“Agent Mulder, my book — did you like it?” — Phillip Padgett
“Maybe if it were fiction.” — Fox Mulder
Our agents investigate a number of murders where the heart has been extracted from the victims’ bodies, and soon Scully finds herself drawn to a writer who is working on a novel about the murders before they take place.
Radhika: After a couple of fairly unremarkable X-Files episodes in a row, season six somewhat resumes form with “Milagro,” an atmospheric, intimate character study that quietly takes grip of the viewer’s attention. This was an episode that sparked a lot of buzz back in the day, and despite (or perhaps because of) some of its oddities — including the purple prose associated with character Phillip Padgett — it remains a compelling, though somewhat problematic, installment to watch.
A writer has moved into Mulder’s building, and he’s working on a novel involving murders where the victims’ hearts are ripped out. Mulder and Scully are investigating a case that involves a series of murders with the same MO that has Mulder assuming psychic surgery. Lo and behold, the writer — Phillip Padgett — is involved. Padgett is very clearly harboring feelings for Scully, sending her a milagro pendant, and wooing her with lengthy philosophical speeches. But it is eventually realized that a character from his novel has come to life and is going around murdering people (by ripping out their hearts). To save Scully, whose murder is predicted by the novel, Padgett burns his manuscript in the apartment building’s incinerator. The final shot of the episode features Padgett lying in front of the incinerator, his beating heart in his hand.
The tone of the episode is set from the very beginning, with Padgett wordlessly sitting in his sparse writing room and Mark Snow’s subtle, but tense pulsating score grabbing you from the start. With the exception of some blatantly gory scenes involving hearts getting ripped out of chests, the majority of this episode is quietly contemplative and downright moody — less of a sunny Los Angeles episode and more classically X-Files in its tone and visuals.
This episode is a bit reminiscent of episodes like “Never Again” where Scully, gets drawn to a man who isn’t particularly good news. Scully isn’t a complete fool here, mind you — she’s about as uncomfortable as the viewer is during the scene where Padgett admits to moving into Mulder’s building because of her (there were no vacancies in Scully’s building and she doesn’t spend a ton of time at home).
But uncomfortable as she says she is, she also lingers to talk to Padgett a bit more — only to be foiled by Mulder who has figured out Padgett’s novel is connected to the murders they’ve been investigating. I find this side of Scully a bit puzzling: While her overt exploration of her sexuality may have seemed strange at first in “Never Again,” she had no reason to suspect Ed Jerse was “off” until the episode progressed further. Here, Padgett is pretty inappropriate and would trigger alarm bells for any savvy single woman… and yet somehow, he turns into an object of intrigue for Scully.
What I find bizarre about this episode, aside from its intermittent pretentious leanings, is the treatment of Scully — an issue that has come up before. We’ve been spared of damsel-in-distress Scully for the most part this season, a welcome relief after constant abductions, illnesses, barrenness and more, but here we have a writer obsessed with her, in love with her and simultaneously plotting her fictional demise, which nearly becomes a reality thanks to paranormal forces. Yes, the writer sacrifices himself to save Scully, but even though the camera (like the prose) paints Scully in a sensual light, we also see her as a battered victim — her heart nearly literally ripped out of her chest, bloodied and sobbing in Mulder’s arms by the end.
Of course, anyone who goes through this would feel like a broken victim, and props to Gillian Anderson for her raw performance, but I’ve had more than enough of this with Scully by this point. We have beloved Scully and battered Scully here, but we also spend the entire episode seeing her through men’s eyes. And I have no objection to sexualized Scully either, but I wish we had fairer and more positive depictions of that side of her.
I know, this may seem a bit women’s studies of me, but as much as I enjoyed this episode the first time I watched it when I was about 14 or 15 years old, I’ve grown up. I can appreciate the atmosphere of this episode; I much prefer it to the last couple of episodes that aired before it, but I don’t have any trouble pointing out what bothers me about it either. This is a very watchable episode, even when I cringe at Padgett’s laughable writing (thanks, Chris Carter), but it is by no means flawless.
Max: Admittedly, I can see Radhika’s point when it comes to the treatment of Scully as an object of such singular pursuit and desire that it results in several squicky exchanges between her and Padgett. It is especially disconcerting in light of both the Gamergate debacle and the cultural flashpoint that erupted recently over a video of a woman enduring a torrent of catcalls walking the streets. Yes, “Milagro” does a good job at painting more in of the complex inner life of Special Agent Dana Scully, but it does so at a cost that perhaps everyone involved wasn’t as acutely aware of when the episode aired in 1999.
While Padgett redeems himself in the end through his own demise, the implications of what would have happened had he not had a change of heart are tough to reconcile with the fact that this is generally a powerful and potent episode, one that I’ve always had fond memories of over the years. In short, Scully could just as well be truly dead by now, victim of Padgett’s creation and the notion prevalent in situations like this of “Well, if I can’t have her, than no one will!” While Radhika and I don’t want this to be a overly didactic post, I think these feelings are so strong because the episode that was built around this conceit is so good.
Radhika has mentioned above her less-than-enthused reception to Padgett’s purple prose; I myself was quite ensorcelled by his linguistic gymnastics. (Radhika’s note: You’re killing me, Max!) Radhika and I have discussed at length between each other my own predilection for purple prose and how that affects my own writing as well as my perceptions about writing in general, so this episode is an interesting point of reference when it comes to the eternal debate between the lush and the concise. Naturally, there is a time and a place for each particular style, and writing this blog over the last year or so has taught me to value clarity, and not only when communicating my thoughts on The X-Files to you our constant readers. At times my writing is so opaque that I get just as lost in my own head as Padgett does when he comments to Scully that his head is where he lives.
And this is part of what makes “Milagro” such a compelling episode, in the way Chris Carter pens it as a metatext on the creative process, particularly in regards to the writing of an episode of this series. Everyone from Howard Gordon to Vince Gilligan to Darin Morgan have, in the course of their duties on the program, manifested monsters just as chilling as Dr. Naciamento, and of course they struggled with the motivations of their characters just as the good doctor questioned Padgett in his apartment about why he was brought back to life, why he continued to harvest hearts. The creative process has been philosophized about since time immemorial, the impetus for which has been placed on everything from the “black bile” of melancholy to what the painter Kandinsky theorized was the “inner necessity” of the artist to conjure and expand the possible. The episode gives no easy answers on this front.
In lieu of resolution we get some of the best atmosphere the series has ever produced, extremely sensual sequences, particularly focusing on Scully and the way Padgett describes her and her psychology. Director Kim Manners pulls out some terrifically composed shots, including extreme close ups of Scully’s lips and eyes when she and Padgett ride the elevator together at the beginning of the episode. A similar sequence occurs when Scully is preparing to autopsy one of the doctor’s victims, a kind of metaphysical foreplay akin to the quasi-orgasmic moment that Scully got her tattoo in “Never Again.” Padgett may be more outwardly “off” than Jerse was, but there is something about Scully in which she courts danger at times. Not that I am saying that this equates to that she was “asking for it” in this episode, but historically she has found herself by doing what isn’t expected of her, including abandoning a career in medicine for a job at the Bureau.
When we began this season, I had it in my head that this episode would probably end up on our list of best of the season. I am not quite sure of that now because of the issues we brought up. What I do know is that “Milagro,” for all its complications, carries with it a power that will be sorely lacking once we move into the series’ twilight years. That we were inspired to write so much on it is telling.
YES, IT’S THOSE GUYS
John Hawkes – Playing the writer Phillip Padgett in this episode, Hawkes has been in a variety of TV and movie roles over the years. He is probably best known for his roles on Deadwood and Eastbound & Down. He received an Academy Award nomination for his role in Winter’s Bone and also received Golden Globe and SAG award nominations for his role in The Sessions.
Nestor Serrano – Portraying the heart-ripping Ken Naciamento in “Milagro,” Serrano a film and TV actor who has had supporting roles in Lethal Weapon 2, Bad Boys and The Day After Tomorrow. He has also appeared on 24, Ugly Betty and Dexter.