Signs From Heaven
by Sarah Stegall
Copyright ©1995 by Sarah Stegall
Writer: Kim Newton
Director: David Nutter
“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”–Hebrews 11:1
The presence of the stigmata, the odor of sanctity, or the incorruptibility of the flesh are not looked upon by the Church as important in themselves, but only as outward signs, evidence of that which is not seen–the faith of the committed Christian. They are not bonus points earned for extra piety, but signs of grace bestowed as a witness to the faithful. Thus their meaning and message is directed squarely at the heart of the already believing; they are not tests of faith, but confirmations of it. A person is not a saint because he or she manifests these outer signs of holiness, rather the signs are the outward marks of someone who is already a saint. Mulder and Scully both undergo tests of faith in “Revelations”: his faith in his partner’s trustworthiness as a rational thinker is challenged by her acceptance of beliefs he finds ludicrous, and her faith in Mulder’s devotion to his quest for truth is shaken by his contempt for something very precious to her. The challenge for Agents Mulder and Scully in this episode is to look beyond their accustomed points of view to take in something altogether opposite of their normal understanding of the world.
When does faith become naivete? When does cynicism become despair? Mulder and Scully investigate the death of a preacher (R. Lee Ermey) who had recently demonstrated the stigmata, the bleeding palms of Christ, to his flock. Mulder exposes him as a fake and tells Scully that this is the eleventh false prophet to be murdered recently by someone who is pursuing people with “wounds that might be interpreted as having a religious significance”, as he so carefully puts it. Sure enough, a young boy in Ohio (Kevin Zegers) soon begins to bleed from the hands for no reason, and Mulder and Scully try to help protect him. Mulder zeroes in on one Simon Gates (Kenneth Welsh, formerly of “Twin Peaks”) as the most likely suspect. The team is split by their profound disagreement over the nature of the case; Mulder thinks the whole thing is a vendetta by a deluded and powerful murderer, but Scully thinks there is more than one Hand at work in this case. One after another, she finds clues that point to her Catholic faith, and at the end turns for comfort and understanding not to her partner but to her Church.
Clearly this episode was meant as a showcase for Gillian Anderson, and she did very well with what she had. Writer Kim Newton gave her some wonderful scenes, such as her decision to keep Kevin with her rather than send him to a shelter, her conversation with Owen Jarvis (Michael Berryman), her goodbye to Mulder (further evidence that she can no longer confide in him–she never even tells him where she is going), and of course her final scene: “I’m afraid God is speaking, and no one is listening.” Anderson displayed again her ability to bring a luminous intensity to the quietest word and gesture. She can personalize the smallest, most routine moment of an investigation without trivializing it or “domesticating” it. Duchovny, however, never managed to find a way to show us a skeptical Mulder who was still Mulder. This is one of the few times I have seen him portray Mulder when it looked more like David Duchovny than Mulder onscreen. Some of this can be laid at the feet of Kim Newton’s inability to delineate a credible doubting Mulder: the most unbelievable line I have heard this season is Mulder saying, “How is that possible?” Mulder is asking this? Mulder, who constantly pulls explanations out of thin air?
Mulder and Scully, from the beginnning, have embodied the philosophical split in post-modern society, he willing to take all on blind faith as surely as a hair-shirted medieval saint, she willing to accept only what scientific materialism can put in her hand. While the idea of a role reversal is an intriguing one, and was clearly at the heart of Kim Newton’s script, it didn’t work out as well as it might have.
For one thing, Mulder and Scully’s personalities play against their roles; that’s what makes them interesting. Mulder is the passionate believer with the mind of a scholar; Scully is the cool intellectual from a background of faith. Scully believes only what she can see and test, yet she is an honest and empathetic soul who longs to put her faith solidly in something. For now, she has chosen science as her faith, but she is tugged by old allegiances. It is Scully, not Mulder, who pursues justice with a passion worthy of a DA. She’s the one who wants to make an arrest, drag an alien into court, put a ghost under a microscope. Anderson showed us a Scully too intellectually honest to dismiss the miraculous occurences before her; it is not her fault that this works against the character’s established state of profound and constant denial. Anderson does her best to reconcile these two utterly opposed views of Scully, but it’s an uphill battle.
Mulder, however, is basically a fanatic who puts his faith in any flimsy evidence that supports his preconceived notion of the world; only his naturally cool disposition and intellectual rigor prevent him from becoming a self-deluded crank. Deprive him of his will to believe despite all odds, however, and all he has left is cold intellect. That’s all he offers Scully in this episode–none of the warmth, the humor, the teasing that mark their relationship.
Or used to mark it, before they started a slow slide into outright hostility. I was very disappointed at the emotional temperature of this episode. It did not engage me on any level except the aesthetic. Neither my nerve nor my intellect were challenged. Moreover, Mulder and Scully simply did not connect. I was dumbfounded by the utter lack of mourning when the mother died. Kevin tried desperately to save her, then merely expressed regret at her death, as if he had lost a baseball game. Even the incarcerated father (Sam Bottoms) does not even mention the woman who died trying to save her son. A loving mother dies in a fight with the devil and nobody cares! This emotional refrigeration just wiped out my involvement in the story. Scully has grown so bored with Mulder she does not even react to his teasing. Mulder simply nay-sayed his way through “Revelations”, and offered maybe half his attention to a partner who was struggling to speak to him. He literally turned his back on the most revealing conversation of the piece, Owen Jarvis’ challenge of faith to Scully. Jarvis and Kevin broke through the barriers Scully erects between herself and her cases, to involve her heart as well as her mind. Jarvis challenged not only her conventional notions of religion but her detachment from the case. Still, he and Scully spoke a common language, one that excluded Mulder entirely. Mulder may be able to define stigmata and cite thirty two references for it, but he does not have the grounding in daily ritual, in yearly feasts of the martyrs, and the tradition of ecstatic mysticism which is the context of faith out of which it grows.
Why does Kevin Kryder exhibit the stigmata at all? If you’re one of the faithful who accept these marks as signs of sanctified faith, then you’re bound to be troubled by the fact that at no time during the episode does Kevin make any profession of faith of any kind. He does not even pray in moments of stress. This is what happens when you use a symbol and ignore what it signifies. Stigmata in themselves mean nothing; they are supposed to mark out the faithful among us as chosen witnesses of God. Strip a symbol of its meaning (by stripping Kevin of any shred of religious belief), and you have an empty token. Since Kevin is not a child of faith, what is he? A victim of God? His condition becomes a mere curiosity. His hands carry less significance than the Millenium Man’s, which can generate enough heat to bend steel.
If, on the other hand, you’re a skeptic who does not believe in miracles, you’re left with no explanation at all advanced for the bleeding wounds–hysteria? self-inflicted wounds? psychosomatic trauma? Anything? Where is our famous Oxford-trained psychologist, Fox Mulder? Why isn’t he coming up with explanations? The best he can do is shoot down Scully’s fumbling attempts to actually come over to his side, to cast aside her blind faith in science and technology and embrace Mulder’s blind faith in the unprovable.
The use of so powerful a symbol as stigmata is no accident; it is clear Newton is working with symbols in a deliberate manner. Owen shows Kevin an Ark he has carved himself, an obvious metaphor for the shelter offered by God against a coming storm. Mulder tells Scully that the previous eleven prophets were all fakes; as the original Twelve Apostles number eleven faithful disciples and one false, so we have eleven latter day false prophets and one true stigmatic. But again, the symbolism breaks down because Kevin shows no evidence of faith. In the end, “Revelations” is not about faith versus science, but religiosity versus materialism. Without faith, the mere outward fluorishes of Catholicism (or any other faith) become superstition.
This episode did not scare me. Chris Carter is fond of saying that something is only as scary as it is real; by extension, this means that if it could happen to you or me, it’s scary. I don’t know about you, but I’m unlikely to wake up anytime soon with the marks of divine favor on my hands. The “threat” posed by Simon Gates (whose name possibly derives from Simon Peter, Keeper of the Pearly Gates), is that if you are one of the twelve people out of a population of billions with the stigmata of Christ on your hands, you’re in danger. The rest of us are not affected.
As I mentioned earlier, there was considerable aesthetic appeal to this episode. R. Lee Ermey, my favorite Marine DI, had a nice turn as a fundamentalist fakir. Michael Berryman, as the unglamourous but true-hearted Owen Jarvis, went from menacing to heroic in quick stages, acting as the voice of Scully’s own conscience and doing a good job of it. Kevin Zegers, as young Kevin Kryder, had moments of great poignancy (“Are you the one sent to protect me?”; “Why can’t I be like everyone else?”) and pure devilment: I loved the scene where he recapitulates the entire format of “The X- Files”, telling scary stories in the dark. His confident goodbye to Scully convinced me we will be seeing more of Kevin Zegers, at least. Sam Bottoms turned in a low-key but well developed bit as the quiet, zealous father locked away from the world that is persecuting his son. Director David Nutter was, as always, way ahead of the pack with his intense close-ups. I noticed particularly that most of the scenes with Kevin were shot from his eye level, making even the petite Scully into a towering figure of adult authority. Nutter reflected Scully’s growing bond with Kevin by having her come down to his level in most of her scenes with him– in the school, at the site of the car wreck, in the bathroom. Mark Snow’s high-tension sostenuto score as Gates stalks Kevin through the house drives the anxiety higher as relentlessly as the mercury drove through Kevin’s thermometer.
But as well directed, acted, and designed as “Revelations” was, it just did not scare me. It never even surprised me. The script was weak and the introduction of Scully’s faith built on too flimsy a foundation. I would have given this episode two sunflower seeds out of five, but for the sake of Gillian Anderson’s excellent work I will give it three.