The X-Files and the Monsters of That Week: The Post-Modern Prometheus

by thethreepennyguignol

Written and directed by showrunner, Chris Carter, The Post-Modern Prometheus is one of the most popular episodes of The X-Files original run.

Its mix of Universal monster-style black-and-white cinematography, comic tone, and riffs on the Jerry Springer show (a worldwide hit at the time that dwarfed even The X-Files’ fame) go together to make an episode that seems to go down easy. That is, until the hypocrisy at the heart of the story is revealed. 

I’ve seen this episode multiple times. I do find it funny, as I do any time Mulder and Scully get to flex their comedic muscles, but there seems to be something I’m seeing in this episode that others either don’t want to see or are missing completely.

The “monster” of the episode, a two-faced abomination with an apparent heart of gold, is treated with sympathy from Carter and eventually the townspeople at the episode’s heart and Mulder and Scully. This seems odd, considering that this benevolent, misunderstood soul was gassing and impregnating the town’s women without their consent. Whether he was using science (which would make it medical rape, a concept that Carter betrayed his lack of awareness of only a couple of years ago) or doing it the old fashioned way, this episode might as well be called Sympathy for the Rapist.

What is even worse is that, with this episode, Carter is trying to reverse the show’s position on this issue. Kidnapping and medical rape is exactly what happened to Scully in season two, in fact, the two-part mythology episode Christmas Carol and Emily deal with the consequences of those experiments. It’s a real case of tonal whiplash when the show is saying that rape is okay in one episode while directly following it we have to forget all of that and snap back to the obvious opinion that this is wrong, as long as the “right” person is victimised.

I do feel sorry for the monster in this episode: he’s only trying to make people happy, and in a nauseating Jerry Springer clip at the end of the episode (though it is a fantasy sequence), the town’s women love their two-faced babies, but the truth is that there is no possible justification for the monster’s actions. He may not be the Cigarette Smoking Man, who plays God like this on a daily basis and with Scully herself later in the show, but his actions are still reprehensible. 

I still don’t understand why The Post-Modern Prometheus is so popular. For me, it’s not only the worst episode of season five, it’s one of the worst episodes of the whole series. What was Carter thinking? Did he really think that style and a comedic tone would mask the fact that he as going against one of the main beliefs of the show – and, indeed, one of the least controversial, that medical rape is inherently unacceptable and unforgivable?

He, himself, as the leader of the show’s mythology, is the person who created that stance against the very thing this monster does to feel normal, the very thing that is treated with profound sympathy and comedic brush-offs. It’s quite frankly baffling that this episode exists in the first place. I know Carter was the boss, but could, say, Vince Gilligan or Frank Spotnitz have pointed out the hypocrisy to him? Something like “He,y boss, why is rape, medical or otherwise bad when it happens to Scully, but it’s okay when it happens to hicks who just want to be on Jerry Springer?” 

This episode, for all its pretty style, is one that fundamentally goes against a core tenet of the show so far, and with such baffling ignorance that I don’t think I’ll ever not hate it. Or maybe it’s just all too post-modern for me.

By Kevin Boyle

(header image via Musings of an X-Phile)