The X-Files and the Monsters of That Week: John Doe
The ninth season of The X-Files is not just the show’s worst season, by a country mile – it is also one of the worst seasons of television I’ve ever watched. And I’ve watched some stinkers.
For once, this wasn’t just the fault of the show’s mythology: something about super-soldiers, Mulder disappearing again, and William, William, and more fucking William. The monster of the week episodes suffer hugely from the show’s new format as it tries to sell us on a new team, Doggett, and the fan favourite, Monica Reyes (I may have suffered a concussion as my head bounced off the sarcasm of that last statement), and Scully juggling a baby, a new job, and the fact that she used to be the star of this fucking thing.
The consequence of this is a lack of focus – there has to be a place for all three agents in the script which, in turn, dilutes the story to almost imperceptible levels. While there are plenty of candidates for the worst episode of season nine, choosing the best one is remarkably easy. I’ll give you a hint if you’re one of those hipsters that doesn’t read titles (I’ll bet you also leave before a band comes back for an encore because you genuinely believe the show is over), it’s written by Vince Gilligan.
John Doe works because it relies on one thing: when the chips are down John Doggett is a good man. The truth of the matter is that in any other season of the show, John Doe would be a middling-to-good character study. The reason it stands out in season nine is not just its quality compared to the other MOTW, it’s because this is the one episode that feels consistent with the John Doggett we met in season eight, by stripping his characterisation down and building it back up again. I don’t know what happened in the writer’s room, but season nine Doggett feels like a cipher: he actually feels more solid when, in this episode, he doesn’t even know who he is.
That’s the crux of John Doe: an amnesia story that has a better grasp on Doggett than any of the episodes in season nine where he’s himself. It’s also the only episode where he genuinely feels like the star of the show; Vince Gilligan does nothing new with the concept, except to make it the focus of the story rather than a way to lazily prolong the road towards resolution (I’m looking at you, 24 season one). Here we see Doggett, stranded in Mexico, with no idea who he is or how he got there, and even with the temptation of a new life of crime, his deep morals and principles, the kind that don’t wipe as easily as a mind, stay intact. Sure, we have Scully, Skinner, and Reyes in the background looking for Doggett, but he is what makes this episode work.
Doggett is a tropey character, no one is denying that, but there are grace notes in the story of his past trauma that work for me because of how Robert Patrick plays them. Doggett’s dead son is so cliched as to have to meaning whatsoever (it doesn’t come close to Samantha being abducted or Quiequag getting eaten by an alligator) but the way Patrick conveys the way Doggett is completely shattered by learning that, once again, he couldn’t save his son – this small moment is the best that the show does with this plot, focusing on the emotional impact that refuses the kind of half-assed closure Doggett would get later in the run.
John Doe is the last great episode of the original run, and it achieves this by trying its hardest not to be a season nine episode, thus making it the only episode I would rather not forget. Which brings me, sadly, to everything else.
By Kevin Boyle
(header image via Musings of an X-Phile)