“Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” brings a new philosophy to The X-Files, straight from one-of-a-kind writer Darin Morgan (“Humbug.”)
Previously, on The X-Files, we have seen commentary about belief vs. skepticism, and religion vs. science. However, this episode introduces to the series the concept of caustic, cynical nihilism; the notion that life is without intrinsic purpose or value, and perhaps even absurd to its core.
In a series that often concerns faith, commitment, truth, and “never giving up,” this (brief) turn towards nihilism nonetheless -- and quite unexpectedly -- works splendidly, in part because writer Morgan permits his own creation, Clyde Bruckman (Peter Boyle) to take and hold center stage.
Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) are still the same characters we have long-known and loved, but Bruckman holds and rivets the attention, and proves a touching and funny protagonist in the process. Peter Boyle earned an Emmy Award for his remarkable turn in this episode, and deservedly-so. He creates a heart-breaking, unforgettable character here.
At one point in “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” Mulder trenchantly asks Boyle’s character: “If the future is written, why bother to do anything?”
Bruckman’s reply -- that Mulder “gets” the existential crisis of his life -- is not only funny, but intensely sad as well. Because he knows “the end,” Bruckman is a man who has given up on the journey.
Indeed, this is a man cursed by his own belief system -- and by his mysterious gift of insight -- in a way that he simply can’t overcome. Bruckman has neither a Scully nor a Mulder to play or debate against in his day-to-day life, and instead walks a lonely, isolated road. His opposite number -- his misshapen reflection, in fact -- might be said to be the episode’s killer, who has utilized his brand of nihilism to make his life meaningful…through negation, or murder.
A serial killer (Stu Charno) is murdering fortune tellers and other professional prognosticators, and Scully and Mulder investigate the case.
When the pop guru known as the Stupendous Yappi (Jaap Broeker) fails to come up with any useful or workable leads, Mulder and Scully recruit real-life psychic/would-be-victim/insurance salesman Clyde Bruckman to help.
Bruckman boasts the unusual (though limited…) ability to predict the exact manner of death for any individual he comes in contact with. This knowledge has come to haunt him, and take the joy from his life.
When the killer finally comes for Bruckman, Mulder and Scully must protect him from a fate he has already witnessed in visions and dreams. But is it a fate he’s willing to avoid?
In addition to Boyle, author Darin Morgan won an Emmy Award for his brilliant work here, and it is plain to see from his episodes of The X-Files and Millennium (1996 – 1999) that his writing reflects a pretty singular world-view.
Morgan’s episodes of the two Chris Carter series often feature a new hero or protagonist from outside the traditional format and dramatis personae. That hero is Bruckman here, and Jose Chung in “Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” and “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense.” The four devils in “Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me,” also cleverly invert the premise of Millennium, and reveal the story of Frank Black from the perspective of his worst enemies, there the protagonists of sorts in the drama
Uniquely, all these “new” series protagonists boast the cynical strand of nihilism I note above, in this piece’s introduction.
These characters are outsiders who believe that life is absurd, or pointless. Similarly, Bruckman and Chung come across as jaundiced and highly-intelligent older men who, despite their existential beliefs, desire nothing more than to be loved and remembered fondly.
Both “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” and “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense” end with the untimely death of this particular brand of Darin Morgan character; a death that is noted and memorialized by more familiar elements of the series proper, either Scully or Frank Black (Lance Henriksen), thus engendering that desired sympathy and even love.
This scenario, in both cases, suggests that human immortality arises not via the after-life (which some psychic phenomenon seem to promise…), but rather through the simple auspices of human memory. Clyde Bruckman and Jose Chung will be remembered because they were, in the end, loved. It’s as simple as that.
It is not only life itself that seems absurd in this episode of The X-File. Psychic or paranormal abilities are also viewed through this rubric of cynical nihilism. Such powers are seen through a ruthlessly, mercilessly logical filter, so much so that they seem absurd on their face. Yappi is a sensational show-man, nothing more. He uses clues he knows will come back as "hits" (like a corpse being deposited near water). In other words, he's a charlatan.
And Bruckman’s abilities are so limited that he can’t use them in any pro-social way. He can’t even utilize them in an avaricious way, like picking the winning Lotto Numbers. The message here seems to be that if psychic powers do exist, they are a burden, and of no use to anyone, but especially the percipient. In Greek Myth, Cassandra was a figure who had great insight, but who was not believed. In The X-Files, Clyde Bruckman is a figure who has terrible insight, and is haunted by it.
Morgan also applies his apparent belief system to the bread-and-butter of The X-Files: behavioral science. Here, again and again, fortune tellers and agents of law enforcement attempt to classify the killer as a man who doesn’t know why he does the things he does, as if that description is in any way useful. Theyse men and women seek to put him in a little box, and, because he has been placed there, “understand him.”
But Clyde Bruckman -- the typical Darin Morgan outsider -- cuts through that kind of classification talk by noting plainly and simply that the killer is a “homicidal maniac.”
He’s insane and murderous, and that’s the only sense or knowledge to be gleaned from him. Again, if all of life is predictable -- if you know its end -- then knowing the “why” of someone’s behavior becomes less crucial, or even necessary. If there is such a thing as predestination, than free will doesn’t exist. The killer kills simply because he must, because he is sick and murderous.
By pointing out this simple fact of his behavior (which the killer apparently appreciates), Bruckman (and thus Morgan) expose fully the notion that a person can be totally understand or analyzed by another human being. This belief fits in with the nihilistic streak I detect in Morgan’s work because it suggests that those who seek answers -- just like those who bother to do anything when the future is already known -- are on a wild goose chase of sorts.
In an even more wicked way, Morgan forges a connection here between psychic prognosticators and behavioral scientists. In the end, both are just reading tea leaves, he seems to state. They aren't really telling us anything we don't already know, or at least intuit.
For all its humor, then, “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” is an unremittingly dark episode of The X-Files. It features disturbing imagery of a cute little dog lapping up its dead owner’s blood, and views of a human body progressively rotting in the grave. The episode climaxes with a devastating suicide.
In that final, bleak act, however, one might glean if not hope, then some understanding. Even if belief is a delusion, it’s a delusion that keeps us going, in some important sense. Scully and Mulder are driven to go on living by their desire to know the truth, either through the paranormal, religion, or science. Nihilism and absurdity -- whatever their appeal to the intellect -- don’t offer much by way of hope. Hope is the one thing Bruckman could never feel, even though he saw a vision of himself being cared for tenderly by Scully. To make that vision a reality, he had to die.
Morgan’s contributions to both The X-Files are Millennium are paradoxically both the funniest and the darkest installments, in some ways. The humor cloaks the existential terror most of the time, but not universally. And indeed, that’s part of this episode's charm. “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” is haunting and thought-provoking, and more than a little sad. Clyde seems cursed by the Gods (or by life itself), and so the episode might more aptly be titled The Tragedy of Clyde Bruckman.
In terms of on-going character touches, this episode introduces Scully’s dog, who we see on a recurring basis through “Quagmire.” And it also introduces the idea that Scully is immortal, a concept continued in the sixth season entry “Tithonus.” Mulder’s sex-obsession, heretofore indicated by his love of porn, is also given a shout-out when Bruckman determines the manner of his eventual death: auto-erotic asphyxiation.
Finally, this episode acts as a humorous book-end to “Beyond the Sea.” In that first season installment, Mulder tricked Boggs (Brad Dourif) by providing him a patch of fabric from his own basketball shirt, in hopes that Boggs, the psychometrist, would assume it was an item belonging to the victim. He fell for it. In “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” Bruckman picks up a swatch of fabric and states it is from the same basketball Jersey. Mulder off-handedly tells him he’s wrong...
Next Week: “2Shy.”