“What did Einstein say?” — Monica Reyes
“Einstein. Now there’s a winner.” — Mr. Burt
“God does not play dice with the universe.” — Monica Reyes
“Nor does he play checkers. Look, Agent Reyes, you can’t reduce all of life, all of creation, every piece of… of art, architecture, music, literature into a game of win or lose.”
— Dana Scully
Our agents investigate a serial killer whose pattern appears to be determined by numerology, while also encountering a rather intriguing man along the way.
Radhika: “Improbable” — aka, the one with Burt Reynolds — is among the better-received episodes of season nine, even though I don’t remember feeling particularly fond of it back when I watched it the first time. Upon rewatching it, I think I have more mixed feelings: There are parts that are genuinely pretty enjoyable and other parts that feel a bit hollow to me, as if Chris Carter was trying to capture the humor of previous comedic episodes so much, that he just kind of abandoned any attempts at a plot for moments at a time.
That’s right, “Improbable” is one of those rare season nine comedy outings, despite a somewhat dark theme at the center of it all: a serial killer whose pattern is determined by numerology to the point where the numerologist that Reyes consults ends up dead. When Scully and Reyes visit the murdered numerologist’s office, they run into the killer in the elevator — but when he seemingly escapes, they end up stuck in the parking garage, where they encounter an enigmatic man we saw chatting with the killer earlier in the episode.
Somehow between quipping and agonizing over how to get out, the agents wind up playing checkers with the strange man, eventually surmising that the red and black pieces foreshadow the killer’s next victims: a redhead and a brunette. Sure enough, the killer eventually springs into action, but Doggett — somehow figuring out some type of pattern — arrives in the nick of time to save Reyes and Scully. At the end of the episode, back in an Italian neighborhood, a kooky musical segment, reflecting the kookiness of the episode’s opening, ensues. As the camera zooms out to give us an aerial view, the mysterious man’s face seems to appear, hinting that perhaps our agents and killer might have been chatting with God in this episode.
It’s become a very common refrain for us to discuss how seasons past “did it better,” and I feel this episode can be defined that way as well. We have seen silly and nonsensical episodes of The X-Files before, but I’m not sure the entire experiment is as successful as the likes of “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.” A good chunk of the episode feels like an excuse to insert quirky tunes for characters to lip sync to, and while that was kind of cute, it wore thin on me after a while.
But, that said, I do enjoy the scene where Scully and Reyes are stuck in the parking garage with our mysterious man played by Burt Reynolds — Scully shooting at the locked door in frustration, while Reyes and the man play checkers, was a minor sight gag that made me chuckle. And I found myself enjoying the way the characters played off each other. The bits of levity, even with a vaguely thin plot and the “improbable” likelihood of Doggett showing up just in the nick of time, were definitely at least somewhat needed after a season and a half that have largely lacked joy, so I can’t be annoyed by it all.
Max: You know what — comparisons to previous seasons and episodes aside — there are times I feel like mostly disregarding my critical eye and just going along for the ride. Because what the hell, “Improbable” is a pretty damn fun ride to go on in a season sorely lacking in bright spots. There is a palpable joie de vivre in the proceedings, an ironic emotion for sure in a show that traffics in death on a regular basis. It is a kaleidoscopic explosion of color — particularly in the town scenes — a marked contrast to the rather drab palette of season nine.
And Burt Reynolds, hirsute wonder of the world, is such a delight as God, even though he probably doesn’t like to be called that. His effervescence is quite infectious, and if he can thaw the resolve of Scully the Ice Queen, then he acquits himself with aplomb. Many faiths and philosophies remark that their respective higher power(s) are unknowable and inscrutable, their decisions and edicts masked by an opaqueness unable to be penetrated by us mere mortals. Here though, Mr. Burt relays a simple ethos predicated on an unconditional — if slightly exasperated — love for everyone. At many junctures, he tries to speak reason to the killer, yet the supposed numerological forces that govern the episode (coupled with the killer’s lack of self control) throws the wrench into his desire. Like the man said in the parking garage, there is still free will.
At least in this instance, I don’t think that the quality and effectiveness of the episode need be measured up against, for example, the giants that are Darin Morgan’s season three contributions. Recently, there has been a lot of hemming and hawing over the new season of True Detective, as people invariably compare it to the watercooler success of the original story of crime, violence, and mysticism. But I feel in doing so — or at least to the degree that it has been done — doesn’t let this iteration breathe and grow on its own. As an anthology series, each season of True Detective is essentially a different monster, and this can be said of the MotW episodes of The X-Files. Yes, “Improbable” is not “Jose Chung,” but it can never and should never attempt to be it. It does its own thing.
For me, a magnetic performance from Burt Reynolds, a liberal sprinkling of wacky hijinks, and well worn but valid observations on the human condition make an entertaining hour of television. Scully and Reyes playing checkers with Mr. Burt may not have the stakes of Ingmar Bergman’s iconic chess match from The Seventh Seal, but the consequences of this cosmic competition result in the apprehension of the man they were after. Sometimes meaning is buried in the little moments of the day — like we see in the town — and those moments accumulate into the totality of life… or Burt Reynolds’ mustachioed mug.
Traditionally, the credits end on a shot with the words “THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE.” However, in some instances new text emerges.
For the final time in the original run of the series, the tagline changes — this time to “DIO TI AMA,” which is “God loves you” in Italian. Most assuredly referring to Mr. Burt, the concern he elicits — even for a serial killer — is the bedrock of a philosophy that has at times wound its way through the thematic spines of the program. It is certainly something Scully had to come to terms with during her experiences these past nine seasons, and can be brought into the real world, as people live their lives with happiness and struggle, in equal measure.
YES, IT’S THOSE GUYS
Burt Reynolds – Probably one of the highest-profile guest stars on The X-Files, Reynolds is here as Mr. Burt (or God?). The actor has starred in a variety of projects including Deliverance, Smokey and the Bandit, Boogie Nights and more.
Ellen Greene – Here as numerologist Vicki Burdick, Greene has been in numerous stage productions, films and TV shows. She may currently be best known for her role as Vivian Charles on Pushing Daisies, but other TV credits include Law & Order, Suddenly Susan and Hannibal.
John Kapelos – Credited here as Special Agent Fordyce, Kapelos is probably best known for playing the janitor in The Breakfast Club and Detective Donald Schanke in Forever Knight. Additional movie credits include The Craft and Legally Blonde, while TV credits include ER, Gilmore Girls and Justified.
Ray McKinnon – Here as Mad Wayne, McKinnon is an actor, screenwriter, director and producer who may be best known for his roles on Deadwood and Sons of Anarchy. He also created the first original series from Sundance Channel, Rectify.