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The X-Files – Surekill (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.

And with Surekill, the eighth season of The X-Files hits a problem.

The eighth season of The X-Files starts out strong, doing a good job of introducing a new major character without forcing him down the audience’s throat and allowing viewers to come to terms with the idea of The X-Files without Mulder. Even if some of the episodes are not jaw-droppingly amazing, there is a novelty to the format and a genuine curiosity that makes the opening seven episodes of the season more intriguing and exciting than the show has been in quite some time.

A hole lot of trouble...

A hole lot of trouble…

The eighth season also finishes strong. It is tempting to put this all upon the return of David Duchovny to the show, bringing a sense of stability to the series. That is definitely a factor, but discussions of the eighth season tend overlook how the final stretch of the year is the most serialised that the show (and the mythology) has ever been and ever will be. For one brief (roughly ten-episode) run, it seemed like The X-Files had burst into the twentieth century with a new-found purpose and joie de vivre.

Notably, this leaves something of a lull in the middle of the season, between the opening stretch and before the season begins gathering momentum. This is the point at which it feels like this grand experiment might not actually work out, after all. It is very much an attempt to do by-the-book “monster of the week” stories in the traditional style of The X-Files, now that Doggett has settled in. Unfortunately, this only has the effect of reinforcing that one of the key ingredients of a classic by-the-book “monster of the week” story is sorely missing. Doggett is no Mulder.

Throwing in the towel...

Throwing in the towel…

That is not a knock on the character of John Doggett or the performance of Robert Patrick. Both are absolutely phenomenal, and somehow manage to do more than the show expects of them. And it expects a lot. Doggett is intriguing and compelling, stepping into the absence created by Mulder without actually trying to replace him. One of the very clever things about the eighth season is that Doggett is not tailored to the Mulder-shaped hole in the show. Episodes like Patience and Via Negativa emphasise that, and do it cleverly.

Doggett is not a simple replacement for Mulder or for Scully. He is an entirely new character, with an entirely new perspective and back story. He does fit the “skeptic” mould to fill the slot on the team vacated by Scully, but his viewpoint is distinct from that of either of the two leads. The best thing about John Doggett is that he can be paired with Mulder or Scully to create an entirely novel and unique dynamic. This was a very clever way of getting around fandom’s anxieties about the possibility of replacing Mulder.

Key differences...

Key differences…

While this is a smart decision that works very well at the extremes of the eighth season, it creates a slight problem in the middle stretch of the year. Doggett works very well positioned in the larger context of The X-Files as a show transitioning past Mulder. He works less well within the framework of a standard “monster of the week” story. By this stage, it is quite clear that the chemistry between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson has done a lot to elevate the material given to them.

The importance of the chemistry between Mulder and Scully was particularly clear during the seventh season. After all, the seventh season lacked the raw creative energy of the earlier season; the show relied increasingly on the chemistry between Anderson and Duchovny to carry generic adventures. Episodes like Rush, The Goldberg Variation and The Amazing Maleeni benefited from the wonderful interplay between the two leads. Those were hardly essential or transcendental episodes, but Anderson and Duchovny made them fun.

"What's in the box?" Detective John Doggett asks, having never seen se7en.

“What’s in the box?” Detective John Doggett asks, having never seen se7en.

The fact that Doggett and Scully don’t share the same chemistry as Mulder and Scully is not a problem. Indeed, it might be more of a problem if the show did try to force their dynamic into a carbon copy of the easy banter between the two leads. However, it does become a problem when the two characters are thrown into a fairly standard “monster of the week.” There is a lot of awkward silence in Surekill, as it feels like Doggett and Scully are just going through the motions in what amounts to a paranormal CSI episode.

This becomes particularly obvious in the early scenes of the investigation, as Doggett and Scully try to figure out how Randall Cooper killed Carlton Chase. Whether examining the police station where the murder took place or the real estate office where the chase began, it all seems very dour and very official. There is a surplus of exposition, but a minimum of banter. Indeed, extended sequences pass of Doggett and Scully being quiet in each other’s company. There’s an “oh” from Scully and an “agent” from Doggett to break these silences.

Oh. Rats.

Oh. Rats.

Indeed, the closest that Doggett comes to offering a “Mulder-ism” is in the observation that, “you know, Elvis used to do this to his hotel rooms.” Patrick shrewdly decides to underplay the line, particularly since Mulder had his own Elvis impression. However, Surekill never quite manages to convey a sense of comfort and trust between Doggett and Scully. The two agents feel like professionals doing a job, which is a perfectly acceptable dynamic; it just feels a little shallow following on from the ease with which Mulder and Scully shared the screen.

It doesn’t help matters that Doggett is not a character who could be defined as “playful.” During the early years of the show, Scully was frequently cast in the role of straight woman to Mulder’s goofy quipster. Although Scully loosened up around Mulder, there was never a sense that Scully was quite as jokey on her own terms. Doggett is a character who is just as serious in his own way, leading to a situation where The X-Files effectively has two relatively serious characters playing straight man to each other.

Bullet time...

Bullet time…

Even when Doggett does crack a joke, it feels less affectionate that it would coming from Mulder. When Scully suggests that the duo are effectively hunting a killer with X-ray vision, Doggett responds, “Calling Clark Kent.” It sounds sarcastic and almost mocking. Scully would deliver such a zinger to Mulder with a smirk and a raised eyebrow, but Doggett’s much gruffer demeanor works against such a delivery. Quite frankly, Surekill is not an episode that plays well to the new Doggett and Scully dynamic that has to anchor the show.

It should be noted that Surekill is not a bad episode. It has a number of problems, but nothing fatal; it is, generally speaking, a competent episode of The X-Files. The same is true of most of these episodes in the middle stretch of the eighth season – although Salvage is a borderline case and Badlaa is probably the exception that proves the rule. However, they demonstrate just how much the dynamic between Mulder and Scully elevates an episode by offering a clear point of contrast.

This is how things are going to work around here...

“This is how things are going to work around here…”

Doggett and Scully do very little in the context of Surekill. They investigate a mysterious murder and determine that Randall Cooper can shoot through walls. Scully provides exposition about what Randall does, but they have minimal impact on how things ultimately play out. Dwight figures out that Tammi was stealing from him on his own terms, and Randall is forced to kill Dwight because there is no chance of Doggett and Scully actually resolving the case. They don’t even catch Tammi at the end.

To be clear, there are many episodes of The X-Files where Mulder and Scully don’t do much but provide a window into the case of the week. Over the course of the first seven seasons, Mulder and Scully occasionally felt like observers who had no real impact in how a case played out. This was not always a bad thing, as episodes like Hell Money and Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” will attest. However, those episodes seemed to become more common in the later season, with Mulder and Scully feeling almost like audience members in Rush or The Goldberg Variations.

Pure fluff...

Pure fluff…

However, it was still fun to spend time with Mulder and Scully, even when the cases weren’t particularly intriguing or compelling in their own right. If Mulder and Scully were as much witnesses to a particular case as the audience sitting at home, they at least felt like a couple of mates who might share a beer or some witty banter. Doggett and Scully simply don’t work in that capacity, because Doggett seems like the guy who would spend most of the show in the kitchen or on a beer run to keep things ticking over.

There is something of a weird “first season” vibe running through this part of the year. It is, perhaps, a demonstration of how weird this new set-up is and how the production team are getting used to a new status quo. The first stretch of the eighth season was about getting used to having Doggett around, but this stretch of episodes has to figure out how to construct X-Files episodes around the new dynamic. Unsurprisingly, the production team opt for a classic approach. Still, it feels like a learning curve in places.

"It'd be a bit of a Squeeze, alright..."

“It’d be a bit of a Squeeze, alright…”

Indeed, an early scene in Surekill is written (and framed) so as to imply that Doggett might just be getting his own Squeeze. “Yeah, that’s how it’s lookin’,” the local law enforcement official reflects. “There’s a little burr on this louver right here where the bullet passed through. You can barely see it, but it’s there. So, I’m thinking this is where the killer hid. He somehow crawled into this ventilation system and from here he had a clear line of sight to shoot Chase below.” Of course, that’s not how it plays out, but it is a nice reference.

These episodes in the middle stretch of the eighth season seem to demonstrate that The X-Files can’t simply drop Doggett and Scully into the same type of episode that Mulder and Scully could carry effortlessly. This is not a fatal flaw with season eight, because that is only really a concern in the stretch between Doggett’s acclimatisation in Via Negativa and the beginning of the final stretch of the season in Per Manum. It does, however, hint at problems that would face the show in its ninth season.

Ring of truth...

Ring of truth…

After the massive earth-shattering changes made to the show in the eighth season, the ninth season makes a conscious effort to get back to a more consistent “case of the week” structure than its direct predecessor. However, not only is the ninth season packed with formulaic X-Files stories without Mulder, the production team also have to deal with a much-reduced presence from Gillian Anderson. The difficulties concentrated in this stretch of the eighth season get spread across the whole of the ninth season.

To be entirely fair, it is hard to fault the production team. Episodes like Surekill, Salvage, Badlaa and Medusa all adhere to functional X-Files templates that have been in place for seven full seasons at this point. What are the production team meant to do? Come up with entirely new formats and structures? Abandon the “monster of the week” format almost completely? Avoid stories that push Doggett and Scully into the role of passive observers? It is very easy to make these sorts of criticisms with the benefit of hindsight.

"Headshot!"

“Headshot!”

At the same time, it feels like the biggest issues with the ninth season as a whole are rooted in this stretch of the eighth season; the only point at which Doggett doesn’t entirely work because the production team begin to treat him as a replacement for Mulder rather than a substitute. This isn’t surprising. The X-Files is a show that was always always reluctant to embrace change unless external factors forced its hand. After all, if it ain’t broke… The problem is that the format might not actually be broken, but it is feeling a little rusty.

With less dynamic interplay between Doggett and Scully, the “monster of the week” stories take on even more of an anthology feel. Stories like Surekill and Salvage feel like they come from a weird intersection of The Twilight Zone and Law & Order, with Doggett and Scully feeling less like an anchor that ties these two stories to a particular show. So these standalone episodes feel like isolated science-fiction stories that might easily play as part of a revival of something like The Outer Limits.

"Well, that's not coming out..."

“Well, that’s not coming out…”

With our leads playing the role of passive observers, Surekill plays out a neo-noir narrative. Dwight Cooper is a small-time hustler who discovers his brother has the power to see through walls. An ex-convict whose ambitions far outstrip his abilities, Dwight decides to use Randall’s gift in order to rip off drug dealers and to launder the funds through his extermination business. Things get complicated when Randall develops an affection for Tammi, the secretary who is secretly skimming from the accounts in the hopes of getting out.

It’s all very familiar, and Surekill is suitably grotty. The three characters at the heart of the narrative are not so much fully-formed characters as they are broadly-drawn archetypes. Tammi is a woman mistreated and abused by the men in her life, treated as an object. Randall’s brutality is contrasted with his child-like innocence. Dwight is a manipulative and selfish scumbag with no real redeeming features, with the audience waiting for his ill-conceived plans to backfire spectacularly.

Brothers in arms...

Brothers in arms…

Surekill is cast very well. As broadly-drawn as the three guest characters might be, the casting is note-perfect. The late Kelly Waymire brings a wonderful vulnerability to the role of Tammi. Patrick Kilpatrick offers a touching desperation as Randall. Michael Bowen primes his audition reel for his role on the final season of Breaking Bad. The three major guest actors all work well with one another, with Bowen playing Dwight’s over-ambitious manipulator particularly well.

The script also has some interesting ideas, establishing and outlining the particulars of the relationships quite well. Dwight’s passive-aggressive abuse of both Randall and Tammi is all the more unsettling for how downright perverted it is. Well aware that his brother can see through walls and that he has a crush on Tammi, Dwight forces Tammi into his office for a quick while Randall works outside. As with any effective abuser, Dwight reinforces his own power over Randall even as he claims to be protecting his twin.

Sketching out a theory...

Sketching out a theory…

Indeed, there is something delightfully pathetic about how limited Dwight’s ambitions are and how utterly terrible he is at fulfilling even those meager goals. Upon discovering that Randall can see through walls, Dwight concocts the most banal of schemes to exploit this. The episode suggests that the extermination business was just one way to capitalise on Randall’s ability (if he can see through walls, he can spot pests), but Dwight then escalates to ripping off drug dealers. It is a very modest and mundane application of an admittedly fantastic skill.

However, Dwight can’t even properly manage that particular low-level crime. Even a cursory inspection of his accounts reveals that Dwight really isn’t very smart. “Let’s talk about your exterminating company,” Scully observes. “There’s just the three of you, right? You and your brother and Tammi Peyton? So, how is it that your little company billed over seven-hundred thousand dollars to Chase Realty last year? Seven hundred thousand. That’s a lot of dead rats.” Dwight might not have thought this through.

It was cooler when DeNiro did it...

It was cooler when DeNiro did it…

There is a recurring sense in Surekill that Dwight is quite simply playing out of his depth, that he is operating a very generic get-rich-quick criminal enterprise without the skill necessary to pull it off. He is playing at being a gangster when he simply doesn’t have the experience to back it up. Much is made of the way that Randall uses a towel to suppress the gun shot. “An old Godfather trick,” Doggett explains. “Wrap a towel around a pistol, muffle the sound.” It seems like Dwight is acting out a fantasy of criminal enterprise, based on movies and stories.

There is something painfully forced in the way that Dwight tries to present himself as an authority figure, even in conversation with Randall. After all, Randall lacks the self-esteem to refuse his brother, Dwight doesn’t need to put on airs and graces for his sake. Early on, Dwight attempts to offer advice on criminal assassination that seems like he took it from a nineties management handbook about the most efficient way to operate a gangland crime. There is no actual experience or conviction in his dialogue or delivery.

"Exterminate!"

“Exterminate!”

“You see, the thing of it is, Randall,” Dwight begins, as if offering sage wisdom of the ages, “you get the money, then you do your thing. It’s a simple equation. That’s what I’m talking about when I say you need to talk to me first. It’ll probably be okay but in the future let’s keep the communication lines open.” It sounds like Dwight just dropped by his brother’s cubicle to engage in some hands-on micro-management. It is a lovely moment, very well played by actor Michael Bowen.

Over the course of Surekill, there is a sense that Dwight has aspirations towards power and influence that extend beyond what he can accomplish. Dwight simply isn’t as smart as he likes to think that he is; he is not clever enough to be as cruel as he wants to be. In a very perverse way, this renders Dwight as an almost tragic figure, in spite of his abusive behaviour towards Tammi and Randall. Dwight is such a spectacular failure that he needs to assert his control over the only two people more powerless than him.

Twin town.

Twin town.

At the same time, the script is undercut by the difficulty that the episode has in characterising the relationship between Tammi and Randall. Surekill seems to argue that this is something sweet and sincere, that Randall is expressing true love and that Tammi is genuinely moved by his silent protective behaviour towards her. “He watched her every day,” Scully summarises at the end of the episode. “Wherever she was. A man who could look at anything in the world and he chooses her.”

The episode really wants this to be sweet. In a way, this perhaps reflects the gentle shift in the show’s politics during the eighth season towards a more conservative world view. Randall’s use of his powers to spy on (or “look out for”) Tammi are not presented as another creepy violation of Tammi’s privacy, but as an attempt to protect her from the big bad world. In short, the episode applies all of the stock knee-jerk defenses about surveillance culture to the relationship to Randall and Tammi.

Somebody looking out for me...

Somebody looking out for me…

Sure, the episode seems to say, Randall is engaged in voyeuristic intrusions into Tammi’s life. However, the show hastens to add, that’s okay because he has her best interests at heart. Randall might use his powers to spy on Tammi in her bathroom, but that’s a small price to pay for his willingness to kill men like Dwight or Carlton in order to protect her. There is something deeply uncomfortable about all of this, as if the episode is blissfully unaware of how deeply creepy Randall’s behaviour towards Tammi really is.

Surekill aired three quarters of a year before the War on Terror would push these issues to the front of national consciousness. Indeed, the ninth season would seem quite skeptical of surveillance culture in Trust No 1. However, in the context of the eighth season, this embrace of voyeuristic surveillance feels like it fits with an increasingly conservative political aesthetic running through the season. The eighth season is the point at which the government are not perpetrators of the conspiracy, but instead become its victims.

Shadowplay...

Shadowplay…

Surekill fits with the thematic concerns of the eighth season in a number of other ways. Most obviously, there is a literal emphasis on looking within, as emphasised through Randall’s ability to see throughout walls. In fact, given the revelation that Dwight is “legally blind”, it turns out that sight and looking are very important thematic elements in Surekill. This even plays through into the direction, with Surekill featuring a nice visual echo of the “Scully’s eye peers through a hole” shot from Roadrunners.

“The eyes are the windows of the soul,” Dwight advises Tammi at one point. “They tell you everything you need to know about a person.” Eyes are certainly thematically important in the context of the season; Via Negativa was preoccupied with the idea of a third eye. Looking and searching have always been a vital part of The X-Files, but the eighth season largely inverts this by suggesting that the true answers lie within. The eighth season is fascinated by questions and answers that lie within, bother literally and figuratively.

Look within...

Look within…

This is the season where the colonists begin operating through human bodies that have been converted and distorted. Scully is still trying to figure out how her pregnancy happened and what it means. There is no vast government conspiracy to be uncovered, just very personal mysteries. The search for Mulder is the aspect of the eighth season that requires the most effort focused on looking externally, but that proves to be largely futile; he is ultimately just dropped right into the cast’s lap.

Scully and Doggett’s closing conversation at the end of Surekill reinforces this theme. “He must have seen something in her that she could not see herself,” Scully remarks of Randall’s attraction to Tammi. Even Doggett cannot resist the sheer cheesy pull of that heavy-handed metaphor, responding, “Well if you’re suggesting he could see into her heart, Agent, you are out of FBI territory on this one.” It is corny and goofy, but it does connect Surekill back to the bigger ideas of the season around it.

Lighten up...

Lighten up…

Surekill is not a great episode, but it’s not a bad one. However, it does warn of the folly of trying to pretend that things are back to normal when there is no normal any longer.

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