The Light in the Forest
by Sarah Stegall
Copyright ©1993 by Sarah Stegall
Writer: Chris Carter
Director: Joe Napolitano
“Darkness Falls”, the episode of “The X-Files” re-run on Friday night, is not one of the show’s more popular episodes: it fell into about the middle third of the end-of-season poll of X-Philes’ preferences. However, it has several points to recommend it, and remains one of my favorites for various reasons.
The best characters in this episode were non-human: the magnificent woods of British Columbia and the tiny insects responsible for the deaths of the loggers. The sequences in the woods looked rainy and cold and isolated, bringing the brooding silence of the woods home to us in our urban dens. The ‘bugs’ were a fine hook into Freudian fears shared by most of us–oo, ick, spiders!–as good as the toilet sequence in “Tooms”. And the shocking conclusion, which nearly kills our heroes, was a refreshing change which underscored the constant danger Mulder and Scully place themselves in. I must cite both the excellent cinematography and the outstanding score for contributing to the lonely, apprehensive feeling of this episode; Mark Snow’s music just continues to delight and chill.
In “Darkness Falls” Mulder and Scully are essentially spectators. I don’t particularly mind this: “X-Files” is in many ways an anthology series, telling a complete tale every week, without ongoing story lines to ease the burden on the writers. So there will inevitably be episodes of “The X- Files” with less tension, less involvement of Mulder and Scully, less immediacy. The question now becomes: how well did the secondary characters succeed in carrying the story?
I would say that, in the case of “Darkness Falls”, their performances were average. Jason Beghe turned in an excellent, understated performance as Ranger Larry Moore. His forest ranger was a solid, fair-minded but entirely human character with grit and resourcefulness. But the characters of Doug Spinney (Titus Welliver) and Steve Humphreys (Tom O’Rourke) are flat and one-dimensional. Both Humphreys and Spinney are less than full-fledged characters, functioning instead as propagandists for one extremist view or the other. Humphreys’ declaration that environmentalists “value trees more than human life” is outrageous; Mulder lets him get away with this, so it stands in the viewer’s mind. Spinney, the environmentalist, callously dismisses the loggers’ deaths as unimportant next to the cutting of the fir tree–an equally outrageous piece of propaganda.
The unchallenged use of the terms “eco-terrorist” and “monkey-wrencher” by every character in the show, implying that these are widely used, acceptable descriptions of environmentalists, is inflammatory. In fact, they are terms used by the timber industry and its allies to defame those who oppose their agenda. While I don’t want to start a political argument, and I realize Chris Carter is not making a documentary, to permit this appellation to go undisputed is to allow only one side in a political fight to set the terms of the discussion. Carter is playing with fire if he begins to incorporate this kind of political rhetoric into “The X- Files”.
One minor feature of “Darkness Falls” is significant: I believe it was the first episode to show Mulder making a tactical mistake. Although his actions in permitting Spinney to return to his companions with the last of the gasoline turns out to be a life-saving decision, he could not have known that in advance when he acted unilaterally. This kind of lone-ranger behavior is precisely why large organizations such as the FBI are suspicious of the Fox Mulders of the world. More often than not, this kind of risk-taking with other people’s lives turns out tragically. It was great to have Mulder realize this and to have Scully call him on it. I only wish Mulder had been a little humbler about it. He shows a certain amount of arrogance in refusing to acknowledge the justice of her accusation of high-handedness.
When Carter writes his own stories, like this one, he feels free to show us more details of Scully and Mulder’s relationship, which makes this show so interesting. We see the two playing into one another’s strengths, supporting one another. While there was more of the much-ballyhooed understated sexual tension than we have seen in the second season, their professional fellowship took precedence and achieved real depth. I suppose there’s nothing like being cocooned together to cement one’s relationship with one’s partner.
There were major plot holes in “Darkness Falls”, which must reduce its effectiveness: for example, if Scully and Mulder needed a light to fend off the bugs, why didn’t they just build a fire? It’s not like they were short of firewood. But the concept of the ancient bugs sleeping in the heart of the tree for a thousand centuries catches the imagination wonderfully. Again we are shown the inventiveness at the heart of this show’s appeal. If not always perfectly executed, we must applaud the effort.
Addendum: As time passes, certain episodes refuse to fade from the mind. This is one of them. I am therefore adjusting my original two out of five sunflower seed rating upward to four. While the plot holes are still annoying, the creepy, eerie use of the deep woods, the relationship between the leads, and the sheer weirdness of the green bugs lands this in the “timeless” file. It is an episode to which I can return time and time again.