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ONE PERFECT EPISODE / The X-Files: “The Post-Modern Prometheus” / Emily Costa


Around two-thirds of all X-Files episodes forgo the complicated mythology of the series and showcase monster-of-the-week plotlines. These are stand-alone episodes, the easiest to watch in rerun since you don’t have to review seasons of backstory, don’t have to dust cobwebs from a part of your brain you haven’t used since the ’90s: who’s good, who’s bad, who’s an alien bounty hunter. If you catch one on cable, treat it as a Twilight Zone episode, a one-off that might contain some kernel of truth about human nature, our toxic society. “The Post-Modern Prometheus” stands out since it includes moments that are representative of the series, of the magic that made it appointment television all those years ago.

The episode begins and ends with the punchy, saturated colors of a comic book, but the middle is gorgeous chiaroscuro, all deep shadows and white lightning. The framing device suggests the episode is pure fantasy, that perhaps we shouldn’t take this one too seriously. But then again, the whole series is about belief and skepticism, and this episode is full of that tension, amplified and self-aware. Visually, aurally, Chris Carter is drawing heavily from the 1931 version of Frankenstein, and from The Elephant Man, especially in score and makeup, from Lynch’s beautiful black-and-white; there are even bits of Edward Scissorhands in there, and a wide-angle lens and scenes shot from below add to the unsettling imagery.

The story itself is a retelling of Frankenstein, except the characters are acutely aware of how Frankenstein-y the whole thing is (the “post-modern” part). Mulder and Scully are called to a small town where a monster has impregnated Shaineh Berkowitz, though she remembers nothing and has had a tubal ligation. The same thing happened to her 18 years prior, giving her a son, Izzy. She gets Mulder’s name off of Jerry Springer, where it’s mentioned he was consulted about a human-wolf-hybrid. Here’s the typical Scully/Mulder setup, inserted early and amped up; she’s ever-rational, backed by science, and he’s the “spooky” alien-obsessed dude you call when you’ve just had a wolf baby. Before this, though, we get a glimpse of the monster, dubbed The Great Mutato. We get a great soundtrack, too, with Cher covering “The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore).” Showing the monster right away means, because we know the monster exists, we’re already mostly on Mulder’s side (which we kind of always are, anyway).

Thematically, the episode is a meditation on truth and what belief does to a person –belief in a monster, belief in science, belief you’re doing the right thing. Early on, we see Mulder hint at the troubles he’s had over five seasons. When Shaineh mentions alien abductions, he says, “I don’t even know if I believe in that stuff anymore.” Then, we get another seed of doubt: Izzy has drawn a comic book character that looks exactly like the monster Shaineh describes. Scully presents this as evidence it’s a hoax. Shaineh says yeah, that’s him, but “that don’t mean it didn’t happen.” Things aren’t cut and dry.

The exploration of belief, folklore, and community legends continues as Mulder and Scully watch the town teens try to lure The Great Mutato into view. Scully thinks the townspeople want daytime-talk-show fame, that “these unverified rumors are ridiculous.” Mulder argues that they’re “nonetheless unverifiable, and therefore true in the sense that they’re believed to be true.” The next scene, however, gives points to Scully’s hoax theory; Izzy tapes their conversation and the newspaper prints it: “Agent Admits Stories: ‘BELIEVED TO BE TRUE.’”

As an audience, we volley our belief back and forth as the plot unfolds, like we should in any good X-Files episode. Without giving away too much, we get the mad scientist trope, another pregnancy, a man killed just as Mulder and Scully realize he might be the key to solving the crimes, undeserved monster-scapegoating, and finally, the classic pitchforks-and-torches chase. Upon the agents’ intrusion, The Great Mutato is able to explain the whole thing, also pointing out the way he taught himself: “With your books, and your records, and your home media centers, I learned of the world...” He then refers specifically to Cher, the episode’s other big star. He’s watched Mask over and over, finding some solace, and her songs throughout give the episode a perfect balance of camp and poignancy.

It’s a happy ending, but Mulder says that this isn’t how it’s supposed to end. “Where’s the writer?” he asks. Then we enter a dream-like sequence, an addendum, a fitting epilogue for The Great Mutato. We’re at a Cher concert. The Great Mutato dances, Mulder and Scully have a sweet moment, then it’s freeze-framed, and the story –real, not real, unreal –ends, true only in the sense that it’s believed to be true.

Emily Costa teaches freshmen at Southern Connecticut State University, where she received her MFA. Her writing can be found in Hobart, Barrelhouse, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Memoir Mixtapes, and elsewhere. You can follow her on twitter @emilylauracosta.