The X-Files: “The Walk”

Walking Wounded

by Sarah Stegall
Copyright ©1995 by Sarah Stegall

“The Walk”

Writer: John Shiban

Director: Rob Bowman

This one had “five stars” written all over it by the middle of Act One, and I’m not referring to the General’s stars. Once again “The X-Files” does what it does best–take people on the edge of our world and drag them before our noses, focrcing us to look at them with compassion and dread inextricably mixed. In this case, “The Walk”, by John Shiban presenting his first X-Files script, gets up close and personal with the anguish and pain of disabled veterans. Of course elements of it were familiar: we’ve seen veterans of other, equally ugly little political wars in “Sleepless” and seen astral projection in “Excelsius Dei“. But what makes “The Walk” stand out is the sympathy and fervor Shiban brings to his subject. We can feel the anger simmering in Rappo, the stern rectitude of the General, the despair and agony of the boiled Colonel.

And this, not last week’s “2SHY“, was the episode where Scully kicked butt! Scully’s no-nonsense assertion of her authority before Captain Draper (Nancy Sorel) and later the General (Thomas Kopache) showed a new level of strength and self-confidence in her. This sounds like a Dana Scully who has been to hell and back and has the scars to prove it. She’s not taking any dictatorial nonsense from anyone as minor as a General, no sirree, not when she has faced down human lightning rods and fat-sucking vampires. I have not been as impressed with an episode of “The X-Files” in more than six months as I was with this one. It almost made me wish I had not graded some other episodes as highly as I did this season, in order to more clearly stress the overall excellence of “The Walk”.

On the eve of Veteran’s Day, “The X-Files” goes inside a VA hospital in Illinois to investigate a series of suicide attempts which have been foiled by an invisible presence. Mulder and Scully question a quadruple amputee, a man who boiled himself, and a General determined to keep the whole mess out of the public eye. Suspecting that a greater force may be at work than even Army bureaucracy, Mulder quietly builds a case for paranormal involvement while his partner pursues more conventional avenues. Scully, convinced she had the killer locked up, is only half-surprised to find that Mulder has an alternate theory: astral projection. He thinks the embittered Sgt. Leonard “Rappo” Trimble may be behind the whole scenario, and uses dental X-rays to prove the presence of an “astrally projected” spirit bent on torturing its victims. But Rappo, played with incandescent intensity by Ian Tracey, has the perfect alibi: he has neither arms nor legs left, after having lost them in the Gulf War.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: astral projection is an iffy concept at best, right up there with auras and phrenology as the playground of fakirs, phonies and frauds. Little grey Reticulans are more plausible than matter converting itself to energy and back again on this scale without vaporizing the planet. So for this one I completely detached my belief and put it away in a padded box, and sat back to enjoy an exceptionally well done episode. My only complaint is that Shiban has Scully agreeing to the nonsense Mulder is spouting just a little too easily; sure, she’s less skeptical this season than last, how not? (The ability to say some of his lines this season with a straight face just proves what a good actor Duchovny is.) So I will pass over the gimmick in this episode and cut to the heart of its appeal: the human tale of sorrow and grief played out in the prison of one’s own body.

“The Walk” is about imprisonment, more so than “The List“. Rappo is imprisoned in a body that is nothing more now than a vessel that holds his hate. Lt. Col. Stans (Don Thompson) is imprisoned in self-inflicted burn scars that stiffen his every movement and force him to hide his hideous disfigurement behind walls for the rest of his life. (They also serve as a permanent monument in his own flesh to the family that died in a house fire.) And the General (Thomas Kopache) is trapped in his uniform, in an unyielding role that leaves him unable to comfort either the maimed men under him or his own wife after their son is killed. All three of these men are souls entombed in flesh that cannot release them. And there is no compromising that anguish and pain, no lightening of that burden, no balm in Gilead or elsewhere for a grief grown too great for flesh to bear.

After the mysterious force kills the General’s young son, his mother (Andrea Barclay) tells her husband “I don’t want to ‘handle it’. I want my son back.” No doubt Rappo wants his legs and arms back. Both of these sufferers chainsaw right through the shallow conventions that say they must mourn, adjust and then get over it, primarily to avoid making the rest of us uncomfortable. Just as Stans’ and Rappo’s disfigurements make us uneasily aware of the vulnerability of the flesh, so Frances Callahan’s inconsolable grief reminds us of the fragility of our ordered lives, where in a heartbeat the world can be made unbearably bitter, dark and cold. “The X-Files” unflinchingly looks at the pain we would deny, sugar- coat, or wallpaper over in a desperate attempt to avoid the truth: that it could happen to us. It was that naked truth that sent shivers down my back last Friday night.

David Duchovny had some good moments in “The Walk”, especially during his interview with Rappo. Unfortunately, he was forced to play Mulder out of character in the only glaring mischaracterization of the piece, when Mulder is made to tell Rappo, “You’re a soldier, you knew what you were risking when you signed up.” This opens the door for a set speech on the politics of the Gulf War from Rappo; the entire scene sounded contrived and out of place. Mulder is generally neither this callous nor this blunt. The X-Files “gets political” all the time, but usually it is more subtly done than this. For the rest of the piece, however, he didn’t have much to do besides show Mulder’s impatience with whoever he happened to be talking to. Clearly, Agent Mulder has what is called “a problem with authority figures”.

But the show belongs to Gillian Anderson, who plays Dana Scully like gangbusters. Without at any time making her character bitchy or abrasive, she fearlessly confronts the uniformed authority of the General (and this from a Navy daughter, no less) and the sexual innuendo of Rappo. At no time does she flinch, lose her cool, or walk away and leave her gun on the floor. I am so tired of seeing Scully do stupid things in the service of the plot that almost any story that showed her minimally competent would have been welcome, but to see her one step ahead of Mulder (the fingerprints are on their way to NCIC for identification even as she tells Mulder about them) and in full charge of an investigation was occasion for outright rejoicing. Gillian Anderson, Rob Bowman and John Shiban should throw bouquets at one another for the scene where Scully faces down the General in his own den, reciting a litany of tragedies erased from the records of his men.

Director Rob Bowman gets the maximum scare out of every shadow, evoking fears that lie at the base of the brain: spectral figures flit across screens, shadows are glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, and ghostly voices whisper threats just below the threshold of hearing. The general’s aide, swimming alone, is strangled and drowned by an invisible attacker whose shadow, projected onto the ceiling by the pool light, pursues hers across the pool. An orderly who knows more than he is telling is killed in his cell by an unknown force after screaming, “He knows this place! He’s been here!” In scene after scene, little touches add just enough creepiness to keep the tension winding: insects in Roach’s apartment, a halo of light around the veterans gathered for a therapy session, the stunning underwater shots of Captain Draper’s struggle in the pool.

There were familiar elements in this episode, as noted, but I have always said that the originality of the tale is less important than the freshness of its retelling; in 3,000 years of written literature there cannot be many plots we have not already run across. This tale of anguish and unbearable tragedy potentially touches all of us, or at least those of us who have lost a loved one. That it mingles this universal condition with the plight of neglected veterans is a brilliant touch. My congratulations to John Shiban for a praiseworthy debut.

This episode gets four out of five sunflower seeds, and a respectful salute.