The X-Files: “Sanguinarium”

The Good Witch of the West

by Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 1996 by Sarah Stegall

Writers: Valerie and Vivian Mayhew
Director: Kim Manners

It’s not as if we weren’t warned. The very title of “Sanguinarium” clues us in that Sunday’s X-File is a bloody one, and writers Vivian and Valerie Mayhew, in their first X- Files script, certainly gave us blood. And fat-sucking doctors. And new meaning to the term “face peel”. Unfortunately, they didn’t give us much more than that in this weak X-File. There were too many plot holes, and so much disbelief had to be suspended that the thin plot thread holding it up snapped somewhere in the second act.

Mulder and Scully interview a plastic surgeon who killed a patient on an operating table by botching a liposuction in a big way, and subsequently several other doctors at the same plastic surgery clinic kill their patients in grotesque ways. All of them claim to be unable to remember their actions, and the first doctor claims to have been possessed. Uh-huh. Show me a plastic surgeon who will publicly admit to belief in demonic possession and I’ll show you an AMA review board who wants to talk to him real damn quick. Mulder connects some dots on an operating theatre floor and discovers (gasp!) a pentagram, which he painstakingly explains to Scully is NOT a symbol of Satanism, but a protective sign. Shortly afterwards we are treated to a midnight ritual hair-burning on the part of a nurse chanting in Hebrew, who then attempts to kill one surgeon in his home. She dies after coughing up hundreds of steel needles that suddenly appeared in her gullet. Mulder contemplates rhinoplasty while Scully investigates the only common link among the doctors–their sleeping pills. A computer imaging program and a coincidence of birthdates among the patient-victims lead Mulder to the conclusion that Dr. Franklyn (Richard Beymer) is the diabolic force behind this series of “blood sacrifices”. When they attempt to apprehend him, however, he simply replaces his own face and walks away. He next shows up in the plastic surgery capital of the world, Los Angeles. Fade to black.

Several things bothered me about the plotting in this episode, but the thing that bothered me most was its internal inconsistency. If Franklyn was really succeeding in exerting magical influence over his victims, then why did Nurse Rebecca Waite’s (O-Lan Jones) magical protection fail? We are to assume that only “bad” magical systems work and “good” magical systems fail? Where’s the logic in that? If I’m going to suspend logic in order to buy the premise that magic works (hard enough even for a nontraditionalist like me), I need the universe I’m being asked to accept to make at least as much sense as the one I’m abandoning. Dream logic is still logic.

There were a few cute in-joke references in here: Nurse Waite’s name recalls the authors of the Rider-Waite tarot, a long-standing standard tarot deck. Dr. Franklyn lives at 1953 Gardner Street: Gerald Gardner, the British witch who founded (or revived) modern Wicca first published his work on that religion in 1953. The shine was taken off these “insider” references, however, by several gaffes showing a lack of research. If Mulder can pronounce “alligotrophy” (sp?), why can’t he pronounce “Samhain” correctly? Even my local newspaper gets that right. Nor does one “practice the occult” as if “the occult” was a religion. The confusion of ceremonial magic with neopagan ritual was pretty egregious as well, although I suspect only neopagans, Wiccans, and others with in-depth knowledge of those religions will notice it. I am at least grateful for the Mayhews’ attempts to reverse the popular misconceptions about pentacles. Like Morgan and Wong in “Die Hand Die Verletzt“, they bent over backwards to avoid connecting paganism with Satanism. And they made Rebecca Waite a neopagan heroine, in her attempts to protect the patients from the doctors.

But beyond these good points, there was just too much here that didn’t add up. Neither Mulder nor Scully had much to do here–one looked up drugs in the Physician’s Desk Reference and the other looked stuff up in an occult handbook. In between murders, Mulder looked at his face a lot. Especially his nose. Some of the one-liners worked pretty well, especially Mulder’s glance at the broom on Waite’s front porch: “Probable cause?” (actually, none at all, even when they found a pentacle on Waite’s door). I caught Mulder’s ogling a nurse in passing in the first act. Very funny. But comic relief is supposed to relieve me from something, and there was little or no suspense here from which to be relieved.

In what is becoming a tiresome lack of respect for the character of Dana Scully, we are given no idea how she viewed or explained these strange events. She watches a team of surgeons extract scalpels teleported into a woman’s stomach and all she can call it is “unexplained”? I can do that, and I didn’t have to spend two years at Quantico. Scully is smarter and more capable than this. It is the backbone of the series that we are given not only Mulder’s explanation for events, but some credible rationale from Scully. Leaving her slack-jawed with obtuse denial (or worse, ignorance) in the wake of wonder undermines her character.

Credit goes to director Kim Manners for a stunning set of visual images in the tub-of-blood sequence. I particularly liked Franklyn’s reflection in the pool of blood. As always, Mark Snow’s music adds immeasurably to the episode. As the dialogue of The X-Files grows ever more arcane, we are forced to rely on the music for the emotional undertones of the scene, or even for outright exposition. The X-Files absolutely could not fly without Mark Snow. Richard Beymer, who honed his portrayal of cold-hearted evil in “Twin Peaks”, here delivered a completely convincing performance. O-Lan Jones gave us an unlikely and somewhat sympathetic heroine in her portrayal of the protective nurse.

Several things went wrong with “Sanguinarium”: there was not enough material here to suspend my disbelief in magic, there was insufficient explanation of why Dr. Scully was not doing her job (examining bodies), there were too many leaps of illogic on Mulder’s part (most of us would connect a ring of dots in…well, a ring). Again, the lack of fundamental cohesion in the main premise (good magic v. bad magic) worked against my acceptance of this episode on anything but the most superficial level.

Sanguinarium gets two sanguine sunflower seeds out of five.