by Sarah Stegall
copyright ©1996 by Sarah Stegall
Writer: Glen Morgan and James Wong
Director: Rob Bowman
“The Field Where I Died” is poignant, even heartbreaking. What a desperately romantic notion–souls mated for eternity, spinning in and out of one another’s endless lives like electrons circling in and out of the orbits of covalent atoms. Writers Glen Morgan and James Wong pull out all the stops in a sweeps-month story of thwarted lovers and past lives. It’s gripping, highly emotional, and a showcase for the actors. But in the context of more than seventy episodes, it stands out like a cockroach on a wedding cake.
The story behind “Field Where I Died” can be summed up in one word: Waco. Mulder and Scully accompany a BATF raid on a religious compound to help execute a warrant searching for illegal weapons. Mulder, acting on an impulse he cannot explain, uncovers a secret hiding place in a field where the cult leader, Vernon Ephesian (Michael Massee) and his six wives are preparing to drink suicide cocktails. Under interrogation, one wife, Melissa (Kristen Cloke) suddenly reveals a hidden personality, leading Scully (who does not have a degree in psychology) to conclude that she suffers from a dissociative personality disorder. Mulder (who does have a degree in psychology) dismisses that idea and claims that the personality known as “Sidney” is actually one of Melissa’s past lives. Yet within five minutes he is carefully and accurately outlining a handful of reasons to Walter Skinner why Melissa is suffering from DPD. No wonder they call him “Spooky”. The agents take Melissa back to the religious compound seeking a cache of illegal weapons. There another of Melissa’s “personalities” manifests itself and claims that the field outside the compound was a Civil War battlefield–where Mulder, in another incarnation, died. After hypnotically regressing Melissa to an earlier life where she claims to have been Mulder’s beloved, he himself “goes under” and recovers similar memories. We learn that many of the people in his life–his father, his partner, his sister–have appeared in earlier lives with him, but that “Melissa” was always his love.
I have to hand it to Glen Morgan and Jim Wong for not settling for conventional soap opera here. They have gone “Days of Our Lives” (or maybe that should be “One Life to Live”) one better by taking the involvement of the lead characters of The X-Files into a new plane–the spiritual. Now not only are the characters’ lives, loves and families tied in to the cases they investigate, their souls are entangled in the story line. Mulder and Scully are becoming what they investigate: paranormal cases. Now we are supposed to believe that either Mulder is a nut case (not a stretch, admittedly) or that he and Scully are tied together by ectoplasm down the centuries. I don’t know where Ten Thirteen is going with this story, and I suspect they have no plans to go anywhere with it.
It’s the knowledge that Carter, Morgan, Wong and the rest of the writing staff are willing to play with the characters like this for the sake of a one-time knockout episode that bothers me. Admittedly, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, but internal coherence is not altogether undesirable, either. Will we see in future episodes how Mulder integrates this remarkable experience into his life? And how did Scully explain to herself the Sullivan Biddle photographs she found, seemingly confirming Mulder’s story of a past life? Does Mulder’s discovery of a long-lost soul mate, now “gone ahead”, mean that he will never fall in love in this life? Not a chance. Next week it will be as if none of this ever happened, and Chris Carter and company will be back to the sexual tease between Mulder and Scully with no further reference to this episode. In short, if a major character development does not happen in a “mythology” episode, it didn’t happen at all. And sometimes not even then.
But as I said, taken by itself “The Field Where I Died” was one hell of an episode. The performances were the finest we have seen since “Oubliette” or “Piper Maru”. The writing was, as usual, clean and lyrical in classic Morgan/Wong style. Rob Bowman’s visuals were as misty and soft-edged as anything out of “Casablanca”, and managed to invest a simple cornfield with romantic symbolism of the first order.
Kristen Cloke was a revelation. Apart from her mugging “Sidney” character (I thought she was channelling Gilbert Gottfried), she produced a wonderfully miserable and confused Melissa Reidal-Ephesian, so mortally wounded by her own life that she was glad to leave it and wait for her lover in the next world. She played a disturbed child and a grieving Confederate widow, a brainwashed bride and a sullen witness, all in the space of a few minutes. The scene where she looks out at the sun-soaked field, a battleground that symbolizes for her a love she has not seen in this life, and takes the cup of death in her hand is pure Wagner. Any actor would be proud of such a moment.
Mitch Pileggi should send Confederate magnolias to Morgan and Wong for such wonderful scenes–decisive, solid, authoritative, every inch the professional law enforcement boss. This was one of the strongest Skinners we have seen. And brave, too: forget the shadowy Cancerman–Walter Skinner has to answer to Janet Reno!
This episode is clearly an Emmy bid by Duchovny, and a damn good one. He pushed his performance farther than he has all year, giving us sorrow and love and joy all in a few minutes. It was a relief, after having to watch him pour his soul into his eyes week after week, to see him let slip the leash and sweat, cry, and laugh. What other sexy male lead on TV could play a scene in which he weeps over losing his husband in a past life and not lose macho points with the audience? My only caveat was that this was just too easy. Mulder doesn’t open up to anybody, least of all when Scully’s around. Now he let down not just his normal defenses but whatever metaphysical barriers seal us off in our daily lives from lives that went before? Still, I can excuse it for scenes of Mulder looking meltingly at Melissa/Sarah/Sidney, for his stunned look as he enters a barn full of bodies, for his heartfelt reading of Browning’s “Paracelsus” in the teaser and at the conclusion. I would put up with anything for his fervent “No life is meaningless”.
It never pays to look too closely at a Morgan and Wong script, since they pay little or no attention to mundane particulars. Like the fact that Mulder describes a Gestapo officer as being the Smoking Man’s previous incarnation, at a time when the Smoking Man would most certainly have been alive in this incarnation. How can Melissa Reidal- Ephesian be alive as a Jewish husband in the Polish ghetto, and a smarmy twit under the Truman administration only a few years later? Maybe Scully is right, and this is just a dangerously unbalanced personality. But then what do we call Fox Mulder, who now believes he was once a Jewish wife in Warsaw? I realize that The X-Files is built on ambiguity, but I didn’t even know if this was supposed to be ambiguous! My head hurts. Once again, Morgan and Wong give us spectacular poetry and skimp on the hard details.
More disturbing to me is the emasculation of Dana Scully. So our faithful skeptic is doomed to go through all eternity as Tonto? Always the sidekick, but never the soul mate? I don’t think so. You cannot stand seventy-seven prior episodes on their heads with one brief scene with a tripped-out Fox Mulder. Mulder has risked his life for Dana Scully, traded his sister for Dana Scully, and abandoned his own revenge to sit by her side as she died–for the sake of friendship? Nope. To portray Dana Scully as the repressed but smoldering beauty tantalizingly out of reach for her partner, the instigator of more angst in his life than any female since Samantha, and then in one fell swoop reduce her to everlasting second banana is ridiculous. Morgan can write it, Wong can edit it, Duchovny can act it, and Chris Carter can shout it from the rooftops, but I don’t believe it. If I thought the implications of this episode would be played out in future shows, this would really alarm me. But by now, I know better. This is a stand-alone episode that will have no reference beyond itself, and as such I can appreciate the irony of Scully as Mulder’s former sergeant, former father, former comrade in arms.
“The Field Where I Died” is one of the most visually and musically perfect X-Files ever. Director of Photography Jon Joffin, who helmed second unit for John Bartley, shows that he can match the master of melancholy lighting himself: the sunlight itself weeps. The threadbare simplicity of the church, the disquieting children’s art on the walls of the nursery, the dusky police station all added a note of sorrow and heartache without appending a single word to the script. Subtle, pensive, and sad, the music carried the story as much as the dialog did, especially the Gregorian chant used in the church scenes. The Academy should give Mark Snow his long-overdue Emmy this year if they have to melt down their own statues to cast it.
And how can I not like an episode that has Fox Mulder calling my name? 🙂 Morgan and Wong get a big fat bouquet of yellow Texas roses from me for making Fox Mulder a former Confederate soldier. Drowned in tears and soaked in muted sunlight, “The Field Where I Died” teeters on the brink of sentimentality, but manages to stay just this side of it for a dynamite, gripping episode that showcases some fine actors. Although I intensely dislike the theme of “The Field Where I Died”, the treatment was exceptional.
“The Field Where I Died” should have been not a TV episode, not a movie, but an opera. This episode gets five out of five sunflower seeds.