Written by Darin Morgan, Glen Morgan, and James Wong
Directed by David Nutter
In which Mulder is assigned to investigate a series of murders with seemingly no connection, other than the random destruction of digital electronic displays...
Synopsis - Analysis - Memorable Quotes - Observations
As the episode begins, postal worker Ed Funsch scans letters as they pass through a machine, tapping in the zip code. One letter gets jammed, and Ed gets a paper cut when he clears the jam. The blood seems to bother him, but he is distracted when his boss asks to speak with him alone. His boss informs him that thanks to cutbacks, Ed is being laid off.
He’s allowed to work through the rest of the week, so he returns to work, even though he’s clearly stunned by the news. As the letters run through the scanner again, Ed checks the LCD readout for the zip codes. But the readout changes from the codes to “KILL”. Then, “KILL ‘EM”. Ed stares in shock.
Sometime later, in the same town of Franklin, Pennsylvania, several people in the elevator of an office building try to make room for a few more. One of the men in the back of the elevator, clearly claustrophobic, glances at the LCD, which usually displays the time and floor. But instead, it says “NO AIR”. Then, it tells the man to kill.
Not much later, the office building is a crime scene. Agent Mulder examines one of the many bodies strewn inside and around the open elevator. The local sheriff, a man named Spencer, thanks Mulder for coming. As Spencer explains that the suspect was killed by an officer outside of the building, Mulder notices that the LCD display inside the elevator has been broken. Then he asks to see the suspect’s body.
As Mulder looks over the suspect’s body, Spencer explains that this kind of murder is way out of the norm for Franklin. Since colonial times, there have only been three murders. But in the last six months, seven people have killed 32, and in each incident, the suspect had to be killed by the officers called to the scene. Toxicological tests for all suspects were negative, and many of the suspects were upstanding members of the community. Mulder finds an odd greenish substance on the latest suspect’s fingertips, and takes a sample for analysis.
Meanwhile, at a local ATM, Ed Funsch tries to access his account. But he notices a mother helping her daughter with a bloody nose, and he cringes. When he looks back at the ATM display, it tells him to take the nearby security guard’s gun and kill everybody. Freaked out, he starts pounding on the ATM, until the guard stops him. Ed runs off without his ATM card, leaving the guard staring in disbelief.
Looking over the photos from the collective incidents in Franklin, Mulder begins writing his field report. A little later, Scully reads it over. Mulder considers the crimes to be spree killings, but other than the type of crime, there seems to be no other factor common to the background for all of the suspects, except perhaps the unlikelihood of their crimes. The greenish residue was from some kind of gardening compound. Mulder can’t even link the killings to an abduction phenomenon, which surprises Scully. The only common element to the killings is the destruction of a nearby electronic display.
That night, in Franklin, a woman named Mrs. McRoberts arrives at the garage where her car is being repaired. When the repairman asks her to come over to the car to look at something under the hood, she is struck by fear. It’s clear she expects to be attacked. As she slowly walks towards the car, she looks at the display for the engine diagnostic device. It tells her that the mechanic is a liar, and that he intends to rape her. Then it tells her to kill him first. Grabbing a ratchet wrench, she slams him over the head, and then she impales his chest with an oil can nozzle.
The next morning, Mulder is on the crime scene. Now, the county supervisor (Larry Winter) is getting involved. Mulder doesn’t see anything that connects the latest incident to the other recent killings, until he notices in the repair log that there was a problem with the car’s digital dashboard display. He checks the details, which show that the dashboard display had been smashed. Mulder realizes that the incidents are connected.
Mulder and Spencer go to speak with Mrs. McRoberts. She claims that car repair is her husband’s department, and asks if they mind if she prepares breakfast. As she fiddles with the microwave, Mulder pulls out the invoice with her name on it. At the same time, the microwave display tells Mrs. McRoberts to kill Mulder and Spencer. As she admits to breaking the dashboard, she casually pulls out a knife and attacks Mulder. Before Mulder can stop him, Spencer shoots the woman dead.
Shortly, at the lab in Quantico, Scully examines Mrs. McRoberts’ body. She finds signs of intense phobia and extreme levels of adrenaline. She also finds traces of the gardening compound that Mulder had taken samples of, but Scully determines that in the woman’s system, it had reacted with the adrenaline to create a compound similar to LSD. Mulder gets a copy of the report, and reads it with interest.
Meanwhile, in a nearby shopping mall, Ed Funsch looks for a job, but his attempts are futile. He sees a booth for the community blood drive, and walks away quickly. As he passes a display of several television sets, they all begin flashing violent images and then tell him to turn around. When he does, he sees a display of guns.
The next morning, Mulder is taking his morning jog when he notices a truck stopping in front of a house. A man on the back of the truck shovels some dead flies onto the ground, and then moves on. Mulder, curious, takes one of the flies as a sample.
He takes the fly to his paranoid friends at “The Lone Gunmen” office. Along with several other tangential matters, they tell him that the fly was probably irradiated to control population. He also shows them the compound from his sample, and they recognize it as a toxic pesticide that they recently wrote about. The chemical is an experimental pesticide, suggesting that the government is using Franklin to conduct secret testing for its effects on humans.
Later, back in Franklin, Mulder sits on a hill in a field of crops, trying to see if helicopters are spraying on the fields. Sure enough, he hears one coming, but he’s unable to scramble out of the way before he is sprayed with a liberal amount of the pesticide.
Scully meets him at the local hospital, where she checks him out. Larry Winter is skeptical of Mulder’s new “evidence”, especially since he’s done a little checking into Mulder’s background. Mulder accuses Winter of conducting illegal spraying, which the county supervisor doesn’t do a very good job of denying. When Winter walks out, Scully explains to Mulder that there’s no evidence that Mulder has been toxically affected by the pesticide. But when Mulder thinks he’s seeing messages on the television in his room, he asks Scully if she’s ever heard of subliminal messages.
Not quite sure what Mulder is getting at, she asks him to explain. He theorizes that all of the suspects were phobic when they committed their crimes, and in every case, an electronic device was destroyed. He wonders if the devices might have been sending the suspects subliminal messages, which the suspects noticed when the pesticide was activated by their fears. Mulder figures that the government might see promise in something that can use the fears of the populace to assert control. Sheriff Spencer informs the agents that Winter has agreed to suspend the spraying…but only if the official explanation for the murders is not linked to the spraying in any way.
Soon, under the guise of free cholesterol screening for a study in the county, medical workers organize door-to-door tests for the pesticide. Booths are also set up at hospitals and local universities. Ed Funsch, seeing the ads for the testing, becomes highly agitated at the thought of a blood test. When medical workers come to his door, he hides from them. His television starts flashing the word “BLOOD”, so he destroys it. Preparing a shiny new rifle, he sees a calculator, which also flashes “BLOOD”. Then his digital watch tells him to kill.
Spencer gets the feedback from the various initiatives for blood testing, and finds 25 people who haven’t been tested. Ed Funsch is one of them. Mulder and Scully visit Ed’s house, and they find his doorbell smashed to pieces. They enter the house, and find the destroyed technology. They review his file, and find that Funsch has not been to the doctor in years. When Mulder finds that Funsch destroyed his watch just after the medical workers reported stopping by, he realizes what Funsch must be afraid of.
Funsch gets onto a bus destined for the community hospital, but then he sees messages on the digital fare display pushing him to get off. He forces the driver to stop. When the bus arrives at the hospital, the agents and police are waiting. After they talk to the driver, they discover what Funsch did and realize that Funsch left the bus near the local community college, where the ongoing blood drive has a booth.
At the college, Funsch follows the constant messages, climbing into a clock tower with his weapons. As Mulder and the police arrive on the scene, Funsch starts shooting, taking out people related to the blood drive, and then just randomly as the madness sets in. As Funsch descends into complete insanity, Mulder climbs the clock tower and tries to talk the madman down. Funsch tries to attack Mulder, and Mulder is forced to physically subdue him.
Afterward, as Funsch is taken into an ambulance, Mulder requests unrestricted access for questioning. But Spencer points out that Mulder probably knows more about what was happening than Funsch. As Spencer walks away, Mulder opens his cell phone to call Scully…only to see “ALL DONE” and then “BYE-BYE” on the display. Stunned, Mulder ignores Scully when she answers his call.
Atypical for Morgan and Wong, this episode never reaches the level of intensity that one comes to expect from their episodes. At least part of the problem is the episode conception itself. It’s almost as if Chris Carter tossed a bunch of high-concept ideas into a hat and asked the writers to pick a few and make an episode incorporating all of them.
It’s easy enough to see how subliminal messages through electronic devices might lead to a killing spree. Adding the twist that the messages play on the phobias of normal people as a trigger towards violence is certainly interesting. But there are aspects to that concept that are difficult enough to work out, without attaching yet another component in the form of illegal experimental pesticide testing.
It’s strongly hinted in this episode that the authority behind the experiment is connected to the overall conspiracy, though it’s possible that the connection is simply assumed when looking back on the similar experiments that the conspiracy conducted. Certainly, this episode fits into the absurdly complicated nature to the experiments that the conspiracy loves to employ.
As with many of the early episodes, the object of the experiment appears to be control of the masses, which fits in well with the ultimate goals of the conspiracy. It couldn’t have taken the conspiracy long to determine that implanting every man, woman, and child on the planet would take far too long. Indeed, this would have been only a few years after the super-soldier program had achieved success, and even then, there were apparent issues of maintaining control.
It was revealed in later seasons that there were plans in place to use the implants to lure the abducted to specific sites when Colonization commenced. So what about the rest of the populace? If the conspirators devised a plan to infect the masses using populations of genetically engineered bees, there are obvious drawbacks. Not every area would be hit at the same time, and there would be a good chance that enough people could escape the chaos. Unless, of course, there was a way to control the masses without their knowledge.
Given the results in Franklin, the conspiracy would have to assume that the experiment worked. Either the invasion of the flies had already been a constant annoyance or it was manufactured; either way, the stage was set to easily introduce a chemical that would saturate the populace in a fairly contained fashion. By developing the chemical to interact with the fear response, the experiment was able to replicate the conditions that a sudden mass infection would generate. The random nature of the phobias gave the conspiracy solid data on how the chemical worked within a diverse population.
The trick, however, is how the subliminal messages work into the picture. In the Colonization scenario, the message could easily be broadcast during news reports. During any disaster, people feel a need to know the details, simply out of a desire to survive. With the fear already a factor, if the chemical is introduced, then the control messages go out with the subsequent media reports.
The messages wouldn’t be a demand to kill, of course, but something more useful to the conspiracy. Since the abductees with implants were supposed to be gathered in convenient locations, it’s reasonable to think that the masses would also be directed to certain key areas. It’s not clear why this would have been necessary. The question is whether or not the conspiracy as seen in the later seasons is different than the one run by the Syndicate.
If one conspiracy was broken, only to spawn another, then the experiments wouldn’t necessarily carry over from one to the other. The later conspiracy seemed to be far more sophisticated, after all, using straightforward techniques to achieve their goals. But there is more than enough evidence to suggest that there was a continuous effort in play, with the Syndicate perhaps unaware of what they had actually created.
In that case, by the time Colonization began, the plans of the conspiracy would have already led to an organically reproduced version of the eugenically-enhanced humans seen in the later seasons. The result would be a generation of normal humans without implants, implanted humans used for the experiments leading to the enhancements, and the children born enhanced.
Presumably the children would already have some means of being controlled and directed, and the implanted humans would have already been accounted for. So that leaves the need for a convenient means to round up those intended for either enslavement, infection with the black oil, or some other nefarious end.
The key to the plot would be the nearly universal spread of the required chemical agent and the extent to which the subliminal messages could alter behavior. The second requirement is demonstrated rather well in this episode. Most people have little or no capacity to kill people at random, so attempting to drive people to murder complete strangers without hesitation certainly qualifies as a strong indicator. And given the resources of the conspiracy, it would be easy enough to gradually introduce an insect-driven disease (like, perhaps, the West Nile virus) that would spark a national desire to spray, especially if assurances of safety could be manufactured.
The experiment shown in this episode, then, seems to fit into the overall conspiracy picture quite well. Unfortunately, there are ways in which the experiment is depicted that don’t make much sense. If the subliminal messages were simply programmed into digital electronic displays in easily accessible areas or devices, then it would have made sense.
However, on many occasions, the messages appear on personal devices or specifically target the individual in question. That would suggest that the experiment was being conducted on a level of complexity and sophistication that boggles the mind. Every aspect of the lives of the population of Franklin would have to be controlled to ensure such a level of control. More than that, but the conspiracy would have to be capable of tracking every individual to determine when a person fell under the control of the chemical and where to begin sending the specific messages.
Of course, if the conspiracy was that sophisticated, then some of the incredibly stupid mistakes in future episodes are even more unbelievable. So it might be better to acknowledge that such a level of sophistication was not in fact existent, and what was shown was meant to communicate the concept. It’s unlikely that the writers were thinking of the larger picture when writing the episode, so in this case, those inconsistencies could be excused as artistic license.
Even without any implications to the conspiracy, the idea of someone conducting secret experiments on an unknowing American town strikes to the very heart of the paranoia that the series fed upon. So in that sense, the episode succeeds. The flaw is mostly one of intensity. Mulder practically sleepwalks through most of the episode, providing good evidence that Mulder needs someone dynamic to interact with for his character to shine. Note how there is a different energy when Scully or the boys from “The Lone Gunmen” enter a scene.
Perhaps it was a conscious decision by the director, to give the episode a somewhat muted tone so that the more disturbing moments struck that much harder. Whatever the case, the episode practically crawls its way to the final act, where events finally begin to unfold in the kind of chaos that one would expect. Even so, there is a sense of something missing.
SPENCER: “Things like this aren’t supposed to happen here.”
MULDER: “A 42-year-old real estate agent murders four strangers with his bare hands? That’s not supposed to happen anywhere.”
MULDER: “I played right field!”
SCULLY: “I was wondering when you’d get to that…”
MULDER: “Pardon my rubber…”
MULDER: “It was a fine effort, though.”
LANGLY: “Obviously, you haven’t read our August edition of TLG.”
MULDER: “Oh, I’m sorry, boys, it arrived the same day as my subscription to Celebrity Skin.”
FROHIKE: “So, Mulder, where’s your little partner?”
MULDER: “She wouldn’t come. She’s afraid of her love for you.”
FROHIKE: “She’s tasty.”
MULDER: “You know, Frohike, it’s men like you that give perversion a bad name.”
SCULLY: “Mulder, I was wrong. Exposure to the insecticide does induce paranoia…”
MULDER: “Frustrated Jehovah’s Witness?”
- That is easily one of the worst jobs I can think of...reading zip codes endlessly, every day...
- Ed Funsch is played by William Sanderson, who was so memorable as Larry on “Newhart” and several genre roles (“Blade Runner”, “Babylon 5”)!
- Gotta love those cheesy workplace posters...
- So apparently Mulder is assigned to the Behavioral Science Unit at the time of this episode, back on profiling work...
- I wonder if Mulder’s odd silence at the beginning of the episode is due to annoyance over his assignment...
- Love that line of gawkers trying to get a look into the crime scene!
- Unlike some of the odd mistakes in place names over the course of the series, the city of Franklin is actually located in Venango County, Pennsylvania...
- Who doesn’t dream about doing that to every crooked mechanic that manages to fool you into getting unnecessary repairs?
- I think that if an engine that sounds like that when it idles, it doesn’t take a mechanic to realize there’s a problem!
- That’s one heck of a complicated Polaroid camera...
- What the hell was Mrs. McRoberts going to have for breakfast...an entire package of English muffins?
- Also, she never removed the food from the microwave...yet she’s slathering jelly all over those muffins in the very next scene!
- Gillian Anderson has an odd way of pronouncing words like “rather” and “phobia” during her voiceover this episode...very weird...
- Odd that the television screens should tell Ed to look behind him...yet he somehow knows to look to his right, where the gun display really is!
- Yet another weird thing that Mulder feels the need to touch with his bare hands...
- I think it’s great that the Gunmen have a video library that includes “toxic pesticides”!
- I also like the shelves filled with 3-ring binders with the maker/size labels still on the spine...
- There’s a massive amount of ignorance as to the use of the pronoun “whom” in this episode!
- Mulder and Scully are lucky they didn’t electrocute themselves playing with the wires exposed by the broken doorbell button...
- So Mulder walks around without the strap holding his gun in place?
- Scully looks so funny hiding behind Mulder at the hospital...it’s like she’s a little kid standing next to him!
- The end of this episode apparently takes place on September 30, 1994, according to the sign at the college...
- When the police cruisers are racing towards the college, they have the sirens on without the flashing lights; when they arrive at the college, the flashing lights are suddenly on!
- Of all people, Ed shoots the sleeping ambulance driver that’s probably the hardest to see through the scope, instead of all the dozens of people standing in plain sight?
- Love the shots of Crazy Ed, though...
Overall, this episode seemed to lack a certain energy, and the plot felt like the product of a contest to see if someone could write an episode involving three different paranoid fantasies. The atmosphere of distrust is communicated, but despite the nice intersection of ideas, there is something missing.
I give it a 6/10.
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