“I’m going to run you a bath.” — Donnie Pfaster
Our heroes are tasked with recapturing the infamous Donnie Pfaster, and Scully has to come to terms with a trauma renewed.
Max: I went into “Orison” with high expectations. After all, I’ve always regarded the return of Pfaster as a vastly better entry than Robert Patrick Modell’s curtain call in the fifth season. It certainly is on par with “Tooms” and its liver-eating psychopath in The X-Files‘ trifecta of MOTW encores. However, my appreciation for Nick Chinlund’s delightfully chilling performance is severely undercut by the need to make overt the supernatural elements that were only window dressing for very real horrors back in “Irresistible.”
A prison preacher — and former convict — by the name of Orison crafts a means of escape for Pfaster via some rather freaky signs and wonders, which naturally brings Mulder and Scully into the picture as the US Marshals find their experience with everyone’s favorite death fetishist valuable. Scully, of course, is shaken by the prospect of Pfaster on the lam and channels a justified anger into apprehending him. Mulder meanwhile investigates exactly how Pfaster escaped, linking it to two other jailbreaks that happened apparently without anyone noticing.
The lynchpin here is the righteous reverend, who uses his powers of hypnosis and suggestion to free the damned loose from hell (read: prison) in order to exact his own form of judgment. Donnie is haunted by Orison throughout the episode, and it is not clear if the reverend is really present in any of these encounters, one of which costs Pfaster the opportunity to victimize a prostitute. Eventually, Pfaster confronts and kills Orison before setting his sights on his ultimate goal, finishing what he started with Scully six years ago. After a brutal struggle in her apartment, Pfaster is able to subdue Scully long enough to begin his ritual preparations, but a Mulder-to-the-rescue is enough distraction for Scully to free herself and fatally shoot Pfaster.
The script for this episode underwent significant changes from its genesis exploring the concept of a prisoner that could stop time. Former Millennium showrunner Chip Johannessen penned the episode and added Pfaster to the story on the recommendation of Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz, who thought it apt to provide closure to the Pfaster/Scully dynamic. Moreover, Donnie was essentially turned into a demon, evil incarnate, and I can see the temptation in doing so.
This outing is awash in biblical imagery and themes, something Johannessen probably brought to the table from his time on Millennium. But in changing the qualia of Pfaster’s evil nature, as well as all the psychic power stuff with Orison, the writers are negating what made “Irresistible” such a memorable episode. Despite Scully’s hallucination of Pfaster-as-demon as he opened the closet he kept her in, “Irresistible” was a brutally real exploration of horrors tangible to victims of kidnapping and violence. I can’t help but think that “Orison” cheapens that legacy.
Not that I am writing this episode off completely, not by a long shot. I enjoyed the connections this episode made with not only its predecessor but in its ties to Scully’s abduction arc. After all, “Irresistible” was the episode where we saw Scully really begin to process her abduction and return from near-death, her breakdown in Mulder’s arms in that episode was not only a reaction to her experience with Pfaster but to the time lost and the trauma of Duane Barry handing her over to what we now know was the Syndicate doctors’ lab project.
The callbacks are all there — Scully being confronted by her would-be abductor in her apartment, the frantic reaching out for a telephone. What has changed though in the interim is that she is able to put up more of a fight. Scully is resolved to not be a victim this time. The sequence of her tied down on the floor intercut with Pfaster making his preparations is truly a masterpiece of unadulterated dread. The emotions it elicits is what I imagine trauma victims must work through and confront in order to move on.
Some fans and critics take issue with Scully killing Pfaster in cold blood, and I’m not quite sure what to make of that assessment. Yes, her sense of justice being served is particularly strong (see her pursuit of the man who killed her sister), but she has also been prone to succumbing to anger, and had no compunction in admitting to Luther Lee Boggs that she’d like to throw the switch on his gas in “Beyond the Sea.” In terms of violating characters, I’m more prone to emphasize what they did to Pfaster as opposed to Scully’s heat of the moment takedown. “Orison” remains a potent episode in spite of itself, and as the title suggests (the act of orison is communication with a spirit), it nicely conveys the kind of unimaginable horrors that fit right in with the more damnable aspects of the Bible.
Radhika: I take no issue with Scully killing Pfaster in this episode. I know she is presented as this moral center — the voice of reason, the balance to Mulder’s more outlandish tendencies — but sometimes a woman absolutely needs to defend herself, and it’s clear Scully has hit a breaking point by the time she shoots Pfaster. I agree with Mulder’s assessment: “The way I see it, he didn’t give you a choice… Donnie Pfaster would have surely killed again, if given the chance.” The Donnie we meet in this episode hasn’t changed one bit — every line he utters, such as “You need a buff and polish,” is chilling, despicable and an absolute throwback to his behavior in “Irresistible.” He is a terrifying man who isn’t afraid to do horrifying things and it’s perfectly understandable for Scully to take a more extreme action than usual to save herself from round two of the Donnie Pfaster hour. The “self defense” claim exists for a reason.
It’s also not like we don’t see Scully questioning the morality of what she did — if she killed Pfaster without questioning herself, without implying that perhaps a force other than God made her act, then I would take issue with how Scully handled everything. But for a woman with a strong sense of preservation, who could have easily hit a breaking point a thousand times more than she already has (having been abducted and beaten up plenty even outside of situations involving Donnie Pfaster), she handled it as well as she could without losing her sense of morality. A character’s evolution doesn’t have to be perfectly angelic. Similarly, not every action is out of character, especially when circumstances demand it.
I think “Orison” is ultimately a decent offering from season seven — a refrain you’ll hear plenty from me when I’m not whining about the truly terrible episodes. It is atmospheric and Nick Chinlund still gives me the creeps (but after “Irresistible,” a two-minute role of his on an episode of Gilmore Girls also freaked me out, so it’s possible the guy doesn’t even need to act anymore to scare people). The dark sets are really back with a vengeance here, which gives a longtime Phile a sense of comfort even though the subject matter is anything but comforting. It certainly is a less anemic sequel to its predecessor than “Kitsunegari” was to “Pusher.”
But I agree with Max that we didn’t need to see the overt references and depiction of evil in connection with Pfaster. This is a show about the supernatural, but its occasional foray into more realistic matters can strike fear in a way that stories about devils and demons never can. Perhaps more could have been done to explore the Rev. Orison and his abilities if the writers wanted to talk about the supernatural, but Donnie Pfaster could have been left without the embellishments to drive the point home.
YES, IT’S THOSE GUYS
Scott Wilson – Rev. Orison has an impressive film resume, beginning with roles in In the Heat of The Night and In Cold Blood and continuing with The Right Stuff and The Great Gatsby to the cult classic The Ninth Configuration and Dead Man Walking, where he played another man of the cloth. Recently he was a cast member for several seasons on The Walking Dead.
Steve Rankin – You’ve seen him on television plenty before, guesting on Law and Order and The West Wing as law enforcement officers like he did here playing a US Marshal. He was also Tara’s father on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.