Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The X-Files - "Shapes" (season 1, episode 19)

Friday, June 22, 2018

The X-Files - "Shapes" (season 1, episode 19)


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 April 1, 1994/written by Marilyn Osborn, directed by David Nutter): In the moody, misty environment of Browning, Montana, Mulder and Scully investigate what appears to be a pretty routine murder. Lyle Parker (Ty Miller) and his son Jim (Donnelly Rhodes) have been in a deep dispute with a nearby Indian reservation; when Lyle shoots Joseph Goodensnake (actor unknown) it looks like an extension of their feud. But the Parkers claim that the...thing they saw attacking them was not a man at all, but a savage beast. Mulder is intrigued by the case because it echoes the very first X-file, opened by the head of the FBI himself in the late forties. Ish (Jimmy Herman), an older local, later confirms the details of that case, recalling how he witnessed an earlier werewolf (or as the tribe calls it, "a Manitou") who may have passed the curse down through his bloodline to Joseph and his grieving sister Gwen (Renae Morriseau). When Lyle is killed in a nighttime attack, however, the FBI agents eventually realize that it is his son, scratched by Joseph, who has inherited the affliction. Jim nearly kills Scully in his canine form before Sheriff Charles Tskany (Michael Horse, of Twin Peaks) shoots him down. Scully, assuming she was nearly attacked by a mountain lion, is gently corrected - that animal is still in its cage and the monster who burst through the bathroom door is far more human in origin.

My Response:
I loved this episode, but for different reasons than I loved some of my earlier favorites. So far I've tended to appreciate the X-Files episode where a director shows a strong hand, either through unusual, striking performances, pronounced cinematic design and photography, or a combination of both. While Nutter's work here is fine, "Shapes"' real strong suit is the teleplay by Osborn and, even more so, the general concept at play. As the series weaves its way through various supernatural mythos, it's fun to see it reach werewolves (still remaining: vampires, Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle,  and the Loch Ness Monster or its American equivalent). More striking, however, is the immersion in a Native American milieu, in a particularly respectful manner. I've often noted how the show threads a delicate line between admiration for the FBI (and other U.S. government institutions) and a deep skepticism of authority. Episode 19 brings this tension to the fore as the feds enter a community with active, well-deserved hostility toward them. "I was at Wounded Knee," Ish informs them, probably the first open acknowledgement of the FBI's violent, repressive legacy (in an episode which prominently mentions J. Edgar Hoover, ostensibly an early investigator into the local lycanthropic phenomena - usually merely alluded to in the name of the building where Mulder and Scully work).

There's a lot of Twin Peaks at play here too, from the appearance of Deputy Hawk himself to the location of the opening sequence (for a moment, I was convinced that the Parker homestead was shot on the Packard's home soundstage until I remembered that the Lynch/Frost sets were torn down two years earlier). Horse's character even offers a little speech about the dead wandering the earth which reminds of his similar tribute to Laura Palmer in Peaks. "Shapes" really reinforced for me the value of the show's location shooting in Vancouver. Of course the ideal for a trans-American series like The X-Files would be to have a massive budget in which the crew could travel the country and shoot in whatever state they felt like week to week. On a more realistic level, settling the production in Canada allows the series to craft a different atmosphere than it could if restricted to Los Angeles. This makes certain areas, like the South), more difficult to evoke (although the previous episode accomplished this quite well, I do wonder what will happen when the show extends all the way to Florida, with its palm trees and clear skies, as it eventually must). However, the British Columbian landscape doubles quite well for so much of the northern U.S., from New England to the Midwest to, as in this episode, the Pacific Northwest (which it's essentially a part of). This escape from the balmy southern Californian climate is a rare privilege for a nineties network show, and The X-Files makes the most of it.

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