The X-Files #80: Musings of Cigarette Smoking Man

"You have enough plausible deniability to last the rest of your annoying lives."
ACTUAL DOCUMENTED ACCOUNT: The Cigarette Smoking Man killed everybody in history, but was really just a frustrated writer.

REVIEW: This is possibly the worst thing to happen to the Cancerman, up to and including being diagnosed with cancer. If these events happened in some form or shape, which I doubt they did, they weaken the character considerably. If they didn't, then what are we watching this for? It oughta be another José Chung, but as a magazine cover touts in the show, "Where the hell is Darin Morgan?". Looks like the prop people knew the score; this is nowhere near as clever. The problem is that, for once, ambiguity is really the enemy of the show. The episode tries to have it both ways, but it's too ridiculous to be anything but Frohike's paranoid conclusions based on a trashy fiction magazine, and yet has too much detail, and the camera lingers on the Cancerman too much, for it not to be his recollections. So what is it? Are the bits where Cancerman is writing or reacting to publishers real, and the conspiracy story all his invention, based on a modicum of facts? I hope not, because those "real" moments are exactly what destroys the character. What Musings really needed was a punchline to free the audience from the joke. A line where the Cancerman doesn't kill Frohike because he got it all wrong. Like that. (Imagine, the original script had Frohike killed; that confused me even more about what Morgan and Wong wanted to do here. Never mind the strange directorial ideas like making the MIDDLE flashback black and white, but not the first.)

Whether it's Frohike or writer Glen Morgan telling this story (or Cancerman under a nom de plume), the attempt to humanize the character is a very bad idea. The whole point is the mystery he represents. Suddenly, he's cold and aloof one minute, but regretful the next; bullying J. Edgar Hoover, then giving his team ties for Christmas; JFK and MLK's assassin, but telling Deep Throat he doesn't want anyone's blood on his hands; and at its worst, a frustrated writer who just wants to be remembered, even though his role is basically writing history as it unfolds. Musings reveals him as an insecure and foolish man, who only smokes on and off, usually to take the edge off when the big stuff happens, or perhaps the way a person might smoke after sex.

But of course, it's all a fake, isn't it? It would be a very Lone Gunmen thing to say, that he basically carried out every conspiratorial assassination in the last 50 years, wouldn't it? By the third chapter, he's getting calls from Saddam and his group is deciding the Oscars and various sports outcomes. The only truthful moment in those jokey scenes is the look on his face when he realizes, after Gorbachev resigns, that there are no enemies left, which is the American anxiety this show represents. Clues that it's all Frohike's overactive imagination include the fact it contradicts the flashback in Apocrypha where the Smoking Man and Mulder Sr. are running their own X-Files, and the pop culture references thrown at the viewer. Cancerman's recruitment to kill JFK is taken right out of Apocalypse Now, and if I was thinking they were making Cancerman into a Bizarro Forrest Gump, I was rewards with a bitter box of chocolates speech at the end! Yes indeed, it tries very hard to be another José Chung, but it doesn't go far enough, it does punch the jokes, and directorially doesn't know how to make those moments make sense.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-Low - It could have been a really fun offbeat episode. Instead, it's a mess that either does harm to an important antagonist, or sinks in its own irrelevance. I'm left here wondering how Morgan and Wong ever created one of my favorite SF dramas of all time, Space: Above and Beyond (fans of that show take note, they slide yet another SAaB actor into the cast - Morgan Weisser, AKA Lt. Nathan West, plays Lee Harvey Oswald).

3 comments:

American Hawkman said...

One of our disagreements, I'm afraid. I loved this episode at the time, and never once interpreted it as even vaguely being accurate. It's a send-up of everyone involved based on their desperate need to humanize someone who just ISN'T, despite his origins. It's no Jose Chung, but it is amusing enough, and the rest of the series happily and blithely ignored it, so no harm done.

Madeley said...

As we touched on in previous comments, I found series four to be quite weak, and it wouldn't surprise me that Carter's interest in getting Millennium off the ground is the culprit.

So much of the X-Files is clearly influenced by Carter's love of Silence of the Lambs, that I can't help wonder if Millennium was the show he ACTUALLY wanted to make- more of a pure serial-killer-profiling show. Of course, Millennium got more supernatural as time went on, maybe because that's what people expected of Carter.

If I was being REALLY mean, I'd accuse not only Carter of getting fed up with the show, but Morgan and Wong being frustrated that they had to go back to the X-Files after their own show failed. It's difficult not to feel that some of the humerous episodes, particularly this one, have some contempt towards the show and its characters. I don't know, maybe after twenty years I'm still an oversensitive fanboy. I definitely enjoy the format-breaking eps more now than I did at the time.

Regarding Space: Above and Beyond, I remember watching it at the time, and liking it well enough, but not enough to ever go back to rewatch it. It definitely had some good final episodes, good enough that I was disappointed it never continued. And there was one episode, "Who Monitors the Birds", that so affected me that I still remember the title to this day. No idea if it would stand up now, but it's certainly stayed with me.

Siskoid said...

AmHawk: I understand that's the intent, but its director doesn't seem to know how to make that come across intelligibly, which is my real gripe here - that everything doesn't actually pull in that direction.

Madeley: I watched Space Above and Beyond relatively recently, and yes, despite its iffy polygonal effects (but if Babylon 5's don't pull you out of the story, these shouldn't either), it still holds up today.

 

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