Mulder and Scully find themselves in a witch hunt of both the literal and metaphorical sense while the season delivers its creepiest episode yet.
“What’s a hellhound, now?”
Witch hunts are an interesting concept because they’re something that are still done today. Of course, they don’t happen in a literal sense, but the term “witch hunt” is still often used when figures face unfounded accusations and mob mentality kicks in. In fact, “witch hunt” is a term that’s been used a whole lot lately in response to the #MeToo movement and so it’s clear that the phrase is still very much in the cultural vernacular. As a response to this, it’s actually a really relevant idea to approach a modern X-Files episode with the intention of dissecting the territory of witch hunts. “Familiar” might get a little disjointed with that bold goal, but it still turns out to be one of the more effective, unnerving episodes of the season.
“Familiar” feels like the subject matter of a vintage X-Files episode. In particular, the episode’s cold open is the perfect sort of introduction that gets you excited for the episode that’s to follow. This entry has a lot to do with a supposed animal mutilation, but screw that, let’s talk about the bone-chilling Mr. Chuckle Teeth! Andrew’s doll, Mr. Chuckle Teeth, and its real-life counterpart are pure nightmare fuel and one of the better monster designs that the show has come up with in some time. It’s a definite less is more approach, but it absolutely works. This feels more like an episode of Channel Zero than it does The X-Files and that’s the absolute highest of praise. Newcomer Holly Dale (The Americans, Dexter, Mary Kills People) directs the hell out of this one and knows how to build up the tension and creep factor in marvelously eerie ways. This feels like an episode that Glen Morgan or James Wong are behind the camera on and if The X-Files does return for a 12th season, they’d be smart to keep Dale on their list of directors. Or at the least, Channel Zero wouldn’t be remiss if they hired her for season four.
When a boy turns up mutilated in the woods, the police department turn to an animal attack as the solution, specifically a coywolf (a coyote-wolf hybrid). However, Mulder and Scully have a different take on what happened. For starters, the police are rightfully suspicious as to why the FBI would be there over Andrew’s death, but Mulder and Scully discuss that their presence is necessary when a member of law enforcement’s family is murdered. They, of course, think this is a murder and not just some coywolf attack. Connecticut’s police department doesn’t appreciate Scully’s condescending attitude towards them, but when do these two ever get along with the local law enforcement? This dynamic is also soothingly reminiscent of the show’s earlier seasons and it’s nice to see Mulder and Scully trade monster theories in the woods instead of getting melodramatic about the government while in a drab office.
This season has also had many problems with its treatment of Scully, but “Familiar” really puts her up on a pedestal in the right kind of way. Her and Mulder’s dynamic is natural and endearing in this one and he has her back in the way that someone that’s been working with her for eleven years should. The episode also gets the most out of the fact that Scully has to do an autopsy on a child, which naturally has her reflect on William and the decisions that she’s made, but in a way that feels organic. If this truly is Gillian Anderson’s last year on the show, it’s nice to see that the character will at least get some proper treatment in her final episodes.
It’s worth mentioning that this is the only episode of the season so far to not feature a different “TRUTH IS OUT THERE” message and it’s honestly for the best. One of the problems with this season is that a lot of episodes think that they’re something that they’re not. Not every installment has to be something game-changing. “Familiar” understands that and because it doesn’t try to overextend itself, it ends up working a lot better than these episodes that shoot for the moon and don’t reach their destination.
As Mulder and Scully attempt to figure out what’s gone on here, Mulder’s prime theory is that a hellhound is the culprit. Scully’s naturally skeptical to this, but Mulder backs his idea up with musings on the Salem witch trials and the large amount of dark arts practitioners that are still in the area. Mulder continues to bank on the premise that they’ve seen much stranger things in the past, so why couldn’t witches and hellhounds be to blame here? Scully begins to develop a take on Andrew’s murder that’s a whole lot more evil, but not at all supernatural. Her autopsy findings make her start to think that Andrew’s father might have been abusing him and that the rest of the police force protected him from any persecution.
Halfway through the episode it looks like everything gets wrapped up when it’s revealed that a convicted pedophile has been living across the street from the Eggers and he also happens to have the Mr. Chuckle Teeth costume in his home. The episode presents a creative spin on the typical skeptic/believer debate between Mulder and Scully when Scully chimes in with how this pedophile solution makes the most sense and so it’s probably true. The town has already started to accept that it is the truth. Mulder, on the other hand, thinks “perfect” solutions must be inherently flawed. Nothing is that clear-cut, which is when the episode begins to shift over from its true-crime dynamic to its supernatural dark magic angle.
The deeper that Mulder and Scully get into the weirdness of this case, the closer that it actually does resemble the Candle Cove season of Channel Zero. Mr. Chuckle Teeth is a part of a creepy childrens’ show (along with the Biggle Tiggles, who look like the Gray’s version of the Teletubbies) that appears to be hypnotizing children and then kidnapping and murdering them. Throw in some black magic and there are the ideal makings for a child-hunting monster.
One of “Familiar’s” strengths is that it wastes no time and throws Mulder and Scully right into the case. There’s no filler back at the Bureau to slow things down. This episode also doesn’t try to do too much and overcomplicate its story, which makes this streamlined version of the narrative even better. “Familiar” lets the audience spend time with the members of the Eggers family and get to feel for these people rather than bog the case down in lore. It’s also fascinating to see “Familiar” so elegantly juxtapose disturbing, grounded criminals with a hearty supernatural undertone. There’ a very serious take on child abuse, adultery, and sex offenders, but also a tense narrative about witches. All of this goes a long ways and honestly the creepy look of Mr. Chuckle Teeth buys this installment a whole lot of goodwill and makes it work better than it should.
“Familiar” might get a little heavy-handed towards its end, but the final act of this episode actually made me shout out in surprise in a way that hasn’t happened at any other point this season. There’s a brutal murder that’s completely avoidable and comes out of nowhere, with the remainder of the episode turning into a methodical take on violence. The episode might wear its whole “witch hunt” theme on its sleeve pretty hard, but it doesn’t strip this material of any of its weight. Eastwood, Connecticut treats this innocent sex offender as a guilty man and put him through a witch trial in a way that effectively marries these two halves of the episode together. As different as these two plots are, they’re really not that different in the end.
The ending is a little messy—both figuratively and literally—in how it all comes together. Mulder and Scully’s problem literally solves itself by bursting into flames. Mulder even makes a joke about spontaneous combustion in the first act, so this apparently is a prime example of Chekhov’s Spontaneous Combustion. Not exactly everything connects in the end, but it’s easy to look past these flaws when the rest of the episode works so well. “Familiar” amounts to a solid, compelling story that’s creepy and emotional in all of the right ways. It might not be groundbreaking as far as The X-Files goes, but with how reckless a lot of the episodes from the 10th and 11th seasons of the show have been, installments like “Familiar” are a breath of fresh air and exactly what the series needs. It’s a shame that this season started out on such a shaky note because the end of this year is absolutely going out on top and delivering some real hits.
‘The X-Files’ 11th season will continue Wednesdays at 8pm (ET) on FOX