"Fearful Symmetry"
Written by Steve de Jarnatt
Directed by James Whitmore, Jr.



In which Mulder and Scully investigate when an apparent invisible elephant goes on the loose in Idaho, leading them to determine if intrigues at a local zoo are behind the whole incident...

Synopsis - Analysis - Memorable Quotes - Observations


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Synopsis

As the episode begins, a couple of janitors work in the Idaho Mutual Insurance Trust building in Fairfield, Idaho. Without warning, the large window on the front of the building implodes as something unseen stomps down the street, taking out cars and other objects. Shortly, down Highway 24, there is the same sound of stomping, as a construction worker is crushed. The sound of an elephant resounds. By morning, a trucker barely stops in time to avoid an elephant that appears out of nowhere. It’s not long before the elephant dies, completely exhausted.

Mulder and Scully interview the janitors. Scully thinks it might have been a sonic boom, but Mulder notes the physical damage indicative of an elephant’s foot. Apparently the killed construction worker showed similar evidence. Scully questions how an elephant could be missed by everyone involved.

They speak with Ed Meecham from the Fairfield Zoo. The female elephant in question, Ganesha, was from the zoo, but the cage was locked and there was no evidence of an elephant escaping. When asked about problems with the elephant, Meecham points the agents to Willa Ambrose, his boss and the woman responsible for updating the conditions of the zoo.

The agents go to the zoo and find Willa. Willa shows them the area where Ganesha was kept, and it appears abnormally small for an animal that size. Apparently Meecham maintained certain abusive practices in terms of keeping the animals. Willa also mentions that the facility is in danger of losing funding, and has been dealing with the Wild Again Organization (WAO), who believe any caged animal represents a crime against nature.

At the construction site on Highway 24, the agents meet Kyle Lang, the leader of the local WAO chapter. Lang spouts off lots of WAO rhetoric when asked about Ganesha’s apparent “liberation”, and takes them to his office to show them videos of Meecham’s treatment of the elephants. Lang also scoffs at the claim that Willa is trying to correct the problems, since she’s currently keeping a gorilla that an African government is suing to reclaim.

Scully is convinced that Lang was involved, but Mulder points out that something else must be happening at the zoo. Scully points out that WAO is likely to try to capitalize on the incident. Mulder tells Scully to keep an eye on Lang and the others, while he looks into other sources of information.

Mulder uses a satellite conference room to contact the Lone Gunmen. They tell him about stories of animals disappearing without a trace from the Fairfield Zoo. Also, no animal has ever brought a pregnancy to term. Fairfield is close to a known UFO hotspot, and Willa is known for having a gorilla that speaks through sign language.

Scully calls, reporting that one of the WAO members is about to trespass onto zoo premises. Scully climbs over the fence after the kid, but she’s intercepted by Meecham. By the time Mulder arrives, the kid is already close to a tiger cage. The animals start making noise, and there is suddenly a blinding light. When the light fades, the tiger seems to be gone. But seconds later, the kid is attacked by something unseen. The whole thing is caught on videotape.

Scully confronts Lang about the trespassing, but the man maintains that he knows nothing about it. Afterward, Mulder points out that the tape doesn’t show a tiger, even if the wounds on the dead kid show evidence of a mauling. Mulder wonders if Sophie, Willa’s gorilla, might be able to communicate information that would be helpful.

When Mulder meets with Willa and Sophie, it’s clear that the gorilla is “afraid of the light”. Willa isn’t sure what it could mean. However, when Willa explains that Sophie’s “art” is indicative of wanting a baby until recently, Mulder begins to consider a possible explanation. He asks Willa and Scully to perform an autopsy on Ganesha, and Mulder turns out to be right: despite the fact that it shouldn’t be possible, the elephant had recently been pregnant.

When word come that the tiger has been spotted, Willa and Meecham argue about how to handle the situation. Willa wants to use a tranquilizer gun, while Meecham prefers a regular rifle. When the tiger attacks Willa during the search, Meecham saves her by killing the tiger…but he’s rather callous about her feelings on the issue. In the wake of the incident, the Board of Directors for the zoo decides to cancel future funding.

Willa is crushed, since the zoo was critical to her plans to keep Sophie. She’s also unable to reconcile the fact that both Ganesha and the tiger show evidence of recent pregnancy. Mulder suggests that the animals might have been artificially inseminated through alien abduction, and that the invisibility effect and the geographical displacement is a part of that. Mulder believes that it’s possible that the whole scheme is part of a plan to develop a DNA bank of animals close to extinction. Willa’s reaction is fairly predictable.

Willa, however, wants to check when Mulder offers that Sophie is pregnant and afraid that the aliens will come back for the baby. Sophie essentially says that she’s afraid that the baby will go with the light. But before they can try to work out more, an officer comes with a court order to release Sophie into protective custody.

Willa runs to Lang for help, trying to convince the man to help her retrieve Sophie. Lang refuses, considering that he was against Sophie’s captivity from the start. Lang is rattled to know Sophie is pregnant, but that doesn’t seem to change his mind. Meanwhile, as animals are caged for transport, the agents learn that Willa and Lang used to work together.

That night, Lang arrives at the zoo with a truck. He looks for Willa in the warehouse where the caged animals are being kept. He cannot find Willa, and when he finds Sophie’s cage, it’s open and empty. Something suddenly strikes him, tossing him across the room, and a large metal cage falls on top of him.

When questioned about the incident, Willa claims that Sophie disappeared under the same circumstances as the others had. Willa admits that she went to Lang to tell him that WAO had won, not to get help with Sophie. She claims to know nothing about Lang’s reasons for being at the zoo, or Sophie’s whereabouts. Mulder, however, doesn’t buy it. He asks Scully to examine Lang’s body while he checks the warehouse.

Mulder sees Meecham leaving the loading dock, and follows the man to a remote location. Scully, meanwhile, informs Willa that she found evidence that Lang was struck with a cattle prod prior to his death. Willa breaks down and admits that she and Meecham conspired to take Sophie away, and Meecham panicked when Lang showed up. She points Scully in the direction of the building where Meecham took Sophie.

Mulder forces Meecham to show him where Sophie is. However, it’s fairly obvious by that point, because Sophie is slamming herself into the door, trying to get away. Mulder orders Meecham to unlock the doors, but when they get inside and Sophie knocks down Mulder, Meecham rushes outside, locking the door behind him. While Mulder watches, Sophie signs him a message, and then there’s a bright flash of light.

When Scully arrives, Sophie is gone, and Mulder is unconscious. When Mulder awakens, he rushes out to ask Willa what Sophie’s message was. Willa is stunned to hear that Sophie is gone, but she tells Mulder that the message was “man save man”. The police get a dispatch regarding a large animal on the loose, heading for the zoo. But by the time the agents and Willa arrive on the scene, it’s too late. A car has struck Sophie, and she didn’t get far before dying in a field.

Willa and Meecham are charged with manslaughter in relation to Lang’s death. Mulder, however, is left wondering about the motivations of the apparent aliens abducting the animals.


Analysis

The episodes between “One Breath” and “Colony” were a decidedly mixed bag. While some of them did a fairly good job of following up on the emotional and professional plot threads, the distinction between “event” mythology episodes and the stand-alone cases began to emerge. With “Fearful Symmetry”, that tendency reveals itself completely.

The barely-there references to “One Breath” in the episodes that followed at least gave the impression that continuity would be minimally maintained throughout the season. However, if that episode begged for some kind of subsequent consequences, “Endgame” was screaming for it. After months of questioning the wisdom of his beliefs in the face of growing evidence of a purely government-related conspiracy, Mulder had experienced something that allowed him to restore some of his faith.

Very little continuity carries through into “Fearful Symmetry”. At best, Mulder’s determination that alien abduction must be involved in the situation might be a result of his re-investment at the end of “Endgame”. However, since there is no mention of his recent ordeal, there’s a sense of complete detachment from episode to episode. That restoration of faith might as well have never happened, and might as well have never been needed.

The central concept of the episode is actually quite interesting. The standard alien abduction scenario for the series is at heart sinister in its nature. This episode puts a slightly different spin on the phenomenon, offering the possibility that aliens might try to save us from ourselves by collecting DNA samples of species that are threatened by our own short-sighted behaviors. In this way, there is another indirect connection to “Endgame”, since the Samantha clone tells Mulder that the so-called colony believes that humanity will lose its stewardship of the planet through its own activities.

The concept is intriguing enough, but the execution gives it subtlety. If aliens are involved in this genetic cataloguing of endangered species, then their methods betray a certain lack of concern for the safety of individual specimens. Otherwise, why traumatize the animals with the abduction process in the first place, and then compound that callousness by dumping the animals in the middle of nowhere in a state that leaves them extremely vulnerable?

This behavior runs counter to the apparent purpose of the abductions, which makes Mulder’s theory less likely. Despite the message of the episode (and there certainly is one), the alien abduction theory doesn’t make sense. Instead, it is far more likely that this is more of the human experimentation that seems to take place quite often near military bases in the state of Idaho. After all, genetic engineering experimentation involving fetal tissue would almost certainly include animal DNA samples, and the animal abductions are said to have been going on for years.

If the abductions were supposed to be taking place for the sake of saving mankind from itself, as is suggested, then it fits the theory that the Fairfield incidents are a part of the larger conspiracy. The conspiracy believes that its work is dedicated to the survival of mankind, or at least a part of it. The conspiracy would be interested in removing the animals, but would be less than concerned about the fate of the animals afterward. And the effects of the UFO technology of the time would have been unusual enough to explain the invisibility effect.

The weakness of either theory is the whole method of returning the animals. It seems rather weak to suggest that any aliens would be able to conduct such detailed biological work and undertake interstellar travel, only to fail to take some basic geography into account! Human error can explain some of it, but even that sounds like an excuse. The fact is, the whole difficulty in returning the abducted animals exists solely to give Mulder and Scully a reason to get involved in the story. Unfortunately, even that doesn’t make sense, given that Mulder could have just as easily picked the file on Fairfield Zoo out of the drawer and initiated the case.

The illogical and problematic abduction method could have been forgiven, had the rest of the episode remained focused on the possible reasons behind the abductions. However, perspective is hardly a prevailing factor. The message of animal rights is beaten over the heads of the audience pretty much from the beginning, and once Mulder latches on to that message, he never lets go.

Instead of letting Scully come up with a viable alternative to Mulder’s alien Noah’s Ark theory, the episode veers off into a completely different plot thread to allow Scully to focus on a murder case. The result is an episode that feels like it has a split personality. On the one hand, alien animal abduction ties into the question of cattle mutilation and similar phenomenon. That direction would have made sense. On the other hand, you have this murder case involving a gorilla that uses sign language. Without the abduction trappings, that concept would fail even worse than it does.

By the time the gorilla starts using sign language as a witness and Lang is killed in Willa’s plot to keep Sophie, the episode has fallen apart completely and one just wishes for the whole painful experience to end. Getting slapped upside the head with the message of animal rights at the end, when it’s already been reinforced, just underscores the failing of the episode. This episode is less about the X-Files than it is about delivering its lesson.

Making an episode resonate with a political message isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But for the same reasons that the alien animal abduction side of the episode doesn’t quite work, the animal rights message fails. Why should humanity listen to the moral proclamations of a superior alien race that can’t even bother to make sure the animals survive the genetic culling process? When the unknown agency delivering the message is just as hypocritical as humanity, it doesn’t say much about the conservationism of that agency!

The result is an episode that is weak on all fronts. Mulder’s sense of humor seems forced, and Scully fails to ask some relatively basic questions along the way. The real thrust of the episode comes from Willa and Lang, and in the end, that’s not very satisfying.


Memorable Quotes

MULDER: “If I was a betting man, I’d say that it was…uh…”
SCULLY: “An invisible elephant?”
MULDER: “I saw David Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty disappear once…”

LANG: “All animals should run free.”
SCULLY: “Even if that means trampling a man to death?”
LANG: “Maybe he should have gotten out of the way…”

BYERS: “So what’s this costing the taxpayers, Mulder?”
MULDER: “About 150 bucks an hour.”
FROHIKE: “Ouch. Almost as much as Bill Clinton’s haircuts.”
MULDER: “Where’s Langly?”
BYERS: “He has a philosophical issue with having his image bounced off a satellite.”

FROHIKE: “If that’s the lovely Agent Scully, let her know I’ve been working out. I’m buff!”

SCULLY: “You know, that guy really pisses me off!”

SCULLY: “This isn’t exactly in my job description…”


Observations

- See? This is what happens when you fool around at work...

- Exactly how would a passing elephant break the glass like that? It broke from what appeared to be several impacts at the same exact time!

- What kind of parents would let their kids watch an animal slowly die like that?

- Could Lang look more like the member of an animal rights terrorism group? I mean, it’s like a cliché at this point...

- There is, in fact, no Highway 24 anywhere near Fairfield!

- Nothing like a timely comment about Bill Clinton’s haircuts, one of those nutty pre-Monica Lewinsky topics of much conservative grumbling...

- Love that bit with Frohike!

- Is it really such nice weather in mid-February in Idaho?

- So if the animals are usually deposited two miles away, why was the tiger left right next to its cage, where it could attack the WAO kid?

- It’s so much fun to watch Scully get highly pissed!

- Why would Willa translate a fear of “the light” to stress over a legal matter?

- The comment about the Chargers is an ongoing gag regarding Morgan and Wong, and their support of the Chargers in the Super Bowl in 1995...

- Gee, what were the chances that Willa and Lang had been together at one point? Such a shock!

- Willa is one of the worst liars on the planet...

- If Willa and Ed were taking Sophie and Willa knew she would be a prime suspect, why would she stay where she could be easily found?

- I’m still trying to figure out that annoying music at the end of the episode...it just doesn’t seem to match the events...

- Nice to know that Mulder was reading the pamphlets by the WAO!

Overall, this episode felt more like a statement by the writer regarding animal rights than an episode of the “X-Files”. The plot doesn’t seem to know which direction it wants to explore, and ultimately, elements of the episode contradict each other. After “Endgame”, very much a disappointment!

I give it a 4/10.


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