I’m going to get it out of the way and say what we’re all thinking: It’s Monk! Yup, Tony Shalhoub is the guest star this episode. At this point in his career he was already pretty well known for his comedic role on Wings. The man is great at playing jittery, nervous little fellows. Alright, now that that’s taken care of…
Reactions to “Soft Light” tend to be a mixed bag but it’s panned by many. Thinking back to my first watch through the series, I liked it OK, but my 14-year-old self certainly didn’t appreciate its humor or the interplay between its characters. It’s not a banner episode and not at the level of the two that precede it, but it does provide a good amount of undervalued entertainment.
The opening scene where we’re introduced to Scully’s former student, Detective Ryan, is clever. It’s clever because it exists less to establish who Detective Ryan is than who Agent Scully isn’t. She isn’t the same ambitious young woman, green because she had never been in the field, who began work on the X-Files 2 years ago. We’re reminded that she was similar to Detective Ryan back in the beginning (though certainly more confident, cocky even). But a crash course in “Life With Mulder” has left her a little more open-minded, shall we say. She even goes so far to check the heating vent for body-manipulating mutants, a sly reference to “Squeeze” (1×2).
Mulder is spot on when he angrily asserts that Detective Ryan is no Agent Scully. Sure Scully was ambitious and proud and eager to prove herself a man among boys, but she would never put her reputation above the safety of others, which is what Ryan does over the course of the episode. Scully, however, still relates to her position as a young, female investigator making her way amongst closeted male chauvinists. She makes excuses for her almost like a big sister would. Still, I can’t help but think she needed a better protégé. Detective Ryan’s character is sufficient enough in that she serves to highlight Scully’s evolution, but she’s rather bland, don’t you think? Even when she did finally turn on Mulder and Scully she could have done it with a little more verve. Get a backbone, woman. As her character stands, her death scene is only vaguely satisfying.
::Abrupt Transition Alert::
I don’t think I ever fully appreciated how funny Mulder and Scully are together in “Soft Light.” Their comfort level with each other alone is worth the episode and the teasing is priceless. As I said in regards to “Humbug” (2×20), the humor in these earlier seasons was subdued and underplayed. This is why there are so many “blink and you’ll miss it” moments in the first few years that take a rewatch to finally notice and appreciate. Ergo, I can see an episode I’ve already watched at least 6 times and only on the 7th watch notice Mulder’s comedic expression as Scully hops on the elevator behind him. Please go check it out if you don’t remember what I’m talking about. I just love that the director doesn’t feel the need to play up the moment or to linger too long on their faces for a reaction.
In other news, Scully isn’t the only character study in this episode. She has to share the spotlight with Mr. X and his shadowy motivations. One line in particular stands out: “Mr. Mulder, I didn’t kill him.” After he’s just talked a good game about Mulder being his errand boy and not the other way around, why does he want to absolve himself in Mulder’s eyes? Could it be that even X feels guilt? Between this moment and the scene in “One Breath” (2×8) when he gives Mulder information on the men responsible for Scully’s abduction, I think it’s clear that X has a conscience buried somewhere deep down in him. The speech he gave in “One Breath” about once being like Mulder wasn’t just blowing smoke. Now we learn that he’s helping Mulder out of some emotional debt to Deep Throat. It would be nice if the history of their relationship had been explored a little more but that’s one giant “Alas” for The X-Files. Whatever spilled milk there is to cry over, it is fun to watch Mulder get played by X since he does have a nasty habit of assuming that others are at his beck and call.
If you add up the open window into Mulder and Scully’s partnership, the humor, the touch of Scully angst and an inexplicably destructive power it all comes out to an enjoyable episode. The coup de grâce is that wonderfully haunting ending where we get a close-up of the vanquished Dr. Banton, a single tear running down his cheek.
Here’s where I should confess that Season 2, for all its occasional missteps, is one of my favorite seasons and not just because it’s unabashedly gross. Sometimes my fellow fans complain that the episodes became too predictable early on in the series, too formulaic. To that I say that it’s true episodes like this one tend to follow certain guidelines that are easily recognizable after a while. But it’s not until you have a successful, familiar formula that you can break it. ‘Humbug” couldn’t have happened in Season 1. The later, more creative episodes like “The Post-Modern Prometheus” (5×6) and “Triangle” (6×3) would have been nonsense if episodes like “Soft Light” hadn’t already become standards in the collective consciousness of the public. It’s like there’s a mantra on repeat in your head, “This is an X-Files episode. This is an X-Files episode.” And while it’s nice to occasionally break it up with, “This is an X-Files episode?” I still enjoy hearing that broken record. Call me OCD.
I also enjoy that the series has fallen into a regular rhythm of episodes that are all at about the same level of coolness. The X-Files is now pretty consistent and if it has to be a little formulaic to pull that off, so what? Remember the jarring ups and downs of Season 1??
But I’ve digressed enough. Back to “Soft Light.”
It’s pretty good.
The most common complaint is that the science in this episode doesn’t make sense and is inconsistently applied; Banton’s shadow should consume everything, so why only humans? I take it that it only affects carbon-based life forms or something to that effect. Maybe that doesn’t make real sense scientifically, but that’s what we’re supposed to believe. Besides, the plot has built-in escape route because Banton stumbled upon a science that he doesn’t fully understand himself. He’s running from the government because he wants a chance to study himself to figure out how to stop this thing. A cop out? Sure. But a reasonable one.
This is the first episode penned by Vince Gilligan (swoon). More on him later.
This is our second Half-Caff episode in a row; there’s a new, powerful science that the government is trying to get its grubby hands on. It’s not paranormal, but it sure is strange.
Detective Ryan: Agent Scully, what are you looking at?
Scully: Uh, the heat register.
Detective Ryan: You don’t think anyone could have squeezed in there?
Mulder: You never know.
Scully: Spontaneous human combustion?
Mulder: I have over a dozen case files of human bodies reduced to ash without any attendant burning or melting, rapid oxidation without heat.
Scully: Let’s just forget for the moment that there’s no scientific theory to support it.
Mulder: Check this out. My newest tool in the fight against crime. [Laser Pointer] $49.95 at your local hardware store.
Scully: Neat trick. For your birthday I’ll buy you a utility belt.
Mulder: See this guy, he’s always here. What’s he doing?
Scully: Looking at the floor.
Mulder: Why’s he doing that?
Scully: Probably the same reason he spends his whole afternoon in the train station.
Mulder: In the videotape, Dr. Banton kept staring at the floor. I’ve been trying to figure out what he might have been looking at.
Scully: Well, maybe the exposure affected his mind. Nonsensical repetitive behavior is a common trait of mental illness.
Mulder: You trying to tell me something?
Mulder: He believes the government is out to get him.
Mr X: It’s tax season. So do most Americans.