The X-Files: “Irresistible”

“Watching ‘Irresistible’ again has reminded me of the many hours I spent happily trolling fan reviews and forums. In particular, it reminded me of how much I enjoyed the work of […] Sarah Stegall at the time.” – Todd VanDerWerff, AV Club

The Conquest of Fear

by Sarah Stegall

Copyright ©1995 by Sarah Stegall

“The conquest of fear lies in the moment of its acceptance.” –Fox Mulder

Writer: Chris Carter

Director: David Nutter

Last Friday’s “X-Files” episode begins amid the sumptuous camouflage of the modern American funeral: padded satin, flowers, gleaming brass, thick carpets, music…the customary disguise for the ugly truth at its center. But one of the acolytes at this ritual–Donnie Pfaster (Nick Chinlund), a funeral home employee–is not what he seems. Later that night his boss catches him in the act of mutilating a corpse and throws him out. Shortly afterwards, local FBI field Agent Moe Bochs (Bruce Weitz) calls in Mulder and Scully to investigate a series of grave desecrations, a crime so repellent that Bochs would rather believe in aliens than accept that a human being would act so vile. Ironically, it is true believer Fox Mulder who must debunk an outrageous theory and bring the investigation down to earth, focusing on the search for a very human psychotic. But this is not a tale about psychosis, or aliens, or even a bizarre sexual fetish. “Irresistible” is a story about fear on many levels — the fear of “a footfall in a darkened street”, the fear of death, the fear of the unknown, the fear of disfigurement — even the fear of fear. And the focus is not Donnie Pfaster, but Dana Scully.

Considering that we are halfway through “The X-Files” second season, we know remarkably little about Dana Scully’s inner life. We know more about her sister’s philosophy and her mother’s strong faith than we do about Dana Scully’s hopes and fears. Friday night we got a peek into a complex and troubled woman, attempting to come to terms with situations that have broken strong men. From the beginning, when we see the revolting defilement of the disturbed grave, through her nightmares, to the end, when she is literally seeing Pfaster as a ghoul, she must struggle with her fears.

In a particularly important scene, she goes so far as to consult a counselor. At every turn, she brings conventional weapons into play — denial, repression, disavowal of her fear. She reminds herself and the shrink that she is a “professional”, as though that sets her apart from the run of humankind. We see Scully’s view of her relationship to Mulder in her refusal to confess her “weakness” to him: “I don’t want him to know how much this is bothering me.” To seek his support would be to establish an emotional dependency between them, something she fears–or desires–very deeply. And her forlorn view of her world: “I know that the world is full of predators, just as it has always been”, is heart wrenching.

Throughout “Irresistible”, I kept seeing the figure of Dana Scully’s warrior father over her shoulder, with his unflinching military bearing and his resolute face. I could see that Dana Scully had him in the back of her mind as well, as she fought a losing battle for control of the fear that this case evoked in her. Gillian Anderson’s poignant portrayal of this battle is the centerpiece of this episode. Her mature and restrained work allowed us to feel Dana Scully’s deepest fear: loss of control. Rather than the glamorous FBI agent she seems on the surface, the “pretty woman” Mulder calls her, Dana Scully lives in a rather bleak world of work, justice, and strict discipline. One begins to wonder if there is any warmth or comfort in it anywhere.

So at the end, when Mulder and Bochs rescue her from Donnie Pfaster, it is particularly affecting to see her finally acknowledge that she needs the support of those close to her. Fox Mulder has always touched Scully more frequently than she touches him–the depth of her capitulation is measured in the fact that she puts her arms around him and buries herself completely in his arms, sobbing her heart out. Mulder comforts her the way one would comfort a frightened child–with quiet words and a soft touch. I found nothing sexual in this scene, but rather saw it as a moment of great human warmth and understanding, an effective contrast to the horror and fear incarnate in Pfaster.

The death/sex fetishist links our deepest fear with our deepest longing in a web of fear and fascination. Because these twin poles of the psyche so frighten and beguile us, we are hypnotized by the ugliness and cannot look away. Chris Carter, the writer for this episode, gives us a much better, much scarier villain than the “Flukeman“. Donnie Pfaster, like Jeffrey Dahmer, is a far more dangerous enemy, a human who captures our attention because he embodies the shadow side of us, the acting-out of fears and compulsions that threaten not just society, but our understanding of human nature itself.

If we see more than a superficial resemblance to “Silence of the Lambs” and “Psycho”, it is because all three stories concern themselves with the smiling monster in our midst, what Mulder calls “the devil in a button-down shirt”. The evil that Scully and Mulder are confronted with does not twitch or drool in public, but hides behind a handsome face and a bland smile.

Pfaster, wonderfully played by Nick (“Red Shoe Diaries”) Chinlund, is almost an image of Mulder himself — a blank expression and affectless voice hide an extreme obsession to which all else in life is subordinate. So little separates them — but that little is powerful and profound. Mulder is the champion of truth: Pfaster seeks only the fulfillment of his own ego, a quest which requires the increasing objectification of his victims. His dehumanization of his victims drives him to ritualized murder. It is a signal characteristic of the serial killer and the psychotic that they must follow specific, highly detailed scripts to appease their inner demons. The environment Pfaster creates for himself–the cold, darkened tomb-like house, its furnishings shrouded in plastic; the bedroom tricked out in satin and flowers, the luxurious trappings of the funerary rite–reflect the vacuum within, the dead heart in the living man. Only the bathroom is lit, with rows of shampoo bottles and bath oils echoing the jars of embalming fluids arranged like condiments in the mortuary workroom. We see the focus of Pfaster’s desire through his eyes — a feast for the senses — but drowned in cruel death and cold water.

I have gone on at length about the text and subtext here because I think it is important to look under the surface of “The X-Files” to reveal some fine and subtle work. Not many television shows are willing to go beyond the minimum necessary to sell advertising. Chris Carter and director David Nutter teamed up in this episode to give us a skillfully crafted introspective on death and our confrontation of fear. Not many television shows give us such meaty intellectual fare as, “We think of myths as things that entertain or instruct, but their deeper purpose is often to explain or make fanciful desires, wishes, or behavior that society would otherwise deem unacceptable.”

I can appreciate the humor and the comfortable in-jokes in “Irresistible” as much as anyone (is it mere coincidence that the football game Mulder and Scully are missing is Minnesota v. Washington, the two teams who each have a “Chris Carter” in their ranks?). But in the long run, what will count in any final assessment of this series is the way it tells its stories with depth and heart, the way Carter and his crew speak directly to the subconscious through intelligent direction, strong visuals, and good storytelling.

I award “Irresistible” five sunflower seeds out of five.