Lost in the Movies: The X-Files - "Tooms" (season 1, episode 21)

The X-Files - "Tooms" (season 1, episode 21)

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 22, 1994/written by Glen Morgan & James Wong, directed by David Nutter): When we last saw Tooms, a mutant serial killer capable of stretching his body to fit through extremely narrow openings, he was placed inside an institution for the criminally insane, ostensibly under lock and key. However, the small opening in his cell door beckoned with the promise of escape. As it turns out Tooms himself doesn't have to do much to escape - the system will do that for him. Despite Mulder's testimony - arguing that the seemingly young man has actually been killing innocent people for decades, slaughtering five victims and devouring their livers before undergoing another thirty-year hibernation - the prisoner is released. His hunt for a new victim is continually thwarted by the omnipresent but increasingly exhausted Mulder's semi-rogue surveillance. Scully takes a more methodical approach, digging (literally) into Tooms' past with the help of Detective Frank Briggs (Henry Beckman), the retired cop from episode three who guides Scully to a skeletal corpse with incriminating toothmarks on its ribcage. Mulder and Scully are unable to prevent Tooms from murdering Dr. Aaron Monte (Paul Ben-Victor), the very psychologist who helped get him released, but they do catch up to the killer as he burrows beneath a new building (on the site of his old hibernation spot). Sucked into an escalator, he is apparently destroyed but Mulder's and Scully's troubles are only beginning.

FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) and the ominous, usually silent Smoking Man (William B. Davis) spend much of episode 21 pressuring Mulder and Scully to back off their general mission. At times Skinner argues that their methods are not within bureau guidelines, at others he implies that their conclusions are at issue. In one meeting, he shakes a career-threatening stick at them, in another he flatters their talents and offers the carrot of restored credibility. His means change but his ends are clear - let's allow these X-files to fade away. Mulder of course resists, while Scully is increasingly invested not just in their personal solidarity (which is solidified when she lies to cover for him) but in the importance of the work itself, however hesitant she is to draw immediate conclusions. Although it never makes explicit reference to the quasi-cliffhanger at the end of "Darkness Falls," in which the agents were placed in lingering physical peril, somehow the precarious nature of their work in this episode flows logically from the grim mood of the previous one. With three episodes until the finale, The X-Files is building a sense of anxiety that draws the agents closer to one another - and the audience closer to them.

My Response:
"Tooms" is a significant episode for several obvious reasons. While other non-Scully/Mulder characters have made recurring appearances, this is the first time a "monster of the week" has come back (a gesture which frankly complicates the whole "monster-of-the-week" concept). The episode also pushes hard on FBI hostility toward the X-files crew, ending on an ominous note when Mulder stares at a chrysalis and tells Scully that a change is coming their way soon. Cleverly, the scenes between the agents and their supervisors suggest that institutional resistance arises from two contradictory, yet weirdly complementary, directions: skepticism about the nature of these cases and the unorthodox way the agents must pursue them vs. top-secret weariness that in fact these intrepid investigators are drawing too close to the dangerous truth. Skinner represents the former while The Smoking Man evokes the latter, but their final conversation suggests that one may merely be cover for the other. Thanks to its "sequel" quality and emphasis on FBI tensions, "Tooms" reminds us that the "ongoing" big-picture storytelling of the series isn't just a matter of U.F.O. mythology.

I have some issues with "Squeeze" (which could well change on a revisit - I watched it a couple years ago), but this one tends to work for me overall. Hutchinson's glassy malevolence remains one of the show's most effective presences and I continue to enjoy the prolific Nutter's directorial work ("Ice" feels somewhat flat but "Shapes" is eerily evocative and "Beyond the Sea" is probably my favorite so far). Mulder's and Scully's teamwork sets them on different story paths, plays to their strengths, and solidifies their bond (one of the series' strongest elements), while the pressure from multiple sources creates an effective tension. Taking a step back from atmosphere and narrative, it's worth noting that after the recent run of episodes (particularly the last two), the return to Tooms represents a slight seesaw in the series' always ambivalent ideological balance. As Mulder describes him early on, Tooms is an inhuman monster taking advantage of human society's compassion to kill "because it's in his nature." A wonky psychologist and a naive good-hearted foster family are played for fools (one even becomes Tooms' final victim, in a classic crime-story trope) while our heroes attempt to defensively exterminate the lone wolf enemy. In this light, this particular episode's anti-authoritarianism has more of a right-leaning than left-leaning orientation, obstructed by ostensibly by-the-book deep-state bureaucrats and bleeding-heart social services and judges. Through these eyes, the truth that's out there is a threat, not a promise.

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