“This isn’t Tijuana or Cabo. We don’t see Americans in this town unless they’re on the run from something, somebody. This town… people like you come here to disappear.”
“People like me? You don’t know me.” — John Doggett
“Hey, you don’t know you.” — Domingo
Things get a little dicey when Doggett finds himself in Mexico with no memory of who he is.
Radhika: Ah, finally — we finally come to a season nine episode that doesn’t entirely have my mind wandering halfway through. A Doggett-centric episode, “John Doe” is one of the more refreshing entries of the season, though I’ll also fully admit that I can’t quite lump it into the category of all-time favorite episodes either. But this is one of the more compelling Monster of the Week episodes to watch, which is probably at least partially thanks to the fact that it was penned by Vince Gilligan.
We start the episode with Doggett waking up inside an abandoned warehouse in Mexico, where a guy is stealing one of his shoes. As events unfold, Doggett realizes that he has no memory of who he is. As he goes through a series of misadventures, Skinner and Scully are trying to figure out a way to find Doggett, since Kersh isn’t exactly making it easy. They’re able to send Reyes to the town where Doggett was last seen after Doggett calls a U.S. Marines public affairs office in hopes of finding out more about his identity, thanks to the Marine tattoo he sports.
We eventually learn the cause of Doggett’s memory problems: The head of a local drug cartel is something of a “memory vampire” who absorbs the memories of those who pose a threat. After a bit of a showdown with the local police, controlled by this cartel, both Reyes and Doggett are rescued. And Doggett — who could only remember flashes of his deceased son — has his memories back, admitting that he’ll happily take those bad memories as long as he can remember the good too.
While the premise of the episode — memory loss — is not entirely unfamiliar, it is compellingly done unlike some of the more tired episodes we’ve seen this season. There is an air of desperation brought about by some solid directing and great acting from Robert Patrick and even though once again, I found the effects used a little heavy-handed in some of the dream/flashback sequences, the positives generally outweigh the negatives for me. Robert Patrick really sells the emotional aspect of reliving and remembering Luke Doggett’s kidnapping and murder, which makes the episode more of a story about human suffering and resilience than one about memory vampires. But this is not a bad thing because even though The X-Files is a show about the paranormal, it is also very much one about the human spirit.
Another plus for me is that this episode genuinely does feel mysteriously atmospheric — and I’ll admit that I chuckled with delight when we saw the cartel head light up a cigar in the shadows. As much as I haven’t felt the need for the Cigarette Smoking Man (absent for quite some time now) in the last season or so of episodes, there’s just something very X-Files about seeing a bad guy light up. It’s a throwaway moment, but a fun one for me.
Max: Yeah, count me in on being pleasantly surprised at how much I liked this episode after rewatching it. It does everything a good monster-of-the-week entry should do, marrying good character work alongside some spooky and unsettling stuff. And while the so-called “memory vampire” hardly interacts with our heroes, the damage he did to Doggett’s memory is what sets the whole thing in motion, resulting in one of the more grounded entries in The X-Files canon.
It is also nice to see a supporting cast that are actually characters and not stereotypes. Yes, there is your usual batch of Mexican drug-runners and the corrupt local gendarmerie, but the focus is on a select few individuals who have believable and compelling motivations. And of course the allegory of those who are disappeared for interfering with the cogs of the cartel machinery makes the supernatural goings-on a logical component of a show for which it is its raison d’être. This isn’t “El Mundo Gira” territory, or one of the other duds the show has sometimes trafficked in, which is even more impressive given its season nine pedigree.
Michelle MacLaren — a producer on the show — steps into the director’s chair for the first time after taking in lessons from Kim Manners, and she does some wonderful work here. From the grainy desaturated filters she uses to the way she balances the darkness and the light, “John Doe” is indeed an atmospheric outing, one that uses the undercurrent of danger to put the audience in Doggett’s mindset, struggling for answers while doing his best to not get on Domingo’s bad side. You can see from the climactic shootout at the garage from where MacLaren got her chops to orchestrate some of the best action sequences on Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, as well as episodes of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones.
Scully and Skinner don’t have much to do here — including yet another showdown with our favorite Deputy Director Kersh — but Reyes’ background having grown up in Mexico gives her a considerable leg up in determining Doggett’s location, including connecting the pseudonym Doggett gave over the phone to a popular calling card used south of the border. And the moment where — amidst tear gas and gunfire — where she has to break the news to Doggett, again, that his son his dead is a solid moment for this duo. Radhika and I may compare them unfavorably sometimes against the giants that are Mulder and Scully, but maybe things would have worked out better for these two given more time and were serviced better by the writing staff.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see “John Doe” end up on our best of the season list, as what the episode does outstrips that of the others. And it this point, it doesn’t take much to do that.