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The X-Files – Theef (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.

Theef is an underrated seventh season episode, one often forgotten and overlooked as season seven moves firmly into its second half.

The episode represents another conscious attempt to get “back to basics.” Continuing the vein of Hungry or Millennium or Orison or Signs and Wonders, the script for Theef hopes to prove that the show can still produce a genuinely scary hour of television in its seventh season. It certainly succeeds; Theef is a delightfully unsettling story, one that borders on the downright nasty. From the closing shot of the teaser – a body suspended from a chandelier with the word “Theef” scrawled on a wall in his own blood – Theef goes for the jugular.

"I think he's trying to tell you something."

“I think he’s trying to tell you something.”

Theef really benefits from the work of director Kim Manners. Manners has been a part of the production team since the second season, making an impressive first impression with Die Hand Die Verletzt. Although the other directors from those early seasons – R.W. Goodwin, Rob Bowman, David Nutter – would all drift away from the show, Manners remained involved until the bitter end. Manners is credited as director on fifty-two episodes across eight seasons, meaning that a full quarter of the show bears his visual style.

At this point in the run, Manners is really the show’s veteran director. Sure, Rob Bowman had technically been around longer, joining the production team midway through the first season as the director of Gender Bender; however, Bowman was beginning to branch away from The X-FilesTheef aired directly before En Ami, Bowman’s final directorial credit on the series; he would also helm The Pilot of The Lone Gunmen, but he was no longer a major influence on the show going forward.

Chekov's chandelier...

Chekov’s chandelier…

When it comes to technique, Manners is not quite as visually stylised as David Nutter nor as slick as Rob Bowman. Manners’ style is a bit cleaner and more efficient, but one that is very much informed by the conventions of horror cinema. Although Manners has worked on just about every type of X-Files episode, he has a knack for the particularly unpleasant episodes. The standout sequences from Manners episodes are the most unsettling; Mulder’s nightmares from Grotesque, the teaser from Home, the “poppin’ corn” sequence from Theef.

Indeed, it is telling that the most effective of the “back to basics” horror episodes of the seventh season are credited to Manners as director. Manners helmed Hungry, Signs and Wonders and Theef. While Signs and Wonders is not necessarily an “all-time classic X-Files” episode, Manners does provide one of the most graphic and unsettling sequences of the entire nine-year run of The X-Files. The scene of Gracie giving birth to a nest of serpents is a horrifying piece of television that would be terrifying even in an R-rated horror film.

"There's a message here, I know it."

“There’s a message here, I know it.”

Manners has an incredible knack for building tension and creating anxiety while working within the confines of a network television environment. It is amazing to think that the teaser of Home made it past Broadcast Standards and Practices, and was only pulled from syndication after the episode aired. It isn’t simply a case of cutting around blood or gore; Manners was able to make sure that the audience saw just enough in Sanguinarium to unsettle them, but not enough that the show could not be broadcast on television.

The technique and skill involved in properly scaring an audience is frequently overlooked in discussions of film and television; the horror genre is often treated as “hack” work affording cheap scares. It is a reputation that is not entirely undeserved. Historically, studios have tended to churn out low-budget horror content to fill cinemas with less restraint than accompanies blockbusters or prestige pieces. Currently, Platinum Dunes and Blumhouse Films adopt the model of producing a large quantity of horror content on a low budget counting on return.

"It was a nice piece of work, Peattie. You shouldn't have signed it."

“It was a nice piece of work, Peattie. You shouldn’t have signed it.”

More than that, there are arguably certain preconceptions that exist around the horror genre, suggesting that scary films and television shows are inherently inferior to more “legitimate” productions. The Silence of the Lambs remains the only horror film to win the Best Picture Oscar, and some observers might quibble with the classification. The fact that The X-Files received four consecutive Outstanding Drama Series nominations at the Emmy Awards marks it as something of an outlier.

Given these considerations, it is easy to dismiss the technical craft required to pull off a convincing and effective piece of horror. After all, the so-called “hack work” of German director Robert Siodmak has only recently merited proper critical consideration. There is arguably a reason that genre work tends to lend itself to large-scale critical reappraisal; the art of constructing a horror film (or television show) is sorely under-appreciated. Editing and framing a sequence to build anxiety before delivering a scare (that the audience probably expects) is no easy matter.

Striking a chord...

Striking a chord…

Manners is very good at this, to a point that it’s a shame he didn’t get involved in the post-Scream horror boom that was taking place in Hollywood. Although that would have meant less time working on The X-Files, Manners would have been very well-suited to the genre revival (a “scare-naissance”, if you will) taking place towards the end of the nineties. Then again, David Nutter tried to transition to film only to find it “the worst experience [he] ever had in [his] life.” Perhaps it was for the best that Manners remained on The X-Files.

Manners is very good at setting up and paying off a scare, which sound like it should be a pretty basic measure of horror direction, but which requires incredible precision. As with comedy, a lot of the effect of horror is in timing; the key is holding a shot (or a silence) for just long enough to maximise effect before delivering (or subverting) the pay-off. There are two delightfully unpleasant sequences in Theef that demonstrate just how good Manners is at handling these sorts of horror shows.

Happy families are all alike...

Happy families are all alike…

The teaser to the episode makes it quite clear that Theef is not going to be restrained or subtle in its approach to horror. The scene of Robert Wieder discovering Irving Thalbro is shot like something from an eighties slasher movie, there is lots of darkness and ambiguity as the scene builds to the reveal, but Manners doesn’t try to artistically cut around the shocking image. As soon as it is clear Irving is hanging with his throat cut, there’s suddenly a pool of blood on the floor and a message scrawled in blood on the wall.

On any rational level, the teaser feels as contrived or illogical as any of the plot contortions in First Person Shooter. Robert just came down from his bedroom without slippers; how does he step in that pool of blood without realising it? Even in the darkness, it should be clear from where Robert is standing that Irving is suspended rather than standing. The light switch is right by the bottom of the stairs, why doesn’t Robert simply hit it on the way down? (The answer is: because it makes the scene scarier.)

Spice up your marriage by bringing high class awards into the bedroom.

Spice up your marriage by bringing high class awards into the bedroom.

Manners isn’t at all concerned with these issues. As Robert moves does the stairs, he keeps the camera tight. In each of the subsequent shots, he reveals more to the audience than to Robert; the first glimpse of Irving reveals the wire hanging from the top of the screen, even if it is framed so only his upper body is in shot. As Robert goes closer, it becomes clearer and clearer to any horror savvy audience (but not to Robert) that Irving is hanging. Inevitably, Robert turns Irving around to reveal that he is hanging and his slit throat.

The edit is quick and tight; the audience sees the body saw and the blood on Irving’s throat. It is creepy and effective. The quick cut is haunting on its own terms, hinting perhaps at a more subtle “flash of horror” approach. However, Manners’ direction shifts from suspense into something more visceral. The sequence hits the viewer very quickly with shots that do not disguise or downplay their gore. A pool of blood magically appears so Robert can slip in it. When Robert scrambles to turn on the light, we don’t see a flash of Irving hanging; we get a long and lingering shot.

It figures...

It figures…

It is a very effective technique, with Manners teasing an effective and minimalist approach to horror. The sequences build up suspense about the slow reveal of something deeply unpleasant; these sequences are edited in a way that suggests restraint, as if the horror is to be left implied. However, as soon as Manners is done implying the horror, he then candid shows it. The same thing happens during the “poppin’ corn” sequence, where most of what actually happens to Nan is obscured through editing, suggesting it will be left implied. Then Manners focuses on the body.

(The “poppin’ core” scene is beautifully put together. Manners manages to effortlessly capture the unpleasantness and claustrophobia of being in an MRI machine before it becomes clear what is about to happen. The pacing of the scene is clever, with some distracting comedy about Peattie learning to use a microwave before he comes up with his sinister plan. There are also some lovely shots, like Peattie putting the popcorn in the microwave, and closing it so that his eyes are caught in the reflection.)

Burn, baby burn...

Burn, baby burn…

Manners is not only the most prolific X-Files directors, he is also one of the best. Theef gives the director a lot of material to work with, and he does a wonderful job demonstrating why he is such a perfect fit for the show. Theef is a very nasty piece of horror, as if The X-Files is trying to demonstrate that it still has some edge to it after seven years on prime-time television. Manners is more than up to the task, producing a genuinely uncomfortable X-Files episode that plays almost as an exploitation horror.

In some respects, Theef could be seen as a companion to the “subculture stories” that were woven through the first four years of the show, but which have become a lot less frequent as The X-Files developed from scrappy young horror anthology to respectable mainstream establishment. Theef fits comfortably alongside stories like Gender BenderShapesRed Museum, Fresh Bones, Humbug, The Calusari, Hell Money, Teliko, El Mundo Gira, and Kaddish; stories about discrete and isolated communities in an increasingly globalised America.

"He's... well, you know."

“He’s… well, you know.”

These stories could be seen as a mirror to the “quirky small town episodes” that still appeared occasionally – episodes like Die Hand Die Verletzt, Our TownD.P.O., War of the CoprophagesQuagmireHome and Detour. In fact, there was occasionally overlap between the two genres. Red Museum was a story where the small town and the subculture came into conflict; Humbug was a story where the small town and subculture were ultimately the same. The X-Files returned time and again to the idea of Mulder and Scully investigating weird enclaves in America.

Then again, this was all arguably a central theme of The X-Files that was even woven through the show’s central mythology; anxiety about the eccentric spaces in America that were facing erosion or contamination from the forces of globalisation. (“Colonisation”, if you will; there is a reason that the colonists liked clones.) Running through the long nineties, The X-Files often seemed worried that unique cultural identities were to be lost in the fog of history. How could groups or communities hope to hold on to what made them so distinct and so unique?

Burning up. Oh, wait. That's later.

Burning up. Oh, wait. That’s later.

Theef touches on this conflict. It is very much a story about a visitor from a unique and eccentric culture who ventures into a more globalised and uniform monoculture. Orell Peattie is man schooled in magic and mysticism; Robert Wieder is a man of science and reason. Theef is not subtle in the clash taking place here. “So,” Robert asks when confronted with Mulder’s theory, “modern medicine, and all it encompasses – artificial hearts, laser surgery gene therapy, to name a few – all of that arrayed against a pile of magic dirt… and you tell me I’ll lose?”

Of course he’ll lose. This is a horror show. Indeed, Theef makes it clear that Robert will lose by emphasising Scully’s on-going transition from sceptic towards believer. The seventh season has repeatedly suggested that Scully might finally be coming around to Mulder’s way of thinking. In fact, her first question to Mulder on arriving at a crime scene is not “Mulder, why are we here?” but “Mulder, how is this an X-file?” The episode repeatedly points out that Scully will always keep Mulder guessing; at one point stating it in a bedroom, to get shippers’ hearts racing.

"But not on this bed. It's got grave dirt on it."

“But not on this bed. It’s got grave dirt on it.”

When Mulder gets defensive about his magic theory, Scully is quick to calm him down. “No, hexcraft,” she repeats. “I mean, I’ll buy that as the intent here. It certainly jibes with the evidence.” When Robert presses her as to whether she actually believes any of Mulder’s crazy theories, Scully responds equivocally. “Sir, regardless of the particulars I think it’s clear that there was an intruder in your home and I think it would be prudent for you to accept our protection and help us to identify this person.” Diplomatic, as ever.

The evolution and nuance of Scully’s beliefs across the seventh season is one of the more underrated and interesting aspects of the season. It is a nice piece of consistent characterisation that stretches through Rush and The Goldberg Varitation and it the rest of the year. In fact, it is Scully who makes the leap in logic at the climax of Sein und Zeit that leads to the arrest of Ed Truelove. Scully has come a long way since The Pilot. While it might have been a nice way to wrap up her arc for the series if the seventh season were to be the end, it also set up her eighth season arc.

"He's a theef of life."

“He’s a theef of life.”

If even Scully is opening her mind to the possibility of magic and mysticism, Robert simply does not stand a chance. Tellingly, the crisis is not resolved through logic or reason, but through fighting Peattie on his own terms. Mulder and Scully conspire to recover his source of power by exhuming the body of his daughter. When that fails because Peattie beat them to it, the climax hinges on Mulder finding and repairing the poppet that Peattie has used to blind Scully. Scully is blinded by magic, and then her sight is restored by magic.

Theef walks a thin line. As with any of these subculture stories, there is the risk of exploitation. In some respects, Theef could be seen as an example of the old “gypsy curse” narrative, in which “civilised” protagonists find themselves at the mercy of curses rendered by more magical characters. These stories are common in horror; Stephen King’s Thinner and Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell jump immediately to mind. In Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Angel was cursed with a soul by a gypsy.

Doll's house.

Doll’s house.

It is to the credit of Theef that the story never seems to cynical or crass in its portrayal of Orell Peattie. There are points where The X-Files has clumsily exoticised the “other”, resulting in stories that could seem shallow or cliché in their treatment of certain groups. There is an unpleasant anti-immigration subtext that could be read into stories like Teliko and El Mundo Gira, for example. Badlaa is rather insensitive in its fictionalisation of the Bhopal disaster. The portrayal of Orell Peattie could easily wander into cliché.

One of the interesting aspects of The X-Files is its tendency to treat North America as a vast and sprawling continent packed with mysteries and enigmas. This is arguably reflected in the uncomfortable mysticism of Native American tribes in Anasazi, but also plays out in stories like Darkness Falls. There is a sense that the country is not as rational and ordered as middle-class Americans would like to believe. Orell Peattie ventures to California from “Deepest Appalachia” in West Virginia.

Southern hospitality...

Southern hospitality…

Orell Peattie hails from the Allegheny mountains. The region was very important in the foundation and history of the United States. As Dave Hurst notes in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains:

It would be almost impossible to overstate the presence of Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains in early American history. They formed part of our first frontier, a mystical land of bountiful resources but immense obstacles, populated by fearsome natives. This is where a world war began and key battles determined that we would speak English rather than French George Washington began his military career here – a love-loathe relationship with this region that would bring him back both as a landowner and a conquering general. Native and new Americans traded brutalities amid these ridges. The commonwealths of Pennsylvania and Virginia both claimed this land, settlers petitioned to establish a new state instead and rebelling subsistence farmers here tested the fledgling United States’ new federal government.

As such, there is something almost primal about the region. As Drive made clear, California is very much America’s last frontier; the point at which manifest destiny gives way to an uncaring Pacific. There is symbolic import in Orell Peattie traveling from the country’s first frontier to its last.

Microwave of creativity...

Microwave of creativity…

Of course, popular culture tends to treat certain regions of the United States as inherently conservative and regressive. It is debatable just how accurate these stereotypes are on a case-by-case basis, but the recent debate over the flying the Confederate Flag does little to undermine the stereotype. Even accepting arguments about the flag’s historical significance at face value, it seems strange to argue that its cultural weight somehow mitigates its association with a culture so firmly and widely associated with slavery.

If the geographic region loosely identified as “the South” (perhaps more accurately described as “the heartland”) is stereotyped as conservative and regressive, this is particularly true of Americans who live geographically (and culturally) isolated within those regions. In particular, those living in regions like the Ozarks or Appalachia are often treated as suspended in time; if pop culture were to be believed, it can seem like cultural values frozen in time for certain parts of the country, trapped like a fly in ember.

"Obligatory flashlight scene!"

“Obligatory flashlight scene!”

This is not simply a modern stereotype. Writing Blue-grass and Rhododendron in 1910, James Fox reflected on the archetypal “Southern mountaineer”:

In the march of civilization westward, the Southern mountaineer has been left in an isolation almost beyond belief. He was shut off by mountains that blocked and still block the commerce of a century, and there for a century he has stayed. He has had no navigable rivers, no lakes, no coasts, few wagon roads, and often no roads at all except the beds of streams. He has lived in the cabin in which his grandfather was born, and in life, habit and thought he has been merely his grandfather born over again.

It makes sense that The X-Files should be so interested in that archetype, given its fascination with the history of Manifest Destiny and American identity.

Thinking INSIDE the box...

Thinking INSIDE the box…

Peattie is a character who could easily become problematic. There is a recurring trend in American horror to treat poor whites as monstrous or other. This is perhaps typified by the treatment of hillbillies in Deliverance, but could also be seen as an influence in films like The Hills Have Eyes. America is an incredibly vast content, and horror films frequently played as warnings about those would venture away from the comforts of “civilisation” in search of a more visceral or “real” America.

The unspoken assumption in these stories seems to be that an urban middle-class existence is the default; that progress pushes forwards towards technological advancement of cities and infrastructure. There are pragmatic reasons that the genre has leaned into these portrayals; the kind of people who watch horror films tend to exist within the social structures that provide the opportunity to watch horror films. Horror speaks to its audience and their anxieties; isolated rural hamlets in the American heartland were not the audience.

Awarding off evil...

Awarding off evil…

Appalachia holds a great deal of interest to outsiders. The region has a unique culture and identity, making itself home to many different groups in the early history the United States:

Appalachia’s history as a mountainous melting pot dates to before the Revolutionary War, when the region’s misty crags were an almost impenetrable Western frontier. Indian nations, including Cherokee and Shawnee, were the first to inhabit the area. A major wave of European settlers — primarily of Irish and Scottish descent — arrived via federal land grants in the early 18th century. African-Americans, both free and enslaved, arrived at this time as well. All these groups played key roles in shaping and molding the cultural traditions of the region.

It is a very strange combination of factors; the region was forged through the arrival of several radically different ethnic groups, but subsequently evolved in relative isolation.

Ponder this...

Ponder this…

Indeed, the magic that Peattie demonstrates in Theef is very much a result of this cultural intersection. In 1939, The WPA Guide to Kentucky noted the tradition of magic and mysticism that existed among residents of the region:

Among these people, who are not of the twentieth century, nor want to be, strange things are everyday happenings, and witchcraft is taken as a matter of course. Witches, however, are quite another story; they no longer belong. But they are feared just the same. From ante bellum days come superstitions given to white children by their Negro mammies. This is the origin of the wholesome dread of “hoodoo” or “voodoo” signs.

The magic and spiritual beliefs demonstrated by Peattie are tied into a host of different influences. The hoodoo aspect owes a lot to the African Americans who settled there, while other regional magic is influenced by Scots-Irish and Cherokee beliefs.

A stitch in time...

A stitch in time…

In a way, Appalachia embodies many of the contradictions and contrasts inherent in the version of American presented in The X-Files. It is at once isolated and blended; its culture stands apart from the rest of the country, while existing as a blend of many different groups. Appalachia is arguably integrated within itself, even as it exists distinct from the region around it; it is a melting pot, but one that has never fully meshed with the larger melting pot of the United States. The region has its own cultural identity, fashioned from many different cultural identities.

The X-Files often seems anxious about the interactions between different cultures within the larger context of the United States. The show’s central mythology is concerned with plots to impose a single alien monoculture upon the United States, perhaps twist on the manifest destiny that led to the creation of the United States. At the same time, the show is both intrigued and terrified by the unique spaces that exist in the North American landscape; never entirely sure whether it wants to romanticise the “other” or seek the familiar comforts of “civilisation.”

Facing up to past horrors...

Facing up to past horrors…

Although West Virginia is very much in the northern half of the United States, it falls on the southern side of the Mason Dixon line. It is no surprise that Orell Peattie falls into many of the stereotypes of the poor Southern white, a recurring horror trope. In Poor Southern Whites as the Other in The X-Files and Other Recent Works of Popular Culture, Grant Bain argues that the cliché exists as a way to avoid uncomfortable questions about the American experience:

Regional specification is of course useful for exclusion; if the violence and horror associated with the gothic is sequestered in a particular region, the real violence and exploitation it dramatises become regional rather than national problems. The South in particular is a handy location because it has consistently been one of the nation’s poorest regions. Imagining the South as both poor and gothic then makes the larger issues of class conflict and economic distribution easier to ignore.

Rendering the South (and its inhabitants) as “other” allows for a clear demarcation between “civilised” (traditionally affluent, urban and liberal) regions of the country and “uncivilised” (traditionally impoverished, rural and conservative) areas. They render certain aspects of the United States monstrous, so that they might be separated from the larger whole.

Grave magic...

Grave magic…

Appalachia is a fascinating case study. The X-Files is fascinated by the history of the United States after the Second World War; the show tends to subvert the traditional narrative of the “good guys” who defeated Nazi Germany and triumphed in the Cold War. The prosperity and the legacy of the United States is constantly evaluated and explored over the course of The X-Files, with the show highlighting the treatment of the indigenous population and the acquisition of Axis war criminals that enabled such material success.

Appalachia arguably never enjoyed the material success of the second half of the twentieth century. During the sixties, Appalachia became the focal point of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on poverty”, announced during a tour of Kentucky and West Virginia. During that tour, the nation was shocked by photographs capturing life in the Appalachian Mountains. It was a far cry from the wealth and success associated with post-War America. There was no denying the economic and social divide that existed between the region and the rest of the country.

For Peattie's sake...

For Peattie’s sake…

It seems that little has changed in the intervening years, prompting Kevin D. Williamson to identity the region as “the Big White Ghetto” in early 2014:

There are lots of diversions in the Big White Ghetto, the vast moribund matrix of Wonder Bread–hued Appalachian towns and villages stretching from northern Mississippi to southern New York, a slowly dissipating nebula of poverty and misery with its heart in eastern Kentucky, the last redoubt of the Scots-Irish working class that picked up where African slave labor left off, mining and cropping and sawing the raw materials for a modern American economy that would soon run out of profitable uses for the class of people who 500 years ago would have been known, without any derogation, as peasants. Thinking about the future here and its bleak prospects is not much fun at all, so instead of too much black-minded introspection you have the pills and the dope, the morning beers, the endless scratch-off lotto cards, healing meetings up on the hill, the federally funded ritual of trading cases of food-stamp Pepsi for packs of Kentucky’s Best cigarettes and good old hard currency, tall piles of gas-station nachos, the occasional blast of meth, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, petty crime, the draw, the recreational making and surgical unmaking of teenaged mothers, and death: Life expectancies are short — the typical man here dies well over a decade earlier than does a man in Fairfax County, Va. — and they are getting shorter, women’s life expectancy having declined by nearly 1.1 percent from 1987 to 2007.

It is a very bleak picture of life, one that seems far removed from stock images of contemporary American life.

"Tests came back positive for magic."

“Tests came back positive for magic.”

The conflict between Robert Wieder and Orell Peattie hints at this divide. Wieder embodies science and reason, while Peattie harnesses magic and mysticism. Weider lives at the very edge of the American West, while Peattie visits from the country’s first frontier. Wieder lives a life of relative opulence, while Peattie lives in abject poverty. Theef is consciously framed in such a way as to demonstrate the gigantic disparity in wealth and material success that exists between the two central characters.

The teaser features Irving hanging from an expensive-looking chandelier in the Wieder household. When he casts a spell over Nan, Peattie is standing by the large backyard pool; the atmospheric steam is rising from the Wieder’s jacuzzi. In fact, the Wieder family are all introduced in fancy dinner wear, having just arrived from a fancy dinner. (That said, Robert does complain that they basically served cafeteria food.) Class politics play themselves out in the background of Theef. One can be sure that Irving and Nan are not buried anonymously in a field full of graves.

Pooling resources...

Pooling resources…

In Gilligan Unbound, Paul A. Cantor argues that this conscious rendering of Orrell Peattie as “other” by virtue of his social class plays into some of the series’ larger recurring themes

Theef is a good example of the way we have seen The X-Files link immigrant experience with that of the American underclass. Like Patrick Crump in Drive, the villain Peattie in Theef represents the dispossessed and disadvantaged in the United States – scorned by the American establishment (embodied in the person of a well-respected, upper-middle-class physician, who hardly knows he exists).

While Peattie lives in a bedsit, Wieder lives in a mansion. Weider’s wealth is repeatedly emphasised, as is Peattie’s lower social standing. (The title references the fact Peattie cannot “read and write above a fourth grade level.”)

Poppin' corn...

Poppin’ corn…

Theef emphasises the idea that Peattie has ventured outside of his comfort zone. He was wandered down from the mountains, as it were. The episode creates the sense that Peattie is not particularly enthused at the idea of interacting with the larger world; that he would be quite happy to continue to live his life in isolation. In fact, it is suggested that he felt the same way about his daughter’s departure. “Oh, you shouldn’t oughta left,” he muses to the body of his daughter.

In fact, the episode is somewhat ambiguous about what exactly happened to Lynette Peattie. Was she just visiting California? Or had she decided to leave West Virginia in pursuit of a better life? Orell Peattie seems to speak of her departure as if it were intended to be permanent, even before her accident. It seems like Lynette Peattie left her life in West Virginia so she could become a Jane Doe on the western coast. Like Patrick Crump before her, Lynette Peattie ultimately ran out of west.

Radical!

Radical!

There is a fairly bleak undercurrent to all this, quite similar to the idea that “a little intolerance can be a good thing” from Signs and Wonders. It seems like Theef is saying that life would have been much better for everybody if Lynette Peattie had never left home to be buried anonymously in a massive graveyard. Theef has some measure of sympathy for Orell Peattie’s anguished lament that his daughter ended up buried “in some field. Got no name. Far away from her people. That don’t be right.”

To be fair, Mulder and Scully acknowledge the discomforting subtext running through the episode in the final scene. The closest thing that the episode has to a happy ending is the fact that Lynette Peattie’s body is being shipped home. “She’s going back to her people after all,” Scully summarises. Both Mulder and Scully ruminate on the choice that Robert Wieder made, and how nobody could logically blame him for choosing to end the suffering of a young girl living in agony. At the same time, even Scully seems almost sympathetic to Orell Peattie.

A walk among the tombstones...

A walk among the tombstones…

That is, perhaps, one of the most interesting aspects of Theef. The story never turns Orell Peattie into a generic monster. The crimes committed by Peattie are terrifying and horrific; the episode does not shy from their brutality or the macabre pride which Peattie takes in them. However, as the story peels back his story, there is something almost relatable. Peattie is a man driven mad by the loss of his daughter to a seemingly hostile world, a world that stole her away and then dumped her in a grave labelled “Jane Doe.”

The script very carefully and meticulously humanises Peattie with diminishing him. Little touches like the story about Boon the dog help to make him seem like a fully fleshed-out human being instead of an exploitation horror antagonist. In fact, the script even allows him the opportunity to do something nice for somebody. “Seems like you could use yourself a poultice for your back,” he remarks to his landlady. “Old Peattie fix you right up.” While it could be argued his motives were cynical (to get her off his back), Eugene Victor Tooms never did anything like that.

"I haven't seen him this shaken up since Space: Above and Beyond was cancelled."

“I haven’t seen him this shaken up since Space: Above and Beyond was cancelled.”

Theef benefits from two superb central performances; they are two stand-out guest stars at this late stage of the show’s run. James Morrison is fantastic as Doctor Robert Wieder. As the voice of science and reason in the episode, Wieder needs to have moral authority and legitimacy. Morrison exudes those qualities, but he also underscores them with a warmth and humanity that is quite striking. As Morrison demonstrated on Space: Above and Beyond, he has a superb ability to layer emotion beneath a disciplined and strong exterior.

If Morrison gives Wieder the authority to represent reason and science, then Billy Drago makes Orell Peattie a more ambiguous and uncertain character. Drago is one of the industry’s most prolific and effective character actors, and he strikes a perfect balance with the character. Peattie is terrifying and unsettling, possessed of a single-minded determination to avenge the loss of his daughter. At the same time, Drago makes it clear that Peattie is a man underneath it all. He is not an anthropological construct of fear or dread; he is a character.

Orell history...

Orell history…

Drago still fondly recalls his work on the episode, even having a spooky story for a spooky script:

“That story still scares me when I watch it,” he says. “My character used real dolls, or poppets, from the Appalachians and the Ozarks. I had relatives from there and I know how they worked with the dolls. People living in those hills and mountains didn’t have access to medical treatment so they had ‘witchdoctors’ who practised healing techniques using these dolls. So the ones in the episode aren’t props, we got the real thing. Also, the chants and songs my character sings are those that I heard as a little kid when we visited my great aunt up in the hills.

“I remember we filmed a scene in which Peattie fixes a magic poultice for his landlady’s back. As soon as the director said, ‘Cut,’ my back went out. I was in a great deal of discomfort for the rest of the shoot and on the day we wrapped the pain suddenly disappeared. Weird, huh? Perhaps we shouldn’t have used the real incantations or those poppets. I actually kept one of them and it’s sitting on the mantel of my fireplace as a reminder of that episode.”

It is a nice demonstration of the detail that went into the episode – and the performance.

Poppets on a string...

Poppets on a string…

As an aside, the script to Theef is very well-constructed. When dealing with something as abstract as magic and mysticism, it is often hard to establish plausible “rules” or constraints that govern the terror unfolding. After all, one of the many problems with First Person Shooter was the fact that it was difficult to figure out how or why the story was working a particular way. Where did Mulder go when they turned off the game? What did Maitreya actually want in the end? While the episode had lots of other problems, it was hard to make sense of what was happening.

In contrast, Theef establishes its rules in a very clear and logical fashion. Sure, the idea of visiting an occult shop to get an info dump is not the most organic plot exposition in the history of the show, but it works. “He’s drawing on the energy of a charm,” the proprietor explains. “A source of magic power… It could be any item provided that it’s very important to him. Something that holds great meaning for him and unless you can separate him from his charm, you’re out of luck.”

Firing blind.

Firing blind.

This means that Peattie is not an unstoppable killing machine. In fact, it means that the climax of the episode has a very clear set of stakes and peril. It means that Mulder and Scully are more active in the story than they were in Rush, because there is actually something they can do. Theef lays out its rules so clearly and carefully that the climax can hinge on Mulder finding the poppet that is blinding Scully, trusting the audience to figure out what that means in terms of plot. It is a very efficient script, from a storytelling standpoint.

Theef is a very underrated episode, particularly at this point in the seventh season.

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One Response

  1. I strongly disliked this episode, and this is solely over the character Peattie.
    “The story never turns Orell Peattie into a generic monster.”
    Could not disagree more. A person tries to save his daughter, and what is his response? Brutally and horrifically murder the man’s entire family, cause that’s fair right? That poultice he made for that landlady was nice and all, but let’s not forget, HE MURDERED THAT LANDLADY AFTERWARD. She knocked on his door to check up on him, and instead of saying “I’m busy” or “f off”, he deliberately doesn’t answer, just so he can murder her when she comes inside. What was his logic behind that? “This will show that no-good doctor that he was wrong to try and save the life of my daughter, by killing this landlady with the bad back, that’ll fix’em!”

    As nice as that doctor’s house is, it’s totally unjustifiable that mass murder be inflicted on him for the terrible crime of trying to save a life, just cause he’s well-to-do. Peattie is a brainless monster, with only the most paper-thin excuse to exact a body count on all those around him. This is what ruins the episode for me, this was just straight up torturing a family for no good reason.

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