It should be no surprise that last week’s playfully inventive episode of ‘The X Files’ was an anomaly this season. The show returns to classic monster-of-the-week form this week, to some mixed results.
Episode ‘Familiar’ opens with a little boy at a playground, carrying a super-creepy doll called “Mr. Chuckleteeth” that has an evil smiling skull face and a pompadour. (What parent would let a young child play with this?) As the boy’s mother is distracted arguing with her husband on the phone, the child is lured into the woods by a full-size Mr. Chuckleteeth, and is then attacked by something unseen.
A search party scours the woods until the boy’s dead body is found, torn up by an apparent animal attack. Mulder and Scully arrive to investigate, claiming FBI jurisdiction because the boy’s father is in local law enforcement. Neither of them buys the animal attack story. Scully determines that the victim was asphyxiated and theorizes that a serial killer may be preying on children. Mulder suspects witches, because of course he would. The town had a history of witchcraft trials back in the Puritan days. He says that the post-mortem injuries could have been caused by an animal familiar, such as a hellhound. Scully rolls her eyes. That seems like a stretch, even by Mulder’s standards.
Scully later changes her theory and believes that the boy’s hot-tempered father, Officer Eggers (Jason Gray-Stanford from ‘Monk’), is the most likely suspect. Police Chief Strong (Alex Carter from ‘CSI’) dismisses the idea. Mulder notes some salt on the corpse’s foot. The two of them next interview a 5-year-old girl who was at the playground. She’s distracted watching an obnoxious ‘Teletubbies’-like TV show, but perks up when Mr. Chuckleteeth comes on the screen, and says that she saw him in the woods. Scully writes this off as a young child’s flight of imagination.
Distraught over his son’s death, Eggers becomes obsessed with Scully’s original serial killer theory and searches a criminal database until he finds a registered sex offender nearby. Deranged with anger, he races to the man’s house and kicks in the door. Scully and the police chief follow after Eggers and manage to talk him down. The sex offender isn’t home, but they find photos showing him working as a party clown for children. In his closet is a Mr. Chuckleteeth costume.
Believing this to be a John Wayne Gacy scenario, Scully is ready to consider the case closed. Mulder remains unconvinced, and is very unsettled by the mass hysteria brewing in the community, which is ready to condemn this man without a fair trial.
The little girl named Emily, who happens to be Chief Strong’s daughter, is lured outside her house by one of the Teletubbie-like characters and is soon found dead as well. Mulder notices salt on the ground at the crime scene and uncovers what looks like a magic circle around the body. He confronts the chief and accuses him of knowing about witchcraft being practiced in the town. Strong confesses to having an affair with Eggers’ wife, and believes that the children are dead because he’s being punished for his sin.
The sex offender eventually returns home, having no idea what’s going on. Eggers and a crowd of angry bystanders assault the man until Scully breaks up the mob. The man claims that he’s only on the sex offender registry due to statutory rape when he much younger, and insists that he never hurt anyone. (I don’t like the idea of dismissing statutory rape as a harmless crime, personally.) Eggers doesn’t believe him and shoots the man in the head.
At his arraignment, Eggers is released on a very light bail due to being a police officer and allegedly not a flight risk. Mulder considers this a travesty of justice. Another cop named Officer Wentworth (Roger Cross from ’24’ and ‘The Strain’, who has played at least four different roles on this show in the past) brings them evidence that the sex offender had a firm alibi at the time of the first boy’s murder.
Eggers and his wife, Diane, have a huge blow-out fight over her affair. Diane announces that she’s leaving him and drives off. Speeding down the road, she sees her dead son standing in the road and swerves, crashing her car.
Eggers himself, meanwhile, goes to Chief Strong’s house in a rage, threatening to kill him. Instead of the chief, he sees Mr. Chuckleteeth snooping around the house and taunting him. Eggers shoots Chuckleteeth multiple times to no effect. Strong then returns home and sees Eggers inside. A gunshot rings out.
Mulder and Scully find Eggers dead at the chief’s house. A ring of salt surrounds the house and a book about witchcraft that Mulder had seen there earlier is missing.
Strong comes across the car crashed on the road and walks into the woods in search of his mistress, Diane. He walks right past her body at the base of a tree. Deep in the woods, he finds his own wife, Anna (Erin Chambers). She’s standing inside a ring of burning candles with the witchcraft book in her hands. She claims that she cast a spell to curse him and Diane, but inadvertently cursed both of their children as well. Suddenly, a big wolf leaps out of nowhere and mauls the police chief to death.
Mulder and Scully follow the chief’s trail. Anna chants a spell, trying to undo the curse she placed earlier. She apparently fails at that, because her body spontaneously bursts into flames. In the aftermath, Anna’s body is charbroiled, but the witchcraft book isn’t so much as singed.
As a parent, I find using the vicious murder of young children as a plot-point both unsettling and distasteful. Getting past that, this is a fairly decent M-o-t-W ‘X Files’ episode that could have been made during the show’s original run. The plotting largely holds together and is more coherent than most this season. The episode conveys strong feelings of suspense and dread. Importantly, neither Duchovny nor Anderson looks lost or bored reading the dialogue, which has been a noticeable problem in some of the weaker entries.
However, the episode also feels muddled in the way it mashes together a bunch of different, unconnected ideas and themes. Mr. Chuckleteeth seems like he was probably an idea one of the writers concocted for another episode all to himself, only to wind up being foisted into an episode about witches.