"Shapes"
Written by Marilyn Osborne
Directed by David Nutter



In which Mulder and Scully investigate an apparent animal attack near a Native reservation in Montana, and uncover a deadly legend reaching back to the very first X-File...

Synopsis - Analysis - Memorable Quotes - Observations


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"You know, the last time I saw you, you were in drag..."


Synopsis

As the episode begins, Jim and Lyle Parker load their shotguns. Outside, interwoven with the sounds of a storm, an animal roars. The two men walk outside, and Lyle checks the barn. He finds a bull lying dead on the ground. He hears a growl, and then he’s knocked to the ground. As Lyle is tossed outside of the barn, Jim runs over and fires his shotgun. As Jim runs to help Lyle, he looks over at the beast…and sees a man with a shotgun wound to the chest instead.

The next day, Mulder and Scully speak with Jim and Lyle at their ranch house, which is filled with numerous animal trophies. The Parkers’ attorney is also present. Apparently the victim of the shooting was named Joseph Goodensnake. Jim Parker, the father, explains that he’s no murderer. He’s just tired of finding his cattle torn apart. Mulder asks if Jim thinks a person is responsible, but the attorney reminds them that they cannot discuss pending litigation.

Mulder asks if the attorney is referring to Jim Parker’s federal case against the Trego Indians. The attorney admits as much, but just mentioning it is enough to get Jim talking. Jim denies that his argument with the Trego Indians over the boundary between his land and the reservation has nothing to do with the killing. He makes it clear that what he saw wasn’t human, and points out the wounds on Lyle, which Mulder inspects. Jim expresses his sorrow over the death of Goodensnake, but he doesn’t want to be bothered with it anymore.

Mulder and Scully ask to see the crime scene, and Lyle takes them out. Lyle apologizes for his father’s behavior, and admits that their side of the story doesn’t make much sense. But lately, he and his father had been feeling something watching them…something that seemed to put the animals and the Parkers on edge.

As Lyle returns to the house, Scully notes that the case seems to be a fairly simple murder, so she’s not sure why Mulder was interested in taking the case. But Mulder notes some tracks in the mud…human at first, and then some kind of animal. Before they leave, he also finds a kind of shed skin fragment. As they drive away, Mulder confirms that there was no mention of skinning in the autopsy of Goodensnake. Scully wants a look at the body herself.

They drive into the heart of the Trego reservation, and walk into a dark tavern of sorts. When they ask where they can find Sheriff Tskany, they are rebuffed by the natives. One of them, an old man named Ish, tells them to leave. When Mulder persists, Ish wonders what they’re looking for. Scully begins to answer with the official song and dance, but Mulder interrupts, telling Ish that they’re looking for anything that can make human tracks in one step and animal the next.

Ish tells them that Parker killed what they were looking for. This angers a young woman named Gwen standing by a pool table, who slams her cue down. Joe Goodensnake was her brother. She accuses the other natives of being too afraid of an Indian legend to do something about her brother’s death. She runs out, passing Sheriff Tskany on the way. He bluntly informs the agents that the body is in his office.

He takes them to the building, which is being guarded by two large Trego men. He tells them to stand aside, and explains to the agents that the men are there to escort the spirits of the dead to the next world. He keeps them outside, because he maintains a strong separation between the ancient beliefs and his police work. Mulder asks what Gwen might have been referring to, but that only annoys Tskany, who just wants the agents to do their job and leave.

They go back into the morgue. Mulder asks about Gwen, and Tskany explains that the Goodensnakes were responsible for filing the suit against the Parkers over the land boundaries. As they examine the body, they note that Goodensnake has scars that suggest he had been attacked by an animal some time ago, much like Lyle Parker. Then Mulder checks the teeth, and shows Scully and Tskany the revealed fangs.

Scully finds it hard to believe that Goodensnake actually had fangs, especially since the young man’s dental records appear normal. But Tskany figures that it might have accounted for Parker’s story. Mulder’s not convinced, since Lyle had animal wounds as well. Mulder wants to perform a more thorough autopsy to determine if the interior anatomy is also altered, but Tskany won’t allow it.

The Trego way does not permit desecration of the body prior to the ritual cremation. Scully doesn’t understand how Tskany, as an officer of the law, can allow evidence to be destroyed. But Tskany reminds them that he has to answer to his people, regardless of whether or not he believes in the old ways. There will be no autopsy.

Late that afternoon, the funeral ritual begins. Mulder and Scully watch from their car. Scully notes that Mulder seems to have been anticipating all of the evidence, and wants to know what he’s been hiding. He pulls out a very old X-File, and explains that it’s the very first…written in 1946 by J. Edgar Hoover himself. The case in 1946 matches the current case very closely, though in 1946, it was a series of murders by what appeared to be a wild animal. When the animal was shot dead, they found the body of Richard Watkins instead.

The case was filed away by Hoover so it could be investigated after the locals forgot about the incidents, but then similar series of murders occurred in 1954, 1959, 1964, 1978…and now 1994. But the anecdotal legends of such incidents, Mulder explains, predate the file by 150 years. Scully thinks that it must be lycanthropy, where a person believes that he can turn into a wolf, not actually become one. Mulder is annoyed at her dismissal of the evidence.

They get out of the car, and Scully reminds him that even if he were right, the evidence is about to be destroyed. Standing beside the funeral platform as the ritual continues, Scully is confronted by Gwen, who doesn’t think Scully belongs there. Still, Scully expresses her sympathy, and even though she is still hostile, Gwen responds by giving Scully a bracelet that had belonged to her brother.

Sheriff Tskany pulls up, and when he approaches, Mulder steps over to speak with him. He tries to find out if Tskany is convinced that the Trego legends have nothing to do with the case, but Tskany refuses to answer. As the pyre is lit and the Trego gather, Lyle rides up on a house to pay his respects. Gwen lashes out at him, and Tskany tells Lyle that he ought to leave.

Back at the ranch, Jim Parker sits on his porch when he hears a faint growl. He walks into the backyard to look around. Finding nothing, he walks back towards the house, and that’s when he’s savagely attacked by the beast. The beast rips him to shreds.

The next morning, Mulder and Scully help investigate Jim Parker’s murder. Scully notes that a large predator must have attacked him, or someone wanted it to look that way. She asks Tskany where Gwen might be, but she’s nowhere to be found. Lyle Parker is also missing. Mulder, meanwhile, finds some clumps of animal fur and more shed skin.

Scully finds some caged animals, including a mountain lion, near a gate to the fields. The lion startles her, but then she notices Lyle lying naked in a nearby field. As she helps him over to their car so he can be taken to the hospital, Tskany extracts a large animal claw from Parker’s body. Neither he nor Mulder can identify it. Mulder asks Tskany what he’s been hiding, and Tskany replies that he can’t tell him…but he knows someone who can.

At the hospital, Lyle explains that he got drunk after what happened at the funeral, and doesn’t remember much after that. He explains he sometimes goes to watch the caged animals when he’s down, and he must have been so drunk that he thought he was one of them and stripped himself naked. Scully asks him what he remembers about his father, but Lyle only saw Jim on the porch. Scully tells him that his father is dead, which makes Lyle wonder if going to the funeral angers the Trego into killing his father in retaliation.

Tskany takes Mulder to see Ish, who admits to Mulder that he saw the beast back in 1946, during the Watkins case. He is willing to speak to Mulder about it, because he can sense that Mulder is open to alternative beliefs. He tells Mulder that Watkins had been wounded in the woods by what natives call a “manitou”, an evil spirit capable of changing men into beast. If a man is attacked by such a manitou, then he becomes one himself. Mulder makes the connection to Goodensnake.

Ish tells Mulder that at night, the bloodlust of the manitou overwhelms the victim and causes man to become beast. Afterward, the man returns to normal, unaware of what has happened. It continues, night after night, until the man is killed. As a boy, Ish found Watkins when he was undergoing the change, but he was too frightened to kill the beast. Even though Watkins was killed, the manitou rose again in his son eight years later.

Tskany takes that to mean Gwen might be the new killer, if it was a matter of bloodline rather than a previous attack. They hear a noise outside, and find Gwen in Ish’s truck, trying to escape. Mulder and Tskany run over to the truck, and shut off the motor. Tskany arrests Gwen for stealing Ish’s car, but when Ish asks why she was running, Gwen tells them that she saw the beast kill Parker. She was going to mess up Lyle for coming to the funeral, but when she got to the ranch, she saw the beast attack Parker.

While Ish and Tskany try to comfort Gwen, Mulder calls the hospital to tell Scully what he’s discovered. But Scully has already left with Lyle, who was released to go home. Before Mulder can hang up, the doctor mentions that something odd was discovered in Lyle’s blood test. Apparently there were traces of his father’s blood type, which could only show up through ingestion.

Back at the ranch, the power has gone out. Lyle offers to start up the generator, but he doubles over in pain. He asks to be taken to the bathroom. Meanwhile, Mulder tries to call Scully as Tskany drives him to the ranch, but the reception is out. As Lyle begins to change, Scully tries to get into the bathroom to help him, unaware of the true nature of the problem. As Mulder and Tskany pull up ranch, Lyle bursts through the door and knocks Scully out of the way.

Mulder checks the house, while Tskany inspects the property. Mulder finds Scully’s flashlight on the floor, and huge gouges in the wooden walls. As he looks for Scully on the ground floor, he sees the beast and fires at it. He misses, and it runs up the stairs. Outside, Tskany notes that the mountain lion is still in its cage.

Mulder makes it to the second floor, and is startled when Scully steps out of one of the rooms, apparently unhurt. Together, they check the next room. Before Mulder can react, the beast leaps out of a dark corner, but Tskany shots it dead with his shotgun. When they look at the body, they find Lyle. Scully is shocked, since she assumed the attack was from the mountain lion. But Tskany tells her what he found outside.

The next day, Tskany tells the agents that Gwen left town, now that her family is dead. They thank Tskany as they leave. On a nearby porch, Ish calls out to Mulder that he’ll see him again…in about eight years. Mulder, smiling, hopes that they don’t…


Analysis

One of the main complaints over the course of the series has been the depiction of Native American beliefs and practices. Most of those criticisms come from the depiction of the Navaho in later seasons, but this episode seems to begin that process rather effectively. While the political and social aspects are fairly well represented, there are some odd twists on basic Native belief that don’t quite measure up.

The writers should be given some credit for taking a pedestrian werewolf plot and giving it a distinctly Native twist. It gives some extra weight to the episode, and it gives the conflict between the local law enforcement and the agents a more realistic basis. The reaction to the agents by the Trego is very much in keeping with the distrust that exists.

However, for all the reality of the social interactions, trying to wedge the werewolf plot elements into Native lore doesn’t quite work. The concept of the “manitou” is a bit more ambivalent than depicted here, and while there are some parallels to animal spirits and transformation, it’s not so cut and dry as what we see in this episode.

Typically the “manitou” are described as spirits from what is generally called the Otherworld, the name give to the realm of the spiritual as perceived by Native cultures. Native lore takes as a given the concept of guiding spiritual powers that often take the form of animals or a cross between animal and human. These spirits seldom interact with humanity in a direct sense, but rather guide the world according to their ways.

This is a very general description of a very complex and ultimately personal concept, but the fact is, there’s not much of a case for the “manitou” being evil spirits that possess a human and make them evil man-beasts. In a certain sense, this could be seen as an insulting depiction of Native belief, because it is taking a central mystery of the Native lore and casting it as evil.

Despite the questionable depiction of Native lore, its inclusion serves this episode well. One of the difficulties of the series is the plot structure. Unlike many such shows, there is seldom a “B” plot, which would usually balance out any of the weaknesses in the main story. By the nature of this format, the episode succeeds or fails based on the merits of that single plot. Adding some cultural aspects to the case, even when it is done inaccurately, at least helps to give a weak plot device something to work with.

One aspect of the episode that wasn’t given enough time or exploration was the link between this case and the beginning of the X-Files. What was it about this case in particular that caught Hoover’s interest? This would have been a chance to delve into the history of the X-Files, something that wasn’t done nearly enough. While the history of the government conspiracy was relatively well-established, there was very little about the history of the X-Files in and of themselves.

Also, in retrospect, it would have been interesting to see more of Ish’s thoughts regarding Mulder. It’s clear that Ish senses something different about Mulder, and it’s not just a matter of asking the right questions. Given Mulder’s supposed role in Native prophecy in later seasons, this episode could have been a chance to introduce that. Of course, that side to Mulder wasn’t conceived until later in the series, so Ish and his comments luckily mesh well.

For all of that, this episode is still competent, if a little thin. Perhaps that is the one weakness that it cannot transcend; there is simply not much to the episode. It might be best remembered as an episode that could have had larger implications and meaning, but fell short due to inaccuracy and missed chances.


Memorable Quotes

ISH: “I could smell you a mile away.”
MULDER: “Well, they told me that even though my deodorant’s made for a woman, it’s strong enough for a man.”

ISH: “I sense you are different, FBI. You’re more open to Native American belief than some Native Americans. You even have an Indian name: Fox. You should be Running Fox or Sneaky Fox.”
MULDER: “Just as long as I’m not Spooky Fox…”

ISH: “FBI! See you in about eight years…”


Observations

- At this point in the season, it’s definitely early spring 1994, judging by the weather in “Montana”. By that reckoning, Mulder and Scully have been working together for a little over a year, counting the original case in Oregon.

- Ish’s reference to Wounded Knee in 1973 concerns the armed takeover of a federal office by militant Natives (AIM). For Ish to mention that is very much a warning…

- Michael Horse, who plays Sheriff Tskany, had a regular role on “Twin Peaks” as Deputy Hawk.

- Also, I believe that the Parker’s ranch house was used for “Twin Peaks”…the interior looks very much like the Packards’ home in that series.

- Scully will just try to say anything to dispute a paranormal claim, won’t she? Calcium phosphate deposits…right…

- This is the second case in a row where Mulder and Scully are denied the chance to examine the bodies of the victims.

- Why would they think of Gwen as the next killer before Lyle, when they know that being attacked is the most obvious way to become next in line?

Overall, this episode feels a little thin, and it would have benefited from a more complete and accurate depiction of Native beliefs. Still, the episode is entertaining, regardless of the missed chances to delve into the history of the X-Files and Mulder’s connections to Native lore.

I give it a 6/10.


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