My friend Scott, the guy who inspired me to coin the phrase “furniture scares,” is also the guy who introduced me to The X-Files. It was during the summer hiatus between the show’s third and fourth seasons, so I think we’re talking 1996 here. This was years before the ascendance of the DVD format and the idea of the full-season box set, so for the longest time my primary knowledge of the show’s first three seasons came from the VHS releases. Twelve episodes per season were selected from each season, two per tape, six tapes in all, released in “waves” of three. By necessity, these were either highly acclaimed episodes (such as “Eve,” “The Host,” or “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space“) or important “mytharc” episodes (such as “Little Green Men,” finales and premieres, or sweeps-period two-parters). This cherry-picking resulted, at least for me, in a bit of a skewed perspective of what the show was actually about: I saw the show as being about the adventures of a steadfast FBI agent and his hot, redheaded partner, who had a tendency to respond to Fox Mulder’s undoubtedly-true theories with eye rolls and exasperated cries of “Mulder, that’s crazy!”
It wasn’t until I started reading the A.V. Club’s recaps of the show–I think the write-up of “Jose Chung’s,” which is probably my favorite episode of television ever, caused the pin to drop for me–that I realized that there was a second way to look at the dynamic between the lead characters. It could very well be the story of a steadfast FBI agent and her tall, dark and handsome partner, a raving loon of a conspiracy nut who constantly got the pair into trouble by refusing to acknowledge authority, dragging her off to remote places to investigate wild stories. Mulder’s instability put Dana Scully’s life in danger countless times: “Ice,” “Duane Barry,” “Unrequited” and the season four cancer arc being some of the most obvious examples. Without Mulder, she would have led what Warren Zevon called “a quiet, normal life.”
Of the show’s earliest staff writers, Darin Morgan was probably the most vocal proponent of the “crazy Mulder” approach. It’s a tribute to the quality of Morgan’s writing that his meager output for the show–four episodes (including “Jose Chung’s” and the Emmy-winning “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”) and a “story by credit” for a fifth, entirely confined to two seasons–loomed so long over the show after he left it, with several writers (most notably series creator/showrunner Chris Carter and Vince Gilligan, who’d go on to create Breaking Bad) stepping into the gap to recreate Morgan’s unique blend of dark comedy and meta series commentary. And it’s in this vein that “How The Ghosts Stole Christmas,” written and directed by Carter, operates.
It starts out with Mulder hijacking Scully’s Christmas Eve plans to go ghostbusting: on December 24, 1917, two young lovers named Maurice and Lyda killed themselves as part of a suicide pact, so that may never spend another Christmas apart. But rumor has it that the ghosts haunt their house every Christmas Eve, often with deadly effect: each of the house’s subsequent owners has met a tragic end. Mulder being Mulder, he wants to investigate. With Scully. And he’s not above swiping Scully’s car keys to get her to go along with his plan.
Once inside the house, they meet the ghosts–played by Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin–who proceed to run the agents through a mindfuck. They constantly change the internal geography of the house, harangue Mulder and Scully, and speculate that before the Christmas dawn comes, the partners will kill each other.
The scenes between the ghosts and the partners–both teams are split up for most of the episode–are the centerpieces of the episodes. The most memorable is a dialogue between Maurice and Mulder where the former delivers a scathing if not entirely inaccurate analysis of Mulder’s personality. Similarly, Lyda confronts Scully about her relationship with her partner, theorizing that Scully’s greatest joy is “proving [Mulder] wrong.”
The episode features a very small cast. Tomlin and Asner are the only guest stars alongside regulars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, and there’s great chemistry between the four of them. Of note is Tomlin’s almost flirtatious attitude towards Duchovny–“I don’t show my hole to just anyone,” she tells him after exposing the literal Death Becomes Her-style hole through her stomach. (Asner has a similar one in his head.) Carter’s insightful exploration of Mulder and Scully’s relationship, through the ectoplasmic eyes of two ghosts who have been dead since the Great War, is the highlight of the episode. While it’s not entirely negative–the genuine affection between the partners (whom Carter once described as having “a romantic relationship without the romance”) is very strong here–it’s undeniably warts-and-all.
Unfortunately, the other aspects of the production are significantly weaker. The effects, while pretty good for a late-’90s TV show, are too obviously derivative of their inspiration. Carter tries to interpret the Christmas season as a time of misery and anxiety as well as joy, and while his ideas are sound, they come off as a bit too perfunctory–this isn’t A Charlie Brown Christmas. Mark Snow’s score, one of the most memorable aspects of the series as a whole, is often at cross-purposes with the episode’s mood, sometimes trying too hard to be brooding or whimsical at the wrong moments.
As for the plot, which involves Lyda and Maurice trying to turn Mulder and Scully against each other with fatal results, it suffers from both familiarity (“Mulder vs. Scully” is a well Carter and company first dipped into with the first season’s “Ice”), a lack of suspense (we never believe there’s a chance that either or both of the pair won’t come out unharmed) and a rushed climax that doesn’t resolve the plot in a satisfactory manner.
“How The Ghost Stole Christmas” is a flawed, if enjoyable, mid-period episode of The X-Files. Its advanced perspective on its leads doesn’t make it a good standalone episode for new fans or unfamiliar viewing. However, the performances are strong, and its analysis of Mulder and Scully’s personalities make it a good seasonal watch for diehards.
Fun fact! This episode was originally broadcast on my 25th birthday.
My rating: 5 of 10.