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The X-Files – Redrum (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.

Redrum is perhaps notable as the highest concept episode of the eighth season of The X-Files, a character drama that unfolds backwards.

As a rule, the eight season is more conservative than the seasons around it. In terms of narrative, it may be the most conservative season of The X-Files since the show’s first year. Redrum is perhaps the season’s biggest formal experiment. While very few high-profile prime-time television shows would attempt to tell a story backwards, Redrum feels a lot less bold than something like HumbugJose Chung’s “From Outer Space”Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man, The Post-Modern Prometheus, Bad Blood, Triangle, X-Cops or even Improbable.

A tangled web...

A tangled web…

On paper, this should be a highlight of the season. Redrum features a guest performance from Joe Morton, receiving a coveted “special guest star” credit for his work. (Notably, Kim Greist did not earn a similar credit on Invocation.) The high-concept premise of the episode seems like it would make a great pitch for Sweeps, like X-Cops did only a year earlier. In fact, Redrum was produced as the first stand-alone episode of the season, priming it for the slot occupied by Drive and Hungry in earlier seasons.

There is a sense that the production team are wary of Redrum. The episode was pushed back from its production slot relatively deep into the season. It was with second-last episode of the eighth season to air before the Christmas break. The show attracted a relatively small amount of publicity, particularly as compared to the “where’s Mulder?” hype of that greeted the début of the season. There is a sense that Redrum would have garnered more attention only a year or two earlier.

"The teacup that I shattered did come together."

“The teacup that I shattered did come together.”

It is easy to see why the production team were so wary of Redrum. The eighth season is a point of transition for The X-Files. The show is still reeling from the loss of David Duchovny; there is a sense that the show never moves past that. The agenda for the eighth season is to convince viewers that The X-Files is still a viable television show, even without the lead actor who helped to make it famous. While the show is smart enough not to downplay the change, the production team are keen to demonstrate the show can still do what it always did.

As such, the eighth season finds the show adopting a “back to basics” approach, harking back to many of the tropes that made The X-Files such a breakout hit in the first place. There is a lot more horror and mood in the eighth season, a lot more of the traditional scares. That means that Redrum ends up feeling very much like the odd episode out.

It's all gone a bit Martha Wayne...

It’s all gone a bit Martha Wayne…

It is, to be fair, entirely reasonable that Redrum was pushed back later in the season. After all, the eighth season is trying to prove to viewers that the show can with a new leading dynamic; all that effort would be undercut by seguing from the epic season-opening two-parter (which featured David Duchovny) into an episode headlined by a random guest star. The audience needed to spend a few episodes at the start of the eighth season with Doggett and Scully before the duo ceded the narrative to a guest star.

The show needs to cement its new format before it can begin properly playing with it. The show has done a good job of introducing John Doggett, but the eighth season feels rather less than stable. Redrum feels like an episode that might have worked better at the end of the season, or even pushed into the ninth season. The production team pushed the episode as far back as they could in the broadcast order, but it still feels like the audience barely has a read on the new Doggett and Scully dynamic before Martin Wells takes the spotlight.

But Doggett still gets to rescue the protagonist in the final act. Doggett ex machina?

But Doggett still gets to rescue the protagonist in the final act. Doggett ex machina?

To be fair to Redrum, the episode features more of Doggett than it does of Scully. In fact, Scully becomes less and less involved as the show moves backwards in time, while Doggett becomes more and more involved. However, the fact that Redrum presents Doggett from an external perspective – in this case, as seen through the eyes of Martin Wells – only reinforces the sense that the audience has yet to see a story told from Doggett’s perspective. Even Doggett’s emotional outbursts in Invocation were largely seen from Scully’s perspective.

Again, there is a sense that the eighth season of The X-Files is both the beginning and the end of the show; the season is structured as a final season for Mulder and Scully, but as an opening season for Doggett. After all, Doggett’s characterisation in Invocation feels like a slightly more subtle twist on Mulder’s characterisation in Conduit. In that context, Martin could easily seem like Doggett’s equivalent to Jerry Lamana (Ghost in the Machine), Reggie Purdue (Young at Heart) or Scully’s buddies from Squeeze.

A Scandal preunion, if you will.

A Scandal preunion, if you will.

The “old friend as narrative hook” is something of a television cliché, an easy piece of characterisation and a nice gateway to episodic storytelling opportunities. It is after all, a model that sustained Murder She Wrote for years, with Jessica Fletcher constantly dropping in old friends only for them (or innocents caught in the crossfire) to drop dead on her. For some reason, people kept inviting her to cocktail parties and awards dinners, with nobody noticing that Fletcher (inadvertently) left over two hundred bodies in her wake.

It is easy to single out Murder, She Wrote, but eighties and nineties television frequently employed this approach to episodic storytelling. Even shows with procedural structures and reliable formuliac frameworks would turn to the “old friend of lead character turns up with a case” structure. Magnum P.I. and Miami Vice were quite fond of it, to name two of the more popular (and well-regarded) shows of the era. That was just how television was made, particularly when you had to fill out season orders of twenty-plus episodes.

Unbearable...

Unbearable…

The X-Files never relied on the trope too heavily, but the first season was particularly fond of wheeling old friends and lovers of the two lead characters, who would only ever be mentioned fleetingly – if ever. This is perhaps the only real example of this happening to John Doggett over the course of the eighth season. The show would introduce Knowle Rohrer in Per Manum and Monica Reyes in This is Not Happening, but both characters would go on to become recurring characters.

At the same time, the use of this device so early in Doggett’s tenure demonstrates that The X-Files is a show caught between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. While a lot of the narrative tools used to characterise Doggett in the first stretch of the season are borrowed wholeheartedly from the show’s one first season seven years earlier, the second half of the eighth season is as close as The X-Files ever came to full-on serialisation. If the first half of the eighth season feels like a throwback, the second half feels like a surprisingly modern show.

As time goes by...

As time goes by…

With all that in mind, Redrum does benefit from some very good casting. If a character is going to essentially hijack the hour from Mulder and Scully, they need to be cast exceptionally well. Peter Boyle and Charles Neilsen Reilly’s performance in Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose and Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” remain the high watermark, but Joe Morton is an exceptional choice. Morton is an industry veteran who has been working since the late seventies, and who was made quite an impression as one of the great supporting players.

It is tempting to look at the casting of Joe Morton as another example of the eighth season’s self-awareness about the casting of Robert Patrick. Far from downplaying Robert Patrick’s iconic role in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the show consciously and repeatedly emphasises Robert Patrick’s established screen persona. (To the point that Doggett’s back story is a tragic riff on “have you seen this boy?”) Although Morton and Patrick did not share any scenes, Judgment Day was probably Morton’s most high-profile role at the time of Redrum.

Daze of future past...

Daze of future past…

Even if this little in-joke was intentional, Morton is a strong enough actor to carry the episode around him. Indeed, Redrum plays almost as a stealth pilot for a television show based around time-travelling prosecutor Martin Wells. It is hard to imagine where the production team might take that show on a weekly basis, but that’s a problem for the second episode to figure out. Morton makes Martin an intriguing character, with his obvious anxiety playing against his pride and his self-image.

The episode hinges on the conflict between how Martin sees himself (and how he wants others to see him) and his own character flaws. The script doesn’t necessarily do enough to properly set up the revelation about how Martin effectively framed one of the defendants he prosecuted, so Morton seeds that in his performance. Morton plays Martin as a character a little too convinced (and too insistent) upon his own righteousness. It is arguably a better performance than the script necessarily merits.

Forever (Bellamy) Young...

Forever (Bellamy) Young…

The obvious point of comparison for Redrum is Christopher Nolan’s breakout indie hit Memento. Filmed in September 1999, Memento took its time getting to wide release. During 2000, it toured extensively at a variety of international film festivals. It received a standing ovation at its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, and completed its run at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2001. Redrum would have been in development during that same stretch, another example of The X-Files‘ knack for parallel development.

The story of a man without the capacity to form long-term memories, Memento finds a way to approximate this conditition by inviting the audience to watch the narrative unfold backwards. From scene-to-scene, the audience has only a slightly greater grasp of context than our protagonist. As the film plays out, the the supporting characters’ motivations gradually become more apparent. This all builds to a wonderful twist ending where it turns out that the protagonist has been manipulating not only everybody else, but also himself.

Hard cell...

Hard cell…

Redrum obvious differs from Memento in a number of ways. The most obvious distinctions are qualitative. Redrum is simply nowhere near as well constructed as Memento. The most obvious issue is that tension actually decreases as the episode moves backwards in time. The episode is never truly disorientating, and there is a sense that all Martin Wells really needs to do is wait long enough to travel back to the point of his wife’s murder so that he can stop it. Whereas Memento keeps its audience off-balance, Redrum follows a very linear trajectory.

Redrum can’t manage a twist anywhere near as satisfying as the revelation of “Sammy.” Everything within the episode follows a very clear path, with Martin actually doing very little to spur the plot along. Indeed, Redrum suggests that Martin is an active participant in the narrative. Everything that he does before the final “jump” is completely irrelevant from a plotting perspective. It doesn’t matter what happens to Martin; he would always wake up one step closer to stopping the crime and preventing the entire episode from ever happening.

In the eye of the beholder...

In the eye of the beholder…

This is, of course, on of the perils of building a narrative amount time travel. While Memento used its reverse structure as a way of literalising its protagonist’s brain injury, Redrum offers a vague pseudo-supernatural explanation for what is happening to Martin. (Indeed, the surname “Wells” suggests literal time travel is taking place.) The obvious ending for a story about time travel is for the story to end by simply never having occurred at all. While this can be deployed in any number of clever ways, it frequently feels unsatisfying as an ending.

Given that one of the more interesting aspects of starting a story in media res is the opportunity to catch the audience off-guard, it can frustrating to know that the protagonist will succeed in earning a (relatively) happy ending no matter what. Memento capitalises on its unique structure to generate a nice sense of suspense – a palpable tension between Lenny and the other characters, between Lenny and the audience, about who knows what when. Redrum suffers in comparison.

But will the next leap be the leap home?

But will the next leap be the leap home?

At the same time, there is an understandable thematic overlap between the two stories. Indeed, both stories hinge upon information known by the protagonist and concealed from the audience, with both Martin and Lenny engaged in lethal self-deceit. As Scott Tobais notes in his assessment of the film:

[T]he most telling revelation at the end of Memento isn’t limited to his condition: Leonard lies to himself. And when he isn’t outright lying to himself, he’s guilty of confirmation bias, accepting only the facts that affirm his pre-cooked conclusions, and tossing out all the rest. Again, there’s no substantive difference between what Leonard does and, say, embracing the polling data that favors your candidate of choice, while ignoring the numbers that don’t. When Leonard writes “Don’t Believe His Lies” on the back of a Polaroid, it’s the original sin that begets all the others, like an infection that spreads through the body. 

Lenny lies to himself about the death of his wife, so as to give his life meaning. Martin lies to himself about his own sense of moral integrity and self-righteousness.

Out of time...

Out of time…

Redrum buries this theme of self-deceit and obfuscation beneath a time-travel story, but the episode is definitely intrigued by the extent to which Martin is unable (and unwilling) to take responsibility for his actions. When Martin wakes up in the jail cell during the episode’s teaser, he has no idea about the particular circumstances that brought him to this point. However, the episode makes it clear that the cause of his current predicament is not rooted in anything that unfolded in those missing days.

It turns out that Martin was aware of his sins all along, even if the audience wasn’t. Although he does not make the connection between Cesar Ocampo and Hector Ocampo, as soon as Cesar spells out the details of the case Martin recognises it immediately. “Yeah, I remember,” he concedes, despite his claim that he goes through that process “ten times a week every week of the year.” Although he denies Cesar’s accusations in the holding room, he concedes them to Doggett. “I suppressed evidence. He was innocent of the crime he was charged with.”

Lawyer'd up...

Lawyer’d up…

Martin has simply chosen to brush that moral failing aside. It is not who he claims to be; it is not consistent with his identity as “an upstanding citizen and a respected member of the Maryland Bar, held in high esteem by all his peers.” However, Martin’s inability to reconcile his past actions with the upstanding citizen he claims to be only creates a discontinuity not too dissimilar to that presented to Martin when he wakes up in prison. The gap between prisoner and prosecutor is equivalent to the gap between who Martin is and who he claims to be.

While the episode doesn’t necessarily get it across in the most organic way, there is something to be said from Martin’s experience as a potent metaphor for the experience of trauma. After all, Martin’s inability to remember how exactly he ended up in his present predicament – beyond a few quick expository and metaphorical flashes of context and explanation – plays as something akin to dissociative amnesia. The death of his wife might have caused so severe a blow that his own internal narrative snapped.

The way things were...

The way things were…

Time becomes flexible and meaningless, events have no context, effect seems to precede cause. Martin’s attempts to piece it all back together, and to understand what has happened to him, represent a forensic attempt at reconstruction. Too often, Redrum conveys this through incredibly convenient plot-relevant glimpses of exposition, but the evocative shots of the shattering glass that underscore the episode’s central metaphors. As Martin tries to work through what happened, he is effectively trying to put the glass back together.

In a way, this reflects the general tone of the eighth season as a whole. The X-Files has endured a trauma. David Duchovny is gone; Mulder is absent. Of course, everything happened incredibly fast and due to factors not entirely connected to the production. The shape of the eight season was only determined three days before Requiem aired, meaning that nobody had any idea how to properly plot or process or deal with Mulder’s disappearance before it actually happened.

Smashed to pieces...

Smashed to pieces…

As a result, a lot of the eighth season feels just a little bit like Redrum. Much as Martin Wells journeys back in time in order to piece together the particulars of his wife’s death, the eighth season reaches back in time to explain its own status quo. Are the retroactive revelations about Mulder’s brain illness in Within any different from the quick flashes of the murder that Martin receives in Redrum? Does the way that the eighth season jumps back in time to the fourth season in Per Manum mirror Martin’s own travel backwards over the course of Redrum?

Over the course of the eighth season, it seems like the show embarks on a journey not too dissimilar to that undertaken by Martin Wells here. Martin is effectively trying to find a way back to his life after a horrific trauma; he is trying to piece that broken glass back together. The X-Files is trying to find its identity without Mulder. Ultimately, Martin is able to accept the loss of his old life in order to preserve what is important to him; he confesses his sins and faces jail time for his crimes. In contrast, it seems like The X-Files never entirely gives up on Mulder.

The matter in hand...

The matter in hand…

In keeping with the larger themes of the season, Redrum is very much an internalised story. The only character affected by events is Martin Wells; he is the only character in the story who retains any memory of what happened before the final act. In some stories, this might feel like a cheat or a cop-out; after all, it renders a lot of the episode largely irrelevant and pointless to the audience. However, the eighth season is very much interested in the internal and the intimate. (The first episode of the season was called Within, after all.)

Martin can’t explain what is happening. When Scully asks why this is happening to him, he has no answer. “There has to be a reason,” he insists. “Something… I’m meant to understand? Although I don’t know what it could be.” Scully doesn’t jump to science or logic, but to spirituality. “Maybe you already have the answer within you,” she answers, suggesting that some of the Buddhism from all things remains a part of her. Scully emphasises the subjective nature of Martin’s experience. “You do realize that you’re not going to be able to prove this, right?”

Blood work.

Blood work.

Ultimately, it turns out that Scully is entirely correct, the answer is within him; albeit in a metaphorical sense. The eighth season gets a lot more literal about the truth being “within” people when it comes to Scully’s pregnancy or the sinister plotting of the supersoldiers or even the mysteries of her baby’s DNA. Of course, this is all just the logical conclusion of seeds that Chris Carter planted in the mythology during the show’s early years, shining through as early as The End.

In keeping with a lot of the final four seasons of The X-Files, class is very much a part of Redrum. Much is made of the distinctions that Martin believes to exist between himself and the men locked away. The episode repeatedly suggests that Martin should expect favourable treatment because of his connections. “Now, we drew Judge Kinberg,” his lawyer explains. “What’s your relationship with him?” When Martin identifies him as “Benjamin”, his lawyer smiles. “First-name basis. Excellent.”

Locked down...

Locked down…

Later on, one of the prisoners he helped to lock away stops by his cell. “Looking for some loopholes, huh?” Shorty wonders as Martin studies the case. “Yeah, man, get yourself out of here. They just praying that you find that one little technicality so they can let you go.” With typical self-righteousness, Martin insists, “I’m not looking for technicalities.” Of course, when he accidentally showed a potentially incriminating piece of evidence to his lawyer earlier in the episode, he immediately tried to find a technicality to prevent her turning it over.

When Shorty asks what Martin is actually looking for, Martin responds, “The truth.” Of course, this turns out to be quite a hypocritical statement. After all, Martin is only looking for a truth that shall set him free; he seeks to bury a truth that would end up with him locked away in prison. The implication is that Martin believes that he is held to a different standard than those he prosecutes. He is caught off-guard when Cesar Ocampo quotes legal precedent at him. “Brady v. Maryland. Hey, you know what I’m talking about. Brady v. The State of Maryland.”

Key details...

Key details…

Redrum suggests that the biggest difference between Martin and the people he prosecutes is measured in their income. When Martin insists that Hector Ocampo was a drug dealer, his brother is having none of it. “My brother was a busboy when you sent him up,” Cesar insists. “He had two strikes on him. He wasn’t dealing no more. You sent him up for who he used to be… and ’cause it was easy.” The episode never delves too deeply into it, but it repeatedly draws attention to the different types of “criminal” that exist.

Indeed, it is telling that Cesar manages to gain entrance to the Wells’ residence by harassing their maid. When Doggett asks how somebody could have turned off the nanny camera, Martin doesn’t even think about the family’s maid. “There’s a remote control for the nanny-cam,” he explains. “It’s in a drawer by the front door but nobody else knew about it except for… Vicky… and me.” It is only when Doggett prompts him that Martin seems to remember that he employs a maid who would have had access. It suggests that Martin is oblivious to those outside his sphere.

Danny Trejo!

Danny Trejo!

The X-Files has been increasingly class-conscious since the move to Los Angeles at the start of the show’s sixth season. The characterisation of Doggett arguable reflects this, coming from a much more blue-collar background than Mulder or Scully. Indeed, Redrum marks the first appearance of his home in a less up-market neighbourhood:

“Doggett is a cop, and we got to pick a really interesting house,” production designer Corey Kaplan explains. “It’s in a grungy neighborhood where everybody has fences and barking dogs, and everybody’s house is turn-of-the-century and totally cut up and revamped. And just that choice is kind of cool. He’s a cop and he’s willing to live in a bad place because he can handle himself. We’ll be developing his house and the things we put on his wall as [the writers] start writing about him. I don’t remember the episode where the ‘I Want to Believe’ poster landed on Mulder’s wall, but that’s how we came to this really rich character. All the scripts that passed by and the evolution of situations formed his office and his fish and his porno magazines and his closet – all those things that make him what he is. We don’t have that for Doggett yet. We’re slowly getting there.”

To be fair to the show, the interior of Doggett’s home is not too different from the interior of Scully’s apartment. As one might expect from a military man, everything is very neat and ordered. However, the choice of location suggests that Doggett is more grounded than Mulder and Scully, emphasising his background.

"Time travel always gives me a headache."

“Time travel always gives me a headache.”

Redrum is an interesting episode. It is arguably more interesting than it is successful, despite some very interesting ideas and clever hook wrapped around a great guest performance. Appropriately enough, it just feels like this is the wrong time for this particular episode.

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

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2 Responses

  1. I enjoyed your review, as usual, but I enjoyed the episode more than you did. It kept me off balanced enough to keep me interested. To be fair, I haven’t seen Memento (although now I think I must) and I’m a criminal defense attorney, so it was entertaining to see the fantasy of a crooked prosecutor played out.

    • Thanks Cathy. I’ll admit that I am quite fond of it – and the eighth season as a whole. But I did find Redrum a bit weaker than I remembered on this rewatch.

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