Advertisements
  • Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

The X-Files – Roadrunners (Review)

This October/November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the eighth season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of The Lone Gunmen.

In case there was any doubt, Roadrunners proves that the eighth season of The X-Files means business.

In some ways, it seems remarkable that Roadrunners did not receive a warning about graphic content. The season would wait until Via Negativa before offering a viewer discretion advisory. Roadrunners is one of the most uncomfortable and unsettling episodes in the show’s nine-season run, one that cements the “back to basics” horror aesthetic of the eighth season as a whole. It was clear from the opening three episodes that the eighth season was intended as a return to the darkness of the first five seasons, but Roadrunners commits to the idea.

Off-road...

Off-road…

Roadrunners is a “back to basics” script in a number of ways, even beyond its very graphic horror stylings. It is a very good “small town” story, returning to the motif that populated many of the show’s early episodes. It is a story about an eccentric and isolate space in America, a place with its own unique character and its own rich history and traditions. It is a place that stands quite apart from the modern world, that might have looked the same at the turn of the twentieth century as it does at the start of the twenty-first.

Roadrunners could be seen as Vince Gilligan’s answer to Home, a similarly brutal (and unsettling) small-town tale.

"On to new business. Today's mission is for all of you to go to the brain slug planet." "What are we going to do there?" "Just walk around not wearing a helmet."

“On to new business. Today’s mission is for all of you to go to the brain slug planet.”
“What are we going to do there?”
“Just walk around not wearing a helmet.”

The American small town is an almost mythical image. It exists as something of a national ideal, as quintessentially (and ethereally) American as apple pie or flags wofting in a gentle summer breeze. There is something romantic about the idea of small town life, particularly in a country that consists of almost four million square miles of all sorts of terrain divided into fifty different states populated by a wide variety of people from dozens (if not hundreds) of cultural backgrounds and holding a variety of divergent political, moral and religious beliefs.

The small town can often feel like something of an aspiration, a fantasy that many artists and architects have tried to conjure into being – only catching a fleeting glimpse of it as one might find Brigadoon in the fog. There is a massive irony in this of course; the appeal of the American small town is its authenticity, but its exemplars are all meticulously and carefully planned. Disney’s “Main Street, USA” remains at once the apotheosis and the antithesis of the fantastical small town; that authenticity perfectly faked.

Off the map...

Off the map…

As Robert E. Tournier notes in Small Towns at the Crossroads, this paradox seems to inform popular culture’s conflicting attitudes towards small towns:

Attitudes in our society toward the small town are marvelously schizophrenic. On the one hand, we extol the virtues of small-town America as a reminder of the persistence of a way of life that we regard as nearly utopian. Even those of us who live by choice in metropolitan areas frequently engage in a sort of psychic flight to the top of Walton’s Mountain, to look down upon a world far more perfect than that in which we have chosen to live — a world without crime or violence, without noise or pollution, without any of the liabilities of living in cities. It is thus not surprising that while a clear majority of Americans live in urban areas, an even larger majority insist that they would prefer to live in open country or in small towns.

We harbour, on the other hand, some strong suspicions about small-town life, and the characterisation of the small town as evil, frightening, clannish, or corrupt is now a fixed stereotype in American mass culture. To a generation reared on a cinema diet of Bad Day at Black Rock, In the Heat of the Night, Deliverance, or Easy Rider, small towns are dangerous, malevolent places; in the 1960’s and 1970’s the small towns of the South, in particular, were regularly libeled by media as the last bastions of reactionism in America, as places where segregation and night riders, superstition and ignorance prevailed.

As with “Main Street, USA”, there is always an anxiety that the warm and homely façade hides something altogether less friendly.

" You know the end of The X-Files approaches when you can recall owning the same phone as Scully."

You know the end of The X-Files approaches when you can recall owning the same phone as Scully.

The X-Files has touched on this quite a bit. Perhaps the most overt example of this sort of story remains Home. In that story, Mulder and Scully found themselves uncovering the dark secrets of an idyllic rural community. One of the ironies of the episode was the idea that residents of the picture-perfect community had allowed their nostalgia and romance to blind them to evil festering on the edge of town. Home even drew attention to the paradox, with Mulder yearning to move to a small-town even after discovering a baby buried in a field.

The X-Files had a recurring fascination with small-town America as a place that existed in its own twilight realm divorced from the larger culture. To Mulder and Scully, it seemed like America was populated with eccentric little communities that had some how managed to resist the modernising globalising forces of the twentieth-century. This was the flip side of the show’s conspiracy narrative, acknowledging that there were still shadows that could hide monsters – if you were willing to look hard enough.

"You know, this isn't what I had in mind when you asked me to pull some slugs out of a guy, no questions asked."

“You know, this isn’t what I had in mind when you asked me to pull some slugs out of a guy, no questions asked.”

In his twentieth anniversary exploration of the show, Brian Phillips contended that this was a result of the show’s peculiar place in history:

The X-Files was probably the first great TV show to be galvanized by the Internet and the last great TV show to depict a world in which the Internet played no part. Its fan culture found a home online early in the series’ run, but though the role of computers became both more central and more realistic as the show progressed, it was possible at least through the fifth season or so to see the Web as a distraction, something with no important bearing on anyone’s life. Remember when you could turn it on and off? We often credit the Internet with the disintegration of the old American monoculture, because it liberated us to be absorbed by our own interests, to spend our time downloading obscure anime, say, rather than caring about Madonna or ABC. But the Internet also created a new type of monoculture: It made every place accessible to every other place. We could no longer assume that the peculiarities of our own environments were private. Our hometown murders might appear on CNN.com. The world of small-town X-Files episodes is still that older world of extreme locality, where everyone in town grows up knowing that the rules here are different and we handle it ourselves. Children vanish or trees kill people or bright lights appear in the sky, but there is no higher authority to appeal to and it has nothing to do with what goes on 10 miles down the road. In my hometown we knew that the spillway by the lake was where you painted a memorial if your friend was killed in a drunk-driving crash. It’s the same thing. Here is here. And this, it goes without saying, is just the opposite of the here-is-everywhere world inhabited by the conspiracy, which is global in scale, utterly connected, and ruled by pseudonymous men whose flat-affect, no-eye-contact meetings were almost the personification of a chat window.

In a way, it is much harder to imagine stories like Roadrunners unfolding in a world of wifi and broadband. The world seems smaller now, and less eccentric.

Restless...

Restless…

Roadrunners is very much a traditional X-Files episode, in keeping with the “back to basics” stylings of the eighth season as a whole. With David Duchovny gone, The X-Files dedicated itself to proving that it could still tell the kinds of stories that people expected for the show. The production team made a conscious effort to hark back towards the Vancouver years, eschewing a lot of the lighter and goofier fare of the sixth and seventh seasons. The eighth season has nothing to compete with The Rain King or Je Souhaite.

This is reflected in production decisions extending beyond the scripts themselves. Visually, the show is much darker than it has been since the end of the fifth season; more scenes are shot at night. The show has made its horror more graphic, even for what would be otherwise standard “monster of the week” episodes. In keeping with the theme of Scully’s pregnancy, the show has shifted towards body horror. In a way, the eighth season is almost aggressively nostalgic; it may be the most consistently horrific season. (Only the fourth comes close.)

"Have you seen this boy woman?"

“Have you seen this boy woman?”

There is something oddly timeless in the horror of Roadrunners, even if the episode makes perfect sense in the context of November 2000. It is interesting to not that – with his stoic demeanour and his old-fashioned glasses – Mister Milsap bears no small resemblance to the man featured in Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Marco Lazorgota has argued that the painting effortlessly captures the terror at the heart of so many rural horror stories:

As a consequence, American Gothic is an elegant representation of the American nightmare: the horrors and monsters that constantly lurk behind the face of normality. Therefore, with American Gothic, Wood was able to create a very dark portrayal of America veiled within a picturesque scene, the exact same way as George Romero, Wes Craven, and Tobe Hooper did almost 40 years later with their unforgettable movies.

Lawrence Pressman is suitably unnerving as the ever-calm ring-leader of this eccentric little cult, unsettling even as he stands out on his porch and watches Scully slowly realise that she has no option but to spend the night in the small town. (When she does, the haunting image of the entire town gathering outside her window carrying lanterns conjures up other unsettling images of violence in rural America.)

Go set a watchman...

Go set a watchman…

The fixation on a small town with a dark secret could be seen as another attempt by the eighth season to hark back to the classic X-Files aesthetic. Explaining his inspiration for the episode, Gilligan cited perhaps the definitive cinematic evisceration of small-town America:

Actually, Roadrunners is a bit of an homage to the Spencer Tracy movie Bad Day at Black Rock. It’s a wonderful movie in which Spencer Tracy visits a small town in the desert, and quickly realizes nobody wants him there. He winds up uncovering its dark secret, although that secret has nothing to do with Giant Messianic banana slugs. If you’re not familiar with this movie, by all means go out and rent it. I won’t ruin the ending for you.

Roadrunners is not even the first time that The X-Files has offered homage to Bad Day at Black Rock. Frank Spotnitz cited it as a direct influence on the development of Our Town late in the second season, to the point of making a minor character an amputee in homage to Spencer Tracy’s character.

Oh, hey. It's Undersheriff Jeffrey McKeen's lost youth in Utah law enforcement.

Oh, hey. It’s Undersheriff Jeffrey McKeen’s lost youth in Utah law enforcement.

As such, Roadrunners feels a little old-fashioned. It is not the last “small town” episode of the show by any means –  The Gift lies ahead, playing with some of the subgenre’s tropes – butt seemed like the show was already documenting the slow decline of the small town ideal in the middle of the nineties. Stories like Humbug and Home suggested these hamlets were vanishing. Even episodes like Gender Bender and Our Town implied that it was becoming harder and harder for weird and isolated communities to remain weird and isolated.

Although the conspirators had been vanquished, the broader forces of globalisation continued apace. To be fair to Gilligan’s script, Roadrunners draws attention to this fact. It seems like the isolated rural community visited by Scully has devolved; it cannot even call itself a town any longer. “Where is ‘here’, exactly?” Scully asks a gas station attendant. “I can’t seem to find this town on the map.” He replies, “We’re not really a town. Just a… few like-minded people trying to keep the modern world at bay.”

The dark places in the American psyche...

The dark places in the American psyche…

By the end of the century, small towns were considered an endangered American institution. They were eroded by a shifting economy and by increased globalisation. As R. Douglas Hurt reflected:

Small towns die slowly and often painfully like a person with a long illness. At best, their decline is merely ignored by those who live in larger, more vibrant communities. At worst, they become an embarrassment for those who see them. In the Midwest, many of the small towns that dot the countryside from Ohio to the Great Plains often have seen better days when mines, mills, and railroads provided jobs and a relative prosperity. These towns thrived before the county seats and larger service centers offered not only better employment opportunities but also choices in the form of discount stores, education, and entertainment. Small-town, rural America, still exists, of course, but it is far different at the turn of the twenty-first century than at the dawn of the twentieth century.

It is a stark image, but not inaccurate. Times were changing, and the landscape of the country was changing with them. These were the wages of national infrastructure, economic shifts and centralisation; it could often feel like progress had left large sections of the country cut off and isolated.

Slugging it out...

Slugging it out…

There are, of course, lots of anecdotes about individual communities affected by shifting circumstances. Richard O. Davies published Main Street Blues in 1998, discussing the changes that had affected his own his home town of Camden, Ohio:

One gets the distinct impression that the town is caught up in a slow but sure downward spiral from which there is no escape. The town will not die, but neither will it flourish. A mood of quiet resignation seems to hover over the small valley in which it is located.

It occasionally seemed like the death of the small town had been accepted as an inevitability, a tragedy rendered all the more devastating by virtue of the fact that it was inescapable.

Going to town...

Going to town…

Ohio was not the only state affected. North Dakota found its rural communities facing similar existential crises. In 1999, the town of New England found itself facing a most uncertain of futures:

Ten years ago, 1,200 people lived in New England, North Dakota. This was a boom town, if a small one. The nearby railway carried some of the world’s best hard red spring wheat to market. But by the early 1990s the railway had stopped coming to town. Decay spread along Main Street: restaurants and petrol stations shut, and so did the Catholic school. Today only one restaurant serves New England’s 600 people. Decrepit store-fronts gape into the street. Down the road, in Mott, the last rural Catholic school in the western half of the state has just closed.

North Dakota had 2,200 school districts in 1947; by 1961, that number had dropped to 1,010; it was 231 by 2000.  These numbers paint a stark picture of life in rural America as the nineties came to a close.

A bus-tling community...

A bus-tling community…

One of the more interesting aspects of Roadrunners is how little mythology or context Vince Gilligan provides for the weird events in this small rural Utah town. On a purely practical level, this underscores the horror of what is happening. A parasitic brain slug could easily become ridiculous if it is explained in too much detail; the specifics of the creature and its relationship to the local community are all the more haunting for the ambiguity. The episode never explains how long it has been there or how exactly this cult came into being.

It is interesting to wonder how long this community has been doing this. Have the community been doing this for a century or more? Is this just the way that things have always been done? Are these townsfolk just the latest generation, with the bus being the latest innovation in their body hijacking hijinks? Or is this a more recent invention? Is did the community turn to a giant parasitic brain slug of unknown origin as a potential messiah because no other options presented themselves?

Holding the line...

Holding the line…

The script for Roadrunners suggests that the community is effectively dying, but that this was not always the case. When Scully asks whether he saw the big grey bus come through town, Milsap laughs it off. “Oh, I think I’d have known if a big bus came through,” he quips, suggesting that the community has been largely cut off from the world around it. Roadrunners suggests that this was not always the case. Perhaps there was a time when the community thrived – or at least survived.

While Scully waits for the phone lines to be reconnected, Milsap invites her to stay in his house. “You’re welcome to wait here. I could even give you a room if you like. This was a boarding house.” The use of tense is quite telling. It suggests that this community was once vibrant enough that it needed additional capacity, whether for tourists or migrants or people marching west in search of opportunity. All that has gone now, with highways and interstates cutting off circulations to these isolated little townships.

Deserted...

Deserted…

After all, history would suggest that small towns are particularly liable to invasion and corruption when times are tough. After all, neo-nazis attempted to capitalise on the recent recession to seize control of Leith, North Dakota in 2012. During the seventies and eighties, it was not unheard of for fundamentalist sects to gain footholds in struggling small towns:

While the farm population has been shrinking for decades, that of St. Marys has grown. Some newcomers are government employees and factory workers who commute to Topeka. But the main attraction is a religious community established 20 years ago when the Society of St. Pius X, a schismatic Roman Catholic group, bought the Jesuit seminary and founded St. Marys Academy and College.

The St. Pius families, committed to the old Latin mass, speak of the need to return to traditional ways, without television, without feminism, without welfare, without interference from the state. It is they who give the town the appearance of a small-town America that does not exist anymore.

Even during the late nineties, anarchists descend upon Eugene, Oregon; they hoped to gain a foothold and arrest the gentrification of the community through means both diplomatic and radical. With all of this in mind, it seems entirely reasonable that an opportunistic parasitic brain slug could capitalise on local anxieties and uncertainties for its own sinister ends.

Mapping it out...

Mapping it out…

In a way, the drama playing out at the centre of Roadrunners mirrors the basic themes of the show’s larger conspiracy arc. As with the conspirators, the townspeople have surrendered themselves to a horrific higher power at a terrible cost; in both cases, the violation of the human body is rendered as the most explicit of their sins. The conspirators abducted women and the disenfranchised for the purpose of creating “hybrids” or experimenting with the black oil; the small town picks up hitchhikers and implants them with a messianic slug.

In both this case and the larger mythology, the individual’s body is sacrificed for the group; but the group in question is always self-interested and self-serving. As with Unusual Suspects, it is interesting how Gilligan uses a stand-alone story to offer his own exploration of the show’s core themes and ideas. After all, the mythology has really moved past these themes to focus on external threats rather than the dangers of complicity and collaboration. Returning to these themes is another way that Roadrunners feels like a very classic X-Files episode.

Watching the world go by...

Watching the world go by…

However, Roadrunners is also an explicitly religious episode. The episode hints at the religious importance of the parasitic brain slug to the local community several times, and makes a point to have Scully interrupt a local prayer meeting, but the coda of the episode explicitly spells it out. “They’re not offering up much defense other than that they’re being persecuted for their religious beliefs,” Doggett explains. Scully elaborates, “They believe they worshipped Christ. That that thing was the Second Coming.”

Vince Gilligan was raised Catholic, although he considers himself to be agnostic. Discussing the moral dimension of his writing, Gilligan confesses, “I find atheism just as hard to get my head around as I find fundamental Christianity.” In some ways, Roadrunners offers a very sarcastic and critical take on fundamentalist religious belief – in particular, fundamentalist Christian belief. There is a sense that the decision to set Roadrunners in Utah might be more than just the convenience of California doubling.

"Where's your messiah now, heh?"

“Where’s your messiah now, heh?”

Utah is perhaps most famous as the home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons have largely been embraced and accepted by mainstream America, to the point that Mitt Romney’s religious beliefs were not a hurdle to his presidential ambitions. However, Utah is also home a large and diverse selection of fundamentalist off-shoots from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, many of whom adhere to their own rules and norms:

After the Mormon Church denounced polygamy and Utah outlawed it in 1896 — Washington had made this a condition of statehood — it was thought that the practice of taking multiple wives would ultimately disappear. But a century later the opposite has happened, with anywhere from 20,000 to 60,000 people living in families where one man is married to 2, 3, 5, as many as 30 women. No one has been prosecuted for polygamy in Utah for nearly 50 years, and the state’s power structure has not made enforcement an issue. Last year Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, a Republican who is himself a descendant of polygamists, even said the practice is not often prosecuted in part because ”these people have religious freedoms” (a statement he later amended in the wake of a public outcry).

These fundamentalist groups have been involved in a number of high-profile cases involving the abuse of women and minors by those in authority. The most famous example was perhaps the raid of the Texas headquarters of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2008, an off-shoot of the main church headed by Warren Jeffs.

West of Eden...

West of Eden…

It has been argued that these sorts of extremists sects appeal to a certain American macho archetype. After all, Utah is home to Monument Valley and Valley of the Gods; it is home to what has been described as “John Ford’s mythic vision of the Old West.” It is said that when John Wayne first laid eyes upon Monument Valley, he declared, “So this is where God put the West.” In many respects Utah could be considered to be the archetypal image of the Old West, filtered through films as iconic as Stagecoach and The Searchers.

The culture of the region tends to invite comparisons to the old frontier. Utah opted to bring back firing squads as a method of execution in 2015, a move described by critics as a “relic of a more barbaric past.” Describing the religious practice of polygamy among the offshoots of the Latter-Day Saints, the wife of one convert suggested that it harked back to an archetype of masculinity. “It was part of the Western machismo. He had it in his mind that all Western men were Mormons and he was going to be one, too. It’s cowboy crap.”

Village of the damned...

Village of the damned…

American machismo is a recurring theme in Gilligan’s work, particularly filtered through the lens of the Old West. Pusher was the story of a pathetic man who reinvented himself as an assassin so he might improve his self-worth, but Gilligan really connected the imagery in Drive. Capitalising on the move to Los Angeles, the second episode of the sixth season offered the tale of a man who was “running out of West” as he press westwards met the harsh inevitability of the Pacific Ocean. In John Doe, John Doggett reinvents himself on the frontier.

As with a lot of Gilligan’s pet themes, this exploration of American masculinity played out to its logical conclusion over Breaking Bad. Shot primarily in Arizona, the show employed many classic western tropes to emphasise its exploration of masculine self-image; stand-offs were surprisingly common, Native American characters featured quite prominently, the desert was as much a character as any of the leads. During the show’s final season, Walt even manages to pull off that ultimate western set piece, the train heist.

Things are about to get biblical...

Things are about to get biblical…

Roadrunners touches on this idea of masculinity in its most controversial element; Gilligan’s script is packed full of deeply unsettling rape imagery as the episode heavily sexualises the invasion of the parasitic brain slug into its hosts. The slug enters through an opening in the lower back, and is explicitly gendered as masculine. When Scully is told that soon she’ll “be one with Him”, she draws attention to the choice of pronoun. “Him?!” she repeats. “That thing in my spine is a Him?!”

More than that, Scully’s assault is coded with rape imagery. A female character is held down as she struggles and resists, with her clothes pulled up or down as the assault takes place. The hosts of the parasitic brain slug are tied to a bed, as if to reinforce the subtext. It is a very uncomfortable and unpleasant watch; it is an unsettling piece of horror on a level far more primal than the sequences of the town stoning their failed messiah to death or cracking his skull open with a hammer.

"Don't worry, the entire community has your best wishes at heart."

“Don’t worry, the entire community has your best wishes at heart.”

The rape imagery overshadows a lot of Roadrunners, because it is potentially problematic. To be fair, it is the logical extension of the body horror motif running through the season. Whether rightly or wrongly, body horror is populating with grotesque violations structured as warped sexual acts. This was emphasised as early as Within, where Mulder was strapped down to a chair as a phallic drill was inserted into his mouth; appropriately enough, this simulated oral assault unfolded against the backdrop of a set built for Alien. This is also to say nothing of Badlaa.

It is tempting to argue that there is something of a double standard. After all, it is fair game to use rape imagery in the context of an assault upon Mulder; why is Scully any different? There is some logic to this argument, but it is undercut by the simple fact that pop culture has a tendency to subject female characters to this sort of horror far more often than their male counterparts. More to the point, it seems ill-judged to subject Scully to a pseudo-rape in what is effectively her fourth broadcast episode as series lead; particularly to have her rescued by Doggett.

"Don't... show up... until... fourth act. Got it."

“Don’t… show up… until… fourth act. Got it.”

Of course, having Doggett rescue Scully serves a number of other functions – particularly at this early point in the season. It is an effort to demonstrate that the character’s value to fans still not entirely convinced, but also to demonstrate that Scully is just as (unnecessarily) skeptical of Doggett as any X-Files fan. After all, The X-Files is a show with two leads, and Doggett is now one of those leads. It just happens that having Doggett save Scully immediately after the script subjects her to an assault that is coded as sexual in nature is less than ideal.

Roadrunners hints at the polarising nature of the eighth season. The absence of Mulder is just one of the reasons why the show is so divisive among fans. The truth is that the show has a far nastier streak sustained far longer than in any of the previous seven seasons. It is not necessarily that the show is setting out to shock viewers, but it is more willing to make unsettling (and debatable) creative decisions than it has been since the fourth season. There are fans who find this willingness to push the boat out an example of renewed creative energy, but it will leave others cold.

"Mulder never did this, did he?"

“Mulder never did this, did he?”

This is not to say that the sexual assault imagery is trivialised or sensationalised. Gilligan knows what he is doing. More than three years have elapsed since Small Potatoes, and Gilligan has evolved a great deal. Roadrunners does not use that imagery for shock value. It serves a very important thematic purpose. It is telling that most of the violence associated with fundamentalist Christian groups in the United States – particularly those split from the Latter Day Saints movementis sexual in nature.

One of Gilligan’s recurring fascinations is the damage caused by male entitlement and frustration; the consequences that come from a desire to assert what are perceived to be traditionally masculine values. (Indeed, even Walter White asserts his own new-found macho self-confidence with an attempted rape of his wife in Seven Thirty-Seven.) Roadrunners doesn’t stress the point too heavily, but the combination of the Old West imagery of Utah with the patriarchal structures of fundamentalist Christianity play into these themes; the imagery just makes it explicit.

Back of the neck!

Back of the neck!

It is worth noting that the eighth season’s shift towards a more graphic and visceral approach to horror is in keeping with larger trends in American cinema. As much as Roadrunners‘ fascination with rural and small-town America might seem positively quaint – something of a throwback to seventies horror – late nineties popular culture was fascinated with the divide that existed. In 1997 saw the release of U-Turn, Breakdown and Fire Down Below – all pulpy films suggesting unease with rural America.

Changes in horror cinema tend to be discussed in terms of major events and seismic shifts; after all, 9/11 looms just over the horizon at this point in time. Still, some transitions can be more subtle in nature, the result of larger cultural forces that are not so easily discerned. As with lots of other pop culture, tastes in horror simply change over time. Mainstream horror cinema tends to follow trends, with the success of certain films reshaping the cinematic landscape in their wake.

Worst creepiest hick ever.

Worst creepiest hick ever.

In the early nineties, The Silence of the Lambs spawned a serial killer boom that led to projects like se7en, Kiss the Girls, Copycat, Millennium, Profiler. In the mid-nineties, Scream reinvigorated the dyingslasher genre – begetting films like I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legends, Halloween H20, Cherry Falls. In 2001, Francis Ford Coppola threw his name behind Jeepers Creepers – a horror about two college students harassed by a monstrous trucker that would set a record for the biggest Labour Day opening ever.

With the arrival of the millennium, it seemed like horror was beginning to look backwards. The 1999 remake of William Castle’s The Haunting of Hill House was followed by a 2001 remake of Castle’s Thirt13n Ghosts. In 2002, the company Platinum Dunes would be founded; its specialty would prove to be delivering schlocky remakes of horror classics like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, The Hitcher or The Hills Have Eyes. Again, anxieties about rural America came to the fore.

The hole in things...

The hole in things…

Many of the directors working in this nostalgic schlock horror boom argued that they were trying to get back to a classic horror aesthetic, to reconnect with what had made seventies horror so unsettling and uncomfortable. Alexandre Aja, the director of the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, noted:

“We all came with the idea of bringing back the horror, just scaring the audience as much as we can,” Aja said, speaking by phone last week. “Making movies that are not meant to be funny but make you as an audience member leave the movie as an experience. I think we managed to revive that intensity of the genre as it was at its most powerful in the ’70s. We managed to make them more violent but also more suspenseful or scary.”

Roadrunners feels very much like a horror throwback, very much of that same moment. It is not too hard to imagine the episode reworked as a classic horror film directed by Wes Craven or John Carpenter at the height of their powers.

Road to nowhere...

Road to nowhere…

Rod Hardy’s direction helps. At this point, The X-Files had lost most of the directors associated with the “peak” years. David Nutter, R.W. Goodwin and Rob Bowman had all moved on; even Michael Watkins had directed his last episode of the show. Kim Manners was perhaps the last of the remaining “veteran” directors, which might explains a lot of the darker look and feel of the eighth season. (Manners had been one of the show’s best horror directors, with a wonderful knack for material that might seem schlocky.)

Rod Hardy directed three episodes of the eighth season, with two of them – Roadrunners and Vienen – standing out as highlights of the year. Hardy was an Australian film and television director; although his experience was wide-ranging, his career began with a horror film. Indeed, the basic premise of Thirst – the exploitation of a human cult by a predatory supernatural force – mirrors that of Roadrunners quite clearly. His cinematic experience helps to make Roadrunners feel like an old-school horror movie.

"Whose turn is it to clean the bus?"

“Whose turn is it to clean the bus?”

In keeping with the script’s throwback sensibilities, Hardy’s direction feels decidedly old-school. This is particularly notable in the sequences shot in and around the bus. Hardy shoots one of the townspeople splitting open the host’s head to get at the juicy brain slug in silhouette, complete with blood splatter. When Doggett and Scully take shelter inside the bus, the townspeople pound on the windows like the zombies from Night of the Living Dead. During the sequence, Hardy uses a Dutch angles to amp up the old-school terror.

Roadrunners is notable as being the only eighth season script credited to Vince Gilligan. There are obvious reasons for this, with Gilligan showrunning The Lone Gunmen alongside John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz through the second half of the television season. (Although Spotnitz remained a prolific X-Files writer, credited on eight of the season’s twenty-one episodes and making his directorial debut.) Launching (and running) a television series is an enormous commitment. It is understandable that it would limit Gilligan’s availability.

Some slugs for the slug...

Some slugs for the slug…

However, the fact that Roadrunners is so good only underscores how disappointing it is to lose him as an active member of the staff for an extended period of time. With the introduction of a new lead and a new status quo, the eighth season is very much about keeping The X-Files firing on all possible cylinders; losing one of the best (if not the best) writer on staff puts the season at a bit of a disadvantage. After all, Gilligan’s scripts were the highlights of the sixth and seventh seasons; Roadrunners feels like a teaser.

This is particularly heartbreaking because Gilligan doesn’t really get a chance to put his stamp on Doggett as a new character. Doggett is largely sidelined for most of Roadrunners, only to come back into the story at the climax. The episode’s central point is that Scully needs to learn to trust Doggett but – as with the first six episodes of the season – this is largely told from a perspective external to Doggett himself. Scully is still the audience surrogate, and the show only really understands Doggett through her.

And Doggett just killed the Second Coming. As if he doesn't get enough flack for replacing Mulder.

And Doggett just killed the Second Coming. As if he doesn’t get enough flack for replacing Mulder.

Given that Gilligan would contribute what might be the show’s best Doggett episode (John Doe) early in the ninth season, it is a shame that he doesn’t get to contribute more to the foundations of Doggett as a character. It seems like John Doe might have worked even better in the context of the middle of the eighth season, firmly cementing Doggett as a character in his own right. (The show starts doing this with Via Negativa and continues with Empedocles.) On the other hand, this does mean that Gilligan gets his first experience as showrunner.

Roadrunners is a brilliant and deeply unsettling episode of television, and proof that – although The X-Files has lost its star – the show has not lost its bite.

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

Advertisements

4 Responses

  1. There’s a lot to address here, but let me start by pointing out that Doggett shot the slug. Graphically. Multiple times. I think this is such an important and bold choice. The slug posed no threat laying on the floor of the bus. I don’t think you would have seen Scully or Mulder react so violently. Maybe this is because Scully and Mulder both held a lot of respect for belief systems even those foreign to their own. Doggett sees things much more black and white. He lets everyone know very quickly and brutally what he thinks of their second coming.
    I love to compare this one to religious themed eps like Revelations or Signs and Wonders. Scully’s analysis at the end would have fit easily into either of those episodes. But it feels very different here juxtaposed with Doggett’s character. He’s having none of it.
    I also don’t mind Scully being the victim in this case. It proves to be dangerous for her to abandon her partner and this has nothing to do with her gender. There’s a larger discussion to be had about sex politics and vicitmization in the show but without getting into all that, by this point in the series (even though the writers did rely on her role as a victim a bit heavily in the first couple of seasons), Scully has more than proven herself and she is the unquestionable lead this season. Here, she made a bad decision. Now if the argument that people want to make is her decision here was too influenced by her state of mind after Mulder’s abduction, that brings to front the whole shipper debate and altogether different concerns .
    But overall, in a series built, in a lot of ways, on the virtues of absolutist faith Doggett denounces that wholeheartedly by his actions here. That’s a very strong stance for the show to take with a new lead character.

    • Very good point, actually.

      Brilliant, underrated little episode.

      • I just caught up to this one and thought I should add this is probably Vince Gilligan’s scariest script. It’s also one of his best. He would write more “lite” episodes in his tenure after season 4.

        I also found Doggett’s comment at the end, that the cult’s only defense was that they were being persecuted for their religious beliefs, very dismissive. Not something you heard out of the series often but very fitting in 2015.

      • I really liked Roadrunners on rewatch.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: