7×18: Brand X

“Tobacco beetle. It’s an herbivore. It eats tobacco. Hence it’s name.” — Dr. Peter Voss
“I understand that, but maybe these don’t.” — Fox Mulder

When a witness who was supposed to testify against the Morley cigarette company dies horrifically, Mulder and Scully are called in by Skinner to investigate.

Brand X

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

Radhika: And now we’re back to the more standard Monster of the Week episodes with “Brand X,” an episode that is fairly average in the grand scheme of things, but at least has a few gross-out moments perfectly suitable for The X-Files (and terrifying to me as I hate bugs). In this episode, the agents are up against the antics of Morley, the very cigarette company favored by our favorite cigarette-smoking villain — a nice little touch of continuity in a standalone episode.

A witness and former employee of Morley plans on testifying against the company until he develops a cough and is found the next morning with his flesh eaten away. Skinner, who was tasked with protecting the man, calls Mulder and Scully in for help. We learn that Morley had been trying to engineer a “healthier cigarette,” but the tobacco used is inhabited by a beetle whose eggs survive cigarette manufacturing and end up released in the smoke of cigarettes. Three out of four human test subjects died as a result, and the lone survivor — chain smoker Darryl Weaver — expects an unlimited supply of the cigarettes for his silence. So Weaver is essentially the culprit spreading the beetles around, killing people.

Brand X

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

Meanwhile, Mulder ends up falling victim to the beetles, which lands him in the hospital, where doctors work to pump the bugs out of his lungs. As the episode draws to a close (and Skinner has shot Weaver in a confrontation), Scully decides to flood Mulder’s system with nicotine after realizing that Weaver’s addiction prevented the beetles from killing him. Mulder is saved — with the side effect of craving nicotine.

This episode, somewhat inspired by the film The Insider (which focuses on the tobacco industry), actually feels Law & Order-esque due to being “ripped from the headlines.” Parts of this translate well in the episode, while other elements feel fuzzy. And I’m not quite sure I fully grasp Darryl Weaver’s reasons to go around wreaking havoc – I kind of do, but I don’t, if that makes sense. I also feel the pacing of the episode becomes kind of dull as soon as Mulder ends up in the hospital — probably the opposite of what the show runners intended. The science behind saving Mulder ends up feeling a bit off and Skinner’s showdown with Weaver just feels like it was halfheartedly plonked in there.

Brand X

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

Things I do like, however: Snarky Mulder (and Skinner!). When the security guard at Morley is insistent on being a jerk to Mulder and Skinner by asking if they have appointments, even after they flash their badges, Skinner says, “Maybe you missed this the first time around,” as they flash their badges again. And Mulder’s pretty hilarious when he lets the Morley executives know that answering one of their questions “would violate FBI confidentiality due to the sensitive nature of our investigation.” I also generally like that Skinner has more of a part in this episode, even though Scully takes a slight backseat. It’s always fun to see the assistant director working together with his agents instead of just being the man behind the desk.

Max: Yeah, this is a solid, mildly entertaining episode that gets a lot of mileage out of an unusual concept. Mulder and Scully yet again get to tangle with some pretty intense insects (shades of “War of the Coprophages” anyone?) and there are some really effective tableaus of gore when we encounter the victims of the supercharged tobacco beetles. Radhika mentioned how the pace gets thrown off, particularly when Mulder is put out of commission, and I can see where she is coming from. There comes a point in any series with procedural elements like this where threats to the lives of the main characters become a pretty ineffective exercise. A character in the film Network bemoans that “We’ll tell you that, uh, Kojak always gets the killer, or that nobody ever gets cancer at Archie Bunker’s house, and no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don’t worry, just look at your watch; at the end of the hour he’s going to win.” He has a point.

Speaking of films, I did appreciate how the writers riffed on The Insider and the Jeffrey Wigand incident as referenced above. Good genre pieces always are able to find a powerful punch commenting on current affairs, and the writers tapped into interest in the case against Brown & Williamson just as the film was picking up major buzz going into that year’s Academy Awards. As an avowed fanatic for original flavor Law & Order, having a story “ripped from the headlines” is a welcome treat. And in the interest of full disclosure, this writer has not been given paid consideration for promoting any of these media properties.

Brand X

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

In another nice bit of continuity, I liked how it was Scully who posited the jump to super tobacco and super beetles. Yes, it was naturally couched in the language of science and genetics, but if the previous episode gave us anything good, it is that Scully perhaps won’t be as reserved or skeptical in her opinions as to what happened in any particular case. And for those who have played at home, that will definitely come in handy when we enter the final phases of the show when she won’t have Mulder anymore and will have to assume the mantle of “believer,” despite any hesitancy on her part or losing the essentials of what make her character.

“Brand X” may not be an “all killer, no filter,” episode, but I wasn’t tempted to shift my attention to other things, and that says something perhaps in the always-on always-connected world we inhabit these days.

YES, IT’S THOSE GUYS

Tobin Bell – Showing up as the villainous Darryl Weaver here, it’s no surprise that Tobin Bell went on to play John Kramer/Jigsaw in the Saw film series. He was also in the second season of 24 and had roles in numerous other films including Tootsie, Mississippi Burning, Goodfellas and more.

Dennis Boutsikaris – An actor and audiobook narrator who appears here as Dr. Peter Voss, Boutsikaris has been in a number of TV shows, movies, alongside acting in the theater. His TV roles include parts on ER, Law & Order, Shameless and Person of Interest.

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