Friday, July 23, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 111: The X-Files: "Sein Und Zeit"/"Closure"

"You know, I never stop to think that the light is billions of years old by the time we see it. From the beginning of time right past us into the future. Nothing is ancient in the universe. But, maybe they are souls, Scully. Traveling through time as starlight, looking for homes..."

-Fox Mulder contemplates the night sky, and the fate of his sister Samantha, in The X-Files, "Closure."

In the epic two-part X-File presentation, "Sein Und Zeit"/"Closure," a television inside Agent Fox Mulder's motel room in Sacramento plays important imagery from the classic sci-fi film, Planet of the Apes (1968).

In particular, orangutan scientist and Protector of the Faith, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) warns the human astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) not to seek the truth about his people, about humanity.

"Don't look for it, Taylor," the simian urges. "You may not like what you find."

When asked by Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) about what Taylor will find on that mysterious shore-line stretching to the horizon, Dr. Zaius replies, cryptically, "his destiny."

This quotation from a sci-fi, cinematic landmark underlines the thematic through-line of this emotionally-affecting X-File two-parter, which aired originally on Fox TV on February 6th and February 13, 2000. Written by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz, this seventh season story very explicitly concerns the idea of "seeing."

In particular, the narrative revolves around the way that people -- even good people -- tend to see only what they desire to see. Even heroes like Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) -- who believes he is seeing through conspiracies and secrets -- tends to see the world as it conforms to his particular world-view.

This isn't a critique of Mulder so much as it is an observation about human nature. It's just how we, as thoughtful, emotional beings, operate. We all boast a personal lens (our viewpoint) through which we see and attempt to interpret the world. The X-Files remains such a memorable and valuable television series because it provides not one, but two distinctive world-views, two perspectives, in the persons of Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Mulder (David Duchovny).

But the series also pointedly tasks us, the audience, with seeking the "balance" or "truth" between those perspectives, these two "poles" of human sight and insight. We are encouraged, on one literal level, to contemplate extreme possibilities (like the existence of the paranormal or supernatural), and but then, on a deeper, metaphorical level, to consider what these possibilities mean to the characters, even to the human equation as a whole.

In other words, The X-Files deploys both its stirring and scary supernatural cases and its two very-differently-inclined heroic investigators to gaze meaningfully at the essence of our human nature. In my opinion, this is the critical element that renders the series an artistic masterpiece in the tradition of Star Trek, The Twilight Zone or other genre greats. Although not as widely popular as many other installments of the Carter series, this two-part effort reveals The X-Files at its most meaningful, and indeed, most poetic.

As is also often the case with The X-Files, "Sein Und Zeit"/"Closure" commences with reality, and with a real life event from the 1990s as context, and then beelines into the unexpected, the supernatural.

Here, the action starts in Sacramento when a cute-as-a-button, six-year old girl, Amber Lynn La Pierre, disappears from her bedroom...never to be seen alive again. Oddly, her mother disassociates from reality and pens a cryptic ransom note (through the paranormal auspices of "automatic writing.") And her father experiences a precognitive vision of the little girl's bruised corpse.

If you remember the 1990s at all, you will appreciate many of the details of this strange, macabre introduction. Jon Benet Ramsey, a six year old girl, was discovered dead in her family home in Colorado on Christmas Day, 1996. The unsolved case became a media sensation for months and even years. As late as 2006 (and the false confession by John Mark Karr), this murder was still a topic of hot debate.

Importantly, the bizarre ransom note in the Jon Benet Ramsey case, believed to be written by the late Mrs. Ramsey, opens with the same two cautionary words as the note written by Mrs. La Pierre in the X-Files episode: "Listen carefully!"

Furthermore, the victim in both cases is a six-year old girl. And in both real and fictitious cases, the parents are believed to be the perpetrators of a terrible, heinous crime; the murder of a child. There's even a connection between Amber Lynn and Jon Benet in the Christmas day trappings. At the bottom of Mrs. La Pierre's ransom note is a mystifying, holiday-themed sentence: "No one shoots at Santa Claus!"

This odd final sentence is the very clue that rouses Mulder's interest. He remember an earlier X-File in which the same sentence was also scrawled in a ransom note. Another woman, Kathy Lee Tencate (Kim Darby, of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark fame...) wrote the same words on a kidnapper's note for her "missing" son back in 1987. She is currently in prison, having confessed to his murder. But that is just a legal ploy and Ms. Tencate actually believes -- as Mulder comes to believe -- that ancient spirits called "Walk-Ins" are responsible for the disappearance of these children. That they are "old souls protecting the children" from terrible violence in this mortal coil, as depicted in the precognitive visions of the parents.

The particulars of the case are resolved at a place called "Santa's North Pole Village," a haven for a serial killer who abducts and murders children. One visitor at his tourist trap was...Amber Lynn La Pierre. She was destined to die at his hand, like too many other innocents, and the Walk-Ins spared her this terrible agony, transforming the child from matter into energy...into, poetically-speaking, "starlight."

Ultimately, however, this paranormal resolution of a murder case related to real-life isn't the point of Carter and Spotnitz's intricate and haunting tale. The narrative take a strange and unexpected turn when Mulder learns of his mother's suicide...and comes to realize that his missing sister, Samantha, may have also been taken by these Old Spirits as well.

For seven years up to this point, one of The X-Files most prominent mysteries involved Samantha and her ultimate disposition. Was Mulder's sibling abducted by aliens in 1973? Was she taken to another world? Is she still alive on another planet? Will Mulder ever be reunited with her?

This has been Mulder's continuing obsession, his white whale, and various episodes of the series have charted clues, intimated destines, and suggested possibilities. One episode even revealed the aliens harnessing Samantha clones, if I'm not mistaken.

But "Closure" suggests,Mulder has not seen the truth at all. The investigations, the trappings of the alien abduction and other bells and whistles of the case, have actively prevented him from seeing the truth.

And what is that truth? That his sister...a frightened fourteen year-old girl, for all intents and purposes died in 1979.

All Mulder's adult life, he has been chasing a ghost rather than dealing with the truth that his sister is gone. The Cigarette Smoking Man even encourages Mulder's wild goose chase. "Allow him his ignorance," he tells Scully. "It's what gives him hope."

It's a hard, human truth Mulder finally comes to countenance here, and much of this two-parter deals explicitly with our (understandable) sense of outrage and futility when innocence is corrupted, when innocence (like the innocence of Amber Lynn La Pierre or Jon Benet Ramsey) is destroyed. by human "evil." Carter and Spotnitz suggest a welcome spiritual remedy to such ugliness: Walk-Ins who take the children and spare them the pain of such destruction. But the writers also offer Mulder a sense of closure, if he will accept it. The quest for Samantha is over. Or as he realizes, he's reached "the end of the road."

What makes this sense of closure all the more emotionally affecting is that Mulder is joined in this story by a kindly psychic, Harold Piller (Anthony Heald) who lost a son to the kindly Walk-Ins, just as Mulder lost Samantha. But because Harold refuses to believe his son is dead...he can't see him. He refuses to see his boy's spirit, and acknowledge the truth, He cannot grieve, can never on, because his stubbornness won't let him. And thus he achieves the opposite of his desired goal. He remains eternally separated from the child.

Mulder attempts to sway him. "Harold, you see so much, but you refuse to see him," he says. "You refuse to let him go. But you have to let him go now, Harold. He's protected. He's in a better place. They're all in a better place. We both have to let go, Harold."

Our final view of Harold in "Closure" is a haunting one. He runs off, dedicated to finding his "truth"...which is no truth at all. He would rather chase the palatable fantasy than accept the sad reality. This is the object lesson. This could have been Mulder, forever tilting at windmills, never moving on, past the defining traumatic experience of his life.

What remains so remarkable about this X-File story is that Spotnitz and Carter successfully make the audience feel much like stubborn Harold. After seven years and over a hundred episodes, we all invested in Mulder's quest, and the possibility of a happy reunion, of Samantha's safe return. That's what we all hoped for. But this episode precludes such a happy ending, even as it grants Mulder a kind of release.

That sense of release, of catharsis, arrives in one of the most beautiful, lyrical sequences I've ever seen on a television program" a kind of perfect expression of magical, spiritual reality. By starlight, Mulder ascends a hill, accompanied by Harold's son...and sees a field where the "taken" children are at play...still innocent, forever young. There, he is reunited with his fourteen year-old sister. Shot in glowing white light, in slow-motion photography, cut to a haunting but cathartic song from Moby (called "My Weakness,") the long journey ends, and Mulder finds a degree of peace.

Yet some X-Files fans I know outright rejected this lyrical conclusion, mirroring Harold's rejection in the storyline itself. It is easier for us, often, to accept fantasy than reality . We don't have all the answers, and as Scully suggests, "we never truly know why" things happen. But, this tale reminds us, we must attempt to make our peace with the way things are. As as often the case in Chris Carter's works, he purposefully flouts expectations here in order to foster a deeper understanding of the human race. We had expected a Samantha resolution story to involve alien abduction, not, explicitly, grief, about the process of letting go.

Like Planet of the Ape's Taylor -- Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz tell us -- we may not like what we find at the end of the road. The fans are in the same boat as Taylor and Mulder: we don't want to climb that star-lit plateau and know, finally, that Samantha is gone. But it's our destiny. Just as it is every human being's destiny to grieve a loved one, and, in fact, to die.

The popular meme, endlessly repeated in the media about The X-Files, is that it is a brilliant series that stayed on the air a few years too long, and in doing so, somehow damaged its permanent legacy. I would argue, contrarily, that episodes such as "Sein Und Zeit" and "Closure" reveal the opposite is actually true.

It would have been extraordinarily easy of Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz to write a happy ending for Samantha and Fox Mulder. They probably could have done it in their sleep, actually. Mulder gets information from the Lone Gunmen that the Cigarette Smoking Man is holding Samantha for tests somewhere, and Mulder and Scully break her out. Brother and sister are reunited. Cue End Credits.

Instead, these writers pursued a more creative, artistic path and forged a tale about how difficult it is to accept our own mortality, or the mortality of loved ones. This is why human beings have religion...so that we don't have to openly acknowledge that for all of us, there is an end. Although this episode of The X-Files also promises a kind of moral hierarchy to the universe -- one in which innocence is preserved instead of destroyed -- it simultaneously acknowledges that death is an irreparable and grievous separation.

Mulder aches to "believe to understand." And in a beautifully-composed and delivered voice-over, Mulder contemplates the destruction of innocence, and human mortality:

"They said the birds refused to sing and the thermometer fell suddenly... as if God Himself had His breath stolen away. No one there dared speak aloud, as much in shame as in sorrow. They uncovered the bodies one by one. The eyes of the dead were closed as if waiting for permission to open them. Were they still dreaming of ice cream and monkey bars? Of birthday cake and no future but the afternoon? Or had their innocence been taken along with their lives, buried in the cold earth so long ago? These fates seemed too cruel, even for God to allow. Or are the tragic young born again when the world's not looking?

I want to believe so badly; in a truth beyond our own, hidden and obscured from all but the most sensitive eyes; in the endless procession of souls; in what cannot and will not be destroyed. I want to believe we are unaware of God's eternal recompense and sadness. That we cannot see His truth; that that which is born still lives and cannot be buried in the cold earth. But only waits to be born again at God's behest... where in ancient starlight we lay, in repose..."


To me, this soliloquy a perfect summation of human existence, and particularly human doubt. It's an explicit grappling with the unanswerable "why" of our lives. We want to believe in something greater, something good and kind at the end of the rainbow Why? Because, again like Taylor, we're all going to be making that trip ourselves, whether we want to or not. "Sein Und Zeit" and "Closure" get at this truth beautifully. The episodes don't hit you over the head with everything, either. For instance, in a scene featuring ghosts, there's a young, World War II era couple depicted, and without acknowledging explicitly their identities, we understand that they are Mulder's (now-reunited) parents...supporting his "quest" and his attempt to learn the truth.

I suppose what "Closure" really comes down to is the idea that we can either accept hard reality, like Mulder, or retreat into "not seeing," like Harold. Even today, I think that's particularly relevant message, globally and individually, in our culture.

We sometimes need to understand that -- in seeking answers -- we may not like what we find. Still, we need the grace to accept the truth for what it is.

9 comments:

  1. One beautiful and insightful flashback review, John. I have to admit, I didn't see this two-parter (I think I started to flake away from regular viewing of the show around seasons 6-7), which I definitely have to amend because of what you've written here. I'm off to find my way to these episodes. Thanks very much, JKM.

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  2. Le0pard13: Thank you for the kind words, my friend. This is a beautiful two-part episode....just emotionally heart-wrenching I cry every time I watch it... :)

    Best,
    JKM

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  3. Hey Johnny,

    I didn't read the review because I maintain an episode by episode X-Files website blog and I;m in the middle of season 3 and don't want to jump ahead BUT I have seen these episodes and I absolutely love these episodes. The fact that it is placed in a terrible 7th season where DD couldn't really care less is all the more shocking.

    DD's performance is absolutely jaw dropping. The sense of happiness and loss in his face is stirring and the direction is marvelous. Plus, I liked the creators bold idea of making Samantha's demise something based in some sort of reality, as oppossed to something entirely supernatural and overwritten (much like other aspects of the 'mythology' in seasons 6-9).

    I also love the abrupt ending. Mulder simply says 'I'm free'. God, I cry endlessly in this episode. . .I'm such a little baby. Great 7 year story arc that ends in a satisfactory way.

    Another note: this episodes power is ALMOST undone by the second X-Files movie where I thought Chris Carter foolishly tied the second movie into Mulder's 'search' for his sister. I try to ignore that when I watch the movie because Mulder was truly 'free' when this episode ended. He found one major truth in his life and moved on.

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  4. Hi Will,

    I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who cries in this episode. :)

    I agree with you that David Duchovny's performance in this two-parter is truly heart-felt, and "jaw dropping."

    As far as the movie (I Want to Believe), I felt it wasn't a major pullback to connect the tale to Mulder's search for Samantha, much because Mulder might still have been obsessed with the details and particulars of what happened to Samantha (where she was after her disappearance but before the military base; what tests were done; who was involved, etc...), even if he knew she was really and truly gone. He knew he would never see her alive again, but he no doubt still felt that sense of guilt that he never saved her.

    Thanks for the comment!

    best,
    John

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  5. Hmmm, interesting perspective. The feeling I got from 'Closure' was that Mulder was finally free from that part of his life. I never felt like Mulder has to save his sister but that might be my own perspective. I always thought he just wanted to know what happened so he could understand and maybe see if she was still alive and possibly help her (well, I guess that means save. . .haha, nevermind).

    But my point was, the final line of the episode made me think that he, like his sister, could finally rest in peace. I dunno, I like your idea that perhaps he was still searching for missing pieces in her life. Now that's going to bug me everytime I watch it. Haha. I really liked the second movie but I felt when Scully frustratingly confronts him about his sister it was a little heavy handed and unexpected. To me, 'Closure' literally closed out that storyline. I dunno. . .

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  6. Will,

    You make excellent points.

    For me, it sort of came down to the idea that, as humans, we often lapse or fall back to doing what we've done before.

    Mulder has new information about Samantha's fate after Closure, but there are still so many things he doesn't know about her life, and about her abduction.

    Alone in that house, while Scully is at work, I can easily see the obsessive Mulder's mind going back over, again and again, those memories and files, those investigations and the mysteries.

    I never saw the second movie as undercutting "Closure" in part because of this very human tendency. We are who we are, and our behavior doesn't really change, necessarily, just because we get one piece of the puzzle.

    Then again, I could be totally and completely wrong...

    best,
    John

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  7. Interesting. And I can totally see your side. But I kind of felt the trials and tribbleations (sorry, habit) were over with closure, hence the name.

    First, Mulder saw his sister abducted. Then CSM played some twisted games with the clone sisters (which one was real, where did the original facsmile come from, etc). Then there was 'Paper Hearts' where maybe Samantha was abducted by a pedophile. It was just endless speculation. Finally, he found out what happened. And phew, he could just relax.

    But the more I think about your point, I realize that we always go back and retrace steps or think of things we've done or little mysteries and tried to piece them together. Maybe if Mulder found out what happened on the ships he could embrace the pain she went through or relax and realize she wasn't in pain or whatever.

    Good job. . .you've converted me, mostly.

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  8. Hi! Linking over from lp13's roundup as I'm a huge X-Phile and so didn't want to miss this.

    I'm actually one of the fans that didn't like this two-parter (and I act like the second movie doesn't exist) but I really enjoyed your X-Files comments in general and your specific take on the episodes. I quite agree that it was an excellent two-parter. My not enjoying it has more to do with how I felt it didn't fit in with the arc of the show. Perhaps I am a bit too much like Harold but more likely I am just a bit too childish to deal with what felt like an about-face. I didn't necessarily care that there was a non-alien answer to her abduction but I also wasn't interested in closure. After dedicating 7 years to the quest I wasn't interested in the rug being ripped out from under my feet or any kind of closure so far from the end of the show... I sometimes wondered if it was an attempt to bring back viewers. I was a die-hard watcher (even through the 9th season which truly was a challenge to stick with) so I didn't need any reasons to come back. Thoughts on that?

    Thanks for the wonderful review, and really insightful reflections on the show.

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  9. Hi Rachel,

    Thank you for posting that great comment. I really enjoyed it very much. I understand precisely what you mean. When it first aired, I wasn't ready to "accept" this storyline either...much like Mulder. But the thing that I love about Chris Carter is that he always uses his programs to make a statement about humanity; about how we cling to beliefs and illusions that are comfortable. And I think that's what this episode is about. It would have been very easy for him to create an episode in which Mulder was abducted aboard a spaceship, found Samantha frozen in a capsule or something, and then rescued her and brought her home. But he didn't do that. And I think that's because he wanted to say something about Mulder's drive and obsession; about the way he had lived. Here, there's no more illusion, no more trickery...only the fact of Samantha's mortality (and by extension, the fact of Mulder's mortality too.)

    I think it's a beautiful show, even if it isn't exactly what we had hoped for (a happy ending!)

    best wishes,
    JKM

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