“Familiar” is a well-directed and performed X-Files episode, but it ultimately falls into a few too many screenwriting traps to ignore. The metaphors are seriously muddled — infidelity, witchcraft, McCarthyism, and vigilante justice are all thrown into the mix — and a lot of the dialogue is tragically overheated. Worst of all, Scully and Mulder are forced into beliefs that don’t make much logical sense aside from serving those cloudy metaphors. “Familiar” isn’t a horrible episode, just a forgettable one — assuming you can get that damn Mr. Chuckle Teeth song out of your head.
A basic way to sum up this week’s episode is that The X-Files team clearly liked the movie version of Stephen King’s It a lot. Obviously inspired by the saga of Pennywise the Clown, “Familiar” opens with the introduction of Mr. Chuckle Teeth, a doll being held by a raincoat-clad kid named Andrew. His mom is on the phone, barely pushing his merry-go-round. Suddenly, Andrew sees an adult-size Mr. Chuckle Teeth in the woods and follows him. Something scary comes at Andrew in the woods and he gasps. The lesson, as always: Don’t buy your kids creepy dolls.
Andrew is dead, of course, and the local cops try to push Mulder and Scully away with the theory that it was a coyote attack. They don’t buy it. Scully is convinced that a male offender, possibly someone who gets off on killing kids, is roaming these woods, and Mulder thinking something more like Hellhounds or a coywolf (yes, that’s a real thing). Scully is in full FBI mode and Mulder loves it, telling everyone she’s “damn good at her job,” but he’s more inclined to consider witchcraft given they’re in Massachusetts. As he explains in a great line, just because there were bogus witch hunts doesn’t mean there actually weren’t a few actual witches.
While they’re examining Andrew’s body, Mulder notices some salt on the boy’s foot. Everyone knows that witchcraft and salt go together, right? But Scully just shrugs at the discovery. Nevertheless, Mulder wants to talk to the other kid at the park the day that Andrew disappeared.
Before that, it’s time for the child’s funeral, where we learn that the chief of police and Andrew’s father, Eggers, don’t just work together. It turns out Chief Strong’s daughter is the one that was also in the park that day. (We’ll later find out that Eggers’s wife is cheating on him with Strong.) Eggers wants to know why they don’t have a body to bury. What does the FBI suspect? His partner reveals Scully’s theory that it might be a male sexual predator. The seed is planted for vigilante justice.
Emily, the chief’s daughter, is watching TV and shaking her head as Mulder asks questions. She’s also spouting what sound like rehearsed lines, given to her by her mother. The show she won’t turn away from is a Teletubbies riff called Bibble Tickles, and it’s super creepy. Mulder conveniently notices The Grimoire of the Eastwood Witch on the bookshelf. (It’s not a real book, but a grimoire is a very real thing.) Something suspicious is going on.
Meanwhile, Officer Eggers is off to get some of his own justice. He finds a registered sex offender who lives two blocks from the park and didn’t report. While Scully is trying to convince Chief Strong that Eggers himself needs to be ruled out, the grieving cop races off to take justice into his own hands. Chased by Scully and Strong, Eggers bursts into the dark house with his gun drawn. The guy isn’t home and Strong and Scully catch up to him just in time to take his gun away, but not before Eggers flips a table. He’s getting angrier.
Eggers’s noisy behavior quickly leads to a mob outside the sex offender’s house. While Mulder is spotting hellhounds in the woods, it’s actually growing more dangerous on the street. They get a search warrant to investigate his house and find a closet with a monkey in a cage and a Mr. Chuckle Teeth mask. “You couldn’t dream up a more perfect suspect,” says Scully. “He’s John Wayne Gacy with a monkey.” The mob grows. This guy has no chance. The metaphors here get seriously muddled as Mulder monologues about Salem and McCarthyism. Skepticism is good and mob justice is bad, sure, but Emily just told Mulder that she “saw” Mr. Chuckle Teeth in the woods and they found a mask and big shoes in the home of a sex offender. And Mulder still doesn’t suspect him?
Of course, we know Mulder is right, and a dark episode gets even darker when Emily is taken by a giant, purple Bibble Tickle. She’s found dead in the woods and her mother screams at Chief Strong that this is all his fault. What does he know? Mulder finds salt in the woods again and theorizes that it’s a magic circle used to summon demons. He confronts the chief but gets an answer nobody suspects: The chief didn’t summon evil directly, but he feels guilty because he was sleeping with Andrew’s mother. He believes the deaths of the children are due to his infidelity. Mulder knows there’s gotta be more to it.
Coming home to a mob scene means violence for the sex offender who lived near the park. Eggers pulls him from the car and beats him mercilessly as the crowd cheers him on. Mulder and Scully get there to stop the mob from beating the man to death, but they can’t stop Eggers, who pauses, pulls out his gun, and shoots him in the head.
After an arraignment that suggests Eggers may get off for murdering a man in front of dozens of people, his former partner reveals that he has already proven that Eggers shot an innocent man. So who killed Andrew and Emily?
Eggers comes home to misery — remember, his wife was cheating on him with his boss. They’re breaking up and Diane Eggers drives off into the night. She believes she sees Andrew in the road and crashes the car. Meanwhile, Eggers barges into Strong’s home looking for more vengeance. He sees Mr. Chuckle Teeth walking around the darkened house. Just as he turns and sees Strong, shots are fired.
Mulder and Scully come on the scene to find Eggers shot in the doorway and salt on the front lawn. The Grimoire is gone, and Mr. Chuckle Teeth is getting even creepier on the television. They have to go back to the scene of the crime.
Of course, everyone is headed to the woods. First, Strong sees Diane’s flipped car and sees a figure that looks like Diane in the woods. He follows. He comes upon a circle of candles and finds his wife Anna in the middle, reading from the book. She’s to blame for all of this. She just wanted to punish her husband and his mistress. She had no idea what she would unleash. After Strong is ripped apart by a hellhound, Mulder orders her to put the book down, but she finishes her incantation and bursts into flames. The book, in the middle of the fire, remains intact. With all the loose ends tied up and so many characters dead, Mulder says something about the state of the nation and our current witch-hunt culture: “There is no getting out of this town, Scully. Not these days.” The merry-go-round spins in agreement.
• Why did the sex offender have a Mr. Chuckle Teeth mask? Did Mrs. Strong frame him? Or does he wear that as a kids’ performer? And the children really don’t scream at that thing?!
• There are some good ideas here, but the whole episode needs more clarity. Most frustratingly, Mulder and Scully act in illogical ways with Mulder ignoring the mask and Scully dismissing salt as evidence. Also, Scully sees a woman burst into flames and a hellhound eat a man, but she’s still talking about mob justice? Okay then.
• Mr. Chuckle Teeth will remind people of It, but the episode’s narrative also recalls The Witch, which you should watch if you haven’t yet.
• The tag is back to “The Truth Is Out There” this week. Guess they couldn’t settle on a witch or a mob justice one for this story.
• The appearance of a monster clearly modeled on the Purple Teletubby reminded me of the Jerry Falwell controversy around the sexuality of a kids’ TV icon.