Thursday, October 14, 2010

The X-Files: Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man (4.7)

This is undoubtedly a strong episode. It's also one that works on a variety of different levels, subverting expectations at repeated junctures, advancing the scope of the show's tone and of the history of the world our protagonists occupy, as well as raising some fun questions about the show as a whole: conspiracies within conspiracies, and the elusive truth that hides somewhere between fact and fiction. The Cigarette-Smoking Man's elaborate history, detailed here, is by turns shocking and pretty ridiculous, creating an episode that is pretty darn spectacular in what it wants to achieve.

We're never enlightened about the actual truth of the CSM's past, and I like it that way. It's interesting that so much of the episode is pretty polarizing to me. I loved the flashbacks to the various assassinations the CSM was supposedly involved with, as well as the dark humor of the origins of his smoking. But, at the same time, my belief in any of this actually happening is distorted by my preconceptions of the man himself. I always assumed CSM was an underling, an insignificant piece of an enormous jigsaw puzzle. He's a loser, responsible for nothing and desperately clinging on to whatever power he believes he may have. So, seeing him loosely connected to some of the most eventful moments in U.S. history is almost disappointing. Which is why so much of it can't possibly be true. Can it? It's a great question the episode hinges on. Is it fact? Or an elaborate piece of fiction not out of place in one of Frohike's wacky conspiracy magazines?

I've never been one to think that William B. Davis was a particularly strong actor. I guess he fulfils the characters shallow transparency and sleazy punch-ability, but he's never actually impressed me. He didn't really change my mind here. Chris Owens is remarkable as the younger version of the man, making a parentally-challenged and both bitter and lonely character so vivid in his emotional depth. This didn't really work later on with Davis. His scenes as he tears open publisher letters and speaks to homeless people on park benches were pretty awful. I'm assuming Morgan and Wong were aiming for pastiche here (especially in the scene discussing rigged Oscar results - immediately conjuring a Stonecutters vibe, heh), but I don't know if Davis really got the joke. Ugh. I just don't like the guy.

I believe that only part of this episode is truth. Truth in itself is usually distorted and sensationalized beyond all measure through the ages, and I like that Musings is essentially a commentary on that belief. While part of the episode is surely rooted in some form of fact, it gets to the point where the conspiracy becomes so elaborate and straight-up silly that you have to assume its fiction. Morgan and Wong deserve major kudos for creating something so intriguing, even if it doesn't work on totally all levels. But it looks and feels like a welcome experiment for the show, right down to the cool title cards pre-facing each new act. It's pretty remarkable as an episode, even if it isn't completely flawless. Rating B+

Credits
Guest stars William B. Davis (The Cigarette-Smoking Man); Chris Owens (Young CSM); Morgan Weisser (Lee Harvey Oswald); Donnelly Rhodes (General Francis); Tom Braidwood (Melvin Frohike); Bruce Harwood (John Fitzgerald Byers); Jerry Hardin (Deep Throat)
Writer Glen Morgan Director James Wong

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