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I work very hard to keep any President from knowing I even exist.

Television

The X-Files
4.7: Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man

 

The popularity of this one has always mystified me. But then, trading off the “appeal” of CSM was never something likely to pique my interest. Combine that with the most tired backstory conceivable – “Some of it may indeed be true, and some of it may – well, never mind” commented Frank Spotnitz – that takes in riffing on/ripping off/homaging – take your pick, depending on your disposition – then recent touchstones JFKDark Skies and Forrest Gump, and you’ve got forty-odd minutes very thin on inspiration.

Even the one distinctive part of Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man gives way to overt referencing of Gump, as CSM mulls his failed creative aspirations, discovering his serialised novel (based on fact but published as fantasy) has had its ending changed. Making CSM a wannabe is Glen Morgan and James Wong “humanising” the character, but as neat an idea as that is, I’m not sure it really puts any meat on his bones. It’s closer to a series of incoherent parts that William B Davis and Chris Owens, as his younger self, are expected to salvage (Rob Shearman believes this was intentional).

And with regard to referencing Gump so directly, I’m doubtful that was such a hot idea either, even if it went down well at the time (CSM dyspeptically informs us how rubbish the box of chocolates metaphor is). Of course, one might argue that Forrest Gump, like Zelig before him, is precisely the reverse of CSM’s deliberate appearance at the assassinations of JFK and MLK, given that he, absurdly for even X-lore, is the trigger man for both – hence Frohike admitting he read the story “in a crummy magazine”. It’s rather the outsized presence at key historic events that beckons the comparison.*

There’s also the way the episode is so determinedly banal in its recreation of history, pursuing the Oliver Stone approach of filling in the gaps of key-note events (Morgan Weisser makes for a rather hyper Lee Harvey Oswald after Oldman’s soporific tone). Merely inserting young CSM as a key coordinator fails to elicit any spark in by-now rather tediously familiar events (aside from realising he’s hiding in a storm drain when he fires the kill shot). The same is true of MLK, with much of the sequence contextualised by MLK speechifying on the soundtrack and CSM making it clear he rather respects the man (why, to show CSM has some very particular values? And isn’t all bad?)

The Dark Skies charge may not be entirely fair, since its brief and forlorn attempt to cash in on X-cachet was airing concurrently with Season Four, but the makers were surely aware of its premise. And while that show was less than entirely successful, it was commendably going for broke in its weaving of anything and everything from the ’60s – five decades-spanning seasons were planned – into a UFO-laced context. To that degree, it was having a level of fun that could have sorely benefited Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man.

Indeed, so much of this episode seems downright lazy, from CSM reading The Manchurian Candidate (I know, I know, it’s cute) to never smoking (so he obviously picks up at one point – as it turns out, Oswald’s). There’s an occasional neat line when we reach 1991 (“I’m working on next month’s Oscar nominations. Any preferences?“) and it’s nice to see Deep Throat again. But did we need to rehearse the moments leading up to Scully being requisitioned? Or Deep Throat killing the alien he once mentioned?

So no, I’m not so impressed by this. When CSM goes to the newsstand and a headline asks “Where the Hell is Darin Morgan?” my response is “Where the hell indeed?” He would surely have delivered a much more engaged, irreverent and less respectful dive into history/fantasised history. Yes, I can see the “legend in his own mind” argument, but I don’t think Davis can carry the transition from a shadowy smoker in the corner to someone who possibly carries the weight of historical import placed on his shoulders. Chris Owens is very good, though.

Rob Shearman seemed to like the episode for all the reasons I don’t, suggesting it is “deliberately anticlimactic” and “seeks to alienate the viewer” (“it promises a character study and it’s everything but”). He called it “a delicious parody” – as in, the entire flashback is a tissue of lies, a conceit of fabrications – but it would have to be actually clever for that (and where’s the joke in Deep Throat shooting the alien?) “It sends up The X-Files’ ability to find answers, suggesting that the entire spine of the back story is never to be coherently explained… there is no truth out there”.

Which smacks rather too much of the old “No, really, it’s intentionally bad/boring/stupid” argument. Perhaps Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man was smarter before Carter stuck his oar in, arguing over the unreliable narrator, which bits were and weren’t real and not letting Frohike be offed, but I’m dubious. The whole endeavour is so flat, so lacking in juice. Besides, Shearman genuinely seems to think the Gump riff is “one of the funniest jokes The X-Files has ever made”.

*Addendum 20/08/22: If we assume JFK wasn’t assassinated, then CSM is just doing his bit to perpetuate the legend. That doesn’t make the episode any more compelling, however.

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