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The X-Files – En Ami (Review)

This September, 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 seventh season mythology has a weird hazy feeling to it. It feels almost like a postscript.

It is hard to explain what is happening with the mythology at this point. Two Fathers and One Son had promised an end to the over-arching conspiracy narrative, but it felt like something of a half-measure. The First Elder and the Second Elder were killed off, but most of the other major players remained. Although Scully congratulated Mulder on toppling the conspiracy in Biogenesis, the same episode seemed to off-handedly suggest that the Cigarette-Smoking Man was still working on it. He was still talking hybrids in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati.

I'll drink to that...

I’ll drink to that…

At the same time, Two Fathers and One Son marked the end of the mythology as an on-going concern. The particulars of colonisation and the nature of the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s work were confined to limbo, some sort of bizarre twilight realm where they might exist or they might not; they simply drift around the show like ghosts. Whether or not Two Fathers and One Son actually resolved any aspect of the show’s overarching plot is open to debate; however, they very clearly suggested that the mythology was not the show’s central story going forward.

In the seventh season, it frequently feels like the mythology is a hazy backdrop against which character-driven stories might unfold. In The Sixth Extinction, an alien ship becomes a gateway to meditations on the nature of human existence while Krycek blackmails Skinner and Fowley still works with the Cigarette-Smoking Man. In The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati, the Cigarette-Smoking Man is making hybrids and murders Fowley, but the heart of the story is Mulder’s flirtation with temptation. Sein und Ziet and Closure have nothing to do with colonisation.

Smokey and the bandit...

Smokey and the bandit…

To be fair, this was arguably always the case with mythology episodes. In hindsight, it can seem like the mythology episodes were less part of an on-going story and more meditations on common themes tied into a shared continuity. Colony and End Game are spectacular pieces of television, but they are hard to reconcile with later revelations. The End arguably has more in common with Biogenesis than it does with the feature film into which it is supposed to tie. However, the mythology always held the promise of revelations and twists to propel it forward.

The principal effect of Two Fathers and One Son seems to have been to take away that sense of purpose and destination. The mythology is no longer building towards something or racing forward. Instead, the mythology stories seem to take place in the wasteland; a world in ruins, with only the fractured semblance of internal logic. En Ami continues the trend of setting character-driven stories amid the hazily defined unreality. Scully and the Cigarette-Smoking Man take a road-trip together through whatever is still standing.

Peering through an open door...

Peering through an open door…

Outside of its very clever (and punny!) title, En Ami is most notable for its writing credit. William B. Davis takes a page out of David Duchovny’s book, and decides to try his hand at writing for the show. This is another one of the creative choices that makes the seventh season feel like the logical end point of the show. As with the decision to let Vince Gilligan press ahead with X-Cops or to bring Frank Black over in Millennium, it feels like the decision to let William B. Davis (and Gillian Anderson) write for the show acknowledges that there may not be a later opportunity.

Davis is very much a core part of The X-Files. The actor has been around since The Pilot; audiences (and Scully) met the Cigarette-Smoking Man before they met Mulder. It is no wonder that the Cigarette-Smoking Man is the only character other than Mulder and Scully to appear in both The Pilot and The Truth. There is a reason that the Cigarette-Smoking Man was the only X-Files character to cameo in The Springfield Files other than Mulder and Scully. He is an essential part of the show’s identity. Even casual television viewers still recognise him.

"Oh, hey. We're finally doing that Early Edition crossover!"

“Oh, hey. We’re finally doing that Early Edition crossover!”

If Davis wanted to write a script, he was definitely entitled to do so. Certainly, En Ami has a number of very clever ideas underpinning it. The idea of pairing Scully and the Cigarette-Smoking Man makes a great deal of sense. After all, their interactions voer the previous sis seasons had been quite limited. Davis concedes that his lack of experience working with Anderson was part of the appeal of the idea. He recalls, “Here we’d done seven years and I still hadn’t done a scene with Gillian. It seemed like an interesting relationship to explore and that’s what prompted the story.”

In a way, this is a reminder of the appeal of a seventh season. While the show was definitely feeling a little fatigued and exhausted, there was also a clear sense of experimentation and novelty. It wasn’t always the high-energy enthusiastic experimentation of “X-Files Lite” or X-Cops, but there was a genuine willingless to try new things for the sake of trying new things. This does lead to episodes like First Person Shooter, but it also leads to interesting ideas like “we haven’t seen Scully interact with the Cigarette-Smoking Man for an extended period… let’s do that.”

Passengers...

Passengers…

It isn’t necessarily showy or dramatic. There is a very faint sense of desperation to it; one can imagine the writers pulling characters’ names out of a hat in search of an exciting combination. (“Frohike and Deep Throat. Krycek and Kersch. Skinner and Charles Burk.”) At the same time, it’s a clever (and central) enough pitch that the desperation gives way to interest and excitement. Gillian Anderson and William B. Davis are two of the best actors on the show, so how could you not be interested in finally seeing an episode between them?

More than that, it serves as a nice marker of time. Scully first met the Cigarette-Smoking Man when she was a young agent who had never set foot in the basement; she was meant to be a tool to undermine Mulder. In the years since, Scully has evolved and come to see the world in a new way. At the same time, the Cigarette-Smoking Man began as a background character who sat in the corner and looked sinister; over the next few years, Davis and the writers fleshed out an almost tragic portrayal of a man obsessed with power and survival.

He is a lifesaver.

He is a lifesaver.

There is enough in that simple character combination to sustain an episode. However, Davis was even more ambitious. In keeping with the show’s willingness to blend classic literary references with delightfully gonzo concepts, Davis seems to have envisaged a Shakespearean romance for the characters:

‘The original idea,’ Davis reports, was from Shakespeare’s Richard III. There’s a scene early in the play where Richard comes across Lady Anne, who is mourning her father. And she’s also still in mourning for her husband, and both of these two men were killed by Richard. And Richard comes to her and finds her on the street. He needs her to move up to get closer to the throne. At first she’s furious to see him; she hates him, and within fifteen or twenty minutes he’s charmed the pants off her and has her virtually agreeing to marry him. So that was kind of my idea, bearing in mind that Scully would be a considerably tougher nut to crack.

‘So the original idea I pitched would have Mulder in a terrible accident, and he seems to have been killed. CSM comes to Scully in a funeral parlor and says, ‘Yes, I killed him. But I did it for love of you.’ And it goes from there. And he tries to win her over to his side. It turned out that it was all a setup, a test to see about Scully’s loyalty to Mulder. It got a little crazy. It turned out all in the end to be Scully’s bad dream. But they didn’t want to do it that way because we’d done too many dreams, and we’d done too many false deaths. So we set out to do it more real – CSM really trying to win over her affection for his own purposes.’

Ultimately, En Ami pulls back from some of the bolder parts of Davis’ original pitch. He acknowledges, “I wrote the script because I had never really gotten to work with Gillian, but then they wouldn’t let Scully go as far as I wanted her to.” It is interesting to wonder how “far” Davis wanted her to go.

Doing God's work...

Doing God’s work…

To be fair, Davis does not take complete credit for the script. He discusses the development process in Where There’s Smoke…, acknowledging that television writing is a collaborative medium under the executive producer:

It turns out writers don’t write scripts either. Each episode is charted on a large white board by a team of writers and only when everyone is satisfied with the plan is the writer then authorised to write a script. And once that’s done, and the writer has written the script and hands it in, Chris Carter writes a new script loosely based on the one submitted. Well, the good news is the writer still gets credit and the money.

Reflecting on the episode, Davis confesses, “It’s hard to say what is left in the episode of my original idea or even the ideas we developed as a group when we ‘boarded’ the episode.”

It is very cute that the Lone Gunmen disguise themselves as each other...

It is very cute that the Lone Gunmen disguise themselves as each other…

Davis concedes that “the basic structure of the story was [his] and the dialogue was Chris’.” Certainly, En Ami feels very much of a piece with the rest of the seventh season. The opening scene features a young child visited by “angels”, albeit of a less benign sort than those featured in Sein und Zeit and Closure. Hardline religious daith is ultimately rewarded here, as it was in Signs and Wonders. However, most striking are the meditations on death and legacy; the seventh season is fascinated with the competing ideas of death and undeath.

En Ami confirms hints in Closure that the Cigarette-Smoking Man is dying. It turns out that the brain (tissue) transplant in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati did not quite stick. As a result, the Cigarette-Smoking Man is not long for this world. This is very much in keeping with the recurring suggestion that this might be the final season of The X-Files. Killing off the Cigarette-Smoking Man would be an effective way to close out the show. It might be the only way that he would actually stay dead.

Branching out...

Branching out…

As the Cigarette-Smoking Man faces death, he claims to contemplate his legacy. “In the end, a man finally looks at the sum of his life to see what he’ll leave behind,” the Cigarette-Smoking Man tells Scully. “Most of what I worked to build is in ruins and now that the darkness descends, I find I have no real legacy.” Although Mulder argues that this was all just a ploy to win Scully’s sympathy, the final scene of the episode suggests that there is a note of truth to it all. Having worked so hard to secure a cure for his terminal illness, the Cigarette-Smoking Man just throws it away.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of En Ami is the way that it feels like a weird and unlikely companion piece to Milagro. The Cigarette-Smoking Man was suggested to be a failed writer in Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man, and so it makes sense that a character study based around the character might focus on the character as storyteller. Over the course of En Ami, the Cigarette-Smoking Man cultivates a narrative around himself, telling a story to help guide Scully along.

Matter of record...

Matter of record…

When Scully discovers that his secret headquarters has been abandoned, she refuses to accept what has happened. “Mulder, he laid it all out for me,” she insists. Mulder explains, “You saw what you needed to see in order to make you believe.” The Cigarette-Smoking Man stage-managed everything in a bid to get Scully to act in the way that wanted. Appropriately enough for a script credited to the actor playing the role, the Cigarette-Smoking Man concocted an elaborate drama in which he would play a central role.

In fact, the dialogue repeatedly suggests that the Cigarette-Smoking Man is wrestling with profound questions about creation and destruction – about his own agency and influence in the world. “My affection for you is special,” he confesses to Scully. “I held your life in my hands.” Later, he argues, “I’ve been a destroyer all my life. Before I die, I’d like to prove that I’m capable of something more.” Phillip Padgett is a much more overt authorial stand-in, but it is not too difficult to read En Ami as a meditation on storytelling and art from Chris Carter and William B. Davis.

"Tenants like having an FBI agent in the building. Gives them a sense of security." "Do you know how many people have died in there?" "Oh, we don't really talk about that."

“Tenants like having an FBI agent in the building. Gives them a sense of security.”
“Do you know how many people have died in there?”
“Oh, we don’t really talk about that.”

After all, En Ami finds the Cigarette-Smoking Man existing in a hazily-defined purgatory. Although the eighth season would build its own new mythology from the wreckage of the old, the seventh season plays out in a twilight realm. It is never entirely clear whether the conspiracy is still working or whether it is simply shuffling along like an undead zombie. In that respect, it works as a nice metaphor for The X-Files itself. In late March 2000, the production team were still uncertain if this was to be the final season; was the show dead or alive?

It seems like the production team might empathise with the Cigarette-Smoking Man, trapped in a terminal state unsure how their work would live on after them. After all, The X-Files had already been stretched past Chris Carter’s original objective of five seasons; would it be stretched further than that seven? It is ultimately no surprise that the Cigarette-Smoking Man chooses to relinquish the disc rather than live on. All things must end; everything dies. En Ami suggests that the Cigarette-Smoking Man (and the show around him) might want to die on his own terms.

Damn. That is a long living room.

Damn. That is a long living room.

At the same time, there is also something quite telling about the fact that the Cigarette-Smoking Man engineers En Ami so that it has absolutely no impact on the larger world. The Cigarette-Smoking Man conspires to preserve the secret of “the cure for all human disease.” He ensures that the secret is not released to the public; even though releasing the information to the public would be just as likely to save him from the illness eating away at him. Staunchly conservative, the Cigarette-Smoking Man chooses to preserve the world as it is, even as he dies.

This could be read as a criticism of The X-Files‘ own internal conservativism. Despite the credit it gets for popularising serialisation on prime-time television, The X-Files was fairly conservative in terms of narrative and structure. The show’s internal shifts were mostly caused by outside factors; Scully’s abduction and the second season arc were a result of Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy, the change in mood and tone in the sixth season was a result of the move to Los Angeles to appease David Duchovny, the addition of Robert Patrick was to replace David Duchovny.

Taking his window of opportunity.

Taking his window of opportunity.

Even internally, The X-Files was not a show that liked change. It had killed off the character of Deep Throat in The Erlenmeyer Flask, but still kept Jerry Hardin around for years. The Cigarette-Smoking Man would die three times over the course of the show and is still back for the revival. Krycek lived well beyond his usefulness, and Skinner even got a character-centric episode at a point where Mulder and Scully were no longer working with him. That is to say nothing of the fact that the show would keep Mulder as a central character long after David Duchovny bailed.

Indeed, this is perhaps reflecting in the weird undead status of the conspiracy running through the seventh season. In theory, the show should be done with the conspiracy. There is nothing else to say, really. The production team made a big song and dance about how this really was the end of everything. However, the conspiracy is such a core part of The X-Files that the production team simply cannot imagine the show without it. As a result, it lurches on well past what should have been its own conclusion.

Drive of your life...

Drive of your life…

The show’s commitment to verisimilitude limited its ability to follow its core concepts to their logical conclusion. The Cigarette-Smoking Man is reluctant to release the data because it will fundamental alter the world. The same is true of The X-Files as a television show. Mulder’s quest occasionally feels unsatisfying because the audience knows that he will never hold proof in his hands; the moment that Mulder reveals the existence of aliens and a plot against mankind to the general public, The X-Files ceases to exist in a world running parallel to our own.

One of the reasons that Two Fathers and One Son feels like a cheat is because the show is unwilling to follow the episodes to their logical conclusions. The episode hints that colonisation might be about to begin, that the apocalypse might descend upon mankind; however, it ultimately pulls back from that possibility. Because everything has to go back in the right place for Agua Mala or Arcadia, there are restrictions. There are limits. The status quo must be maintained, the world cannot be altered; it becomes a problem when offering world-shattering events.

Conspiracy job review performance evaluation: Goal-orientated, efficient, need to socialise more.

Conspiracy job review performance evaluation: Goal-orientated, efficient, need to socialise more.

This idea of the Cigarette-Smoking Man as a writer crafting his own story is reinforced by the repeated comparisons between the Cigarette-Smoking Man and God. The character heals a sick young boy who was waiting for a divine miracle; he promises to heal the entire world if given the opportunity. His helpers are described as “angels.” Much is made of the power of life and death held in his hands. En Ami suggests that the Cigarette-Smoking Man is at least capable of playing God, much like Philip Padgett was.

However, the story’s central metaphor of the protagonist as writer shares some uncomfortable overlap with Milagro. The episode fixates on Scully as an object around which divine will might bend the world. The Cigarette-Smoking Man offers the same sort of pop psychology insights in Scully as Padgett did. “You’re drawn to powerful men but you fear their power. You keep your guard up, a wall around your heart. How else do you explain that fearless devotion to a man obsessed, and, yet, a life alone? You’d die for Mulder but you won’t allow yourself to love him.”

"Just don't ask how I got your measurements."

“Just don’t ask how I got your measurements.”

There is something awkward in the way that The X-Files repeatedly suggests that its authorial avatars are deeply (and even creepily) obsessed with Scully. The show had a tendency to downplay and minimise Scully’s sexuality, with Carter even vetoing a sex scene in Never Again. It is perhaps a little uncomfortable that two of the episodes that do allow Scully some sexual agency (with both Milagro and En Ami revealing Scully in her bra, which is perhaps Scully at her most sexualised) do so in the context of the manipulations of an authorial character.

In En Ami, the Cigarette-Smoking Man even poses as Scully on-line to court the mole into the open. The mole’s few lines of dialogue make it clear that it was not an entirely platonic on-line relationship. “Finally we meet,” he remarks. “You’re just as you described yourself. Certainly more so last night at dinner. I only wish we could continue to correspond but it must end after this. I hope one day we can take some time when I’m not a marked man.” It turns out that the Cigarette-Smoking Man literally writes Scully as a sex object.

"Well, this meeting is a wash..."

“Well, this meeting is a wash…”

Of course, the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s own relationship with Scully is pushed into the realm of the creepy. Scully is shocked when she wakes up in his guest bed. “How the hell did I get out of my clothes and into bed?” she demands. The Cigaratte-Smoking Man glosses over the “out of [her] clothes” part of the question, but the answer is obvious. When the time for dinner arrives, the Cigarette-Smoking man even picks out a sexy dress for Scully to wear so as to ensure that the evening goes entirely to plan.

Given the difficulty that the show has with Scully exercising her own sexual agency, it is a little uncomfortable that authorial male characters seem to exercise it for her. Gillian Anderson does try to balance the scales a bit in all things, but it is perhaps one of the problems with both Milagro and En Ami. Scully feels very passive in the whole episode, a character swept up in a story rather than an agent with her own insight and agenda. There are extended awkward sequences in En Ami.

"By the way, will you appear on our show?"

“By the way, will you appear on our show?”

En Ami also suffers from some very strange tonal shifts as it bounces between the primary and secondary plots. At one point, the episode jumps from a shot of an assassin hiding in some trees to Mulder bursting into Skinner’s office unannounced. “Sir, I need your attention,” Mulder insists. “Is my assistant…?” Skinner cuts in. Mulder responds, “No. She’s away from her desk.” It feels like something from a much lighter episode, a goofy comedy about how little respect Mulder has for the fact that Skinner has a job that doesn’t involve The X-Files. (Harking back to The Host.)

It seems like En Ami is never entirely sure of how serious all this is meant to be. The episode opens with a child dying of cancer and segues into a story about the potential cure for every human illness; this is very much par for the course when it comes to conspiracy episodes. At the same time, the usual heaviness of the basic plot is offset with a particularly goofy subplot involving the Lone Gunmen and Walter Skinner. It seems like The X-Files is not entirely sure about how serious it should be taking the mythology in the wake of Two Fathers and One Son.

My dinner with C.G.B.

My dinner with C.G.B.

However, despite these weird elements, there is a lot to like in En Ami. The episode has a number of nice little touches to it. In particular, the sequence of Scully arriving at the officers to meet the Cigarette-Smoking Man feels delightfully surreal; as if Scully has somehow peered behind the scenes at The Truman Show. It seems like all the actors in the conspiracy are wandering around back stage through the offices; men in suits, people in police uniforms, assassins. The cafatiera must be a very exciting place.

Although the story never really engages with it, the teaser is interesting in the context of the turn of the millennium. Jason McPeck is a young child dying of cancer, but his parents’ religious beliefs refuse to allow him treatment. In a way, it is quite similar to the aggressively orthodox teachings of Enoch O’Connor in Signs and Wonders. As with Enoch O’Connor in Signs and Wonders, it seems like The X-Files eventually sides with the McPeck family. They hold out for a miracle to save their son, and a miracle is dutifully provided.

That said, the use of water in an episode about Scully's faith is a nice visual callback to One Breath.

That said, the use of water in an episode about Scully’s faith is a nice visual callback to One Breath.

This seems to reflect the high-profile controversy around Christian Science. The religion attracted a great deal of attention throughout the decade for the refusal to allow medical professionals to treat sick children. This controversy built to a crescendo in 1999 and 2000, perhaps in response to efforts by Virginia Harris – the new head of the Church’s Board of Directors – to engage with mainstream media. At the turn of the millennium, the religion came under fire in the media and with regards to government funding.

Of course, Christian Science was not the only religion to adopt questionable policies towards science and medicine in the treatment of young children. There seemed to be a large debate unfolding in popular consciousness about the right of parents to refuse medical treatment on behalf of their children, whether for religious or secular reasons. En Ami doesn’t really do anything particularly interesting with the McPeck family, but it does serve as another example of the seventh season’s meditations on faith and belief.

"You know, I really shouldn't be so surprised by this..."

“You know, I really shouldn’t be so surprised by this…”

Then again, this ties into the seventh season’s repeated engagement with Scully’s willingness to believe. En Ami is very much about slotting Scully into a conventional Mulder story; Scully’s willingness to go along with the Cigarette-Smoking Man here would have been unimaginable even a year early, more akin to Mulder’s blind faith in Deep Throat during E.B.E. or his trust in Agent Chapel in Colony. It feels like a very important step in Scully’s journey from skeptic to believer. Given Scully has always believed in religion, religion is a logical gateway to the story.

In fact, the climax of En Ami inverts the traditional dynamic. Scully is cast in the role of a fevered believer who needs to trust in something to make sense of what she saw. She assures her partner, “I recorded it. I mailed you the tape.” Mulder is skeptical, “He used you.” It is not too hard to imagine the conversation playing out with the roles reversed in some earlier season, with Scully chastising Mulder for being too willing to believe in some crazy conspiracy nonsense.

A snipe hunt...

A snipe hunt…

(Of course, there is a sense that Scully is a little too quick to believe. The Cigarette-Smoking Man has done far too much to Mulder and Scully for them to ever place their faith in him. He ordered the murder of William Mulder; he is indirectly responsible for the murder of Melissa Scully. He has lied and manipulated both of them to serve his own ends. Scully has to get into the car with him for En Ami to work, but the episode seems to have Scully soften on the Cigarette-Smoking Man far too readily.)

En Ami is also notable as the last episode of The X-Files to be directed by Rob Bowman. Bowman had been around since Gender Bender in the first season, and had played a large role in shaping and defining the aesthetic of The X-Files. Bowman was responsible for a lot of the show’s “big” moments, whether the reveal of the submarine in End Game or the game of Russian roulette at the climax of Pusher or the mid-air abduction in Tempus Fugit. Bowman had been the first director to take the show to the big screen, helming The X-Files: Fight the Future.

"Boy, that underwater mood lighting really was a smart investment."

“Boy, that underwater mood lighting really was a smart investment.”

Bowman had been drifting away from the show in its seventh season. He only directed two of the season’s twenty-two episodes. En Ami would be Bowman’s last directorial credit on an episode of The X-Files, although he would also direct The Pilot of The Lone Gunmen before completely moving on from Ten Thirteen. There is a sense that The X-Files really is coming to an end, with several key players drifting away from the show and out into the wider world.

Like David Nutter before him, Bowman would attempt to transition from television into film. In the early years of the twenty-first century, Bowman was responsible for directing Reign of Fire and Elektra. However, following the critical and commercial disappointment of Elektra, Bowman transitioned back into television. He even directed an episode of Frank Spotnitz’s Kolchak: The Night Stalker reboot. He has been a major creative force on the television show Castle, which has benefited greatly from his sense of style and momentum.

"Mini disc? Bah! I can't play that!"

“Mini disc? Bah! I can’t play that!”

In a way, Bowman’s seventh season output is disappointing. Orison seemed singularly unsuited to Bowman’s style, a suspense horror that might have worked better from David Nutter or Kim Manners. En Ami is a lot more in keeping with Bowman’s aesthetic, although the episode’s relatively relaxed pace does not afford the director much opportunity to demonstrate his ability to generate momentum and manage large-scale storytelling. En Ami looks very good, with a number of clean and crisp Bowman compositions, but it doesn’t feel like essential Rob Bowman.

En Ami is a rather strange little episode, one that veers between the insightful and the creepy. It is a little uneven and clumsy, but it also manages to generate some small sense of pathos for its central character – and, perhaps, the series around him.

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