Saturday, January 1, 2011

X-Files--"Our Town"

“Our Town” is a personal favorite. It is one of those episodes that features a small town full of weird people who all share a terrifying secret. It is completely implausible that such a thing could actually occur, yet it can be pulled off spendidly within the internal logic of X-Files. It is a classic.

Mulder and Scully head to Denton, Arkansas, the site of the disappearance/possible murder of a USDA inspector who was likely about to blow the lid off unsanitary business practices of Chaco Chicken’s main processing plant. What catches Mulder’s attention to make this an X-File is the matter of stories some ritualistic activities have occurred around Denton, including a man institutionalized upon allegedly witnessing one of them.

The agents discover the USDA agent was a womanizing jerk with an ax to grind. No one took the notion he was going to file a report with the USDA seriously, but they are not upset to see him missing either. Neither is his wife, Doris. While visiting the processing plant, a young worker flips out and holds the plant manager at knifepoint before being shot by the local sheriff. An autopsy reveals she had Mad Cow disease, contracted by eating meat from infected animals. Sometime later, a truck driven by another mad Cow disease crashes into a lake.

Signs point to the USDA agent having discovered the plant was using infected chicken meat, but since Denton’s livelihood depends completely on processing jobs, he was murdered to keep him quiet. Realizing this is probably A standard murder case, Mulder requests the local river be dragged to see if the body is there. The dragging discovers not only his remains, but those of scores of others. What is worse, the bones have all been boiled. The two dead Mad Cow disease sufferers did not contract it from eating contaminated chicken. They got it from eating the contaminated USDA agent!

The townsfolk go into a panic to cover up their cannibalism. First, they plot to kill Doris, who calls the agents for help. This leads to the inevitable capture of Scully and her near decapitation at one of those ritualistic ceremonies before Mulder, who just stumbled on a collection of severed heads at the Chaco Chicken CEO’s mansion, can rescue her.

This turn of events is my only real beef with the episode--Scully is the damsel in distress yet again. That would not be so bad in and of itself. She fosters a certain chivalrous notion. Fantasizing about rescuing her from the clutches of evil…well, that is a guy thing. But this comes just a few episodes after she suffered a total emotionally breakdown over being kidnapped and nearly killed in “Irresistible.” Here, she is about to be beheaded by a guy in a witch doctor‘s mask in some sort of demonic ritual. I think that is a wee bit more traumatic, but once Mulder saves her, she shrugs it off. She is a tough woman, granted, but that is a wee bit too much.

It turns out the Chaco Ceo was shot down in the Pacific during World War II and was stranded on an island with cannibals. They used to eat people in rituals in order to extend their life spans. Chaco brought the idea back home with him. Slowly but surely, he sold the townspeople on the idea. Everyone in on the secret is decades older than they look because they kill and eat every outsider who comes into town. Like I said above, hard to believe anything like that could really happen, but a plausibly macabre happening within the confines of this show.

“Our Town” is particularly gross, too. Chicken entrails are the least of it. Whole skeletons are laid out upon being dredged up from the river, with Scully noshing while arranging bones into the proper body. Mulder finds a display cabinet full of severed heads in the living room of the Chaco mansion. The climactic ritual in which Scully is about to be killed is incredibly intense and disturbing. The whole episode is morbid, but with a sick sense of humor, too. Feathers flying and chickens clucking in a panic. That sort of thing.

A couple of references are nifty, as well. Chaco Chicken is obviously a riff on Tyson Chicken, which is also based in Arkansas. One wonders if there might have been a risk of legal trouble in this litigious society of ours. The other amusing reference is considerably more obscure. The Sheriff is named Tom Arens. William Arens is a noted anthropologist at stony brook University of New York who wrote a seminal book in 1979 debunking cannibalism myths of New Guinea. His SUNY web page can be viewed here.

In spite of a couple flaws, “Our Town” is still a personal favorite. Kooky Southern towns make the best settings for this kind of story, no? Well, except for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I never cared much for that one.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

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