The X-Files: “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man”

My Name is Nobody

by Sarah Stegall

Copyright ©1996 by Sarah Stegall

Writer: Glen Morgan
Director: James Wong

“I’m the liar; you’re the killer.”
–Deep Throat to the Smoking Man

It was only a matter of time until a series based on government conspiracies and cover-ups eventually got around to the Grandest Conspiracy of Them All, the John F. Kennedy assassination. “Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man”, by Glen Morgan, finally addresses this mother of all intrigues by showing us the life of Mulder’s nemesis, the title character played by William B. Davis.

The series has dropped hints about his character over the years–his lack of wife or family, his addiction to Morley’s cigarettes. We now learn something–a very little something–of the man behind the steel blue eyes. From a case file narrated by Frohike (Tom Braidwood) of the Lone Gunmen to an unseen Mulder and Scully, we learn that the unnamed Smoking Man “appeared” in Louisiana in 1940 and progressed through a series of orphanages to Army service, ending up as bunkmate to Bill Mulder when Fox Mulder was one year old (at which point we learn that young Fox’s first words were prophetically conspiracy related: “JFK”). The man we later call the Smoking Man is at this point the Non-Smoking Man, and is recruited to assassinate Kennedy in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. He does so, and takes his first puff on a cigarette given him by the doomed Lee Harvey Oswald (Morgan Weisser). The Smoking Man goes on to become the Machiavelli of this century, involved in every plot from murder of public figures to alien coverups to rigging the Olympics. In a lovely bit of irony, he hides his clandestine organization in the heart of the FBI (I loved the scene of the Smoking Man taking Hoover himself down a peg). More to the point, in a flashback to the pilot episode we see that the Smoking Man has been involved in The X-Files since day one; the Cancerman puffs away in the office corner where Scully is being assigned to work with Fox Mulder.

The Cigarette-Smoking Man is not who he thinks he is. He is addressed by his stooge Lee Oswald as “Mr. Hunt”, and like the E. Howard Hunt of Watergate notoriety, we learn that the Smoking Man’s secret desire is to become a published writer of spy thrillers a la John Le Carre. But although he would rather read a bad novel than watch a good movie, he finds himself watching World War II movies in reruns. He can quote Aeschylus from memory, yet his ambition is to write like Tom Clancy. His own life–in which he assassinates even men he admires, like Martin Luther King, Jr.–turns him into the anti-Forrest Gump, a man present at most of the turning points of recent history, the moving force behind the scenes who never steps out of the shadows to be acknowledged. As befits a rational man in these post-Freudian days, he is ironically aware that his life resembles the melodramatic contrivances of spy fiction. Yet the Smoking Man’s real life falls short of both James Bond and Ian Fleming, and he discovers too late that the life he has created has betrayed him. After a lifetime of rewriting history with a bullet, he learns what it is like to have his own ending rewritten, “to be eviscerated by the actions of another”.

I must applaud William B. Davis for a fine piece of work. He was able to go from utter frigidity, as in the scenes of the EBE execution, to bubbling naivete in a phone call to an editor. It’s hard to out-deadpan David Duchovny, but what other actor could have delivered the “box of chocolates” speech straight-faced? He handled both of the tools of his trade–the scope mounted rifle of the assassin and the typewriter of the novelist–with practiced ease and skill. And his look of weariness and despair at the end, as he decides not to kill Frohike, revealed the Smoking Man’s hopelessness and disappointment in life without adding a word to the script. Although there can be no “second chances” for him, he grants one, albeit unknown, to someone else.

It was wonderful to see Deep Throat (Jerry Hardin) again, and the scenes with him and the Cigarette-Smoking Man together were pure gold. Comrades in conspiracy, their conversation was marked by bitter undercurrents of distrust and pessimism appropriate for two men who have manipulated and lied until it is second nature. I was frankly surprised that Deep Throat trusted the Cigarette-Smoking Man enough to let him toss his own coin for the task of executing the E.B.E.–I’d have checked to make sure it wasn’t a double headed coin. Jerry Hardin gave Deep Throat just the right look of revulsion as he entered the chamber to kill the alien. Morgan Weisser is as outstanding as I expected him to be, as the edgy, wary Oswald who realizes, too late, his role in this carefully scripted assassination. This is a difficult role to play, as so many movies and TV shows have shown us so many different versions of Oswald. Achieving a new or original interpretation is tough, but Weisser nailed it from the nervous tics and jaw clenches right down to the slight Texas accent.

As mentioned, the in-jokes were sprinkled through the script sparingly, but expertly. Frohike invokes the “CSM-25 countermeasure” (which doesn’t work) to foil the Smoking Man’s eavesdropping, the Cigarette-Smoking Man titles his first novel “Take A Chance” from a catchphrase on Morgan’s series “Space: Above and Beyond”, and his first rejection letter includes his last words in “Anasazi“: “Burn it!” Oswald’s frustrated attempts to buy a root beer remind us of Morgan and Wong’s “Tooms” episode. Deep Throat citing “UN Resolution 1013” was just enough of an in-joke to make me laugh without taking me out of the story.

Glen Morgan has shown a penchant, like his brother Darin, to frame a story with repeated phrases: in “Musings”, the last line of the Smoking Man’s first novel (a symbol of hope) becomes his last line of the episode: “I can kill you whenever I please…but not today” (a statement of weary resignation). Just so does he celebrate to himself his power over others, at the very moment he discovers how hollow a triumph it is. Frohike will never know how close he came to annihilation, and the Smoking Man cannot tell him. I must applaud Morgan for an excellent character study, which shows us the Smoking Man’s inward journey from a frustrated outsider to a cynical insider, a man who, morally ambiguous but potentially redeemable at the outset, became by one decision after another the monster we see sighting down a gun barrel in the first act. No one is born evil, but becomes so by his own decisions; Morgan’s strength is always in how he shows us those decisions, and their effects on the soul. In the case of the Smoking Man, who can say whether he made history, or history made him? Morgan avoids preachiness by lightening the mood; he spoofs his own script when we go from a smoke-filled meeting where the Cigarette-Smoking Man plots the death of Martin Luther King to a smoke-filled meeting where he decrees that the Bills will never win a Super Bowl “while he lives”.

However, by now, we should know the Smoking Man’s name. How could Frohike get all this information about the Smoking Man and NOT have his name? Of course he knows it, and that means Mulder and Scully know it. Byers knows it. Langly knows it. Probably Skinner knows it. Why can’t we know it? Isn’t it time to drop the coy facade and tell us, or must we endure another season of arch euphemisms? If this was supposed to be part of the joke, I believe it misfired.

James Wong, in what I believe is his directing debut, sets up some first-rate re-enactments of the JFK assassination and the King slaying. The look and feel of Dallas in November 1963 were on target. Certainly the police were correct in every detail I could see. The point of view of the JFK assassination, particularly, were effective and novel. From our first shot of the rat who heralds the entrance of the Smoking Man, through the many cigarettes which emphasize the stages of the Smoking Man’s life, he uses close-ups with precision and confidence.

Much has been made of the chronological difficulties set up in this episode, and they were both important and disturbing. Having established in “Apocrypha” that the Smoking Man in 1953 was in his twenties or early thirties, and already working with Bill Mulder in the State Department, it is hard to reconcile Frohike’s statement in “Musings” that the Smoking Man was born around 1940. It is even more difficult to reconcile Mulder’s statements (in hypnotic trance) in “The Field Where I Died” that the Smoking Man was a Gestapo officer in Poland during the war. On-line fans have worked themselves into knots trying to harmonize these conflicting dates, and have come up with scenarios even more bizarre than the X-Files. This is not the first time irreconcilable details have messed up the story. One can dismiss this sort of thing as “nit-picking”, but this series heavily depends on realistic details to make Mulder and Scully credible against the background of the fantastic and bizarre that they must work with. I think we just have to accept that the writers for The X-Files aren’t reading their own Official Guides to the X-Files. I’d be pleased to send them my copies, if it can prevent oversights like this.

The mood was uneven and the chronology confusing, but the character study and the acting were excellent. Of course we don’t really learn much about the Smoking Man, but at this late date who thought we would? We may have some insight into his soul, and surely that is more important in the long run than finding out his Social Security number. “Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man” gets four out of five cigarette butts.