3 April 2018

The X-Files: "Familiar" (Spoiler Review)

"Familiar" is the eighth episode of season eleven of The X-Files. It was written by Benjamin Van Allen and directed by Holly Dale.  

After the genre experiment that was "RM9SBG93ZXJZ", "Familiar" takes us back to the world where The X-Files feels the most at home: in a small town plagued by monsters, serial killers and viral paranoia. It's a classic monster of the week that provides us with some good old-fashioned horror and asks interesting questions about human nature.

A little boy named Andrew is brutally killed in the small town of Eastwood, Connecticut. Since Andrew was the son of a local police officer, the case falls in the FBI:s jurisdiction, so agents Scully and Mulder are called in to investigate. The local police conclude that it was an animal attack, but the agents have their own theories. 

Given the town's history of witch trials and legends of an actual witch who spontaneously self-combusted, Mulder suspects the killer to be of a supernatural kind - a hellhound, perhaps. Scully applies Occam's razor and suggests that the culprit is very much human. She creates a criminal profile of an adult male, with possible previous convictions of child molestation, and who has managed to slip under the radar of the local law enforcement. 

The police dismiss Scully's hypothesis at first, but when the boy's father, Officer Eggers, finds the man who fits Scully's profile almost to a T, things escalate beyond the experienced agents' control.

Melvin Peter is a registered sex offender who failed to make himself known to the local 
police when he moved to Eastwood. In his home, the police find all the evidence they need to arrest Peter. But Eggers takes the law in his own hands when he attacks the suspect in broad daylight. 

As he is beating the snot out of the bewildered sex offender, Eggers is soon joined by an angry mob. This is a powerful and unsettling scene as you see how the bottled up pain and frustration of the townspeople finally burst through the civilized facade. This is perhaps the best portrayal of mob mentality on The X-Files since the roach scare in "War of the Coprophages", but while in that season three romp the mob mentality was played for laughs, there is nothing funny about this scene. 

Scully and Mulder make it just in time to stop the mob from tearing the suspect to shreds, but when everybody's guard is down, Eggers takes out his gun and shoots Peter in the head.

The next day, our heroes become witnesses to what Mulder labels "small town justice", where Eggers is let out on bail, and the town is willing to blame the murder on the now dead child molester. But one of the cops, Officer Wentworth has done some investigating of his own and found out that Peter was out of town at the time of the murder. 

I love Officer Wentworth, btw. He's played by actor Roger Cross who makes his fifth appearance on the show. Wentworth is the unsung hero of this grim fairy tale. He throws himself on top of Peter when the crowd is beating him, and I just love that little moment when he jumps to Scully's side when Eggers shoots Peter. He's the individual in the mob who won’t compromise his morals even under pressure. He will do the right thing even if it will hurt him in the long run.

The Mandela Effect in action?

As the tragic events in Eastwood are unfolding, Mulder is pursuing his supernatural lead. At the morgue, as he and Scully are examining the body of little Andrew in a scene that made me more uncomfortable than anything else I've seen on this show they discover a residue on the boy's feet that looks like salt which reinforces Mulder's witch hypothesis. According to the witch lore, salt has been used to make ritual circles. This leads Mulder back to the crime scene and he goes to interview the one witness the police didn't talk to - the five-year-old daughter of police chief Strong who was at the park with her mother when Andrew disappeared.

The little girl's name is Emily (not to be confused with Scully's dead daughter Emily), and she couldn't be bothered with Mulder's questions as her attention is hijacked by a creepy children's show featuring the Bibble Tiggles - characters that were clearly created by injecting Teletubbies with alien DNA. Emily can't tear her eyes off the screen, and the whole thing reminded me of Candle Cove, a popular creepypasta about a creepy children's show. 

Emily's mother, Anna opens up to Mulder sharing her fears with him. "Do you have children?" she asks, to which Mulder replies, "I have a son. He's grown, though.". It's one little line, but Duchovny's delivery as well as the events of "Ghouli" make it such a heartbreaking and human moment that I just wanted to give Mulder a hug.

Mulder also spots a variety of books on witchcraft, including the Grimoire of the Eastwood Witch, and Anna explains that her husband is a local history buff.

As Mulder is studying the books, a new character appears on the TV screen - a delightfully horrifying crossbreed between Pinocchio and the Joker. It's Mr. Chuckle Teeth, and Emily says that he was in the park when Andrew disappeared.

Something clicks for Mulder: Mr. Chuckle Teeth is a familiar, a supernatural being that according to the witch lore were assistants to witches. They would often appear in different shapes, from animal to humanoid. In this case, the familiar took the shape of a beloved TV character to lure the boy to his death. The question is, who was the familiar assisting?

Mulder returns to the scene of the crime, where he is faced with a large black CGI hound. 
Could it be the mythical hellhound that guards the gates of hell? The man and the hound have an awkward stare down, and then the hound disappears.

Just as the town is recovering from the recent events, it's shaken by a new tragedy: little Emily disappears. 

When Emily's body is found in the woods in a circle of salt later that day, her mother accuses Strong for her death. When finally confronted by the agents the stoic cop breaks down and admits to having an affair with Andrew's mother Diane. He blames himself for Andrew's death as he was on the phone with Diane when the boy wandered off. 

This is where the episode takes a turn from horror to Greek family tragedy. Back in Eggers' house, Diane has a fight with her husband, and leaves him. As she's speeding down the country road, she sees the apparition of Andrew and makes a violent turn crashing the car. As she's lying there unconscious, the hellhound reappears.

Enraged, Eggers goes to Strong's house where, after being taunted by the apparition of Mr. Chuckle Teeth in a delightfully creepy scene, he is ultimately shot to death by Strong. Strong goes after Diane, but after seeing her car on the side of the road, he goes into the woods. He hears ominous chanting, and in a sad but pretty predictable twist we see that it was his wife Anna who has been conjuring up dark magic to curse Diane. But Anna overestimated her powers and unleashed magic she couldn't control. In her attempt to break the dark spell, Anna gets her husband killed by the CGI hellhound, and as the agents are trying to talk her down, she spontaneously self-combusts, just like the witch in the town legend.

The only thing that doesn't get incinerated in the hellfire is the Grimoire that Anna was using, and in the aftermath of the attack, Scully hands the book to Wentworth as evidence. Scully and Mulder then bookend the episode with a dialogue that we will get back to in a little bit.

And as the agents are driving out of the cursed town, we see a merry-go-round spinning on its own (the magic is still out there!).

"Dear diary: today my heart leapt when Agent Scully suggested spontaneous human combustion!"  

I read a comment from a mother who hated this episode because of the whole violence against children aspect, and I understand that. Perhaps the episode wouldn't have hit as hard as it did had it not been done so well. The grief, the paranoia, the sickening tension - it's all depicted so well, as we see how the small and seemingly peaceful town is being torn apart by the gruesome deaths of their young. 

What Van Allen wanted was to write a classic monster of the week. And in "Familiar" he and Dale do a fantastic job in creating an episode that both feels like an old-school MOTW and is relevant to the time it's depicting. It's a very familiar (no pun intended) MOTW; you can even say it's “by the numbers”, but Allen uses this familiar plot and setting as a framework for a story that cuts deeper than its black magic plot. 

There are obvious callbacks to Stephen King’s It: Andrew is wearing a yellow jacket, and he’s lured away by a creepy child entertainment character. But the most obvious parallel is how the cynicism of the adult world preying on the innocence of childhood. But here, the evil and the cynicism don't stop with the children. The whole town is infected, and it's no coincidence that a murder investigation turns into a witch hunt. 

The with hunt metaphor is pretty self-explanatory. In his interview with Syfy Wire, Van Allen explained why he wanted to explore the theme of xenophobia and witch hunts:

"I was reading this book where someone was talking about the four or five big witch hunts in history. There was the original witch hunts; then there was McCarthyism; the satanic cult craze in the 1990s [ed note: the "Satanic Panic" was at its most fervent in the 1980s]; then Islamophobia today. But I think with the way social media has gone, everything turns into a witch hunt. Regardless if people are right about who they are hunting, I just think it's a dangerous culture we are in, with social media and all."
The symbolism is everything but subtle, but how much subtlety can there be in a story about an angry mob that almost stones their scapegoat to death? "Familiar" has an important message to get through to its audience. Important messages is something that Hollywood has been trying to communicate more often these days, and this season of The X-Files has been no exception. But as I have said in my review of "RM9SBG93ZXJZ", when the writers put the message first and the characters second, there will be problems. But here, Van Allen does the exact opposite, and focuses on the drama and on the characters first.

"Familiar" is a character study, the character being the paranoid small town itself. And this is where the elements of this episode - the writing, the direction, the acting come together to create an atmosphere of paranoia and distrust that lingers long after you watched the episode. The thesis may be on the nose but it's told through the characters' tragic experiences. It's the paranoia of the townspeople and the denial of their own guilt that drives the story forward, and that's what makes the exploration of this theme so interesting.

"Familiar" is one of the darkest episodes of this season, and maybe of the show as a whole. Not just for the amount of gore and violence but also for the events in this episode and consequences they have for the characters. Two families are killed and a whole town is torn apart in the span of only a few days. There is no coming back from that. Magic or not, darkness is always present.

My only real gripe with this episode is the return to the very old-school skeptic/believer routine between Scully and Mulder. It's been twenty five years since Scully first descended into that basement office. She's is not the same staunch skeptic she was in 1993, and Mulder isn’t the same gullible conspiracy theorist, with a willingness to believe that made him the perfect victim for the Syndicate. They have both been beaten up by life, and had their naïveté stripped away from them. 

As a result, their very different worldviews are more nuanced now. Not only did Scully see things that conventional science could not explain, but she lived them. Mulder has been misled time and again, and had his faith used against him. And yet here they are, in 2018, arguing about the existence of hellhounds and the nature of spontaneous combustion. The sudden reversal to their old - and now sufficiently obsolete roles felt disorienting to me. 

Perhaps it's the way that Scully's conventional wisdom progressed the plot and made things worse that kind of soured her role here for me. Scully chose the scientific approach to solving the mystery as we expect her to do, but in doing so she accidentally triggered a reaction she and Mulder couldn't foresee. Then again, the town was in such desperate need of a scapegoat, that had Eggers overheard Mulder's witch craft theories, this could have just as easily turned into a literal witch hunt.

What I do like is Scully and Mulder's role in this story in that they're not the main heroes. Technically, they are outsiders in this town, and the story centres around the two families - the Strongs and the Eggers. As I said earlier, it's the town that is the main character here, and Mulder and Scully are then the audience characters. In other words, they're us. What's interesting is their reaction to the unfolding drama and what they take away from this case.

You can see the toll this case is taking on them. When Mulder talks about "his son", and then grieves the death of Emily ("I just talked to her"), you know that he won't be able to shake this case off very easily. 

Which brings me to their final exchange before they leave the cursed town. 

Mulder: "What did you tell him?"
Scully: "To consider that book as evidence."
Mulder: "Evidence of what, exactly?"
Scully: "Of a town in a grip of madness. Of the most human fault and frailty."
Mulder: "Or in a grip of a curse unleashed by a modern-day witch."
Scully: "Leave that to the tourist literature, Mulder. I just hope that it's over."
Mulder: "I only hope that it is, too."
Scully: "That woman went up in flames."
Mulder: "Maybe it was the candles."
Scully: "Maybe it was the gates of hell. Let's get out of this town, Mulder!"
Mulder: "There is no getting out of this town, Scully. Not these days."

This may not be the best dialogue between Scully and Mulder (think Conversations on the rock, or their first banter in "Pilot"), but there is so much fun subtext to dissect (or read too much into).

Here, they play with each others' theories, and it's a sweet moment that provides much needed levity to a gruesome story. And even though neither of them ended up in mortal danger this time, this case will leave them with a bitter aftertaste, especially considering everything that they've gone through this season. And their little dialogue seems like a comfort they're willing to provide each other in a dark time.

Mulder's last line pretty much reinforces the thesis of this episode, and informs the political agenda of this season.

But my favourite part is Scully's remark about the tourist literature. It's a reminder that in any event, everybody will have their own version of the truth and that the farther away in time we go, the harder it becomes to discern facts from fiction. But this line also informs the nature of their work on the X-files and, by extension, their lives, 

It's pure joy to see these two in sync, even though they may still disagree on many things. When the cops are questioning Scully's theories, Mulder quickly shuts them down by saying that Scully "is a medical doctor and a damn good one at that". Of course he stands up for Scully, she's his homie.

Other stuff I liked: 

1. The direction and cinematography. Breathtakingly beautiful shots and lighting that make the gruesome nature of the episode that much more poignant. 

2. The creepy children's show. Van Allen said that he was always creeped out by kids' shows and that's what spurred him to create Mr. Chuckle Teeth and the alien-Teletubbies. This episode gets a lot of points for giving me the creeps.  

3. Scully's hair. It looks awesome. I got so used to mermaid Scully in the first half of season eleven, but her new bob is a welcome callback to the good old days, and also the wig itself looks very good, and the whole look gives Scully a certain softness.

4. Spontaneous combustion. What a welcome return of one of my favourite jokes from season six!  

What I didn't like so much: 

1. The whole melodrama with the cheating husbands and wives was a bit too much, but it worked for the story Van Allen wanted to tell.

2. The final shot of the merry-go-round spinning on its own. Way to end such a fantastic episode with such a cheesy cliche! 

All in all, "Familiar" is both a welcome return to the classic X-Files lore and a breath of fresh air. I said in a Youtube comment once that The X-Files' weakest episodes were usually the ones that dealt with magic and the occult. I formerly retract this comment because "Familiar" is freaking amazing. 

Links and sources

Candle Cove - Creepypasta Wiki

See you soon, Bibble Tiggles!

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