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The X-Files – Dæmonicus (Review)

This December, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the ninth season of The X-Files.

Dæmonicus is the first “monster of the week” episode of the ninth season.

This is important, particularly following on from two particularly limp introductory mythology episodes. After all, The X-Files amounts to more than just its mythology; problems with the mythology are less of a problem when they are surrounded by strong standalone episodes. Tunguska and Terma arrived as messy mythology episodes at the peak of the show’s popularity, but nobody was too bothered because they were surrounded by standalone episodes like Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man or Paper Hearts.

The devil inside...

The devil inside…

So the show can probably withstand the hit of Nothing Important Happened Today I and Nothing Important Happened Today II. After all, the third season opened with The Blessing Way and the fifth season opened with Redux I, with both of those seasons standing among the best seasons that the show ever produced. (That said, it helps that the second episodes of those seasons – Paper Clip and Redux II – were much stronger.) There is still a chance to salvage things here. The ninth season is down, but don’t count it out yet.

Dæmonicus could really turn things around, right?

Well, that's just cheating.

Well, that’s just cheating.

Dæmonicus has a fair amount going for it. It is a good old-fashioned horror story, in which Doggett and Reyes find themselves squaring off against an incarcerated killer who may or may not be the devil himself. It helps that the serial killer is played by veteran performer James Remar. Remar was probably most familiar to audience members at the time for his work in What Lies Beneath the previous summer, but he is an actor with great presence and a distinctive voice. A good voice is important if an actor is going to be playing Satan.

Dæmonicus has a very traditional premise and structure. It should make a pretty solid “back to basics” episode. The story has demonic undertones, meditations on the nature of evil, mind games and manipulations. The script twists and turns, our heroes locked in a battle of wits against an opponent who may be supernatural or may just be very smart. More than that, Dæmonicus is credited to producer Frank Spotnitz. Spotnitz knows the show inside and out. On paper, this should work like gangbusters. At the very least, it should be entertaining.

Monstrous.

Monstrous.

Sure, there are logical plot holes. Sure, it’s derivative. Sure, the show has done these sorts of stories before. While these are legitimate criticisms of Dæmonicus, they are not fatal flaws. As long as the episode is entertaining, the audience can overlook these pesky problems. Asked to provide advice to aspiring television writers, veteran producer Ann Lewis Hamilton suggested three simple words. “Don’t be boring.” The audience can forgive anything except boredom. (How was Mulder not fired after Paper Hearts? Who cares? It’s a great episode!)

That is perhaps the cardinal sin of Dæmonicus. It is not entertaining. It is functional, at best. In a way, this a recurring problem with the ninth season. There are terrible episodes, to be sure. However, there are an awful lot of really bland and forgettable installments that just lack the verve and energy of the show at its best. In some ways, the ninth season feels like the awkward middle stretch of the eighth season stretched out across an entire year instead of confined to four episodes. There is just a creeping blandness to it all.

Yeah, the ninth season can feel that way sometimes.

Yeah, the ninth season can feel that way sometimes.

(To be fair, this is also a problem with Nothing Important Happened Today I and Nothing Important Happened Today II, even if the dullness of those two episodes is overshadowed by how ill-equipped the show was to handle David Duchovny’s departure and the consequences of 9/11. However, on a simple visceral level, Nothing Important Happened Today I and Nothing Important Happened Today II lack the excitement and thrill of earlier stories like Nisei and 731 or Patient X and The Red and the Black.)

Dæmonicus just falls flat. The script is essentially a caper – a chess match, as the episode awkwardly and repeatedly insists through heavy-handed visual motifs and references. These sorts of stories should have a level of excitement and urgency to them; they come with deadlines and stakes, underscored with ambiguity and uncertainty. These kinds of plots are held together with dynamism and urgency. Can our heroes figure out (or carry off) the hustle in time? Can the audience keep up or get one step ahead?

His true face...

His true face…

The problem is that the hustle in Dæmonicus feels incredibly generic and bland. There are no tangible stakes, because there’s never a sense that the audience knows the limitations or the motivations of the bad guy. It is hard to get too invested in the chase when Josef Kobold will always be one step ahead because of convenient plotting and (possibly) supernatural ability. To be fair, Dæmonicus is ambiguous as to the actual identity of Kobold; the episode is intentionally unclear as to whether he is a man or a demon, or something in between.

Kobold’s plan hinges on his ability to manipulate people into doing whatever he wants, but there’s never any suspense. The episode never actually shows Kobold communicating with his accomplices, so his ability to talk a guard into becoming a satanic murderer might as well be a magic power. More than that, the fact that all of Kobold’s great manipulations take place off-screen means that all the episode really offers is Kobold getting all pseudo-philosophical with John Doggett in his cell.

A devilish plan...

A devilish plan…

And vomiting. A lot. A lot. In The Truth About Season Nine, writer and director Frank Spotnitz concedes that the production team might have overdone it a bit:

I had actually not intended to have that many shots of Kobold throwing up. But the editor – Chris Cooke – cut it that way and it just made me laugh. It was so completely over the top.

Spotnitz jokes about laughing at the final cut, and it’s not an unreasonable response. It is a delightfully absurd image.

"Let's just see what ideas he throws out..."

“Let’s just see what ideas he throws out…”

The problem is that it undercuts any sense of Kobold as a criminal mastermind. While Spotnitz confesses that he did not intend to include so many shots of Kobold throwing up, there is still a sequence where there is so much vomit on the ground that Kobold actually slips in it. It plays like a moment of grotesque slapstick, like the weirdly old-fashioned punchline at the end of some Farrelly Brothers gross out comedy. The episode does very little to build Kobold up to a real threat, but it cuts him down quite effectively.

It does not help matters that Kobold’s objectives are obscure until they are actually completed. He is plotting to escape from custody, something to which Doggett alluded early in the episode, but he is also playing out his own grotesque version of “words with friends”if the friend is Satan! Again, Spotnitz half-heartedly sets it up with a game of scrabble in the teaser. The problem is that the whole thing feels so arbitrary that the protagonists (and the characters) really can’t be faulted for not seeing it coming.

Keeping him in check...

Keeping him in check…

It turns out that Kobalt is using the names of his victims to spell out the word “DAEMONICUS”, the word found on the the scrabble board at the scene of the first murder. It is not a bad psychological mind game. Indeed, if the episode tipped its hand earlier, it would be a great way to raise suspense – where is Kobold going to get his next few letters? can Doggett and Reyes figure out the identity of the victim and save them in time? The problem is that the episode only reveals this after the fact, with Doggett literally spelling it out on a blackboard.

There are problems with this. On the level of internal logic, Kobold seems to be cheating. Given that he is playing his own game, that seems a little unfair on the audience. In order to get his “perfect word score”, Kobold selected the letters from his victims rather arbitrarily. He takes the initials of the first names (and the conjunction!) of Darren and Evelyn Mountjoy, the first four letters of the first name of Monique Sampson and the first three letters of the surname of Officer Custer. Which is good, because he doesn’t get a first name.

Snake-wrangling...

Snake-wrangling…

There is a sense that this is really just apophenia at work. It is probably easy to construct an ominous and hidden message when the selection criteria are so broad. Not only is Kobold’s (or Doggett’s) selection of letters arbitrary, he also seems to arbitrarily include or exclude particular victims. Kobold does not seem to take any letters from the name of Paul Gerlach, who is the second victim in his spree. The episode never reveals the name of the accomplice who commits suicide while holding Scully to create a distraction.

With all of this confusion and arbitrariness, it makes no sense why Kobold would spare Scully at the climax of the episode. He could just choose to selectively skip the letters in her name, or employ the first three letters of Scully as an anagram. It would be no less internally consistent. After all, her death would create an even bigger ruckus than the suicide of her kidnapper and would emphasise how completely Kobold had outwitted Doggett and Reyes. It would seem that the only reason that the killer doesn’t shoot Scully is because her name is in the opening credits.

As in "things of which this episode will not be counted upon."

As in “things among which this episode will not be counted.”

Put simply, the long con at work in Dæmonicus doesn’t work because it feels contrived and shallow. To be fair, this is not the first time that The X-Files has had difficulty executing what is effectively a caper script. The Amazing Maleeni also suffered from the same contrivances and ambiguities. However, while The Amazing Maleeni could count on Mulder and Scully to carry it, Dæmonicus arrives at a point where the show is still struggling to define its new dynamics. It does not have the luxury of a familiar structure or familiar leads to support a weak plot.

That is perhaps the risk of using something like Dæmonicus as the first “monster of the week” of the short-lived “Doggett and Reyes” era. It makes sense to use a simple story like Squeeze as the first Mulder and Scully “monster of the week” or Patience as the first Doggett and Scully “monster of the week”; with so many undefined elements, it is best to have a fairly straight forward narrative that allows room to develop character dynamics. Dæmonicus instead adds oodles of plot, to the effect of drowning out any character development or exploration.

Reyesing hell.

Reyesing hell.

On top of its windy serial killer plot, Dæmonicus has the burden of demonstrating how exactly the ninth season of the show is supposed to work. Nothing Important Happened Today I and Nothing Important Happened Today II had the luxury of tying Scully into the mythology plot. Dæmonicus has to figure out how to keep Scully around outside of that. It was a challenge, as Spotnitz conceded:

Well, there’s no standard format for it. Sometimes she’ll be primarily at Quantico and sometimes she’ll be out in the field. Sometimes it’s focused on her, and Doggett and Reyes are in the background. There will be different shapes to all of these different stories. It really is a three-lead show in that they’ll all have individual moments to shine as characters and actors. And there will be quite a few scenes of the three of them together. That’s really interesting to what, because not only do Gillian, David and Annabeth like each other personally, but they have great chemistry together. We’ve got different dynamics on the show that we’ve never had before. We’ve got scenes with two strong, independent, professional women together, which we’d never played like this. The other interesting thing is that all three characters are heroic, but in different ways, and they’ve all got different crosses to bear as characters.

Regardless of the fate of The X-Files itself, it seemed quite likely that the ninth season would be Gillian Anderson’s last year on the show. It would make sense for the production team to begin the process of preparing for Anderson’s departure in the same way that the eighth season had been structured around that of Duchovny. Unfortunately, the ninth season is reluctant to let go of either Mulder or Scully.

"How to Get Away With Mulder." (Thanks, Emmy Torre!)

“How to Get Away With Mulder.”
(Thanks, Emmy Torre!)

Moving Scully to Quantico is not a bad idea in theory. It allows Anderson some time off, offers the suggestion of character progression, and puts Scully in a place where she can be reached if needed. More than that, it teases the idea of a fun How To Get Away With Murder-style spin-off in which Scully and her class of FBI cadets work together to solve cases no other class could manage. In theory, it is a great way of keeping Scully around while still affording Doggett and Reyes rooms to define themselves.

In practice, however, it does not work like that. Moving Scully to Quantico and keeping her as a lead actress creates problems. Moving Scully to Quantico should downgrade her from a series lead to a recurring charater, allowing Scully to rotate into a niche similar to that occupied by Kersh, Skinner, Follmer or the Lone Gunmen. Instead, the ninth season tries to have its cake and eat it too, by trying to put Scully in Quantico while still treating her as an equivalent lead to Doggett or Reyes.

"So, really, Reyes was the only member of the cast in any real danger, then?"

“So, really, Reyes was the only member of the cast in any real danger, then?”

The season works best when Scully is treated as a member of a larger X-Files supporting cast, a source of advice or counsel who has seen everything. The problem with scripts like Dæmonicus and Lord of the Flies is the way that they try to insist on making Scully essential to the plot, allowing her presence to become more distracting than her absence would otherwise be. The premiere suggested the mythology would have trouble integrating Scully; Dæmonicus demonstrates the standalone stories are just as unsure what to do with her.

What does Scully contribute to Dæmonicus? The script has no idea what to do with her, so it turns her into a damsel in distress during the final act. Not only is Scully overpowered by her assailant, the script suggests that she has no chance of escape on her own terms. Scully essentially waits passively until Doggett and Reyes turn up, and her captor commits suicide. It is not a great showing for Scully, and feels sadly in keeping with the larger tendency of the ninth season to treat Scully as a pawn in a game played with other characters.

Padded out...

Padded out…

It feels strange so much time is devoted to Scully in a story that really should be about the show’s new Doggett and Reyes dynamic. Scully’s change in status affects that dynamic, but it is not something that needs to be addressed immediately. It may have been shrewder to let Doggett and Reyes carry this episode on their own terms and then allow Scully her own character-driven episode later in the season about the difficulties of relinquishing the X-files. (Something akin to the way that Three Words explored Mulder’s new status quo.)

Instead, fixates upon the past. In an effort to undermine Doggett, Kobold attempts to prey upon his insecurities. He suggests a latent attraction between Doggett and Scully, which feels a bit strange at this point in the show’s run; if Scully is to disappear at the end of the season, it will be awkward to have Doggett pining for an absent character. Even more uncomfortable is Kobold’s insistence that Doggett “can’t compete with the long-lost Agent Mulder.” Even with David Duchovny gone, The X-Files is still fixated upon Mulder.

They call me "Hannibal Lecteur."

They call me “Hannibal Lecteur.”

One of the strengths of the eighth season was a willingness to tackle Doggett’s anxieties head-on. Frank Spotnitz’s scripts to episodes like Via Negativa, The Gift and Alone all touched on Doggett’s discomfort at filling the shoes left by Mulder. There was an honest and candour to the eighth season’s willingness to address the absence of Mulder, particularly with the comfort of knowing David Duchovny would be back. In contrast, the ninth season’s clingy fascination with Mulder feels desperate and weird.

Dæmonicus sits awkwardly between two eras of the show. Frank Spotnitz’s script does make a few nods to its new lead characters, most notably in framing a story around satanism. When Monica Reyes was first introduced in This is Not Happening, she was defined as an expert in satanic ritual abuse, and so it is nice that her first X-file actually ties into that past experience. It is a nice character hook into what turns out to be a fairly generic episode, and one that suggests an area of specialisation for the new duo.

Word up.

Word up.

“Look, Monica, the only reason you were called in on this thing is you’ve investigated hundreds of these kinds of cases,” Doggett states. Reyes responds, “And not once did I find anything to support evidence of genuine Satanic activity.” Naturally, Dæmonicus suggests that she might just find that evidence in the X-files. Perhaps this hints at a bold new direction for the show. Although the premiere suggests aliens are still a force with which to be reckoned in the context of the mythology, perhaps there is a renewed emphasis on demons.

Dæmonicus doesn’t quite know how to pull this off. This should be a story focusing on Reyes. This makes sense, as she is the least-defined lead character on the show. While Doggett appeared in all twenty-one episodes of the eighth season, and received a back story and motivation, Reyes only appeared as a supporting character in four episodes. Establishing Reyes’ character is more important than re-establishing Doggett’s. However, once the investigation reaches Josef Kobold, the story begins to focus on John Doggett’s interactions with him.

Escape from reality.

Escape from reality.

While the change in focus is disconcerting, it still plays into the idea that Dæmonicus belongs to the “Doggett and Reyes” era. In the eighth season, the show suggested that Doggett (and, by extension, Reyes) were tied into a larger tapestry of the evil nestled in – an idea explored in scripts like Invocation, Via Negativa and Empedocles. The script to Dæmonicus hits upon this theme quite heavily, repeatedly drawing attention to the evil that men do and wondering whether such evil could possibly be supernatural in nature or origin.

Dæmonicus is not subtle, with Scully literally lecturing her students on the themes of the episode. “Science, however, tells us that evil comes not from monsters, but from men,” she warns her class. “It offers us the methodology to catch these men, and only after we have exhausted these methods should we leave science behind to consider more… extreme possibilities.” The implication in Dæmonicus is that Josef Kobold exists at the very limits of the human ability to conceive or understand evil. At least in theory.

Driving evil.

Driving evil.

“I heard you say, Agent Scully – I heard you tell a classroom full of FBI cadets – most evil in the world comes from men,” Doggett protests at the climax, in the role of designated skeptics. Scully responds, “But I also said that once science fails, we have to consider extreme possibilities.” The problem is that Dæmonicus never convinces with the character of Josef Kobold. Kobold never feels like an arch  manipulator or supernatural threat. He feels more like a bargain-basement imitation of Hannibal Lecter.

To be fair, this seems inevitable. The production team’s decision to anchor Doggett to the theme of evil in the world invites comparisons to Chris Carter’s other multi-season television show, Millennium. Kobold even alludes to this with some of his pseudo-philosophical waffling. “You mean than the guard forced a patient to escape, or did the patient force the guard?” Kobold wonders. “Or are they both of one mind, like a snake, eating its own tail?” You know, like an ouroboros, the symbol of Millennium and the tattoo on Scully’s lower back.

The hanged man.

The hanged man.

Millennium was a show about forensic pathology, featuring a criminal profiler as its central character. Given the shadow that author Thomas Harris casts over the genre, it makes sense that there would be shades of Red Dragon and Manhunter to stories told using that template. After all, Millennium had drawn quite heavily from those novels in its first (The Thin White Line and Lamentation) and third (Via Dolorosa and Goodbye to All That) seasons. While none of the Doggett-centric episodes of the eighth seasons drew on Harris’ work, it was only a matter of time.

After all, Hannibal Lecter is quite informative when it comes to discussing how The X-Files and Millennium approach the concept of evil in the world. Most interpretations of the character position Lecter as an ontological force, an embodiment of seductive and perversive evil in the world. As Lecter teases Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, “Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences.” This seems quite in line of the moral philosophy of episodes like Grotesque or Empedocles.

"Memory is what i have instead of a view. Well, that and a view."

“Memory is what I have instead of a view. Well, that and a view.”

Allowing for all this, there is a reason why an episode of The X-Files airing in November 2001 would want to draw on the character of Hannibal Lecter. Author Thomas Harris completed Hannibal in 1999, the third novel in his series focusing upon the character. It was, understandably, a sensation. Hannibal was the second biggest-selling book of the year, behind only The Testament by John Grisham. The novel was immediately optioned for a feature film adaptation, as one might expect.

Described by Keith Phipps as “a film not so much created as stubbornly willed into existence by market forces”, Ridley Scott’s Hannibal became a monster hit. Released in February 2001, the film scored the third biggest opening weekend of all time to that point and the biggest opening of an R-rated movie to that point. In August, movie fans named Hannibal Lecter as cinema’s “best baddie.”  The film’s success would inspire the producers to rush ahead with Red Dragon in September 2002.

Playing to the audience.

Playing to the audience.

With all of this happening in the background, it makes sense that Frank Spotnitz should use Hannibal Lecter as a template for Josef Kobold. The script repeatedly underscores the similarities. Much like Lecter, Kobold is defined as an academic with a unique understanding of human nature. At one point, Doggett produces a monograph that Kobolt wrote on “the influence of Satan in Renaissance thinking”, which seems like an obvious shoutout to Hannibal’s lecture on Dante from Hannibal.

Doggett relates a story about Kobold. “This guy’s a master manipulator,” he explains. “He was a history Professor at the University of Miami, committed for grinding up six coeds, that he tricked into his basement. He used their flesh as fertiliser in his garden.” While an obvious shout-out to Annabeth Gish’s role in Last Supper, it is also an allusion of the tendency of Thomas Harris’ serial killers to treat their victims as resources or objects. For Hannibal, it is food; for Dolarhyde, it is fuel; for Gumb, it is fabric.

Just in case you forgot who the most important character is.

Just in case you forgot who the most important character is.

There are several problems with using Hannibal Lecter as an inspiration in Dæmonicus. Most obviously, Josef Kobold lacks the presence or the gravitas of Hannibal Lecter. Even if Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the serial killer could veer into camp monstrosity, there was always something uncanny and uncomfortable about the character. Josef Kobold lacks that sense of weight or import, despite James Remar’s best efforts. He does not pose the same sense of crouching threat that Lecter does. His observations lack the same piercing insight.

However, there is also a sense that this is precisely the wrong time for The X-Files to be doing a tribute to Hannibal Lecter. On the most basic of levels, it is another reminder of the show’s origins rather than its status quo. The work of Thomas Harris casts a long shadow over the work of Ten Thirteen, but particularly over Mulder and Scully. When Jodie Foster declined to reprise her role as Clarice Starling, Gillian Anderson was mooted as a possible replacement. It seems only appropriate, given how influential The Silence of the Lambs was on Scully’s character.

"There is one more way to kill a man, but it is as intricate and precise as a well played game of scrabble."

“There is one more way to kill a man, but it is as intricate and precise as a well played game of scrabble.”

Fox Mulder owes a clear debt to the character of Will Graham from Manhunter. Dana Scully owes a clear debt to the character of Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs. The show has placed those characters in episodes that homage those classic stories, allowing Scully to play a version of Starling in Beyond the Sea and emphasising Mulder’s similarities to Will Graham in Grotesque and Paper Hearts. Doing a story featuring a Hannibal Lecter archetype at a point where Mulder is gone and Scully is an example of poor timing.

As with a lot of the ninth season, the basic structure of Dæmonicus is a reminder of everything that has been changed and lost in the past few years. Instead of drawing attention to what The X-Files is, it seems like the show is fixated upon what it can no longer be. There is something quite frustrating and unsatisfying in watching a show unable to move past its own insecurities and uncertainties. Dæmonicus features a Hannibal Lecter archetype, but in so doing reminds viewers of its lost Will Graham and Clarice Starling archetypes.

Checkered vision...

Checkered vision…

There are other indications that The X-Files might be a show well past its “sell by” date. Frank Spotnitz’s direction of Alone was solid; it was clean and efficient, with a few ambitious shots thrown in for good measure. The problem with his direction of Dæmonicus is that he tries far too hard. The script awkwardly and repeatedly insists upon chess metaphors that make The End seem restrained. The script handily labels the institution housing Kobold as the “Chessman State Mental Hospital”, but that is just the beginning.

The camera repeatedly focuses on the black-and-white floor tiles of the hospital, framing them so that they might resemble a chess board. This would be an awkward visual analogy on its own, but Dæmonicus goes further. In one of the most jarring scene transitions of the show’s nine-season run, the episode fades from a birds-eye shot of the floor to a forest, while keeping the grid in place. It is a very ugly shot, but the clumsy visual metaphor only makes it uglier. There is something to be said for visual experimentation, but the cut just doesn’t work.

Serpents in paradise...

Serpents in paradise…

The episode’s awkwardly insistent chess analogy also invites comparisons to another show that resorted to a similar hook once it was well past its prime. Josef Kobold’s chess game with the authorities could be argued to mirror that of Windom Earle in the late second season of Twin Peaks. Windom Earle arrived at a point where most viewers and critics considered Twin Peaks to be something of a spent force, an attempt to inject some life into a show that had lost its way. It is a rather unfortunate comparison for Dæmonicus to invite upon itself.

Dæmonicus does very little to assuage the doubts that had taken root with Nothing Important Happened Today I and Nothing Important Happened Today II. There is nothing diabolical here, but nothing particularly important either.

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2 Responses

  1. I’m watching this season for the first time, and it’s quite weak at this point. Nothing works very well in Daemonicus, it was all done before and much better, but the worst mistake it’s having a supporting cast character that will never be part of this show again talking about Mulder. Seems like Mulder kidnapped the writer’s minds forever, it gets boring to have that constant reminder that he is not part of the x files anymore, having Scully around it’s part of the same problem because it’s like if the production team wanted to keep in touch with the past but at the same time hesitating to move forward. I’ll finnish watching this season for completeness (and partly because Reyes & Scully are truly gorgeous).

    • I wish I could tell you that season nine improves dramatically.

      There are some good episodes there, though. Particularly the ones focusing on Doggett and Reyes – 4-D, Hellbound, John Doe, Audrey Pauley.

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