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The X-Files – Hellbound (Review)

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

Your hand travelled
the Aztec trail
down my breast.
The sun popped out like the egg
of a platypus
and aspens pattered
their leafy Ur-language.
All this has happened before.

The jellied landscape
was furrowed with happiness.
You worshipped me
like the goddess of warm rain.

But in each corner of our eyes
stood one of Maxwell’s demons
loosening the molecules
of rise and fall
back and forth.

And in and out, round and about,
in and out,
through the cracked lens of the eye
unendingly,
surface behind glass
entropy mounted
in the random and senseless universe.

All this has happened before.
All this will happen again.

– Miroslav Holub, Lovers in August

Uncomfortable in his skin...

Uncomfortable in his skin…

There is something inherently poetic about reincarnation, as demonstrated by The Field Where I Died. Returning to The X-Files after spending a year running Space: Above and Beyond, writers Glen Morgan and James Wong pushed the show in bold new directions. They wrote four episodes across the season. The other three episodes – HomeMusings of a Cigarette-Smoking ManNever Again – were all controversial in their own way. Nevertheless, The Field Where I Died remains an oddity. There has never been an episode like it.

Hellbound tackles similar ideas. Both The Field Where I Died and Hellbound are stories about reincarnation and resurrection, about souls that seem to be trapped within each other’s orbit. The Field Where I Died suggested that Mulder had lived many past lives that seemed to draw him towards the soul currently occupying the body of Melissa Riedal. The episode was slow, thoughtful, introspective. It culminated in a spectacular failure on the part of Mulder, suggesting that his one true chance for contentment in this lifetime might have slipped through his fingers.

March of time...

March of time…

Hellbound is a very different episode of television. It is certainly a lot more conventional and lot less ambitious than The Field Where I Died. In Hellbound, it is suggested that Monica Reyes has lived many past lives, lives that seem to draw her towards a cycle of violence and brutality that perpetuates across eternity. Hellbound is a lot clearer than The Field Where I Died, affording less time for soul-searching or reflection. It is a story that is easily classifiable as a “monster of the week” story, with Doggett and Reyes tracking a horrific serial killer tied to the cycle.

However, Hellbound does retain at least come hint of the lyrical quality that drove The Field Where I Died, perhaps simply through its exploration of reincarnation. After all, tackling the subject of reincarnation raises questions about fate and justice that resonate. There is a powerful spiritual element to reincarnation, in that it transcends death. It makes the trip to the undiscovered country a stopover on a round trip, suggesting that the traditional limits that mankind imposes on existence are nothing but arbitrary markers. Death is not the end, it is a beginning.

Man, reincarnation really grates...

Man, reincarnation really grates…

In Popular Psychology, Belief in Life After Death and Reincarnation in the Nordic Countries, Western and Eastern Europe, Erlendur Haraldsson reflected on findings of surveys conducted between 1999 and 2002:

Perhaps most unexpected is the finding of a substantial belief in reincarnation, and perhaps even more so the fact that 37% of those who believe in life after death also believe in reincarnation. This shows the concept of reincarnation as a major form of belief in life after death among the inhabitants of western Europe. This is certainly not in line with the dominant doctrine of the Christian Churches, Catholic or Protestant. These facts open up several questions. Is this high “voting” for reincarnation due to cultural-religious influences from Asia (various cults and movements of the 19th and 20th century), is it due to remnants of pre-Christian beliefs, or simply the result of personal thinking and brooding on the question of our essential nature and destiny?

These figures line up with the statistics in North America. Between one fifth and one quarter of Americans believe in reincarnation. Reincarnation is not a fringe belief.

Happy as a pig in...

Happy as a pig in…

The X-Files has only directly grappled with reincarnation in The Field Where I Died and Hellbound, tackling the big weighty questions raised by these perpetual cycles of death and rebirth. Nevertheless, the idea of “life after death” was of considerable interest during the early years of the show. In the first season alone, episodes like Shadows, Lazarus, Born Again and Roland all touch upon the idea of a killer striking back from beyond the grave. This motif recurs across the show’s early years; The List is about a death row inmate launching a campaign of revenge.

Although quite a few later stories (like Salvage) feature attempts at retribution by characters who should be dead, the show drifted away from this engagement with death and resurrection within the “monster of the week” structure. As such, it feels weirdly appropriate for Hellbound to revisit the idea during the final season. In fact, Hellbound actually aired a little over a week after Fox announced the cancellation of The X-Files. The show itself was about to die; the production team would soon discover if it had a life after death.

Getting under his skin...

Getting under his skin…

Even outside of the spiritual connotations, reincarnation carries incredible metaphorical weight. Like the use of memory in John Doe, reincarnation opens up a wide range of questions about identity and self-determination. To what extent is a person the product of their own decisions? What outside factors serve to control or dictate behaviour? Are people really just the products of a larger mechanism that exists beyond their perception? Are people trapped by decisions they made years or decades ago? Are they trapped by decisions other people made?

One of the more interesting aspects of the ninth season of The X-Files is the way that the show seems to hint and tease at the shape of things to come, whether as accidental foreshadowing or simply early iterations of ideas cycling their way through the popular consciousness. 4-D seems to prefigure Fringe, perhaps the most obvious successor to The X-Files. John Doe suggests that Breaking Bad is percolating in Vince Gilligan’s subconscious. Hellbound nods faintly towards Ronald D. Moore’s reinvention of Battlestar Galactica.

Talk about preserved...

Talk about preserved…

Perhaps “nods” is too strong a word. However, Reyes warns Doggett, “It’s all happened before and now it’s happening again.” This would seem to foreshadow Battlestar Galactica‘s recurring mantra that “all of this has happened before and will happen again.” Of course, Ronald D. Moore appropriate this line from Disney’s Peter Pan, which inherited the phrase from J.M. Barrie’s classic story. It seems like people are not the only thing that can be reincarnated; ideas can recur and reinvent themselves as well.

A variant of the phrase also recurs in Miroslav Holub’s poem Lovers in August. In some ways, Hellbound seems to draw from the imagery and iconography of Holub’s sixties poem. The poem’s allusion to “the random and senseless universe” evokes Reyes’ struggle to make sense of this cycle of reincarnation and reinvention. “You’re not dying on me,” Reyes warns Van Allen. “Not until you tell me what you mean!” The reference to the “cracked lens of the eye” suggests Kim Manners’ slow pan out from a baby’s eye into the final scene suggesting that the cycle continues.

Bloody handiwork...

Bloody handiwork…

Even the reference to “the Aztec trail” conjures up images relating to the story’s inspiration. The guide to Hellbound on the official site suggested that the connection between reincarnation and flaying was rooted in Aztec beliefs:

In Aztec mythology, the god of vegetation, Xipe Totec, or “The Flayed One,” is depicted in pre-Columbian statuary as wearing a mask or garment of human skin. For the Aztec people, this deity represented the springtime emergence of growth from the newly planted maize seeds — new life bursting from the old husk. As a way to honor and emulate this god, Aztec priests would hold annual ceremonies in which they would flay a sacrificial victim and wear the skin over their own for a period of time.

The script to the episode never explicitly ties these themes back to Aztec spirituality, but that is probably a good thing. The X-Files has occasionally struggled with indigenous cultures in stories like Shapes or Teso dos Bichos.

Matching his meat...

Matching his meat…

Still, link between flaying and reincarnation is evocative. After all, these souls are ultimately shedding their skin as they move from one generation to the next; the outside is but a shell, a mask to be worn. This was the subtext of sacrifices to Xipe Totec. As Robert L. Hall notes in Some Commonalities Linking North America and Mesoamerica:

The Aztec sacrificial victim was flayed after death and his skin worn by a warrior impersonating the Flayed God Xipe Totec. This was a literal interpretation of the metaphor of reincarnation or rebirth as skin shedding, a metaphor attested to also for the Winnebago in North America and the Amazonian Barasana. Symbolic reincarnation was a major element of the mourning ritual known as Spirit Adoption in eastern North America. In the case of the captive killed in the Aztec gladiatorial sacrifice, the person who provided him was said to have acted like a father to his captive, calling him “son” and simulating mourning of his death.

This idea of death and rebirth seems particularly relevant to the ninth season of The X-Files, much like the themes of memory and identity in John Doe resonated with the larger context of the ninth season. With David Duchovny gone and Gillian Anderson leaving, The X-Files was a show that was dying. Could it be reborn?

Let us prey...

Let us prey…

One of the conflicts of the ninth season is the push and pull between the past and the future. The X-Files is understandably reluctant to release Mulder and Scully, even after David Duchovny has left and Gillian Anderson has signalled her intent to leave. The ninth season mythology is more firmly anchored in Mulder and Scully than in Doggett and Reyes. The first standalone episode to air after the two-parter premiere, Dæmonicus, was largely given over to insisting that Scully was still a big deal – even though the episode was very much about Doggett and Reyes.

The past exerts a magnetic pull on the ninth season of The X-Files, which seems more invested in an absent Mulder and a departing Scully than in Doggett and Reyes. The broadcast order reflects this fact. The early episodes of the season are largely about assuring viewers that Mulder and Scully are still a big deal. Trust No 1 was produced eighth, but broadcast sixth. In contrast, episode centring on Doggett and Reyes were shuffled into the middle of the season. John Doe was delayed by Vince Gilligan’s writers’ block; Hellbound was produced fourth and broadcast eighth.

Digging up the past...

Digging up the past…

It is interesting to wonder whether the ninth season might have a better reputation had the production team been willing to push Doggett and Reyes more firmly to the fore. The three strongest episodes in the first half of the ninth season – 4-D, John Doe and Hellbound – are very much “Doggett and Reyes” stories. However, they are suffocated by stories that struggle to keep Mulder actively involved in the mythology despite David Duchovny’s absence and by episodes that fight to keep Scully at the heart of the show.

Hellbound is very much a Reyes-centric episode. Reyes is very an unknown at this point in the show’s run. She is the least defined of the leading characters. Doggett had at least been eased into his role across the twenty-one episodes of the eighth season. Reyes had a handful of supporting appearances in the second half of the eighth season before she was elevated to the show’s regular cast. With all of that in mind, it seems like the show should have made priority of developing Reyes. Instead, with the episode airing near the middle of the season, it was an afterthought.

Soots you, sir...

Soots you, sir…

In The Truth About Season Nine, writer David Amann suggested that the idea of spotlighting Hellbound around Monica Reyes came from Frank Spotnitz:

Frank Spotnitz was very interested in taking Monica Reyes’ character in sort of a darker… in giving her darkness to play. She has a past life that has really sombre overtones.

Spotnitz had very much established himself as the curator of the second-generation characters. He had written a lot for Doggett during the eighth season and had suggested centring John Doe on Doggett.

Webs of deceit...

Webs of deceit…

Of course, the ninth season had struggled and failed to properly define Monica Reyes. There was always a sense that the character was less important to the show than either Mulder or Scully, which is a miscalculation given that Annabeth Gish was around and eager for work. Frank Spotnitz’s script for Dæmonicus had opened with a nice window to a Reyes-centric story, focusing on satanic ritual murders, but quickly shuffled the character into the background so more time could be spent with Scully.

As such, reincarnation feels like an appropriate theme for the ninth season. The X-Files is clearly having a great deal of difficulty navigating its own cycle of death and rebirth, no matter how many times it has puts its characters through a similar process. Hellbound acknowledges this subtext by allowing Reyes to reflect on her own role within the cycle of death and rebirth within the story itself. “You always fail,” Van Allen taunts her at the climax of the episode. “It’s your lot.” Looking at the ninth season, it seemed like Doggett and Reyes really were doomed.

Old news...

Old news…

“He feels me,” Reyes confesses to Scully at the end of the episode. “The way I felt him when I saw that picture of the first victim. And somehow he knows my deepest fear that I’ll fail.” Reyes is not comfortable in her own skin, because she is not entirely sure that it is her own skin; filling the mandatory “believer” role in the dynamic, Reyes is arguably just wearing Mulder’s skin. “Well, maybe in this life you succeed,” Scully urges, in a line that seems somewhat bittersweet given that the episode was produced before but broadcast after the show’s cancellation.

Reyes could be seen to be expressing anxieties familiar to the entire production team, worries about the stability and the security of the show. For better or for worse, Doggett and Reyes were the faces of the ninth season by virtue of actually being on the show. They were the characters who would ultimately be held to account by the fanbase, who would inevitably be blamed for the decline and cancellation of the show. It seems unlikely the internet would get particularly excited about a revival of The X-Files starring Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish.

It turns out that the sheriff shot the sheriff...

It turns out that the sheriff shot the sheriff…

Hellbound engages with broader themes tied to its central metaphor of reincarnation. After all, not everybody has to die to transition between lives. Hellbound is packed with allegory and commentary. The episode opens on “an anger management group for ex-cons.” When the case is first presented to him, Doggett dismisses the victim as an “ex-con, three-time loser, career criminal.” The episode opens on a close-up of a tattoo on the arm of a former convict, a mark made on skin that is carried for life and cannot easily be erased.

The tattoo imagery cements the thematic connections between John Doe and Hellbound, two stories about the awkward relationship between the present and the past. In John Doe, Doggett’s marines tattoo provides a tenuous link to the man he used to be; in Hellbound, Terrance Pruit’s gang tattoo serves as a constant reminder of a life that he has tried to escape. There is a nice yin-yang quality to the use of tattoo imagery. While John Doe suggests that memory provides continuity, Hellbound suggests that the past is a trap from which some cannot escape.

Enemy mine...

Enemy mine…

Former convicts are in many ways defined by their past. They are forever tarred by association with part misdeeds. “These men are haunted by their pasts,” Doctor Holland states. “That’s why they’re here.” She elaborates, “Sometimes the past they want to escape won’t let them.” This is very much part of a larger debate about how society treats ex-offenders; there is an argument to be had about whether the criminal justice system is (or should be) designed for rehabilitation as much as retribution.

Statistics suggest that former convicts are more likely to commit crimes than people without a prior record. However, the rate of reoffense only increases when those former convicts are ostracised or ghettoised. It should also be noted that it is (understandably) much tougher from former convicts to hold do a job. Studies demonstrate that up to sixty percent of convicts released from New York prisons are unemployed a year after their release. Those rates might climb to seventy percent elsewhere. Reintegration into society is not easy. The past cannot be escaped.

One last shot.

One last shot.

This has been acknowledged as a wider social issue in the United States, due to the sheer volume of former convicts facing issues relating to rehabilitation and reinvention:

Rehabilitating criminals is a bigger problem in America than in any other rich country, simply because it brands more people criminals. In 2010 a whopping 25% of African-American and 6% of non-black adults were either felons or ex-felons, estimates Sarah Shannon of the University of Minnesota. To encourage firms to give ex-cons a fair shot, 50 cities and several states have enacted “Ban the Box” rules, which bar employers from inquiring about a jobseeker’s criminal history until later in the application. It might also help if the criminal-justice system discriminated more vigorously between dangerous criminals and non-violent ones—and locked up fewer of the latter.

In fact, The X-Files production team had moved from Vancouver to Los Angeles between the fifth and sixth seasons. Although it has since been eclipsed by Texas, California has an incredibly large prison population.

Outside looking in...

Outside looking in…

This is why there has been so much focus on trying to facilitate the assimilation of former convicts back into wider society. Part of this is reflected in the current campaign to “ban the box”, convincing state and federal legislatures to push criminal background checks later into the job application process. President Barrack Obama has endorsed this campaign. Between June and December of 2001, around the time Hellbound was in production, Devah Pager conducted an in-depth study revealing the prejudice facing former convicts seeking employment.

Hellbound also draws a broader metaphor, connecting back to the core themes of The X-Files as a whole. Reyes discovers a long historical pattern of murders stretching back across history. When Scully inquires about the most recent string of killings, she is shocked to discover that there was no proper investigation into the case. “The victim was a John Doe, a nobody,” reflects Doctor Mueller, who worked on the case. “Carl Hobart, the county sheriff, figured he was a drifter. Hobart said he didn’t want to stir up the community.”

Knife to see you...

Knife to see you…

As such, the victim becomes part of perpetual cycle of abuse. Those who prey on the disenfranchised and the weak are often able to do so without provoking righteous fury or facing public justice. The X-Files has repeatedly fixated on this pattern of behaviour, the conspirators victimising people who are already silent and dismissed. The mythology features box cars full of deformed bodies buried on Native American reservations while the conspirators prey on the mentally unstable (as in Fallen Angel or Duane Barry) or exploit women’s bodies for their own ends.

Hellbound seems to connect back to those core themes, suggesting that these cycles of abuse and violence do not have to be conducted by cabals or consortiums. The victim in the last iteration of the cycle was just a drifter, so there was no fuss around his death. This time, the victims are all former convicts. Even Doggett does not seem too concerned about what is happening to them. When Doctor Holland tries to speak up for them, he responds, “Doctor Holland there’s justice to be served here. You can’t forget that.” What about justice for them?

Telling porkies...

Telling porkies…

History would suggest that is possible to get away with murder if the right victim is chosen. The Grim Sleeper was able to stalk South Central Los Angeles for three decades because he preyed on African American women. The cycle of abuse in Hellbound is just another less organised expression of the evil that lurked in the heart of the show’s mythology. In a way, Hellbound plays as something of a sequel to Empedocles, suggesting that such horror is universal and can change form. The mythology is just a highly organised example of a much more common injustice.

It is a shame that the ninth season never properly built on those interesting ideas suggested by Empedocles, a bold new mythology anchored in broad concepts of evil and injustice rather than the specifics of an alien plot to colonise the planet. It would have done a lot to distinguish the eight and ninth seasons from what had come before, instead of getting stuck hitting the same familiar beats about conspiracies and colonisation. Hellbound is really the last gasp of this alternate mythology, with Release going out of its way to ignore as much of Empedocles as possible.

The way we were...

The way we were…

The cycle of violence in Hellbound stretches back to November 1868. That month also marked the Battle of Washita River, in which General Custer led his army against a Cheyenne settlement. The battle remains a controversial chapter in United States history, particular to the Cheyenne. As Richard G. Hardorff outlines in Washita Memories:

The Cheyennes of today have a strong sense of the injustice done to their people at the Washita. They continue to view the brutal attack as a horrible event in their tribal history. Some have opposed the development of the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site because they feel that the ground if hallowed and should be left undisturbed rather than opened to the public. Most consider the attack a massacre and would like to see the name of the historical site changed to reflect that view.

The cycle of violence in Hellbound is ultimately tied to “a mining dispute”, conjuring up images of Manifest Destiny, a recurring fixation for The X-Files.The show has repeatedly suggested that the United States is haunted by many of atrocities committed during the establishment of the state by the European settlers.

People suits...

People suits…

In fact, Hellbound consciously draws upon imagery tying back to the show’s central mythology. The imagery of Reyes finding a horrific secret buried in a seemingly abandoned mine recalls Mulder and Scully’s investigations in Paper Clip. Ultimately, Reyes is confronting evil on a much smaller scale, but she still uncovers evidence of generations of violence and abuse. Once again, the horror of the mythology is treated as a reflection of a broader form of evil and corruption, all tied back to the same imagery and iconography.

Of course, some of the logic of Hellbound is quite fuzzy, as stories around reincarnation tend to be. The suggestion that death and reincarnation is an instantaneous process muddles the chronology somewhat. It seems strange that the deaths in 1960 could be separated by months while the murders in 2002 seem to occur over the course of a few days. It is hardly the exact same pattern, after all. Similarly, the episode seems to imply that Reyes is part of the cycle as well. However, Annabeth Gish was only thirty when the episode was filmed, making the chronology hazy.

Going deeper underground...

Going deeper underground…

These are not necessarily critical logical flaws with the story. After all, the fact that Reyes is able to save the life of Doctor Holland suggests that the events are not set in stone; there seems to be some leeway for free will and improvisation. It is possible that Reyes has been cast in a role that traditionally lags a decade or so behind the rest of the major players; her previous host might have passed away ten years later. After all, it is never clear what role Reyes played in past dramas, except that she never managed to stop the murders.

Doctor Mueller’s story initially suggests that Reyes might be the reincarnated form of Carl Hobart, the “county sheriff” who committed suicide after the homicides. It is easy enough to construct a convincing narrative around that possibility, with the failure to catch the killer driving Hobart to suicide. However, the revelation that Detective Van Allen is actually the killer would suggest that he is the reincarnated soul of Carl Hobart, and that Hobart killed those victims and covered up his involvement. Hobart committed suicide so he could chase them into the next cycle.

Not entirely con(vinced)...

Not entirely con(vinced)…

The thematic connection to Empedocles is not the only link that ties Hellbound to the eighth season. The conversations between Reyes and Scully hint at the sexual chemistry they shared during their adventure together in Existence. Reyes does not describe Scully as beautiful, but there is a sense that Reyes is more comfortable confiding her intimate secrets to Scully rather than Doggett. The episode hints at interesting possibilities when Scully notices an inconsistency between the killers pictured in November 1868 and the potential victims of 2002.

“Lisa Holland?” Scully asks, referring to the doctor who oversaw the anger management group that tied all the victims together. “What about her?” Reyes explains, “She was one of them. One of the men you see standing there.” It is a small detail, but a very nice one. It seems that souls are not necessary traditionally gendered. It would appear that it is possible for a male soul to be born to a female body and vice versa, if souls can be said to have a gender at all. Reyes does not bat an eyelid at the possibility, even if Scully seems to.

The blood drains from his face. And everywhere else.

The blood drains from his face. And everywhere else.

Hellbound does not make a big deal of it, but it is a fairly bold statement for a show as conservative as The X-Files. The show has come a long way from the sexual politics of Gender Bender, when Mulder and Scully treated a killer who could change gender as more plausible than a bisexual. There is just about enough material in the final two seasons of The X-Files to suggest that Reyes might be bisexual. While it seems highly unlikely that the show would actually have explored that avenue, it is nice to see Reyes keeping an open mind on issues of gender and sex.

Hellbound is another strong ninth season episode. It just seems a shame that it arrived so late.

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