Written by Jessica Scott and Mike Woolaeger
Directed by Ralph Hemeckler
In which Mulder and Scully investigate the mysterious death of a supposedly abusive father, only to discover that they have come to a town where nature seems to be under someone’s control...
Status Report - Memorable Quotes - Final Analysis
This is one of those episodes that can be easily dismissed. It has very little to do with the rest of the series as a whole, there’s not much in the way of overt character development, and Scully is practically sidelined for no apparent reason. There’s also the little matter of a confusing plot with killer trees. But a closer look reveals an interesting and even meaningful concept close to the heart of the mythology.
At first glance, the plot is bizarre. In this particular town, apparently abusive fathers are getting killed. It turns out that trees are doing it, something only Mulder seems to understand. This is tied to a blight on the trees that last came 20 years earlier. The kids whose fathers were killed were undergoing therapy with a disturbed, previously abused woman whose father mysteriously died 20 years earlier. Her consuming hatred, it seems, resulted in a final psychotic break, which somehow got the trees all freaky again.
It’s hard to know if the writers themselves knew what they were trying to suggest. Some episodes are put together with little more than a high concept like “Trees kill people!”. But there’s also a commentary on abuse in this particular case, and everything centers around Karin Matthews. The question is: how did Karin turn into the person seen in this episode, and how did that translate into the events depicted?
The writers aren’t saying that terribly abused individuals are all capable of making the world around them animate and murderous. Karin is depicted as a woman filled with a unique brand of continual rage, triggered by the fact that she has attempted to overcome it by teaching others how to defeat anything that challenges their self-esteem.
As the episode progresses, it’s more and more apparent that Karin is in some way “possessed” by her father. Psychologically, it’s as if she obsessed so much over her hatred for her father’s power over her that she stopped questioning it. It become a reality that she could never overcome, and thus the cycle perpetuated until some element of her father’s abusive personality manifested itself in her own mind.
But two things were also tied to Karin’s history: the timing of the blight afflicting the trees and the death of Karin’s father. The death of Karin’s father seemed to end the previous blight, just as it’s suggested that the current blight is the result of Karin’s father’s personality emerging in her mind. The suggestion is that Karin’s father was the one bringing the blight, but is that the logical conclusion?
In the lore of the paranormal, poltergeist activity is often related to young or teenage girls who are emotionally volatile, yet can’t express themselves openly. If one takes that concept and expands on it, while also giving it focus, it could easily apply to Karin. At the height of each abuse cycle, her unchecked and unexpressed rage afflicts the trees that define her world, and in turn, her will animates them as depicted. It gets to the point where Karin transfers her memories onto the children, so as to create the justification for the rage.
In terms of the mythology, there’s the concept of “sentinels” like Albert Hosteen and Scully, humans with a genetic predisposition to interact with the spiritual, consciously or subconsciously. (In terms of the mythology, these are the people with the latent abilities needed to defeat Purity.) Karin could have been one of these “sentinels”. But instead of growing into her abilities (or having them remain latent), the physical and psychological abuse from her father resulted in a premature and violent outlet of power.
The other side to that, however, is the possibility of being subsumed by a stronger non-corporeal intelligence. In earlier episodes, malevolent intelligences had taken over those with a fractured sense of identity. Twenty years earlier, Karin’s rage had led to her father’s death. What if his personality was so powerful that it remained intact enough to plague Karin. One could then speculate that when Karin chose to enter the counseling profession, thinking that she could help others avoid her kind of childhood and emotional issues, the resulting explosion of rage allowed her father to take control (psychologically and spiritually), triggering another subconscious release of power into the environment.
This is the situation that Mulder and Scully find themselves in, and it’s not pretty or entirely sensible out of context. This is a case where the agents are reacting to the symptoms, and because they do not understand the scope of the system, they can only guess at the source of the pain and suffering. Events take place that are outward expressions of something distinctly spiritual.
Taken from this perspective, it’s a question of whether or not the various elements fit within the context in a logical manner. For the most part, they do. There are still some oddities that make the episode less than perfect, but from a conceptual point of view, the events are not nearly as bizarre and contrived as they first appear. It all comes down to considering how the universe of “X-Files” is meant to work, given how broad the “extreme possibilities” canvas can be.
It’s not entirely clear how Mulder and Scully become involved in the case in the first place. The timing is particularly odd. The season premiere took place in October 1997. “Detour” took place sometime in November 1997. The next in-continuity episode, “Christmas Carol” (along with “Emily”) took place in late December 1997 through early January 1998. “Kitsunegari” was logically a week or so later in the timeline, so this episode is probably mid-January 1998. From a timeline point of view, the suggestion is that Mulder and Scully are still on relatively “light” duty, following Scully’s return to the field and the fallout from Mulder’s little showdown with Blevins. So this case was probably assigned and assumed to be routine.
There’s also the little matter of the portrayal of Bobby and Lisa. Granted, these are supposed to be troubled children with psychological hang-ups the size of Michigan, but they act like they’re perpetually stoned. Bobby’s affections are incredibly annoying in particular. Then again, that kind of look wasn’t the norm, and Bobby would play up his personality to overcome the fact that he was a constant target.
Some attempt is made to establish a rebellious phase in Mulder’s own childhood. Mulder refers to the fact that Bobby could have been him. While it’s easy enough to imagine that Mulder’s childhood was dominated by a psychologically damaging father and a disconnected mother, it’s hard to see Mulder as the rebellious type. Mulder rebels against authority only when the structure prevents him from getting the answers he needs to fulfill his mandate. His response to his parents would have been closer to immersing himself in his academics than heavy drug use.
Fairly early in the episode, it’s obvious that Karin is involved. Oddly enough, it takes the agents forever to figure that out. It’s more a question of character missing details, and the plot being forced in directions necessary to allow that to happen. Scully might as well not even be in the episode; she’s there only to present a foil to Mulder’s evolving assumptions and speculations. Her own interpretations are completely suppressed, and no reason is given for it. She gets to be tough with Bobby in front of the class with the chemistry teacher that doesn’t know chemistry (check the blackboard), but that’s about it.
For instance, why does the coroner completely miss the obvious chunk of wood sticking out of the victim’s neck, and why is Mulder the one making the observation? All things being equal, that’s usually Scully’s shtick. Mulder makes the typical leap regarding the source of the “splinter”, but Scully doesn’t even try to give an alternative explanation. There’s the “plot device with an axe”, who actually turns out to be the resolution to the case. (And if there’s a major issue with this episode, that’s the issue: the agents don’t really bring about the resolution.)
Lisa’s predicament is a direct consequence of an incredibly stupid decision on her part. She knows something is going on in the house, so why walk into a dark basement without at least putting the light on? Why not try to break the window and get the hell out of the house? Why wait to break the window and call for help until after the agents are gone and Defenseless Aunt arrives?
Mulder and Scully aren’t much better. There’s one scene in which they discuss an issue, standing in the middle of a rainstorm, shouting to hear each other over the noise…and they are completely dry the entire time. They drive up to Karin’s house and completely miss the rather large body sitting on the side of the house. They walk into the house and the basement without even trying to put the lights on. External to the basic concept and its complications, the storytelling breaks down as the episode marches on.
Perhaps the most obvious flaw in the concept of Karin subconsciously manipulating the world around her is the ending itself. Once Karin was dead, what or who would continue that manipulation? One could suppose that it’s Karin herself, or whatever is left of her viable personality, but that’s weak with respect to the idea that a violent death equates to a fractured non-corporeal existence. And while it makes sense that Mulder wouldn’t understand what had happened, his final voiceover suggests a confidence in his conclusions that masks the underlying concept.
As far as the presentation as a whole, the episode is visually evocative. This is paced more like a feature film or a true anthology series installment. This could have been lifted out of a superior “Outer Limits” episode. Unfortunately, that is also one of the drawbacks of the episode: Mulder and Scully bring nothing of themselves to the case. Very little makes it necessary for these characters specifically to tell the story. As interesting as the concept is, it just wasn’t integrated into the series well enough.
MULDER: “Hey, Scully, is this demonstration of boyish agility turning you on at all?”
Overall, this episode had an interesting concept, tied indirectly to some of the deeper mysteries of the mythology, but the execution made it hard to comprehend. The episode is visually stunning, but the treatment of the characters doesn’t quite fit with Mulder and Scully. Filled with odd inconsistencies, this is definitely not one of the better episodes of the season.
Final Rating: 4/10
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