The X-Files – ‘Familiar’

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MULDER: Mass hysteria. Salem. McCarthyism. What happened to the precious presumption of innocence? Which is rooted in a very democratic ideal.

There is something familiar and unfamiliar about ‘Familiar’, one of the last truly stand-alone ‘monster of the week’ tales The X-Files will likely ever do.

Anyone who has followed Chris Carter’s series from its inception will be aware that his show was divided between the ‘standalones’ and the ‘mythology’ episodes. At the time, back in the 90’s, fans lived for the mythology, the ongoing story of Fox Mulder & Dana Scully against the conspiracy to cover up the existence of alien life, and far darker deeds beyond. Time and distance however, for many, have seen the standalone tales grow in currency; in a world now built on the kind of serialised storytelling The X-Files flirted with, while still keeping to a model ripe for syndication, fans have craved from the revival season a truly stand-alone story. One where Mulder & Scully arrive in a small town, investigate some weird deaths, and find themselves embroiled in the strange and spooky. It’s taken almost two revival seasons, but ‘Familiar’ gets us there.

Oddly enough now, however, what once was considered a standard, typical X-File, has become essentially the aberration. If you look at how experimental both revival seasons have been, from comedy episodes or Hitchcockian espionage homages, down to episodes like last week’s ‘Followers’ which pushed the envelope the furthest the show has gone in a long time, ‘Familiar’ stands out because it’s now *unfamiliar*. Benjamin Van Allen’s story is almost a throwback, a relic of the original series The X-Files was built on, and were it not for certain fairly indirect but potent allegorical references to modern-day political Americana, you could position ‘Familiar’ in one of the early seasons of the show. It might sit quite well nearby ‘Die Hand Die Verletzt’, perhaps its most intrinsic bedfellow. For that reason, alone, it feels uniquely old-fashioned.

The X-Files hasn’t told a story quite like this in a long time. Even episodes which haven’t explored the mythology have, certainly this season, felt more in tune with a modern Twilight Zone, tapping into bigger science-fiction concepts often regarding the conception of reality. ‘Familiar’ comes at these overarching thematic ideas in a manner akin to the formative years of the show, and shifts the focus away from Mulder & Scully’s journey onto guest characters who live at the heart of the narrative: Officer Eggers, Chief Strong, their wives and Officer Wentworth. Every other episode this season has been about our duo – even ‘Plus One’, otherwise the purest stand-alone outside of ‘Familiar’, with it’s Hollywood Golden Age romantic undercurrent. ‘Familiar’ is about the investigation.

Focusing on Mulder & Scully’s character development across the revival seasons hasn’t been a bad thing, don’t get me wrong. We had gone so many years without them in our lives that it makes perfect sense Carter and his team would want to explore who they are, and where they are now. Season 10 very much teed-up the importance of the search for their son William to the latest season, and that journey has informed their entire story arc across the year (even outside of ‘Ghouli’, where it was most prominent).

‘Familiar’ does even touch on that, when Anna Strong asks Mulder if he has a child: “A son, grown now…” is his stilted, awkward response. Scully especially feels deep emotion in autopsying the body of young victim Andrew, while you can almost feel Mulder upon finding the dead girl Emily (itself surely another nod to the past?) flashing back to ‘Sein Und Zeit’ & ‘Closure’, silently recalling his sister. Van Allen’s approach to these thematic elements, however, is to place them far more on the backburner. Mulder & Scully *are* in a holding pattern, but then in most pure stand-alone’s historically, they always were. ‘Familiar’ operates akin to the show’s past in that regard.

Van Allen has stated as much, his intent being to create an episode which honours the historical series:

I really just wanted to make a classic X-Files episode. It’s a monster-of-the-week episode, but not all MOTW episodes actually have a monster. I really wanted to have some recognizable monster for the episode. That’s where the Mr. Chuckleteeth guy came in. Like the classic X-Files feel, I definitely wanted to set it in a small town. I wanted to start the episode in the town with Mulder and Scully, and end the episode in the town with Mulder and Scully. As much as I love all the X-Files lore, I didn’t want to see the X-Files office, I didn’t want to put Skinner in this episode. I just wanted it to be a very classic, standalone monster-of-the-week episode.

This feels very in tune with what many in the fandom have wanted to see from The X-Files – a return to the pattern and style of the episodes they fell in love with the show for telling and, while not perhaps up there with the greatest outings the show has given us, ‘Familiar’ feels the purest representation of that idea for many many years, probably in terms of Mulder & Scully on the case since possibly at least the fifth season. From that point on, straight-up standalone stories became the rarity, with Carter’s experimentation both within and without the mythology coursing through the majority of episodes across the sixth and seventh seasons, before the game-changing events of the eighth. ‘Familiar’ feels every bit an original series, Vancouver-based X-File.

What’s surprising is how long it took The X-Files to explore the idea of witchcraft in such clear, iconic paranormal terms. We have seen the use of black magic on the series before – the fourth season’s ‘Sanguinarium’, for example, or in the memorable ‘Chinga’ from the fifth season (drafted originally by master of horror Stephen King). ‘Die Hand Die Verletzt’, as previously mentioned, feels like a major inspiration for Van Allen here; a forest in which kids are being murdered (much younger kids here though, bravely), black magic rituals, demonic forces putting a hex on the people of a small town, levels of mass hysteria within the population etc… ‘Familiar’ is more earnest than Glen Morgan & James Wong’s quite hokey second season outing, but the DNA is, well… familiar.

‘Die Hand’ was far more about the paranoia of occult conspiracy within the heartland of America, the idea of a dark, Satanic web of devilish deeds, sacrifices and indeed child abuse, which Scully believed far more than Mulder’s conviction a demon had been summoned (which turned out to be the case with the wonderfully theatrical Mrs Paddock). ‘Familiar’ certainly still sees Scully as sceptical of ritual demonic forces as she was over twenty years ago, but Van Allen manages to connect the historical Salem witchcraft trials so keenly remembered in Puritanical, colonial American formative history with the state of small-town Americana today. The terror of occult conspiracy has been replaced by post-truth hysterical victimisation, assumption, and the absence of innocence being held aloft before proof of guilt.

Van Allen mentions how the earlier American fears which drove the heart of the original series of The X-Files have been replaced by the mob mentality, blame culture on Twitter and other forms of social media, drawing links between the current expansion of online hysteria and the infamous witch hunts in American culture which came in the wake of Salem:

I was reading this book where someone was talking about the four or five big witch hunts in history. There was the original witch hunts; then there was McCarthyism; the satanic cult craze in the 1990s [ed note: the “Satanic Panic” was at its most fervent in the 1980s]; then Islamophobia today. But I think with the way social media has gone, everything turns into a witch hunt. Regardless if people are right about who they are hunting, I just think it’s a dangerous culture we are in, with social media and all. Margaret Atwood wrote a good article about throwing out due process. It’s a hard topic to talk about these days, but it’s something I think everyone should look at.

‘Familiar’ certainly isn’t backwards in coming forwards about the witch-hunt allegory, given what Eggers does to Melvin Peter, a convicted sex offender who he believes—creating his own narrative which the townspeople eat up with a big spoon—was responsible for the death of his son. There’s an argument, ironically, that Scully gets the man killed; she places the idea that a man was responsible for Andrew’s death, not a monster or ‘coy-wolf’ as the police naively suggest (a cross breed of a coyote and a wolf), and in some respects triggers Eggers’ crusade which leads to the death of an ‘innocent’ man. There’s a powerful debate to be had as to whether Peter could well have been continuing his crimes (the fact he’s a children’s entertainer is chilling), but it goes back to Van Allen’s point about due process – Eggers crosses the line, even if he perhaps has been fuelled up by the hex of dark magic across the town.

It says more about the power of the mob, and how ideas and corruption can twist moral panic into violent action, stirred on by tragedy. This is almost certainly why Van Allen chose to have children be the victims in ‘Familiar’, still one of the hardest choices for storytellers to make on screen. By having the demonic familiar take the lives of the innocent, it sharpens the focus of that mob mentality to react when goaded or manipulated by forces unseen. You only have to look at the magnified and difficult reactions to the recent school shootings across the United States, and how social media dealt with the aftermath, to see the kind of anxietal fear coursing through modern America right now, and how easy it can be for right-wing organisations and figures to influence that opinion to serve a particular agenda.

Now in ‘Familiar’, the agenda turns out to be appropriately familial in nature, and honestly it’s probably the least interesting or compelling, and most rote aspect of the episode. You can guess that Strong & Eggers wife were having an affair from almost the outset, and it’s equally not hard to figure out Anna is responsible for the black magic, but despite these aspects being well telegraphed, they don’t take away from the compelling nature of Holly Dale’s direction or Van Allen’s twisty-turny script, because both leave the ultimate level of revelation to the last possible moment. ‘Familiar’ works hard to consistently provide mystery to the storytelling, and keep monsters such as the hellhound, the Teletubbie variant, or the utterly haunting Mr Chuckleteeth in the foreground.

‘Familiar’, like any episode of The X-Files, won’t please everyone. As a piece of pure, unadulterated, creepy stand-alone storytelling, akin to the type the show engaged us with during the 1990’s, it can however sit very comfortably and confidently. The least experimental episode of the eleventh season, thankfully, may turn out to be one of the quiet best.

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  • “How easy it can be for right-wing organisations and figures to influence that opinion to serve a particular agenda.”

    The way this is written it reads as if it’s only the right-wing that is guilty of this.

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