"Hell Money"
Written by Jeffrey Vlamingban
Directed by Tucker Gates

In which Mulder and Scully become involved in a series of murders involving Asian men with missing organs, leading to the discovery of a gruesome game of chance...

Status Report - Memorable Quotes - Final Analysis


Status Report

As the series marched on, there was a regular effort to break up what had been considered to be the “standard format” for an episode. In many cases, this involved some level of self-parody, stripping away the seriousness and focusing on the absurdity. But on occasion, the writers would take the opposite extreme into consideration: maintaining the paranoia and gravity of the typical episode while minimizing or completely eliminating the paranormal aspects.

This is one of the first episodes to completely stray into non-paranormal storytelling. The writers had gone in a similar direction with the classic “Irresistible” and “Grotesque”, but those episodes also retained a certain mystique of implied extremism within the confines of fetish and madness. For that reason, those episodes were the perfect template for the series “Millennium”, which delved even more sincerely into the boundary between human and inhuman darkness.

“Hell Money” doesn’t take that direction. Instead, it speaks to the depravity of the human animal within the context of social isolation and even racism. Instead of capitalizing on the similarities between demonic forces and human excess, this episode takes something out of a typical police procedural and translates it into the world of Mulder and Scully.

It says something that an episode like this feels like it could be on any existing procedural drama series in 2004. Back in the mid-1990s, this kind of story could only be told as written on the “X-Files”. Now, it’s almost quaint. Because the central mystery holds no supernatural components, the success or failure of the episode hinges on the exploration of the characters and the world they live in.

By delving into the idea of Chinese superstition, the writers cover the lack of the paranormal with the allure of a foreign and almost alien culture. Instead of presenting a biological or spiritual world for Mulder and Scully to step into as intrepid explorers of truth, the writers present then with an existing cultural barrier that is equally difficult to penetrate.

The idea of ghost-masked figures and the symbols of haunted houses play on the expectations of the audience, but they also factor into the idea that such cultural symbols inspire a terror that cannot be fully communicated. The audience isn’t being asked to believe; rather, the audience is being asked to comprehend the belief of another world.

Mulder and Scully are representative of the audience itself. They know just as much as the audience does, and so every scene is approached from that point of view. When the characters speak in Chinese, in most cases, there are no subtitles. Only in certain scenes without context is the audience given some idea of what is being said, and in a way, that detracts from the effect. Imagine the episode without the subtitles; the effect of that cultural barrier would be even more powerful.

The drawback of staging the story in this fashion is obvious: it assumes that the audience is willing to make the journey. The situation has to be interesting enough for the audience to want to peer into this alien world, to attempt to understand. It’s likely that the writers knew that only a personal drama could serve that purpose, in the absence of something more viscerally unusual. That is very likely the reason for the subtitles in the scenes with Hsin Shuyang and his daughter.

The character of Glen Chao is created as the intermediary between the Western culture of the agents and the alien Chinese culture. The casting for this part was excellent; B.D. Wong presents the character in a manner reminiscent of Val Kilmer. His situation in this episode could and should have been more carefully explored, because he serves as the character that clarifies the distinction between the two cultures. Caught in the middle, he is forced to make concessions to his own culture in order to gain a sense of acceptance; this is barely mentioned, making it easy to overlook.

Much is made of Lucy Liu’s participation in this episode, since Duchovny and Liu were dating at the time. Considering how typecast she would become in the years since this episode, mostly portraying harsh and domineering characters, her soft and almost sensual line delivery is intriguing. New fans of the series may easily draw a comparison between Liv Tyler’s delivery of her Elvish lines in “Lord of the Rings” and Liu’s breathy Chinese. The effect may have been intentional; Liu’s character is on the border between death and life, and her delivery may be meant to suggest that state.

The central game is rather easy to figure out, and that’s a difficulty that the episode never quite manages to overcome. Mulder and Scully need to go through the process of discovering the evidence that points to the game and its gruesome price, but the writers try to trade the mystery of the murders with the drama in Hsin’s world. It’s a gamble that doesn’t pay off.

A different approach might have been for Mulder and Scully to uncover more evidence in more rapid succession, so that the picture could form over a longer period of time, keeping the interest of the audience. That would have avoided the pacing issues that inevitably made the episode feel about twice as long as it really was.

Some elements worked extremely well. The casting of Chinese characters was mostly excellent. B.D. Wong is convincing as the reluctant detective who knows that his part in the game will ultimately be revealed. James Hong has been playing parts like Dr. Wu for decades, but in this case, there is a definite similarity between Wu and Cancer Man. Mannerisms are very similar, for instance, and both men justify their behavior with the facile justification that their actions are for the “greater good” of those being victimized.

There’s are social messages hidden within the episode, and like similar messages in episodes earlier in the season, the writers don’t go far enough to make their point. One message is how terrible the plight of the immigrant still can be, in a country where basic health care is still a luxury, despite assurances to the contrary. But the writers barely touch on the complex issues of racism inherent to that reality, using the separation between the two cultures to a limited extent.

Another message is the tendency for an isolated immigrant population to generate a criminal element that feed on its own. This is a direct consequence of the first message, because the perceived lack of equal opportunity for power and money leads to a select few taking what power there is from everyone else in the community.

The end result is a failed experiment on the part of the writers. Giving Mulder and Scully a case that actually turns out to be mundane in every way isn’t necessarily a mistake. However, such a case should have strong enough implications and enough mystery to keep the interest of the viewer. Consider that this is once again an episode where Mulder and Scully ultimately have no effect on the outcome. As usual, when the agents are merely observers, the episode becomes irrelevant.

Memorable Quotes

MULDER: “Lucky? That’s an interesting word for it…”

MULDER: “How many dishes do you have to break before your boss tosses you in an oven?”

SCULLY: “You’re saying that the ancestral spirits pushed Johnny Lo into the oven and turned on the gas?”
MULDER: “Well, that would sure teach him to respect his elders, wouldn’t it?”

SCULLY: “Do you know how much the human body is worth, Mulder?”
MULDER: “Depends on the body…”

MULDER: “He won’t be cashing any Social Security checks anytime soon.”
SCULLY: “No, but if I’m right, this is one man who left his heart in San Francisco…”

WU: “My people live with ghosts. The ghosts of our fathers and our fathers’ fathers. They call to us from distant memory, showing us the path.”

Final Analysis

Overall, this episode attempted to make a mundane murder case interesting by forcing the agents to interact with an “alien” culture. Unfortunately, the structure of the episode gave the audience answers long before the agents discovered them, making the bulk of the episode an exercise. By not taking the theme far enough or deepening the mystery, the writers ultimately fail to reach their goals.

Writing: 1/2
Acting: 1/2
Direction: 2/2
Style: 1/4

Final Rating: 5/10

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