“Then tell me why he’s doing it. If he’s looking for God, why is he killing people? Just ’cause I’m assigned to the X-Files you want me to think like Scully or Mulder would. You got the wrong guy. I need facts, not wild ideas.” — John Doggett
Agent Doggett is drawn into a case involving a cult leader who has apparently accessed his “third eye,” using astral projection to murder others in the name of God.
Max: “Via Negativa” should be subtitled, “The Case Where Doggett Begins to Believe,” because for the first time, our new hero is truly beginning to open himself up to the possibilities that only a few months ago he would have just as easily dismissed as does Kersh in this episode. Light on Scully’s character (for story reasons this time), “Via Negativa” uses the extra space afforded to the Doggett character to really develop his relationship with the paranormal and paranormal concepts that he is now charged with investigating.
The deaths of two members of Hoover’s finest along with twenty cult members in Pittsburgh sets off alarms in the Bureau, as Kersh tasks Skinner to get to the bottom of these bizarre deaths as quickly as possible. To this end, Scully informs Doggett about the case and leaving him to investigate while she undergoes what are presumably prenatal tests — although she doesn’t mention this to her partner. Cult leader Anthony Tipet believes he has found the via negativa, the dark path that permits him to access the astral plane, a step on the road to God. As usual, the manhunt is underway, and Doggett and Skinner arrest and question one Andre Bormanis, a drug dealer and chemist whom they believe made the compounds that Tipet used to activate his third eye.
They finally get to Tipet — who is in a suicidal state — but not before Bormanis and a homeless man meet the same fate as the twenty-two before them. With Tipet in a coma, Doggett experiences some pretty wild hallucinations, including that of Tipet goading him to kill Scully, and Kersh uncharacteristically satisfied with a closed case with unresolved issues (which sets all sorts of alarm bells off in Doggett’s mind). With the theory that Tipet has been killing his victims in their sleep through a shared dream-state, Doggett is about to take an axe to his own third eye in order to cut the connection, when he is suddenly woken up, Scully standing over him. Informing her partner that Tipet died in a coma, Scully thanks him for understanding her absence, while he is shaken by his experience.
I must say, this is a terrifically effective episode, probably one of the best of this season when things all shake out for us. It repurposes a lot of the themes of previous episodes and churns out something compelling and worth rewatching. I was reminded a lot of the brilliant episode “Sleepless,” particularly of the way both Augustus Cole and Anthony Tipet used a kind of dream-state to kill their victims with novel and terrifying imagery. There is a lot of literature and theory from theologians, philosophers, and psychologists about the role that dreams and the sleeping state play in spiritual practice and a religious life, so tying that in to a group with similar goals is a nice touch. It doesn’t hurt that this ideas are made flesh here with some beautiful moody tableaus that amp up the profound horrors that caused Tipet to regret his shamanic quest.
Mulder frequently pushed his partner by asking Scully, after everything she has seen, why she continues to not believe. This episode serves as a recognition, from Doggett, from the writers, from the audience even, that things ought to be looked at from a multitude of angles. It is breathtaking, for example, how small Kersh’s worldview is by comparison. Whether it be from his training or his politically sensitive position within the Bureau hierarchy, someone like Kersh refuses to look at the “impossible,” only wishing to explore avenues that result in clear answers and conclusive results. Doggett was once like that, but this episode demonstrates his struggle with reconciling his methods and beliefs with a job that causes you to challenge them on a daily basis.
Radhika: There is something truly haunting about “Via Negativa,” an episode that struck me more this time around than another astral projection episode, “The Walk” (from season three), did. This is indeed the episode where Doggett begins to believe, and everything from the writing, to the atmosphere to Robert Patrick’s acting does a terrific job of conveying the sense of fear and confusion one can experience when realizing that everything in life is topsy-turvy and doesn’t have any true sense of order behind it. I got chills when Doggett, with a pure look of terror, says, “I’m not sure I’m awake” to Skinner. And as much as I’m not really a fan of gore, the bloody moments in this episode are truly effective at adding to the growing feeling of dread — from the bloody dead bodies to that instant when Tipet slams his head against a table saw to stop further disturbing events from happening.
What I also enjoy is seeing the journey of John Doggett proceed at a quicker pace than Scully’s did. Both Mulder and the audience repeatedly asked how Scully could insist on remaining a skeptic and while I get that she’s a scientist, I’m not sure it should have taken her so many seasons to become more open-minded. But while I believe in Scully’s prowess as an investigator, there is also something she says about Doggett in this episode that I think helps facilitate his ability to believe (at least a little bit) more readily: He’s a good agent who should trust his instincts on the case. The unrelenting cop inside Doggett makes him somewhat obsessed with getting to the bottom of a case, and as much as he doesn’t believe in fantastical mumbo jumbo, he’s not the type to easily deny something in search of “more logical” evidence.
This is something The Lone Gunmen — who return in this episode for at least a touch of levity if not full-on comic relief — learn rather quickly about Scully’s new partner. When Doggett suggests the possibility of Tipet invading his victims’ minds in their sleep, not necessarily fully believing that this is actually happening, the three men are stunned, hesitantly asking if he believes it. His answer implies that he doesn’t, but that he grasps that Tipet believes it, impressing Frohike who remarks “That’s not bad for a beginner.” Doggett is capable of receiving respect from even the most unlikely of sources, people who knew Mulder well, and it’s that competency that makes him a pretty decent character to watch after years of Mulder and Scully.
Speaking of Scully: It’s just too bad that half the episodes have featured her and Doggett working somewhat separately so far, though at least here it’s due to pregnancy-related issues. The pregnancy, which could have easily become an instant jump-the-shark moment, has been on the backburner so far this season and Scully still hasn’t said a word about her condition to Doggett — which is somewhat understandable, considering its sensitive nature (has it been a full trimester yet?). Skinner remains protective of her, simply telling Doggett to do his best without Scully’s assistance, but Doggett — partially because he learns that Scully has checked herself into a hospital — is beginning to realize something is really going on with his partner. And he makes an effort to find out what it is, asking if she’s okay, but the secret remains in place. As we approach the halfway point to the season though, Scully’s not going to be able to hide things much longer — and it’s going to be interesting to watch those events unfurl. For now, it remains a slow buildup.
YES, IT’S THOSE GUYS
Keith Szarabajka – The actor who played Anthony Tipet would go on to portray vampire hunter Daniel Holtz on Angel. He also had roles on Sons of Anarchy, The Dark Knight, and Argo, as well as voice work on a slew of video games.
Grant Heslov – Creepy Andre Bormanis, Heslov turned a career of bit roles in the Eighties and Nineties into a respectable body of work as a producer, writer, and creative partner of George Clooney on films like Good Night, and Good Luck, The American, The Ides of March, and The Monuments Men. He also directed the Clooney starring The Men Who Stare at Goats.