Written by Chris Carter
Directed by David Nutter
In which Mulder and Scully become involved in the hunt for a death fetishist, and Scully must face her emotions as the case becomes more and more personal...
Synopsis - Analysis - Memorable Quotes - Observations
As the episode begins, a teenage girl gives a tearful eulogy for another girl, who lies nearby in an open casket. One of the employees at the funeral home, Donnie Pfaster, watches with thinly veiled interest as the mourners line up to say their farewells. When the ceremony is over, Donnie walks up to the casket, stroking the girl’s hair before closing the lid.
Later, that night, another employee walks into the back room, where the caskets with their contents are kept. The employee hears a noise, and turns to investigate. The man sees the shadow of a demonic figure. In terror, the man switches on the lights, and sees that it’s Donnie. He notices that Donnie is holding scissors, and that there are blonde hair clippings all over the floor. The man opens the casket of the young girl, and finds that Donnie has been cutting off her hair. The man fires Donnie, sending him away. Donnie smiles as he leaves.
Sometime later, Mulder and Scully are called to a cemetery in Minneapolis, where they meet with another agent named Moe Bocks. Moe shows them an open grave. At the bottom of the grave lies an open coffin, with the body of a young woman exposed, her hair and nails missing. Scully is clearly disturbed by the sight. Moe explains that he called Mulder because he thought the act might have been related to alien cattle mutilations, and a friend at the local chapter of MUFON suggested calling Mulder to the case.
Mulder, however, is well aware that the mutilation has nothing to do with aliens. During his time with the VCU, he had the displeasure of dealing with death fetish cases. Mulder figures that the fetishist probably had been working at a local mortuary, but there wouldn’t be documentation of anyone fitting the profile. Scully, having never encountered death fetishist cases, is shocked to discover that Mulder was prepared for the possibility. In fact, he’s calm enough to suggest that they go to a local football game.
Meanwhile, Donnie interviews at a frozen food delivery business. Donnie fakes his background, claiming to have worked in cosmetology, to cover his knowledge of hair and makeup. Having done his homework, Donnie claims to be going to school in comparative religions, given his religious proclivities. Donnie knows that it’s a family business, and that religiosity is important to the owner.
The agents miss the game when they are called to Moe’s office. More exhumed and mutilated bodies have been found. Mulder recognizes the signs, and asks Moe to put out a memo to everyone in the office and all law enforcement agencies in the area, stating that there is an escalating fetishist in the region. Moe is stunned at the extent of the security that Mulder believes should be erected, but Mulder makes it clear that the fetishist could very quickly begin killing to satisfy his urges.
Meanwhile, Scully has been looking at the photos of the exhumed young women, and sees herself in one of the photos. She leaves the room during Mulder’s discussion with Moe, and she’s still disturbed when Mulder comes out to inform her that they need to remain in the area. Scully’s research into death fetishists doesn’t help her nerves. It’s clear that the pathological psychology of death fetishists tends toward opportunistic homicide, yet there are no specific profiles to work with to generate a suspect list.
That night, Donnie picks up a prostitute named Satin, and takes her back to his apartment. When they arrive, the heat has been turned off. Donnie draws a bath for Satin. The side of the rub is littered with dozens of shampoos and soaps. He asks Satin if her hair is treated, so he can select the proper shampoo. Satin is surprised that he wants to shampoo her hair, but she plays along. Donnie’s gaze lingers on her painted fingernails as she begins to undress.
At that moment, Donnie gets a call from the frozen food company. He takes the call in his bedroom, and learns that he has been hired. Satin rushes in, informing Donnie that the tub water is ice cold, and stops short when she sees that Donnie’s bed is adorned with wilting funeral flower arrangements. Satin backs away as Donnie accepts the position and hangs up, and then tries to run as he moves in her direction.
Shortly, Moe shows Mulder and Scully a body. One of Satin’s associates identifies the body as her friend. Moe informs the agents that Satin was gutted, her hair and nails removed, along with some fingers. Mulder goes to inspect the body, but Scully doesn’t follow. She can’t bring herself to look.
The next day, Donnie arrives at a house for a food delivery. A woman answers the door, and allows him into the kitchen. Donnie is pleased to learn that the house is filled with young daughters with long, lustrous hair. He asks to use the bathroom to wash his hands, and once there, he rummages through the waste basket to find a wad of hair from a hairbrush. He treats it lovingly, feeling its texture and sniffing it, stopping only when he recognizes that he’s lingering too long. As he leaves, the woman informs him that if the family’s not home, the back door is always open. He is very pleased to hear it.
Scully arrives at the city morgue to examine Satin’s body. She is clearly very hesitant and self-conscious as she works. Scully’s report is odd, not her usual concise and direct recitation of vitals and findings. Her personal disgust and fear echoes as Mulder reads the report, Scully’s voice in the back of his mind. He finishes reading the report as Satin’s friend fails to identify a suspect from a lineup. The woman can only note that the killer had been driving a white car. Mulder informs Moe that the killer wasn’t looking for sex, but rather, a convenient means to find and obtain a young attractive woman. Mulder believes that the fetishist is dealing with a deep psychosis, probably related to anger towards his mother and other women.
The following night, Donnie attends his comparative religion class. As the teacher drones on at the front of the room, Donnie becomes more and more fascinated by one of the female students. After the class, he approaches her, and tries to keep her from leaving the parking lot. She fights back, sending him to the ground before running for help.
Scully dreams that she was the fetishist’s victim, lying on the autopsy table. A demonic figure looms over her. She is awakened by the sound of her phone ringing. Mulder informs her that a suspect has been picked up by local police. When they arrive, Moe brings them to a man who tried to assault a prostitute, and got slashed for it. It’s not Donnie; Donnie is in the opposite cell, watching.
Mulder knows that the suspect isn’t the fetishist. Scully asks to speak with him privately, and she suggests that examining the latest victim in Washington might yield better evidence. Mulder recognizes that Scully is distressed, but she denies it. She insists that she just wants to use the resources in Washington, so they have a better chance of getting a fingerprint. Mulder assures her that experienced agents have trouble dealing with this kind of case, but Scully continues to claim that she can handle it. Meanwhile, Donnie manages to get Scully’s name from the suspect. Donnie is released moments later.
Back in Washington, Scully works with a specialist in the fingerprint analysis laboratory. The specialist explains that satin doesn’t hold prints very well, but he’ll do what he can. In the meantime, Scully discreetly meets with a Bureau therapist. The therapist notes that Scully prides herself on being strong enough to deal with any problem on her own, and feeling vulnerable in the face of such evil runs against that perception. More than that, Scully doesn’t want Mulder to think he needs to protect her, especially in light of her recent abduction. But this case is testing her faith in her ability to hold herself together.
Shortly, the fingerprint specialist informs Scully that he managed to get a print. The specialist also tells her that another agent in the Minneapolis office called for her, but didn’t leave a name. When she calls Mulder with the news, she asks if he or Moe tried to contact her. She dismisses it when he tells her that they haven’t. She sends Mulder the print online, and informs him that she’s returning that night, insisting that she’s fine with the case.
Mulder, Moe, and the other agents rush into Donnie’s apartment, and find loads of evidence…but no Donnie. As Scully leaves the local airport and gets a rental car, Donnie watches in fascination. Scully begins driving to meet with Mulder, Donnie rams her car from behind several times, forcing her off the road. Several hours pass before Mulder and the others can find Scully’s car, but there’s no trace of Scully herself.
Donnie fills a bathtub in a dark, deserted house. All of his shampoos and soaps are arrayed around the tub. He’s obviously familiar with the house. He opens a closet door, where Scully is bound and gagged. When she opens her eyes to look at Donnie, she sees the silhouette of a demonic figure…the same one from her dream.
Frantic to find Scully before the inevitable occurs, Mulder tries to figure out where Donnie would have taken her. He gets Moe to check on the whereabouts of Donnie’s mother. As Donnie comes into the closet to retrieve Scully, Mulder learns that the mother recently died in Florida. However, Florida was her winter residence; there is a local address as well. As Donnie cuts the rope binding her feet, Scully sees Donnie’s features change into the appearances of all the fetishists she studied while writing her report. Then he appears to be the demonic figure again, as he leads her into the bathroom.
As he asks her about her hair, Scully backs out of the room. Donnie comes after her, but Scully drives him into the bathtub, running as he falls into the frigid water. He hunts her down, taunting her as he pulls a gun out of a drawer in one of the dressers. He hears her hiding in one of the closets, but when he opens the door, she sprays him in the face with some kind of aerosol. She tries to run for the staircase, but he catches up to her, and they tumble down the stairs together. When they hit bottom, Donnie loses the gun, and Scully scrambles for it. But she is startled when she sees him as the demonic figure again, and he manages to smack the gun from her hands.
Just as he bears down on her, Mulder and the other agents burst into the house. As the other agents deal with Donnie, Mulder rushes to Scully’s side. At first, she tries to pretend that she’s all right, and that the situation doesn’t bother her. But as soon as he forces her to look him in the face, she breaks down. He pulls her tight to his chest as she lets herself finally react to everything she’s been holding in.
This is the episode that should have aired after “One Breath”, rather than so long after Scully’s revival from her abduction. After all, this directly addresses what “Firewalker” and the subsequent episodes failed to capture: the effect of Scully’s brush with death on her ability to do her job. The circumstances of this episode force Scully to look into the heart of human depravity, something that also had to have existed within those who sanctioned her abduction.
Scully takes the spotlight in this episode, as her ability to maintain a cool façade breaks down quickly and degrades from there. The case itself would have been more than enough to explain her growing fear and lack of composure, but Chris Carter took it one step further by adding some interesting psychic visions to the mix.
Closer proximity to the end of her abduction might have given an interesting context to her inability to discuss her anxiety with Mulder. After all, even in “Firewalker”, Mulder was intent on protecting Scully as much as she would allow. Scully’s desire to stop Mulder from playing her protector makes complete sense, except that airing the episode so long after the abduction takes away from that. It’s hard to reconcile the fact that Scully would still be worried about Mulder’s reaction to her abduction when it hasn’t come up for a while.
Mulder’s reaction to the case is equally intriguing. His lack of reaction to the case, even as he acknowledges the horrific quality of it, speaks volumes. A fetishist of any category is essentially an obsessive personality, and that’s something that Mulder can relate to with far too much ease. Mulder takes his desire to uncover “the truth” to such destructive ends that even his loved ones suffer the consequences. That was the major lesson of “One Breath” for Mulder, so once again, this episode should have come on that episode’s heels.
Mulder and Scully’s reactions to the case are so strongly connected to the consequences of Scully’s abduction that it would make sense for this to have occurred in the timeframe indicated in the episode: within a week or so of her recovery. Unfortunately, that makes absolutely no sense within the context of the episode, its placement in the airing order, and the events already depicted for that timeframe.
The last item is the most obvious continuity error. “Firewalker” takes place in mid-November 1994, during exactly the same time period. That might be acceptable, had that episode simply ended, allowing the agents to move on to this case. However, that episode indicated that the agents were caught within a month-long enforced quarantine. Just by that accounting, it is impossible for this episode to have taken place in November 1994, no matter how well it would have fit that time period.
The context of the episode is another problem. Mulder gets tickets to an NFL game between the Vikings and the Redskins. In the month of November, NFL games are restricted to Sunday afternoons and Monday nights, yet the game in the episode takes place on a Saturday. College football games dominate Saturdays through the end of November, which means that the game in question could only have taken place in mid-December through mid-January, during the end of the season and the initial playoffs. Leaving aside whether or not the teams in question were playing on any of those Saturdays, the scheduling restricts the placement of the episode.
Finally, it’s clear from the timeframes given in the previous episodes, beginning with “One Breath”, that this episode must take place in early-to-mid-January 1995. This would match the weather conditions of the episode, despite the lack of snow or other winter weather, and still allow time for the subsequent episodes prior to the inception of “Colony”, which begins on a specific date in late January 1995.
Continuity issues are hardly the most important aspects of the episode, but this is the first truly inept error of that kind since the inception of the series. This is not exactly something that would have been hard to track. The two episodes that are in direct conflict with one another give specific dates and durations, making it very easy to notice that there is something amiss. Never mind the fact that episode this far apart in the airing order shouldn’t be placed in the same month!
It’s a shame, because this is easily one of Chris Carter’s strongest episodes. Instead of choosing a stock paranormal topic and building an episode around it, Carter chooses a down-to-earth case that fits into Mulder’s background perfectly. Not only that, but Scully has every reason to be uncomfortable with the situation, even before she becomes Donnie’s target.
This episode touches on Scully’s apparent psychic abilities, but at the same time, Carter adds just enough uncertainty to make one wonder what Scully is experiencing. After all, she’s not the only one who sees Donnie as some kind of demonic figure. Is that something that is inherent to Donnie’s nature, or is it simple human empathy? Is Donnie a demon made flesh, or are his desires so evil that he begins to appear as demonic to those around him?
Even though this episode provides some answers, it leaves Scully’s perceptions intentionally vague. Either she is having visions, or her anxiety is playing on her perceptions. At the same time, it is odd to think that Mulder wouldn’t recognize how deeply Scully is falling apart. It’s also hard to imagine that neither agent would have concerns about the mysterious phone call from the Minneapolis office. Considering how paranoid the agents typically can be, they allow that vital clue to slip right under their radar.
While there are some questions that can be raised about the episode’s logic and continuity errors that cannot be easily reconciled, the fact remains that this is one of the best episodes of the season, if not the series. Mulder’s final report on the matter sums up the allure of the episode quite nicely; the most frightening aspect is the realization that such events could actually happen.
MULDER: “Some people collect salt and pepper shakers. The fetishist collects dead things. Hair, fingernails…no one quite knows why, though I’ve never quite understood salt and pepper shakers myself…”
SCULLY: “It is somehow easier to believe, as Agent Bocks does, in aliens and UFOs, than in the kind of cold blooded inhuman monster who could prey on the living to scavenge from the dead.”
- Even the eulogy is a little freaky in this episode...
- Nice shot of Donnie walking down the poorly lit hallway towards the camera!
- Is it me, or is Moe even more of an oddball than Mulder?
- About time that Mulder’s past in the VCU came into play in a realistic and detailed manner...
- So Moe is such a great senior agent that he and his team never noticed backhoe tracks in moist ground?
- I’ll forgive the fact that Mulder is apparently a Redskins fan...since Carter probably just picked the teams that had players with his name...
- Considering how strongly and quickly Scully reacted to the evidence in the case, I’m surprised that Mulder didn’t force Scully to excuse herself...it’s practically procedure!
- Nice indirect reference to Dahmer, who was discovered around the time of this episode...
- It’s interesting that Scully, in her report, overlooks Mulder’s usual obsession with aliens and UFOs in her somewhat negative portrayal of Moe Bocks...
- At least Donnie chose the best looking choice among the really dumb prostitutes!
- For some reason, the prostitute reminds me of Jennie Garth from the old “91210” series on FOX...which, for all I know, could have been intentional...
- Interesting use of imagery from “The Graduate”!
- Note how the shampoo and soap bottles are arranged not unlike the arrangement of bottles of embalming fluids in the mortuary, adding to the impression of Donnie’s fascination with his fetish...
- It’s also creepy how his walls are painted glossy black and red...
- I’m hoping that Lisa’s mother just doesn’t watch the news or read the papers, since she would be too stupid for words otherwise!
- Scully’s reports reveal a great deal about her troubles with the case...she approaches each report more and more indirectly, reflecting her attempts at detachment...
- Sure, let’s just ignore the freaky guy staring at Scully!
- Nice mention about Scully, the baseball announcer...
- I think the counselor was just as freaky as Donnie!
- What’s with the strange yellow light behind Moe’s office?
- How the hell did Moe become an agent, anyway? As the episode progresses, he seems to become more and more of a moron...
- Ahhh...the infamous “girly girl” comment!
- How exactly did Donnie dry off so quickly, after being pushed into the bathtub?
- Now there’s a new use for tire sealant...
Overall, this is definitely one of the most memorable episodes of the series, notable for being the first to feature a case that was, for the most part, not related to the paranormal. This is also the best episode written by Chris Carter, hands down.
I give it a 9/10.
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