Written by Howard Gordon
Directed by Kim Manners
In which Mulder and Scully investigate the murder of a teenage Neo-Nazi, who was apparently the victim of the man he helped to murder, brought back to life through Jewish mysticism...
Status Report - Memorable Quotes - Final Analysis
This episode had a lot going against it. For one thing, it was produced before “Leonard Betts”, an episode that set the stage for the “Cancer Arc”, which would last through the end of the season. Unfortunately, due to scheduling changes, this episode aired after the “Cancer Arc” was well underway. “Momento Mori”, one of the best episodes of the fourth season, was the previous episode, and it left the story in a place where ignoring Scully’s medical condition was not an option. Of course, there was no way for the producers to go back and correct that unintentional oversight.
This was also an episode based in ethnic folklore. The writers were never very successful at making such episodes work. There was always a strong desire to attach a political or social statement to the exploration of the folklore in question. That commentary inevitably clashes with the tone of the series, even when the characters can identify with those emotions. Focusing on the struggles of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn carries with it an inevitable layer of political, religious, and social context.
Finally, the episode was written by Howard Gordon. Gordon is the kind of writer that has very interesting ideas, but has trouble putting those ideas to paper. Unfortunately, as any “24” fan can attest, Gordon also can come up with some rather bad ideas, or worse, leave mediocre ideas unresolved. Those bad ideas seem to make it to the page a bit more often than they should.
So “Kaddish” was up against the wall before it even started: an episode dealing with religious folklore of Orthodox Jews in racially divided Brooklyn, with no reference to Scully’s immediate medical situation, and written by someone who has difficulty getting the details of such complex issues on the page in a compelling manner.
This episode is filled with missed opportunities. The series had already firmly established Scully’s personal religious beliefs, but Mulder’s side of the story was vague at best. He was sitting in a Catholic church in “Conduit”. Other episodes suggested a lack of spiritual belief, regardless of form. Still more episodes suggested that Mulder’s family was Jewish, at least ethnically if not religiously. This episode could have shred some light on Mulder’s religious background, something that could have given further context to the character and his past.
Instead of using the situation to provide insight into Mulder’s internalized reaction to anti-Semitic hate crimes and Jewish mysticism, Gordon prefers to tell a different story. This results in the inevitable sidelining of the main characters. Mulder and Scully’s investigation reveals the love story of Arial and Isaac, but has little to do with its resolution. Whenever the writers fail to connect the agents into the story in a definitive way, the final product suffers. This episode is no exception.
Justine Miceli does a great job as Arial, giving life to a range of emotions that would be difficult for any actress to express. Miceli was apparently nervous about playing an Orthodox Jewish woman, and that makes the accomplishment even more impressive. None of that uncertainty translates to the screen.
The same cannot be said for the depiction of Orthodox Judaism as a whole. The surface aspects are all there, but it’s clear that Gordon and the producers had to play fast and loose with a few basic tenets to make the episode work. Apparently this was true off the screen as well; there are a few stories that have circulated regarding the troubles caused when the production team failed to take the religious and social requirements of Orthodox Jewish experts into account.
It doesn’t help that the first half of the episode is an exercise in stereotypes. There’s an irony in the fact that Gordon chose the staple of intellectually shallow Neo-Nazis as the apparent villain of the piece. Gordon makes an effort to place both sides of the conflict on an even moral playing field. That suggests a rather bizarre and questionable message: Orthodox Jews and Neo-Nazis are, in this depiction, equally reprehensible, and that’s hard to swallow. After all, society as a whole finds fault with Neo-Nazi violence; the hatreds of Neo-Nazis do not represent an equal concern by society for the actions of Orthodox Jews!
It would have been better, if this social commentary was absolutely necessary, to replace the simplistic Neo-Nazis with the actual ethnic groups present in Brooklyn and at odds with the Orthodox Jewish community. Painting both sides in shades of grey would have given the episode balance, even in the face of hateful proclamations on both sides. It would be less about two peoples trying to kill each other and more about the struggles that come about when two mutually exclusive groups are forced to live side by side.
The scene between Mulder, Scully, and Bjunes is a good example of a scene that could have been taken to another level with the right kind of tweaking. Mulder seems to suggest a Jewish ethnic heritage with a Christian belief system, as per his comment about Jesus and the resurrection. Right there, in plain sight, is a character element just waiting to be explored. Scully doesn’t even call him on it, and Bjunes barely touches on his own insinuations. That conversation could have been 30 seconds longer and five times deeper with slightly more revealing dialogue.
One element that makes no sense at all is the burial and subsequent spontaneous combustion of the Sepher Vetzirah (spelling of this is suspect at best). One could conclude that burying the book was an attempt to hide the source of the knowledge, but that doesn’t track; Kenneth Ungar plainly implies that the book is common enough to find elsewhere. More than that, why would anyone think to look for the book in the first place, thus necessitating its concealment?
The book itself seems to spontaneously combust, and while Scully provides a rather lame attempt at scientific explanation, there’s no other interpretation offered as to the reason why the book burst into flames. It just seems to happen so that the mystical side of the episode can be a bit flashy, which is certainly not a very good excuse.
It takes quite some time before the episode gets down to the real story: the love between Arial and Isaac, and Arial’s role and intention for Isaac’s return. The history of the communal wedding ring is simple and tragic, and it’s something that should have been mentioned from the very beginning to place the episode in context. This, of course, would have interfered with the desire to twist expectations; it was apparently better to equate Orthodox Jews with Neo-Nazis, rather than provide a stronger foundation for the central character motivations. It’s not as though Gordon couldn’t have Arial discuss the wedding plans without giving away the whole plot!
However, it’s one thing to use the history of a people as a convenient plot device, and quite another to honestly and respectfully explore that culture. Having Scully walk into the men-only section of the synagogue with little or no reaction from those worshipping certainly doesn’t qualify as honestly depicting the culture. It also seems odd that the rabbi would calmly dismiss an apparent murder in the temple, even given the tensions within the society.
The discussion of golems and how they are made is one of the better scenes of the episode, if only because it delves into the circumstances that actually make this situation worthy of Mulder and Scully’s attention. However, it could have been more. Again, this was an opportunity for Mulder to look at his own beliefs and consider them against this ancient and storied tradition.
There’s also something to be said for leaving mystical concepts vague and undefined. The golem is necessary for the love story component of the episode, but that is part of the problem. Somewhere around the third season, the series stopped being about unexplained events and how two very different people try to reconcile them. There is no question that the golem is real and that it was created using the Sepher Vetrizah; the air of mystery is rendered obsolete. It’s not that Jewish mysticism provides a possible parallel to the phenomena at work; the golem of legend is, by virtue of this episode, quite real.
This should be significant, because this episode adds significant support to the idea of a higher power at work within the series. If Mulder were to take something and relate it to some analogue from Jewish mysticism, then it would simply be Mulder’s wish fulfillment rearing its ugly head. But a golem is created through the power of the Word in this episode, and that means that there is a power behind the Word.
This power is ostensibly “God”, though the divine doesn’t quite manifest itself as one would expect within the mythology of the series. There’s a divine power aiding Mulder and Scully, as seen in “One Breath” and “The Blessing Way”, but it doesn’t confine itself to the Judeo-Christian conception of God. In fact, the mythology strongly suggests that the power of the divine is accessible to all living things, whether a person believes in “God” or not. It speaks to something even more pervasive, which is exactly how it is treated in episodes like “all things”. Regardless, this is still more mystical and religious than the idea of cooking up a golem with a recipe and the Word.
In the end, Scully doesn’t even question what the golem might be. She’s steps right over that line and starts debating motive. There’s no discussion between Mulder and Scully about the possible interpretations of how the golem was made or what it might truly be, nothing about personal belief and how that shapes each interpretation. One would think that Scully would have much to ponder, but that simply doesn’t happen. The golem is what it is, and apparently neither agent wants to take it any further.
The episode ends with the revelation that the golem is following Arial’s desire to have her wedding day, which is wonderful for the love story but rather disappointing in terms of the agents’ part in the final act. Once Isaac returns to dust, the episode ends. Scully, as usual, misses enough to justify her typical denial, which isn’t even covered in the final scene. Scully’s point of view actually gets very little representation in this episode, which is usually a bad sign.
Without the benefit of characterization, the episode falls to the plot and its execution. As with the characterization, Gordon fails to delve into the implications of the golem’s admitted creation. It’s a wonder that Mulder didn’t run out and get his own copy of the Sepher Vetrizah the next day; he knows, by this episode alone, that the process works and that it is a solid example of something paranormal that can be proven. So why does this not happen? Because, of course, Gordon never realized that it was the logical conclusion Mulder would draw.
The underlying strength of the episode is the very element that proves it’s undoing: the love story of Arial and Isaac, which requires that a mystical concept become reality without question. The process of rendering one into the other without causing serious implications to the mythology, especially with the religious component involved, requires a deft hand. Unfortunately, that skill was lacking, and the episode falters without that solid foundation.
BJUNES: “What kind of Jew trick is this?”
MULDER: “A Jew pulled it off 2000 years ago.”
JACOB: “I went up to see what it was and he attacked me. It was self-defense.”
MULDER: “Hanging a man is self-defense?”
Overall, this episode was another failed attempt to take ethnic folklore and turn it into a viable X-File. There’s no attempt to take the obvious opportunities for character exploration, and the religious consequences to the mythology are completely ignored. The love story behind the golem is a nice enough plot element, but Mulder and Scully have nothing to do with the resolution, making their presence in the situation somewhat moot.
Final Rating: 5/10
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