If you sat down on the 5th of May 1995 to watch Soft Light, the twenty-third episode of The X-Files’ second season, you may have sounded crazy if you turned to anyone watching it with you and said that the writer of the episode was going to change the face of American television.
Not that Soft Light is a bad episode, far from it, in fact it’s very, very good, but who was to know that it was the X-Files debut of a writer who would become not only one of the most important voices on the show, but would also become one of the most important voices in the medium of television.
Vince Gilligan’s first script for the series does feature many of the aesthetic elements that one would come to associate with many of his episodes going forward. One of the show’s most expansive voices, he would write some of the show’s most darkest and emotionally intense scenes and then go on to write some of its funniest and sweetest. Just make a double bill of Paper Hearts and Je Souhaite to see the range in his storytelling. The move from comedy to drama, sometimes of an even darker variety, would of course go on to become a distinctive pattern on a show that would make him a household name with those other than X-Files fans.
Being a writer for hire on this one, Gilligan wasn’t a member of the staff of writers on the show, but that would change going into season three and beyond (season four would be the year he would gain a credit as co-producer, a season where he would write some of the greatest hours of the show), and his first script would be given some rewrites by Howard Gordon.
Guest starring Tony Shalhoub, Monk himself, as Dr Chester Banton, whose experiments in dark matter has left his shadow a danger to anyone who stands on it, Soft Light features a wonderful central conceit at the heart of it which, in Gilligan’s original script, could move independent from Banton, but which was deemed somewhat too expensive to pull of visually. Another factor placed into the episode was the inclusion of an important appearance from X, with the character once again showing that he is a different kettle of fish in comparison to the fatherly Deep Throat, getting his hands dirty and actually using his relationship with Mulder to his own ends. Steven Williams is once again fantastic and his scenes with David Duchovny crackle with brilliant, angry energy in the episode’s final moments.
It all makes for a wonderfully intense character thriller with great work from everyone involved. Even the story strand involving a former student of Scully’s from Quantico doesn’t even feel tacked on, with the rookie detective actively using Mulder and Scully in order to further her own ends with the police department. This an episode that deals with characters dealing with moral dilemmas, another factor that would appear in Breaking Bad.
Most brilliantly of all, it also feature a trope of sorts that Gilligan would make his own in the show, which is to feature an incredibly human monster of the week. Banton is the first of many X-Files “monsters” who, unlike Tooms, are given a chance by Gilligan to become more than just a monster to be caught by our intrepid heroes. Shalhoub’s incredibly layered guest performance as Banton joins the ranks of Gerry Schnauz, John Lee Roche, Alfred Fellig and Rob Roberts as monsters of sorts, but with inherently more dimensions than you would see in similar shows.
Not all these characters are of course sympathetic, John Lee Roche in Paper Hearts is a brilliant portrayal from Tom Noonan, but damn is he one of the show’s most despicably horrible villains, but he isn’t some fantastic bogeyman, he’s straight out of a newspaper headline or a news report, but is given a touch of the supernatural, which is only a small facet of his character development. Sometimes Gilligan isn’t afraid to show a streak of humanity with his monsters too, a facet that would reach its peak with season seven’s Hungry where the monster of the week would actually be put front and centre as the main star of the week, but Banton is the first of Gilligan’s monsters where we see a streak of humanity to go with the mayhem.
In fact, Banton for the most part is visibly upset at the damage he causes, although there comes one moment at the end when he actively kill someone, in this case Detective Ryan, Scully’s former protegé, in order to further his attempts to stop his shadow. Even as early as this, Gilligan was giving us incredibly complex portrayals of his antagonists.
The scripting here is wonderful. Gilligan’s story, no doubt helped by some of the rewrites and with a superb sub-plot involving X makes this another wonderful development of Mulder’s increasingly sickened nature of his investigations. Used by X this week, and by the government last week in F.Emasculata, there is a real sense of cynicism and bitterness going into the season finale, although we’re going to have to wait for that because we’re getting Bad Day at Black Rock Goes to KFC next week.
The episode builds to a superbly crafted final scene which may be the most disturbingly sad in the history of the show. Apparently drawn to the script by similarities he saw to The Twilight Zone, Shalhoub was not wrong in the comparison, especially when it comes to that final scene. The only thing missing from it is a voice over from Rod Serling. For one brief moment it looks as if we may get one of those disturbingly unresolved dips into the unknown that the show was becoming famous for at this point. X tells Mulder, after successfully managing to get his hand on Banton after manipulating Mulder throughout the episode, that he hasn’t in fact killed the tragic doctor, but what the episode does next is even worse than not knowing.
The episode tips itself into the realm of dark tragedy as Banton falls into the “brain suck” he has been dreading and the final image, complete with a single tear on Shalhoub’s scared face, sears itself into your memory.
This is a very, very good hour of television. It may not tip itself into the realm of masterpiece in the way the next batch of Gilligan’s episodes will do so (in fact Gilligan’s next episode will be one of the all time greatest episodes of the show), but this is such an accomplished confident debut that if it’s churlish to complain about any of it, because there is very little wrong here. With only one credit to his name before this (the pyrokinesis comedy Wilder Napalm), it is a nicely crafted early entry from a writer who is truly one of the best working today.