Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The X-Files - "The Jersey Devil" (season 1, episode 5)

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The X-Files - "The Jersey Devil" (season 1, episode 5)


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 8, 1993/written by Chris Carter, directed by Joe Napolitano): Here's an episode that splits the difference between the show's penchant for urban intrigue, with human monsters haunting a decaying metropolis, and rural menace, with dangerous creatures lurking in the eerie woods. By setting itself in southern New Jersey, "The Jersey Devil" can shuttle Mulder and Scully (when she's not racing back to D.C. for a godson's birthday or a date with a divorced dad) between the radically different locales of Atlantic City and the Pine Barrens. In the city, which infamously fronts its Gotham City sprawl with a shiny Disneyland boardwalk, Mulder clashes with the hostile, sneaky Detective Thompson (Wayne Tippit) and goes undercover in a homeless community to spot a mysterious nighttime predator. In the woods, the isolated setting of perhaps the most celebrated episode of The Sopranos, Mulder converses with the helpful if vaguely sinister Ranger Pete Boulle (Michael MacRae) about the human-yet-not-human creature(s?) accused of attacking several victims over a long span of years. The object of this diverse investigation is, yes "the Jersey devil" - as it turns out, a naked woman prowling around both her natural habitat and the back alleys of Atlantic City (how she travels, unseen, from the Barrens to AC is never really explained, unless I missed something). Is she a woman born in civilization who wandered into the woods and regressed to a more animal-like state? Or, given that another cannibal was killed in Pinewood National Park many years earlier (we witness this via flashback at the start of episode 5), is she part of an unbroken chain, a quasi-human cannibal species that can trace its roots back to the supposedly extinct Neanderthal clan? Incidentally, even though archaeological excavations have suggested that Neanderthals were in fact cannibals, some historians believe that homo sapiens systematically hunted and devoured Neanderthals themselves - a dark secret history that lends additional weight to the fate of this Jersey devil, and corresponds with the many ominous ruminations of Dr. Diamond (Gregory Sierra), Scully's old Anthropology professor who eagerly helps the FBI in their hunt for a missing link.

My Response:
In particular contrast with the previous episode, this one goes light on the overarching mythos - if not exactly on the personal stories. In this case, it's Scully, not Mulder, and the character's present, not the past, that the show follows outside of its professional terrain. In most respects, however, this is pretty exclusively a monster-of-the-week episode, drawing on a particular local legend for its inspiration (although the actual Jersey Devil is supposed to be some sort of flying goat creature) and thus suggesting that The X-Files could reference an endless array of folklore for its storylines week to week. This is apparently not a very popular entry in the series, but I was quite taken with Napolitano's direction, perhaps the first time that an episode's filmmaking - and not just concepts, banter, or story beats - has made a strong impression on me. The director deploys a moving camera in engrossing, compelling fashion and incorporates clever, well-executed cuts (like the gorilla-masked boy at a children's party) while effectively highlighting the contrast between the dense foliage of the Pine Barrens and the urban jungle of Atlantic City. It's also fun to see a flashback to the forties, which - with presumably limited resources - Napolitano deftly evokes. Although the story does potentially feel a little half-baked at times, it also has an intriguing openness. We're never quite sure about the backstory or nature of this hidden tribe the way, and the fact that the woman spares Mulder (plus my own perhaps unwarranted suspicion of the supposedly genial yet shifty park ranger) made me wonder if the detective fixed the results of the autopsy, which found human matter in the supposed killer's stomach, to cover up a more human serial killer and resolve the case without disturbing the tourist trade. That's almost certainly reading too much into a simple scenario (more likely, she's just not very hungry when she encounters Mulder), but like Scully - who ditches the all-too-ordinary Rob (Andrew Airlie) to explore the unknown with her spooky partner - I like to humor all possibilities, however speculative.

Next: "Shadows" • Previous: "Conduit"

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