Keepers of the Mystery
by Sarah Stegall
copyright ©1996 by Sarah Stegall
Writer: Chris Carter
Story by David Duchovny and Chris Carter
Director: R. W. Goodwin
“Who are these keepers of the mystery, who have taken some curse upon themselves for the happiness of mankind?”–The Grand Inquisitor, “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Talitha Cumi, possibly the most mystical X-File to date, opens with Mulder and Scully’s search for a remarkable man who can calm a frenzied gunman, heal several people dying of gunshot wounds, and then vanish in the wink of an eye. This stranger, who goes by the name of Jeremiah Smith (superbly underplayed by Roy Thinnes), falls into the hands of the Cigarette-Smoking Man; their conversation makes it clear that “Smith” is not human. Meanwhile, Mulder’s mother (Rebecca Toolan) secretly meets the Cancer Man in a scene heavy with hair-raising implications, then suffers a stroke. Mulder’s anguish over this event is balanced by his shock when he learns that she has known the Smoking Man for a long time, and by Mulder’s own discovery of an alien weapon hidden — as she told him it would be — in their own family vacation home. X demands that Mulder hand over the device. When Mulder refuses, X tries to take it from him by force in a parking-garage brawl. “Let me be clear,” Mulder asks him. “We’re talking about colonization, aren’t we? The date is set.” This sets us up for a confrontation at an industrial site between the X-Files team and Jeremiah Smith, now spouting the same vague Promises to Reveal All that we have learned to ignore. Enter now the Mighty Morphing Power Assassin (Brian Thompson) from “Colony/End Game”, and the secret war which we discovered in “Colony” and “Endgame” last year threatens to erupt into the open in the fourth season.
But this is not just a turf war, it’s a war for the souls of humanity. In a couple of tense prison conversations, the Grand Inquisitor (the Cigarette Smoking Man) sneers at the naive faith in love and freedom expressed by the miracle-working “Jeremiah Smith”. “Whoever can control a man’s conscience can take away his freedom”, says the Cigarette-Smoking Man smugly. Yet when Smith morphs into the faces of the Smoking Man’s victims, he allows the voices of the dead to speak for all humanity. And when he speaks, the Smoking Man trembles with fear, because he knows Jeremiah Smith speaks the truth. That’s what makes him dangerous.
When two men face off in a prison cell over questions of mystery, miracles, authority, and faith, we are forcibly reminded of Dostoevsky’s great monologue, “The Grand Inquisitor”. In The Brothers Karamazov, we see the original of the pivotal scenes in Talitha Cumi. The title comes from the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus raises a girl from the dead by calling out “Talitha, cumi” (Aramaic for “Maiden, arise”). The phrase recurs in “The Grand Inquisitor”, where Jesus returns to Earth and again raises a dead child to life, thereby attracting the attention of the Grand Inquisitor in much the same way as the Smoking Man takes notice of Smith’s miracle-working. Like his model in Dostoevsky, the Smoking Man is angry because Smith’s actions give hope to humans, thereby eroding his control of them. This fear-mongering conspiracy is as old as Machiavelli.
But what really stood out in this conversation is the promise (or threat) implied in “The date is set.” For an invasion? A coup d’etat? A rebellion against an insidious alien incursion? Whatever the answer, it’s sure to be only sketched out in the fourth season premiere, which will conclude this story.
The end of the third season is a good opportunity for a look back. The first season of The X-Files gave us rich and memorable characters: Max Fenig in “Fallen Angel”, Samuel Hartley in “Miracle Man”, Deep Throat. The second season had story points that took my breath away: Scully’s abduction and return, or the colonization theme in “Colony” and “End Game”. The third season had its moments, notably “Pusher” and “Oubliette“, but has never quite reached the level of the second year. The trouble with “Talitha Cumi” is the trouble with the series–it is beginning to eat its own tail. Vital story elements–the alien ice pick or the faces worn by Jeremiah Smith–could have no significance to a new viewer, or even to someone who has been watching since September of 1995. There is too much here whose significance points backwards, to earlier episodes. The X-Files has always demanded not only close attention but intelligence from its viewers, but the story line is become as tangled as a soap opera.
That’s why the Dostoevsky transplant works so wonderfully well here. It adds another metaphysical layer to the epic of The X-Files, clarifying the stakes in Mulder’s crusade. At the same time, it provides yet another glimpse of the apocalypse shaping up, with an ominous warning: “The date is set.” The final image, of Mulder resolutely facing the oncoming alien assassin armed only with a metal toothpick, evokes the courage of a cat before a lion or the heart of a Don Quixote facing a windmill. It is for moments like this that I continue to be fascinated with this show.
Another reason is the production values. Mark Snow’s otherworldly but simple piano themes during the meeting between the Smoking Man and Mrs. Mulder add as much to the scene as the dialogue. The stark lighting of the prison cells casts into relief the intensity of this high-stakes face-off: one wonders how Director of Photography John Bartley’s departure from The X-Files will change the fundamental look of the show. Duchovny outdoes himself in scenes ranging from grief to rage to bewilderment. I can forgive stunning leaps of logic (like Mulder linking the restaurant shooting to his mother’s stroke–oh, come on!) for the sake of Scully and Mulder’s little “Are you okay?” conversation–a classic Carter/Duchovny/Anderson scene that says much with little dialogue.
The history of The X-Files tells me that the questions raised in Talitha Cumi will either be ignored in the fall or will be answered with more questions. The novelty of this approach has long since worn off, and while I recognize the series needs to maintain a certain level of ambiguity, I hope to find emotional closure of some sort in the fourth season opening episodes. We need to know that there is, indeed, more than mere whim behind these tangled threads. My faith rests in the creator of the show, who has so far stubbornly resisted dilution of his unique vision.
We have seen the truth, Chris Carter. Now what we want are the answers.
This story arc continues with the fourth season premiere, Herrenvolk. This episode gets the same rating: five out of five sunflower seeds.