The X-Files: Unruhe

Case: A young woman has been kidnapped. The only evidence left behind is a strange photograph of her image.

Destination: Traverse City, Michigan

'Unruhe' is what you get when you lace sociopathy, amateur lobotomies, dentistry, psychic photography (see Ted Serios' thoughtographs here), nightgowns, drywall stilts, 'howlers', Twilight Sleep and Vince Gilligan together. This episode is truly a snowflake unlike any other. It's also, in my humble opinion, the most devoted homage to Silence of the Lambs that The X-Files produced.

'Unruhe' lays out our fears in much of the same way as its antecedent. The idea that we are going along in our regular routinized life and can be, in a single second, plucked from that existence into something so far beyond traumatic it doesn't have a proper name is the concept SotL offered us as an enlightened reflection of our illusion of safety in the world. Gilligan takes it a step further. He keeps close tabs on our psychic distance to the story, never letting us move to a place where we feel secured, away from our unease. Sure, Gerry Schnauz (played memorably by Pruitt Taylor Vince, the actor you cast when you want wounded and terrifying to occupy the same space) has a pathology made up of childhood awfulness that makes him more human than monster. And there was a deliberate effort to portray any extraordinary ability he had as largely unknown to him, therefore only known to our heroes who are never not in hot pursuit, giving them an edge. But like every great episode of this show that stands out as singular in its own way, these are choices made in service to the horror, so that we're not unnerved within an inch of our lives -- they are purposeful things that make the terror watchable. (Season 4 reigns supreme over every other season in this regard.)

It's all right there, in the teaser, this condensed embodiment of terror. Mary Lefante bounces out of the pharmacy to her car to grab her wallet. With no witness in sight, no possible indication of danger of any kind, she is pricked on her shoulder, from behind, by a hypodermic needle filled with morphine and scopolamine, a cocktail that quickly (but not quickly enough) renders someone's body, mind and will useless. The scariest line of dialogue uttered in the whole episode follows as she stumbles to the driver's side of the car to address her boyfriend, "Billy, someone did something to me." But he can't help her. He's dead. Ambushed -- a lit cigarette still in between his lips. And we're left with whatever grasp is even possible of her realization that this is really happening. All of this with the devil's rain (pouring rain with sunshine) as the scrim.

But because this show is most happy at an eleven, there is also the scene where Mulder unknowingly explains to Scully, over the phone while he's far away in DC, that who she's currently looking at, a few feet in front of her, towering over on metal stilts, at a desolate construction site, is the man responsible for an inconceivable crime against another human -- a woman, in fact. No warning for Scully. No distance from the action for the audience. Every word Mulder says to Scully is one he says to us since we are all collectively realizing that this is really happening. It's the "the call is coming from inside the house" moment that incites panic and dismay heretofore unknown.

I've said before that Gilligan wrote the shite out Mulder and Scully. His understanding of continuity is just more sophisticated than most any other TV writer I have ever known. Now that The X-Files is well-comfortable in its own fourth season skin, Mulder and Scully can be uniquely individualized, relying on their own distinctive skills with great success (what better way to dramatize the greatness of what makes us, well, us), always aware of their immutable attachment to the other and their commitment to the truth, come what may. But not every writer understood this in the same way. When the two are bantering in the pharmacy about what could possibly have caused the passport photo to come out like it did, Scully rattles off a perfectly plausible list then looks at Mulder, pauses and smiles. They both do. It's partially that connected acknowledgment, "We've done this routine so many times, we are pretty adorable". But there's also an underlying recognition that it's because of the other one that this routine even exists -- that their partnership is like 1+1=3. That rare third thing that is as unexplainable and indefinable as any x-file they face. Who the hell would even dare to juxtapose this relationship, highlighted in just this way, with the depth of fear contained in the story of 'Unruhe'? A show that's doing its own thing.

Other Thoughts

*You guys, Scully took German in college!

*The story was in part inspired by Howard Unruh. Why am I not surprised that Vince Gilligan read the Time Life books about serial killers and mass murderers at an impressionably young age.

*The role of Gerry Schnauz was written for Pruitt Taylor Vince – Gilligan was a huge fan.

*Gerry’s last name was a dedication to Vince’s school chum and contemporary, Thomas Schnauz (who would go on to become a staff writer for The X-Files and The Lone Gunmen, as well as a big part of the Breaking Bad writers’ room.) (Oh, writers.)

*I think Vince Gilligan has the unparalleled gift of taking things like pop culture and unexpectedly plugging them into his characterizations and stories. This ultimately infuses his writing with layers upon layers of meaning. And fun. And horror. “It’s just a damn passport photo, it’s not the cover of Vogue.” In 18 years, I have never forgotten that line.

*File this under: Dentists DO have a sense of humor! Gilligan's DDS, upon his next visit to his dentist after 'Unruhe' aired had a new sign posted in the office that read, "Twilight Sleep".

*The episode was not the fourth one shot of Season 4 even though it was chosen to run fourth in the series' eventual line-up. 'Unruhe' marked the switch to the coveted Sunday night slot where it would reside for the rest of its run. The creatives felt this episode encapsulated the show most completely (of the four possible episodes to debut in the new time slot, one being the mythology-based 'Herrenvolk', another being 'Home').

*Finally, and now for this episode's great piece of The X-Files lore, they had to invent the leucotome that Schnauz used out of their own 'active' imaginations since no local hospitals would entertain showing or lending them a tool that performs ice pick lobotomies.


Scully: “Your film’s out of date.”
Druggist: “Is that against the law?”

Mulder: “So, which one of us gets to use the stun gun on Bruno Hauptmann back there?”

Scully: “The photographic chemistry could have changed. The dyes… fade, they -- all right, so what’s your theory?”

Mulder: “Yeah, but why would she stab her boyfriend through the ear? The magic was gone?”

Mulder: "It says here you have a sister. Where is your sister, Gerry?"
Gerry Schnauz: "She passed..."
Mulder: "Actually, it says here she committed suicide in 1980. God, that was a bad year. What else happened in 1980, Gerry?"
Gerry Schnauz: "Well, John Lennon got shot..."

Final Analysis: Really, really scary. And really, really good. My chills had chills.

1 comment:

ChrisB said...

Great review, as always, Heather. You got me to look at the episode in an entirely different way. I've never been a huge fan of this one, but after reading your review, I could see where the greatness in it lies.