"You are responsible!" blares a sign posted on a side street in West Philadelphia. Seconds later, a fire hose blasts the message away. How's that for emphasis?
It's a perfect note on which to begin "Home Again," the fourth episode of the X-Files mini-series, which is unapologetically blunt with its themes and emotions. Written and directed by co–executive producer Glen Morgan — who, along with James Wong, penned many of the original series's strongest installments — this is a story soaked in blood, sweat, and tears.
Let's start with blood. Joseph Cutler (Alessandro Juliani) is a mid-level bureaucrat in the City of Brotherly Love, tasked with rounding up homeless people to make way for gentrification. He's the kind of unsympathetic pencil pusher who might as well have "Just doin' my job" tattooed on his forehead. But surely even he doesn't deserve the punishment meted out in the episode's tense and atmospheric teaser sequence. Cutler is stalked by a dead-eyed, barefoot monster known as the Band-Aid Nose Man (John DeSantis), then graphically torn limb from limb.
As far as FBI special agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) are concerned, just deserts have nothing to do with it. When the duo arrives the next morning to investigate, they treat Cutler's death with analytical dispassion — though Mulder, no surprise, can't help slipping in a quip about the victim's head being in the wrong recycling bin. "They said you two have experience with these, uh, spooky cases," a detective says. Do they ever. And for a few moments, it seems like this will be more or less a standard X-File. It's business as usual for our agents, despite a pair of unexplained elements: Why didn't the perpetrator leave behind footprints? And what's up with that weird, life-size graffiti on the billboard across from the murder scene?
Then Scully gets a call from "William." We can tell, for a split second, that she's thinking of the son she gave up for adoption and who was an integral part of episode two of the mini-series, "Founder's Mutation." But it's actually her brother, William Scully Jr., who's calling from overseas with news that their mother, Margaret Scully (Sheila Larken), is in intensive care after a heart attack. The case suddenly seems trivial, and Mulder is quick to encourage Scully to be by her mother's side. Pay careful attention to the way Duchovny reaches toward Anderson right before she leaves — an affectionate, tossed-off gesture that's pregnant with history between both actors and characters. It left me breathless.
"Home Again" is at its best in intimate moments like this one. However, I don't think Morgan dovetails the case with the agents' personal struggles as elegantly as Wong did in "Founder's Mutation." The episode includes several flashbacks to past episodes, which force connections that would have been better left implied. But the narrative's weak spots are balanced out by the sheer visceral-ness of Morgan's approach — and not just with the many scenes of carnage.
Emotion is key, and few performers are better than Anderson at conveying a world of hurt with the subtlest shift of her face. Much of the first half of the episode takes place at Margaret's bedside, in a room that Morgan and cinematographer Joel Ransom shoot to emphasize its oppressive vastness. Margaret is tucked away to one side, a body nearly vacated by life and spirit. (It's only a torturous matter of time until she succumbs.) And not even Scully's affections can fully counteract the overall aura of sterility and bleakness; in this context, a tear rolling down her cheek seems like a hard-won victory.
It reminds me of a passage from Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man: "This is now cousin to the garbage in the container on the back porch. Both will have to be carted away and disposed of, before too long." He was describing the lifeless body of his own protagonist, as well as that powerful sense of a person as trash that must be moved out of sight and out of mind. The latter certainly resonates with what Morgan is attempting here, albeit in a pulpier context.
It's a vicious cycle: Cutler treats vagrants like offal, so the Band-Aid Nose Man responds in flesh-rending kind. When a pair of exploitative art collectors, Fitzpatrick (Seth Whittaker) and Proudley (Daniel Jacobsen), try to make money off of the whole situation, they're also torn to shreds. Similarly violent fates befall Daryl Landry (Daryl Shuttleworth) and Nancy Huff (Peggy Jo Jacobs), both of whom dehumanize the Philly homeless by using language peppered with legalese. ("I hear you speaking for them but really for yourself," Mulder says, in a funny dressing-down scene.) Huff's gory comeuppance is especially memorable, scored as it is to Petula Clark's peppy "Downtown."
Mulder and Scully never meet the Band-Aid Nose Man face to face, but they're nonetheless torn in other ways. "I don't care about the big questions right now, Mulder," Scully says, as she watches the doctors extubate Margaret in accordance with her living will. "I just want one more chance to ask my mom a few little ones." The hospital sections of "Home Again" are so powerful, and Anderson's performance is even more exceptional than usual. (After Margaret dies, there's a deeply affecting moment when Scully becomes near-hysterical, telling Mulder that she needs to work "right now!") Yet, as a result, the case begins to feel like a pro-forma distraction, rather than an inspired metaphorical complement.
Morgan still does all the usual X-Files shadow play, especially when the agents descend into the dark hideaway of a Banksy-like artist known as Trashman. (He's played with a nice mix of obsessiveness and insanity by Rancid front man Tim Armstrong.) There's an instantly iconic image in this sequence: Mulder and Scully filmed from overhead, their flashlight beams crossing each other to form an evanescent X. And though Morgan's script overexplains the final stretches, Anderson still plays the hell out of it all.
It turns out the Band-Aid Nose Man is a kind of "tulpa," a phantom brought to life by sheer force of spiritual and mental will. (Though Mulder, quite hilariously, sees fit to argue the exact meaning of the term.) Trashman initially created this vengeful ghost as a protective spirit for the homeless, but somewhere along the way the artist's intentions turned violent. His creation took on a murderous life all its own. "I didn't bring him here," Trashman says, desperately trying to justify himself. "He came to me." His words stir something up in Scully, bringing back poignant and painful memories of baby William.
"You're just as bad as the people that you hate," Scully says, and she's not just talking about Trashman and his actions, but of how she treated her own son. She put him up for adoption to protect him from the villainous forces she and Mulder are investigating — yet, quite selfishly, put him out of sight and mind, too. The strange case of the Band-Aid Nose Man pales in comparison, and it's resolved in typically ambiguous X-Files fashion. (Though the monster vanishes, he still lingers, maybe to appear again as the need or want arises.)
It's left to Mulder and Scully to sum things up, which they do in a devastatingly lovely scene by a lake, Margaret's ashes in an urn by their feet. Mulder listens as Scully tearfully talks through her mother's final moments and how they resonate with her own feelings about their child. "I want to believe … I need to believe that we didn't treat [William] like trash," she says. The ensuing silence offers no comfort. And even a gentle and loving hug between the agents is tinged with the uncertainty and desperation of two people who wish they could have done better.
Musings of a Non-Cigarette-Smoking Fan:
- The concerns I had about the rejiggered episode order proved mostly unfounded. Though "Home Again" was the second episode to be filmed, it seems only one exchange had to be deleted: Mulder and Scully's snarky reply ("We don't do that sort of thing anymore") to the detective's "spooky cases" observation, which was included in trailers. Plus, I like how the what-if fantasies about William in "Founder's Mutation" add layers to the agents' interactions here. I also think having Margaret die later in the mini-series, rather than right before the comical shenanigans of "Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster," is a wise choice. Though The X-Files tends to vary in tone from week to week, that would have been a bit too jarring of a contrast.
- Lovely to see Sheila Larken return as Mrs. Scully. Fans know her as the real-life wife of former X-Files executive producer R.W. Goodwin. She retired from acting soon after the original series concluded in 2002, so it's wonderful to see her provide some continuity between the original series and this mini. Even though she only gets one line ("My son is named William, too"), she makes the most of it.
- Speaking of the Scully family: Charlie Scully! Dana's mostly absent brother finally gets a speaking role in the series — he's only ever appeared as a background extra or in silent flashbacks — even if it's only over the phone and in the voice of sound mixer Andrew Morgado. We find out that he's been estranged from the family, and Margaret wanted to speak to him once more before she died. ("She wanted to know that he'd be okay," Scully explains in the final scene.)
- Among Margaret's personal effects, Scully discovers a quarter that has been made into a necklace. I like that Mrs. Scully has something akin to the Apollo 11 key chain that exchanged hands between Mulder, Scully, and, later, John Doggett in the original series. The quarter has no meaning that Scully can glean — it's a symbol without significance, just another unanswered question in a life filled with them.
- You know it's a Glen Morgan episode when you get sports references: The episode mentions Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs, as well as the Philadelphia 76ers who, per Mulder, "can't find the rim."
- When the Band-Aid Nose Man first appears in the teaser sequence, you can see a billboard in the background advertising Lariat Rent-a-Car, The X-Files' fictional vehicle-for-hire agency, which has also appeared in Breaking Bad, Supernatural, and Veronica Mars.
- And I have to mention the tender scene in which Scully asks Mulder if he's ever discovered a means of bringing people back to life. He recalls inventing one such method while standing vigil over a comatose Scully in season two's "One Breath." After a beat, he gives her a lovingly mischievous stare. "You're a dark wizard, Mulder," Scully replies.