If D.P.O was important to me during my early teen years for anything, it wasn’t just being an episode of The X-Files that I adored, it was probably because it introduced me to the British rock band James, through their song Ring the Bells.
For years I wanted the version that appeared in this episode, but alas it was a live recording that never actually appeared on any of their albums which was always a bit of a downer, although if you look around YouTube you’ll find it there. For such a violent scene, it opens the episode, and one with themes of teen alienation and murder, with a strangely anthemic and cathartic feel.
Usually it was the domain of Glen Morgan and James Wong to set their glorious set pieces to music, a trait that would become an art form in itself when the famed duo would return to the series in its fourth year. Howard Gordon would not only write a sequence brilliantly set to the James song, but introduce this twelve-year-old to the delights of She’s A Star, Destiny Calling and Laid.
That it would also be an early effort for a pair of young actors by the name of Giovanni Ribisi and Jack Black has also given it a factor that has made it a famed episode of the show over the years, the first of many appearances from future stars on the show that would earn the series a small claim to fame in the development of many a career.
When first broadcast there was some anger at the fact that the series very quickly moved on from the events of what had been an epic three-part story that had seen the series turn some pretty big corners in terms of its mythology, as well as the development of our heroes. In fairness, Gordon’s teleplay doesn’t completely ignore this as Scully mentions those events briefly during the first scene of the episode featuring our heroes, something the series would actually do less and less as the following seasons would go by until season eight, when the show would have no choice but to carry through major character and mythology developments into its stand-alone episodes.
Even at that, the lack of concrete focus on what happened over the course over the last three episodes doesn’t negate the fact that D.P.O is an excellent first stand alone for the third season. As The X-Files would continue over the course of its initial nine season run, it always felt to me like the show had two season premieres; the first episode itself which would of course constitute a mythology episode due to the season finale the previous season being a cliffhanger, whilst the first stand alone tale always felt like a premiere in its own way too, being the premiere from the second style of episode that was the show’s bread and butter.
The first self-contained story always felt like it was handed over to the show’s most dominant stand alone voice, be it Morgan and Wong, Vince Gilligan, or, as is the case here, Howard Gordon. Gordon, of course, has become one of American television’s most important voices and, like Gilligan, has gained notoriety due to his subsequent work as well as having made his name writing for The X-Files.
Going on to become the most important, and more politically balanced, voices on 24, as well as co-creating Homeland, as well as executive producing numerous other shows, including the criminally underrated Awake, like Gilligan, Gordon has become a more dominant voice outside of genre television and yet applied many of the tricks and trades from having worked on a Ten Thirteen show to other series that on the surface may appear a million miles away from the world of Mulder and Scully but which have some aesthetic similarities.
Homeland, and to an extent 24 as well, are thrillers that almost have as much an important focus on character on top of their somewhat controversial thrills, and yet many of Gordon’s X-Files thrillers have functioned on an equal level as character dramas as much as suspense thrillers, or horrors. Yes, the suspense and the horror is there, but Gordon is just as focused on the plight of a character like Darren Peter Oswald (it’s The X-Files so three parts to the name, of course) and his part, or lack thereof, in the world.
You could easily, in this day and age of an endless parade of Marvel and DC comic book adaptations, turn Darren’s story into either a more obvious tale of a teen with paranormal powers, or a tale with redemption, heroics and hope, but that is not Gordon’s intent; D.P.O is a dark, sometimes mean beast, with very darkly humorous edges, buoyed by a superb guest performance from Ribisi who brings a wealth of sympathy at points, but repulsion sometimes in others. Gordon’s script isn’t afraid to show the alienated young youth with a mother who shows little love and affection, and a world that offers little reward save for the arcade machines, and who, instead of turning his life around with his gift, instead uses it to cause anarchy and destruction.
Cows are barbecued, traffic lights are messed with and his boss, whose wife Darren is infatuated with, is given a severe heart attack simply because it gives Darren a chance to play hero. He’s not the hero for the right reasons, only so he can get what he wants.
To top it all off he kills his best friend, Zero, played by Jack Black on his way to becoming a major Hollywood star. Once again it’s a brilliant use of atmosphere and suspense, this time backed up by Filter’s Hey Man, Nice Shot, with a glorious jump-cut zoom in on Ribisi after the murder, courtesy of Kim Manners, directing the whole thing to perfection.
That it ends with a superb satiric joke where the “Executive Producer Chris Carter” credit is displayed within the episode, simply adds to the episode’s sense of teen priorities gone askew; Darren is still a psychopathic, but all too human monster, who simply enjoys being stuck in a hospital, finally able to watch television on his own, revelling at having been the guest star of The X-Files.
It is a truly great little episode.