3×12: War of the Coprophages

“Did you know that the ancient Egyptians worshipped the scarab beetle and possibly erected the pyramids to honor them, which may be just giant symbolic dung heaps?” — Fox Mulder
“Did you know the inventor of the flush toilet was named Thomas Crapper?” — Dana Scully

Mulder finds himself investigating a series of deaths in a small town, where the bodies are generally found covered in cockroaches. Scully offers her ever-so-helpful scientific theories… while working from home.

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

Radhika: Any episode that begins with the line, “Behold the mighty cockroach,” is the sort of episode that should make me run screaming in the opposite direction. I do not care for bugs, at all, and having encountered the occasional terrifying cockroach thanks to living in a big city, I prefer to avoid them at all costs.

But when I was younger, I did watch this episode a couple of times due to my completist Phile-dom. And because this rewatch is all about re-completism, I had no other choice. Did I suddenly find something to do in another room while there were too many roaches on the screen? Yes. Did I watch a few scenes only out of one half-closed eye? Of course.

Do I still enjoy the hell out of this episode? Absolutely!

The episode, another Darin Morgan offering, features Mulder hanging out in Millers Grove, Massachusetts, trying to dig into some UFO sightings while his apartment is being fumigated (oh, sweet ironies). But instead, Mulder find himself amid a series of deaths where the bodies are generally covered in cockroaches. Lots and lots of cockroaches. This means there’s a lot of phone calls to Scully, while she eats ice cream, deals with her dog, and carries out other mundane tasks in her apartment, doling out the most scientific explanations she possibly can. (Drug-experimenting kid sees a roach is going inside his arm and slices himself to death? Delusions. Medical examiner is found dead covered in roaches? Aneurysm.) In addition, while attempting to capture a cockroach, the skeleton crumbles, and Mulder theorizes that its exoskeleton was made of metal.

War of the Coprophages

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

Somewhere along the way, Mulder winds up in the company of a pretty USDA scientist studying cockroaches, Dr. Bambi Berenbaum, resulting in that classic, incredulous Scully line, “Her name is Bambi?” Mulder also meets up with a wheelchair-bound scientist working on insect-like robots, who’s impressed by another cockroach (robot!) that Mulder has managed to bring him. Scully enters the picture in the final act to figure out exactly what’s going on in this small town, but by the end, all that manages to happen is that the two agents get covered in… animal dung, thanks to a man rendered extremely paranoid by the roaches, and Dr. Ivanov and Bambi ride off into the sunset, enamored by each other’s mutual love for insects and robots.

OK, so this episode may be even worse than most episodes of the series as far as solving a case is concerned, and it appears that Darin Morgan wasn’t too happy with the final outcome. But the hilarious dialogue and kooky characters are generally enough to keep me satisfied. The episode is also rather gross in the grand tradition of maintaining a bit of a scare factor (the scene with the roach burrowing itself into the guy’s arm? The general swarms of roaches everywhere?), while making fun of the paranoia and hysteria that can result in a situation like this.

Regarding the dialogue: This episode has some of my favorite Mulder and Scully banter ever — the “What are you wearing?” from Mulder after Scully gives another longwinded, exaggerated scientific speech, Scully’s “Are you sure it wasn’t a girlie scream?” after Mulder recalls an encounter with a praying mantis, and his “You smell bad” to Scully after she goes on about the obvious connection between Bambi and Ivanov. We’ve already established that the two characters can be quippy with each other, and after all the crazy things they’ve been through, it’s not surprising that they’re deeply connected… but even after all of that?

Sometimes, they can just have fun.

Max: In freshman year of college in my dorm room, I had an unfortunate encounter with a massive roach creeping around the corner of the room where my bed was, and being of the type that loathes interaction with creepy crawlies, was out of my damn mind. Since then, I have learned to respect the power of the cockroach, a lesson that the arrogant exterminator did not heed at the beginning of this episode.

Being a concoction of the singularly brilliant Darin Morgan, “War Of The Coprophages” is an episode that comments not only on the world and characters that make up the universe of The X-Files, but of the human condition as well. I like to think of Morgan as a kind of acolyte of Rod Serling, but where Serling goes for sobering pontificating, Morgan instead opts for a dryly humorous outlook more akin to Kurt Vonnegut. I bring up Serling, because of the multiple references to the seminal film Planet Of The Apes, of which Serling had a hand in developing the book by Pierre Boulle into a screenplay. It’s these kind of multiple references and recurrences that are Morgan’s forte, which I mentioned in our review of “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.” Here, we have everything from the Die! Bug! Die! brand of insect repellant (of which Scully was using the Die! Flea! Die! sister product to bathe the darling Queequeg) to Scully’s increasing desire to enter the fray as she hangs onto every word of Mulder’s updates.

War of the Coprophages

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

As the episode’s running time wears on, the paranoia and surreal comedy grow at geometric rates. When Morgan isn’t playing armchair philosopher, he is loading the screen with blink-and-you-miss-them sight gags like an cockroach that appears to actually be crawling on your television screen to a navy man loading up on chocolates and nylons at a convenience store amongst the general panic. And let me take this moment to comment on that sequence, which is probably one of the most blisteringly funny scenes in all of film and television. Scully enters the store looking for road maps, but her needs are complete subsumed by the panic that has spread like a virus amongst the townsfolk. When she attempts to inject some rationality into people, all it takes is a fallen display of chocolates (mistaken as roaches as they tumble from their packages) to reignite the madness. Scully caps the scene off brilliantly by going over to the display and causally picking up a package and eating a piece of chocolate from it. At that moment, I was reminded of the scene in “Humbug” (Morgan’s first writing credit in the series) where Scully nonchalantly eats (or so we think) an insect. It is that kind of self-referential humor that makes the episode so rich and so incredibly re-watchable even after all these years.

When Morgan isn’t doing any of the above, he lovingly pirates our shared cultural memory for references both obvious and obscure. I talked about Planet Of The Apes, but he also takes from Franz Kafka, Naked Lunch, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Dr. Ivanov as our own Dr. Scott). In the caffeinated consciousness of the universes Morgan creates, anything is fair game, which makes the twists and turns of the story so delightfully surprising and just downright fun. You don’t just watch one of his episodes, you geek out on them. Fortunately for us, Morgan has one more script up his sleeve for this season, but for now, just sit back, enjoy the ride, and don’t forget to tip your waitresses.

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5 thoughts on “3×12: War of the Coprophages

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