I’ve written about this idea before in specific relation to an earlier season two entry, “The Host,” but The X-Files strikes me as one of the most potent horror series in television history because it often deals at point-blank range with the underneath “sausage-making” of our industrial, technological, late-20th century culture.
In terms of “The Host,” the entire episode spawned an uncomfortable awareness of what happens when you flush the toilet. Where does the waste go? What happens to it? How is it treated? How is it disposed?
And finally, what would happen if that process -- which is invisible to most of us on a daily basis -- failed?
The second season entry “Our Town,” by Frank Spotnitz, follows-up viscerally on this trenchant notion of the “sausage-making” of a technological society by gazing closely -- perhaps too-closely -- at industrial scale food production.
In particular, much of the episode takes place at a chicken processing plant in Dudley, Arkansas, and reveals the not-necessarily pleasant details of what ingredients go into chicken feed.
And that focus on the underneath is only part of a dazzling tale that also involves cannibalism, and a degenerative “prion disease” called Creutzfeldt-Jakob (CJD). Indeed “Our Town” is another X-Files classic that effortlessly hits every note it strives for. It concerns a real-life horror (CJD), it boasts a provocative commentary about “the way we live now,” and the installment even offers a heaping of irony in the form of its wholesome-sounding title.
Over the decades, eighty-seven people have disappeared in or around the town of Dudley, Arkansas, and “foxfire” and “witches peg” have been blamed for the vanishings.
Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigate Dudley after a health-inspector, George Kearns, mysteriously vanishes…just before he was about to publish a damning report regarding the Chaco Chicken processing plant in the town.
Mulder soon theorizes that the good people of Dudley are feeding not just upon chicken, but on unwelcome outsiders as well…as part of some cannibalistic ritual designed to prolong life. Scully’s investigation supports this point-of-view, since she has discovered that Kearns was suffering from a prion disease, and that several other townspeople are also suffering from the rare condition. The only conclusion possible is that they actually ate Kearns…and developed the sickness.
As the facts of this bizarre case become evident, Mulder learns the Chaco Chicken secret, and Scully is nearly served up at a town barbecue in the forest.
“Our Town” takes it Americana-sounding title from Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play, Our Town, which concerned (in three acts), everyday American life in a typical New Hampshire town. The play -- which is famous for featuring a narrator who breaks “the fourth wall” -- is a meditation on appreciating life as we live it, not in retrospect.
Frank Spotnitz’s “Our Town” deliberately plays as a witty inversion of the play’s artistic purpose. In this story, the people of Dudley, Arkansas aren’t focused at all on living life in the moment, appreciating each instant as it comes, but rather prolonging their lives as long as possible, through extreme means.
The “Our Town” title is also ironic or funny because the “good people” of Dudley are actually not good at all. They are all cannibals, ones who will turn on each other (and eat each other) when the going gets rough. The episode features a great gag involving "good people" and "good food." In this town, they are one in the same, as a Chaco bill-board playfully indicates.
There are two-ways to interpret the episode's choice of names, actually. The title “Our Town” is simply ironic, meaning we should look at how different diabolical Dudley is from Wilder’s Grover Corners. Things have changed from the 1930s to the 1990s.
Or, contrarily, the title is pointedly caustic, meaning that in nineties America, all towns have become like Dudley, hiding dark secrets, strange rites, cover-ups, and corruption. Given the overall approach of The X-Files, which in some sense is a town-by-town exploration of such things in modern America (witness “Die Hand Die Verletzt”), I suspect the latter approach is more applicable. Dudley is indeed a typical "our town" of the day.
I’ve always admired Frank Spotnitz’s contributions to The X-Files and Millennium, and I feel that -- much like I detect in Chris Carter’s or Rod Serling’s writing -- there is always some deeper sense of morality at play in his contributions.
Here, Spotnitz makes the lead cannibal, Chaco, an elderly throwback to kinder and gentler days. He consistently warns that “once we start turning on ourselves, we’re no better than the animals.”
This plea is ignored by the locals, but actually comes true before episode’s end. A main villain goes down in the field when Mulder arrives to rescue Scully, and opens fire.
In no time, this town leader is stepped on and trampled by the town’s folk -- his own people -- as they run away scared. For me, this kind of visualization of theme, of visual form mirroring content, is a prime quality that makes The X-Files such a joy to watch. Spotnitz’s moral here -- that turning on your friends is a mistake -- is a good one, and it applies even (humorously) to cannibals.
But the thing that really gets me intrigued by an episode like “The Host” or “Our Town” is this peek behind the curtain of technology; this glimpse of the under-structure supporting our vast, industrial civilization.
Many scenes set in "Our Town" at the chicken plant are explicitly about that under-structure, and they find those pillars…shaky. The episode shows us a chicken feed drum, for example, which consists of ground-up chicken bones, and eventually sick human flesh. And then, "Our Town" reveals river run-off from the plant that is scarlet red from all the blood of the chickens.
The idea, plainly transmitted, is of a vast, inhuman and inhumane industrial process that doesn’t observe rules in terms of safety and hygiene.
Although the episode is about chicken in particular, it’s the sausage-making of the culture that "Our Town" truly concerns. Accordingly, we are forced to ask questions about how food arrives at our table, and what, if anything, in that long process from farm to dinner plate, could corrupt the nature of what we eat.
This isn’t comfortable stuff, but The X-Files goes back to that “sausage-making’ idea again and again to reveal the dark underside of twentieth century life in America. There are threats we don’t see; threats we ignore or deny, at our own peril.
The moment where this message comes together perfectly in "Our Town" is a purely visual one.
Scully arrives at to continue her medical autopsy of the victim... carrying a huge drum of carry-our, fast-food fried chicken, presumably for dinner. This moment connects the shaky pillars underneath our society with the food we actually consume. It's also another brilliant, brutal visual joke.
My only disappointment with this brilliant, exciting, and funny installment of The X-Files is the fact that Scully is again captured, and then again rescued by Mulder. Scully’s capture is dramatically motivated, as it is in virtually every individual case throughout the series, but by now it seems like an unnecessary repetition, having been featured in “Duane Barry,” “Irresistible” and “Colony”/”End Game,” all second-season episodes.
Still, that’s a tiny quibble with an episode that deals with a taboo or more disturbing than cannibalism: questioning where your chicken sandwich may have been before it reached your fork…
Next week: we move into The X-Files season three with “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”