millennium, it is funny to think that Thomas J. Wright ended up directing two closely connected goofy X-Files episodes.

His hands are so fast, they're on fire.

His hands are so fast, they’re on fire.

Mulder and Scully still work magic together. A lot of The Amazing Maleeni coasts off the charm of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Neither actor is pushing themselves, but the pair are clearly comfortable with one another. It is impossible to hate any episode of The X-Files that puts Scully in a top hat, or features Mulder practising sleight of hand. (“The great Muldeeni!”) Even as The X-Files begins the process of winding down, that incredibly chemistry between the two leads helps to sustain episodes that might otherwise collapse under scrutiny or simply blow away.

In a way, this hints at the problems that lie ahead for The X-Files. The casting of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson was a major coup for the series. There is a reason that the idea of Mulder and Scully as a romantic couple became such a broad pop culture debate. Anderson and Duchovny are fun to watch, and they practically bounce off one another here. In the seventh season, as the episodes feel a little more relaxed, there is still some joy to be had in watching the pair interact. As great as Robert Patrick is, he doesn’t work as well with Anderson.

What goes around...

What goes around…

Part of the fun of season seven is in watching Duchovny and Anderson playfully flirt through scripts that aren’t as tight as they once were. It is fun to speculate when the dynamic between Mulder and Scully evolved from a platonic partnership to a romantic relationship. Certainly, the duo are bantering like crazy in The Amazing Maleeni, with Scully jokingly describing Mulder as a “skeptic” and gleefully demonstrating that she can rotate her hand around a full three-sixty degrees.

The Amazing Maleeni also exists as a nice snapshot of a particular moment in cultural history. Magic has always been popular in one form or another. Over the years, tastes tend to change and evolve; the audience decides that it prefers one style or technique over another. Broadcast in early 2000, The Amazing Maleeni captures the world of magic in something of a transition between large-scale stage magic and more intimate low-key street magic. It was transition that took place during the later nineties, and is interesting to watch in hindsight.

That old magic...

That old magic…

It might be argued that every generation gets a style of magic that is particularly suited to them. As with any other art form, magic reflects a larger cultural context. Certainly, the move towards more naturalistic street magic at the start of the twenty-first century could be read as part of a broader movement:

But each age calls magic whatever stunt it needs to marvel at, and each age gets the magic it deserves. David Blaine, standing up there, is actually as good a magical metaphor for the moment as Houdini, fighting his way out of the straitjacket of immigrant identity toward prosperity, was for his, or David Copperfield, causing whole monuments to disappear while having dubious assignations with supermodels, was for the Gilded Age now in twilight. (He made the Statue of Liberty vanish—a stunt no one even wants to think about now.) David Blaine is the magician as stoic, the magician as the nonmagical bystander, drawing on the ancient Egyptian gods of extremely tedious normality, the magician as the guy from the outer boroughs who just stands there and puts up with it.

As with episodes like Millennium and Rush, it is interesting to see The X-Files nod towards a cultural shift happening around it. While the events of 9/11 undoubtedly impacted popular tastes, there were other changes occurring as the long nineties drew to a close.

Up to his old tricks...

Up to his old tricks…

In the nineties, magic had tended towards gigantic set pieces. David Copperfield was a sensation. He appeared in seventeen self-titled magic specials for ABC between 1978 and 1995. His style was arguably quite conservative; the Magic of David Copperfield specials have been described as having “a variety show appeal.” However, he was undoubtedly popular. His 1996 stage show, Dreams and Nightmares, reported raked in over six million dollars. However, his star faded in the new millennium. The performer has made several attempts at a comeback.

Within the context of The Amazing Maleeni, the eponymous magician played by Ricky Jay arguably embodies that classic magical aesthetic. Like Copperfield, Maleeni is presented as a very traditional and old-fashioned stage magician. “That ain’t old school,” LaBonge protests. “That’s decrepit.” He tells stories while doing his tricks. Most notably, he is played by Ricky Jay. Jay was a magician who had also worked his way up through the variety circuit; albeit without the same sheer brand success as Copperfield.

Maleeni's act had a pretty significant drop-off...

Maleeni’s act had a pretty significant drop-off…

The decline of David Copperfield and his brand of magic can be credited to a number of different factors. On the most basic of levels, it seemed like audiences were just hungry for a change. Copperfield’s approach to magic was decidedly old-school; most television viewers would have watched it since they were children. There was also a sense of stageyness to the production. In an era where CGI was becoming more common, and when viewers were becoming more cynical about stage-managed productions, Copperfield felt increasingly outdated.

In the late nineties, Fox produced a series of Breaking the Magician’s Code specials (narrated by Mitch Pileggi) which featured a “masked magician” exposing many of the secrets of the trade. The masked magician was eventually revealed to be Val Valentino. Asked why had exposed these secrets to the public, he argued, “I wanted people to know the tricks so that it would motivate magicians to think of new magic acts that could make them successful rather than the old ‘rabbit in the hat’-type tricks.”

Magic: The Gathering...

Magic: The Gathering…

Valentino seemed to have a sense of the national mood. Less than a year after Copperfield earned six million dollars with Dreams and Nightmares, television found a new face of magic. David Blaine made quite an impression when he met with senior network officials in 1997; performing a few impromptu card tricks, the street magician quickly secured a million dollar contract for himself.  Blaine captured national attention with his first television special, designed to emphasise Blaine’s youth and novelty.

Blaine’s first television special was titled Street Magic and was hosted by Leonardo DiCaprio, fresh from his performance in Titanic. The special adopted a documentary style following Blaine as he performed magic in real-world environments; Blaine too magic out of the theatre and put in a more familiar and intimate context. In a way, Blaine made magic seem more “real” than it had before that point. Inevitably, other specials followed. Magic Man found the magician taking his unique style on tour around the United States.

Sawing himself in two...

Sawing himself in two…

Performing a stunt titled “buried alive”, Blaine arranged to be buried under water in a glass coffin for a week in April 1999. This was quite far from the mainstream portrayal of magic, as Blaine conceded:

I’d always wanted to do these types of things — pieces of magic I could put out not as illusions, but really doing it. Which is really in the tradition of Houdini, who was an escape artist but who was really doing things: training hard, keeping a serious regimen. For the coffin, I read about an Indian fakir who was buried alive for a month. I thought instead of burying myself under dirt, I’d bury myself under water so everybody could see that you’re there. I got a coffin in Brooklyn and I started practicing sleeping in it. I stayed in it for four days on my first shot with just short bathroom breaks. For the full seven days, I needed to fast so as not to use the bathroom. I started to fast eleven days before I went into the coffin.

It seemed like Blaine was adopting an approach that stressed the “real.” Blaine’s style of magic emphasised the authentic over the illusion.

Bang for buck...

Bang for buck…

This style was perfectly captured the millennial mood. It seemed like audiences were more willing to question the nature of their reality. Harsh Realm arrived on television in late 1999; at the same time, theatres were filled with films that dared to wonder if reality was little more than an illusion. Blaine’s efforts to blend the real and the illusory exist in that cultural context; those specials and stunts exist as a companion piece to The Matrix or The Truman Show or eXistenz or The Thirteenth Floor. If reality is an illusion, what if an illusion is real?

Indeed, these questions about reality arguably play out in the context of The Amazing Maleeni itself. CGI had become more affordable and more effective during the nineties, paving the way for the superhero boom of the twenty-first century. Audiences could no longer be entirely sure that what they were seeing on screen had any association to reality. Any tangibility was eroded as stuntmen and make-up gave way to pixels and post production. Paradoxically, Hollywood fakery was less real at the end of the nineties than it ever had been before.

Hands-on approach...

Hands-on approach…

The teaser to The Amazing Maleeni is built around a moment of such trickery. Goaded on by LaBonge, the eponymous magician decides to pull off the ultimate trick; he plans to rotate his head a full three-sixty degrees. It is a fairly daunting challenge, and The Amazing Maleeni accomplishes it through some very obvious computer generated imagery. The sequence is painfully obvious, the type of special effect that looks like it belongs on an old episode of Doctor Who.

Then again, that obvious fakery might just be the point of it all. After all, The Amazing Maleeni seems to draw attention to the impossibility of the stunt. Mulder wonders aloud about it throughout the episode, and both Scully and LaBonge offer their own teasing explanation; both Scully and LaBonge rotate their hands three-sixty degrees. However, this obviously an unsatisfying explanation for a physically impossible stunt. In the final scene of the episode, Mulder points out as much. “You know, it’s not the same thing. It’s different with the head.”

Acing the test...

Acing the test…

The use of CGI is nominally supposed to increase the convincing nature of film; it allows for stunts that would be impossible under other conditions, allowing film to show what it never could have before. At the same time, it untethers cinema from the limitations of the real world. As Randy Laist argues in Cinema of Simulation:

Until the mid-1990s, one of the most salient ontological characteristics of the filmic image had always been the real-world referentiality of the photographic subject. No matter how manipulatively film had employed illusory techniques to seduce and mislead its audience, photographic film carries the conviction of being a witness to real-world people, places, and events. By generating photorealistic images that have no correlation to any real-world referents, however, CGI revolutionises the ontological structure of the filmic image to detach it from any real-world reference points.

Audiences can no longer trust what they see on film, that they are seeing what has been captured by the camera. While editing made a lot of things possible, the freedom of computer-generated imagery completely shatters that sense of trust and reality.

Exactly what it says on the tin...

Exactly what it says on the tin…

In a way, The Amazing Maleeni could be seen as a postmodern demonstration of all this; capturing magic on television, the show is able to use CGI to render an illusion that would be impossible for an actual performer. Magic is by its nature an illusion, but The Amazing Maleeni opens with an act that makes that illusion transparent and candid. It is an impossible trick that belies the classic “how did he do that?” question by affording the audience a very simple answer. “He didn’t.”

The Amazing Maleeni toys with this line between the reality of illusion and the illusion of reality. Ricky Jay is the top-billed guest star, an actor and a magician playing a magician and a conman. According to The Official Guide, Spotnitz wanted to cast David Blaine in the role of LaBonge. When Blaine was unavailable, magician Jonathan Levit stepped into the role. In fact, it was one of Levit’s first on-screen performances. As such, The Amazing Maleeni plays with reality and illusion, even in its casting.

"The Great Maleeni is not to be interrupted."

“The Great Maleeni is not to be interrupted.”


The staged conflict between LaBonge and Maleeni could arguably be read as an example of The X-Files‘ own internal anxieties. As the show approaches the half-way point in its seventh season, The X-Files is getting old. It is no longer new or shocking; it is part of the old guard. At this point in its run, The X-Files resembles Maleeni a lot more than it resembles LaBonge. The X-Files is a show that has already been extended past its original projected run, and which might be extended once again at the end of the season.

In that light, LaBonge seems to deliver a very potent piece of self-criticism. “You know what I’m saying?” he asks Mulder and Scully. “It’s about… originality. Style. And more than anything else… soul. Because that’s what separates the great ones… from the hacks.” Running for seven seasons, it was fair to ask whether The X-Files could still lay claim to concepts like “originality” or “style” or “soul.” After all, the show was only still on the air because Fox wanted it. It would only get an eighth season because Fox had no alternative.

It's like watching granma work the VCR.

It’s like watching granma work the VCR.

As The X-Files thundered towards two hundred episodes, it seemed perfectly reasonable to ask whether the show was one of “the great ones” or whether it would be remembered as one of “the hacks.” Of course, this is something of a loaded question. Any series with X-Cops in its future is not entirely a lost cause. The X-Files might not have been as radical and adventurous in its final three seasons, but it was still capable of being entertaining and smart. For all its flaws, The Amazing Maleeni demonstrates how fun it still is to hang out with Mulder and Scully.

To be fair to The Amazing Maleeni, the episode is self-aware enough that it doesn’t offer a blustering indictment of the show. If Maleeni is meant to stand-in for The X-Files, given LaBonge’s criticisms of Maleeni as a washed up old hack, then there is something quite heartwarming in the revelation that LaBonge and Maleeni are working together. Old and young do not necessarily have to exist at odds. The X-Files might be old enough to be the grand old man of television, but it was still hip enough to hang with the kids.

It's daylight robbery...

It’s daylight robbery…

As such, it is important that The Amazing Maleeni also ends with Mulder and Scully outwitting both LaBonge and Maleeni. Indeed, the somewhat clumsy exposition-laden final scene seems to exist so that Mulder and Scully are not entirely irrelevant to the plot of the episode as a whole. While Rush meditated on the show’s enhanced age by proving the two agents were largely redundant and superfluous, The Amazing Maleeni at least allows Mulder and Scully to outwit LaBonge and Maleeni.

Given the structure of a caper story, the victory of law and order is not necessarily assured; it is possible to imagine The Amazing Maleeni ending with LaBonge and Maleeni successfully executing the con, without diminishing Mulder and Scully in any way. The vicarious thrill of watching a well-executed con play out would far outweigh the disappointment of Mulder and Scully’s failure; after all, it took Mulder and Scully six years to topple the conspiracy. The fact that Mulder and Scully successfully outwit LaBonge and Maleeni proves their continued relevance.

Calling in a marker...

Calling in a marker…

The Amazing Maleeni is not one of the show’s strongest episodes, but there is something to be said for a light and charming romp that allows Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny to play off one another. The show is running down the clock on episodes that can do that.

4 Responses

  1. Hey there! It’s taken me till halfway through Series 7 to leave any comments on here, but I’ve read every one of your reviews after rewatching each episode of the show, which I’ve been doing consistently since the pilot. I don’t know why this episode in particular has prompted me to comment, since I don’t disagree in any significant way with what you say (which I have in some other cases; not that I can knock the reviews themselves, which are great!).

    I guess it’s just the fact that as I watched this again the one thing, plot-wise, that struck me (and it’s not even particularly important, or even necessarily a mistake) is that Maleeni managed to stand in for his deceased brother for quite a while at the bank. Was he just pretending to know what to do and no one noticed, or are we to assume he also had a job in banking? If he didn’t, the fact he got away with it is remarkable! 😀

    • Thanks! I’m glad the reviews are of itnerest to you, although you’re right – this is a strange episode on which to break your silence!

      Although I wonder if that isn’t a sly comment on banking as a profession! 🙂

      • Could be that!

        One other glaring mistake I recall is from The Red and the Black, where within the space of I think a couple of scenes you have either Scully of Mulder claiming they still haven’t identified any of the victims on the bridge while a news story then runs on the TV in the background listing the names of the casualties 😀

      • That one slipped right by me. Dammit!

        But I adore The Red and the Black two-parter. It’s probably my second-favourite multi-part mythology episode after Nisei and 731.

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