The X-Files #5: The Jersey Devil

"You keep that up, Mulder, and I'll hurt you like that beast woman." "8 million years out of Africa..." "...and look who's holding the door."
ACTUAL DOCUMENTED ACCOUNT: Mulder and Scully investigate a cannibalistic East Coast "Big Foot" in the New Jersey woods.

REVIEW: The second Monster of the Week is also the show's first use of cryptozoology, i.e. the study of creatures not proven to exist. The Jersey Devil is an old folk tale, here related to that of Big Foot and other "Abominable Snowmen", though the original stories pictured it with hooves and bat-like wings (which explains the name, which inspired the state's hockey team, by the way). It's all bit extreme, so X-Files only borrows the name and the location. This proves to be rather traditional runaround (indeed, there's a lot of running), where the cops are running interference with our FBI team, and though they're jerks, they do have a point about jurisdiction. Mulder is squarely in what we recognize today as the Doctor Who role, finding the monster "beautiful" and trying to save it from us nasty humans, even though it's eaten people. The biological truth is that these aren't throwbacks, but normal humans who have somehow escaped the pull of civilization for generations, even if the female (I guess that's a twist of sorts) has been squatting into the encroaching urban sprawl of Atlantic City. Plenty of atmospheric direction (if a little dark at times), and the 1947 opener has a proper scare, but the episode is mostly wistful and borderline poetic. It's quite unfortunate then that it feels a bit padded, with two-dimensional antagonists, and some creaky inaccuracies (for example, primates are said to be afraid of heights, and Atlantic City is surrounded by woodland).

What saves it is, once again, its rich subtext. What's it's REALLY about. And it's about isolation. The beast woman's lonely life, having lost her mate, is mirrored in a variety of other characters. The homeless, for example, share her simple but desperate way of living, and the implication is that some consider them to be no better than animals. Then there's Mulder, whose life is, throughout the episode, contrasted to Scully's. Hers is a life bustling with activity - birthday parties and dates and noise - while he's the office pariah and is only seen in the outer office space, where the people are, when he has Scully to accompany him. He goes into a busy casino... to use the phone. He rents a hotel room with HBO, but lets a homeless man use it. And of course, he's isolated from his peers - law enforcement officials - by his crazy theories. But Scully, though she has a busy social calendar in relation to Mulder's, is an isolated soul as well. She's just as much a "lone voice in the wilderness" as Mulder is because he doesn't want to be reasoned any more than she wants to be convinced. Out in the world outside the FBI, she finds she's not particularly interesting in having kids yet, and is bored by her date. More literally, she's forced to drive back to D.C. alone, something she complains about. Another image of isolation to add to the pile.

This is a Scully-lite episode, which gives Mulder more room to show why he needs her along. That Doctor Who comment was more meaningful than I thought when I set it down: Like the Doctor, he needs a "companion" to negotiate with the locals. He's too eccentric and confrontational to get what he wants. He often works against his own agenda. She's the sensible one that doesn't antagonize local authorities and can run a smokescreen to cover Mulder's weirdness. He's the one who gets witnesses to tell stories they'd normally be ashamed to tell, through the charismatic power of his need to believe. Alone, neither of them is as effective. What Mulder really has is empathy. Empathy for victims of unexplained phenomena, and in this episode, that accounts for the Jersey Devil as well, a victim of circumstance and of her own upbringing if not biology. That's also represented earlier in the image of a child with a gorilla mask on crying because he bumped his head.

How does a primitive stone age culture survive for millennia in a country that's been inhabited by a variety of cultures from Native American tribes to contemporary America (a mile and a half away from Atlantic City, no less)? If we're to tie the whole mythos together, might I offer the possibility that Cro-Magnon were picked up by aliens during the Ice Age, kept culturally pure for all that time (do aliens have zoos or reservations?), then dropped back to Earth in the 17th century or so when the legends started? Does it make a difference? Is it easier to believe these primitives might survive as is for a couple hundred years ONLY?

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Well, the story itself isn't great, but it's well shot, and the writing has infused it with enough subtext


LiamKav said...

So... did you know the X-Files would be returning or is this just the most fortunately timed thing ever?

Siskoid said...


Well, there were rumors, just nothing official. I was just ahead of the curve by a few days.


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