The X-Files: “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”

Reluctant Oracle

by Sarah Stegall

copyright 1995 by Sarah Stegall

Writer: Darin Morgan*

Director: David Nutter

*Winner: 1996 Prime-Time Emmy ®, Best Writing in a Dramatic Series

“How can I see the future if it didn’t already exist?” —

Clyde Bruckman

How, indeed. The whole concept of fortune-telling is grounded in the assumption of a mechanistic, Newtonian universe, a theory still bearing the forge marks of the medieval determinism that invented it. The basic premise is borrowed from St. Augustine’s famous analogy of time as a winding road, so bent and so contorted that only God, from his lofty perspective, can see what lies ahead of us–only God, his chosen prophets, and assorted tea-leaf readers. This picture is a pretty conceit, and it has passed into the Western cultural world view so thoroughly we rarely acknowledge it, much less question it. We use metaphors for time like, “further on up the road”, and “what is to be”. But time is not space, and to think of it as merely analogous to distance can be seriously misleading. Most importantly, the classical deterministic concept of time and “the future” absolutely undermines the notion of free will. If Clyde Bruckman or any other visionary can accurately foretell the future, then it is immutable, and the concept of free will vanishes. We cannot “choose” to do that which is already set in concrete; it distorts the meaning of the word to insist that we do. On the other hand, if we have true existential freedom, there can be no future set in concrete (for a prophet to discover) because we have not yet made the choices that will create it.

In the face of modern probability and chaos theories, it is harder and harder to sustain the Newtonian idea of the universe as a great clock, wound by unseen but loving Hands, in which our lives have place, purpose, and meaning. Enter the fortune teller. How comforting it is, to be able to sit down with someone certain of the future, who can confidently speak of what is “meant” to be while remaining vague about the content of that meaning, a person whose very trade presupposes the existence of an ordered universe. The moral repercussions of being able to speak with absolute conviction about the future fade away in the warm glow of comfort emanating from the Stupendous Yappi or a Madame Zelma. The future becomes a television show which we passively observe, and we have about as much impact upon it as viewers do on TV today. But we still watch it. Few of us are immune to the lure of a peek at a meaningful future–I myself do not believe in a “future” lying somewhere “out there”, yet I own over two dozen Tarot decks. Humans are a mass of contradictions.

Darin Morgan, the writer for Friday’s “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”, manipulates this schizoid confusion like a master puppeteer. We are fascinated by Clyde Bruckman’s erratic and almost whimsical gift, in which the composition of a pie (“coconut cream…no, banana cream!”) is given equal weight with Fox Mulder’s murder. This is the same kind of value-free association of ideas we experience in dreams; the unconscious, having no moral reins, values dessert and murder at the same level. The use of this kind of telling detail elevates the story of the hapless psychic Clyde Bruckman into the realm of art, where we see our human foibles cast back upon us with some new insight. The pathos and naivete of this essentially innocent (in the sense of “unworldly”) man contrasts starkly with the bloody visions that haunt him. His life is so burdened with this useless and capricious gift that a nightmare about his own death is actually comforting to him.

Superbly embodied by veteran character actor Peter Boyle, Clyde Bruckman is surely one of the more tragic and courageous figures to cross the X-Files screen in a long time. Even Fox Mulder, who says he envies Bruckman’s gift, does not have the courage to face the knowledge of his own death. Bruckman himself fears and loathes his power. Unable to tame his own wild talent, he gives in to despair, denying all hope of change. Of course, by retreating to this passivity, he guarantees that his visions will come true. He fails, for example, to warn Mrs. Lowe (Doris Rands) of her impending fate, fails to warn Detective Havez (Dwight McFee, in an historic fourth X-Files appearance) of his imminent murder. Left in ignorance, of course, these individuals cannot make the choices that might avert their ends, and events fall out as Bruckman foresaw. This moral cowardice in an otherwise appealing character was unsettling, but entirely believable, and served to delineate Bruckman even more clearly as a living, breathing, flawed human being.

The setting for this morality play is simple: Mulder and Scully are called in to consult with St. Paul cops who are trying to find a serial killer preying on fortune tellers. Gruesome as the murders are, even more grotesque is the performance of “The Stupendous Yappi” (Jaap Broeker), a TV- prophet fakir of such obvious shallowness that he makes last season’s “Dr. Blockhead” look like a pillar of rectitude. When a body is discovered by Clyde Bruckman, a reluctant oracle, Mulder is delighted to find an actual, genuine psychic involved in the case. His eager-beaver questioning (“Pinch me!”), in which he treats Bruckman like a lab rat to be poked and prodded for answers, reveals the insatiable curiosity behind Mulder’s “obsession” with the supernatural. Clearly an expert in various forms of divination, from anthropomancy to tea-leaf reading, Mulder is overjoyed to find a real psychic on whom to test his theories. Scully, who does not believe in psychic ability, is free to treat Bruckman as a real human being, and the relationship between them moves from strained tolerance to a warm understanding. Perhaps unconsciously, Bruckman reacts to this treatment by telling Scully (who appears unafraid of death since “Dod Kalm“) that she will not die, and then turns around and keeps the pesky Agent Mulder up all night by telling him horror stories.

Throughout “Clyde Bruckman” the tension between Mulder, pressing for more information, and Bruckman, reluctant to exercise a talent which has never made any difference in people’s lives anyway, drives the show through deeper and deeper layers of angst and dread. Mulder, clearly in the free- will camp, demands information which will let him act. Bruckman, convinced all action is unavailing because the future has already been written, sees the engagement of his powers only as a painful exercise in futility. Both men’s points of view are borne out, as the incidents foretold by Bruckman come to pass–but with a different twist. Bruckman accurately foretells Mulder’s assault in the kitchen–which permits Mulder to defend himself effectively. In the end, we see why fortune-telling was frowned upon by the medieval church–to presume that you know everything that is going to happen because you have caught a mere glimpse of it is arrogance, an abrogation of the function of deity.

This interesting exploration of the implications of prophecy is set like a jewel in a setting of gallows humor and wild in-jokes. As he did in his earlier effort, “Humbug“, Morgan keeps us reeling between ghastly images of disembodied eyes and rotting corpses, and subtle gags that both comment upon earlier themes and enlarge upon them. When Mulder takes Bruckman to the scene of a murder where the stagy “Stupendous Yappi” has performed for the police, Bruckman echoes Yappi’s vague statements almost word for word, but in a manner that turns them in upon themselves. The irony of a clairvoyant selling insurance is underwritten (ahem) by his involuntary prophesying of his clients’ deaths.

Morgan plays diabolically clever jokes on us. Scully plays poker with a clairvoyant–not a bright idea–who holds the infamous “Aces and Eights” Dead Man’s Hand that Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he died. But Morgan, typically, goes Wild Bill one better–Bruckman is holding a full house (3 aces instead of a pair) whereas Hickok was only holding a measly two pair. The in-joke is doubled in value and we get twice the kick out of it. At the end of the episode, we see a clip from a Laurel and Hardy film, with excellent special effects that make the duo look like skeletons. We are reminded simultaneously of the skeleton that Clyde Bruckman dreamed of, and for those movie fanatics among us, of the “real” Clyde Bruckman, the scriptwriter who worked for Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy, who committed suicide. This level of subtlety is almost fiendish.

Director David Nutter (genuflection) rings in with some truly wonderful moments: the wordless instant of horrified recognition between the killer and Clyde Bruckman, the infinitely gentle look of pity on Scully’s face as she sits beside Bruckman’s body, the stark terror in Mulder’s face as his throat is cut in the fantasy sequence. The pacing of the opening sequences–almost cartoonish in their garish light and sprightly movement–contrast very energetically with the brooding, somber displays of Bruckman’s despair and resignation. Scully standing like an avenging Valkyrie in the service elevator, shooting down the killer without blinking an eye, drew outright applause from me. The scene in the forest where the team is hunting a body, which ends with Scully, Mulder and Bruckman dwarfed by the huge trees and thick ferns, lent balance to the scenes where we are so intently focused on a grimace, a blink, a smile.

Morgan resists the temptation to make the nameless killer of this episode more important than he is. In a whodunit like this, for example, there is no point in looking for a motive. The motives of psychotic killers are beyond our comprehension anyway, and to have elaborate psychological profiles of them may well be a waste of time. Bruckman explains the killer to himself at the end: “Don’t you get it? You do the things you do because you’re a homicidal maniac!” While this is like explaining that someone is fat because they are obese, it is still true. There is no point in seeking a deeper motive than disconnected psychosis. Likewise, the casting of pop-eyed Stu Charno (husband of former X-Files writer Sara Charno) in the role of the ineffectual little nebbish who commits these horrendous crimes is a stroke of genius. He looks like the very last person in the world to be eviscerating people to read his future.

It’s the wit that maintains the equilibrium in this otherwise terminally pessimistic episode. Bruckman’s sly tease to Mulder, wherein he hints that Mulder will die of autoerotic asphyxiation, made me laugh until I cried. Mulder’s quote from “Chantilly Lace” alone–“you know what I like” stole the scene. The joke of having Scully park on the body they are looking for, the slyness of having the frustrated Clyde Bruckman identifying Mulder’s own Knicks’ T- shirt from “Beyond the Sea” (and then having Mulder deny it!), and the sheer silliness of The Stupendous Yappi’s scene-stealing eyebrows are examples of black humor at its finest.

I cannot close without adding that the relationship between Mulder and Scully *has* definitely changed in this episode, and for the better. The teasing is back–you would have to kill Mulder to stop him from teasing–and the teamwork is back, even better. Scully and Mulder back one another to the hilt. Mulder drops his gun, naturally, but finally Scully does not. And Morgan’s skill is echoed by Duchovny and Anderson, who manage to show us Mulder’s skeptical side and Scully’s nascent “believer” side without distorting either character. It is tough to do that, and they did it very, very well.

There are hits, and there are misses, and then there are hits. This one is destined for immortality. I award it five sunflower seeds out of five.