The X Files Revisited: 4.07 Musings Of A Cigarette-Smoking Man
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The X Files ran for nine seasons and two movies, charting the efforts of Agents Mulder and Scully in their search for the unexplained. Now eight years after the second movie The X Files: I Want To Believe, the show is returning for six new episodes in 2016. Here at The Digital Fix, we are going to work our way through each season, reviewing some of the big episodes – and both movies – across the years in the build up to season ten. With 202 episodes, there is simply too much to cover every episode; instead we'll pick the story highlights of each year. This episode gives audiences a rare insight into the show's key villain with surprising results...
The trouble with a show with any length of longevity is the need to develop characters beyond their original premise. And the danger is that the longer the show continues, the more diluted they can become, particularly when it comes to recurring villains. And so many TV shows have faced the difficult decision of keeping the baddie the same evil presence we've all grown to love or develop him to the point that they are not quite so evil any more. The X Files faced this choice early in their fourth season; William. B. Davis's mysterious Cigarette Smoking Man had become such an iconic villain that any addition to his story might dilute the impact of his presence on the show.
One of the show's best writers James Wong (see Squeeze and Home) took up the challenge of exploring the Cigarette Smoking Man's origins at the time when The X Files was at its height of popularity, using the fourth year to try something experimental and absolutely succeeding.
Musings Of A Cigarette-Smoking Man is essentially a four-act play, each recanting a different period in the Cigarette Smoking Man's history (despite all we learn we still don't get his name for a while yet). These acts are framed by the Cigarette-Smoking Man doing audio surveillance on the Lone Gunmen and Mulder and Scully from a warehouse. Melvin Frohike has uncovered the truth about the show's villain and while the show's main agents, Byers and Langly are only heard but not seen, the fact that it is the first episode not to feature either Mulder or Scully isn't a distractor.
PART I "Things really did go well in Dealey Plaza"
The first flashback heads back to 1962, with the Cigarette-Smoking Man a young captain in a military base shortly after the Bay of Pigs incident. We see him serving with a young Bill Mulder, excited over the birth of his son (an unnamed Fox) but the most noticeable thing on rewatch is that the young Cigarette-Smoking Man is played by Chris Owens who would go on to play Agent Jeffrey Spender a year later. It is no coincidence he would be back on The X Files to play the agent who would be ultimately revealed as the Cigarette-Smoking Man's son (a photo of his wife (Cassandra) and son, both unnamed at this point) pops up in the second act.
The opening flashback is a little contradictory to season three's Apocrypha in terms of time frames but then this episode lays so much groundwork on the villain's past a few slight discrepancies can be forgiven. In the paranoia over Soviet Russia and the Cold War, the young captain is recruited by the original syndicate and his commanding officer; to kill JFK.
This is where the episode really gets interesting. Jumping to Dallas in 1963, we see the young Cigarette-Smoking Man recruit Lee Harvey Oswald (Morgan Weisser). an action soon revealed as a way to frame the poor man as the show's villain becomes the mysterious man on the grassy knoll at Dealey Plaza. With a mix of real footage the episode seamlessly writes the Cigarette-Smoking Man as the man who killed JFK. Poor Lee Harvey Oswald realises he has been framed but the trap is already set and despite his efforts to evade the police is arrested in a movie theatre as the Cigarette-Smoking Man watches on. Rather brilliantly, Oswald gave him his first pack of Morleys and as the plan is completed we see him light up his first cigarette.
In many ways the whole thing is a little ridiculous - the episode continues to write the villain into major historical events - but where it works is in making him a powerful figure worthy of the mystique the series has shown. It also works brilliantly in making him a largely sympathetic figure, from the innocence of Chris Owens' performance to the later narrative running through the Cigarette-Smoking Man's story.
PART II "Just down the road aways from Graceland."
The second act mixes things up a bit with a black and white sequence. Five years after the murder of JFK we see Chris Owens' Cigarette-Smoking Man a much more powerful figure, having now recruited Bill Mulder to his cause. Martin Luther King becomes the next target in his rise to power as he questions J Edgar Hoover himself (played by David Fredericks) over the threat to national security. King's actions might convince negros not to fight in Vietnam which would cause them to lose the war - oh the irony.
The transformation in the Cigarette-Smoking Man is already startling; his confidence and aggression towards Hoover, his ruthless decision to eliminate King, a man they failed to draw to suicide and whose forced discreditation would make him a martyr (a theme that applies to Mulder in the current era). And whereas there was the sense of vulnerability and destroyed innocence in the first flashback, here we see him kill without hesitation, eliminating another key figure from history.
And yet that is balanced by a softer side, unseen in the character before; that of an aspiring novelist going under the pseudonym of Mr Bloodworth. His despair at his rejection by the publisher gives us a figure has found a way to be something more than the role he has become.
PART III "The Most Wonderful Time of the year!"
And we see more of that side as we jump forward to the next flashback on Christmas Eve, 1991. William. B Davis is back in the role, playing a much older, respected and somewhat weary version of the character we have seen over the last three years. This time we witness him running a meeting with his subordinates somewhere within the FBI offices. I actually found this scene the most ridiculous of them all. The mystery of JFK and Martin Luther King's assassinations work within this tale but the idea of Saddam Hussein ringing him at work borders on a little silly. From rigging Oscar nominations to the Superbowl, it shows a man fuelled with power and takes the idea of a conspiracy theory to the extreme.
But where it does work is the first reference to Mulder. "That spooky kid who talked his way into opening the X Files, he feels like trouble." one of the Cigarette Smoking Man's subordinates tells him nervously though, the villain is dismissive. "He's mine to keep an eye on.", later passing the closed door to Mulder's office where the young, eager agent can be heard typing away inside. We also see a rather sad figure in the Cigarette Smoking Man too; he declines an offer to spend Christmas with their families and hands them their presents before leaving them to his lonely apartment on Christmas Eve.
The real meat to this story is in the call from Deep Throat, with Jerry Hardin reprising his character for a great scene with Davis's Cigarette Smoking Man as they travel to a warehouse to deal with a crashed UFO and a captured alien. There is a great callback to season one's EBE as they decide that the alien must be destroyed.
"How many historic events have only the two of us witnessed together? How often did we make or change history? And our names can never grace any page or record. No monument will ever bear our image and yet tonight the course of history will be set by two unknown men standing in the shadows."
The speech by Davis is a great piece of scripting; the idea that these two men have spent years working in the shadows is a somewhat tragic one. Their actions might be unsavoury but it has been done with the best intentions, the security of the USA. It is also likely the point where Deep Throat turns away from his colleague, an action that will ultimately lead to his death at the end of season one. The Cigarette Smoking Man manipulates his colleague into killing the alien, living by the self delusion that he is not a killer. It is a fascinating insight into what has become a complex character.
PART IV: The X Files
The final act takes us right back to the pilot episode as the Cigarette Smoking Man reads a paper written by young, up and coming agent Dana Scully as he reviews the tape of her interview with Section Chief Scott Blevins. But the best bit has to be him listening to the audio recording of Mulder and Scully's memorable first meeting inside the office. Not only does it violate such a personal moment between the two main characters but it also suggests that he is far more aware of what is discussed between Mulder and Scully than we ever realised.
The moment he receives a letter from a publisher eager to produce his story about an alien assassination it a lovely moment; for a villain so cold and ruthless you can't help but be endeared by his excitement and Davis brings such warmth to his character. The idea that he throws away his pack of Morleys and writes his letter of resignation on an old typewriter shows a man embracing his inner artist and it is lovely to watch even if you know it will soon end.
That joy quickly becomes bitterness as he later discovers that the publisher changed the ending, and the seller at the stand calls the magazine crap. With that one moment, his world comes crashing down and he sinks back into the darkness of his life.
"Life is like a box of chocolates. A cheap, thoughtless, perfunctory gift that nobody ever asks for. Unreturnable because all you get back is another box of chocolates. So you're stuck with this undefinable whipped mint crap that you mindlessly wolf down when there's nothing else left to eat. Sure, once in a while there's a peanut butter cup or an English toffee. But they're gone too fast and the taste is... fleeting. So, you end up with nothing but broken bits filled with hardened jelly and teeth-shattering nuts. And if you're desperate enough to eat those, all you got left is an empty box filled with useless brown paper wrappers."
The highlight of that episode is that cynical twisting of Forrest Gump's iconic speech. It is beautifully done and you can see writer James Wong really having fun with the premise. The homeless man sitting next to the show's villain remains completely oblivious as he sits munching in the box of chocolates he found in the rubbish. His life work ruined - his real life's work - the Cigarette Smoking Man takes out a new pack of Morleys, tears up his resignation letter and continues on the path we have seen him on over the course of The X Files.
Back to the present, we see him target Frohike in the targeting lense of his rifle, ready to take out one of Mulder's allies for uncovering the truth about him. But the episode offers up one last glimpse of redemption. "I can kill you whenever I please, but not today.", he says, leaving the Lone Gunman to fight another day.
While at times ridiculous, Musings Of A Cigarette-Smoking Man is also a sublime, epic and fascinating insight into the show's key villain without removing any of the mystery and darkness that surrounds him. William. B Davis offers up a rare look into a different facet of his character, making this episode a must see and one of the highlights of season four.