Chris Carter presents one of the darkest and most disturbing The X-Files episodes of the entire series catalog with his terrifying and relentless second season entry, “Irresistible.”
Leaving behind the expected “fantasy” elements of the series such as aliens and monsters-of-the-week, the series creator, aided by director David Nutter, instead provides here a glimpse of the ultimate and most fearsome mystery: human evil.
As a creative and intellectual series, The X-Files is a very Gothic enterprise. By and large, it concerns a voice of rationality and a voice of romance debating the inexplicable mysteries of nature and the supernatural itself. “Irresistible” takes a determined step away from that approach by featuring a tale entirely psychological and human in its grounding. The “monster” of “Irresistible” is not an imaginary being, a mutant, a spirit, or a monster but a twisted human being who “preys on the living to scavenge from the dead,” Donnie Pfaster (Nick Chinlund).
Yet as the episode also reminds us through photographs (of Donnie as a child, in particular…) and canny imagery suggesting the killer’s sense of entrapment, Pfaster is merely a human being whose desire and needs have somehow -- for some reason -- grown exceedingly perverse, and dangerous. The question is necessarily raised: how could someone come out so…wrong? So twisted?
In this case, the truth isn’t “out there,” it’s part of who we are as a species.
In most installments, The X-Files ultimately reveals its monster fully, whether it be a fluke-man, a circus-freak, or some other “creature,” but “Irresistible” instead often frames Donnie in the shadows, so we can’t quite discern who or what he really is. Sometimes, these shots of silhouettes are augmented with brief views of demons or devils, an indicator, perhaps, that some men are monsters inside. At other times, this human "evil" seems to actually shape-shift.
This approach surely forecaststhe brilliant Millennium (1996 – 1999), a series wherein the protagonist, Frank Black (Lance Henriksen),often sees men as monsters…beings turned ugly by their dark drives and desires. It’s not too big a jump, then, to view “Irresistible” as the sort of missing link between The X-Files and Millennium, the story that focuses not the on the monster outside, but the monster within.
In Minneapolis, a death fetishist named Donnie Pfaster (Nick Chinlund) is collecting the hair and fingernail clippings of female corpses…desecrating the bodies. Mulder and Scully are brought in on the case by a local detective (Bruce Weitz), who suspects that UFOs are involved. Mulder quickly discounts that notion, but warns that the killer could graduate to murder, a forecast which proves sadly accurate.
A shaken, disturbed Scully -- still vulnerable after recent events involving Duane Barry -- develops a profile for their sick perpetrator, but becomes an unwitting part of the case when Donnie Pfaster kidnaps her and plans to make the F.B.I. agent his next victim.
Proving as timely and as accurate as usual, this episode of The X-Files name-checks Jeffrey Dahmer, the notorious serial killer in Ohio and Wisconsin who died in prison just weeks before “Irresistible” aired on network television.
Dannie Pfaster is a character not unlike Dahmer: a man who can appear normal at a distance and to society at large…while close-up he is a dangerous predator.
Both Dahmer and Pfaster, for instance, desecrate the bodies of dead, and show no remorse for their crimes. And also like Dahmer, Pfaster seems to have come from a normal, middle-class American family.
There’s a scene in “Irresistible” during which Scully looks at Pfaster and he seems to shape-shift before her eyes, becoming a series of different men before "re-forming" as himself. This visualization is not an indication of the supernatural as some have apparently taken it, but a subjective visual expression of Scully’s abject fear, and one also reported in the Dahmer case. There, victims reported seeing Dahmer’s features change before their very eyes, and the only way to account for that change is absolute, unreasoning, existential fear.
The question raised by Dahmer and Pfaster is simply one of our human nature. How could nature go so wrong that it would create these “escalating fetishists” who commit crimes of “almost unimaginable" brutality?
What makes “Irresistible” so successful an episode is this very factor. The depiction of Donnie as a very sick person and one, ultimately, who can’t overcome his “bad” hard-wiring, is powerful, but also...dimensional. Donnie’s desires and actions are wrong, anti-social and incredibly violent to be certain, yet he boasts no capacity to stop. He is “programmed” wrong, if you will, and can't overcome that programming.
This idea is visualized throughout the episodes in compositions that identify his entrapment. Frequently, for instance, Donnie is seen behind bars, an acknowledgment both of entrapment and his ultimate destination prison. There’s also a shot of Donnie Pfaster with a prostitute in which his usable space in the frame is bracketed or cut-off by her body and raised leg. He is, essentially, hemmed in, a victim of violent forces surging within that he can’t control or even truly understand.
What exactly are those violent forces? From what do they stem? Why do they arise in some people but not others?
“Irresistible” suggests that the answers to such questions are opaque, even un-answerable, also via Nutter's canny choice of compositions. Again and again, Donnie is depicted in dark silhouette or shadow, his precise features undetectable.
Shots of this nature recur even after the audience and main characters have seen Donnie’s visage already. But the idea underlining such compositions is that psychology can’t explain the existence of “errors” like Donnie in the human race. There’s some aspect of him that -- even when he faces us directly -- we can’t see, make-out, or understand.
Although Scully and Mulder are closely involved in the week’s action, it doesn’t seem like any sort of slight to note that this episode belongs to Pfaster…and to Nick Chinlund.
Chinlund is weird and creepy as the serial killer, but not in any kind of conventional or trite way. He has a soft, raspy voice, and moves his neck and head in a bird-like, strange fashion which suggests he is both simultaneously human and not fully human. At times Pfaster seems almost gentle, and at other times he is ruthless and single-minded. His absolutely unsettling and non-traditional performance anchors the episode, and makes Pfaster one of the series’ great “monsters.” The character would return in a seventh season episode called “Orison,” but he is most creepy on this encounter, in “Irresistible.”
In particular, there is an absolutely sickening, perfectly-pitched scene here in which Pfaster begins digging through a bathroom garbage can for discarded fingernail clippings and hair. The scene feels incredibly perverse, and Donnie expresses avarice, desire, and satisfaction when he finally extracts a clump of tangled hair from the receptacle. There's something so desperate about his ardent desire here. It's a credit to Chinlund's performance and Chris Carter's sterling writing that a man who does such horrible things can be portrayed in a multi-faceted way.
In terms of the established dramatis personae, “Irresistible” is a Scully episode. The episode moves in a familiar epistolary form (like the pilot episode) with Scully reporting her profile of Pfaster in voice-over, and typing out reports on her computer. In terms of her character, the audience learns in this episode that Scully desires to be seen by Mulder as an equal, and that she finds it upsetting (humiliating?) that he feels the need to protect her.
Secondly, of course, this is our first opportunity to see Scully back in action after the shattering events of “Duane Barry/Ascension/One Breath.” It’s fair to say she undergoes something akin to PTSD here, but in the end she overcomes it, and battles Pfaster to a stand-still.
The coda of “Irresistible” is also just about perfect. As Scully makes her final case report on Pfaster, the episode cuts to those haunting childhood pictures of Pfaster. His family looks perfectly normal. Young Danny is well-dressed and well-coiffed. Everyone is smiling. But something inside Donnie is wrong, even as a child, and the fact that it goes undetected by even his closest family is terrifying. How many other Donnie Pfasters are out there, victims of twisted desires beyond their control? The episode leaves us with that question hanging in the air, unresolved.
Next week is the Star Trek Week celebration here on the blog, so our X-Files retrospective will resume in two weeks, on Thursday, May 23rd, with another real humdinger of a show: “Die Hand der Verletzt.”