The X-Files: The Goldberg Variation

Case: A man is thrown from the top of a building by mobsters, and walks away.

Destination: Chicago, Illinois.

"Come on Scully, I'm feeling lucky."

I love this episode - it's my favourite episode of season seven and a great monster of the week story, though Henry Weems isn't exactly a monster - more like a weird kind of angel, if anything. In fact, that's one of the reasons I like the episode so much. Unlike the vast majority of the series, which tends towards the tragic, this episode is really sweet and, ultimately, focused on good things happening to good people (and bad things mostly happening to bad people, the unfortunate scratch-card player aside).

Mulder and Scully are FBI agents, so they don't usually deal with any remotely positive form of paranormal activity. If no one has been murdered or committed some other federal crime, there's no reason for Mulder and Scully to be there, so inevitably, the 'monsters' they come into contact with tend to be morally as well as physically 'monstrous' (the academic in me really wants to pick apart the way I'm using the terms 'monster' and 'monstrous' here, but in the interests of not letting this turn into a lengthy think-piece, I'll move on!). However, in this case, Henry Weems is a witness to criminal activity and a victim of it, not a participant, so the resulting story is one of the nicest and most uplifting episodes the show has ever produced.

The idea behind the supernatural activity is, perhaps, even more vague than usual. Explanations for Henry's bizarre luck swing between the idea of cause and effect (Henry experiences abnormally good luck from the plane accident onwards, causing those around him to experience abnormally bad luck in the universe's attempt to balance it out) and the idea (expressed more fully in M Night Shyamalan's later movie Signs) that 'everything happens for a reason' (in order for Richie eventually to receive a liver transplant at just the right time, Henry had to experience years of his bizarre luck, among other things).

The two explanations aren't mutually exclusive, but they are subtly different. It is, of course, Mulder who is more enthusiastic about either explanation, but there are a couple of neat tweaks to the now very familiar dynamic between Scully the sceptic and Mulder the believer in this hour. For one thing, Scully's initial scoffing and scientific explanation for Henry's surviving his fall is, in fact, the truth, even if the whole truth is more complicated. And it's interesting that during the climax, while it's Mulder who works out the combination of the forces of cause and effect with everything happening for a reason that sends him to find Henry and Maggie, it's Scully, the more religious of the two, who sees the apparently unconnected, unimportant and coincidental malfunctioning of a lit sign to spell 'Richie', perhaps implying that there is more depth to the 'everything happens for a reason' theory than we realise.

The whole episode has a light and breezy tone that fits the story, but without ever becoming a 'comedy' episode - not that there's anything wrong with those, but part of what's so refreshing about this story is that it is a serious and dramatic story, just a nice one. Mulder and Scully have a very flirty and relaxed vibe between them here, which is fun to watch, with them looking positively giddy just to be in each other's company, snarking aside. 'Nice' seems like a terribly bland word to use repeatedly in a review, but that's exactly what this episode is, and what makes it so good - it's just really, really nice.

Other Thoughts

 - The title refers to Rube Goldberg devices, which Henry builds for fun, and which perform a simple task (like getting a liver donor?) in a ridiculously complicated way. It also plays on the title of Bach's Goldberg Variations.

 - Henry Weems is played by Willie Garson, who will always be Stanford Blatch from Sex and the City to me, but who has also appeared in many other SFF roles, in shows including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a recurring part in Stargate SG-1, and two different roles in Quantum Leap. He usually plays nervous, socially awkward types, whether with a lively vibe, like Stanford, or a nerdier feel, like Martin from SG-1, but check out his performance as Lee Harvey Oswald in Quantum Leap to see a very different performance that gives more of a sense of his range.

 - Richie, meanwhile is played by Shia LaBoeuf! I didn't recognise him at all, and only coincidentally happened to catch his name in the credits. He was much less annoying back when he was a teenager.

Quotes

Scully: You OK, Mulder?
Mulder: Yeah, I'm all right. My ass broke the fall.

Mulder: Maybe his luck is the X-File.

Scully: You think that Weems could have killed him in self-defence?
Mulder: Skinny guy with no depth perception against a man nicknamed 'the Animal'? I don't think so.

Mulder: Maybe your luck is changing.

Just really nice. Four out of four Rube Goldberg devices.

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...

Juliette,
Yes. Nice is a good word. STANFORD! Willie Garson is perfectly cast here (better than he was in The Walk). I can't believe that's Shia L. Hilarious. Thanks for the review. I love this one, too.

Mallena said...

Such a good episode. Loved the banter, Mulder the plumber, and the fun, twisty plot. Any episode that has M and S joking and acting so in synch with each other is a win.