The X-Files: “D.P.O.”

Lightning Dolt

by Sarah Stegall

copyright ©1995 by Sarah Stegall

Writer: Howard Gordon

Director: KimManners

What happens when a total loser acquires supernatural powers and harnesses the lightning itself? We get “Beavis and Butthead meet ‘The X-Files'”. Friday night’s episode, “D.P.O.”, gave us a much needed breather after the hectic pace of the “Anasazi” trilogy, with a solid performance from Giovanni Ribisi married to a minimalist X-File plot. But before I get into the review, I must admit that I suffered from split personality watching the episode. I was distracted from the plot because I kept focusing too much on Mulder and Scully’s every word, wondering how their recent experiences had marked them. I don’t feel this is what Carter or writer Howard Gordon had in mind for the viewer. When I could focus on the show, I found it enjoyable. “D.P.O.” is a respectable episode, not groundbreaking but not bad either. But my enjoyment of it suffered from my own over-hyped expectations.

Talk about your missing time! There wasn’t much connection between the events of “D.P.O.” and the trilogy it followed. I was hoping–nay, demanding–a close look at the way Mulder and Scully are going to integrate the life-changing experiences they have just gone through. But “D.P.O.” cuts right past all that and picks up their lives five months after the events that concluded “Paperclip“. I suppose we are expected to just assume that Mulder has had five months of intense grief therapy, or Scully has started drinking heavily in private, or however people deal with life-changing events they refuse to talk about.

If I was unclear last week in my review, let me be very plain here: we cannot simply go back to ‘business as usual’ without leaving the audience feeling cheated. There is no “reset” button in life. What distinguishes soap opera from more serious drama is not the plot elements–comas, abductions, amnesia, the murders of close family members–but the manner of resolving them. Soap operas let the ramifications of a coma or an amnesia episode drag on for years and years and years without any resolution, much as Chris Carter apparently plans to do. Serious drama (or melodrama) will show us the resonances set up in our protagonists’ souls, show us the changes in their personalities and the impact on their lives. Of course the heroes will continue to live their lives, but those lives will be flavored by what they have experienced, just like any human. If Mulder and Scully come back from “Paperclip” as the same duo that went into it, then they really are becoming Ken and Barbie with badges.

Either that, or Mulder wakes up in the shower with his father calling him on the phone, and the entire series returns to Season Two. I don’t mind this–I liked Season Two–but in that case why waste our time and raise our frustration level with “Paperclip”?.

The issue is not incompetence, but vision. There can be no question by now that David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson can handle sensitive portrayals of subtle but deeply felt emotion. Two actors this good are probably chomping at the bit to expand and develop characters they have been playing more than two years. There can be no question, after Howard Gordon’s exquisite end scene in “Conduit” with Mulder showing us his tortured private side, or Chris Carter’s excellent glimpse into Scully’s complex persona in “Irresistible“, that the writing talent is on hand. What’s missing is the *will* to take the plunge into the truly risky territory of character development. Carter dealt this hand to us in “Anasazi/Blessing Way/Paperclip”, but seems to be backing away from the table now. Well, I hope he doesn’t. I know Carter has said he is reluctant to take the focus off the X-Files and put it on Mulder and Scully. However, there is a difference between an episode which focuses on Mulder and Scully, and a plot which centers on them. In “Anasazi / Blessing Way / Paperclip”, for example, both the episode and the plot centered on the duo. Their personal problems WERE the plot. However, in an episode like “Irresistible” or “Tooms”, the relationship was allowed to take center stage only a couple of times during the episode, and detracted not at all from these two exceptional stories. So it IS possible to focus an episode both on the agents and on their investigation.

I’m not going to start really grumbling for a while, however. Television conditions us to instant gratification, and the X-Files audience can be extremely demanding. I am willing to let whatever maturation is planned take place over a longer span than seven days. But I want to see it. The audience’s patience is not infinite, as David Lynch learned in the second season of “Twin Peaks”. Eventually, you have to deliver on your promises. I am waiting, patiently.

So how was “D.P.O.”? Rather better than I expected, actually.

Mulder and Scully go to Oklahoma (which, as we all know, is celebrated for its evergreen trees and mountains) to find out why an unusually high number of deaths by lightning have been taking place. Their search quickly focuses on a truly pitiful example of human failure, Darin Peter Oswald (“D.P.O.”), whose major goal in life seems to be to run away with his high school remedial reading teacher, Sharon Kiveat (Karen Witter). The fact that this buffoon also seems to have gained the ability to focus lightning through his body complicates his life enormously, by introducing into it something that actually might have value. Given the gift of Zeus, he uses it to suck down the lightning to fry random farm animals (giving new meaning to “cow tipping”) and cause traffic collisions for his and his friend Zero’s (Jack Black) amusement. Anyone who annoys him can become the target for this deadly power–even his friend.

Beautifully played by Giovanni Ribisi, Darin comes across as a stereotypical passive-aggressive white trash slacker, a waste of protoplasm even to his own mother. [I swear I went to high school with this guy. We all went to high school with this guy.] Ribisi’s performance is top-notch, as convincing as Zeljko Ivanek’s in “Roland”, the first season episode involving a retarded janitor. While Darin is not exactly retarded, he is certainly capricious, degenerate, and ignorant. In him Howard Gordon uncovers the true heart of evil–a stupidity too self-centered to notice (or care) that the figures around him are people. When Darin finally forces Mrs. Kiveat to accompany him, he rambles around trying to figure out whether it would be preferable to steal a Japanese car or an American car (and even starts to boost Mulder and Scully’s own car). He finally overreaches himself in killing the skeptical sheriff, and is put into a psychiatric institution in a high-voltage containment room. This made me very uneasy–I don’t want this guy locked up in a government institution. One shudders to think what the Cigarette-Smoking Man could do with Darin Peter Oswald on the payroll.

Howard Gordon, a veteran X-Files writer who wrote “Conduit”, “Fallen Angel”, and “Dod Kalm”, turns out a characteristically straight-ahead episode. There were none of the 90 degree plot turns so common in The X-Files: we knew from the beginning who the bad guy was and what he could do. One of the scenes I particularly liked was the scene where Sheriff Teller (Ernie Lively) is grilling Scully about the medical evidence. I loved watching him give Agent Scully a version of the “are you kidding me?” speech she has given Mulder many times, while Mulder just stands there and says nothing. Rather than seeing this as a failure on his part to back up his partner, I saw it as evidence of his respect for her. Mulder knows that Scully doesn’t need defending, and despite her “Feel free to jump in anytime” remark, she knows it too. This is real equality, when he treats her the same way he treats himself–no compromises, no hedging, no concessions.

Director Kim Manners and writer Howard Gordon gave us an X-File in MTV mode, with some good if obviously stagy scenes. The best was probably the death of Zero in the parking lot, falling to the pavement in a shower of small change, a perfect metaphor for his life. And standing silhouetted on the roof above him, against a classic Steven Spielberg sky, is Beavis-as-Zeus himself, Darin Oswald. I loved the shot where Mulder and Scully draw down on the elevator in the hospital (without dropping their guns, mirabile dictu), aiming high and low like a grey flannel version of Mutt and Jeff. This is one instance where the difference in the actors’ heights makes for a real plus. And what FBI agent does not live for the opportunity to race off down a hall, crying, “I’m going after Oswald!”? Mulder’s creepy sequence in the red-lit stairwell was good if heavy handed. But we needed to *see*, not hear about, the scene where Darin Oswald tells his teacher about his “special powers”. The teacher was a cardboard bimbo–why in God’s name did she go with Darin? And I could have done without some of the self-consciously hip soundtrack.

Considered strictly on its own merits, this was a fair episode. It didn’t disappoint, but there were none of those moments where you catch your breath and say, “Wow!” I give it three sunflower seeds out of five.