The Monster Whisperer
Written and Directed by Darin Morgan
Note: In case it’s not obvious, these are reviews. That is to say, an opinion. That opinion is formed by having watched the episode, and I am assuming you have, too. Otherwise, why bother? So beware, matey, here there be spoilers.
“It’s a monster, Scully, plain and simple.” — Mulder
Darin Morgan is the only X-Files writer to win an Emmy, for “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” in 1995. He defends his title tonight in “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”, by reprising all the elements of warped humor, sheer whimsy and wry insider jokes that make him a critical and fan favorite. It mostly works.
All good X-Files begin in the woods, at night, and preferably under a full moon behind racing clouds. This one starts with a couple of stoners coming across a lizard-like humanoid in the forest, and the discovery of two corpses with their throats ripped out. Back at the FBI, we discover a depressed Mulder, unsure of his quest, filled with self-doubt. He no longer believes in The X-Files, no longer believes there really are monsters out there, and argues with Scully that the cases still in The X-Files are jokes, pranks and hoaxes. Scully doesn’t even argue with him, but brings him a murder case with a monster in it. Throughout the next 45 minutes, Mulder rants, raves and harangues against his own belief system; it is clear that he is more interested in convincing himself than Scully of the futility of his life’s work. She’s not buying it: “You’re bat-crap crazy”, she tells him at one point. Darin (I use his first name to distinguish him from his brother Glen, who has contributed more episodes) gives us our standard X-Files scenes: the meeting in Mulder’s office, a chase through the woods, the autopsy. Mulder obsesses over cameras (since when did Mulder care that much about actual proof?) and winds up filming himself (but then, this whole episode is a “selfie”, isn’t it?) The agents encounter a terrified park ranger who really, really, really does not want to investigate the woods at night, and hopes he’s only chasing a lost dog. Mulder’s interview with the hotel manager who witnessed the lizard-man’s transformation so demoralizes him that he indulges in a four-minute rant to Scully that brilliantly parodies any number of Chris Carter monologues. Worse, once Mulder finally catches up with the monster in a cemetery and hears his story, he becomes so confused he starts drinking. And talking to an impossible being.
“What kind of a monster do you think I am?” — Guy Mann
That conversation/flashback in the cemetery is where the genius of Darin Morgan shines brightest. Mulder persuades the ‘monster’ to tell all, asking for a confession from the monster and absolution for himself. We learn that everything we thought we knew about shape-changing is upside down, that the lizard-man is not what he seems to be, that in fact he is the victim, not the perpetrator. With an outsider’s perspective, he delivers himself of some keen observations on human life, modern society, consumer culture and the futility of everything. This is classic Darin Morgan, an exercise in wry twists and upended logic that strips character and plot down to its essentials, and then spins that. Darin reduces Mulder, step by step, to a disillusioned, broken Mulder so cynical that he actually destroys the evidence that might support his case. Scully is no longer the strong, intelligent partner but a disheveled temptress indulging in risky sex with strangers. Darin excels above everything else at taking The X-Files apart and showing us its flaws, its strengths, and its under-appreciated charms. And then in one brilliant flash, he puts it all back together and hands back to us a stronger story. At the very end, as Mulder bids goodbye to the lizard man, he receives the confirmation he has sought all his life, the proof literally in his own hand that the weird and wonderful truth really is out there. Duchovny leaves us with a beatific smile of redemption and justification, standing alone in the woods as the truth trots off into the woods for a 15,000 year nap.
This is actually not the first time Darin Morgan has told this story. Back when former X-Files producer Frank Spotnitz was producing the short-lived revival of “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” (which was Chris Carter’s inspiration for The X-Files), Darin wrote a script involving a serial killer and a were-lizard. One review of that unproduced script describes it as “another example of Darin’s brilliant abilities as a writer in destroying the very structure of a show he is writing”. It is essentially the same story, with a different cast, but the same theme—when you set out to slay monsters, make sure you are not hunting yourself. The fact that “Were-Monster” started life as a Kolchak episode may account for Mulder and Scully’s stilted, unfamiliar speech—or maybe that’s Darin’s voice. At any rate, he has turned that script into an inward-spiraling treatise on what it means to be human, and how that is maybe not a desirable thing at all.
“This is how I like my Mulder.” — Scully
Darin brings back several X-Files alumni, mostly from his own episodes. Tyler Labine and Nicole Parker return for their third appearance as the stoner couple, following Darin’s “War of the Coprophages” as well as the episode “Quagmire”, the one where Scully loses her dog Queequeg (see how convoluted this all becomes?). Alex Diakun, the Norman Bates-like hotel manager, was in three of Darin’s best episodes: “Clyde Bruckman”, “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’”, and “Humbug”, which started the whole self-parody trend in The X-Files. When he runs out of former guest stars, Darin draws in a famous fan, Kumail Nanjiani, of “The X-Files Files” podcast, who plays the park ranger. And in a fitting tribute, Darin even gives us an homage to the late X-Files director Kim Manners, against whose gravestone a depressed and drunken Mulder reclines after hearing Mann’s story.
Darin inserts references to more than a few well-known horror movies, not through the actors but the settings. Mulder explores secret passages between the walls of the hotel, reminiscent of the 1991 Wes Craven classic, “People Under the Stairs”. The hotel itself, including the taxidermy-hobbyist hotel manager who spies on his guests with peepholes, reminds us of Norman Bates and the Bates Motel from “Psycho”. When Guy Mann wakes in the forest, discovering himself to be a self-aware creature for the first time, he is echoing a key scene in the novel “Frankenstein”, one which Kenneth Branagh re-created for his 1994 movie, “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”.
“I forgot how much fun these cases could be.” — Scully
So it mostly works: directing, cinematography, editing and art direction are all top notch. Darin gives us a dream-like forest as background, one which would be a good backdrop for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. The story twists delightfully inward in a satisfyingly curious fashion. It’s a script constructed almost entirely of quotable one-liners. There is so much here of the brilliance that gave us “Humbug” and “Clyde Bruckman”. But there is something less, as well. “Were-Monster” is a love letter to The X-Files (and The X-Philes), but written with a poison pen. There comes a point where gentle teasing becomes outright mockery, and “Were-Monster” may have crossed that line. There’s just a little too much insider humor: after the first couple of sightings, “spot the former guest star” becomes a distraction. There’s just a little too much inversion of the characters; Scully calling Mulder “bat-crap crazy” is funny because that is not how Scully would talk, but Scully getting down and dirty with Guy Mann in a closet is just a shade too far. There are so many “Easter eggs”, it’s easy to lose sight of the larger picture. It starts to look like a deliberate attempt to focus attention elsewhere: Guy Mann names his puppy Daggoo; this is the name of a character in “Moby-Dick”, the same book that gave Scully her own nickname “Starbuck”, and her dog the name “Queequeg” — and Scully adopts it. Is this understated humor, or just obscurity for its own sake? Great comedy is fraught with nuance, turning the familiar inside out to reveal the subtext that fuels our laughter. The trouble with “Were-Monster” is that there is hardly any nuance: fan-service is not nuance, neither is heavy-handed sarcasm. Nor is obscurity; up to a point, it is fun to follow Darin’s breadcrumbs to the juicy surprise. And don’t get me wrong—it’s a surprise, it’s juicy, it’s funny. But under the laughter is a sense of unease I cannot shake. It’s like sharing a laugh with someone, only to discover that they’re laughing at you, not with you.
I have no idea how to rate this episode. Half of me wants to give it five out of five sunflower seeds. The other half wants to give it three. I am going to leave it unrated for now; this is an episode that will reward time, cogitation, and repeated viewings. It’s a classic, but perhaps not in the way we usually mean that. In any case, it’s a definite return to form for Darin and The X-Files, for sure.