Red Museum, the episode prior to Excelsis Dei in The X-Files second season, featured a character who was a peeping tom and, as Mulder observed, kept videotapes of a young boy amongst his “private movie studio”. Excelsis Dei opens with a scene depicting sexual assault by a spectral spirit, whilst the episode that follows, Aubrey, has a plot that was put in motion by a rape and is a story centred around a violent serial killer cutting the words “brother” or “sister” into his victim’s chest depending on gender.
While season one of The X-Files had a dark atmosphere, many of the stories and the style of the show conveyed more of a chiller vibe with science fictional and horror overtones, but season two has upped the ante considerably in terms of just how dark the world of Mulder and Scully is. Many episodes into this second season are showing that The X-Files world is a considerably dark and violent one. It’s hard to imagine the first season featuring peeping toms, spectral rape or murder being depicted the way it is in Aubrey or Irresistible, the following episode.
Excelsis Dei is an especially grim episode and says a lot about how it fits in more with season two than it would do with season one. Sure enough, spectral spirits haunting a convalescence home could have been done easily in the first season, but its hard to imagine a season one episode opening with a sequence as disturbing as this one does.
Being a network television series, nothing too graphic is shown, the scene cuts away to an empty corridor filled with screams. The episode that follows, however, looks as if it’s going to about sexual violence and sexual harassment, but in the end turns into a horror movie version of the Robin Williams/Robert De Niro movie Awakenings, concerning itself with a group of Alzheimer’s patients who come out their illness due to what can only be described as”magic pills”, provided to them by an orderly.
If you were watching this episode for the first time, you might find it impossible to imagine that during the course of that incredibly disturbing teaser that the eventual destination for the story would be “magic pills”, but really the sexual assault and the somewhat horrifying treatment and lack of sympathy that the victim of the crime, Michelle Charters (Teryl Rothery from Stargate SG-1), receives from those around her are merely just a springboard for an entirely different story and it’s hard to really forgive the episode for that.
For the first act of the episode there appears to be a complete disregard to Michelle’s claims. Mulder is deeply cynical because there has never been evidence to support the idea of spectral rape, her fellow employees are horrible, and only Scully seems to be taking the claim seriously.
Whilst Scully’s serious attitude towards the case in the early stages is well played by Anderson, Mulder’s attitude is a surprise. I imagine Paul Brown’s script is trying to hammer home the idea that a male won’t take the claim as seriously because…well…he’s a guy, but throughout the show as a whole Mulder has always been shown to be compassionate and open to everything that comes his way in terms of the cases and his attitude here rings hollow, as if written by someone who doesn’t quite grasp the character or his beliefs.
In fact, this characterisation flies in the face of subsequent episodes we’ll get where Mulder is actually very sensitive to female characters who are somewhat maligned, misjudged or not believed by society, such as Oubliette in season three, or season five’s Mind’s Eye.
The episode itself is not a terrible one, but it’s somewhat of a muddled and wasted opportunity. The setting of the old people’s home, along with its atmospheric use of long corridors, are conveyed on-screen wonderfully, Stephen Surjik’s direction actually complementing a weaker script pretty well, but the script does let the episode down terribly. In reality there are two great threads for an X-Files episode here, but in trying to combine the rape investigation with a haunted old people’s home, the episode somewhat falters with both.
In comparison, Aubrey is a wonderfully dark and emotional tale which gets everything correct. It’s one of those well told little stories that makes The X-Files such a terrific show. The story is strong and it plays with feminine themes superbly throughout and features great work from David and Gillian, as well as a very strong guest cast.
On top of being Terry Quinn’s first appearance in a Ten Thirteen series, we also get a superb central guest performance from Deborah Strang as BJ Morrow, the detective at the heart of the episode’s tale.
Incredibly violent and bloody throughout, the episode pulls no punches in its depiction of a violent serial killer and makes for an incredibly dark double bill with the episode that follows it. Like Excelsis Dei, the episode has a part of its story that is linked to a horrible act of sexual violence, but whereas the previous episode somewhat crudely used that story simply to set up a “ghosts in its old people’s home” setting, Aubrey handles its themes somewhat more intelligently and with a well judged sensitivity.
It is also one of the very few episodes of the show to be credited to a female writer.
Sara B.Charno’s script is a wonderfully constructed thriller. It has a wonderful guest character at the centre of it and is complimented wonderfully by, once again, cinematic direction from Rob Bowman; its dark atmosphere fits in beautifully with the tone that the second season has been developing superbly.
There is a lot of blood to be seen in the episode, perhaps more than any episode of the show to date; the visual of the words “brother” and “sister” carved into the chests of the victims is incredibly horrific and memorable, and visually nasty by 90’s network television standards, but Charno’s script sensibly knows that bloody violence and intense set pieces are not enough without a great story and characters to back it and Aubrey has this worked out wonderfully.
The story dictates that, unfortunately, BJ is the present day murderer at the end of the episode, as well as the child that was the result of Mrs Thibedeaux’s rape by Cokely, whose acts of violence in the 1940’s set in motion the episode’s present day events. Although such a twist could be seen to be doing a great disservice to what has been a wonderfully developed guest character and one that we have really come to like through her scenes helping out Mulder and Scully, the three characters making for a lovely trio throughout, Aubrey is in the end a narrative that is effectively a tragedy that follows through in its themes of genetic memory and violence to a somewhat bitter and poignant end. It doesn’t cop-out emotionally, even if there is a sense of uncertainty going forward into the future for many of these characters.
In front of the camera every one is superb. Morgan Woodward is creepy and unsettling as Cokely, especially when he refers to Scully as “little sister”, Terry O’Quinn brings a touch of humanity to the very flawed Detective Tillman, and Joy Coghil is heartbreaking as Mrs Thibideaux, selling the emotions and words with the utmost conviction, the scene where Mulder and Scully talk to her and she reveals that she had a child as a result of her rape is deeply emotional and superbly portrayed, with no sensationalism whatsoever.
Deborah Strang is the standout performer of the episode. Detective Morrow’s journey is gripping and genuinely sympathetic and whilst the twist demands that her character do a complete turn into the realm of psychosis, both Charno’s script and Strang’s work throughout helps sell it so well. The tragedy of the character and the audience’s emotional response to it is well and truly earned because over the course of the episode we really come to like her. We see how Mulder and Scully respond to her, both with tenderness and professional respect, and the episode’s final image of Morrow in prison, her pregnancy visually showing, carries a terrible weight of sadness.
Strang manages to both perform BJ as a Detective overcome with psychic visions and the resultant confusion that comes with such a development fantastically well, earning sympathy as a woman going through a period of tumultuous confusion both due to the development of her psychic gift and pregnancy as a result of her affair with Tillman. There is a lot here for one performer, as the character makes a seismic shift into potentially horror movie territory, but with Strang, BJ’s descent into murder never feels like a horror movie trope, as much as it does the tragic outcome of a character having to deal with circumstances beyond her control. It’s no surprise the show’s executive producers put her forward for Emmy consideration.
Although violent crime and rape are sometimes doled out as story telling tropes all too often in crime procedurals or investigation shows, Aubrey is one of the few times in an American television series where the crime is handled delicately and realistically. It never veers in a way that the episode starts to smack of being exploitation, which is really something given The X-Files is a genre show that deals with horror elements. It is with a taste of irony that it pulls this off coming on the heels of the episode before it.
On an aesthetic level, Aubrey is also a walk in the park for the show. At this stage Mark Snow and John S Bartley are delivering the goods week in and week out; Snow’s music is a driving presence throughout, complimenting the suspense brilliantly, while Bartley’s photography is superbly using dark shadows in a way that is genuinely cinematic. The music corresponds to the episode’s story fantastically, and at this stage both music and the show’s photographic look are increasingly becoming characters in themselves.
While Aubrey is not an episode that makes it into top ten lists, it stands as a brilliant little self-contained tale that is always worth watching during rewatches and which definitely ranks as one of the show’s most quietest and underrated successes.