The X-Files: Kaddish

Case: With the investigation into the brutal murder of a Jewish shop-owner barely begun, one of the chief suspects turns up dead, with his late victim's fingerprints on his throat.

Destination: Brooklyn, New York

"You think they killed my friends with just words?"

There are two over-arching themes to this episode. One is death and the finality of it. I happened to be reading a moving article about the treatment of death and the (over)-use of resurrection in genre fiction the other day, which I couldn't help thinking of during this episode.* I couldn't help wincing in places as I read it, because nearly all of my favourite genre shows have been guilty of 'cheapening' death in places, to the extent that I was watching a cop show the other week and a main character was killed, and I half expected him to get up from the morgue because main characters don't stay dead in the shows I watch...

The X-Files has occasionally been guilty of this sort of thing as well, but to its credit, despite all the ghosts, vampires, revenants, etc., it messes around with life and death far less often than many of my other favourite shows. This episode is a reminder of the fact that for most part if you die in The X-Files, you stay dead, and a particularly moving one in the light of Scully's cancer diagnosis in the previous episode. Ariel tried to bring back her fiance, but what she brought back wasn't him - he was gone and the thing that looked like him was a monster (I was reminded of Buffy's 'Forever', which of course post-dates this episode, and deals with similar subject matter equally effectively). Ariel's story is almost unbearably tragic and her final goodbye beautifully bittersweet.

The other main theme is words and the power of words. Throughout the episode, various characters make references to the power of words, whether through printed pamphlets, or flung in someone's face, or in a book. The hateful words spread by neo-Nazi Carl Brunjes led to the brutal death of Isaac Luria at the hands of Brunjes' employees, while Jacob Weiss laments the ineffectiveness of his own words to the police and his daughter defends him, saying his rage was just 'angry words'.

Unsurprisingly, this culminates in the revelation of a golem as the murderer taking revenge on Isaac's killer. I have to confess, I had never heard of golems until I read Terry Pratchett's fantasy novel Feet of Clay, and I didn't realise they were a Jewish legend until I saw this episode years later (since the fantasy realm of the Discworld doesn't have real word religious or ethnic groups). I know almost nothing about them, though between Supernatural and reviews I've read of that show, and what I've got from the Discworld, I've gathered that they are supposed to protect the Jewish people in times of trouble, and that they are given life by words (written on a scroll in some cases, written on the hand here). Isaac's death was the result of centuries of hateful words, and his death is avenged by words given a rather more literal power.

I love this episode. Ariel's story is a lovely examination of grief and the difficulty in saying goodbye, while the golem itself is a reminder of both the permanence of death (earth to earth) and the power of the right (or wrong) words in the right (or wrong) place and time. It's also beautifully shot and played - a little too literally dark in places, but not being able to see the golem properly makes it more effective as a mysterious, shadowy presence. The idea of spirit without body or 'form' in a ghost is creepy enough, but the idea of body without spirit, especially that of a loved one, is both even more creepy and upsetting, and much closer to real experience for most of us, who may never have seen a ghost, but at some point will be faced with a loved one's body.

*I don't entirely agree with everything in the article (it's perhaps a bit harsh on Guardians of the Galaxy), but I do think in places it's spot on (Star Trek) and, of course, being a personal reaction piece, whether or not I agree is completely beside the point, as it's about one writer's very personal feelings on the subject. It's well worth a read.

Other Thoughts

 - According to Wikipedia, the ring is a real Jewish ring belonging to a rabbi and Holocaust survivor.

 - Wikipedia also informs me that 'kaddish' is a Jewish mourning prayer. It also appears to be a poem by Alan Ginsberg.

 - The revelation of the huge swastika on Brunjes' wall felt a bit unnecessary to me. His obvious antisemitism was awful enough by itself, and the reveal of all the neo-Nazi paraphernalia seemed a bit superfluous, as surely his evil would be more chilling if it were more ordinary and less ostentatious. Making him so obviously a neo-Nazi seems to imply that this kind of hatred is spread chiefly by obvious extremists, and seems to me to let those who think and say hateful things without going so far as to have a Nazi flag on their wall off too lightly.

 - This episode sort-of-implies without really committing to it that Mulder is Jewish, or has Jewish heritage. Mulder doesn't reply to Brunjes' assertion that he looks Jewish (which could easily be simply because he didn't want to dignify Brunjes' bile with a response) and he doesn't know Hebrew, but the way Kim Manners directs the episode, with the camera lingering on Mulder and his reactions far more than Scully (who is, of course, wearing her cross necklace throughout), seems to assume that he may be more affected by the case than she is.

 - The score for this episode heavily features stringed instruments and is deliberately reminiscent of John Williams' beautiful score for Schindler's List.


Scully: You haven't heard the rumours?
Brunjes: What rumours?
Scully: That Luria is back from the dead? That he's risen from his grave?
Brunjes: What kind of Jew trick is this?
Mulder: A Jew pulled it off two thousand years ago.

Scully: What is she doing?
Mulder: Saying goodbye.

Final Analysis: Heartbreaking. Four out of four incredibly dark but beautiful scenes where it's kind of hard to see what's going on, but whatever it is, it's very affecting.

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.


Heather said...

I loved reading your review. Your final analysis is great in many ways. I agree with what you said about the beauty of the episode and the richness of the subject matter, wholeheartedly. Wonderful job. :)

Heather said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Juliette said...

Thanks Heather :) I love this episode.

drnanamom said...

What Heather said :) Golems are an interesting 'monster' in that they are created by humans and for very specific reasons. I really enjoyed reading "The Golem and the Jinni" which deals with supernatural creatures in a bit of a different way.

ChrisB said...

i Had forgotten how good this episode is. Mulder's line, that you quote, is one of my favorite of the entire series. Even better is the smile that Scully gives him immediately after.

Beautiful review, Juliette. I love your point about the power of words.

ChrisB said...

I've been around Apple products for too long. iHad instead of I had...


RobinHudMtl said...

Great review. Very touching episode with a wonderful score. I totally agree with you. The Nazi flag really was not necessary and obvious extremists don't have the monopoly of being assholes. I must admit I was kinda siding with this Monster of the Week, except maybe for his attempt to kill Ariel's father. The episode would have been better off without it.

If the main characters don't stay dead after they die in the shows you watch, you've obviously not been following Games of Thrones! Being an actor in that show is clearly not a safe job.

Juliette said...

Thank you :) No comment on Game of Thrones, otherwise we'll end up in a crazily speculative book vs TV show conversation that could go on for ages...! ;)