The X-Files: “Syzygy”

A Cosmic Realignment

by Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 1996 by Sarah Stegall

“Fair is foul and foul is fair.”–Macbeth

Sometimes the need to mess with our heads outweighs common sense. “Syzygy”, the January 26 episode of “The X-Files”, is a very funny misstep. It is clear from the beginning, when Mulder and Scully drive into the town of Comity (“comedy”), that writer Chris Carter intends this to be a romp, a lighthearted faux X-File where we see every defect exaggerated for effect. This is a classic technique of comedy, dating back to Aristotle, whereby we laugh at something precisely because it is out of character, out of proportion, or out of context. By showing us a negative, like a reversed photographic image, we come to appreciate anew the qualities we find attractive in Mulder and Scully, while having a harmless laugh at their all too human foibles. Or at least, that is how the theory goes.

Mulder and Scully are called to the town of Comity by the semi-hysterical Detective Angela White (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) to help her investigate a series of teen deaths. Rumors of a Satanic cult have swept the town, whipping up a panic in normally (we are told) placid townsfolk. The eye of this storm centers on two over-mascaraed high school seniors named Margi Kleinjan (Wendy Benson) and Terri Roberts (Lisa Robin Kelly), who appear to possess abilities not commonly found even in blonde cheerleaders. Using telekinetic abilities apparently brought out by an imminent astrological alignment (the ‘syzygy’ of the title), they lure one boy to a death by hanging, crush a clumsy basketball player under collapsing bleachers, and get rid of a rival by slicing her to death with shards of a mirror. Throughout all of this, Mulder and Scully increasingly snipe at one another, finally erupting into outright quarelling. Meanwhile, the planets inexorably advance towards a cosmic re-alignment.

There are two ways to look at this episode: as a single episode, independently of all others in the series, or as part of a longer story arc. Considered these two different ways it takes on different hues. As a stand-alone piece, it is actually rather funny. If we had seen “Syzygy” after almost any second season episode, it would have been a riot. As the Weird Sisters of MacBeth, the literary antecedents of Terri and Margi would say, “Fair is foul and foul is fair”. The world is turned upside down for our amusement: birds fall from the sky, Scully gets bitchy, and Mulder becomes an insensitive clod. Scully works off her tensions with a cigarette, and the suave and urbane Fox Mulder becomes an insecure and fumbling frat-boy bewildered by Detective White’s advances. Scully runs stop signs and Mulder drinks Cheez Whiz mixed with vodka (oh, I know it was frozen orange juice, but it looked like Cheez Whiz). The entire episode is a Keystone Kops escapade, with Mulder and Scully being shuttled frantically from one silly contrived scene to another (“Quick! A mob has formed on the south side of town!”). Within the thin premise of the astrological conjunction, the events make some kind of distorted sense, with the madness and confusion building to a cathartic “shootout” in the police station, where all the guns fire at once to a circus-music accompaniment. The joke culminates in a classic X-Files non-explanation: “It was Satan!” declares the high school principal (Garry Davey), and the suddenly enlightened town responds with a choral “Ohhhh!”. The scene in the hallway, when the clock strikes midnight and the world snaps back into focus, worked well for me: the realignment of Mulder and Scully is made clear by their unanimous “Put that gun down!”, said side by side and nearly cheek to cheek. Echoes of the syzygy linger, however, as the two leave town bickering over Scully’s driving, a minor theme that proves that no experience leaves us unchanged. As such, then, “Syzygy” is a funny episode that reminds us that Chris Carter started out writing comedy.

Unfortunately, it does not stand alone, and here is where history works against it. Long term fans will see a larger context for “Syzygy”, one which incorporates Satanic cults (“Die Hand Die Verletzt”), demonic teenagers wielding powers out of their control (“D.P.O.”), and aberrant behavior between Mulder and Scully (“War of the Coprophages” and, in a sense, nearly every episode in the third season). Contrast is all in comedy, and if we had not seen these elements before they would have been funnier here. More importantly, the “temporary” dissolution of the bond between our heroes would have been funny and fascinating if the deteriorating relationship between the two throughout the last few months had not already turned it into a sick joke. Mulder sniping at Scully is not funny when he has been insulting, ignoring, and trivializing her since September. Scully’s alleged sexual jealousy has no punch to it when we have seen little or no evidence in the ‘serious’ episodes that Mulder is anything more than a nuisance to her. The erosion of this partnership began in “Paper Clip”, and is no longer a laughing matter. Will next week’s episode show us Mulder and Scully at swords’ points with one another, as it logically should? That, too, could be an interesting dramatic twist, but it dare not be allowed to fester forever. I know that Chris Carter is dead set against a romance between his main characters, but if this is his attempt to forestall it, it’s like burning down the barn to get rid of the rats. At this rate, Mulder and Scully will no longer be speaking to one another by season end.

Carter has said that this episode will “change the dynamics” of Mulder and Scully’s relationship. If this is a permanent change, he is risking the entire series. He has, over two years, built up a sexual tension between his main characters. This tease keeps the tension simmering, providing continuity between episodes and satisfying our need for personal involvement with the main characters. A television audience, like anyone viewing a work of art, brings expectations with it. Not all of them may be met–that, too, is part of the challenge and attraction of art. But we must have some of our hopes in “The X-Files” met. If we cannot get closure on Samantha’s abduction, on the alien/government conspiracy, on the personal tragedies which have haunted our heroes, we must have at least the thrill generated by two sexy and intelligent people to draw us back. But if this final dramatic hook is lost, we have nothing left but a ‘monster of the week’ series that will die as swiftly as “Amazing Stories”. We need the tease.

There were some real gems in “Syzygy” which should not be overlooked in our greater concern for the direction of the series. Denalda Williams’ Madame Zerinka, the astrologer who trusts the government even less than Fox Mulder does, is hilarious. The hapless town pediatrician, whose only sin is a lousy taste in lingerie, is a cute send-up. Wendy Benson and Lisa Robin Kelly turn in exquisitely cartoonish performances as the terror twins Margi and Terri. Their characterizations are as flat and two-dimensional as they should be for these two vapid Valley Girls. I know I went to high school with cheerleaders like this, and always suspected them of selling their souls to the Devil. Reminded again of MacBeth, I kept thinking of them as prototypes for those three witches who meddle in men’s lives for no greater reason than spite and mischief, turning nonsense ryhmes into potent spells: “Double, double toil and trouble” becomes “One Bloody Mary, Two Bloody Mary…”. I can see these two Stepford Wives in the making, a couple of gin-soaked decades further on, seducing the paper boy (“Hate him, wouldn’t want to date him”) and plotting the demise of their rivals in the Junior League. Carter casts Terri and Margi as latter day incarnations of the two teenagers from Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”, whose hysterical accusations based on malice and pique launched the Salem witch hunts of 1692 that resulted in the deaths of twenty of their neighbors.

Many of the jokes in “Syzygy” were predictable, but that does not make them unfunny. I still laughed at the argument over adjusting the car seat. Scully’s smoking caught me by surprise, and Mulder’s fumbling encounter with the semi-crazed Detective White was a hoot. Some of the lines were priceless: “I don’t even think she’s a blonde.” I’ll be laughing at the “mystery of the horny beast” for a while. It’s clear that Carter still knows where all the buttons are and how to push them. “Syzygy” had all the ingredients for a real fruitcake of an episode, but it lacked two essential ingredients: contrast and timing. Taken in and of itself, “Syzygy” was laugh-out-loud funny. “War of the Coprophages” was clever, but too busy mocking our heroes to be funny. In “Syzygy”, when we laugh at Mulder and Scully, we are laughing at fellow human beings, as confused and inept as we are. That’s the charm of this episode, despite its flawed context. It is still too much comedy for one season, and I wanted to give it only three sunflower seeds, but was persuaded otherwise by my mother, a far better qualified critic than I am. Thus, against the tide of current opinion, I give this episode as it stands four out of five sunflower seeds.

Am I crazy? Don’t ask me.