Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The X-Files - "Miracle Man" (season 1, episode 18)

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The X-Files - "Miracle Man" (season 1, episode 18)


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 March 18, 1994/written by Chris Carter & Howard Gordon, directed by Michael Lange): The pride of his Southern town, young faith healer Samuel Hartley (Scott Bairstow) has been performing miracles since he was a child, starting with burn victim Leonard Vance (Dennis Lipscomb), whom Samuel revives from death during an opening sequence set in 1983. Samuel's talents earn a fortune for his adopted father, Rev. Calvin Hartley (George Gerdes) but lately they've taken a dark turn. Accused of murder after a cancer patient mysteriously dies within hours of Samuel's touch, the boy is convinced that his pride has turned his gift toward devilish rather than godly ends; he even surrenders himself to the town sheriff (R.D. Call), a Hartley skeptic determined to shut down the thriving revivalist. For the second episode in a row, Mulder and Scully head to Tennessee, this time for a full immersion in the local community rather than a brief interview off a rural highway. I've been wondering when The X-Files, so keen on exploring the vast geography and sociology of the U.S., would turn toward the Deep South. This particularly subject matter provides the perfect opportunity to do so.

Scully warns Mulder at the outset that "this isn't an X-file" but several factors eventually convince them otherwise. After being killed under shady circumstances, Samuel gets up and walks out of the morgue (he's spotted by several witnesses before disappearing), a Christlike resurrection to match the outstretched-arm crucifixion we witnessed in his jail cell a few scenes earlier. Perhaps even more significant, however, is the effect Samuel has on Mulder. "Miracle Man" is generally considered a "monster-of-the-week" story (it's eventually revealed that Vance, not Samuel, is the monster; bitter about being brought back to life in his beleaguered condition, has been poisoning the victims with cyanide in order to discredit and destroy the Hartleys). That designation is fair enough, but the episode also dips into the ongoing mythology in a way that even the mythos-heavy "E.B.E." didn't touch: the faith healer is able to manifest and channel a little girl who continually haunts Mulder's peripheral vision. She appears to be his own, unaged sister, abducted from their childhood bedroom in a close encounter of the fourth kind. Is this another example of Samuel bringing back the dead, or is he contacting her across another plane altogether?

My Response:
I wonder if the writers brought Mulder's sister into the fold specifically because the mostly minor "Miracle Man" felt like too much of a step down from the grand government conspiracies of the previous episode. Moreover, the sister storyline was so an obviously missing element from the otherwise comprehensive episode 17; best to make up for it now (that said, I'm not sure if the episodes were written and aired in a particularly conscious order, aside from some obvious exceptions). At any rate, this element is a fairly welcome inclusion, providing a nice pivot point for Mulder to shift from nonchalant, even bored, about this run-of-the-mill investigation into a more credulous investment. Indeed, aside from a few key elements, much of the narrative plays out as a non-supernatural case. A plague of locusts at Samuel's hearing turns out to have been carefully prepared by Vance, who placed the grasshoppers in the air vents of the courthouse. Samuel's apparently spiritual victims were in fact secretly poisoned by Vance, and the agents must convince a grieving but still religiously minded father to sign off on an autopsy to prove this more down-to-earth cause. For once, the FBI provides a voice of rationality against self-serving superstition.

Samuel himself, of course - or rather his positive healing abilities - provides the exception to this general rule, keeping The X-Files within its paranormal ken. At one point, a glowing spirit of the deceased preacher-boy even accosts Vance; this is one of the most unambiguous (and, as a result, somewhat less effective) ghostly interventions of the show so far. Something I haven't really talked about much yet (though I think it first came up in "Stretch") is the show's unusual use of point of view. We aren't typically limited to just Scully's and Mulder's perceptions - indeed, every single episode opens without them - but the show is still quite selective in how it deploys information or events they aren't privy to. Here I felt the hints about Samuel were stronger than the big reveals. Yet where it counts, The X-Files remains hesitant to show all its cards, and Mulder, as much as us, is left wondering what those visions meant at episode's end.

Next: "Shapes" • Previous: "E.B.E."

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