The X-Files #222: Theef

"Stinky's good."
ACTUAL DOCUMENTED ACCOUNT: Appalachian folk magic is used to get revenge on an esteemed doctor.

REVIEW: An effective horror story, Theef is full of win thanks to its neat dodging of several clichés, the most important of which is that the Appalachian villain isn't presented as an inbred hick. He comes from a low-tech American culture where a kind of folk magic is practiced, and though he commits terrifying "remote" murders through a kind of voodoo, he's nevertheless a father who has suffered a great loss, and therefore sympathetic, if unhinged. He's smart and deliberate and able to improvise. The episode proceeds like a mystery, the villain's methods and motivations hidden until brought to light either by the victimized physician or the FBI agents. Body horror punctuates the narrative to make the eventual threat to Scully tense and palpable.

The second surprise is that the doctor doesn't turn out to have a dark and dirty skeleton in his closet (so to speak). If he's guilty of anything, it's that he stole at most 20 minutes of a girl's life by easing her suffering with morphine as she lay dying. In the episode's world view, he might have stolen the possibility of a last-minute miracle from her. Doctors do this, and Scully says she would have done the same. Is it wrong? Is life so sacred that 20 minutes of excruciating pain has a value? For her distraught father, there is question, and it justifies his killing of two of the doctor's family members (but not his daughter, poignantly). Murder and revenge are wrong of course, but emotionally understandable, just as the doctor's decision was. None of this is couched in some kind of trite debate about euthanasia, leaving the question open-ended, as it should be. No absolutism here.

Which brings us to the third upended cliché. Mulder and Scully are mostly presented AS absolutes, believer and unbeliever. The running gag in Theef is Scully keeping Mulder guessing. She surprises him by accepting the hex magic, or at least its intent, and in the end, is the one pondering the medical dilemma stated above, open to the possibility that the father might have saved the daughter magically had he been given the time. Though still a skeptic, Scully is moving towards a POV that will work on an X-Files without Mulder. Which is not to say that the father could have saved her since he wasn't present. One of the things that's never addressed is just why this girl was on a bus to San Francisco if she came from an isolated West Virginian mountain community. Looks like she was escaping, and so the father's breakdown must be seen through that admittedly ambiguous lens. Is he perhaps transferred his guilt at having driven her away?

- A tight, effective horror story that resists its set-up's common tropes.



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