9×12: Underneath

“You closed this case. This time around, that was enough.” — Monica Reyes
“What happens next time?” — John Doggett

A case from Doggett’s days in the NYPD comes back to haunt him — and the man who was sent away for the murders of a family thirteen years ago.

Underneath

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

Max: Longtime staff writer and executive producer John Shiban steps behind the camera for the first time to direct an episode of The X-Files that he wrote, and he acquits himself admirably — even if the finished product is a bit more of what we’ve come to expect for the show in its ninth season. However, a standout performance by the main guest star helps to elevate “Underneath” from the field, and has me wondering if I would be more laudatory if this MotW happened when Mulder and Scully occupied the basement office.

The cold open is a flashback to the days of New York City in 1989. While a certain up-and-coming FBI agent was meeting three tech nerds in Baltimore, NYPD beat cop John Doggett and his partner answer a call to find a cable repairman in the midst of a grisly triple murder. In the present, an outraged Doggett phones his old stomping grounds while Reyes listens in, aghast that new DNA evidence has allegedly exonerated Robert Fassl, the repairman.

Underneath

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

While Doggett asks both Reyes and Scully to help him figure things out, Fassl is given a room at his attorney’s house to live in while he readjusts to life outside of prison walls. Seeing a strange bearded man wherever he goes, Fassl prays intently with his Rosary beads, desperate to stave off sin. Naturally, people begin to go missing, and Fassl has to clean up the murders he believes the bearded man is committing. When Scully relays that the DNA evidence implicates an impossible blood relative, Reyes does her best Mulder impression and theorizes that Fassl’s faith and deep denial somehow triggers a physical transformation — in this case our looming bearded man. Things come to a head when Doggett apprehends who he thought was the bearded man (Fassl, in reality) in the midst of attempting to murder the attorney.

If anything, I have to give it to the episode for using a creative way of externalizing the confusion and inner struggle that is Fassl’s mind. Frequently, “Underneath” doesn’t show the actual crimes being committed, rather Shiban has Fassl dealing with the aftermath and consequences of his actions — with jarring edits underscoring it — which is a nice visual shorthand for the denial and compartmentalization that is occurring. This is supported by W. Earl Brown’s performance, tense and grief-stricken, Brown essays a man who is so terrified of the things he his capable of, almost like an repressed inverse of the killer from “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.”

Underneath

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

Still, and I know this would undercut the framing device of having it be an old case of Doggett’s, something swirling in my head while rewatching was telling me that the episode could’ve been so much better had it come along at an earlier, more opportune moment in The X-Files‘ timeline. All the themes are there: belief, faith, denial, the potential of evil and the need to tamp it down — pretty rich material for some classic Mulder and Scully back-and-forth. Here though, we have to spread things around amongst our three heroes, and sadly I don’t think anyone rises to the occasion here.

Radhika: Max’s review of this episode is kinder than mine — because honestly, aside from the opening and a few moments here and there, this is another “ho-hum,” boring episode from season nine for me. To me, it reads more like an uninspired Jekyll-and-Hyde story that gets too muddled, and the fact that Doggett actually references that tale during the episode makes me quite sad. While there were a few things that creeped me out (messages written in blood like “Kill Her” are extra creepy when you’re smack dab in the middle of reading Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders), this was just too run-of-the-mill for me.

Underneath

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

I will say that I do like getting to know a little more about Doggett’s past in the NYPD, and it’s fun to know that he was technically working on an X-File of sorts long before he got involved in the X-Files. His determination to prove that Fassl is to blame for the murders also reminded me a bit of Mulder — while Reyes wins the prize for pulling an explanation out of thin air, Doggett’s relentless determination to put things straight and his actual declaration about needing to get to “the truth” made me smile a bit — that bit of passion has been sorely lacking from this season of The X-Files and it was nice to see a flash of that again.

But ultimately, aside from the muddled, poorly derivative story at the center of the episode, I just allowed myself to get too distracted by a few things: Like how nothing really felt particularly like New York or Brooklyn, which is normally something I can excuse in better episodes of television, or how foolish Fassl’s lawyer was being by letting him stay with her — regardless of her belief in his innocence, it was just not a very wise move, especially after she realized someone had been going through her dresser drawers. My inability to go with the flow was largely hampered by these questions of reality-based logic, a sure sign that the story wasn’t enough to hold my attention.

YES, IT’S THAT GUY

W. Earl Brown – A couple of years before his supporting role on Deadwood brought him wider recognition, Brown’s turn here as Fassl comes after a decade of big screen supporting work in films like Scream, Backdraft, There’s Something About Mary, Being John Malkovich, and Vanilla Sky. Since then, he’s appeared on the shows Justified, Luck, Rectify, American Horror Story, and Bates Motel.

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