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The X-Files – Release (Review)

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

Release is a breath of fresh air.

There are problems with the episode, serious problems. The plotting is incredibly loose, with Release relying upon a series of incredible contrivances even once you get past the supernaturally-gifted crime-solver who only joined the FBI so he could solve a murder that happens to connect back to Luke Doggett. At best, Release is clumsy and inelegant. At worst, it makes absolutely no sense. More than that, there is the question of whether or not the episode is actually necessary. Does The X-Files actually need to resolve the murder of Luke Doggett?

Picture perfect...

Picture perfect…

These are fairly sizable and fundamental problems. There is no getting around them. However, Release offsets those problems by being a spectacularly-produced piece of television. Everything works, from Robert Patrick’s performance to Mark Snow’s piano-heavy score to Kim Manner’s stylised direction. Release is a reminder of just how sleek and well-oiled The X-Files could be. That is quite a relief after the triple whammy of Scary Monsters, Jump the Shark and William. Release is a good episode on its own terms; in context, it is a masterpiece.

It also helps that Release feels like the first attempt to give the show actual material closure since Improbable. That closure is thematic rather than literal, with the mystery of Luke Doggett’s death serving as a vehicle through which the show might finally resolve some of its own lingering threads. In the case of Release, the show is tidying away the strands that have been woven into the fabric of The X-Files from the beginning; strands that paid homage to Silence of the Lambs and gave birth to Millennium. Release bids farewell to the forensic side of The X-Files.

The old man and the sea...

The old man and the sea…

The mythology was always going to take centre stage when it came time to draw down the shutters on The X-Files. For better or worse, the mythology was the most instantly recognisable and iconic part of the show. Even casual viewers understood that The X-Files was a show about government conspiracies and alien plots. The Truth was always going to be given over to untangling that Gordian Knot, with William making it clear that the production team would be hoping to address all nine seasons of the mythology.

However, The X-Files was always more than the mythology. As with any show that running nine seasons, The X-Files was a lot of different things. Sometimes those things intersected and overlapped, sometimes they stood alone in contrast. Part of wrapping up The X-Files meant untangling some of those separate endings and acknowledging. The final season of The X-Files really should be about acknowledging everything that the show was at various stages of its life, acknowledging as many different facets of the behemoth as possible.

If walls could talk...

If walls could talk…

One of the issues with this final run of episodes is that the production team feel the need to tidy away plot threads and character arcs that simply don’t need terminal resolution. This is most apparent with the completely gratuitous death of the Lone Gunmen in Jump the Shark, an unnecessary creative decision that seemed mean-spirited. The same is true of the way that William dealt with the eponymous baby and resurrected Jeffrey Spender. There was no real need to address those aspects of the show in so direct a manner; doing so just created confusion and ambiguity.

There are certainly elements of that to Release. The murder of Luke Doggett has never really been a mystery that needed to be solved. The show seemed to suggest that Luke Doggett’s murder was not necessarily a “whodunnit?” mystery, but an existential crisis. The central point of that plot thread is thematic; John Doggett has seen the face of human evil, but was there something more behind it? The suspected killer of Luke Doggett perished in a car crash at the start of Empedocles, revealed to be the vessel of a very primal (and contagious) evil.

Into the shadows...

Into the shadows…

Release feels somewhat redundant, bending over backwards to afford Doggett closure on the death of his son. The murder of Luke Doggett was presented quite similar to the murder of Melissa Hollis in Closure, it was the antithesis of the abduction of Samantha Mulder. There is no conspiracy or chain of custody. No clones and no colonisation. Episodes like Invocation, This is Not Happening and Empedocles suggested that the central point of Luke’s death was that sometimes there are no clear answers or logical reasons; there is only ambiguity and reflection.

The resolution in Release feels trite and forced. Doggett was denied any recourse or satisfaction against Bob Harvey by random chance when Harvey died in Empedocles. As a result, Release struggles to explain how Bob Harvey could have been involved in Luke’s death while not murdering the child himself. The episode suggests that Bob Harvey simply kidnapped and assaulted Luke, but that mobster Nicholas Regali actually fired the bullet that killed the young boy.

Mobbed up...

Mobbed up…

Regali poses the details of the case as a hypothetical. “Say this Bob Harvey likes little boys,” he suggests. “Yeah. Disgusting. Say one day, Bob Harvey sees a little boy riding a bike, and he can’t stand it. He grabs the boy. So, Harvey takes the boy back to his place only he doesn’t tell the businessman what he’s doing. So, the businessman walks in on him. You see what I’m saying, FBI? The boy sees the businessman’s face. The businessman who never did nothing to this little boy. That’s a problem. Well… every problem has got a solution, right?”

It is incredibly contrived, with the script working really hard to crowbar a new character into a past trauma for the purpose of offering John Doggett some resolution before the show comes to an end. This is nothing new, of course; the chain of custody on Luke Doggett is arguably less convoluted than that on Samantha Mulder. Samantha Mulder was abducted by aliens, experimented upon by the government, lived with the Cigarette-Smoking Man, ran away, and was rescued by benign spirits. Luke Doggett was just abducted by a paedophile who hung out with a mobster.

A disarming revelation...

A disarming revelation…

It feels like a lot of logical leaps to resolve a plot thread that never really hung over the show. The tragic history of John Doggett was always presented as something that existed in the past. Bob Harvey killed off in the teaser of Empedocles, while the memory of Luke Doggett was considered of fundamental importance to his father’s identity in John Doe. The loss of his son informed the person that John Doggett became, but it never seemed like a plot thread that promised a tidy resolution.

The loss of Samantha Mulder was a formative tragedy for Fox Mulder, but it was also a source of hope. For the show’s first seven seasons, Mulder desperately hoped that he might be reunited with his lost sister and be able to put his family back together. The bounty hunter assured Mulder that she was alive and well in End Game, while the ghost of Bill Mulder assured his son that she had not passed on to the afterlife in The Blessing Way. Clones of Samantha haunt the mythology, appearing in episodes like Colony, Herrenvolk and Redux II.

Shedding some light on the case...

Shedding some light on the case…

The reveal that Samantha Mulder had been dead for decades came as a shock in Sein und Zeit and Closure. In contrast, Luke Doggett was very definitively dead. Doggett could never hope to resurrect his son, could never aspire to put his family back together. Release acknowledges this, suggesting that neither John nor Barbara hold any hope of reuniting or reconciling once all of this is behind him. While Mulder could build a myth around Samantha, the show suggested that Doggett could not do the same with Luke.

(There is also the simple matter of continuity logistics. Samantha Mulder was clearly identified as a driving force for the show in The Pilot, with the show restating that connection in Conduit. Samantha haunted the mythology, with flashbacks to her abduction appearing in Little Green Men and questions about her paternity arising in Demons. Samantha also bubbled through into “monster of the week” stories like Miracle Man, Oubliette and Paper Hearts. Even casual viewers knew Samantha was a mystery to be solved. Luke was never given that prominence or profile.)

Drawing a blank...

Drawing a blank…

Release seemed to be answering questions that nobody was asking. Luke Doggett was one example, but there were others. Assistant Director Brad Follmer only appeared in six episodes of The X-Files. This does not make him a major player in any real sense. He had been introduced as a potential player in Nothing Important Happened Today I, but there was never a sense hanging over the ninth season that the show absolutely had to explain everything about him. Follmer could have faded into the background without anybody noticing.

Instead, Release works very hard to flesh out Follmer’s background while resolving his character arc. Release explains why Reyes broke off her relationship with Follmer, a mystery that was never really a mystery; spending five minutes with the character should explain that decision. It also reveals that Follmer was a dirty agent, taking bribes “to make an indictment go away.” Follmer is being blackmailed by Nicholas Regali, it turns out. This leads to a finalé where Follmer finally snaps and murders Regali. This character arc comes out of nowhere for Follmer.

Brad to the bone...

Brad to the bone…

More to the point, it is very convenient. The plot to Release runs on a series of interlocking contrivances. The episode gets away with its biggest logical leap, the idea that a series of recent murders might just happen to connect back to the death of Luke Doggett and only a gifted trainee can see it. Once the show starts layering more coincidences on top of that, suspension of disbelief begins to erode. Release demands a few too many leaps from the audience, without really justifying them.

Follmer is the biggest of these leaps. Release requires that Follmer was investigating Regali around the time of Luke’s murder. Given that Doggett and Follmer have come back into each other’s orbit, that feels like a sizable coincidence. Then it is revealed that Follmer took a bribe from Regali and is being blackmailed, a larger leap that does not fit with what we know of Follmer; Follmer is a self-interested weasel, but he never seemed corrupt. Then Follmer has to murder Regali, just so that Doggett can have closure without murdering Regali himself.

Reflecting on it all...

Reflecting on it all…

The show multitasking. Release manages to solve the murder of Luke Doggett while also getting rid of Assistant Director Brad Follmer. Neither really seemed all that necessary, and the link seems a bit tidy. It makes it feel like The X-Files unfolds in a rather small and limited universe, as if there are only so many characters who make important decisions and whose lives overlap in the course of day-to-day existence. The mythology could get away with it, because that shared culpability was a major theme. Release pushed things just a little bit too far.

There are other scripting issues with the episode. In keeping with the sense that everything is just a little bit too tidy, it feels contrived that Nicholas Regali should decide to confess his murder to the father of his victim; a father who happens to be an armed FBI agent. “I like you, FBI,” Regali offers by way of justification. “I really do. I’ll tell you how it could have happened, hypothetically.” Regali murders women and children. Why would he suddenly grow a conscience as the episode comes to an end? More to the point, doesn’t he worry Doggett will simply shoot him?

Family photo...

Family photo…

These are all problems with the episode. They are legitimate concerns. Release is a flawed episode of television in many ways, and it is perfectly understandable that all these leaps and holes will render certain viewers hostile towards the show. Release is not the best script that David Amann has ever written, for any number of possible reasons; perhaps the script did not get enough love with everything else happening, perhaps there were simply too many demands to be met within forty-five minutes.

Nevertheless, Release works surprisingly well. The episode might not hold together in any real narrative sense, but it is still an emotional powerful piece of television. A lot of this is down to the production, but there is also an efficiency to Amann’s script. While Release might have been the result of a thankless story brief, the script itself commits to its central ideas. There is a sense that all of the contrivances and coincidences are the result of Amann deciding to follow the path of least resistance towards the story’s goals. This allows more room for atmosphere and tone.

Badge of honour...

Badge of honour…

Release almost works better as a collection of still images than as a linear story. The best moments in Release are almost impressionist, with director Kim Manners cutting to and from various static shots. There is a slow and stately quality to Release, with Manners avoiding a lot of the action in favour of wide angles and steady establishing shots. There is a funereal quality to the episode, one that fits well with its place in the show’s larger context. It is a cliché to suggest that a picture is worth a thousand words, but the strongest storytelling in Release is visual.

A man shining a torch in a dark hallway, looking for answers that may never come. A curious soul digging at a wall, that starts to bleed. A field decorated with the dismembered remains of the human form, lives torn and shattered. A wall covered in photographs, row after row capturing glimpses of death. The dawn’s golden light shining though the window, lighting the room with a golden hue. A husband and wife standing together on the beach, tide lapping at their feet as they finally make peace with a loss keenly felt.

Washing away...

Washing away…

There is even a lyrical quality to the dialogue. The character of Rudolph Hayes is a walking contrivance, but there is a sense that he is at least as much a poet as a forensic scientist. “It’s obvious, isn’t it?” he asks, examining the body of the first victim. “The chipped nail polish. The drugstore hair rinse. This is a single woman, unemployed. That’s why no one’s ID’d her.” It is one of the ironies of death that it should say so much about life. It could all be very cheesy, like a lot of The X-Files could be cheesy, but Release commits to it.

One of the more interesting visual elements of the ninth season is the use of colour. The eighth season went back to a very dark look, playing with shadow and light to recreate the look of the show’s earlier years. The ninth season embraces colour and light in a more stylised way. Arguably the best thing about Nothing Important Happened Today I is Kim Manners’ use of heavily saturated primary colours. While the brightness could make episodes like Providence look cheap, it added to the hyperreality of shows like Improbable.

Somebody had to fill the void of manly tears left by Mulder. Doggett stepped up.

Somebody had to fill the void of manly tears left by Mulder. Doggett stepped up.

Kim Manners does excellent work on Release. The episode would be his penultimate directorial credit on the show before working on The Truth. It is easy to forget just how stylish The X-Files could be, just how well-honed the production team were at the peak of their powers. Release looks and feels as good as the show ever did, with Manners making excellent use of colour and imagery. There is a beautifully atmospheric sequence in which Rudolph Hayes faces dawn in his apartment, conveyed through a number of stunningly lit shots that eerily establish tone.

Release also benefits from a fantastic score by Mark Snow. It is very easy to take Snow’s work for granted, but his soundscapes played an essential role in defining and determining the identity of The X-Files. Snow offers a very simple and emotional theme running through Release, a classical-sounding piano piece underscored by percussion that serves as a heartbeat. The piece evolves through the episode, becoming a fully orchestrated theme as the case progresses. It adds a lot of weight to the story.

Details are a bit Hayes-y...

Details are a bit Hayes-y…

In many ways, Release feels like a production showcase, a reminder of just how efficient the production team could be. Robert Patrick turns in an absolutely astounding performance as John Doggett, with a lot of the plot contrivances justified as an excuse to give the actor one last showcase. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson did phenomenal work on The X-Files, both separately and together, but Robert Patrick’s contributions are frequently overlooks. Patrick is a fantastic performer, giving Doggett a rich interior emotional life.

Release offers the show’s third lead actor any number of fantastic moments. There is some vintage Doggett sarcasm as he is confronted by the preternatural profiling skills of Rudolph Hayes. Outlining the profile that Behavioural Sciences have worked up for the serial killer, Doggett notices that Hayes disapproves. Not even bothering to finish the profile, Doggett gets right to the point, “Why are you shaking your head?” When Hayes invites Doggett to examine his home, Doggett does not mince words. “Cadet, you should know there’s a real good chance you’re nuts.”

Nuts to that...

Nuts to that…

Robert Patrick’s performance style has always fit rather comfortably with the aesthetic of The X-Files. As with Duchovny or Anderson, Patrick understands that the key to the show is understatement. The characters are confronted by the absurd or ridiculous on a weekly basis, but the show has to remain emotionally convincing. Grounding the characters’ emotional responses helps to keep the more ridiculous elements of the series tethered. Patrick manages to present Doggett as a character who acts like he has seen everything while still being surprised.

Many of the episode’s most effective moments hinge on silent emotional responses from Doggett, with Patrick conveying an incredible amount through simple facial expression. The trick for lead actors on The X-Files has always been figuring out how to do more with less, and Release demonstrates that Robert Patrick can hold his own against his more firmly established co-stars. Release builds to crescendos around Patrick’s performance, whether Doggett’s silent shock at finding all the pictures removed from Hayes’ wall or his moment of decision after Regali’s confession.

Patrick's day.

Patrick’s day.

Release could be justified as something of a performance piece. The actual material is somewhat light and questionable, but it does serve as a showcase of many different talents. After the mediocrity of Scary Monsters, the mean-spirited tone of Jump the Shark and the muddle of William, it is oddly reassuring to find that the production team on The X-Files can still produce clearly-structured emotionally-affecting drama to the highest standards of the medium. With the end of the show around the corner, this is important.

The ninth season tends to attract a lot of criticism, much of it deserved. Watching the season in chunks, the problems seem quite clear. The issue is not that the ninth season lacks good episodes. The problem is that the average (or above-average) episodes are frequently spaced between extended stretches of mediocre or bad episodes. The ninth season can only manage to to air two consecutive above-average episodes, and can only do that twice over the whole year. John Doe and Hellbound are one example. Release and Sunshine Days are the other.

Wet work...

Wet work…

On the initial broadcast of the ninth, fans would have gone months without seeing a good episode. Even the much-maligned seventh season could produce strings of “good or better” episodes. 4-D was the only half-decent episode to air before Christmas. With these extended stretches of mediocre and bad episodes, it is reassuring to discover that the production team have not forgotten how to make an episode of The X-Files. At any point between the third and eighth seasons, Release would have been a middle of the road episode. At this point, it is a relief.

Release also benefits from the fact that it feels like an episode that should be airing during the final season. As the ninth season drew to a close, there was a lot of debate about resolution and closure. Watching episodes like Jump the Shark and William, it frequently felt like the production team knew that they wanted to tie up loose ends without any real sense of which ends needed tying. Release feels like it is closing the book on a very important part of The X-Files that has nothing to do with Luke Doggett or Brad Follmer.

Within arm's reach...

Within arm’s reach…

The X-Files might be best known for its mythology and its monsters, but these elements largely existed within a forensic framework. Part of what made the show so clever was the way that it grounded the paranormal in something very tangible and familiar. While The X-Files was never a strict procedural, it did borrow a lot of trappings from forensic drama and horror. The work of writer Thomas Harris was a massive influence on the show from its earliest days, with Chris Carter’s work often touching on similar ideas and themes.

The Silence of the Lambs attracts most of the attention in these discussions; it was a major influence on the development and tone of The X-Files, dating back to the introduction of Scully in The Pilot. However, Red Dragon was just as informative when it came to defining and characterising Mulder. Mulder’s history positioned him as a prodigy who worked in the Behavioural Science Unit. Criminal profiling played a major role in first season episodes like Beyond the Sea, Young at Heart and Lazarus, becoming more important as the show went on.

Dark places...

Dark places…

While The X-Files dealt primarily with aliens and paranormal phenomenon, the show would occasionally fixate on altogether more human monsters. The show was fascinated in the idea of human evil, with episodes like Grotesque and Paper Hearts building upon Mulder’s past delving into the mind of the psychopath. There were points at which the show’s supernatural horrors were treated as simple reflections of (or windows into) human insanity; episodes like Aubrey, Unruhe and Mind’s Eye all dealt with the consequences of the human capacity for violence.

This strand of thought would give birth to Millennium. Although Millennium was never quite an official spin-off in the way that The Lone Gunmen, it felt very much like a companion piece to those episodes of The X-Files that delved into the darkness lurking beneath the surface of the human psyche. Running for three seasons, Millennium felt like a companion piece to The X-Files. While the second season developed its own conspiracy-driven mythology, the first positioned itself as a weekly forensic drama.

SWAT's happenin'.

SWAT’s happenin’.

When Millennium ended, it feels like that forensic element was folded back into The X-Files. Frank Black’s appearance in Millennium is something of a red herring, perhaps the least indicative example of the show’s legacy. Episodes like Orison and Sein und Zeit incorporated the somber tone of Millennium back into The X-Files. When John Doggett arrived on The X-Files in Within, he seemed to bring the spirit of Millennium with him. Doggett-centric episodes like Invocation, Via Negativa and Empedocles focused on the evil lurking in the human mind.

In its own way, Release brings this facet of The X-Files to a close. It is the last episode of the show to really meditate on forensic pathology and the human capacity for evil. This has been a major part of The X-Files since the show was launched, so it feels entirely appropriate to devote an entire episode to the theme at this point in the show. At the very least, Release ensures that Underneath is not remembered as “the last forensic pathology X-Files episode.” That is no small accomplishment.

Shore thing.

Shore thing.

This gets back to the issue of what a final season of a television show should be about, what closure really means. What do fans expect as a show inches closer to the final episode? When Chris Carter promises to resolve everything that needs to be resolved, is he limiting himself to character arcs and plot beats? Surely it is just as important to acknowledge the various forms and modes of the show? The X-Files was a lot of things to a lot of people, and perhaps the final season is a time for reflection and consideration of its own identity.

The truth of the matter is that the ninth season really does not have too many plot points left to actually resolve. The “super soldier” mythology itself is quite straightforward, and colonisation is lurking in the background. The final run of episodes in the ninth season frequently run into problems when they try to close off character arcs or plot points that do not resolution. The Lone Gunmen did not need to die in Jump the Shark. William did not need to be given up in William. The entire mythology did not need to be rendered as a clip show in The Truth.

"You know, people'd probably like serial killers more if they hung out in less grotty surroundings."

“You know, people’d probably like serial killers more if they hung out in less grotty surroundings.”

Release is more about resolving or paying homage to a theme than it is about tidying away a dangling plot thread. Luke Doggett is very much a means to an end, a vehicle through which The X-Files might opt to tell one last psychological drama building upon nine seasons of delving into the human psyche. In fact, many of the elements of the episode even hark back to Millennium. The visual storytelling in particular feels like it takes its cue from Millennium, with the bleeding walls and severed limbs; not to mention the collage of polaroids of human misery.

Rudolph Hayes is presented as something of a surrogate for Frank Black, a gifted forensic profiler with almost supernatural insight who skirts the line between sane and insane. Follmer even reports that Hayes “voluntarily institutionalised” himself before “he checked himself out and disappeared”, much like Frank Black did the last time that Mulder and Scully crossed paths with him. (Of course, Frank Black had no less than three breakdowns.) Rudolph Hayes suggests that the spirit of Frank Black lives on in some way, even if Frank is not around.

The walls come crashing down..

The walls come crashing down..

The thematic connection between Frank Black and Rudolph Hayes allows Release to get away with a lot more than it might otherwise. Rudolph Hayes is a convenient character, just like Follmer’s history and Regali’s confession are extremely convenient of themselves. However, Hayes’ gift is no more or less unusual than that of Frank Black. Watching Release, there is a lot of Frank Black in Rudolph Hayes; Jared Poe even channels some of Lance Henriksen’s stillness and certainty in his line-readings. In its own way, Release is the last episode of Millennium.

It is quite easy to imagine Lance Henriksen reading some of the dialogue featured in Release, often with much of the same inflection and many of the same rhythms. “This man’s flesh smells of creosote, but his skin is soft,” Hayes reflects, examining a severed arm. “Untanned. He worked indoors. A hardware store, probably. The tear marks at his elbow go from left to right. He was broadsided in a car accident. His hands gripped the wheel so hard, his thumb bone snapped on impact.” All this is missing are those quick split-second flashes of human suffering.

Moments in time...

Moments in time…

Hayes also ties into that recurring ninth season theme of mediated reality, of nested worlds. Hayes is diagnosed as a schizophrenic, which means that he has difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy. As Elyn Saks explains of her own experience with the condition:

“Schizophrenia is classified as a psychotic disorder, and that means it involves being out of touch with reality,” Saks told me. “To me, the best analogy of what it’s like is that it’s a waking nightmare, where you have all the bizarre images, the terrible things happening, and the utter terror — only with a nightmare you open your eyes and it goes away. No such luck with a psychotic episode.”

Hayes communicates with the pictures lined up on his wall, an image that somewhat mirrors the closing image of Scary Monsters where Tommy’s imagination was overwhelmed by a wall of televisions. “If I sit with them for a long time very quietly they tell me things,” Hayes explains to Doggett.

Alone.

Alone.

The pictures become a portal to another time and another place, a window through which Hayes might peer for insight or enlightenment. They capture the moment itself, but take on a life beyond that. In its own way, it recalls the mirror universe created by Lukesh’s rage in 4-D or the doll house created by the eponymous character in Audrey Pauley. There is a sense that Hayes has used a facsimile of reality to create his own reality. As with a lot of the ninth season, there is a sense that reality is nested within itself.

Release has its plotting problems, but it is a strong episode on its own terms. Coming after Scary Monsters, Jump the Shark and William, it feels like a classic.

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