Friday, January 10, 2014

1x16 Young at Heart

I think it's remotely plausible that someone might love this show.

Welcome to 1x16 Young at Heart or "Salamander Hand? Wait, What?" or "Another Bad Guy from Mulder's Profiler Days Who Holds an Unreasonable Grudge and Has Also Become Somehow Paranormal." Seriously, how many of those do we see over the course of the series? 5? 6? It strikes me as very strange that good guys who were friends of Mulder and Scully back in the day tend to wind up dead, but bad guys who knew them somehow wind up with supernatural abilities. ...With the possible exception of Jack Willis from the previous episode, who sort of gets both. Even bad guys who make reappearances tend to come back more evil and more powerful.

In case you need reminding, here's a list of the themes we'll be examining when and if they crop up in each episode:

1. The show is as much about Scully's journey toward becoming a believer as it is about the paranormal events she and Mulder encounter.
2. Scully is only a skeptic when viewing things from a clinical distance; when the shit hits the fan, she acts on Mulder's crazy beliefs because she knows it will keep her alive.
3. Mulder isn't right nearly as often as he thinks.
4. The evolution of the Mulder/Scully relationship - not just the romantic involvement that eventually occurs, but their dynamics of trust and distrust, the changing ways they view each other, and the friendship that grows over time.
5. Assault on a federal officer never seems to lead to jail time.
6. Mulder is kind of a dick.
7. Hotels, car rental places, and apartment landlords must be crazy to rent to FBI agents.
8. The enormous top-secret government conspiracy actually really sucks at keeping things quiet.
9.  There are some serious homoerotic undertones in this show.
10. The X-files department is super toxic to anyone who comes close to it.
11. Mulder and Scully are both terrible at their jobs.
12. Local law enforcement is portrayed in an extremely negative light.
13. This show is white-washed as fuck. And almost all the non-whites are villains or stereotypes.
14. Bathtubs are scary, terrible places that should be avoided at all costs.
15. Plot and logic will be completely discarded just so Scully can have some reason not to witness the big paranormal events of the episode.

Tashmoo Federal Correctional Facility
Pennsylvania, 1989

In what is probably the shortest teaser ever (under 1:45), an inmate in a wheelchair notices his buddy Barnett's bed is empty and hears screams coming from down the hallway. He goes to investigate and finds, uh...

Just move along. Nothing to see here, folks.

The doc tells him tp GTFO because Barnett is dead, but wheelchair guy sees his milky corpse eyes blinking as he leaves.

Washington, D.C.
Present Day

After the title sequence, we open on Mulder and Scully heading to a jewelry store robber at the request of one of Mulder's old VCU buddies, Reggie... and holy crap everyone, it's a named character of color who has multiple lines and is relevant to the story and is not an asshole. For once. In defiance of #13.

He tells them that whoever robbed the jewelry store shot the sales girl AFTER she'd handed over the money, and left a piece of evidence Reggie repeatedly insists will blow Mulder's mind.

They two of them share some cryptic references to someone named Barnett until Scully, as frustrated as the viewer about not knowing WTF is going on here, asks to be clued in. Mulder explains that Barnett was his first case at the FBI, catching an armed robber/murderer ... and that an agent died during his arrest. Barnett also liked to taunt him with cryptic notes, which is the mind-blowing evidence that Reggie found:


Barnett got life in prison, but supposedly died there years ago.

We cut to some sort of FBI lab where a handwriting analyst is examining the note in between overt flirtations with Mulder. She says the note was written in the last 48 hours by someone right-handed, and is 95% certain it was written by Barnett.

Meanwhile, Scully and Reggie are in his office watching the video of the stakeout where they caught Barnett. On the screen, we watching Barnett taking the driver of an armored car hostage, holding a gun to his head. Mulder circles behind him and has a clear shot, but doesn't take it - for once, he's playing by the book, not firing when it could endanger a hostage. Barnett shoots his hostage and another agent before Mulder shoots him. Reggie says Mulder never forgave himself for that.

So yet another painful memory for Mulder to add to his giant pile of guilt. It's no wonder there's speculation that Mulder's Jewish, what with all the guilt and his weird relationship with his mother. And Scully has Catholic guilt and a weird relationship with her father. These two were made for each other, yo.

Mulder and Scully meet up around a fax machine (yet another archaic piece of technology, though this one is sadly still in use) where he tells her the results of the handwriting analysis and picks up the fax of Barnett's death certificate which has just come through. She thinks the note is from a copycat, and reveals that Reggie showed her the tape. He seems embarrassed and defensive, while Scully is understanding and comforting... and this is one of those scenes where tone of voice and subtle facial cues clue you in that these two are trying to hard to understand and be kind to each other because they really do care about each other. #4

Scully's "sympathetic head tilt and compassionate eyebrows" combo.

And of course we get more insight into Mulder's unending self-flagellation:
SCULLY: You did the right thing, Mulder.
MULDER: Did I? Steve Wallenberg [the agent Barnett killed] had a wife and two kids. One of his boys is an all-star on his football team now. If I had pulled the trigger two seconds earlier and Wallenberg would be here to see his kid play. Instead, I got some dead man robbing jewelry stores and sending me haikus.
He of course immediately heads to said kid's football practice in order to wallow in his guilt some more.



Like, okay, I get it. Mulder feels serious guilt about this. God knows I feel guilty over all kinds of shit that wasn't half as PTSD-inducing as watching an agent die because I was following the rules. But is anyone else getting the feeling that (1) this kind of guilt complex would have gotten him removed from the FBI, if he even passed initial screenings to begin with and (2) they're setting this up as the impetus for his character to be constantly throwing away the rulebook? "Well last time I went by the book, an agent died and I tortured myself about it for several years, so now I'm going to whip out my gun and neglect to file travel plans and shirk my genuine responsibilities and ditch my partner even though she would really be great to have around to watch my back and keep me from being a moron, and go chasing aliens because rules are bad!"

Also I'm pretty sure a non-parent in a dark trenchcoat staring creepily at one prepubescent boy during a football game would get him kicked out and/or arrested.

He goes to leave, but finds an envelope inside his car with another taunting note ("A hunted Fox eventually dies.") and a stack of stalker-y photos of him and Scully. He yells "I'll get you, you son of a bitch!" which makes the football parents intensely uncomfortable and also draws the corpse-eyed gaze of another spectator, whose face is hidden behind his hat.


FBI Headquarters
Washington, D.C.

Reggie, competing for the cape of Captain Obvious, tells Mulder someone may be messing with his head. Mulder reminds him that Barnett threatened to "get him" during the trial, and that he "just feels" that this must be Barnett. Reggie tells him that a lot of people at the Bureau think "Spooky Mulder" could have been a contender but has just become an embarrassment, a disappointment, and a liability (which is totally the healthy thing to say to someone who's obviously coming apart at the seams) but Scully interrupts the Mulder Pity Party by bringing in Barnett's will - it says he was cremated and all his possessions were given to another prisoner, Joe Crandall.

Mulder goes to a computer lab where he has one of the techs age a photo of Barnett to what he'd probably look like today. At one point he just pauses, gazes off into the distance, and starts having a Vietnam-style flashback to the day he testified at Barnett's trial. He testifies to pretty much everything we learned from the video in Reggie's office, then goes on to have a big emotional outburst about how Barnett is devoid of humanity and should die like an animal. Just the first of several inappropriate courtroom outbursts Mulder will engage in over the course of the series. After Mulder steps down, Barnett turns to him, smiles, and mouths, "I'll get you." He winks and blows a kiss and... just... #9. In the creepiest way possible, but yeah, #9.

 

He snaps back to the present when Scully comes in to tell him something is fishy about Barnett's death certificate - it says he died of a heart attack, but his medical records show that he was admitted to the prison infirmary for an infected right hand, and there's no indication of cardiac complications.

Tashmoo Federal Correctional Facility

Moose and Squirrel show up to talk to Crandall, the prisoner in a wheel chair from the teaser. He tells them what REALLY happened the night Barnett died - the screams, the severed right hand, the blinking corpse eyes, and how Dr. Ridley threatened him with a scalpel to subtly drive home the point that Barnett was dead when he totally wasn't.

FBI Headquarters
Washington, D.C.

Mulder loads his gun and tells Scully he's not going to wait around for Barnett to send him any more Valentines. The phone rings - it's Barnett, calling to taunt Mulder in a voice that would not be out of place on a phone sex hotline. #9.  "I stood next to you in line for coffee this morning... you're hotter than that latte you ordered... I'm close than you think... close enough to lick you... I'm everywhere you are... I own you, like the naughty little slave you are..."

Okay, some of that I may have put in myself, but it's implied. It's definitely implied.

There are also a bunch of extreme close ups of eyes and lips during their little exchange, and it's probably supposed to be all tense and dramatic but really it's just uncomfortable and kind of cheesey.

I'm also more than slightly entranced by that panty-melting green gaze...
Scully runs back in just after Mulder hangs up, saying they couldn't complete a trace on the call (which is TV/movie drama bullshit, by the way, since instant traces have been possible since the early 80s). Mulder knows it's Barnett, though, as he detected a faint accent, because I guess Barnett is the only person on the earth who has it.

Mulder gets on the phone to Reggie, who has a hard time talking because Barnett is choking the life out of him in his own bed with this weird salamander hand thing...

Because getting strangled in your own bed isn't bad enough, you have to feel the cold clammy skin of
an amphibious limb pressing the life out of you.

Alas poor Reggie. Yet another victim of the curse that comes along with even the most casual contact with the X-files. #10.

The next morning, police comb through the crime scene at Reggie's apartment while Mulder stands around blaming himself.

They've found another note at the crime scene ("Funeral for Fox's friends - then for Fox.") which Mulder again brings to the handwriting analysis lab. The analyst reiterates that this note was almost certainly made by a right-hander, which Mulder thinks is just a little odd given the other inmate's statement that Barnett's right hand was cut off. The writing is too smooth to be from someone with a prosthetic hand, and it's almost certainly the same person as the first note.

Back down in the basement, Scully has been doing some digging on Dr. Ridley - who signed the death certificate - and found out he hasn't actually been a doctor for like 15 years, after his license was revoked for being evil. Specifically for performing experiments on kids with progeria. (Which makes me even more paranoid about ever going to prison, because apparently they don't care enough to do background checks on their staff doctors.)

National Institutes of Health
Bethesda, Maryland

M&S talk to a doctor to get a nice exposition on progeria and more info on Ridley's experiments, which include conducting human experiments without government approval (because remember kids, it's okay to experiment with anti-aging gene therapy on children afflicted with a horrible and rare medical condition, but only if our infallible government says so!) The doctor also tells them that Ridley purportedly went to South America to continue his work, and for a second I thought this was going to go into Boys From Brazil territory (since one of Ridley's nicknames was Dr. Mengele) but sadly, I am disappoint.

I have to say I continue to be confused by the way they bring in random experts in Season One. Scully is a medical doctor, and fully capable of explaining to Mulder the details of progeria that the NIH doctor reveals. Heck, she could have even had her own little slideshow for once. And the FBI (as we will see in season six) has a department that does nothing but background checks - it should be relatively easy for them to find this information without visiting the NIH. This is a technique that almost totally vanishes in later seasons, for which I'm personally grateful as it allows them more time for story and removes a lot of boring exposition.

I guess they just really wanted to show off this actor's bitchin' pornstache.


As they leave, Mulder tells Scully he thinks Ridley found out how to reverse the aging process and that that's why they haven't found Barnett - he's disguised as a younger version of himself.

He goes back to the computer lab, this time to have the tech de-age Barnett's picture... and is that even a thing? Those programs are designed to age images, right? Why would it even have the capability to make someone look younger?

We then cut to Scully's apartment, where she's typing up her notes. Barnett's creepy salamander hand opens the door; she hears the creak and looks around, so she goes back to typing. Then she hears a few more weird sounds and decides, "Hmm, Mulder thinks the supposedly-dead madman with a personal grudge against him might be out to hurt his friends, I better check this out," so she grabs her gun. #2. Also putting this as #11 because really, she should be paranoid enough at this point to (1) never ignore creepy sounds in her apartment and (2) never have her gun out of arm's reach.

Before she actually sees creepy lizard man, there's a knock at her door - it's Dr. Ridley. Barnett, realizing now's not the time, sneaks away.

Later, Mulder and Scully listen while Ridley tells them that Barnett is his only patient to survive the experiments - except for his eyes, which seem to be dying, and his right hand which is a salamander hand because science, bitches. He also says that the US government was secretly funding his research even after he lost his license.

Because this is season one, and everything has to have a conspiracy around it.

This is Mulder's cue to go to a smokey dive bar for a clandestine meeting with Deep Throat,

Two grown men meeting in a dark corner of a seedy bar to have an intense whispered conversation mere inches
from each other's faces. Nothing suggestive about that. #9
who tells him that Barnett stole Ridley's research and has since been in negotiations with the US government, who want to buy it.

The next morning, Scully's phone rings while she's in the shower; someone enters her answering machine code and she comes out of the bathroom in time to hear that someone playing back her messages - one from her mother about nothing in particular (totally not the voice if the actress who plays Scully's mom, btw), and one from a friend we've never heard and will never hear of again inviting her to a cello recital.

It says a lot about how times have changed that I considered explaining answering machines and secret codes just then. But if you're too young to remember that kind of thing, explaining it would probably just confuse you.

Back at the X-files office, Scully brings in her answering machine and explains to Mulder what happened, and also how she thinks she was almost murdered by a lizard man the night before. As if on cue, Barnett calls again to deliver more heavy breathing and to threaten Ridley's life and all of Mulder's friends.

Janie Taylor Memorial Recital Hall
Washington, D.C.

Mulder explains to a group of agents that Scully is going to be Barnett Bait and could they please try not to let her die.

Scully is understandably nervous, probably because she's surrounded by incompetence; Mulder of course walks right by Barnett, who is tuning a piano with his hideous salamander hand in plain sight and staring with his creepy corpse eyes. I guess Mulder is too busy flirting. #11


Predictably, perhaps inevitably, Barnett pushes through the crowd and shoots Scully right in the chest. Rather than stick around and help his partner and leave the pursuit of Barnett to the literally dozens of other agents in the building whose judgement might not be clouded by personal feelings, Mulder takes off after him. #11 again.

Barnett takes the cellist hostage (Scully's dear friend, we presume, though we never learn her name nor hear a single line of dialogue from her), taunting Mulder that he'll never pull the trigger because it's against regulation to shoot him while he's got a hostage at gunpoint. I guess Barnett didn't do enough research - he doesn't know that in the last 5 years, Mulder has gone from the FBI's Golden Boy to the FBI's Most Unwanted, who doesn't give two shits about the rules anymore; Mulder shoots him in the chest.

Oh, and don't get too upset about Mulder's callous disregard for Scully's well-being; she was wearing a bullet-proof vest.


Later, Moose and Squirrel watch through an observation window as a team of doctor's try to save Barnett's life - and a Man in Black hovers over him, trying to find out where he's hidden Ridley's research. They all fail, and Barnett dies, taking his secrets with him.

The camera pans through a train station, finally settling on a single locker, as Mulder and Scully discuss the possibilities:
MULDER: If Barnett didn't destroy it, he could have stashed it anywhere. Which would have a cruel irony, wouldn't it? Scientific knowledge that could change the course of mankind buried out in a field somewhere or in some safe deposit box. Getting old, just like the rest of us.
SCULLY: If it didn't destroy it, chances are that somehow, someday, somebody will find it.
MULDER: And when they do... maybe he can get his revenge from beyond the grave but somehow, I feel like we haven't heard the last from John Barnett.

Spoiler alert: You have totally heard the last from John Barnett.

I really don't know how I feel about this episode. It feels like there were a lot of threads left dangling - not in a "ooooh spooky, wonder what happens next" kind of way, but in a "we ran out of time and/or didn't care" kind of way. Like, Barnett threatens Ridley, but we never see or hear of him again after he shows up at Scully's apartment to explain himself. Did Barnett kill him? Is he still out there? Why isn't the government trying to get the research data out of HIM instead of Barnett? After all, they funded it and he sort of understands everything about it, certainly more than Barnett ever could. The scenes with Ridley and with the NIH doctor feel completely out of place, like the writers couldn't figure out any better way to explain Barnett's condition without having a couple of doctors show up and straight up tell the viewer. One of my biggest peeves with the first season is how often the writers try to spoon feed us information rather than let us uncover it slowly alongside our heroes in a more organic way.

The government conspiracy angle here also felt out of place. I get that this is season one and they want us to understand that the government is shady and evil and all that, but it felt like such a throwaway plot line that I don't know why they even bothered to put it in to begin with. Here's a little writing tip: if you can remove a minor filler plot element without changing the story at all, you should probably get rid of it. Would this episode have been any different at all without that 10-second scene with Deep Throat and Ridley's casual mention that the government wanted to buy the stolen research? The only thing that would have changed AT ALL is the very very end, with the voiceover and the locker close-up, which leads me to believe the writers through it in there because they didn't know how else to wrap up the episode.

It also felt like the cello recital thing was forced. I get that they needed a place for Scully to be where Barnett could come for her, but there is no continuity with regards to Scully's non-work relationships that would explain why she's going to this friend's cello recital. The friend comes out of nowhere to provide a convenient plot device, get held hostage for like 10 seconds, and then vanish, never to be seen or heard from again.  OMG, you guys, Scully's friends are just like Zack Morris's non-Kelly love interests - they just disappear into that dark night.

Next week we move on to EBE, one of the best mytharc episodes of season one, and not just because it actually makes sense in the context of the larger mythology of later seasons.

Firsts: Mulder's inappropriate courtroom outbursts

4 comments:

  1. I learned something new about instant telephone traces!

    Also, you're absolutely right about dropping plot points that have no bearing on the story. I just a read a mystery that had several parts taking up a lot of pages that were totally irrelevant.

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  2. This is one of the main episodes I cite to people when I talk about threads left dangling that actually matter. The secret to eternal youth is sitting in a locker forever!!! Various monsters that they never kill that are never talked about again (I'm looking at you, Eve program)!! Episodes that end in "what if its still out there?" moments and then we never find out!! -end rant.

    But yes, this is a strange little episode. I do like, however, that they used the Smoking Man as the government agent that is trying to get the information out of Barnett. At that point he had only been in the Pilot, I believe, so it was a clever casting idea that fortunately blossomed into a recurring role.

    But yes, Season One = the government did everything!! lol

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  3. Yes! It always bothered me that the last line was "I feel like we haven't heard the last from John Barnett'. And yet, we totally did! Why even put that line in there if you weren't going to do anything with it? argh

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