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The X-Files – John Doe (Review)

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

A man without a past on a show without a future.

John Doe opens with John Doggett on the floor of a dusty warehouse, an addict stealing his shoes. Doggett chases the thief out of the warehouse, stunned to realise that he is actually in Mexico. His pursuit of the addict culminates in his arrest by local law enforcement, a couple of cops demanding to see his identification papers. Doggett pats himself down looking for something, but the horror of his situation seems to dawn on him. Asked for his name, all Doggett can offer is an awkward “I don’t know.” His past has been stolen from him.

"Woah, boy. Computer-generated film grain. I'm either in Mexico or a CSI flashback."

“Woah, boy. Computer-generated film grain. I’m either in Mexico or a CSI flashback.”

Four days after the initial broadcast of John Doe, it was announced that there would be no tenth season of The X-Files. Fox and Chris Carter were retiring the show after a phenomenal nine-season run. Of course, production had wrapped on John Doe long before the decision had been made; the crew were working on Scary Monsters when news filtered down about the looming end of the show. However, there was something quite appropriate about the timing of all this. John Doggett lost his past in the same week that The X-Files lost its future.

There is almost a weird poetry in that.

Breaking Decent.

Breaking Decent.

Memory and continuity are important to any long-running show, particularly a show approaching the mid-point of its ninth season. Over nine years, shows tend to accumulate baggage and weight, accruing memories that can make it harder to move forward. Memory and continuity are particularly important to The X-Files, which is a show about legacy and consequences; Mulder’s quest is predicated on a recovered memory of repressed trauma, and so much of the show is about uncovering a past that had been skilfully buried by those in power.

Vince Gilligan may not have written a lot of the mythology, but he was a writer who engaged with many of the core themes of the show. In standalone episodes like Unusual Suspects or Bad Blood, Gilligan could offer his own unique exploration of ideas that nestled snuggly in the heart of the show. In the ninth season, Gilligan seemed particularly interested with the theme of memory. Both John Doe and Sunshine Days are episodes engaged with the ideas of memory and identity, exploring the relationship between characters and their own histories.

He'll sleep tonight.

He’ll sleep tonight.

In The Threads of Mythology, Chris Carter suggested that memory was really the over-arching theme of the show:

There was a story that I read in the New Republic, during the beginning of the show, over the course of the first few years of the show. It was right around the time that Schindler’s List came out. It was an article on memory and how important memory is to action – and not just to history, but to the future. I think that idea played through the course of The X-Files, the idea that you cannot bury the truth. You don’t bury someone… you’d bury the dead alive, is how we put it. That’s really how memory played into the story that was really the throughline for The X-Files.

Given its nine-season run, The X-Files has a few different throughlines. Memory is definitely one of them.

Mellow yellow.

Mellow yellow.

This is most obvious in the context of the show’s mythology. Anasazi made a point to tie the current conspiracy back to countless historical abuses and atrocities. Mulder finds a box car full of dead bodies buried on a Native American reservation in Arizona, conjuring up powerful imagery of the genocide of the Native Americans and the industrialised horror of the Holocaust. Stories like Nisei and 731 tied the mythology back to myths of the American frontier through train imagery, while also anchoring these abuses in the legacy of the Second World War.

More to the point, personal memory becomes a recurring motif across the run of the show. According to The Pilot, Mulder only embarked on his quest to expose the truth after hypnosis uncovered the repressed memory of his sister’s abduction. A similar hypnosis session provides the basis for Scully’s own crisis of faith in The Red and the Black. In Demons, Mulder eagerly engages in trepanning in the hope of recovering vital memories of his own childhood. In Talitha Cumi, Teena Mulder has a stroke implicitly linked to her attempts to revisit traumatic memories.

Going against the grain...

Going against the grain…

Even outside of the mythology, memory remains a potent force. Darin Morgan’s script for Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” plays with the idea that damaging the continuity of memory damages the continuity of self. Gilligan had played with this idea while scripting Unusual Suspects, suggesting that perhaps Mulder’s memories of Samantha’s abduction were just the result of exposure to a chemical designed to enhance feelings of paranoia and mistrust. If Mulder could not trust his memories, what could he trust?

John Doe finds Doggett undergoing his own crisis of memory. Perhaps this is another example of Doggett mirroring Mulder and Scully. During the eighth season, The Gift had Doggett undergo the “death and rebirth” process that seemed obligatory for all major characters in the world of the show. Like Scully in One Breath and Mulder in The Blessing Way, Doggett was allowed to cross over that threshold into the undiscovered country and return as a new man with a new perspective. John Doe allows Doggett a crisis of memory to mirror those of Scully and Mulder.

"Damn, I really shouldn't have binge-watched the ninth season, eh?"

“Damn, I really shouldn’t have binge-watched the ninth season, eh?”

In The Truth About Season Nine, Vince Gilligan explains that his original pitch did not actually centre on Doggett:

That was an idea of Frank Spotnitz’s, to set it in Mexico and to centre it more on Agent Doggett. And once we had that, it actually went together fairly easily.

This makes sense. Over the eighth season, Spotnitz had arguably established himself as the definitive Doggett writer.

Memory Vampires are stylin'.

Memory Vampires are stylin’.

Nevertheless, John Doe is very consciously and very clearly a Vince Gilligan episode. The script plays with a number of recurring Gilligan motifs, a lot of which seem to nod towards the writer’s career beyond the ninth season. In a way, John Doe might be Gilligan’s least cynical script. Robbed of his memories and his history, Gilligan suggests that John Doggett is a fundamentally decent person. No matter how much of his identity might be taken, John Doggett is a good guy deep down.

When he forced to ally with Domingo, Doggett is clearly uncomfortable with the criminal’s trade. “We’re movers,” Domingo explains. When Doggett asks what Domingo moves, he elaborates, “Mexicanos, Guatemaltecos, sometimes even Chinese. Drive them up north, across the border into McCallen.” Doggett summarises, with thinly veiled contempt, “You’re coyotes.” Domingo does not take kindly to Doggett’s town. “Don’t turn your nose up at me.” Domingo argues that Doggett has no authority to criticise him, given his own mysterious past.

Thine own self...

Thine own self…

Later on, Domingo suggests that Doggett might be willing to drive the bus used to smuggle those illegal immigrants across the border. Doggett very firmly declines. “You got a few odd jobs, fine,” Doggett observes. “I’m not breaking the law for you.” Domingo responds with typical cynicism. “A man of principle… as far as you know.” Domingo seems to suggest that Doggett cannot really know anything about himself without a memory to draw upon. Domingo seems to suggest that morality is relative, that it is learned.

In many ways, John Doe feels like an inversion of so many Vince Gilligan stories. Gilligan can often seem quite cynical about human nature, suggesting that society exists as a structure that imposes decency upon people. Gilligan’s characters tend to use extraordinary circumstances as a license to shed their moral restraint. When Robert Patrick Modell gains mind-control powers in Pusher, he uses them to become an assassin. When Eddie Van Blundht discovers his shape-changing powers in Small Potatoes, he uses them to become a rapist.

Getting inside his head...

Getting inside his head…

Gilligan’s work is populated with characters who use extreme circumstances to indulge in their worst selves. In Dreamland I and Dreamland II, Morris Fletcher’s immediate response to finding himself in the body of Fox Mulder is to use that body to cheat on his wife. In Hungry, Robbie casts off his morality with the wig and the contact lenses that allow him to pass as human. In Je Souhaite, an immortal genie seems genuinely surprised when Mulder is able to muster up some honest-to-goodness altruism.

Of course, this is all building to the character of Walter White in Breaking Bad. At the start of the series, Walter uses his cancer diagnosis to justify his decision to cook crystal meth. More than that, he also uses his festering resentment about past business decisions involving his company Grey Matter. However, over the course of the show, it becomes increasingly clear that the cancer and the resentment are simply catalysts. The drug kingpin persona of “Heisenberg” was always buried somewhere beneath the innocuous exterior of Walter White.



When asked how somebody as charming and pleasant as Gilligan could write a character as manipulative and sinister as Walter White, Gilligan suggests that he has some similar darkness tucked away inside himself:

The short answer is, I’m not as nice as I come across. I do see the world in pretty dark terms. I find it colder and scarier the older I get. I was hoping I’d worry less, and distrust strangers less, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.  The older I get, the more nervous and anxiety-ridden I get. I don’t know how to fix that. The sad truth is, there’s more Walter White in me than I’d care to admit, because if I truly was as kind as people think I am, I wouldn’t be able to write Walter White. We all put on faces, as Walter White does. We put on faces when we meet our friends, when we meet new people, when we present ourselves in interviews. We try to be who the people we meet want us to be, or who we want to truly be.

Gilligan suggests that he has a pretty cynical view of people – himself included. A lot of Gilligan’s work hits on that idea of stripping away those “faces” that people “present” under ordinary circumstances.

John Doggett phone home.

John Doggett phone home.

That is why John Doe is so fascinating. The episode suggests that John Doggett’s fundamental decency is not a mask or a veneer. Even after Domingo tries to convince him that he was responsible for “a double murder”, Doggett remains convinced of his own integrity and decency. When Doggett does take a life, he is defending himself against Nestor. Nestor is shot with a gun that he used to threaten Doggett, in a very physical struggle. Doggett does not kill in cold blood or in a premeditated fashion.

In its own way, John Doe suggests that Gilligan is invested in absolute concepts of good and evil. The episode suggests that human behaviour and personality is not exclusively the result of environment or influence, that morality is not inherently relative. In a way, this is in keeping with the larger themes of The X-Files; the show repeatedly suggests that good and evil are absolute concepts. However, Gilligan seems to disagree with Chris Carter about the nature of good an evil.

"We borrowed this shot from the opening credits."

“We borrowed this shot from the opening credits.”

In scripts like Grotesque and Piper Maru, Carter seems to treat evil as an external force that corrupts and erodes personal autonomy. This is a theme that recurs across the first and third seasons of Millennium, which suggest that humanity is caught in a war between primal moral forces. While Carter seems to suggest that good and evil exist beyond mankind as outside influences, Gilligan believes the opposite. To Gilligan, good and evil tend to be internal motivators. They might even find metaphorical expression in Robert Patrick Modell or Walter White’s tumours.

John Doe‘s meditation on memory is more than merely an exorcise in moral theory. John Doe is Vince Gilligan’s first script for the ninth season, and only his second script to feature the character of John Doggett. The X-Files has undergone substantial changes since the end of the seventh season. While Gilligan was away working on The Lone Gunmen, the series has transformed into something that is very distinct and very different from what came before. As such, memory seems to be a suitable prism through which Gilligan might return to the series.

"Damn fine cup of coffee."

“Damn fine cup of coffee.”

The development of John Doe was actually quite difficult. Gilligan had always been one of the most prolific writers on the show’s staff, but he had a great deal of trouble breaking the episode. As Gilligan explains, he always wanted to write an episode about memory, but had difficulty deciding on the form that it would take:

“Setting the show in Mexico came late in the game,” reveals Gilligan of the episode’s origins, on the set of John Doe. “The original idea was about a ‘memory vampire’ who steals memories.” This ‘vampire’ was going to live in the United States, having been raised in an orphanage as a ‘John Doe.’ Knowing nothing of his past, he sought to learn about his identity. In the process, the vampire would steal memories from other people and leave them as vegetables. The victims were to have ranged in age from 30s to 60s, but all his prey would have woken up believing that it was 4 July 1972 – the stay the vampire was born: he stole their memories up until that date. In fact, Gilligan’s original episode title for John Doe was “July 14, 1972.”

That is a nice demonstration of stories can evolve and change through their development process. Gilligan had originally conceived as Bad Blood as a possible crossover with Unsolved Mysteries. When Gilligan did eventually get to write his crossover episode, X-Cops found Mulder and Scully wandering into Cops.



Gilligan is a writer who has long been fascinated with continuity. He has described himself repeatedly as a fan of the show, to the point that he will be watching the revival “with [his] Doctor Pepper and [his] big bowl of popcorn, and the lights dimmed way down low.” When Gilligan playfully tampered with the show’s central mythology in Paper Hearts, he riddled with script with obscure references to niche episodes like Young at Heart or Aubrey. When Gilligan wrote Tithonus, he drafted it as pay-off to a single line of dialogue in Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.

(Gilligan’s interest in continuity is just part of his broader interest in the mechanics of television as a medium. Gilligan is perhaps the show’s most postmodern writer. He consciously tied The X-Files into the larger “Tommy Westphall Hypothesis” with Unusual Suspects, played with diagetic news footage in Drive, and even had Mulder and Scully wander into a reality television show in X-Cops. Gilligan is arguably even more playful with the format of the show and its status as a television show than even Darin Morgan or Chris Carter.)

Taking a stand...

Taking a stand…

It feels appropriate to touch on the idea of memory at this point in the show’s run. The ninth season finds itself caught between the disappearing past and any possible future. The X-Files was facing its own irrelevance, in multiple ways. This was a show indelibly associated with Mulder and Scully, but which had already lost Mulder and which was going to lose Scully soon. Indeed, as the meeting between Kersh and Scully suggests, Doggett’s disappearance in John Doe mirrors that of Mulder in Within, right down to the suggestion that he may have simply run away.

However, the problems facing The X-Files extended even beyond a hypothetical future without Mulder and Scully. The horrific events of 9/11 had signalled the end of the long nineties, the decade which shaped and defined the series. The X-Files had been written in the context of a different world; its fears no longer resonated with a public terrified about anthrax or dirty bombs. Kersh acknowledges as much. “I want to find him as badly as you do. But the FBI’s resources are already taxed by National Security concerns. There are political realities I have to account for.”

"Sweet memories. Mmm. Sweet."

“Sweet memories. Mmm. Sweet.”

The future of The X-Files was uncertain and unsecure, as the cancellation notice would officially confirm. John Doe touches on the idea that the show might be haunted or trapped by its own memory, that the series was smothering under the weight of its own continuity. The ninth season never seemed entirely sure how best to engage with the past, whether to acknowledge Mulder’s disappearance or to avoid it. Fan expectation leaned heavily on the show. The show seemed uncertain about just how much it wanted to commit to Doggett and Reyes as its new lead characters.

John Doe touches on this idea. John Doggett is essentially “rebooted” by his experience with the memory vampire. He is offered a clean break, a chance to escape from his own past and history. In many ways, this reflects the decision facing The X-Files over the course of the ninth season. With David Duchovny gone and Gillian Anderson in the process of leaving, it might just be easier to offer a soft reboot of the show and to offer a clean break from what came before. It would seem to be the show’s best chance of surviving.

Let's see what's on the slab...

Let’s see what’s on the slab…

Perhaps reflecting his position as a long-term fan of the show who is heavily invested in its history, Gilligan argues that The X-Files cannot simply relinquish that baggage. “Why would you want to remember?” Caballero demands of Doggett. “You can’t tell me you’re happier now, because you recall your life. I saw it all. So much pain. Why would you want to struggle, so long, and hard, to get that pain back?” It is an argument with which most television critics would empathise; The X-Files was largely trapped by its history and weight at this point. Why not break free?

Doggett has a very simple response to all Caballero’s bold line of questioning. There is no philosophical mumbo-jumbo about how that pain makes him a better person, or how he has grown through processing the trauma. Doggett offers, “Because it’s mine.” That is all that needs to be said. The pain is part of who Doggett is, and letting go of that pain would be to lose part of himself. The same is arguably true of The X-Files. As much as the show is weighed down by its past, that past is a vital part of its identity.

Down Mexico way...

Down Mexico way…

Indeed, the final line of the episode seems like a reflection on the entire nine-season run of The X-Files as a whole. When Reyes asks him about all the pain that came with his memories, Doggett is even-handed. “I’ll take the bad as long as I remember the good,” he assures her. It seems like a sentiment that most fans of The X-Files might share, particularly as they wade through a final season where there is a lot more bad than good. John Doe suggests that the past cannot (or should not) be exorcised, whether it is good or whether it is bad.

The production of John Doe plays into the larger recurring motifs of the ninth season. The look and feel of the episode are quite notably, they feel sharper and more stylised than a lot of earlier episodes. The use of computer-generated film grain in the exterior scenes and the decision to tint the entire show yellow draw attention to the artifice of the episode. The ninth season of The X-Files is more willing to play with style in small ways, as if teasing the audience with its own sense of unreality.

A mortal lock...

A mortal lock…

Kim Manners’ direction of Nothing Important Happened Today I was filled with bright primary colours that existed in stark contrast to the darkness that permeated so much of the eighth season. The teaser to 4-D was mirrored, with the footage flipped horizontally. The teaser to Lord of the Flies was shot on a video camera with a 4:3 aspect ratio that clearly contrasted with the widescreen professional look of the rest of the episode. Within John Doe, the interiors are all tinted yellow while the exteriors are all digitally treated to generate film grain.

There is a sense of unreality to John Doe that feels entirely appropriate for an episode about memory and identity. Even at the climax, a lot of the action and drama is captured in reflection, Skinner’s face is visible in the glass at the back of the bus as Doggett and Reyes peer out. Across the ninth season, there is a recurring sense that The X-Files is offering glimpses of the hyperreal, of filtered and mediated realities. It feels like The X-Files is more aware of its status as a television show than it was at any other point in its history, even during the seventh season.

Remember, remember...

Remember, remember…

In fact, the portrayal of Mexico in John Doe was not based on real life. Writer Vince Gilligan and director Michelle MacLaren channelled their portrayal of the country throw the lens of film:

The writer was inspired by some recent movies. “I have to say that I was thinking about the movie Traffic when I was writing; specifically the scenes in Mexico.” Director of photography Bill Roe and his crew took their cue from both Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic and David O. Russell’s Three Kings, by over-exposing the daytime exterior shots on the camera to help give it a golden-yellow, washed-out feel.

MacLaren’s directorial preparations were quite similar to Gilligan’s. “I thought about running across the border to refresh my mind about Mexico, but decided against it because of the current national situation.” Instead, MacLaren rented movies, turning to Robert Rodriguez’ Desperado and El Mariachi, as well as other, older movies for encouragement.

John Doe does not unfold in anything resembling a true-to-life or real version of Mexico. Instead, John Doe finds John Doggett awakening in a cinematic version of Mexico, as unreal as Reyes’ situation in 4-D or Aubrey Pauley.

Broken chain of events...

Broken chain of events…

Of course, the visual style and tone of John Doe hints towards the future. The grim southern setting and the dusty desert filter seem to foreshadow the arrival of Breaking Bad. Vince Gilligan would set his crime drama in New Mexico, but a lot of the drama is built upon the same storytelling cues that Gilligan employed in John Doe. There are a set of sinister Mexican brothers; the “Cartel” is presented as mysterious and ominous; there is a very archetypal “western” quality to the story.

The connections between John Doe and Breaking Bad are reinforced by a number of conscious visual choices. The hyper-saturated golden hue of the episode feels out of place on The X-Files, but fits more comfortably within the aesthetic of Breaking Bad. A number of shots – particularly tense conversations – are framed from the low angles that Breaking Bad would use to make Walter White seem all the more menacing. Of course, there is a reason that John Doe looks a lot like an episode of Breaking Bad.

Reyes of hope...

Reyes of hope…

That reason is Michelle MacLaren. MacLaren had joined Ten Thirteen during the production of Harsh Realm at the start of the seventh season of The X-Files. After Harsh Realm was cancelled, she was brought on board The X-Files. John Doe is the first episode of television to be directed by MacLaren, who had wanted to direct for a while:

In 1999, she co-wrote a script for the TV movie A Song From the Heart, starring singer Amy Grant as a blind concert cellist who falls for a self-centered pianist.

“That got me over into the creative side, and I became a creative producer,” says MacLaren, leading me down a steep path that connects with the road back to her house. But she still hadn’t directed. Then her maternal grandmother, Granny Max, died while she was executive-producing The X-Files. “My mom called me and said, ‘I found a letter in your grandmother’s stuff that I’m sending you. You need to read it right away.'” It was a letter from 13-year-old Michelle, telling her grandmother that she hoped to direct films someday. Reading it, MacLaren says she realized “I’d better get off my ass and get going.”

Watching John Doe, it is very hard to believe that it is MacLaren’s first directorial credit. It has a confidence that is lacking from a lot of the surrounding episodes, a clarity of purpose and a sense of identity. John Doe does not feel like the work of a director still figuring out her trade.

We are not who we are.

We are not who we are.

In her role as producer, MacLaren had worked very closely with the show’s directors. She had even done some second unit stuff to help her get a feel for it. MacLaren credits the collaborative atmosphere on The X-Files for allowing her to hone those skills ahead of time:

“The type of producing that I did for many years involved working very closely with directors,” says MacLaren. “I prepped with the directors. I looked for locations. I’m there with casting and at art department meetings. Everything.” Often she found herself poring over X-Files dailies wondering, “Why did they shoot it that way?” “I was exposed to really fabulous directors—Kim Manners, David Nutter, Rob Bowman, Dan Sackheim. I had a front row seat watching what these guys were doing and learning from them.”

It is a great example of how Chris Carter encouraged his staff to grow and develop beyond their original roles. The X-Files encouraged its production team to stretch themselves and try new things; Carter was always willing to let his staff take on new responsibilities.

Glowing with enthusiasm...

Glowing with enthusiasm…

MacLaren credited the production team for being willing to take a chance on her, and to share their experience and advice:

MacLaren had wanted to direct for some time, taking directing courses to prepare her. Carter and Spotnitz agreed, scheduling MacLaren in early in the season, avoiding having the director’s duties interfere with her already heavy workload as a producer. Like the others, Michelle sought guidance from Manners, who went over breaking down the script, doing homework and preparing shot lists. “The most powerful thing he said to me was that he imagines it all cut together, and he sees the movie in his head, really visualizes it.” Chris Carter gave her some important advice, as well: “Make sure that the camera is always telling the story.”

“It’s a very, very supportive, creative atmosphere here,” she said. “And Chris is really generous in giving first-time directors a shot. To direct for your first time on a show like this is pretty incredible.”

It was Michelle MacLaren’s work on John Doe that encouraged Vince Gilligan to reach out to her when he was recruiting directors for Breaking Bad. (He would give her the affectionate nickname “Samantha Peckinpah.”)

Doggett'll (car)tel ya where to shove it...

Doggett’ll (car)tel ya where to shove it…

In many respects, Michelle MacLaren is the last great director that The X-Files would produce. Over the course of its nine seasons, The X-Files allowed directors like David Nutter, Rob Bowman and Kim manners to hone and develop their craft. Michelle MacLaren would go on to have an incredible impact on the shape and look of twenty-first century television. She would win back-to-back Emmy awards for producing Breaking Bad, awards that she shared with fellow former X-Files staffers Thomas Schnauz and Vince Gilligan.

However, MacLaren would also become one of the most visually distinctive directors working in the medium. MacLaren has provided some of the most memorable episodes of some of the most talked about television shows of the past decade. MacLaren has earned two Emmy nominations for directing Breaking Bad, but she has also worked on shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. Although she would depart the project over creative differences, Michelle MacLaren was the first choice to direct Wonder Woman.



Michelle MacLaren deserves a lot of the credit for how John Doe turned out. The episode is tense and stylised and striking, one of the more visually distinctive and memorable hours of television from the final season of The X-Files. Gilligan’s script is also on top form, demonstrating just how much the show missed him during the time he spent working on The Lone Gunmen. Scully is very consciously side-lined during John Doe, which allows Gilligan the chance to write an episode very firmly centred of Doggett and Reyes.

John Doe is one of the best episodes of the show’s troubled ninth season. Indeed, it is interesting to wonder if the ninth season might have been remembered better had the broadcast order been shuffled around a bit. Gilligan’s script for John Doe was delayed by the narrative issues around the “memory vampire”, meaning that it was pushed much later into the season. Hellbound was the fourth episode produced, but the eighth to air. Had the season opened with run of John DoeHellbound and 4-D, it seems likely fans would feel a lot less hostile towards it.

A solid storytelling engine...

A solid storytelling engine…

For all that John Doe advocates for the importance and continuity of memory, it is very much the ideal ninth-season episode. As with 4-D, the relationship between Doggett and Reyes is pushed to the foreground. Although Gilligan focuses on Doggett, the script still finds room for Reyes’ wonderful “please don’t speak Spanish anymore” interrogation scene. Scully and Skinner appear in the episode, but they are relegated to supporting roles. They are present, but they are very much secondary to the new lead characters.

John Doe is very much an ideal ninth season episode, like 4-D before it and Hellbound after it. Unfortunately, it arrives at a point where the ninth season has already repeatedly demonstrated that it has no idea what it wants to do or how it wants to do it. John Doe might stress its connection to the series’ past and make a few fortuitous nods towards the writer and director’s future, but it feels utterly lost in show’s present.

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