Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The X-Files - "Gender Bender" (season 1, episode 14)

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The X-Files - "Gender Bender" (season 1, episode 14)


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 21, 1994/written by Larry & Paul Barber, directed by Rob Bowman): At a D.C. nightclub, a young woman (Kate Twa) approaches a man who appears hypnotized by her touch. Later, after they make love, he chokes up slimy clay and dies of cardiac arrest. The woman, transforming into a man (Peter Stebbings), leaves the victim behind. And so the premise of our story for this episode is established at the outset: another urban crime drama, with Mulder and Scully stepping in to tease out the supernatural element hidden in the corners of a noisy city amidst modern (nineties-vintage) cultural mores. Right? Wrong, as "Gender Bender" continually delights in reminding us, through very emphatic cuts between neon-lit, sexualized metropolitan nightlife and the eerie quiet of a clapboard-clad community deep in the Massachusetts woods, its quieter night sky pierced only by old-fashioned lanterns. The latter location is where much of the episode actually takes place. The clay Mulder finds at the crime scene comes from this remote area - a small patch of New England dominated by the Kindred, an Amish-like religious sect that avoids twentieth-century technology and most contact with the outside world.

As the FBI agents visit this area, Scully is particularly entranced by one young man, Brother Andrew (the striking Brent Hinkley), who places his hand on hers and triggers a deep reaction. The victims, it turns out, were killed shortly after sex by an overdose of pheromones, an effect Andrew also seems capable of inducing. "We're all different," he whispers to Scully, before nearly taking her to bed (and presumably, an early grave). Mulder, meanwhile, witnesses a ceremony in which the Kindred descend into a clay cavern with an old man (actor unknown) who has recently died, and the "corpse" not only reawakens but begins to turn into a woman. Do all of the Kindred share this quality too? Mulder and Scully aren't able to find out too much, except that Marty (the killer) was a Kindred member drawn to the outside world after he and Andrew, both adolescents at the time, discovered magazines in the woods. They then witness the Kindred themselves catch up with Marty and whisk him away before they can make any arrests. When the agents lead a raid on the village, everyone is gone. "How?" Scully asks as they race through tall grass. "They don't have access to any transportation." "No earthly transportation," Mulder clarifies as they reach a large, flying-saucer like indentation in the field.

My Response:
Like "The Jersey Devil," "Gender Bender" brings together The X-Files' dual interest in city and country (and how paranormal phenomena manifest in each place). And by "brings together" I mean "holds them in explicit contrast within the same episode," which casts the disparate qualities of each in even sharper relief. We even get a bit of surreal cross-pollination when the mysterious rural figures somehow show up inside the city. It's as if the distance between those poles, even for characters without ready access to cars or public transit, is more psychological than geographical: both the Jersey devil and the Kindred pop up in alleyways before the startled FBI agents' eyes. As someone long fascinated by the juxtaposition of two opposing archetypal landscapes (see this piece, on Michel Gondry's city/country music videos and Jia Zhangke's The World, among other examples), this is obviously - pardon the expression - right up my alley. Episode 14 is also gorgeously photographed; if the urban material relies primarily on nineties design cliches (apparently the original teleplay imagined a more distinctive, H.R. Giger-esque metropolis), the Kindred sequences remain completely arresting, timeless in their out-of-time aura, with a beautiful deployment of lighting and texture. (The sound design and scoring of the Kindred material is also enormously subtle and effective.)

Of course, city/country is not the only duality "Gender Bender" is interested in. Given the episode's title and time period (shortly after the transgender-as-thriller-gimmick approach of The Silence of the Lambs and The Crying Game), I was ready for a potentially cringeworthy tour through "Early nineties 'othering' of trans people." Aside from one conversation between Mulder and Scully, however, the narrative mostly avoids any real-world implications about gender identity or fluidity; indeed the "gender-bending" aspect is probably the least important element of the Kindred material. This may be a relief given the likelihood of embarrassment, but is also perhaps a missed opportunity had it been handled well (although this potential resonance contains more power as subtext anyway). The Kindred are most notable for their isolation, fortitude, and mysteriousness, bringing several other stories to mind, most obviously M. Night Shymalan's The Village (which, if you think about it, neatly reverses "Gender Bender"'s final twist), but also H.P. Lovecraft's "The Festival," in which a man returns to his old hometown and witnesses a chilling underground ritual that reveals the townspeople's inhuman nature.

Last Christmas, the Counter Esperanto podcast recorded a chilling rendition of the Lovecraft tale. Notably, the crux of that story is the narrator's terrified realization that somehow he is intertwined with this seemingly alien culture. Here too, The X-Files goes in an opposite direction with its UFO flourish before the closing credits. Despite the show's predilections, I didn't see this final image coming - a quality many fans and even creators of the episode find annoying, but which I enjoyed. That said, to return to "The Jersey Devil" connection, there is something even more unsettling about implying these threatening figures are rooted in our own common past rather than simply projecting them into outer space.

Next: "Lazarus" • Previous: "Beyond the Sea"

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