“No, something told me, Scully, something is telling me this guy’s for real.” — Fox Mulder
“Oh, so now you’re psychic?” — Dana Scully
Mulder and Scully investigate a series of murders that claim psychics and fortunetellers as victims, with a little psychic assistance in the form of Clyde Bruckman, a man who can predict how people are going to die.
Radhika: I am going to start with the disclaimer that states how there is no way I can possibly replicate the brilliance of this episode. I am also going to refuse to apologize for the amount of gushing I am about to do, because this episode — one of my favorites of all time — remains startlingly brilliant from start to finish nearly two decades after it first aired.
The storyline itself is a simple one: Clyde Bruckman, a man with psychic ability portrayed by the venerable Peter Boyle — who can predict the circumstances of one’s death — finds himself tangled up with Mulder and Scully as they try to track down the culprit behind the murders of numerous fortunetellers. The killer is eventually found (turns out to be a hotel bellhop) and Bruckman, our intrepid agents’ guide during this journey, commits suicide by tying a plastic bag around his head.
It sounds terribly dark, and it is. But what is also brilliant about this episode is the fact that it is one of the funniest, warmest and most philosophical episodes of The X-Files ever made, springing from the mind of none other than Darin Morgan, a writer who would go on to write even more classic episodes before quietly ducking away.
The episode echoes some of the same elements from another Morgan-penned episode, season two’s “Humbug,” but this time it’s even more polished than before. The dialogue is a bit absurd at times, almost theatrical (for a brief moment, I had a Waiting for Godot-esque flash of déjà vu), but it is also moving and manages to feel true to the overall series, despite its differences in tone. With the actual case at hand — a serial killer targeting fortunetellers — running the risk of coming across as … well, mundane, on a show about the paranormal, everything manages to feel rather fresh.
For one thing, there is the dialogue — humorous lines that the actors were clearly taking pleasure in reciting. It starts on a silly note, with our title character examining a supermarket tabloid running predictions by a so-called psychic named The Stupendous Yappi, and continues when that very ridiculously named “clairvoyant” appears to help local law enforcement. “Skeptics like you make me sick!” Yappi huffs in a heavy, absurd accent at Mulder, who isn’t buying his psychic act. “Mister Yappi… read this thought,” Mulder deadpans back. The oddball dialogue and exchanges continue on, even in serious moments, such as the one where Bruckman predicts the agents will find a victim near a “fat, little, white Nazi stormtrooper.”
And then of course, there’s the moments where Morgan’s tendency for poking a little fun at Mulder shines through in Bruckman’s dialogue. (i.e.: “I’m supposed to believe that’s a real name?” upon examining a certain Fox William Mulder’s FBI badge, and a pointed remark about autoerotic asphyxiation being one hell of a way to go).
But even the absurd has a propensity for turning into something poignant. When Bruckman hesitates at first to assist Mulder and Scully on the case, his reasoning begins with, “I mean, his next victim might be the mother of the daughter whose son invents the time machine,” and eventually ends with, “Or something less significant, resulting in the fact that my father never meets my mother, and consequently, I’m never born.”
A hesitant, quietly sarcastic and fairly sad man, Clyde Bruckman winds up having quite an impact on both Mulder and Scully. The episode begins with Mulder’s general disdain for psychics, as epitomized in his exchange with The Stupendous Yappi. This isn’t new — he wasn’t particularly receptive to notions of psychic ability in season one’s “Beyond the Sea,” and he’s downright dismissive of Melissa Scully and her new-agey ways when he meets her in season two. But once he encounters Bruckman, all bets are off — this is the guy to believe in, even if his attitude can use some adjusting.
Similarly, Scully — who does remain our skeptic for the bulk of the episode — is quite drawn in by Bruckman, as well. Though dismissive of Bruckman, laughing off his speech about how they will end up in bed together, it is clear that something about the man keeps growing on her as the episode progresses. By the end, when she sits on Bruckman’s bed, holding his hand after he has committed suicide, she is deeply moved and unlikely to forget this oddly likeable character.
And viewers haven’t forgotten him either. While Mulder and Scully remain integral to the episode — not background like they tend to become in lesser episodes, such as the previous episode, “D.P.O.,” Clyde Bruckman truly is the star of this expertly woven tale. The endurance of this one-off character in most X-Philes’ memories is a testament of what excellent writing and acting can produce.
Max: Like Radhika, I have similar troubles in finding the words appropriate to pay tribute to an episode that has some of the best writing and acting in television, ever. Not just on this show, not just in terms of science fiction, but in the entire history of the medium. TV Guide once ranked this in the top 10 of all-time great television episodes, and despite this entry being almost twenty years old, it remains an incredibly and intensely watchable hour.
To me, this begins with the foundation of Darin Morgan’s writing for the episode. I have no doubt that if he penned this in book form, it would be an incredible short story, with Kirkus and the The New York Times fawning over its brilliant characterization, nuance, humor, and symbolism. In a mere 45 minutes, there emerges a character by the name of Clyde Bruckman who totally and completely leaps off the page and becomes one of those creations that seems more real than people one encounters on an everyday basis. Naturally, this can only take the character so far, so the terrific way that actor Peter Boyle took Mr. Bruckman from page to screen has a large part to do with making this man an indelible presence.
More importantly though, is how Morgan weaves the themes and symbols of the episode into, at the end, a powerful (yet dryly absurd) commentary on death, fate, coincidence, and the cosmic forces that surround us on a daily basis. Think back to the moment where Bruckman surmised he developed his powers of precognition. In becoming so obsessed with the circumstances that put the Big Bopper on the plane that took his life, he began to see the quantum undercurrents of reality. All from the outcome of a coin flip. We’ve all had those moments. What if I got to the bus on time? What if I decided to go to the bookstore instead of the museum? What if I asked her to dance that night? Sure, these aren’t hypotheticals on the level of “What if the Nazis won World War II?,” but Morgan’s script lends these small moments the weight of a question like that. By imbuing these points in time with genuine drama, the theatricality Radhika mentioned enhances the proceedings.
In the cold open, we find that Bruckman and the homicidal bellhop actually do run into each other without realizing the import of the moment. In doing one of those commonplace shuffles to try to get out of each other’s way, the bellhop comments that Bruckman is “a better dancer than my last date.” In a way, this entire episode is one big cosmic dance that not only ends up with the two of them coming face to face again at the hotel, but with Clyde Bruckman’s final repose in his apartment and the effect this has on Scully. The suicide of Bruckman becomes a synecdoche for the tragicomedy of the human condition. Our attempts to manipulate forces beyond our control, our folly in trying to map out our future, and our existential angst in confronting the terminal nature of our eventual deaths. John Lennon (actually a good friend of Peter Boyle) famously surmised that life “is what happens when you are busy making plans.” “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” is Darin Morgan’s response to this maxim.
In essaying my thoughts on this episode, I seem to be giving short shrift to both the plot and the characters and actors in it. Radhika did a marvelous job of elucidating a lot of what makes the episode stand out in these respects, and it is an interesting take on the Mulder/Scully dynamic, especially when The Stupendous Yappi kicks Mulder (and not Scully) out of the crime scene for tainting the space with his “skepticism.” Again, some of the best entries of The X-Files come with our heroes grappling with their belief systems and being challenged by contradicting evidence. “Beyond The Sea” (one of Morgan’s influences in penning this episode) was perhaps Scully’s first true test of her strict skepticism (no doubt amplified by her father’s passing), and now it is the passing of another man that forces her to come to terms epistemologically.
Peter Boyle, on the other hand, illustrates how much his character considers his gift to be a curse and an immense burden. Mulder pointedly comments on how most people (himself included) would desire such foreknowledge, but Boyle’s face maps how much anguish it has caused him over the years. He can’t use it to win the lottery, and in trying to convince a man to purchase life insurance because he’ll be dead in two years, he is brushed aside and told to work on his sales tactics. Clyde Bruckman is a man so totally alone and isolated from the world because of what he knows, and in the end he takes the only out he can see, a permanent sleep where his body is turned to dust.
I would be remiss to end this review without acknowledging the debut of one of The X-Files‘ most iconic characters, Scully’s new pet dog Queequeg, a rescue from Bruckman’s recently deceased next door neighbor. Named after a character in Moby Dick (a Scully household favorite), he will become a welcome presence in Scully’s apartment. Here, the little fluff ball curls up with Scully in a chair while she aimlessly channel surfs, exhausted after this most trying assignment. Coming to a commercial advertising the perceptive skills of The Stupendous Yappi, she throws her cordless phone at the television in frustration. She (and us, the loyal audience) have seen and been touched by a genuine cosmic connection, and something like that can not be had by dialing a 1-900 number. But maybe it can by being moved by an episode of television. Or maybe it happened when Darin Morgan put his pen to paper…
YES, IT’S THAT GUY
Peter Boyle – Clyde Bruckman could not have found a better person to play him than the legendary Peter Boyle. With decades in the business, Boyle starred in films such as The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, Young Frankenstein, Walker, The Shadow, Taxi Driver, Joe, and The Candidate with Robert Redford. He is mostly known nowadays for his role as Ray Romano’s father in Everybody Loves Raymond on television. Sadly, he died in 2006 of multiple myeloma. We miss you Pete.