Now You See Him, Now You Don’t
by Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 1997 by Sarah Stegall
Written by Howard Gordon
Directed by Michael Lange
Probably no group of American war veterans since the Civil War has suffered more bad publicity than those who came back from Vietnam. Survivors of a conflict that bitterly divided the nation, they came home to a land made unrecognizable by seething resentments and barely suppressed anger. Twenty five years after the last Marine was airlifted off the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon, the arguments still rage, the old hostilities and conflicts shaping our understanding of everything from Bill Clinton’s Presidential campaign to Jane Fonda’s movie career. Like the veterans who came home from Shiloh and Gettysburg, for some who came home from Khe Sang and Hue the war has never ended.
“Unrequited” opens with a speech at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D. C. A general is addressing a fervid crowd, but Mulder, Scully, and other FBI agents are anxiously tracking a man through the crowd. He seems to disappear in front of our very eyes, and at one point Mulder points a gun straight at him only to have the man literally fade from view right in front of him. We flash back to a few hours earlier, when a general alone in the back seat of his car is assassinated by a man who pops into view in an eyeblink. Mulder, Scully, and Walter Skinner follow a trail of clues that include special “death cards” printed up for use in Vietnam by American troops, to a right-wing militia organization, to POW/MIA organizations, and finally to the highest policy-making ranks of the military.
Along the way, Mulder attempts to pry more information out of Deep Blonde (Laurie Holden), his UN advisor. Why someone who works for the United Nations would necessarily have information about the workings of the Pentagon escapes me, but then Ms. Covarru-various has never been a very consistent character. Her information is so superficial I was surprised any screen time was wasted on her at all–the writers must be setting her up as an ongoing character in order to bring her into a story further down the road.
The involvement of Walter Skinner in this episode was both a pleasant surprise and a disappointment. We got to see Skinner anxious, uncertain, and worried about something that had nothing to do with the behavior of his agents. Mitch Pileggi once again delivered the crisp, authoritative and convincing field boss we saw in “The Field Where I Died“. So why didn’t he get engaged more fully in this story? Almost the only personal information we have on this character relates to his military service in Vietnam. Here is a combat veteran with some scars of his own, who has dealt with his inner demons and gone on to serve his country honorably. Skinner is not the twitchy, bitter paranoid so frequently served up by the media as the Vietnam Vet. He would have been an excellent foil for Nathaniel Teager (Peter LaCroix), the warrior who cannot let go of the war. But Skinner’s experience In Country is not even mentioned until the epilogue. What a waste of a fine opportunity to explore this character more fully.
The only truly creepy moment in “Unrequited” comes when Mulder and Scully are standing outside the compound of the militia organization. Scully casually scans the scene, which is a remote country road. As the camera tracks her point of view, it tracks past a figure standing motionless by the side of the road. Tracking back, the figure has disappeared. I had to stop and rewind my tape several times to confirm that yes, there really was someone standing a few yards away from Scully, staring directly at her, whom she could not see. This visual sleight-of-hand lent an uneasy feeling to the rest of the episode, where we could never be quite sure where Teager was or whether he was present. I wish this element had been more strongly emphasized: there is something profoundly unnerving about knowing you are being spied on by someone you can’t see.
But the explanation for this disappearing act stretched even the elastic boundaries of an X-Phile’s ability to suspend disbelief. Was Teager exploiting blind spots in the visual field, or creating them? In order to be effective, it would have to be the latter. Is this a weird new kind of telepathy, the ability to induce vision defects in anyone within range? And if so, wouldn’t it be nullified by the presence of two different people staring at him from different angles? Once again we see that a weak premise further weakens a weak story, whereas the weak premise of “Never Again” did less damage because the essential storyline was so strong.
I think what really sunk “Unrequited”, finally, was the lack of emotional investment in the story. Gordon picked up on a lot of story elements that should have been roping us in: the abandonment of a soldier by his government, the corruption of military top brass, the still-smoldering ruins of national pride in the wake of Vietnam. But it was a strictly by-the-numbers effort–here’s a soldier, here’s his sad tale, here’s his revenge on the nasty generals. But Teager himself was a cipher–he never spoke for himself until Act Four. When he did, we got the Twitchy Vet, not the Tragic Hero, and we got him way too late to hook us.
Finally, this was just one more pseudo-political story from The X-Files, in a season apparently swamped in a sudden political consciousness. The best political commentary in The X-Files so far has been the tangled and conflicted Cigarette-Smoking Man, whose “Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man” told us more about the way the government operates than any number of flag-waving speeches in front of the Vietnam Memorial could. Sorry, but “Unrequited” gets a mere two out of five sunflower seeds.