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The X-Files – Fight Club (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.

Fight Club is an unpleasant episode of The X-Files.

It’s not “unpleasant” in a good way, like (arguably) Signs and Wonders or (definitely) Theef. It is “unpleasant” in a way that feels ill-judged and tone-deaf. Following on the charm and whimsy of Hollywood A.D., the script for Fight Club seems packed with forced charm and staged whimsy. At its most basic level, Fight Club is a comedy episode that simply isn’t funny. More than that, it’s an episode that isn’t particularly funny or clever to begin with, but then spends forty-five minutes insisting upon its own wit.

"Some of us are looking at the stars..."

“Some of us are looking at the stars…”

There is also a sense of unpleasantness about the themes and content of the episode in the context of the late seventh season. After all, it is no secret that the production team were facing considerable internal and external pressure. These pressures included a lawsuit involving the show’s lead actor and the show’s creator (not to mention the show’s network) and the fact that everybody on the production team was waiting for David Duchovny to determine if they would have a job the following season.

With all of this going on in the background, maybe an episode the implicitly features the show’s two lead actors knocking the stuffing out of each other for no good reason is not the best idea in the world.

"Hm..."

“Hm…”

To be fair to all involved, the seventh season of The X-Files was a decidedly professional affair. The two collaborated on The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati at the start of the season, and Carter was very pleased with Duchovny’s script for Hollywood A.D. It is to the credit of everybody working on the show that none of those tension bled too strongly into the season. Indeed, watching the seventh season, there is never really a sense of how chaotic and fraught things were behind the scenes.

However, there is no denying that the tension surrounding Duchovny’s lawsuit took its toll on his relationship with Carter as it ground on. After all, the allegations that Carter took “millions of dollars in ‘hush’ money” hung over the vast majority of the season, from before The Sixth Extinction aired to the point of settlement shortly before Requiem was broadcast. It should be noted that any damage to that relationship seems to have been repaired in the years since, but this made the behind-the-scenes climate of the seventh season distinctly uncomfortable.

Bruised...

Bruised…

Carter was diplomatic as ever in his assessment of how the lawsuit affected the show. “It didn’t help the creative energy,” he conceded. Carter seemed to accept  it as a business reality of twenty-first century television production, conceding that it did make things difficult:

“I still blame vertical integration as the big problem and this is the beginning of something that you are going to see a lot more because what happens is that when the buyer and the seller are the same person, it pits everybody against everybody and it’s not good for working relationships.”

That is a very pragmatic summary of the situation. Although Carter was reluctant to directly acknowledge the tension that the lawsuit created behind the scenes, he did admit, “The lawsuit created a certain amount of rancor.”

... and battered.

… and battered.

Duchovny was, perhaps, a bit more candid in his own assessment of the impact of the lawsuit. “It’s completely ruined whatever personal relationship we had,” he explained. However, Duchovny also stressed that he and Carter still enjoyed a professional working relationship:

Yeah, that has definitely been a wedge between Chris and me. But just personally, not professionally. Obviously, I’m writing and directing for him, and he directed a show a couple of weeks ago–so he directed me as an actor.

Of course, any personal rift between Duchovny and Carter has healed in the years since the lawsuit was settled. Duchovny did come back in the show’s final season, not to mention The X-Files: I Want to Believe or the six-episode revival.

"Ladies and gentlemen, Mister David Duchovny."

“Ladies and gentlemen, Mister David Duchovny.”

However professional both Duchovny and Carter might have been, there was bound to be some frustration bleeding over into their work. After all, Duchovny’s lawsuit was serving to keep the seventh season in a weird state of undeath. Carter had made it abundantly clear that he didn’t want to continue the show without Duchovny, making the possibility of an eighth season contingent upon the settlement of the lawsuit and the burying of the hatchet. Given the number of people depending on The X-Files for their livelihood, that was a lot of pressure.

With the show inching closer and closer to the seventh season finalé, there was no sense of finality one way or the other. Fox wanted an eighth season, but the lawsuit was on-going. In that context, Fight Club seems like a rather questionable idea. It is an episode about spontaneous and destructive outbreaks of violence that occur when two people (who are drawn together by circumstance) come into contact with one another. It is a story about people brutally turning on each other due to forces outside their control.

Hair-raisingly bad...

Hair-raisingly bad…

The parallels with the behind the scenes situation are uncomfortable. Frank Spotnitz even subtly alludes to them when discussing the episode with The Official Guide:

“People got really strange toward the end of the year,” recalls Frank Spotnitz. “We didn’t know what was going on. We were all so stressed out about whether this was the end of the series or not. It was getting toward the end of the season, and everybody was kind of punchy.”

Fight Club takes all that simmering “punchiness” and plays it out, building to a climax where it is heavily implied (but not explicitly shown) that Mulder and Scully knocked seven kinds of stuffing out of each other.

Seeing double. Sort of.

Seeing double. Sort of.

There is something spectacularly ill-judged in that final image of Mulder and Scully covered in bruises. Never mind the question of why the two are outlining the details of the case to Argyle Saperstein, a minor supporting player in the whole affair. Never mind that the positioning of Fight Club after all things implies that Scully was actually pregnant while Mulder was laying into her. (Although the fact that the eighth season was still unconfirmed does suggest Scully had “Schrodinger’s pregnancy” at this point in the season.)

Never mind the fact that the scene is staged to make the bruises and stitches look as real as possible. When fake!Mulder and fake!Scully laid into one another at the start of the episode, their injuries were played as almost cartoonish in nature. Mulder’s slideshow features the two anonymous agents recovering in hospital beds in exaggerated casts and slings, looking like their Acme prop just malfunctioned. The final scene features much less goofy effects, and is shot in dim light in a grotty office as if to emphasis the realism of it all.

Bearing witness...

The good book.

When Fight Club went into production, there was every possibility that it would be the third-last episode of The X-Files to air. Given his statements to the media, it was extremely likely that this would be the third-last episode of The X-Files to feature the classic Mulder and Scully team. As it turned out, Fight Club was the third-last episode of this particular iteration of the show; the series would return for an eighth season, but it would be radically different from the show that fans knew and loved.

There is something deeply uncomfortable about closing what might be the show’s third-last episode with a scene painstakingly detailing just how much Mulder and Scully had hurt one another at the climax of the episode. More than that, there is something very awkward about closing on that image and treating it as a comedy. At this point, the audience has spent seven years and more than one hundred and fifty episodes with Mulder and Scully. Duchovny and Anderson have built up tremendous chemistry and empathy. This is a terrible image.

A copy of a copy of a copy...

A copy of a copy of a copy…

However, the episode’s closing scene is just the biggest issue with an episode that has any number of big issues. There is a sense that Fight Club wants to be a quirky comedy episode, that it is intended as the last gasp of the “X-Files Lite” approach that took root in the sixth season. (Ultimately, Je Souhaite would be a much more effective farewell to that particular type of story.) As such, Fight Club spends far too much time trying to be cute and sly. Fight Club is wearing the world’s most demented Cheshire Cat grin, begging the audience to love it.

It is hard to figure out the point of all this. Fight Club focuses on the idea of doubling, but with no real explanation. The first scene after the credits famously (or infamously) features a tall dark-haired male agent and short female redhead investigating a paranormal phenomenon. The voices belong to (a very disinterested) David Duchovny and (a less disinterested) Gillian Anderson, but the camera very conspicuously obscures their faces. The punchline is as signposted as any M. Night Shymalan twist: these are Mulder and Scully doppelgangers.

Stand-in by...

Stand-in by…

It turns out that these agents are being played by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson’s stand-ins, Steve Kiziak and Arlene Pileggi. The most obvious problem with this is that it is simply not funny. “People who look like Mulder and Scully pounding the crap out of each other” is no more inherently funny than “Mulder and Scully pounding the crap out of each other.” More than that, the set-up for the reveal is awful. At one point, the doubles continue conversing with an empty doorway, because turning around would prematurely give away the “gag.”

However, there are also questions of internal logic at play here. The other doubles in Fight Club are all played by the same actors. Both Kathy Giffin and Randall Cobb play characters who come into contact with their exact doubles. The gag at the start of Fight Club is that the two agents are very obviously doubles of Mulder and Scully, but they are very clearly a different sort of double than the doubles who populate the rest of the show. The internal logic seems fuzzy at best, lazy at worst.

Bolt from the blue...

Bolt from the blue…

There is a sense that this might be intended as some cynical commentary on the possible future of the show, a world populated by doubles and replacements and ersatz copies. Doubling recurs as a motif throughout Fight Club. Not only are the four major characters duplicated, but Betty and Lulu also concoct a plan to literally photocopy hundred-dollar bills in an effort to help Burt get into that prize fight. One imagines Fox hoping to do something similar, viewing The X-Files as a license to print money.

Perhaps Fight Club‘s fascination with doubles is a reflection of those seventh season anxieties, concern about what might become of the show in the near future. David Duchovny’s Hollywood A.D. imagined a nightmarish future where The X-Files was populated by zombies and stripped of any artistic merit by commercial concerns; perhaps Chris Carter’s Fight Club worries about the possibility that the series might be left on the air populated with bad photocopies and malformed duplicates.

Orange ya glad the season's almost over?

Orange ya glad the season’s almost over?

As the seventh season drew to a close, and despite the tension that Duchovny’s lawsuit created, it was clear that Carter did not want to making an inferior version of The X-Files. “Right down to the end, I was saying ‘I don’t want to do this without David,’ and finally everybody figured out a way to do it with him,” Carter explained of the last-minute renewal. The show had repeatedly stressed that Mulder and Scully were essential the the series; the second and sixth seasons argued that they were more vital to the series’ identity than the eponymous files.

Indeed, Carter has argued the his decision to remain on the show for nine year was made out of loyalty to the cast. As the show closed out its final season, he confessed, “I made a promise to the actors that I wouldn’t bail out on ’em and I didn’t, so I at least feel like I’ve honored something I feel very strongly about.” To Carter, it seemed like The X-Files was essentially David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Fight Club seems to take a rather militant “accept no substitutes” line on the show’s future.

"I knew audience figures were down, but this is nuts..."

“I knew audience figures were down, but this is nuts…”

The X-Files was always about Mulder and Scully, and it never really accepted any substitutes. This became a problem when the show actually needed to accept other actors and characters. The eighth and ninth seasons of The X-Files are still fixated upon and fascinated with Mulder and Scully, even as David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson drift further and further from the show. Mulder is nothing but a shadow during the ninth season, but he remains of more interest to the show than the characters actually appearing on screen.

With all of this going on, there is a retroactive cruelty to Fight Club. The episode feels like a preemptive knee-jerk rejection of any version of The X-Files that doesn’t feature Mulder and Scully. This story about broken copies and dysfunctional duplicates plays like a dismissal of Doggett and Reyes before the characters have even been formulated, let alone actually appeared. “Accept no substitutes!” the episodes seems to declare at the top of its lungs, even as the show would soon be forced to accept two substitutes.

"Maybe I can just sneak out of this episode..."

“Maybe I can just sneak out of this episode…”

(This is not the only mean-spirited aspect of fake!Mulder and fake!Scully. “The interesting thing about these agents is they had worked together for seven years previously without any incident,” Mulder relates, making the parallels obvious. “They are not romantically involved, if that’s what you’re thinking.” Scully responds, “Not even I would be so farfetched.” Given the show’s difficulty managing the romantic dynamic between Mulder and Scully, it feels like a passive-aggressive swipe at “shippers.”)

There is a sense to fatigue to the opening briefing between Mulder and Scully, although Fight Club never quite fixates upon it. “You have any ideas, Scully, any thoughts?” Mulder ponders. Scully wearily responds, “What I’m thinking, Mulder, is how familiar this seems. Playing Watson to your Sherlock. You dangling clues out in front of me one by one.” To be fair, the scene then follows this with perhaps the episode’s best moment, as Scully plays a game of X-Files mad-libs with Mulder.

Double trouble...

Double trouble…

Scully finally guesses the right answer by throwing together a vague collection of X-Files concepts into something loosely resembling a coherent plot. “A corporeal likeness that appears unbidden from the spirit world the sight of which presages one’s own death or a double, conjured into the world by a technique called bilocation which in psychological terms represents the person’s secret desires and impulses committing acts that the real person cannot commit himself or herself?” Go Scully.

There is something interesting in Scully proposal that the doppelganger represent “the person’s secret desires and impulses committing acts that the real person cannot commit himself or herself.” After all, Betty and Lulu certainly don’t seem to live idealised lives; their presence causes untold destruction wherever they go. Maybe the doppelgangers in Fight Club aren’t a representation of the characters’ “secret desires and impulses”, but a representation of the show’s own morbid fascination with (and perhaps even wish for) its own destruction.

Wrestle mania...

Wrestle mania…

Sadly, Fight Club doesn’t develop any of these ideas. It can’t even be bothered to explain the weird pseudo-logic that holds everything together. Instead, there are lots of shots of dive bars exploding and a weird sequence where Mulder is inexplicably sucked into the sewer for what must have been hours in-universe. Still, the first scene between Mudler and Scully teases a potentially interesting idea that could have been taken in any number of intriguing directions. It also allows Duchovny and Anderson to be suitably flirty and playful.

Fight Club has very serious problems. It is very easy to single out guest star Kathy Griffin. Griffin is a polarising comedian even outside of her work here; she has an aggressive comedic style that can seem mean-spirited at times, and there are arguments to be made that her attempts to paint herself as a Hollywood outsider are hypocritical and disingenuous. Of course, it is all a matter of taste. Fight Club tries to play Griffin against type, casting her in roles rather far removed from her public persona. It is not an approach that pays off.

"Have no fear! Agents Muddler and Sully are on the case!"

“Have no fear! Agents Muddler and Sully are on the case!”

Playing two different characters in the same production is tough. An actor has to figure out how to differentiate the roles from one another, but also how to mirror them. Betty Templeton and Lulu Pfeiffer are half-sisters, so there are obvious similarities between them. However, Fight Club does provide some level of distinction in their attitudes and outlook. Betty is optimistic, Lulu is pessimistic. However, Griffin’s performance never quite distinguishes the two roles. If it weren’t for colour-coded costuming, it would be hard to the tell two apart.

To be fair to Griffin, she is the featured guest star; her performance is bound to grab the most attention. It is not as if Griffin is the only actor to offer a cringe-inducing performance in Fight Club. Jack McGee has a small role as “Angry Bob”, the sperm donor who Scully describes as “the angriest man in the world.” Bob’s rage is so potent that it seems to have travelled via his sperm. One imagines that the sperm donation looks like a sample of ectoplasm from Ghostbusters, frothing on a stand in some fertility clinic.

"IF YOU HAD TO LISTEN TO ME SHOUT ALL DAY, YOU'D BE ANGRY TOO!"

“IF YOU HAD TO LISTEN TO ME SHOUT ALL DAY, YOU’D BE ANGRY TOO!”

A character named “Angry Bob” is never going to have any real depth or nuance. However, Jack McGee decides that the best approach to the character is to shout his lines at the top of his voice as he constantly bounces around his prison cell. When Scully introduces herself as “Special Agent Dana Scully”, Angry Bob shout back, “WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT YOU?!” As well as perfectly capturing the level of wit to which Fight Club aspires, it also encapsulates just how uncomfortable physically watching the episode can be.

The best guest performance in the episode comes from Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb as Bert Zupanic. Cobb’s performance is not particularly nuanced or sophisticated; it probably wouldn’t stand out in any other episode of the show. However, Cobb’s grounded performance means that Zupanic is the only character in Fight Club who feels like a real person rather than a collection of energy and quirks quickly bound together. Caught between Betty and Lulu, Zupanic is far more sympathetic than the central sisters, because he feels fully formed.

Think of it as The Wrestler, but without any of the depth or insight or anything that made The Wrestler any good.

Think of it as The Wrestler, but without any of the depth or insight or anything that made The Wrestler any good.

To be fair to both Griffin and McGee, it seems likely that problems with their performances were not entirely their fault. Writer Chris Carter throws in dollops of tired and corny humour, while director Paul Shapiro directs the episode like a slapstick comedy that doesn’t happen to feature any slapstick or comedy. The fact that Griffin and McGee are basically playing one-dimensional archetypes is very much in keeping the broader aesthetic of the episode. Something as terrible as Fight Club does not happen by accident.

The script for Fight Club seems to know exactly what it is aiming for. This is not an episode particularly interested in character or plot. Fight Club aspires towards the “goofy” and the “ridiculous.” This is not a bad thing; many of the best X-Files episodes are goofy and ridiculous. Just look either side of Fight Club; Hollywood A.D. features an army of dancing zombies, while Je Souhaite has Mulder and Scully encountering an honest-to-goodness genie. However, those episodes also have an honesty and insight to them that adds resonance.

A tough brief/case...

A tough brief/case…

Fight Club has… painfully bad jokes repeating ad nausiem. The episode also suffers from a complete lack of internal logic. If Betty and Lulu are aware of the destruction they cause, why don’t they simply correspond with one another to avoid the overlap? The X-Files exists in an era of mobile phones and email. It should not be too difficult for Betty and Lulu to coordinate their lives to avoid causing weird and unexplained physical and psychic phenomena. (Then again, The X-Files repeatedly suggests that globalisation makes America smaller.)

Things happen not because they are clever or make sense, but because they are “cute.” Bert Zupanic has an identical fraternal brother, who just happens to occupy a cell right next to Angry Bob. Fight Club might be nodding towards some grand statement about fate and purpose, the interconnectedness of mankind; that doesn’t come across in the finished episode. This all plays like a cheap plot contrivance. Scully doesn’t encounter the doppelganger because of destiny, she encounters the doppelganger because the script wanted another double in the story.

Stuck in the middle...

Stuck in the middle…

Fight Club is a disaster of a script, making perhaps the most compelling argument for retiring The X-Files at this point in its run. If this is what passes for an average episode, then it might be for the best that the end is nigh.

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

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8 Responses

  1. A bad review from Darren is like a doctor describing, compassionately, why you’re going to die in two weeks.

    Kathy Griffin is just one of those comics nobody likes, but tolerates, because the alternatives are worse. I knew her back in her Suddenly Susan days. Guess Kevin Smith was right about how you only fail upward in show business. I’ll say no more at risk of a derail.

    • I’m going to be honest, I might knick that “a bad review from Darren is like a doctor describing, compassionately, why you’re going to die in two weeks” and put it on something somewhere on the site at some point. Credited to you, of course. That’s a really great line.

      I mean, I am not the target market for Kathy Griffin’s schtick. But I assume that somebody has to be. As you suggest, I think there’s something hypocritical in her punch-pulling.

      • “But I assume that somebody has to be.”

        Insomuch as David hasslehoff has a market, I guess.

        Once you’re on TV, you tend to stay there. It’s weird how that works.

      • Ha! Fair point.

        (I have a fondness for certain aspects of the Hoff’s persona, even if I fear I know too much of the man himself to ever really “like” him. At the very least, Hasselhoff is a fascinating pop cultural artifact.)

  2. Thank you for an honest and detailed examination into this episode. “Fight Club” is by far my least favorite episode of the series, but your analysis of how the show relates to the ongoing real-life struggle behind-the-scenes is enlightening. I’m especially intrigued by your suggestion that both this episode and “Hollywood A.D.” lend to the idea of DD fearing an X-Files stripped of artistic merit and Chris Carter fearing a slew of poorly reproduced copycat series. This is making me reconsider Fight Club (to an extent!) and is making me think about the placement of these episodes in relation to the timeline of the show’s production. As you’ve implied, these episodes could very well be indicators of the collective conscience of the cast and crew at the time of filming. Again, thank you!

    • Thanks for the kind words!

      I am indebted to all those who came before me, to be honest. Eat the Corn has compiled an invaluable resource of interviews and articles, while The A.V. Club has written great reviews – even classic reviews like Sarah Stegall and Paula Vitaris have influenced my writing in ways I can’t consciously process.

      But, mostly, I spent a lot of time trying to make some sense of Fight Club. Because that episode is mess.

  3. Oh this was terrible, still “First Person Shooter” is the worst of this season, but this one was very close. This is a mess but a uninteresting mess, a total waste of time. However I really liked that scene when Mulder talks about the case with Scully and she’s guessing the answer.

    This season has a number of those moments when Duchovny and Anderson seem like they’re either having so much fun with the script or improvising certain lines, or simply not getting it too seriously as in early seasons.

    Anyway, what came to my mind while watching this disaster was the fact that this very sucessful and beloved series had only 2 more episodes left before ending once and for all at that time, but it would end as a bad parody of itself, it’s like the production team saved the worst for last.

    • It is an atrocious episode. And I can’t account for Carter choosing that this would be the last episode to be written and directed by him if the show had come to an end during the seventh season.

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