The X-Files: The Post-Modern Prometheus   Rewatch 
November 1, 2015 8:53 PM - Season 5, Episode 5 - Subscribe

Mulder and Scully's investigation of a letter from a single mother leads them to a small mid-Western town where a modern-day Frankenstein lurks, Jerry Springer is an obsession, and Cher plays a significant part.
posted by town of cats (11 comments total)
So, given that I kind of heaped coals of shame on this episode last week, I was really expecting to dislike it on rewatch as much as I disliked it the last time I saw it. And I did for all the reasons I stated last week, and for other reasons too. But there were parts of it I liked a lot, too, more than I remembered. I feel incredibly ambivalent about Post-Modern Prometheus.

First and most obviously, as somewhat discussed last week, the plot basically asks us to sympathize with a serial rapist because he was just soooo lonely, you guys. I mean, I don't think I even need to dignify this with a response?

Another thing I hate about this episode is that of all the episodes of X-Files dealing with life in small towns, and o, they are legion, I think this is one of the most blatantly condescending and dehumanizing of the characters. They are caricatures, they are not lovingly portrayed, and I felt while watching that the writing and direction was laughing at them, not with them, with the possible, partial exception of the Berkowitzes. Especially the diner just seemed like a bunch of Hollywood assholes making fun of the people in flyover states, with few nods to our shared humanity, and eventually even implying that many of them were genetic hybrids with animals, about which the less said the better. X-Files can do so much better than this, and has, so many times.

Finally, maybe it's just me, but oh my god I think the soundtrack of this episode is the worst of any episode of X-Files! Mark Snow seems to think that every "funny" episode needs the same sort of twinkly, winking, Hogwarts-at-Christmas style soundtrack and he totally outdid himself on this one. It was incredibly distracting. I read a few other reviews of this episode that mentioned it and everyone else seems to love it but I literally groaned when I heard a music cue by about 15 minutes in. Not My Thing.

That said, there's stuff to like about this episode too. It's one of the most beautiful episodes visually that I can think of. That almost goes without saying. I remember being dazzled watching this on broadcast TV; it was just miles beyond what other TV shows were even attempting at the time. They get a lot of credit for their ambition on this show and this episode earns those props and then some. John O'Hurley (you may know him as J. Peterman from Seinfeld, haha) is brilliantly cast, really one of the best placements of a recognizable guest actor I can think of on this show, and they use him so well. I also felt that the actress who played Shaineh Berkowitz really nailed her role. And, um, so did the reporter who was meant to be part chicken. What a funny performance.

The episode also really captured a piece of the zeitgeist around the early culture of reality TV - the very real sense that being on Springer might put your town on the map in those days. It makes a real contrast to earlier episodes in which small towns harbor a dark secret; it captures this amazing moment when small towns began to realize that their dark secrets could be currency in a world entertainment economy from which they'd assumed they'd always be excluded. There's a really interesting story to be told in grappling with that cultural shift and this episode at least makes an attempt. It's a great artifact. I reckon now Izzy would be angling for a cable show.

When I first watched this I thought the ending was meant to have actually happened, which makes the whole rapist storyline vastly more fucked up. But it isn't, right? That's why this is Post-Modern Prometheus, because Mulder asks Izzy to write a happy ending, thereby constructing an idealized reality within the frame of the existing one in which the Great Mutato is actually arrested? I didn't grok that as a teen.

I'm surprised X-Files didn't do more updates of classic science fiction, fantasy, or horror, because this one was really well received. Other than War of the Coprophages as a War of the Worlds tribute, I can't think of any obvious examples.

Finally, I can't help it, I just fucking adore the gag when Scully picks up the peanut butter sandwich and it has bites on two different edges of the same corner from the Great Mutato's two mouths! It's such a dad joke.
posted by town of cats at 9:01 PM on November 1, 2015

It's been a while, and reading the summary I'm a little confused. Does the episode really leave no doubt that Mutato was going out, gassing women, raping them and impregnating them with babies that were born three days later?

Because if so, holy crap is that messed up. From a plot perspective, Mutato could have done all sorts of bad things that weren't so evil or intentional. Maybe, Lenny-like, he desperately wants a pet and he keeps sneaking into people's yards to play with their dogs, only to accidentally kill them with his brute strength. (Or it could be kids, if you really wanted to be dark. If his innocent efforts to play with kids end in accidental homicide, that's pitiful and a lot less appalling than serial rape.)

IIRC, the episode doesn't depict him as being mentally disabled, just very fearful and awkward from growing up in such isolation. If he had severe mental disability, maybe (MAYBE) the town could forgive him for his crimes. But if he's just a hideously deformed man of normal intelligence, there is no way in hell that ending is remotely OK. Mulder and Scully take a serial rapist out for a Cher concert? W the fucking F?

Small Potatoes bothers me less, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's partly because I just think that episode works better and isn't as cutesy and self-indulgent as this one. But also... maybe it's less creepy to me that the shapeshifter guy in that at least looked these women in the eye and made them believe they were having a pleasant, consensual experience? Don't get me wrong, it's still evil, but at least the woman who thought she had sex with Luke Skywalker briefly got to believe that her fantasy had come true. That personally strikes me as less frightening and cruel than tenting a house, gassing somebody and violating her sleeping body... and less "real". In the real world a guy can't shapeshift like that, but in the real world a man can gas a woman and assault her.

Maybe it's also that I don't think Small Potatoes totally endorses the shapeshifter guy's actions. He's depicted as a pathetic creep, and when he comes on to Scully as Mulder I don't think we're supposed to think that's cool. It's kind of up to us, how much we decide to hate him. But in this episode we're clearly supposed to totally forgive Mutato at the end, and he hasn't done anything to deserve that forgiveness.

Yes, Mutato's hideous. Yes, he's lonely. But he's not Frankenstein's monster, accidentally causing mayhem because he's a confused child in a giant body. He's just a sheltered, deformed guy who methodically rapes people.

Pardon my ranting, but I'm trying to understand my own reaction and why this episode horrifies me while Small Potatoes just makes me kind of wrinkle my nose and go, "Really, X-Files?" I'd be interested to hear what other people thought of this episode in contrast to Small Potatoes.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 10:47 PM on November 1, 2015

Yeah, my memory of this from when I was a teenager was "Jerry Springer and cute Mulder/Scully dance scene!" and this time I was just pretty horrified by the rapeyness and appeal for sympathy. I dunno, I still think it's a well done episode, but seriously uurrrggghhh.

As above, Small Potatoes seemed sort of less awful because the women were at least consenting to someone, even if it wasn't the person they thought it was, and there wasn't the "oh, poor unloved guy" angle to it.

Boy, the more I go through the seasons, the more I realise how many forced/not-consensually-conceived pregnancies there are. The upcoming Emily episodes are particularly horrific to me ("beauty sleep" --- uurrrggghhh!). It's really creepy to me as an adult how often it comes up throughout the series. In individual episodes/plot lines they're sort of excusable, but ye gods it's a hell of a pattern.
posted by olinerd at 12:53 AM on November 2, 2015

I'm watching the X-Files through for the (mostly) first time, though I remember catching the end of this episode before for some reason, and did not know that he was a rapist. And I, too, was really, really bothered by the glorification of this rapist.

That said, I'm still confused about what actually was happening to these women. Are they actually just being raped? If so, why is this practice being referred to as the father's "experiments?" I thought that maybe we are supposed to infer that the father is the one who is impregnating these women, not the son. But then again, the son is definitely in the house when this is happening, so if it's the father doing the impregnating, what is the son doing there? And if it's the son just raping these women, what is the father doing there, and how is this an "experiment?" It seems like the father is doing the plotting of these crimes, given that they are always executed when the women will be home alone for an extended period of time, and they don't seem to be randomly chosen, in that the women seem to want a baby. Which, ugh, obviously doesn't justify these rapes, but does point to the father planning them, as the son wouldn't know these women or their schedules.

So what was going on?
posted by joan cusack the second at 9:18 AM on November 2, 2015

I'm confused too, as I said above. Is there any way that Mutato's father was the one committing the rapes? If it's something like that, the ending of the episode makes more sense.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 1:41 PM on November 2, 2015

Ursula Hitler, I think I was trying to make that the explanation in my head to make the ending of the episode feel less gross. But it still doesn't make sense to me. Even if he wasn't doing the raping, Mutato was still complicit in these rapes, as he didn't try to stop his father or seem to feel any compunction about participating in them, whether or not his participation was limited to dancing around the house or not.

I'm inclined to accept town of cats's interpretation of the ending just being Mutato's imagined ending for himself. But even then it's still problematic to me, as showing that ending (imagined or real) casts Mutato in a light that I don't think he is deserving of.

There is so much more chaff than wheat in The X-Files than I ever imagined.
posted by joan cusack the second at 2:44 PM on November 2, 2015

I read the AV Club review, and this is starting to seem like one of those things where it's been too long since I saw the episode for me to comment on it. I remembered it as Mutato tenting the houses, gassing these women and raping them, and the review makes it sound more like he accompanies his father as they enter the houses and his father artificially inseminates them, which is still gross and awful but less viscerally horrific than what I remembered. It arguably takes some of the blame off Mutato. Maybe the whole thing is his father's idea, and Mutato is just passively going along because he's kind of childlike and does whatever his father says? It's still awful, but I can see feeling some pity for him if he was too weak to fight his father, as opposed to him enthusiastically taking part in the crime.

In any case, the only way I could hope to sort all of this out would be to sit down and watch the episode again, and since (even putting the rape element aside) I've always strongly disliked this episode, I have no plans to do that. So I'm going to attempt to erase this episode from my brain and hope that I've misunderstood it and the people who made this show weren't asking us to feel sorry for a guy who was drugging and raping people.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 6:17 PM on November 2, 2015

Yeah, it's not made clear what Mutato's actual role in the violation of these women is. To me, there is precious little distinction between "traditional" PIV rape and artificial insemination against someone's will, since either way the woman is drugged and penetrated...and in this case, her reproductive system used without her consent to boot. I imagine the writers thought there was a big distinction between those two things and it sounds like some of you do too, but I reeeeally don't see it.

The script didn't make clear what Mutato was actually doing other than blasting Cher, dancing around the house, and eating all their peanut butter (or if it did, I didn't catch it). During the opening sequence of the episode he seems to be having a grand old time; I don't think there's any way he can be excused as an unwilling accomplice. I imagine that at the very least the father needed someone to assist him in tenting the house, and I don't think it makes clear who's actually implanting the embryos. What I understood from it was that at first, the father was genetically altering embryos to cross them with various animals (which makes pretty much zero sense) and implanting them. This yielded, among several other of the town's citizens, Shaineh Berkowitz's pregnancy with Izzy. Then as Mutato grew older it sounded to me like his dad was trying to clone him, sort of, but a female version maybe? And implant those embryos? Or maybe he just kept on with the farm animals? The science of this episode made so little sense to me that it was hard to even follow the explanation.

In short, there's a reason none of the summaries you can find online make's because the script doesn't want to spend much time on what actually went on while these women were unconscious. And fans don't either because this story is creepy and so many of them love the dancing bit at the end.

I agree that this is an episode I'm just going to happily file under "Never watch again kthx."
posted by town of cats at 9:04 PM on November 2, 2015

Well, to be clear, gassing somebody and artificially inseminating them is still a horrible crime! Nobody here is saying, "Pfft, forced artificial insemination, big deal!"

As you were describing the episode, it was stirring up some of my memories of being confused when I saw it originally. Reading the Wikipedia summary (I just can't seem to let go of this freaking thing) it sounds like Dr. Pollidori created Mutato but then shunned him, so Pollidori's father (Old Man Pollidori) took in the boy and OMP was the one who was doing the artificial insemination stuff trying to make a mate for Mutato. (Including doing it to Pollidori's wife.) It does sound like Mutato was quite aware of what was happening and he was OK with OMP gassing and artificially inseminating these women with human-animal hybrids, given that at the end he asks Dr. Pollidori to make him a mate. He wasn't saying, "This hideous madness must end!" He was asking for his father to use his superior skills to make it work.

This is just a deeply, deeply messed up episode, and I'm amazed it's so popular and won Emmys and stuff.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 10:59 PM on November 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Definitely a seriously problematic episode.

I usually like the jokey episodes, but this was a little too cutsey-clever and felt like punching down a whole bunch. Mutato, the town residents, Mrs. Pollidori's desire for children, etc.

The literary Dr. Frankenstein tried to create a bride for his creation by reanimating a construct, here, just admitting to forced pregnancy is gross as is the concept that only someone as deformed as Mutato would "not deny herself" to him. Yuck.

"I told you, there ain't no monster." oh, but there are.

The experiments with the flies - that's nothing, and yes, it's plausible that messing up hox genes will create mutants with messed up body plans. Not particularly mindblowing - it was a common technique to disrupt genes through temperature, radiation, chemical agents, etc.; find an "interesting" mutant and see which gene was disrupted.

Growing up drosophila in an open glass petri dish is terrible form.

Huh, that's Chris Owens (young CSM, Jeffrey Spender) in the Mutato makeup.

Cher is a little before my time, but I'm aware of her in movies. Did a brief wikipedia/ youtube - wow, what a career, and what talent!

Perhaps the only saving grace is Mulder asking to "talk to the writer" - but that kind of implies that the denouement didn't really happen, was just fiction?
posted by porpoise at 7:04 PM on June 7, 2020

God, the rape/involuntary insemination, and the glossing over of it, is so, so gross that I could barely stand rewatching this episode. "Small Potatoes" was nearly as bad, but at least in that episode, all but one of those women really wanted a baby, none of them were *unconscious* for the act, and it wasn't a fucking scientific experiment designed to produce hideously deformed children who will have a shit quality of life. The depiction of an entire community as a bunch of reactionary morons who all want to be on Jerry Springer was pretty offensive too.

Neither of these women considered an abortion? Really?

Chris Owens definitely enjoyed a good run on this show. Three roles! And not forgettable ones either.

There were quite a number of fine performances in this episode. John O'Hurley's act (at least I hope it's an act) of being a posturing, arrogant asshole was hilariously apt for this role. Shaineh Berkowitz stole every scene she was in. The various actors who were supposed to be part chicken, pig, horse, and sheep were great, especially the chicken lady reporter. (She's, uh, lucky she didn't turn out like a certain other Chicken Lady.)

I did enjoy the "sandwich with two bites out of it" gag.

Who keeps peanut butter in the fridge?

The Pollidori house decor was weird, with all those floral garlands everywhere. Was that supposed to be some kind of reference to something?

The dance was indeed lovely. Mulder holding Scully so close and smiling down at her... le sigh. I've seen an outtake where he twirls her. There was supposed to be a kiss but it got cut.
posted by orange swan at 6:17 PM on June 9, 2020

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