High Fat, Low Fiber
by Sarah Stegall
copyright 1995 by Sarah Stegall
Writer: John Shiban
Director : David Nutter
Ever since the Internet became the buzzword du jour, the media have focused their myopic sights on two features of it to the exclusion of all else: hackers and cybersex. Almost every story about the Internet contains, by reflex, some reference to computer break-ins, predators who hang out in chat rooms, or child pornography. Veiled and not so veiled warnings about the dangers of this new technology abound. And despite the fact that surveys show the overwhelming majority of Netizens to be an advertiser’s wet dream–well heeled, well educated, and under 40–we are still uniformly portrayed as social misfits and dangerous anarchists.
So, having explored the ramifications of computer theft in “Anasazi”, it was probably time for “The X-Files” to flip to the other popular cliche: cybersex. In “2SHY”, Jeff (“Northern Exposure”) Vlaming’s first X-Files script, Mulder and Scully get involved in a homicide investigation that begins with the discovery of a partially digested (as opposed to partially decomposed) body of a missing woman. Mulder links the case to some other missing-persons cases and notices a gelatinous fluid covering the body. Through a very well worked out plot we get to see Mulder and Scully use standard investigation techniques to track down a “fat-sucking vampire” (Tim Carhart) who picks his victims on the basis of their lipid content. It was gratifying to see a case cracked by dint of solid, painstaking police work: computer files laboriously restored, phone lists meticulously checked, and old-fashioned door-to-door pavement pounding.
One of the difficulties of writing a police procedural, however, is keeping it fresh. We have all seen these types of shows a hundred times, and are as familiar with the plot twists as the authors. Vlaming keeps our interest up by contrasting internal politics–Detective Cross’ (Jim Handy) antagonism towards Scully’s presence on the team–against the bizarre features of the case, features so strange Scully and Mulder cannot discuss them with their colleagues. Further, he tells the tale through the eyes of Virgil Incanto, the urbane and intelligent monster, and Scully. Mulder wanders in and out with data, but mostly we get Scully discovering that her autopsy subject has reduced itself to primordial soup, that the body seems to have lost all its adipose tissue, and that the substance coating the body is digestive mucous (you can separate veteran X-Philes from newbies by their dinner schedules: long-timers eat early on Friday nights or skip dinner altogether).
Gillian Anderson’s portrayal harked back to Season One episodes, where Scully was cool, competent, and self-confident to a positively serene degree. Her face-off with Detective Cross was perfectly handled. After his outrageous patronizing about women in law enforcement, he states self-righteously, “I’m not being sexist here, I’m just being honest.” Scully refuses to rise to this bait, having long since realized that arguing with attitudes like this is a waste of breath. Rather, her calm competence wins his grudging respect later on, when he consents to let Scully brief his men about his case. No feminist rant was necessary to make her point–just a cool and challenging stare.
Some will say that this quiet championing of Scully’s equality is undercut by the choice of victim in this episode. A case might be made for the stereotyping of female Netters as fat and insecure, ignoring the fact that the media stereotype ALL online folk as fat and insecure. But Vlaming bends over backwards to point out Incanto’s caution in screening his victims through a medium that lets him get close to them without revealing himself, that he looks for a particular kind of victim, searching not just for overweight women but for those lacking self-confidence. This is especially brought out when one scheme goes awry and Incanto seeks out a pudgy prostitute in desperation–she may be overweight, but she puts up a good fight.
More subtly, as pointed out by Peni Griffin’s excellent analysis on the Net, Incanto falls victim to his own stereotypical thinking. We are supposed to think of these women as helpless, alone, lacking in initiative and self- esteem. But it is clear that they are only acting that way because they have accepted society’s judgment of them. In “2SHY” Vlaming is showing us an unusual insight into the lives of women: who become vulnerable only when they leave the protection of their roommates, friends, and sisters in search of a man, any man. This is certainly not the typical situation in television, where a woman is portrayed as vulnerable when she leaves a man.
Unfortunately, the strongest woman in the piece, Scully, is set up pretty badly in the closing act. This is NOT the “Scully kicks butt” episode so widely hyped by the producers. She carelessly walks off and leaves her weapon behind when she goes into Ellen’s bathroom to look for medical supplies. The only reason for this is to render her defenseless when Incanto attacks her, and to give Ellen (Catherine Paolone) a weapon. It is contrived and obvious, and makes her look stupid. Even if she thought Mulder was off chasing down the bad guy, sheer reflex would tell a law enforcement officer not to lay down a weapon and walk away from it. This little stratagem gives us a nice payoff, when Ellen later shoots her attacker, but I regret that it diminishes Scully in doing so. Ellen’s icy glare when she shoots Incanto, however, is wonderful, the equal of Scully’s uncompromising stare when she shot the killer in “Clyde Bruckman” several weeks ago. Never piss off a middle-aged fat woman with a gun.
Art Director Graeme Murray and Cinematographer John Bartley set half the scenes in a cold blue light that absolutely drained any hint of eroticism from Incanto’s seductions. This was one of the darkest episodes, in terms of lighting, we have seen since “Soft Light“. Director David Nutter kept the pace snappy and the energy level high even in talking-heads scenes, and brought out the tremulous misgivings of the victims. His overhead shot of the morgue drawer slopping over with the deliquescent remains of Lauren MacKalvey was particularly effective. And now would be a good time to point out that, unlike “The List” recently, the ‘gore’ in this episode served an actual purpose. In “The List”, the in-your-face maggot scenes added nothing but a frisson of nausea to the episode, but in “2SHY” the state of the bodies was a vital clue both to the means and the motive of their deaths. Vlaming remembered that gore for its own sake is boring. Moreover, in having Duchovny and Anderson play the morgue scenes so matter-of-factly, instead of reacting to the blood and guts around them with revulsion, David Nutter helped us keep focused on the substance of the scene and not our, uh, gut reactions. I was glad to see Mulder and Scully finally acting like the professionals they are.
“2SHY”, however, suffers from the commonest problem of detective fiction–how to keep the story moving while not giving away too much. There is not much mystery in “2SHY”–we know who the murderer is and what his method is from the start. The audience, and worse, Incanto, are ahead of Mulder and Scully in too many scenes. The story becomes a chase rather than a puzzle, and Incanto is caught because he makes a mistake. While this is how serial killers are usually caught in real life, I was hoping for something a little more dramatic from Mulder and Scully. Overall, however, this is a solid script with some outstanding performances (Carhart particularly). It is not quite in the stratospheric reaches of “Irresistible” or “Squeeze”, but it was tense, well-paced, and original.
Only The X-Files could make us hate a guy who loves overweight women. This one gets four sunflower seeds out of five.