Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The X-Files - "Beyond the Sea" (season 1, episode 13)

Friday, June 15, 2018

The X-Files - "Beyond the Sea" (season 1, episode 13)


Welcome to my viewing diary for The X-Files. Every day, except Saturday, I will offer a short review of another episode until I finish the first season. Future entries will cover the remaining seasons, breaking to review the feature films where chronologically appropriate, and eventually reach the recent miniseries. I have seen very few X-Files episodes, though I was utterly fascinated with the concept as a child, so for the most part this will be a first-timer's perspective. There will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on January 7, 1994/written by Glen Morgan & James Wong, directed by David Nutter): Yesterday I wondered when we'd finally get to Scully's backstory; "Beyond the Sea" provides an answer in the first few seconds as her father Captain William Scully (Don Davis) jovially pokes his head into a Christmas tree composition, before bidding his daughter goodnight. There's an awkward moment as he departs, a sense that in this mostly contented family some tensions and doubts go unspoken. That night, Scully awakens from the couch where she's dozed off to see that her father is still in the room, sitting across from her and silently mouthing something. When the phone rings he's gone, and her mother is on the line with bad news: William has passed away. Throughout episode 13, images of William will flicker through Scully's consciousness: the vision of him in that chair, a glimpse of his voice or face, and most chillingly, his unusually devious head atop an orange-jumpsuited death row convict. The convict is Luther Lee Boggs (Brad Dourif), a psychopathic murderer whose psychic claims even the usually credulous Mulder discounts...but Scully does not.

Mulder is convinced that Boggs has orchestrated a recent kidnapping and that an accomplice is holding two hostages somewhere until Boggs - offering clues via manufactured visions (based on evidence he already knows) - gets his imminent death sentence commuted into life imprisonment. Alternately manipulative and haunted, a clever fox and a terrified rabbit, Boggs cuts quite a figure. When he begins channeling Scully's dad, she keys into his frequency and follows some of his enigmatic hints (a waterfall and angel appear before her not in nature but as a neon sign and urban statue near the killer's lair in Raleigh). The FBI learns that Lucas Jackson Henry (Lawrence King-Phillips) is the culprit and one victim is rescued before he escapes with the other, but Mulder remains wary even after William predicts the circumstances of Mulder's near-death experience. Scully, on the other hand, begins to travel down Boggs' rabbit hole in an effort not only to save the serial killer's next victims but to commune with her father from "beyond the sea." Boggs dangles this reward in front of her twice.

First he teases and then withholds a message while pressuring Scully to petition the governor for his life (she tries and fails, but Boggs appreciates the effort, and even offers a warning which will save her own life in a few hours). Later, after Scully has successfully saved the remaining hostage and chased down the killer, Boggs invites her to his execution, saying that he'll finally facilitate William's voice in his final moments. But as the witnesses are revealed, the gas is released, and the ghosts of Boggs' victims gather around him, Scully is not present. She's at Mulder's bedside, drawn to the living warmth between her and her partner rather than the dying agony of a man who can use his own demons to assuage hers. When Mulder asks her why she doesn't want to know if her father was proud of her, she says she does know. When Mulder asks how, Scully smiles and echoes her mother Margaret (Sheila Larkin) at the funeral, answering, "Because he was my father."

My Response:
Dourif is extraordinary as Boggs - few actors know how to chew into a juicy role as fearlessly as he does: this role is very juicy and he is very fearless, bringing an intensity that sells what could easily be a campy cartoon if handled just a little bit differently. This is definitely one of the best guest spots I've ever seen on a TV series. A consistent quality of The X-Files that I didn't really expect, although I probably should have, is the top-notch acting. Nutter, formerly a writer on "Ice," handles both the performances and the camerawork effectively, cultivating a consistent air of psychic power and murderous menace - although the homicidal kidnapper himself is probably one of the least imposing aspects of the story. There's definitely a Lynchian flavor to the proceedings, between the warehouse hideouts of the serial killer (reminiscent of Bob's lair in the alternate ending of Twin Peaks), the jailhouse convulsions of the tormented convict (anticipating Fred Madison's transformation in Lost Highway), and of course the prominent turns by the two leading guest stars of "Beyond the Sea": Dourif, of Blue Velvet and Dune, and Davis, Twin Peaks' very own Major Briggs.

Of course the most obvious antecedent is Silence of the Lambs, with a wily, imprisoned serial killer taunting and cultivating a young female FBI agent as she uses him to find another murderer in time to save his latest hostage. Whether or not this is the best episode of the series so far (it probably is), it's a cinch that this is Scully's strongest hour. Not only does she take a central role in the action and investigation, we finally get to learn more about her personally, in a way that is deftly woven into the "monster-of-the-week" storyline. That said, the more I think about the strengths of episode 13, the more they seem to be in the direction. The screenplay tees up the material well, offering Dourif and Gillian Anderson an opportunity to shine, but many elements - the serial killer snatching victims from lover's lane and hacking away at them in abandoned industrial spaces - are fairly conventional. The general premise is interesting but not extraordinary; even Scully's big psychological crisis, needing to know whether or not her father was proud of her, could feel a little rote (although the drabness of his funeral is a nice touch - a few family members standing across a rainy harbor as the ashes are dumped from a docked speeboat, Bobby Darin serenading them from a tinny stereo). For the most part, it's really what Nutter and the actors do with the material that makes it so memorable.

That said, the narrative does open up a lot of doors; this is probably the best episode not just because one or two elements are so strong (as was the case with the stylish "Eve") but because it delivers on so many fronts. As a one-off, it's already extraordinary effective, but this is an entry where both the standalone case and the agents' personal dramas are compelling in their own rights. While I guess "Beyond the Sea" isn't considered a "mythology" episode, there sure is a lot of world-building going on. I already knew Davis was a part of this show, so I won't say whether or not he returns, but even introducing Scully's taciturn family into the picture introduces new possibilities. The dynamic between Mulder and Scully also takes on some new shades as Mulder comforts her grief and they temporarily switch skeptic/believer roles. Most of all, as Scully hesitates about whether or not to believe (a bit of a stretch, given all she's experienced in twelve episodes), a more compelling struggle emerges - not so much "Is paranormal phenomena real?" but "Am I interwoven with these larger mysteries?" This is the prospect that actually terrifies Scully: not that the truth is out there, but that the truth is in her.

Next: "Gender Bender" • Previous: "Fire"

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