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The X-Files – Chimera (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.

There is a sense of fatigue about the seventh season of The X-Files.

It makes a certain amount of sense. After all, seven years is a long time in television. It is a particularly long time when the staff are churning out more than twenty episodes in a year. One hundred episodes is typically considered the threshold for syndication success, but The X-Files crossed that with Unusual Suspects back in the fifth season. By this point, The X-Files is comfortably past one hundred and fifty episodes of television. That is a lot of television. Assuming one were to watch it straight through, that’s nearly five straight days of television.

Quoth the raven...

Quoth the raven…

There comes a point where it feels old and outdated, where the sense of novelty and excited has faded to familiarity and dull routine. There comes a point where it feels like there is not much to talk about, because the show has already said a lot of what it has to say about a particular subject. It could be described as a “seven-year-itch”, but there is a reason why shows that last longer than seven seasons tend to rotate actors and producers more frequently than The X-Files has. Occasionally a blood transfusion is necessary to reoxygenate the blood.

Chimera is a perfectly solid episode of television. It is produced to the high standards of The X-Files, directed very well, and written in an efficient manner. However, it feels like it is covering a lot of well-trodden ground for the show with nothing new to say. Chimera feels like it is simply echoing sentiments the show had clearly articulated as recently as the sixth season; a curious blend of Terms of Endearment and Arcadia, but without the novelty or nuance of either. The X-Files has begun to feel as familiar as the rows of suburban houses it so fears.

Food for thought...

Food for thought…

Towards the end of the seventh season, there was a palpable sense of frustration about the hazy status of the show’s future. Asked about the possibility of an eighth season in February 2000, Vince Gilligan responded, “We’re waiting ourselves.” When the question was addressed to Gillian Anderson in April 2000, she replied, “If I knew… I’d give you a hint.” Certainly, the show looked like it was gearing up for a conclusion. Sein und Zeit and Closure resolved Mulder’s search for Samantha. En Ami confirmed that the Cigarette-Smoking Man was dying.

It is interesting to wonder what the legacy of The X-Files might have been had the show wrapped itself up at the end of the seventh season, as it seemed like so many members of the production team wanted. The general consensus on The X-Files is that the show outstayed its welcome, that it allowed itself to become tired and exhausted. Many fans stopped watching at some point as the show went along. The X-Files did not die with a bang, but a whimper. The attempted resurrection of the show with The X-Files: I Want to Believe landed with a dull thud.

Affairs of local law enforcement...

Affairs of local law enforcement…

It feels like popular attention was already wandering from the show. The show’s sixth season lost its Outstanding Drama Series nomination slot to The Sopranos. On network television, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer made The X-Files look positively old-fashioned. Nostalgia for the show tends to focus on the early and middle seasons, glossing over the final two. When writing the Wildstorm comic around the release of I Want to Believe, Frank Spotnitz set his stories in an ambiguous golden age between the second and fifth seasons.

Even the casting for the revival betrays this sense that The X-Files disappeared into television limbo some time around its sixth or seventh season. Despite the fact that he was a lead on the show for more than a fifth of its run, Robert Patrick will not be returning for the six-part miniseries. Despite the fact that she was technically a lead on the show in its final season, the return of Annabeth Gish was announced quite late in the production schedule. The returns of the Cigarette-Smoking Man, Walter Skinner and Margaret Scully were announced earlier.

Gone to the birds...

Gone to the birds…

Chris Carter has vigorously defended the final two seasons of the show. Discussing the final four years of the show, Carter asserts, “I would point to those seasons, and there are episodes in those seasons that I think are among the best.” How The X-Files would have been remembered differently if the curtain had been drawn down at the end of the seventh season, if there never had been a Doggett or a Reyes? It might even be worth asking if there would be a revival; if the show had wrapped up on (or near) top form with a satisfying conclusion, would that ending be let lie?

This is not to dismiss the final two seasons of the show. There are a lot of good episodes contained in that final stretch, and a lot of great character moments. The eighth season is a much more consistent and satisfying experience than the seventh on many levels. Although, as ever, mileage may vary; there is a legitimate argument to be made that the seventh season is more fulfilling that the eighth by virtue of being “twenty-two consecutive episodes featuring Mulder and Scully.” Even allowing for this, the eighth and ninth seasons are not without their merits.

Egging them on...

Egging them on…

Nevertheless, there is something to be said for “going out on top”; even if The X-Files was not quite on top any longer. The Neilsen ratings for the seventh season were down dramatically from the sixth season; the show scored its lowest average viewing figures since the first season. The show plummeted in the Nielson ratings between the sixth and seventh seasons. It was impossible to deny the reality of the situation. The cultural moment was fading, The X-Files was no longer the force it had been.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. It happens. It is the circle of life. Five years is a good run for a genre television series; seven years is a great run for a show with the same cast and with relatively low turnover among the production team. In some respects, the worst thing that a show could do is outstay its welcome. It is best to take the bow when people are actually watching, and when the audience will notice an absence; fading away into the shadows mutes the impact.

Casting shade...

Casting shade…

Even in terms of basic storytelling, it seems like The X-Files is largely played out. Although the show is still capable of surprises both good (X-Cops) and bad (First Person Shooter), it feels like The X-Files has exhausted itself. In seven years on television and with over one hundred and fifty episodes, the show has had the opportunity to saw just about everything that it might want to say on subjects that are close to its heart. There is very much a feeling of “been there, done that” to the familiar X-Files routine.

This is arguably why the seventh season scripts written by William B. Davis, Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny are interesting, even if they are imperfect; their voices are at least novel. By this point, it feels like the writing staff have already clearly articulated every point they might want to make about the show’s recurring motifs and underlying themes. There is only so much gold that can be wrung from the same familiar ground; there comes a point where the show must acknowledge as much.

Bitter pill...

Bitter pill…

Chimera is not a bad episode of television by any measure. The production team know what they are doing; Chimera certainly looks and feels impressive. The imagery is striking, the editing is effective. Chimera is the only horror episode to be directed by Cliff Bole, who tended to work on light-hearted comedy episodes like Small Potatoes or Bad Blood. Bole does great work at building atmosphere and suspense across the episode, showing enough without showing too much.

This is not the show on autopilot by any measure; there are some very conscious and very clever choices made in framing the direction. Most obviously, Bole is very conscious of reflective surfaces in composing shots. Even when those reflective surfaces do not lead to jump scares, the camera draws the audience’s attention to them as a metaphor for perception and appearance. (Reinforced by the script’s decision to put Scully on surveillance detail.) Chimera may not be as unsettling as Hungry, Signs and Wonders or Theef, but it is effective.

Also reflective: water!

Also reflective: water!

Similarly, David Amann’s script is build very meticulously and very precisely. Chimera is quite clear in its central themes, but never to the point that they suffocate the story. There are no extended monologues on soul-destroying conformity to be found here, just little references to the difficulties of maintaining appearances within a small community. In fact, Chimera does a good job of concealing the identity of the killer while playing entirely fair; it is quite possible to guess that Ellen is the monster early on, but Jenny provides an adequate red herring.

There are a few problems, but nothing fatal. Perhaps the script’s clumsiest misstep is in the way that it dovetails the primary and secondary plots. Chimera begins with Mulder and Scully staking out a sex club, looking for a possibly female serial killer who has the ability to magically vanish. While Mulder is reassigned to investigate the disappearance of Martha Crittendon, Scully remains assigned to the stake out. However, Mulder finds himself hunting a possibly female serial killer who has the ability to magically vanish; she just does it in nicer surroundings.

Eye see!

Eye see!

It’s not a bad hook; the problem is that the script has Mulder make the observation in the most awkward manner possible. “It’s a freak show, Mulder,” Scully complains of her surveillance duty. “It’s a nonstop parade of every single lowlife imaginable.” Mulder responds, “Well, the view may not be too different here. It’s dressed up a little nicer but underneath the surface, it’s the same seamy underbelly.” It is something towards which Chimera has very consciously been building, but the script makes it sound profound rather than obvious.

Nevertheless, the character work is solid. Chimera could easily become an offensive parody, the tale of a repressed suburban housewife whose extreme denial leads to the murder of a bunch of whom with whom her husband was sleeping. It would be easy to turn the central characters into two-dimensional cardboard cutouts; to paint Ellen as a deluded mess or Phil as a complete monster. Instead, Ellen’s breakdown is entirely understandable and the revelation that Phil at least tried to divorce Ellen makes him seem like more than just a philanderer.

Scratch that...

Scratch that…

(At the same time, the revelation that people in suburbia are secretly having affairs with one another feels like a rather tame indictment of suburban life. Sure, it escalates to murder and mayhem, but it feels like a very subtle motivation. Does Ellen consider Martha and Jenny to be the only threats to her home life? What about Phil’s job? What about the family’s financial security? Making Phil an adulterer hints at the tensions that can bubble under such shiny happy communities, but making him an adulterer with two simultaneous affairs seems a tad convenient.)

Amann provides some nice imagery. Chimera has a very basic plot, but compensates by increasing the atmosphere. The killings are all heralded by ravens, black birds that serve as harbingers of death and destruction. The inclusion of ravens adds a powerful mythological and poetic element to the story. “The raven is a carrion bird attracted to death and decay,” Mulder explains, but that is only half of it. The raven holds a place of importance in a variety of mythologies, not least of which is American horror.

Sometimes your worst self is your best self.

Sometimes your worst self is your best self.

Mulder only fleetingly references Edgar Allen Poe in his “brief history of scary stuff involving ravens”, but that is because the connection is so obvious. Poe’s work ties the raven to a strong and historical strand of North American horror. The Vermont setting of Chimera reinforces this association; Edgar Allen Poe’s work shaped and characterised New England horror. The inclusion of the raven in the Vermont setting of Chimera provides a clear continuity between The X-Files and classic New England horror.

At the same time, the setting also emphasises the challenges that California still poses to the production team. Chimera unfolds in Vermont around Easter. It is not uncommon for Easter egg hunts to take place in the snow. Naturally, the production team do not have the budget to properly recreate Vermont in Spring, so the location ultimately looks rather generic. Despite being separated by almost two and half thousand miles, the suburban community featured in Chimera does not look radically different to the planned community from Arcadia.

Slice o' life...

Slice o’ life…

Of course, Chimera never quite explains why Ellen’s transformation into a weird dirt monster is connected to ravens. It isn’t the greatest logical leap that The X-Files has ever had to make, but Chimera never even hints at an in-story explanation. The script leaves a lot of its internal logic rather fuzzy, relying on implicit rather than explicit connections. The raven is a creepy bird and Chimera is a scary episode; that seems like reason enough for Ellen to forge an unspoken connection with the bird.

Then again, the specifics of what happened to Ellen are left decidedly vague. The episode could be read in such a way that Ellen’s transformations are metaphorical; she becomes a monster when she murders Martha and Jenny. Maybe the mirrors don’t shatter spontaneously; Ellen breaks them because she cannot look at herself. This would explain why the monster is so hazily defined. It is just a generic “monster.” Still, the reading is a stretch; monster!Ellen does attack Mulder at the climax and Mulder does find evidence of an actual raven at the first crime scene.

More like "carry on, birds." Am I rite?

More like “carry on, birds.” Am I rite?

At the end of the episode, Mulder offers his theory about what happened to Ellen. “There are some multiple personality disorders where an alternate personality displays traits that the host doesn’t have, like nearsightedness or high blood pressure or even diabetes,” he tells Phil. “I think in Ellen’s case the changes were just a lot more extreme.” It seems a surprisingly sketchy explanation for The X-Files; Mulder’s crazy theories usually come with a lot more detail and nuance.

Chimera doesn’t just rely on ravens to provide atmosphere. The script treats mirrors as a recurring motif. This plays well into Jenny’s own difficulties processing the reality of her situation, but also as part of the show’s recurring critiques of suburban life. The mirror is all about perception of self, of the image that one projects to themselves and to others. The mirror breaks because Jenny’s fantasies about an idealised suburban life can no longer be maintained. It is a very simple thematic element, but an effective one at that.

A very stubble stubborn investigator.

A very stubble stubborn investigator.

Like the raven, the mirrors add something of a fairytale quality to the story. “Mirrors are considered items of enchantment,” Mulder explains at one point. “A broken one… means something. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but it means something.” At its best, Chimera has an ambiguous and almost dream-like style; it doesn’t matter that the story doesn’t entirely fit together, because the atmosphere is layered on heavily enough. Chimera is not a bad episode by any measure of the show’s quality.

At the same time, there is something quite tired about it. Chimera is produced to the series’ high standards and without any truly critical issues, but it all feels very familiar and rote. Chris Carter’s shows have explored the horrors lurking in suburbia time and time again. The suburban gothic was established as an important part of The X-Files in with Eve early in the first season. An extended stretch of the first season of Millennium was devoted to the monsters hiding in these sorts of communities.

The killer inside.

The killer inside.

More recently, The X-Files has touched on anxieties related to suburbia in stories as diverse as Terms of Endearment, Arcadia and The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati. Not all of these stories were great, but they at least found interesting and novel ways to explore the fear of suburban conformity and the toxic repression that can fester in these environments. The imagery was unique and effective; the metaphors weren’t subtle, but they were distinct enough from one another.

Whether it was the harm caused by Wayne’s desire to be “normal”, the rigid enforcement of conformity upon the residents of Arcadia Falls, or the willingness to stand by and watch from a protected enclave as the rest of society collapsed, each of those three episodes channeled the production team’s anxieties about middle-class suburbia through a different prism. The problem with Chimera is that it does not even feel like a new way of approaching a familiar theme. It just feels like a lot of material that the show has explored before.

What has Mulder unearthed?

What has Mulder unearthed?

As with his encounter with Wayne in Terms of Endearment, Mulder discovers lies and denial beneath a picture-perfect American home. (Martha’s home made “the cover of New England Home”, but it is house built on lies.) The monster in Chimera bears more than a slight physical resemblance to the monster in Arcadia; it is an uncontrollable entity, albeit the work of an individual rather than the group. In Arcadia, the creature literally climbs up from underground; early drafts of Chimera literalised the subconscious metaphor by making it a subterranean monster.

To be fair, there is nothing inherently wrong with this. It is too much to describe Chimera as a simple “copy” or “rip-off” of earlier stories. The use of raven and mirror imagery sets it apart visually, even if those ultimately feel like decorations around familiar themes. However, it feels like the episode has very little new or insightful to say on those themes. It is one thing to revisit a classic X-Files concept; the problem is that Chimera is covering ground that has been well-explored within the last season and a half.

You scratch my back...

You scratch my back…

Chimera is not a bad episode by any measure. There have already been worse episodes of the seventh season; there will be a couple more between now and the end of the year. In terms of basic production, Chimera is impressive. It is not embarrassing or disappointing in any technical respect. However, there is a flatness to the episode, a lifelessness that never quite goes away. It is one of those episodes that really feels like an episode from the seventh season of a long-running series. Maybe even an episode from the final season of a long-running series.

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