The X-Files: Hungry

Case: A body is discovered with the brain removed, and a blood-spattered badge from a Lucky Boy Burgers restaurant left with it.

Destination: Costa Mesa, California.

"I guess it makes me feel like I'm not a good person."

The identity of the killer in this episode isn't a mystery - the audience cotton on early that Mulder is right and Rob Roberts is the culprit, and this is confirmed in the second act. That's because the focus of this episode is not on Mulder and Scully's investigation, but on the inner struggle of the killer.

This isn't the first episode of The X-Files to devote considerable time to the villain and their psychology - lots of episodes have devoted considerable screen-time to the villains and their movements, and the third season's 'D.P.O.' in particular showed the audience a lot of the killer's psychology over the course of the episode. There is, however, an even stronger focus on the villain and his ultimately unsuccessful attempt to avoid villainy in this episode, in which Rob Roberts truly becomes the focal point of the story.

The choice of this type of X-Files villain for this episode is interesting. The implication is not that Rob is like a vampire, who needs to kill humans to survive. He bears a lot of similarity to classic liver-eating X-Files villain Eugune Victor Tooms, though even in that case, for Tooms to live in the manner that he did and for as long as he did, the liver-eating was essential. Rob, however, feels an irresistible compunction to eat human brains. It doesn't seem like he needs them to survive, but he struggles to resist the urge to eat them, like an urge to consume drugs or alcohol, or excessive amounts of regular, non-human-brain food.

This is a good choice for an episode highlighting the villain. We sympathise with Rob to an extent. He genuinely seems to want to control his urges and does not have any malicious desire to hurt people (unless they blackmail him). For an episode following the villain so closely, that's essential. On the other hand, the implication is that Rob could survive on non-human food - he would be hungry, but still alive. This means that, although sympathetic, ultimately he remains a villain, a person who chooses to hurt people unnecessarily.

I'm not sure about the reveal of Rob's 'monstrous' true appearance. It's squickily effective, but it does rather underline his identity as a 'monster'. I guess that's necessary, considering he has an uncontrollable urge to eat human brains, but I feel like the story might be more effective if he was a normal guy with a weird compunction, rather than more obviously a 'monster'.

This is a fairly straightforward episode, and the heavy focus on a guest character means that some of the strengths of The X-Files - Mulder and Scully's relationship, and their dialogue - don't get much of a chance to shine. But it's engaging, and interesting, and it's hard not to feel for poor Rob as he spirals downwards, even when that downward spiral involves him eating human brains. The cannibalistic part may be an horrific extreme, but most people have surely experienced some kind of craving for something that's forbidden or a bad idea for some reason, making him a villain we can all sympathise with, even though we know he must be stopped. For that reason especially, his final decision to commit suicide-by-FBI-agent is really quite poignant.

Other Thoughts

 - Mulder jumps to 'maybe the brain was eaten' awfully quickly, even for him. Scully just looks affectionately amused.

 - Mark Pellegrino is almost creepier here than when he plays actual Lucifer on Supernatural.

Quotes

Rob: I'm sorry, but this is like, good cop, insane cop.

Final Analysis: An interesting experiment in a flipped point of view. Three out of four ill-advised snacks.

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

2 comments:

Heather said...

Great review, Juls. I agree with so much of what you said. Mark Pellegrino is very well cast. Loved the 12 step program scenes/references. Gilligan really knows his stuff when it comes to addiction and compulsion.

ChrisB said...

I liked this one on the re-watch better than I remembered. It's interesting to see Mulder and Scully from the villain's point of view. And, I agree, there is a lot to sympathize with here. Gilligan's writing, once again, is elegant. I love listening to the words he puts on a screen.