I saw that this episode made TV Guide's Best Television Episodes Ever at #10. I was shocked. Don't get me wrong, it's a great episode. It has solid writing, an exciting plot, and it is well paced. However, there was nothing about the episode that screamed "best episode ever' to me.
Superbly embodied veteran character actor the late Peter Boyle, Clyde Bruckman is surely one of the more tragic and courageous figures to ever cross the X-Files screen. Even Fox Mulder, who says he envies Bruckman's gift, does not have the courage to face the knowledge of his own death. Bruckman himself fears and loathes his power. Unable to tame his own wild talent, he gives in to despair, denying all hope of change. Of course, by retreating to this passivity, he guarantees that his visions will come true. He fails, for example, to warn Mrs. Lowe of her impending fate, fails to warn Detective Havez of his imminent murder. Left in ignorance, of course, these individuals cannot make the choices that might avert their ends, and events fall out as Bruckman foresaw. This moral cowardice in an otherwise appealing character was unsettling, but entirely believable, and served to delineate Bruckman even more clearly as a living, breathing, flawed human being.
The setting for this morality play is simple: Mulder and Scully are called in to consult with St. Paul cops who are trying to find a serial killer preying on fortune tellers. Gruesome as the murders are, even more grotesque is the performance of "The Stupendous Yappi", a TV- prophet fakir of such obvious shallowness that he makes last season's "Dr. Blockhead" look like a pillar of rectitude. When a body is discovered by Clyde Bruckman, a reluctant oracle, Mulder is delighted to find an actual, genuine psychic involved in the case. His eager-beaver questioning ("Pinch me!"), in which he treats Bruckman like a lab rat to be poked and prodded for answers, reveals the insatiable curiosity behind Mulder's "obsession" with the supernatural. Clearly an expert in various forms of divination, from anthropomancy to tea-leaf reading, Mulder is overjoyed to find a real psychic on whom to test his theories. Scully, who does not believe in psychic ability, is free to treat Bruckman as a real human being, and the relationship between them moves from strained tolerance to a warm understanding. Perhaps unconsciously, Bruckman reacts to this treatment by telling Scully that she will not die, and then turns around and keeps the pesky Agent Mulder up all night by telling him horror stories.
Throughout "Clyde Bruckman" the tension between Mulder, pressing for more information, and Bruckman, reluctant to exercise a talent which has never made any difference in people's lives anyway, drives the show through deeper and deeper layers of angst and dread. Mulder, clearly in the free- will camp, demands information which will let him act. Bruckman, convinced all action is unavailing because the future has already been written, sees the engagement of his powers only as a painful exercise in futility. Both men's points of view are borne out, as the incidents foretold by Bruckman come to pass--but with a different twist. Bruckman accurately foretells Mulder's assault in the kitchen--which permits Mulder to defend himself effectively.
Morgan plays diabolically clever jokes on us. Scully plays poker with a clairvoyant--not a bright idea--who holds the infamous "Aces and Eights" Dead Man's Hand that Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he died. But Morgan, typically, goes Wild Bill one better--Bruckman is holding a full house whereas Hickok was only holding a measly two pair. The in-joke is doubled in value and we get twice the kick out of it. At the end of the episode, we see a clip from a Laurel and Hardy film, with excellent special effects that make the duo look like skeletons. We are reminded simultaneously of the skeleton that Clyde Bruckman dreamed of, and for those movie fanatics among us, of the "real" Clyde Bruckman, the scriptwriter who worked for Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy, who committed suicide. This level of subtlety is almost fiendish.
Director David Nutter rings in with some truly wonderful moments: the wordless instant of horrified recognition between the killer and Clyde Bruckman, the infinitely gentle look of pity on Scully's face as she sits beside Bruckman's body, the stark terror in Mulder's face as his throat is cut in the fantasy sequence. The pacing of the opening sequences--almost cartoonish in their garish light and sprightly movement--contrast very energetically with the brooding, somber displays of Bruckman's despair and resignation. Scully standing like an avenging Valkyrie in the service elevator, shooting down the killer without blinking an eye, drew outright applause from me. The scene in the forest where the team is hunting a body, which ends with Scully, Mulder and Bruckman dwarfed by the huge trees and thick ferns, lent balance to the scenes where we are so intently focused on a grimace, a blink, a smile.
Morgan resists the temptation to make the nameless killer of this episode more important than he is. In a whodunit like this, for example, there is no point in looking for a motive. The motives of psychotic killers are beyond our comprehension anyway, and to have elaborate psychological profiles of them may well be a waste of time. Bruckman explains the killer to himself at the end: "Don't you get it? You do the things you do because you're a homicidal maniac!" While this is like explaining that someone is fat because they are obese, it is still true. There is no point in seeking a deeper motive than disconnected psychosis.
Bruckman's sly tease to Mulder, wherein he hints that Mulder will die of autoerotic asphyxiation, made me laugh until I cried. Mulder's quote from "Chantilly Lace" alone--"you know what I like" stole the scene. The joke of having Scully park on the body they are looking for, the slyness of having the frustrated Clyde Bruckman identifying Mulder's own Knicks' T- shirt from "Beyond the Sea" (and then having Mulder deny it!), and the sheer silliness of The Stupendous Yappi's scene-stealing eyebrows are examples of black humor at its finest.
I cannot close without adding that the relationship between Mulder and Scully *has* definitely changed in this episode, and for the better. The teasing is back--you would have to kill Mulder to stop him from teasing--and the teamwork is back, even better. Scully and Mulder back one another to the hilt. Mulder drops his gun, naturally, but finally Scully does not. And Morgan's skill is echoed by Duchovny and Anderson, who manage to show us Mulder's skeptical side and Scully's nascent "believer" side without distorting either character. It is tough to do that, and they did it very, very well.
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