“Maybe it’s symbolic. I mean, serpents and religion have gone hand in hand. They’ve represented the temptation of Eve– Original Sin. They’ve been feared and hated throughout history as they’ve been thought to embody Satan– to serve Evil itself.”
— Dana Scully
“Maybe these ones actually do.” — Fox Mulder
“These particular serpents actually were serving Evil? Are you going to type that on our travel request?” — Dana Scully
Mulder and Scully tussle with some pretty poisonous snakes as they investigate the death of a church congregant.
Max: Here we go again with the religion. To paraphrase a well worn cinematic trope, just when we thought we were out, they pull us right back in. Granted, this is far from the last time that religion will play into an episode of The X-Files, but it does get a bit tiring after a while. What “Signs and Wonders” does bring to the table though is an interesting lens on the whole spirituality shebang and some pretty terrifying moments. To be honest, while I was rewatching this episode I was kinda wishing I was doing anything but, although giving things about a day to let my thoughts on it marinate in my head, perhaps other things contributed to that malaise.
When the pious Jared Chirp is found dead under mysterious circumstances (It wouldn’t be an X-File without A: a body and B: mysterious circumstances), our heroes travel to Tennessee to puzzle out the cause of death. An autopsy shows that he died from snake bites, but no traces of the creatures can be found. Mulder and Scully question the man’s current (Rev. Samuel Mackey) and former (Rev. Enoch O’Connor) pastors to see if they could shed light on the situation.
What the agents stumble into is long-simmering tensions between O’Connor’s brand of “ole time religion” which uses snakes during services to test the faith of congregants and Mackey’s seemingly more conventional ministry. What doesn’t help matters is that O’Connor’s daughter Gracie left her father’s church with Jared after becoming pregnant. In the end, we discover that it is in fact Mackey who is behind everything, hiding his sinister intentions behind a veil of normalcy.
If the plot mechanics are mostly boilerplate by now, there are enough novel moments to sink your reptilian teeth into to make the episode worth watching. I didn’t give enough credit to the extended sequence of a typical service inside of O’Connor’s Church of God with Signs and Wonders, which is pretty damned atmospheric and gives you the sense of what the Reverend’s flock believed in. Unusual religious practices are perfect fodder for fiction, a fact that has been confirmed in many mediums. I’m not quite sure that I perfectly understand the idea of wrangling with venomous snakes (or speaking in tongues, etc.), but it is also not my place to judge. After all, like our agents muse, it isn’t that much different than communion wafers or flying saucers.
The snakes though are uniquely terrifying creatures (at least to this writer), whose biblical reputation precedes them. Aside from a zoo setting, I don’t think I’ve ever been in close proximity to a snake, and thank God for that. I’d be an absolute wreck in that case, which makes their presence here pretty darn effective for some televised terror. This includes the final scene in which we see Mackey setting up shop in Connecticut after eluding Mulder and Scully, feeding a mouse to a snake that slithers out of his mouth in what has to be one of the most messed up moments ever to make air. I’ll take it!
Radhika: To quote one Indiana Jones: “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” I haven’t typically been afraid of snakes when I’ve seen them up close, but they’re usually not the terrifying variety found in this episode, nor have I seen them in such volumes in person. I would definitely just drop dead of fear if just faced with the amount seen here. So that’s an effective enough scare tactic for me, though of course, this episode features a scene where Gracie gives birth to a bunch of snakes… because it wasn’t creepy enough to begin with.
The religion thing has definitely been done and will continue to be done on The X-Files, but the one thing I’ll give this episode credit for is that the tolerant, not-crazy preacher is actually the bad guy and the seemingly nutty guy was kind of good all along. The X-Files is big on using marginalized communities as a basis for its Monster of the Week episodes, which can be great for atmosphere, but occasionally a tad insulting and too black and white for the types of groups represented. The snake-handling church we see here definitely doesn’t get portrayed in the best light for a bulk of the episode (and this may have been the first time I ever became aware of the concept of speaking in tongues, which was an interesting introduction, I suppose). But it is portrayed in a slightly better light in the end.
I do wish we had a little more background on Mackey by the time it is revealed that he’s the bad guy here. I’m assuming his snaky nature makes him the Devil, and perhaps that’s enough information for the viewer, but it might have fleshed out the episode a little better.
Overall, while it’s certainly not the cleverest X-Files episode (I know, I’m making my usual excuses for season seven), I give “Signs and Wonders” props for being atmospheric and more X-Filesy than most episodes we’ve been watching so far. There are a few silly things like Scully pulling her gun… on snakes, but this one manages to keep my attention, so hurray for that!
YES IT’S THAT LADY
Beth Grant – Playing one of Rev. Mackey’s congregants, this workhorse of screens big and small has also guest starred on Coach, Friends, Angel, Justified, and Wonderfalls. Her feature film resume is even more impressive, with roles in Safe, Speed, Matchstick Men, Southland Tales, No Country for Old Men, The Artist, and Donnie Darko. Currently, she can been seen on Fox’s The Mindy Project. She sometimes doubts your commitment to Sparkle Motion.