Feat of Clay
by Sarah Stegall
copyright © 1997 by Sarah Stegall
Written by Howard Gordon
Directed by Kim Manners
From the first season onward, The X-Files has had three major themes: conspiracies/UFOs, “weird science”, and the paranormal. But now and then the series delves into an area rich with story potential: folklore. The pioneering entry into this territory was Chris Carter’s script for “The Jersey Devil”, which explored a legend about a monster that dates back to the founding of New Jersey. Later in the first season, Marilyn Osborne used the spirit-possession legend of the Manitou as a starting point for “Shapes“. In both examples, the legend which provided the impetus was quickly abandoned as the story moved on to address other issues: prehistoric survivals and werewolves. The real subject of the legend itself was displaced by the X-File story it linked to. The closest The X-Files came to folklore in season two was the vampire-groupie tale “3“, which moved from an examination of vampirism to focus on Mulder’s love life. Even “Excelsis Dei“, the second season episode about paranormal happenings in a convalescent home, touched on Asian folk medicine only peripherally.
It was not until “Anasazi“, the season ending cliffhanger, that the X-Files writers turned their attention again to ethnic tales. But even when “Anasazi” and “Blessing Way” explored Navaho shamanism, for example, it did so in the context of plot development–the story itself was not derived from Native American legends. It is not until “Revelations” and “Grotesque” that the series begins to expand its exploration into mythic territory in a serious way. “Revelations” takes off from the kind of paraliterary sources most major religions engender if they survive long enough: although stigmatism is not doctrinal, it is deeply ensconced in the practices of the faithful. “Grotesque”, growing out of the same demonology that grew up around Catholicism, paved the way for “Avatar“, an exploration of sexual terrorism that wove both Celtic folklore and Catholic demonology together. But it was “Teso dos Bichos“, closely followed by “Hell Money“, that really swung wide the gates of myth to the writers of The X-Files. “Teso dos Bichos” took the story of the shamanic curse literally, and thereby weakened its power. “Hell Money”, by contrast, used the “Angry Ghosts” of the legend as a metaphor for the rage of a community being victimized by within.
We are only half way through the fourth season, and already we have had “Teliko” and “El Mundo Gira“. In each case, the writers have taken the subject of the folk tale as literally as possible. In “Teliko”, Samuel Aboah was not like an air spirit, he was an air spirit. In “El Mundo Gira”, we were supposed to believe that the brothers Buente were turning literally into monsters. Neither of these stories was particularly successful or even interesting. Now in Howard Gordon’s “Kaddish”, we are presented with an ancient Jewish folk myth about a robot energized by the Word alone.
Following the murder of an Orthodox Jew, his murderers are strangled one by one by a mysterious assailant. But the fingerprints left at the scene of the crime belong to the dead man! Mulder and Scully are called in to investigate a hoax: local law enforcement presumes that an avenger from within the Jewish community is using fingerprints obtained from the dead man in some way to strike terror into the hearts of the neo-Nazi types who killed him. An exhumation of the grave reveals a book of Jewish mysticism, including the legend of the golem. This Medieval Eastern European myth is a classic revenge fantasy: a figure of clay may be brought to life by the inscription of a word, whereupon it will wreak havoc upon the enemies of the Jews. While Scully is convinced that the victim’s Orthodox father-in-law, an ex- terrorist, is venting his anger against the murderers under the guise of this legend, Mulder takes the story more literally. They are both surprised when the father is nearly killed by the golem, and creature’s true creator is revealed.
The X-Files’ use of legend and folk myth is most effective when used metaphorically. It takes more than a monster in makeup to shed our protective armor of materialism. The idea of a clay figure taking life from a Sacred Word (a common theme in virtually every major religion, from Hinduism to Christianity) affords us many interesting meditations on how humans are motivated to kill by words, by propaganda, by lies. But as a monster story, it falls a little flat. When Faerie is dragged into the light of day, the mystery vanishes and we are left with yet another version of “The Mummy’s Curse”. I am frightened by what I imagine, by what I fear, by what I do not or cannot know. Take away the doubt and you take away the fear.
As art, this episode of The X-Files ranks high in the series. Mark Snow absolutely outdid himself with an emotional score heavy with mourning strings and sobbing woodwinds, a soundtrack as poignant and sad as John Williams’ score for “Schindler’s List”. Jon Joffin’s lighting of the synagogue, the cemetery, and the Weiss apartment alternated between the warmth of candleglow and the brilliant strobe of lightning. Justine Miceli as the grieving Ariel was positively luminescent; she had the impossible task of convincing me that Ariel’s love for Isaac was strong enough to call a dead man out of his grave, and she succeeded beautifully.
Howard Gordon has tried to tell us a moving story of love and grief. Unfortunately, the emotional impact of the beautiful “wedding” scene in Act Four must follow thirty minutes of preachifying, snarling oaths of vengeance, and easy shots at neo-Nazism, a dead horse if I ever saw one. The Teenazis were not frightening in and of themselves; the Crips and the Nortenos would have been just as effective in conveying the fact of racial conflict. But focusing on the ghosts of the past, as opposed to the real enemies of the Jewish community today, allowed Gordon to duck much more controversial stories about relations among blacks, Arabs, Jews, and other ethnic minorities. Maybe after the political hyperbole of “El Mundo Gira”, he was trying to steer The X- Files clear of the traps for the unwary inherent in such hot topics. Alas, it rang hollow, and “Kaddish” sounded like one more exercise in collective victimhood.
Stripped of the de rigeur sermonizing about anti- Semitism and the worn-out political cliche, “Kaddish” is an emotional feast. Superb lighting, music, and acting coupled with a first class love story from Howard Gordon are almost enough to put it in the top ranks of X-Files. It improves much upon a second viewing. I found the story of the golem predictable and trite; I was moved to tears by Ariel’s love for Isaac. “Kaddish” gets four out of five sunflower seeds.