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Night Stalker – What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? (Review)

This January, to prepare for the release of the new six-part season of The X-Files, we’re wrapping up our coverage of the show, particularly handling the various odds and ends between the show’s last episode and the launch of the revival.

What’s The Frequency, Kolchak? is the episode written by Vince Gilligan.

Gilligan remained one of Frank Spotnitz’s most keen collaborators in the years following the end of The X-Files. Gilligan had worked with Spotnitz as part of the writing staff on the short-lived Robbery Homicide Division before the pair moved on to Night Stalker. After ABC cancelled Night Stalker, the pair would collaborate on the television series A.M.P.E.D. for Spike, writing a pilot that would eventually air as a television movie when the network declined to pick it up for series.

"Wow, ABC really is a tough network to play with..."

“Wow, ABC really is a tough network to play with…”

Sadly, Night Stalker only lasted long enough for Gilligan to script a single episode of the show. Still, he fared better than fellow staffer Darin Morgan; Morgan’s script for The M-Word did not make it into production before the axe fell on the show. This is a shame; the materials available on the DVD that never made it to air on ABC suggest a show more comfortable with itself than the first six episodes would suggest. More than any other episode of the first season of Night Stalker, What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? speaks to the series’ potential.

It is just a shame that it arrives too late.

The monster at the end of the hall...

The monster at the end of the hall…

The monsters of Night Stalker are metaphorical; they have been since The Pilot. Despite ABC’s unease with a show about monsters, this works well. Monsters are larger-than-life, creating a suitable way to explore unsettling or horrific themes. The archetypal monster of The Pilot speaks to fears of random violence, just as the pituitary-eating monster of Timeless speaks to issues around age and beauty. The decision in the first half of the season to shift away from exaggerated monsters tends to mute this theme.

Damon Caylor might be a monster in The Five People You Meet in Hell, but is also played like a generic serial killer bad guy. The child in Malum might be a literal demon, but the script downplays that (and clouds the issue) to the extent that the power of any metaphor is lost in the shuffle. Although his killings are couched in demonic imagery, the killer in Burning Man feels like he stepped out of any police procedural about the dangers of hunting (inevitably human) monsters.

Bloody murder...

Bloody murder…

However, What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? emphasises how effective these sorts of stories can be as a way to explore underlying trauma or to confront deep-seated fears. The episode is somewhat ambiguous as to what exactly is happening, and the extent to which the events of the episode are supernatural or psychological. Is Paul Krieger literally feeding his hostages to a monster that lives in the room down the end of his hall? Or is this monster just a progression of his own anxieties?

Gilligan’s script is evocative and unsettling, despite never offering a tangible glimpse of the monster in question. In some respects, What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? harks back to Gilligan’s clever X-Cops in that it features a monster whose influence is keenly felt even if it does not appear on screen. In What’s the Frequency, Kolchak?, the monster could be argued to appear, but it never appears in its own form. What exactly is waiting down the end of the hall is never explicitly revealed; only what Kolchak finds there.

This is what happens when you go toe-to-toe with the old man.

This is what happens when you go toe-to-toe with the old man.

However, Paul’s rants and ramblings (and fears) suggest more tangible anxieties. Paul’s fixation on “the old man” lurking in the bedroom is rich with Freudian implications. Without ever explicitly saying anything, Gilligan offers a sketch of Paul’s fears and uncertainties that is all the more powerful for being left unspoken. “The old man?” Kolchak asks. “Is he your father?” Paul changes the topic quickly, angrily, refusing to properly address the point. He accuses Kolchak of trying to change the topic, instead focusing on his uncertainties.

Much like the discomforting theme of incest bubbles through Timeless, there is an unspoken subtext of abuse that runs through What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? Paul is living in an old dilapidated house. Given his record and personal difficulties, it seems highly unlikely that Paul bought the house himself. It seems likely to be his family’s house. When Kolchak asks about the question that Paul wants answered, Paul explains, “I want the answer… to how I get out of here…” Paul is trapped in this decaying family home.

Paper trail...

Paper trail…

(Of course, Paul is not literally trapped. Paul can come and go as he pleases. He is able to leave the house to find victims to feed to “the old man.” He is able to sneak into The Beacon to abduct Kolchak; he is able to step out to Kolchak’s car; he spent some time in a psychiatric institution. Paul is only trapped in a psychological sense, compelled to return. He explains to Kolchak that “the old man” lives both in the house and in his head; of course he does, the two are inexorably linked.)

To be fair, any suggestion of abuse is left unspoken as Paul recounts his own troubled history to Kolchak. He explains his childhood and the murder of his grandparents, his time in an institution and his first encounter with “the old man.” Gilligan’s script never explicitly acknowledges this theme of childhood abuse and the scars that it leaves, but it does hang over the imagery of the episode in a very primal way. Paul might be talking nonsense, and might clearly be troubled, but his fear resonates.

The discussion is heating up...

The discussion is heating up…

In some respects, it recalls Kim Manners’ commentary on Home in The Truth About Season 4, arguing that what made that infamous episode so unsettling was how primal the underlying fear happened to be:

I am a firm believer that more than outrage at beating the sheriff and his wife to  death and the incestuous family relationship with the Peacock family, I think people were frightened by that show because it  played to their first fear in life, that there’s something under the bed. And I think that’s what bugged America and I don’t think they even realized it. Frightening images, that’s what this show was about.

There is something very primal and very archetypal about the monster featured in What’s the Frequency, Kolchak?, something that works on a primal level. Even though the episode repeatedly hints that the room might be empty, it is still unsettling.

Prodding him along...

Prodding him along…

What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? speaks to both its writer and to the show around it. One of Night Stalker‘s recurring fixations has been the sense of isolation and disconnect at the heart of modern living, a theme in evidence as early as the opening shot of The Pilot that juxtaposed a suburban housing estate against the wide open desert. In later episodes, that disconnect has focused on both the family unit and urban living. In The Five People You Meet in Hell and Malum, the family unit housed monsters, while the show coded itself to its Los Angeles setting.

Although What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? draws its influence from a story rooted in New York (rather than Los Angeles) lore, the opening narration establishes the theme quite cleanly and efficiently. “There are countless stories in the city, about the lives lived here,” Reed explains. “About how the fates of others intertwine with our own in ways we can never expect or predict. I am a reporter. This is my job; to see, to understand. But there are stories behind these stories, stories about terrors I’ve only begun to train my mind to see.”

Paper houses...

Paper houses…

Night Stalker is fascinated with the idea of random and meaningless violence, of the strange connections that are only made through trauma and death. This is most obvious in the show’s mythology, with Kolchak investigating a mysterious mark that only seems to manifest on people following their own random deaths at the hand of supernatural forces. However, it also plays a role in The Five People You Meet in Hell where even the family unit is destroyed by random violence from within and in Three where the monster is essentially anthropomorphised fear.

What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? runs with this idea of random violence. The entire episode is predicated upon Paul’s belief that Kolchak has been sending him coded signals in his columns, that Kolchak has some fundamental and hidden understanding of the patterns that hold the universe together. “What’s my answer?” Paul inquires repeatedly, as if expecting Kolchak to explain all of life’s arbitrariness and mystery in a single phrase. Paul desperately believes that there is an “answer” that will allow his life to make sense.

Write on...

Write on…

In many ways, Paul is looking for a theory that will allow him to make sense of the universe, attempting to find a pattern that ties everything together. Paul is disconnected from the world, trying to force it into a recognisable shape. In some respects, it feels like Gilligan is riffing on some of the core themes of The X-Files, in particular his own script to Unusual Suspects. Paul seeks a single ordering principle. In his case, he believes that the truths are buried in coded messages in newspaper columns; conspiracy theory could serve a similar purpose.

In some ways, this idea reflects a broader cultural shift in twenty-first century attitudes towards conspiracy theory. The nineties saw conspiracy theories entering the mainstream of American popular culture, most obviously through the release of JFK and the broadcast of The X-Files. However, there were other more subtle shifts; the spread of conspiracy theories about Waco and TW-800, the accusations about the “Clinton body count”, the way that even the Clinton administration made vague references to a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

Enough rope to hang himself...

Enough rope to hang himself…

However, if the nineties witnessed those conspiracies entering the mainstream, the twenty-first century only saw their influence and reach expand. Conspiracy theory became a way for some to confront the tragedy of 9/11, arguing that the disaster must have been an inside job. Conspiracy theory became a tool of major critics of the government, insisting that President Barack Obama was not born in the country he governed. Conspiracy theory even became a way to avoid the pain of mass shootings, with some arguing those shootings were staged.

Of course, it is hard to quantify the move of conspiracy theory towards the mainstream, but it is definitely there. Celebrities like Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson and Martin Sheen are willing to speak openly about their belief that 9/11 was an inside job. 2016’s most prominent Republican presidential candidate was the most vocal (and visible) proponent of the theory that President Obama was not born in Kenya. The middle of the twenty-first century’s first decade saw Jenny McCarthy become a high-profile voice of the anti-vaccine movement.

Crossing the line...

Crossing the line…

Although most of this was still ahead in 2005, there was some sense that the zeitgeist was changing. If conspiracy theories had been idle curiosities amidst the peace and prosperity of the nineties, then the new millennium found those theories becoming a lot more dangerous. It is interesting to wonder how these theories affected the legacy of The X-Files, as Inkoo Kang argued:

But in the twenty years since the show’s premiere, extremism — the rejection of mainstream news, science, and politics — has become its own institution. With the aid of the Internet, birthers, truthers, and vaccine skeptics have joined the UFO believers in establishing their own insular networks of news outlets, social gatherings, political activism. As if the alien bounty hunters with the Icepick of Death had returned to Earth, the Mulders have proliferated in number and influence; they now peddle blogs and endorsement deals and segments on The Dr. Oz Show. Glenn Beck is just another Mulder with a chalkboard, crocodile tears, and a get-rich scheme. 

So when Fox Mulder was reincarnated on Fox News, it was like discovering that my first love, who had seemed so sophisticated and had taught me so much about myself and the world, was actually a skeevy, none-too-bright loser. Worse, he wasn’t just spouting stories about ghosts and extraterrestrial visitors — unlikely but credible possibilities and harmless to entertain — or even about fantastical but actual mysteries like the Bo Xilai case. No, he was foaming at the mouth about how 9/11 was an inside job. Wake up, sheeple!

To be fair, Carter had made a point to engage with this argument while the show was on the air; the fourth and fifth seasons engaged repeatedly with the dark side of conspiracy, as embodied by the militia movement or other vested interests. Even Vince Gilligan’s scripts for Unusual Suspects and Drive engaged with the theory of conspiracy theory.

Candid camera...

Candid camera…

Nevertheless, the cultural context had changed dramatically. Notably, Night Stalker largely eschews conspiracy theory in favour of more basic explanations. In The Pilot, Agent Fain does not destroy the carcass of a monster because he is complicit in a conspiracy against the American people, but instead as part of his monomaniacal fixation on arresting Kolchak. What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? suggests that there is an honest-to-goodness monster inside Paul’s home, but the episode is also quite explicit that his paranoia renders him a danger to others.

Indeed, although What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? clearly reserves a great deal of pity for Paul, Vince Gilligan does not afford him the same dignity that he afforded to the anti-Semitic Patrick Crump in Drive. While Crump first appeared trying desperately to get his wife to hospital and to keep her alive, Paul is introduced literally feeding innocent victims to the monster. What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? is a lot more skeptical in its treatment of Paul’s paranoia than Drive was of Crump’s.

A pair of pliers... we're just misisng the blowtorch...

A pair of pliers… we’re just misisng the blowtorch…

Nevertheless, What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? does play into the broader anxieties of Night Stalker concerning urban violence. The episode takes its title from a classic R.E.M. song that was inspired by a seemingly random assault upon newsreader Dan Rather in October 1986. During the incident, Rather was attacked by a strange man without any warning:

”Kenneth, what is the frequency?” one man demanded.

”You have the wrong guy,” Mr. Rather replied.

Then the man punched Mr. Rather in the jaw under the left ear, knocking him to the pavement. Mr. Rather got up and fled into the lobby of 1075 Park Avenue, at 88th Street.

The assailants pursued him into the lobby and continued to ask him, ”Kenneth, what is the frequency?” Mr. Rather was again punched and knocked to the floor, where he was also kicked several times in the back.

The randomness of the attack, the popularity of Dan Rather and the peculiarity of the detail were all enough to lodge the event in the collective memory. R.E.M. would compose a song incorporating a variant of the phrase as the title, with Rather even performing it with them at Madison Square Garden. It even inspired an absurdist stage play.

Everybody's a critic...

Everybody’s a critic…

The incident was so bizarre that many even doubted Rather’s version of events, even with his doorman verifying the assault occurred. The matter would be resolved years later, when Rather identified William Tager as one of the men who beat him. Tager was arrested in 1994 when he killed a member of staff of The Today Show while trying to get access to the stage. Tager was suffering paranoid fantasies:

Tager was convinced the media had him under surveillance and were beaming hostile messages to him, and he demanded that Rather tell him the frequency being used, according to a forensic psychiatrist who examined Tager after the NBC shooting.

It is a very tragic and very bizarre story, one that demonstrates the randomness of the world. In some respects, it is a perfect fit for the world of Night Stalker, which is a show about a journalist fascinated with the way that seemingly random events can leave shattered lives in their wake. Dan Rather’s story seems to demand an explanation that will make sense of it, but there can be no satisfying answer to Tager’s question.

Locked in...

Locked in…

Even the connection between Paul and Kolchak is largely random, with Kolchak completely oblivious to the fact that he spent time institutionalised with Paul. Again, there is a sense that What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? is playing into the isolation and disconnect of modern living. Not only could Kolchak spend the most traumatic period of his life just down the hall from Paul without realising it, but Paul’s social worked could remain entirely oblivious to the fact that his charge has been murdering random strangers for weeks on end.

As much as this inadvertent (and chaotic) connection between Kolchak and Paul plays into the larger themes of Night Stalker, it will also become a major part of Vince Gilligan’s work on Breaking Bad. On Breaking Bad, Gilligan would repeatedly emphasise the unlikely connections that Walter White has to the world around him, the ripple effects of his own decisions. Gilligan himself has argued that Breaking Bad is about the “butterfly effect” and how “actions have consequences.” However, it is also frequently about the strange and indirect ways in which lives overlap.

Home coming...

Home coming…

What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? also manages to do something that the show had attempted in episodes like The Source and The Sea. The climax of the episode sees Kolchak indulging his darker impulses; driven by a vision of Reed dying, Kolchak lashes out at Paul. He violently beats his captor, before dragging him down the hallway and throwing him into the room with “the old man.” Even though Kolchak does not actually believe that there is anything in the room, it is a very powerful sequence.

There is a sense that Kolchak might actually want to kill Paul. It seems as though any empathy or sympathy has vanished, replaced by rage. Kolchak actually snaps, seeming dangerous and out of control. Even if Paul is a serial killer, he is still a pitiable mess of a human being, and the episode weights the final beating so that it is clear Kolchak is going well beyond the bounds of what is necessary. It is entirely understandable, given everything that Kolchak has witnessed, but it is also terrifying.

"I read the news today, oh boy..."

“I read the news today, oh boy…”

That short sequence does more to suggest that Kolchak’s moral ambiguity than anything in The Source or The Sea. Frank Spotnitz has talked at length about his desire to make the audience question and doubt Kolchak, explaining that various twists in The Sea were intended to undercut their faith in him. However, the two-parter lets Kolchak off the hook far too easily for any of those plot points to have a credible impact. Kolchak’s reckless decision to trust an unidentified source almost has dire consequences for Jain and The Beacon, but ultimately doesn’t.

In contrast, What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? refuses to let its protagonist off the hook. Kolchak’s anger towards Paul leads directly to the latter’s death. Even if Kolchak could not be sure that there was anything in the room, he still made a conscious decision to throw a mentally ill man into his worst fear; given that Paul had dismembered himself in previous attempts to escape “the old man”, there was no telling what throwing him into the room would do. Kolchak does not kill Paul himself, but he is so angry as to be reckless; and that recklessness results in Paul’s death.

Reporter repartee...

Reporter repartee…

It helps that the final confrontation between Kolchak and Paul features Townsend’s best work in the role. Townsend never really had a chance to grow into the leading role, and his version of Kolchak often feels very bland and generic. Townsend is an actor who broods very well, but he is an awkward fit for the more chipper and playful Kolchak who pops up in episodes like Three. What’s The Frequency, Kolchak? seems more keenly attuned to its leading actor than any other first season episode.

Indeed, the decision to bookend the episode with commentary from Reed (rather than Kolchak) is an inspired touch. One of the biggest issues with trying to make Kolchak suspicious or untrustworthy is the fact that so much of the show is told from his perspective. Kolchak provides the opening and closing narration on nine of the show’s ten episodes. He is very much the protagonist and the hero. It is hard to make the audience skeptical of him, given they spend so much time inside his head.

What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? is the show’s strongest episode. However, Gilligan is still getting a feel for the show. A lot of the script feels recycled, both from his own work and from outside influences. The dynamic between Kolchak and Paul offers a dark twist on the banter between Mulder and Crump in Drive. The episode is obviously inspired by what happened to Dan Rather. The abduction of a writer who is forced to write for a troubled captor recalls Misery. (“I can’t write like this,” Kolchak warns Paul at one point. “You’ll have to unlock my wrists.”)

There is certainly nothing wrong with this. After all, many of the strongest first season episodes of The X-Files worked so well because they riffed upon familiar horror set-ups that allowed the writers a chance to flesh out their characters and the world around them. Ice played on The Thing. Beyond the Sea recalled The Silence of the Lambs. There is nothing wrong with elements of What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? feeling familiar and even slightly derivative. This is still only the first season, after all.

What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? is the show’s strongest episode. Unfortunately, it is also the last.

5 Responses

  1. Great write-up! This is my favorite episode of the show.

  2. I’m pretty excited to see someone write about Night Stalker (2005). And this was my favorite episode as well. There is so much potential here in these ten episodes, it saddens me that we’ll never see what happens. Part of me wonders if it was the competition with Supernatural, which came out the same time. Only room for one.

    • It’s really great. It’s a shame the show never got a chance to properly grow into itself.

    • I came to this site because I was looking for reviews of this episode. It’s a genuinely great piece of horror television. Unfortunately, the rest of the season wasn’t great and, as Darren points out, this was the last episode. It didn’t even air in the original run because the show had already been canceled (I saw it on the Space Channel a few years later in Canada). I’m not sure it’s a coincidence that this is the episode that jettisons the sidekicks for the most part.

      As for Supernatural, I doubt it was on anyone’s radar at the time, compared to Night Stalker. It was on a tiny, failing network (WB) and never got the ratings Night Stalker did. But I think what it did have was more leeway because it was on a smaller network with smaller expectations. It also didn’t get as much scrutiny, being dismissed as a teen show about two young brothers hunting monsters, so no one ever realized quite how dark and violent it really was.

      If Night Stalker had aired on the WB or the CW, it might actually have survived and turned into a similar cult show.

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