Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The X-Files - "Conduit" (season 1, episode 4)

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The X-Files - "Conduit" (season 1, episode 4)


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-timers' perspective. There will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on October 1, 1993/written by Alex Gansa & Howard Gordon, directed by Daniel Sackheim): After an excursion into the city for a series of mutant murders, we're back on familiar ground for the series: small towns and UFOs. There is a possible alien abduction during a camping trip at a Midwestern national park, and Mulder is obsessed with pursing the case. The reason is obvious, as Division Chief Scott Blevins (Charles Cioffi) explains to Scully: Mulder's sister disappeared under similar circumstances and the missing girl, Ruby Morris (Taunya Dee), has a little brother Kevin (Joel Palmer) who is left behind and haunted by her absence. Indeed, when Mulder and Scully arrive at the Morris home near Sioux City, Kevin is staring at the television and jotting down the 1's and 0's transmitted to him by the seemingly random static. Mulder has his own explanation for the case's importance, despite its obvious emotional resonance - Ruby's mother (Carrie Snodgress, who played one of the commune members in Easy Rider) had her own close encounter at the lake with a Girl Scout troop many years ago, and the site is apparently a notorious hotbed of UFO activity. Continuing the show's theme of spy/defense bureaucratic rivalry, NSA agents threaten Mulder and seize the boy's drawing as evidence. But it's Mulder and Scully who discover what the 1's and 0's add up to: a gigantic sketch of Ruby's face. They return to the lake just in time for Ruby's mysterious return, but her memory is foggy and her mother repels the agent's inquiry (rather rudely, given the fat that Mulder saved her little boy's life from a gang of bikers). As the episode ends, Scully listens to a recording a therapeutic session where Mulder's psychiatrist asks him if he believes that his sister is still alive. There's a long pause as the screen cuts to black, and while it might seem poetically appropriate for us to never hear the ambivalent agent's reply, his final line is even better: "I want to believe."

My Response:
If the pilot seemed heavily influenced by Twin Peaks, episode 4 takes that influence even further. The site of the disappearance, with its tall pine trees and eerily still waters stretching into the distance, certainly recalls the spot where Laura Palmer's body was found (and, for that matter, the location of Jane Campion's Top of the Lake). This lake, by the way, is apparently mis-transcribed to Lake Okobogee from Okoboji; thanks to Wikipedia for revealing this, as well as that the lake was the site of the last Native American attack on settlers in Iowa and that "Heather Cook has enjoyed swimming in East Lake since 1973," which is such a random bit of information I can only surmise it was some random person's attempt at either self-aggrandizement or else an inside joke, never caught by Wiki editors. Anyway, Ruby's sketchy reputation in the town is reminiscent of Laura's troubled adolescence, although in this case the teenager's rebellion is much more of an open secret (Michael Cavanaugh turns in a marvelously nuanced little performance as the cynical town sheriff, who is all to aware of the gossip about Ruby). Perhaps most interestingly, the scenes of the FBI agents exploring the suburban Morris home touch on something that Twin Peaks suggested but which The X-Files foregrounds much more aggressively: ordinary, everyday middle-class Americana as a shadowy universe touched by the supernatural, with authoritative professionals treading into this familiar landscape to tease out these traces. They're as much an alien presence in these environments as the actual aliens, but far more reassuring - think the ominous "government" figures in E.T., except this time we're led to identify with them rather than the squishy little space man hiding in the closet.

The Spielberg reference is appropriate: the boy is at times a dead ringer for little Carey Guffey in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, not only due to a vague resemblance and oft-plaintive expression, but also particular compositions - standing outside, his silhouette overwhelmed by bright light - that remind us of shots from that movie. And his obsession with messages emanating from the TV is straight out of Poltergeist. It's telling that, for all the concern with Ruby's whereabouts - including a melodramatic subplot involving Ruby's friend Tessa Sears (Shelley Owens) - the episode is called "Conduit," placing Kevin at the center. He's not only a conduit for the extraterrestrial forces that kidnapped Ruby (confirmed, or at least strongly hinted, when her medical report indicates extended time in a low-gravity environment). He's also a conduit for Mulder's trauma, and the episode does an excellent job of contributing to a larger mythos. It also cleverly continues to thread the needle I mentioned several episodes ago: how long can it tease us with the paranormal without confronting us directly? Will The X-Files always to be a show in which the FBI agents race around corners, just missing whatever was there, always wondering how much to attribute to imagination (at least the characters' imaginations - the last episode certainly lets audience in on its mutant mythology)? To be clear, I don't mind if this is the case although that's a challenging gauntlet for a show with hundreds of episodes. Like Mulder, we want to believe - but believing is, in a way, more fun than actually knowing.

Next: "The Jersey Devil" • Previous: "Squeeze"

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