The X-Files: Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man

Case: How the Cigarette Smoking Man came to be. In his own words.

Destination: Washington, D.C., Fort Bragg, North Carolina, The Grassy Knoll

Frohike: “If you find the right starting point and follow it, not even the secrets of the darkest of men are safe.”

This episode is where The X-Files went from very good television to great.

The acting, lighting, camera work, editing were all excellent but it was the writing that put it over the top. There have been some shades of grey before but this episode tell us how it is not a conspiracy of evil versus good but rather people who fall into a web of power even if they would rather not and then how they justify their actions to themselves and others. This deepens the show beyond the usual 'us' versus 'the bad guys' story line.

This episode is all about the backstory for Cancerman, so far the villain of the piece. But we find out that in many ways he is just like us. He has hopes and dreams that have been dashed and he has settled for doing a job that he once thought was important but now would resign from the instant he thought he had a choice. The difference is that he is one of the most powerful men in the world. He decides if people live or die, if a country survives or crumbles. It appears that he often holds the fate of the world in his hands and that has only made him cynical and bitter.

In a show about conspiracies, we solve the mystery of several with this one episode. We find out who killed JFK and Martin Luther King (probably Bobby Kennedy as well) and that Roswell was a hoax to deflect attention. Cancerman has been at the centre of many, changing history sometimes single-handedly. We see clearly the connections between Deep Throat, Bill Mulder and Cancerman. He has no friends because he has had to kill them and of course there is no room for family. His only love is writing and it appears that he is terrible at it. He completely changed when he found out that his work would be published. This man who has killed many, was smiling and obsequious with a publisher. He quickly reverted when he found out that they had changed his story. I actually felt terrible for him. He truly believes that he has sacrificed his entire life to keep the world safe.

Cigarette smoking is a continuous symbol throughout this episode (not to mention the series). Cancerman starts out as someone who won't touch a smoke but he starts after he assassinates JFK and then again each time he makes another terrible decision. Smoking cigarettes seems to indicate his resignation to being a 'bad' man, a way to punish himself. And perhaps, this backstory is one of the most terrifying episodes of The X-Files because we find out that the conspiracies we all fear, and Mulder is trying to uncover, are the product not of an evil genius or even a group of all-powerful elites but of a man among men who are bitter and deluded, cynical and hopeless.

Other Thoughts

The opening shot is of a rat scurrying around. Is this also symbolic of Cancerman?

Cancerman is an orphan whose father was executed for treason. This certainly gives him reason to prove himself. It was almost poetic the way Frohike described his childhood.

The stories that Cancerman writes are about him and his life or how he would like to see himself in his life. No wonder he takes the rejection so hard.

Sadaam Hussein on line two. (enough said)

Security Council resolution 1013 indicates that a large chunk of the world is in on this 'secret'.

I didn't understand when Cancerman said he had never killed anybody or anything. Was that because there was no record?

Scully's Masters thesis was titled, “Einstein’s Twin Paradox: A New Interpretation”. So when did she switch to medical school?

The bit with the box of chocolates was brilliant. The homeless man is happily enjoying the chocolates while one of the most powerful men in the world cannot.


Frohike: “Don’t use my name. Now I’ll have to kill you.”

Mulder: “No one would kill you, Frohike. You’re just a little puppy dog.”

Elder Mulder: “Why don’t you just go see the movie?”
Cancerman: “I’d rather read the worst novel ever written than sit through the best movie ever made.”

The General: “Most people, common people really, can barely manage to control their own self-centred, myopic existence. They command armies of lawyers armed with paper weapons attacking with spiteful, vengeful, cowardly litigation. Others operate within elephantine bureaucracies. And then, Captain, there are extraordinary men. Those who must identify, comprehend and ultimately shoulder the responsibility for not only their own existence but their country’s and the world’s as well.” (A come join the army speech if I ever heard one.)

Cancerman: “You’ve enough plausible deniability to last the rest of your nine lives.”

Cancerman: “What I don’t want to see is the Bills winning the Super Bowl. As long as I’m alive that doesn’t happen.”
Agent: “Could be tough sir, Buffalo wants it bad.”
Cancerman: “So did the Soviets in ’80.”

Cancerman: “Yet once again tonight the course of human history will be set by two unknown men standing in the shadows.”

Deep Throat: “I’m the liar, you’re the killer.”
Cancerman: “Your lies have killed more men in a day than I have in a lifetime.”

Cancerman: “Life is like a box of chocolates. A cheap, thoughtless, perfunctory gift that nobody ever asks for. Unreturnable because all you get back is another box of chocolates. So you’re stuck with this undefinable whipped mint crap that you mindlessly wolf down when there’s nothing else left to eat. Sure, once in a while there’s a peanut butter cup or an English toffee, but they’re gone too fast and the taste is fleeting. So you end up with nothing but broken bits filled with hardened jelly and teeth-shattering nuts. If you’re desperate enough to eat those, all you’re left with is an empty box filled with useless brown paper wrappers.”

Cancerman: “I can kill you whenever I please. But not today.”


ChrisB said...

Fantastic review, Doc! I agree that it is one of the most interesting episodes of them all. Oddly, our two heroes never turn up other than in flashbacks, which I also really enjoy seeing again.

I’d rather read the worst novel ever written than sit through the best movie ever made. I have been known to quote this line, although if we're being brutally honest, I don't completely agree with it.


Heather said...

Your review is so awesome. Only in further viewings was I able to get the brilliance of this episode and now I love it. I think when it first aired I saw it (and other that didn't feature Mulder snd Scully) as a dalliance not always worthy. It's just so well-executed.

Laure Mack said...


This episode is brilliant.

Great review, Doc. I felt sorry for the cancer man, too.

Jason Farrell said...

I feel this episode could have been great, but fell well short of the mark. By the end, I didn't feel sorry for him, but rather more contemptuous of him than before. The guy has dedicated his life to manipulating and murdering people with true conviction, people who worked to change the world because they believed in something, and his own dedication to his ideals is so flimsy that a single "yes" letter from a publisher is enough for him to tender his resignation (can you just resign from a conspiracy verging on the Illuminati, anyway...but that's off the point...)

It doesn't help that the symbols in the episode, like his cigarettes, are so blatant. Feeling bad today, CSM? Peel off that nicotine patch. Things looking up a day later? Throw away that pack. Subtlety, thy name is not CSM. The humor is similarly ham-handed. It's hard to believe even a lifelong recluse would be so pathetic.

Finally, William B. Davis is...not the best actor. The actor who portrayed him as a young man is better, so I found that stuff more compelling.

RobinHudMtl said...

Very interesting review. I remember the first time I saw this episode and thought how refreshingly unconventional it was. A rewatch made me like it even better. I admire the fact that we are left with three options:
1 - The episode is simply an exercise of style made for the fan's entertainment and what it relates cannot be considered as canon.
2 - The whole story is true and comes from CSM's point of view recalling his past as he hears Frohike's hypothesis.
3 - This is actually Frohike's hypothesis based on CSM's published story.

I tend to lean on the second one. The Kennedy/King assassination is be bit too much to be real. I mean, they were both killed by the same man? Oh, come on! Frohike did mention he came up with this idea after reading a story in one of his weekly subscriptions, most likely, Jack Colquitt's novel.

Then again, nothing's impossible with CSM and the story is probably based a lot on his experience.

I also just loved how CSM's last words in the episode are the same as his first novel's.

Other thoughts:
- Why is CSM always one step ahead? A counter measures filter? That was a good one!
- I wonder what the editor changed in the ending that made him so upset.
- One can only speculate that the story that was rejected as crap was probably included in the one that's been published years later. Autres temps, autres mœurs.
- ROMAN A'CLEF should be spelled ROMAN À CLEF, unless it is a intended mistake.
- It was established in the Pilot episode that Scully had a degree in physics.

RobinHudMtl said...

Too bad we cannot reedit our posts. But y'all probably figured I believe the third option is the right one.