On Monday, February 1, X-Files fans will get to see something they haven’t seen in almost 20 years: a new episode written by Darin Morgan. Yes, the mad genius behind fan favorites “Humbug,” “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” (this writer’s pick for the series’ finest episode), “War of the Coprophages” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” has a new contribution to X-Files lore in the form of the third episode of this new mini-season, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster.” Having seen the episode in advance, I can assure you all that it is wholly up to Morgan’s previous high standards, a riot of uproarious gags and fiendishly clever one-liners, all in the service of a sensibility that miraculously manages to locate pathos even in misanthropy.
But while it’s been almost 20 years since Morgan contributed a script for The X-Files, he has been writing in the meantime—not a whole lot, mind you (according to IMDb, he wrote no scripts between 1998 and 2010), but he does have a handful of non-X-Files-based writing credits to his name. Two of them are for another show from X-Files creator Chris Carter: his 1996-1999 series Millennium, for which Morgan contributed two episodes during its second season. Those two episodes—“Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense” and “Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me” still deserve our attention, all these years later.
If The X-Files generally focused on the supernatural, Millennium dealt with horrors that were all-too-human in nature: murderers, serial killers, psychos, and the like. It was a much grimmer affair overall. And its darkness was exemplified by its star, Lance Henriksen—all craggy dourness as Frank Black, a forensic profiler with an especially acute, possibly partly psychic, ability to see into the minds of criminals. In some ways, Millennium hasn’t aged quite as well as The X-Files, especially since the impending-new-millenium-based anxieties that partly fueled the show have long passed into historical oblivion. Nevertheless, in its focus on a character’s ultimately failed quest to shield his family from the evils of the outside world, Millennium is arguably an even more effective exploration of Carter’s pet themes—and with the later show lasting only three seasons, it was never allowed to wear out its welcome the way many believe The X-Files did.
Darin Morgan’s two episodes came during Millennium’s second season (in which executive producers Glen Morgan and James Wong—both X-Files alumni whom Carter put in charge of the season while he was busy working on the first X-Files feature film) turned the Millennium Group—the investigative consulting firm to which Frank Black belonged—into a more shadowy religious sect trying to battle the growing evils of the world in the run-up to the year 2000. With its development of its own arcane mythology, this second season was the most X-Files-like of Millennium’s three seasons—which perhaps explains why Darin Morgan was allowed to bring his wild, black-comic sensibility to the show’s otherwise gloomy hallways.
These two episodes also represented Morgan’s first two attempts at directing his own material (his upcoming X-Files episode is his third). This is significant because it may explain why “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense” and “Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me” feel like sharper articulations of his worldview than even his celebrated X-Files episodes.
“Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense” brings back novelist Jose Chung (Charles Nelson Reilly) from The X-Files’s “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”—but while he’s working on a new novel, his role here is more than just that of a bemused, detached observer. Morgan dives more deeply into Chung’s blinkered view of the world, his cynicism standing in stark contrast to the relentless optimism posited by Selfosophy, the Scientology-like cult both he and Frank Black investigate in the episode. When he discovers his life is in danger as a result of a story he’s recently published condemning Selfosophy, Chung ramps up the world-weary musings. “Life is downbeat,” he says to Frank at one point; in what turns out to be his last book, he offers his own prophesy of what will come in the new millennium: “1,000 more years of the same old crap.”
That perspective gets an even wilder and bolder airing in “Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me,” which sees Morgan casting off the shackles of previously created characters/contexts and coming up with a wholly original concept. In this episode, Frank Black is essentially reduced to a cameo role; the main characters here are four demons, all of whom outwardly assume the human form of elderly men (played by Bill Macy, Dick Bakalyan, Alex Diakun, and Wally Dalton), as they sit around a doughnut shop, reminisce about their recent conquests, and just generally lament the state of humanity today: a species so unimaginative, from their point-of-view, in their wants and needs, that some of them don’t really require much effort to push them to damnation. All it takes for one particularly soulless everyman, for instance, is a parking ticket for him to go over the edge; for another victim, a middle-aged stripper who bemoans the direction her life has taken, she is so emotionally destroyed by one cruel romantic rejection that she commits suicide soon after.
It’s not that the misanthropy Morgan’s two Millennium episodes display come out of nowhere. After all, “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” centered around a sad-sack who is so beaten down by all the death he has witnessed, that he chooses to end his own life instead of continuing to live with his “gift” for seeing how people will die. And for all the Rashomon-like multiple perspectives in “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” the episode ultimately adds up to a portrait of characters driven to loneliness by their obsessions, ending with Chung’s not-exactly-uplifting sentiment that “we are all alone.” But under Morgan’s own direction, the full weight of his pessimism comes through even more vividly in “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense” and “Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me” than in his X-Files episodes. The former episode suggests how little things really change over time, and the latter at times implies just how absurd some of what we humans take seriously—financial success, puritanical standards, love—are in the grand scheme of things. These are, at heart, bleak statements indeed.
But Morgan isn’t out to make us miserable the way fellow artistic misanthropes like Stanley Kubrick and Michael Haneke might choose to do. Like Frank Black, Morgan has looked darkness squarely in the eye; unlike Black, he prefers to laugh at it. Playfulness is a frequent hallmark of Darin Morgan’s work: the parodic film noir fantasy sequence in “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense” featuring an unusually animated, white-wigged Frank Black trying to adopt Selfosophy’s philosophy to not be “so dark” all the time; the vignette structure of “Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me” giving Morgan the freedom to come up with whatever outrageous scenarios he can muster—including an uproarious extended middle finger to FOX’s Standards & Practices department in the form of a network censor gradually driven mad by his belief in his larger societal cause.
The other crucial characteristic of Morgan’s work, however, is compassion. If the equally black-comic Coen Brothers could be said to sometimes articulate their misanthropy at the expense of humanity, Morgan never forgets the people at the heart of the stories he tells. There’s genuine poignancy in Chung’s pessimism in “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense,” which is partly the result of his own self-loathing—he being at the tail-end of his career, now merely churning out books for money. Even the demons in “Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me” are allowed one moment of pathos, courtesy of Frank Black, the only one who sees their true evil essence and who simply says to one of them, “You must be so lonely.” It’s an epiphany that has the unexpected effect of rattling this devil quartet to their core.
Even if, in Darin Morgan’s view, the world is going to hell, there always remains that possibility of an emotional connection to offset the despairing inevitabilities of human existence, however fleeting.
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist, and the Village Voice in addition to Paste. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.