Thursday, August 15, 2013

The X-Files 20th Anniversary Blogging: "Home" (October 11, 1996)



“They really went caveman on him…”

-          Mulder in “Home.”

I make no bones about the fact that “Home,” written by Glen Morgan and James Wong, and directed by Kim Manners, is one of my all-time favorite episodes of The X-Files (1993 – 2002). 

This fourth season installment is ultra-violent, witty, and scary-as-hell.  “Home” is so disturbing and disgusting in fact that Fox TV only aired it once, and then banned the episode from prime-time television permanently. 

Or as Chris Carter told me during a 2009 interview: “We did an episode like "Home," and the day after we did it I was given a very stern lecture about never, ever pushing those limits again.

Today, I remained gratified that Chris Carter pushed those limits, not just for advancing the horror genre on television, but because “Home” is still timely and brilliant meditation on the violence that can occur when times change too fast for some citizens. 

In particular, the episode concerns a throwback family, the Peacocks, who judge all outsiders as interlopers (and who use no electricity, and who raise their own food…and stock).  When the Peacocks’ long-standing way of life is threatened by the march of American modernity the family responds with murderous force in an attempt to utterly stamp out that modernity.  The Peacocks feel threatened by change they don’t understand, and respond to that change not with adaptability or humility, but with a homicidal doubling down (with a baseball bat, no less…).

“Home” is a genius episode of The X-Files for many reasons, but not the least because it explores this dynamic of progress and pushback in America.   Much of the episode concerns a nostalgic African-American sheriff, Andy Taylor (Tucker Smallwood) who longs for the days of yesteryear, when it was safe to keep his house unlocked at night.  He fears that such a world is disappearing in “Home,” but is unaware of an important irony.  He, in fact, is emblematic of the very change that so terrifies the Peacocks.  Accordingly, he is the first target of their wrath when they feel jeopardized.

“Home” succeeds for other reasons beyond the social critique.  The episode offers a twisted meditation on motherhood (and the commitment required of mothers), and is also one in which Mulder and Scully are constantly jeopardized because they can’t conceive of an enemy such as the Peacocks.  Every assumption they make in the episode is proven wrong.  They simply don’t understand the throwback nature of the family, at least until Mulder references a “nature” TV show concerning animal instinct.

Regardless of how it is interpreted, “Home” is terrifying, and among the smartest, scariest, and most subversive hours ever to air on American network television.


A dead baby, apparently inflicted with several genetic deformities, is unearthed in a shallow grave in the sleepy town of Home, PA. 

While investigating the case, Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Mulder (David Duchovny) learn that the baby was buried while still alive, and attempt to interview the residents nearest the crime scene: the Peacocks.

But the Peacocks are territorial…and terrifying. 

The family consists of three mutant brothers (Chris Nelson Norris, Adrian Hughes, John Trottier) who are not only physically-deformed and mentally-stunted, but who don’t quite feel or register pain.  And their crazy old mother (Karin Konoval) is an amputee who also happens to be the progenitor of the boys’ offspring.

After Home’s sheriff, Taylor (Tucker Smallwood) is bludgeoned to death by the Peacocks, Mulder and Scully attempt to arrest the family on their own turf, a home filled with murderous booby traps.


In addition to all its overt horror material it expertly explores, “Home” presents a clever social commentary about the way that Americans respond to progress, or to change, and how they view the past versus the present.

In my introduction above, I described the Peacocks as “throwbacks.”  Indeed, the Peacock men physically resemble our cave-men ancestors with their pronounced brows, and savage demeanor.  Mulder even specifically describes their behavior as “going caveman.” 

Outside of such physiological characteristics, the Peacocks dwell in another iteration of the “past,” in the immediate context of the post-Civil War world. 

Their ramshackle farmhouse -- with no heat and no electricity -- reflects that time period in terms of technology or lack thereof.  But beyond their home, the Peacocks’ still boast the Civil War mind-set of the Confederacy.  Specifically, they call the Civil War “The War of Northern Aggression,” in the episode’s dialogue.  This comment is a symbol of the Peacock’s intransigence.  The family never moved passed the Civil War into modern American, and have aggressively resisted modernity in all its forms ever since.

Basically, the Peacock’s have carved out a life -- on the outskirts of Home, Pennsylvania -- where they can live their lives as their ancestors lived it generations earlier.  The Peacocks have not permitted “progress” or “modernity” to take root in their traditions or family values.  Instead, they have mythologized their “way of life” as the only way to do things.  And to preserve that heritage, they have even resorted to (catastrophic…) in-breeding.  No outside contamination from modernity is permitted.  Outsides like Mulder and Scully are guilty of, in the words of Mama Peacock, “trying to change the way things are.”  Notice the certainty of that phrasing, and how it is parsed in the present tense.  These values are now and FOREVER, according to the Peacocks.


But -- and here’s where it gets really interesting -- contrast the Peacocks with Sheriff Taylor. 

He is an African-American man and accomplished professional who just a generation earlier would never have been permitted to hold the position of sheriff because of the color of his skin, and because of entrenched and institutional racism.  He has thus benefited from social progress, and more than that, excelled because of it.  His safe, mansion-like “home” has come about because of progress and modernity, not in spite of it.

And yet Taylor and his wife long aloud for a time in American history when it was “safe” to leave your front door unlocked.  This romanticized attitude is a reflection of the oft-repeated Myth of the 1950s, which is often -- without much examination -- held-up as a perfect era in American history.

But in point of fact, the Taylors are not imperiled in “Home” by the modernity of the 1990s, but rather by the violent response to that modernity by a mindset closer to the 1890s.  The pervasive Myth of the 1950s comes up to bite the Taylors, for the Peacocks arrive to murder them in a classic 1950s “Big American car” while listening to the 1957 “Wonderful! Wonderful!” on their car radio.

It is the old force of tradition and the past, as represented by the Peacocks, which rise up to threaten the Taylors, not the forces of the millennial age. 

Thus there’s a whole subtext and tension in “Home” about the romantic illusions of the past meeting the realities of the present. This theme is timely right now, because America is currently undergoing the same crisis on a much larger scale.  The cultural battle in this country is now between those who accept modernity, and those who deny it to their dying breath.

For some, modernity -- with its acceptance of new technology, equal rights for women, minorities and homosexuals, immigration reform, a black President, and so forth-- is a threat to the “old ways,” and one that must be met with, in the words of a failed 2012 Senate candidate, “Second Amendment remedies.”But the Peacocks showcase the ultimate fallacy of such thinking. 

For when you close out new ideas, you become trapped in a bubble of madness, never able to change, never able to evolve or grow.  Instead, you become dependent on instinctive thinking -- on “pack thinking” -- instead of rational thinking.  By rejecting modernity, the Peacocks have become practically prehistoric in nature.  As Mulder explicitly notes in the coda, “time” catches up with the family, finally.

Given this dynamic, it is not surprising that the Peacocks’ last stand in “Home” is against the Federal Government -- represented by Scully and Mulder -- that they don’t recognize or accept as having authority over them.  As we can see by the pervasive “government is the enemy” rhetoric in our national discourse today, this is the pressure still building in the body politic.


Beyond the entrenched social critique, “Home” works splendidly as a meditation on “what a mother goes through,” in the heart-felt words of the Peacock matriarch.  Specifically, Mrs. Peacock positions herself as a woman superior in character to Agent Scully because she has learned and practiced total sacrifice…to raise and love her sons. 

Mulder confirms in this episode that this is the first time he has “ever seen” Scully “as a mother,” and that line of dialogue will have repercussions going forward on The X-Files.  Many episodes of the latter seasons see Scully wishing to broach motherhood more than anything else and, in the end -- after achieving motherhood -- being forced to forsake it.  

By series end, she has learned, indeed, “what a mother goes through” to see to a child’s health.  Of course, Scully and Mrs. Peacock see the world quite differently. They boast wildly divergent views of modernity and motherhood.  But the act of raising a child, in the end, changes both of them dramatically.  In some sense, “Home” is the beginning of this plot strand on The X-Files.

Creating a scary work of art isn’t necessarily a matter of algebraic equations, but “Home” is so terrifying, even after multiple viewings, I reckon, because of the fact that it works against our confidence in Mulder and Scully. 


In a typical X-Files episode, the audience follows step-by-step with the beloved lead characters, and their assumptions, research, and speculations almost universally turn out to be on the right track. 

Not so in “Home.” 

Here, they both guess wrong again and again.   For one thing, they first believe that the Peacock baby died from genetic deformities.  It didn’t…it died from being buried alive.   Then they believe that the Peacocks have captured an outside woman, a traveler perhaps, and are using her for breeding stock.  Again, that’s not true: there is no captive in the Peacock house.  And then they try to rescue Mrs. Peacock, before realizing that she is exactly where she wants to be; she is “home.” 

Again and again, the episode undercuts audience confidence in Mulder and Scully and their decisions so that when the final battle in the booby-trapped house occurs, viewers are thoroughly unsettled, and uncertain about how things are going to turn out. There is a moment of palpable terror here when Mulder goes down battling a Peacock brother, and Scully nearly activates an almost-invisible trip-wire.  This one is a nail biter all the way…

Finally, I love how visually gorgeous “Home” is.  It is a distinctive-looking episode of The X-Files, in part because of the exteriors shot at the Peacock estate.  Some low-angle compositions outside the farmhouse reminded me of Daniel Pearl’s cinematography in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).  And so there’s a feeling in “Home” -- like the vibe in that the Hooper film -- of reality giving way to unending nightmare.

Next week: “Unruhe.”

9 comments:

  1. Jez Meyer6:48 AM

    Always reminds me of Deliverance this episode. You're right - the scariest aspect of it is how Mulder and Scully consistently misjudge the Peacocks, underestimation which nearly leads to their deaths. Nice review John.

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  2. By its nature, science fiction frequently addresses the issue of human reaction to change. I recall two "Twilight Zone" episodes that dealt with this, "Walking Distance" and "Once Upon a Time". Both dealt with characters that were unhappy in the present and sought out "a better time", one in the past, the other in the future. Both seemed to reach the conclusion the time they dreamed of was not without flaw and that your future is the only one you can change.

    Its a lesson I've had to repeat to myself more than once over the past couple years while dealing with a troubling period of transition. Though I can't help but be amused by the fact that these stories of people longing for a safer, simpler time are coming out of the 1950s, which is now considered to be that "safe haven" in history. It seems that history, whatever it may present, is not without a sense of irony.

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  3. Anonymous10:39 AM

    Firstly, you haven't mentioned the plain fact that by using the name Andy Taylor (and deputy Barney wasn't mentioned at all) (for the ones who've been under rocks, the main characters of The Andy Griffith Show), your points about the myth of the '50s are only magnified.

    It is also worth mentioning again that Mrs. Peacock has no limbs. That is, she can't move, much as she can't move with the times.

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  4. Anonymous2:46 PM

    I remember watching this episode premier, and thinking afterwards that they'll never let them get away with that again.

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  5. I really liked this episode. During my interviews with both Glen Morgan and James Wong, they both talked about wanting to bring the Peacock family to Millennium and had even written an episode of Millennium with the Peacocks, but FOX said absolutely not. They never wanted to see that family on screen again. Oh, what could have been..Frank Black against the Peacocks.

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  6. I wonder if the Peacock family name was an intentional polar opposite nod to the wholesome '70s Partridge family. Truly one of the most disturbing television episodes ever made. :(
    Andy Taylor nod was simply stating that even in a small town the worst horror can exist, no urban setting needed.

    SGB

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  7. Quite simply my favorite episode.

    Thanks John.

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  8. I remember seeing "Home" on the night it originally aired and it was one of the freakiest (and best) things I'd ever witnessed on broadcast TV. It is definitely one of my personal Top 10 episodes and was the series high point for Morgan & Wong. This is one of the 'Perfect 10' episodes of the X-Files that wasn't written by Vince Gilligan.

    One of the most annoying misnomers is the association of 'simpler' with 'better'. In "Home", the Peacocks are certainly keeping things simple by shunning the modern world. But it's clear that keeping it simple is not making it any better.

    The fact that people associate the 'good old days' with better is also ridiculous. In most cases, stories relayed to me by my older friends and relatives, history I've read, certainly make the case that times were tougher, work was harder, sickness was worse, things were dirtier, etc.. That 'simpler times' mindset seems closely tied to a familiarity with the past being preferable to a fear of the unknown.

    As someone who leans more conservative (at least fiscally), I'd disagree with your statement about the national perception of government being "the enemy". Even most pack-think, sheeple Right-ies understand the need for government. Most seem to believe that a limited and less overreaching government would be preferable.

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  9. I was recently watching (on youtube) the 20th Anniversary panel of X-Files folks at ComicCon and, towards the end of the ~1hr panel, Glen Morgan spoke a lot about specific inspirations for Home. I found it very interesting as so many people react(ed) to the episode like it was "just" a borders-pushing freaky-fest but the outline of its inspiration is quite detailed and pertinent to the final result. As someone who can never watch this episode without a physical response I found the clinical analysis very interesting.

    In addition to many of the points you mentioned, I find this episode so resonant because of the way it perfectly sets off deeply rooted cultural taboos/fears.

    (We should be so lucky as to ever ARRIVE AT "the good old days.")

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