In which Mulder and Scully battle an evil computer. Yup.
Ghost in the Machine: Season 1 Episode 7
Written by Alex Gansa & Howard Gordon, Directed by Jerrold Freedman
First aired October 29, 1993
I don’t know whether it makes me more nostalgic or sad to remember how afraid we were of computers in the early 90s. In the intervening years we’ve learned a tough truth: it’s not the computers you need to be afraid of. It’s the people who use them.
But let’s revisit a simpler, more innocent time: Clinton is in office. Laptops are as thick as phonebooks and only half as useful. The only thing you need to worry about is that computers are obviously going to develop self awareness and kill us all. Sounds reasonable.
I did a bit of wikipedia poking, and Steve Jobs was booted from Apple in 1985, which is obviously before this episode aired. I’m not old enough to remember the beginnings of Jobs’ legend, so I don’t know whether Brad Wilczek (played by Rob LaBelle) is based directly on Jobs, but I get a distinctly Jobsian vibe from him. Especially with the whole being ousted from the company he founded thing.
“You’re killing me! You’re killing my company!”
Jobs or no, Wilczek and his erstwhile business partner, Benjamin Drake (played by Tom Butler), have an argument in the cold open. Wilczek then huffs his bespectacled, rumpled way out, slamming the door behind him. Drake rolls his eyes and types up notes he recorded earlier about how horrible the COS is for business. Unfortunately for him, the COS is listening. It kills him in a weird, intricate, totally avoidable fashion à la James Bond villain. The hokey computer voice says, “File deleted.”
It got bored regulating the water pressure in the toilets and decided to kill some people.
After the credits we cut to a slimy-looking agent, one Jerry Lamana (played by Wayne Duvall). He steals a treat from a Halloween bucket and looks around to make sure no one saw him take it. He then ignores Mulder’s offered handshake and goes in for a hug.
Like Shadows, Ghost in the Machine is not a sophisticated episode. Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon admitted that they weren’t computer literate when this episode was written, and it shows. What is well done, however, is the relationship between Jerry and Mulder. From the look on Mulder’s face when Jerry hugs him, I think it’s obvious that Mulder’s not used to receiving affection. In fact Duchovny does some subtle stuff with his face a few times in this episode that I really like.
We also see immediately that Jerry takes more than he’s offered. It’s not just the candy and the hug. He insists on buying lunch for both Mulder and Scully even after he’s explicitly refused, twice. He also overrides Mulder’s definition of their relationship, and mocks Mulder while he’s at it. “Worked together? What are you talking about, ‘worked together.’ We were partners.” It’s subtle, but controlling.
Why does Scully act like one of Mulder’s exes just showed up in this scene? Mulder even plays into it, giving her a look like “No no Scully it’s not what you think I can explain.”
Jerry manipulates Mulder into taking the case. He insults the X-Files, and we see on Mulder’s face that he was afraid this would happen. He’s used to it from other people—remember the millstone of humiliation in Squeeze?—but it’s something he was hoping he wouldn’t get from Jerry. People who hug him and buy him lunch shouldn’t belittle his work on the X-Files. And yet here Mulder is, being thoroughly invalidated by a friend.
It’s not a surprise that we get a mini ‘please validate me’ exchange immediately thereafter. “I’m a pain in the ass to work with,” Mulder says when Scully asks why he doesn’t work with Jerry anymore. And then, “So I’m not a pain in the ass?” he asks when she persists. But unlike similar conversations, this one’s quick: all he needs is a smile from her before moving on. Ghost in the Machine isn’t an important episode in the scheme of things, but it does establish that Mulder has a history of emotional abuse. (We’ll get further into this when we talk about his parents.)
As a side note, given how quickly Mulder figured how the COS killed Drake, I’m surprised it targeted Scully instead of Mulder.
“The phone is off the hook you incompetent troll.” ~Mulder probably.
Mulder’s response to Jerry stealing his profile makes me sad. It’s the classic reaction of a person who’s been hurt by someone they care about. He feels blindsided, angry, and upset. But he also feels he can’t do anything about it without hurting Jerry, something he’s not willing to do. Not to mention the compulsion to keep silent about it, demonstrated by his not telling Scully that Jerry refused to apologize. Jerry’s defense of himself and non-apology push the limits of subtlety, but it does show the well-worn tracks of an unhealthy relationship.
Let’s just take a moment and be thankful this is Jerry’s only episode.
Even though Wilczek is completely ridiculous and the scene is hella cheesy, I do like Mulder and Scully’s interview with him. Being the creative, philosophical child of two business-minded parents, I relate a little to Wilczek’s scruffy/neat dichotomy (as simplistic and reductive as it is).
“No no no you fake fangirls ‘eurisko’ means I discover things.”
Later that night Scully types up her field notes. It’s endearing to me that she believes Wilczek is guilty solely because he fits Mulder’s profile. We see that she has a great deal of faith in him.
There’s a really nice juxtaposition between the two partnerships when Jerry comes to bug Mulder again at the office. Mulder and Scully work quietly together, side by side. They don’t need to posture or compete for dominance. Then Jerry rolls up. Mulder and Scully have an entire conversation in an exchanged look, while Jerry and Mulder trade words back and forth endlessly but communicate nothing.
Mulder, if you don’t handle this asshat Scully’s gonna step in.
Also the office looks quite different from what I’m used to.
Jerry gives a second non-apology. He refuses to accept responsibility for his actions in Atlanta—which lost someone actual body parts—and complains about having to file reports. He then refuses to accept Mulder’s validation of his work, turning it around to put Mulder on a fake pedestal. But I don’t believe for a second that Jerry really feels that way. He’s using classic emotional manipulation and gaslighting. If Scully hadn’t stopped him, Jerry would’ve gone on with, “All the girls think you’re hotter and my mother loves you more.” Unfortunately beneath Mulder’s keep-away exterior he craves acceptance and friendship, so he falls for it.
Scully demonstrates the evidence that she and Mulder put together and offers her connections to get a warrant for Wilczek’s arrest. But of course it has to be Jerry who brings him in. Alone. So that he can escape the consequences of his own actions.
Yeah I seriously hate this guy.
Meanwhile Wilczek is getting a little freaked out. He abandons his precariously placed computer set at home to go and argue with the COS in person. Jerry follows and the COS makes short work of him.
Seriously who the fuck even has an indoor pond, let alone puts their computer in front of it?!
I’m not sure about the COS’ motive for killing Jerry. In what way would Wilczek getting arrested threaten the COS, especially if it was already locking Wilczek out? This episode doesn’t make sense.
Mulder watching the tape of Jerry dying is kinda heartbreaking.
I like Anderson’s and Duchovny’s acting in this scene. Scully is reaching out to Mulder, wanting to comfort him, wanting to make a connection. As much as Mulder craves that, he’s not ready to acknowledge his grief. Scully says, “I heard about Jerry. I’m sorry.” Instead of talking about it, Mulder launches immediately into why he doesn’t believe Wilczek killed Jerry. He buries himself in work, as is custom on The X-Files.
Another example of effective blocking.
Scully kneels beside him, putting herself on his level, and turns the television off. She tries again to reach him. No dice.
Much of the last twenty minutes of the episode feels like padding, since most of the conflict met his (half deserved) end at the bottom of an elevator shaft. We do see Deep Throat again, for the first time since his introduction. He swoops in to let us know what’s Really Going On—the government wants to make use Wilczek’s programming skills.
Mulder visits Wilczek, who whines about having to wear shoes and self-righteously compares himself to Robert Oppenheimer. Which, I grudgingly have to admit, is interesting even though it’s absurd. The atomic bomb is an unquestionably evil invention. The computer isn’t. Still, Wilczek has a point: progress in itself may not be evil, but giving power to an immoral government is.
I really really hate the scene of Mulder and Scully discussing therapy. It makes Mulder look like an ungrateful asshole and it makes Scully look like a stick in the mud. It’s a disservice to both characters. If only Scully had been present when Mulder talked to Deep Throat, she would understand Mulder’s willingness to believe Wilczek. But Scully can’t meet Deep Throat because that would ruin everything, to hell with making narrative sense. Anyway. Scully thinks that Mulder is projecting to avoid processing his grief. She suggests that Mulder “talk to someone.”
I get that it’s the 90s and we’re still convinced that therapy is somehow a sign of weakness. However. Mulder has already sought therapy; we know this because of his hypnosis sessions. Mulder is a psychologist himself, for fuck’s sake. I really don’t understand how he could be insulted by Scully’s suggestion. And how are we supposed to take this scene? Are we supposed to congratulate Mulder for ditching an unreasonable Scully? Because that’s not gonna happen.
Get thee to a therapy session.
Also what in the actual everloving fuck does Mulder mean by asking Scully what she’s doing there when she rolls up at Eurisko?
She is your partner you fucking numpty.
Then he wants to act all cute, referencing the Trojan horse and saying “Ooopen sesame,” smiling at her like they’re on a Halloween ride at the amusement park. I…love Mulder very dearly but sometimes I want to hit him over the head almost as much as I want to hug him.
They get into Eurisko despite the COS’ attempts to kill them, and then Mulder hoists Scully into the air vent. Because if someone is going to become the next John McClane, we all know it’s going to be Scully.
A note on form: I really like the cinematography of these scenes. Cutting to surveillance footage helps make the COS feel like a sentient character. Mark Snow helps that, too, with those weird electronic sounds. They rattle my brain, but they’re effective at establishing a sense of the uncanny.
I do not like that Mulder randomly walks off and leaves Scully to her own devices. What the fuck, dude.
Mulder takes absolutely everyone at face value. It’s exasperating but also endearing. So it’s no surprise that he falls for the crap of Claude Peterson (played by Blu Manuma). But you know, I could have lived another hundred years without the only Black person in the whole episode being a conniving, slimy troll. Ugh.
At least we get Scully and her ability to take out the evil fan with bullets left to spare. And then she walks in looking like Vengeance herself to save Mulder’s ass. Again.
I think it’s utterly stupid that Peterson and Mulder argue as if Scully’s going to listen to anybody but Mulder. I mean come on.
There’s really no resolution to this one. Even if we believe that Peterson won’t be able to resurrect the machine. Wilczek is in “hard bargaining;” there’s an implication that he’s going to just make the machine all over again. Mulder saved us from this version of the COS but in doing so he sacrificed Wilczek to the government. “What else could I have done?” Mulder asks a surprisingly gentle and forthcoming Deep Throat. “Nothing,” Deep Throat reassures him.
(I cannot wait for next week—it’s Ice!)