Written and Directed by Glen Morgan
Mulder: We’re looking for the Trash Man.
This may be the finest hour of The X-Files that Glen Morgan ever wrote, and that’s saying a lot. Layer on layer of meaning, a rich tiramisu of a story that gives us the blend of horror, pathos and poignancy he does so very well. He directs it with a deft hand and eye, which take us on a journey of sad self-reflection as Dana Scully faces her mother’s mortality and her own legacy.
Nancy: I’ve been threatening you for months.
We open with a horrific murder committed on the person of a minor bureaucrat who is using the power of the Housing and Urban Development bureau to evict homeless street people from an encampment. He does so at the behest of a city council member, Daryl Landry (Daryl Shuttleworth), who stands watching and eating out of a disposable container. Street people hide in terror as a garbage truck drops off a shambling man made of garbage, who tracks (literally) the bureaucrat to his office and tears him limb from limb. He then takes some of the man’s body parts back to the garbage truck, tosses them in, and climbs in with the air of a tired man climbing into bed. All this, before the credits roll. At the crime scene, Scully gets a call from her brother Bill, alerting her to a family crisis: their mother Margaret Scully (Sheila Larken) has had a heart attack. She leaves for the hospital immediately, as Mulder soldiers on with the case.
Scully: I’ve been where you are.
Long hours by the bedside of her dying, comatose mother puts Scully in a contemplative mood, and yet Morgan avoids the cliche of the inner monologue or the expository conversation. Instead, he wisely lets Gillian Anderson express deep and varied emotions through voice, timbre, body language. As Scully speaks to her unconscious mother, she speaks to herself, in a reflective moment when we see how deep are the scars inflicted by her abduction, her coma and her pregnancy on her soul. Without words, with only the slightest, most nuanced expressions, Anderson lets us see into the troubled soul of a woman in middle age looking back on a life full of turmoil and loss. It’s a bravura performance, but exactly what we expect from Gillian Anderson.
Scully: I wanted to ask her more questions.
Morgan teases us with mysteries: why does every single caller on Scully’s phone show up as “William”? All of the caller IDs that we see are associated with that name; even when Mulder calls her his name is initially shown as “William” (which is, after all, the middle name of both Fox Mulder and David Duchovny). Scully is puzzled by a pendant in her mother’s effects, made from a quarter: what does this memento signify? What happened to Charles Scully, to estrange him from his family? Even as we ponder Scully pondering, in the background a nurse empties a trash can.
Trash Man: People treat people like trash.
Of course disposability is the touchstone of this episode. From the homeless people discarded like an empty soda can, to the metaphor of garbage truck standing in for the black carriage of Death, to the self-involved yuppie compacting her trash in her spotless house, we are surrounded by images of garbage. An art thief is suffocated by a black plastic garbage bag. The homeless are moved around like so many piles of trash, dumped into a deserted hospital. Scully witnesses a body being collected from the ICU even as her mother breathes her last. The first joke in the show is Mulder’s comment on a head in a trash can: “Not even in the proper recycling bin.” The last word of the show is “trash”, as Scully tearfully asks Mulder if they threw their son away like garbage.
Scully: You will find the answers to the biggest mysteries, and I will be there when you do.
So in the face of all these metaphors for impermanence, how appropriately ironic it is that both Mulder and Scully keep referring to the past, the one mode of memory which is fixed. Or is it? Mulder, Scully, Duchovny, Carter, Anderson, Morgan — in short, everyone who made this show great is part of its legacy. And like anyone else in a mid-life crisis, they have begun to consider that legacy. Scully finds herself thinking more and more of William, and Mulder, well, Mulder still shows that flash of brilliant fire that made him the Boy Wonder of the FBI back in the day, but he’s subdued, tired, and perhaps more than a little sad at the way he and Scully turned out. There’s a moment when Scully, after her mother’s death, stalks out of the hospital to resume work on the case, and Mulder looks after her. Duchovny lets that moment, and his eyes, speak for themselves, and we see a Mulder with regrets, resignation, and longing. It’s a fine moment for Duchovny, who gets to show us a vulnerable and private Mulder, not the wisecracking master of irony that is the public Mulder.
Trash Man: I willed him. What I wanted him to look like, and what I wanted him to be. All I did was hold the pencil; all we do is hold the clay.
When Mulder and Scully track down the street artist who calls himself Trash Man (Tim Armstrong, of Rancid), they are treated first to a terrifying encounter with eyeless, faceless things in a dark hallway, and then to barely coherent existentialist rants from the tattooed, self-appointed guardian of the homeless. Trash Man claims to have created the garbage monster he calls Band Aid Nose Man through will alone—along with a few bits of garbage here and there. In an ironic echo of Victor Frankenstein, he claims he was only trying to do good, trying to create something that would help the helpless. Like the golem in “Kaddish”, like the landfill monster in “Arcadia”, the Band Aid Nose Man is a being willed into existence through sheer thought. It’s the ultimate expression of Schopenhauer, the world as will and idea. And like Victor Frankenstein, who assembled a creature out of body parts with the best intentions in the world, things spiral out of control very quickly. Mulder is busy arguing the fine points of Tibetan religious iconography, but it is Scully who cuts to the heart of things, and detonates Trash Man’s self-justification with the same three words that were on the poster in the first frame. “You are responsible,” she tells him. “If you made the problem if it’s your idea, then you’re responsible. You put it out of sight so it couldn’t be your problem, but you’re just as bad as the people that you hate.”
Mulder: I hear you speaking for them, but really speaking for yourself.
And there is the real lesson in this episode: self-delusion. No one but Mulder and Scully seem to see clearly in this episode. To Cutler, the self-important bureaucrat and first victim, the homeless are a paperwork nightmare. To Landry, they’re an obstacle to be removed. To Nancy, they are a threat. To Trash Man, they’re a cause. Pity the homeless, who are all things to all people, but who are not human to any of them. No wonder, then, that their savior and guardian is made up of castoff materials. Everyone is deluding himself as to the real nature of the Band Aid Nose Man, the homeless problem, even the street art that heralds his presence. Ultimately, nobody wants to speak for the unspeakable.
Scully: You’re a dark wizard, Mulder.
Glen Morgan must have worked on this script for ten years. It’s an amazingly rich and complex episode, seemingly simple until you see the tendrils that link parallel stories, until you see the depths Morgan has plumbed to recall, even if obliquely, past memories and past episodes to tie this fourth episode of the tenth season to the ones that went before it, twenty years ago. It is a masterful piece of work, balancing humor with horror, tenderness with irony. Past the mid-point of their lives, Mulder and Scully are no longer the idealists struggling with unfathomable mystery and raging hormones. This episode shows us a tired but still witty Mulder, a more vulnerable and yet stronger Scully, and an X-Files still as scary as ever. This show, from “The Host” onward, has never flinched from showing us flukes, garbage, sewers and other disgusting reservoirs of disgust, but when we have waded through them to the truth on the other side, we know it was worth the journey.
Well done, Glen Morgan. This episode gets five sunflower seeds out of five.