The X-Files: “Oubliette”


by Sarah Stegall
Copyright ©1995 by Sarah Stegall

Written by Charles Grant Craig
Directed by Kim Manners

This review very nearly didn’t get written. It took me several tries to get all the way through “Oubliette”. As the mother of two small daughters, who received their school pictures in the mail this week, who lives in the county where Richard Wade Davis will shortly go on trial for kidnapping a young girl out of her bedroom two years ago and leaving her body in a shallow roadside grave, this episode was nearly impossible for me to watch. It struck too close to the fears that lie in every parent’s heart, that keep us awake and listening for sounds in the middle of the night, that make us get up at three in the morning to make sure the doors to the house are locked–again. This bone-deep fear translates very, very easily into a rage unequaled in the human psyche.

The world is divided into two groups: those with children and those without. Most of the time this division is invisible, but on issues that deal with children in peril, the gulf is often wide and uncrossable. Last spring’s furious Internet debate on child endangerment following “The Calusari” showed just how deep that chasm is. While I usually am uninterested in the personal lives or agendas of the people behind “The X-Files”, I had to wonder halfway through if writer Charles Craig has children. Did he realize how powerful were the feelings he was rousing in part of his audience? Portrayals of imperiled children are not just one more emotional button a screenwriter can push–hooks like this short-circuit a parent’s entire emotional control board. At the end of “Oubliette”, I didn’t just want justice for both kidnap victims, I wanted to feed Carl Wade his own eyeballs. When Mulder shot him down in the stream where he killed his victim, it was not enough. I wanted “The X-Files”, which has rubbed my nose in unnecessary gore several times, to show Wade’s head exploding in a slow-motion, highly satisfactory reprisal. Shooting him in the back was not enough.

Needless to say, my reaction to this episode was not terribly objective.

When 15 year old Amy Jacobs (Jewel Staite) is abducted out of her bedroom by a stranger, waitress Lucy Householder (Tracey Ellis) across town bleeds the victim’s own blood and murmurs words spoken by the abductor. Mulder wastes no time crossing a continent to join the investigation (arriving ahead of Scully while Scene of Crime men are still at work) in Seattle, drawn to the case by this strange behavior. Scully, along with the rest of the FBI agents involved in this case, assume that Lucy is an accomplice of kidnaper Carl Wade (Michael Chieffo), even after they discover that Lucy is herself the survivor of a five-year kidnapping ordeal. Mulder becomes her sole champion as her growing empathic bond with Amy forces her to relive the nightmare.

Writer Charles Grant Craig and director Kim Manners keep the anxiety level high throughout the episode, as we who remember the desperate hunt for young Polly Klaas are forced to see reenactments of various incidents from that case. Those of us who saw “Silence of the Lambs” cannot help but be reminded by Wade’s ‘oubliette’ (a dungeon whose access is only through a trapdoor in the roof) of the similar homemade prison in that movie. Jewel Strait did a wonderful job of shredding my heart with her depiction of a terrified yet resourceful Amy, who very nearly escapes her tormentor. Her solo effort, when Davis stalks her during a bone-chilling scene in the dark basement with a red viewfinder light, is a tour de force of panic and bewilderment of which any actress can be proud.

But top acting kudos go to David Duchovny and Tracey Ellis for two unforgettable performances. Ellis infuses the wretched Lucy with enough anger, bitterness and self-pity to make her believably hostile and defensive, yet gives her enough courage and fighting spirit to win our sympathy. Her unhappy, unlucky life has left Lucy with little in the way of inner resources, a victim trapped forever in her misery by internal scars that neither time nor therapy nor drugs can erase. The title of the episode, “Oubliette”, derives from the French “to forget”, and reminds us that for Lucy, death is the only sleep that will not give her nightmares. Mulder alone understands that her stubborn wall of refusal is really a fragile eggshell hiding the tortured soul within. Ellis let us see both the wall and the shattered self it protected. Lucy’s final self-sacrifice to save Amy recalls the sacrificial theme introduced in “Paper Clip“, where Melissa Scully dies in her sister’s place.

Whole new dimensions of Fox Mulder are revealed in this short hour, as we see his tender and protective side, a truly gentle man who can show compassion without being maudlin about it, whose kind and persistent sympathy finally wins past the scars and pain that seal off Lucy Householder from the world. David Duchovny unlocks this character more than in any other episode but “End Game“, showing us solicitude and warmth in a character who was in danger of going cold this season. When I first finished “Oubliette”, I came away marveling at the range of facial expression Duchovny showed in this episode. But when I ran it a second time, I saw that I was mistaken: Duchovny plays Mulder as deadpan as ever. But his voice, his intonation, and most importantly, his body language convey the emotion seeping past Mulder’s defenses, revealing Mulder’s emotions more convincingly than a mere grimace would have. Duchovny will never win an Emmy for this sort of thing as long as voters are more impressed with ranting and raving, but it is a fine, highly controlled performance and deserves high praise.

And finally, finally, I hear the words I have been wanting to hear from Mulder for more than two years: “Not everything I say and think and feel goes back to my sister.” It is way, way past time to acknowledge that even the most defining moment of a man’s life is only one moment among many, and that for a complex man like Mulder one motivation does not fit all situations.

Two glaring flaws stood out in the otherwise seamless flow of this story: Scully and the CPR incident. I don’t know what Craig was trying to do with Scully in this episode: she was almost antagonistic towards her partner. If my partner turned out to be right in 100% of the cases I investigated with him, I would have considerably more patience with his theories and his hunches. I cannot quite understand the clumsiness of the scene with Amy beside the river, where Dr. Scully makes a half-hearted attempt to resuscitate her before giving up. A young healthy child suddenly drowned in cold water stands an excellent chance of revival, enough to justify several hours of uninterrupted CPR. I can think of any number of cinematic techniques that could have telescoped that time for us, giving us a clear understanding of the effort real agents would have put into her revival. If time was a constraint, there were several other sequences that could have been cut from this episode: notably one showing Mulder arriving at the halfway house, getting out of the car, climbing stairs, walking across a porch, climbing more stairs, knocking on a door, being admitted…etc. The pacing of the entire episode seemed off more than once, with some scenes so rushed I could barely understand the dialogue being rattled off at breakneck pace, and some scenes so drawn out I kept thinking some revelation was at hand that never developed.

As always, however, blemishes like this stand out only because the rest of the story draws us in so thoroughly. A strong story and first rate performances lift this episode above the ordinary. I award it five sunflower seeds out of five.

Now excuse me while I go check the doors and alarms again…