Although it is not widely considered a signature episode of The X-Files (1993 – 2002) like “The Host,” “Irresistible,” “Home,” “Pusher,” or “Bad Blood,” Chris Carter’s “Syzygy” is nonetheless one of my favorite installments of the two-hundred-plus strong catalog.
In part that position of favor arises from the episode’s deliberate and crafty re-purposing of familiar horror tropes. In a very real way, the story is a wicked inversion of Stephen King’s Carrie (1976). Only here, the victimizers and not the victim acquire paranormal abilities of terrifying strength.
In other words, this episode -- with its focus on high school cliques, Valley Girl lingo (“Hate him!”) and adolescent concerns -- proves something akin to Carrie meets Mean Girls (2004). I find that creative equation practically irresistible in terms of the episode’s humor quotient. And although I am a huge fan of Darin Morgan and his humor-based stories for the X-Files, his installments tend towards the nihilistic end of the spectrum. For all its inherent wickedness and violence, “Syzygy” proves much less of a downer.
I also very much admire the way that “Syzygy’s” secondary plot about the Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) relationship plays as a reflection of the main plot involving the partnership of two teen girls. In both cases, there’s something clearly amiss, and in one case that "wrong-ness" is merely funny while in the other it proves incredibly dangerous.
Episodes like “Syzygy” (not unlike the underrated “3” in the second season) remind me how elastic and flexible The X-Files format remains. One week it can be a a dead-on, serious exploration of a terrifying and taboo subject (like “Irresistible”), another week it can be a statement of personal philosophy (“Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,”) and on yet another week it can playfully invert horror tropes and comment meaningfully on astrology and on human relationships.
What also makes the episode so much fun to watch and re-watch is the razor-sharp, hysterically-funny (and often caustic...) back-and-forth between Scully and Mulder. Although some fans may not like the humor or subject matter of "Syzygy," it's impossible to deny the fact that the episode is brilliantly-written.
Three popular high school jocks have died in the small town of Comity in as many months, and local authorities, including the attractive Detective White (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) suspect Satanic cult activity.
Mulder and Scully look into the matter and Scully immediately suspects that two teenage cheerleaders --Terry Roberts (Lisa Robin Kelly) and Margie Kleinjan (Wendy Benson)-- are somehow involved since they both witnessed the most recent death.
Suspiciously, the two girls are also present when a basketball who offended them is mysteriously crushed by the school gym’s retractable bleachers.
A local astrology, Madame Zirinka (Denalda Williams) informs Mulder that the girls may possess unusual powers because of a once-every-84-year planetary alignment of Mars, Mercury and Uranus, a so-called syzygy.
This planetary alignment also seems to be having an effect on Mulder and Scully, who become, respectively, horny and snippy…
A syzygy might be defined as (according to Wikipedia) “a kind of unity, namely an alignment of three celestial bodies (for example, the Sun, Earth, and Moon) such that one body is directly between the other two, such as occurs at an eclipse.”
But importantly, a syzygy might also be described in terms of psychology, as “an archetypal pairing of contra-sexual opposites, symbolizing the communication of the conscious and unconscious minds.” This definition explains a Jungian conceit, one that suggests two people in relationship might take on opposite sexual characteristics from their norms.
Not surprisingly, both definitions of syzygy are applicable to this episode of The X-Files. First and foremost, the episode concerns astrology, and the effect of planetary bodies on human bodies.
Although I am not an astrologist by any means, I have always found -- perhaps to my detriment as an intellectual -- that there is a certain veneer of believability to some aspects of this belief system. We know for a fact that there exist cosmic forces such as gravity, and that they do boast an impact on matter and energy, for instance. Therefore, it does not seem such a gigantic stretch to suggest that a shift in such cosmic forces could impact humans in some strange or mysterious way.
In terms of astrology, I can only sort of/kind of/not-really confirm a funny old old wives tale: For many years, I worked as the office manager in my wife’s psychological practice, and all the employees who worked with me firmly believed in the idea of “lunacy;” that the full moon brought out the worst behavior in patients, ranging from bad phone manners all the way up to self-injury. The Scully in me wondered if the timing of these incidents was a coincidence, or merely our perception of the events while the Mulder in me questioned if there might indeed be some validity to the theory of the full moon exerting a more powerful influence upon some people.
But in terms of “Syzygy,” the astrology factor is the story device which permits the author, Carter, to examine the behavior of teenagers, and then, essentially, amplify that behavior to an unimaginable, fearsome level. We’ve all known cruel girls (and boys) in high school, and witnessed how their selfish interests become the essential orbit of all activity in their social circles. The planetary alignment in “Syzygy” thus reveals what happens when dangerously narcissistic adolescents are suddenly able to act immediately on all their worst, selfish impulses. It isn’t pretty, but in many ways, it is pretty funny.
Much more intriguing than the mean girls, however, is the way that Carter uses the idea of the “syzygy” in regards to Scully and Mulder. In this episode, the couple encounters a "third body" in the form of the (hot...) Detective White, and the new alignment immediately throws off the familiar relationship. Rob Bowman, the episode's director also deserves kudos for his sterling compositions in the episode, which often reinforce how the presence of a "third" body (White's) sends Mulder and Scully spinning into erratic orbits.
If we return for a moment to the second definition of "Syzygy" -- the psychological conjunction of two people taking on opposite sexual characteristics -- the episode becomes even more intriguing.
I’ve written about this aspect of the series before, and David Duchovny has also publicly mused on the subject, but in many ways, the sex roles of Mulder and Scully on The X-Files are reversed. Scully is much more analytical and closed-down emotionally (which are stereotypically male characteristics), whereas Mulder is more open and questioning (stereotypically female characteristics).
In this episode -- as Scully and Mulder are impacted by the planetary alignment -- their roles reverse again, and new facets emerge. Mulder becomes a prowling, boozing, perfume-smelling, horn-dog, and Scully is suddenly jealous, sniping, and second-guessing. Before anyone gets mad at me for such colorful, blunt description: these are intentionally comical extremes, and the episode makes the most out of them. Another way to put this, usually Mulder is more female and Scully more male in nature, but "Syzygy" brings out their traditional sex roles instead...and their romantic chemistry is entirely "off" because of their reversion to societal norms.
But finally, I would argue that this episode works splendidly because, in some sense…we all have moments like these in our relationships, even without astrology conjunctions. Sexual attraction isn’t a constant. Neither is flirting or romantic banter. Sometimes, even with our most loved ones, things get...strained. Irritation seeps in. Familiarity breeds contempt.
I love the fact that “Syzygy” uses the conceit of an astrological conjunction to reveal a very human side to Mulder and Scully’s often-idealized romantic relationship. Indeed, I feel like they are closer, more identifiable, and much more real in our imaginations because of stories just like this one, where there are moments of pure exasperation and annoyance.
I suppose what I’m arguing here is that it isn’t a stretch to believe that Mulder likes to Bogart the driving duties out in the field, or that he frequently second-guesses Scully’s directions. I find that some of the best moments in The X-Files are those that bow to the reality that even partners as close as Scully and Mulder sometimes get on each other’s nerves. It’s human. It doesn’t mean they love each other any less.
As usual, “Syzygy” seems even more impressive the deeper one digs into its creative DNA. The name of the town where all this craziness occurs, for instance, is “Comity,” which means "friendly or social harmony." And “comity” of course is the one quality totally lacking in the town, both between Terry and Margie, and between Scully and Mulder.
And the fact that Keystone Cops footage keeps playing on every TV in sight is a dynamic reflection of the fact that the planetary syzygy has also frazzled Mulder and Scully’s usually-sterling investigative talents. They are clueless and competitive throughout most of the episode, bungling each stage of the investigation, and they can’t get their acts together.
I also categorize “Syzygy” as part three of the “American Suburbia” subplot of the ongoing series. Earlier installments include “Die Hand Die Verletz” and “Our Town.”
In all three of these stories, a small American town is revealed to boast a seamy underside, and to be under the sway of some sinister influence, whether it is Satanism or cannibalism. All three of these episodes also involve, to some degree, the mob mentality, and therefore feature some resemblance to The Twilight Zone’s classic “The Monsters are due on Maple Street.”
In each X-Files story of this type, hysteria and finger-pointing -- as well as mob behavior -- ultimately undo the “comity,” or sense of community, at least until Mulder and Scully arrive and can restore some sense of order or balance.
Next week: “Pusher.”