Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the upcoming book Monsters of the Week: The Complete Critical Companion to The X-Files written by Zack Handlen and Todd VanDerWerff, out on October 16th.
Entry By Todd VanDerWerff
The X-Files Season 4, Episode 2: “Home”
Written by James Wong and Glen Morgan / Directed by Kim Manners
If you wandered far enough into the countryside surrounding the tiny town I grew up in, you’d find people who desired the absolute minimum of human interaction, people who put signs up on their farms warning that trespassers would be shot, people who collected abandoned sheds and set them up in a lonely cow pasture in some semblance of a small ghost town consisting almost entirely of chicken coops. If you talked to these people, they were almost always friendly but terse, able to interact with others but attempting to end that interaction as soon as possible. It’s not so hard to imagine twisting this terse emptiness into horror.
“Home” is twenty-two years old, but it feels part of a different world entirely. In the 2010s, small towns feel like part of a much more homogenous whole, thanks to the wonders of modern connection. If you go for a drive in even the most isolated parts of the nation, you’re still connected to the rest of the country. “Home,” like its central gures, the Peacock family, is a remnant. Like so many X-Files tales, it’s both a sterling example of a certain kind of horror story and a last-gasp effort within the subgenre, a sort of sad farewell to the weird America that was rapidly smoothing over.
“Home” is the first episode of four this season written by the returning Glen Morgan and James Wong, and every one of those episodes is a notable break from the form the show had established up until that point. “Home,” in particular, is among the nest episodes the show produced, a reminder that The X-Files could do brutal, scary episodes even as it was crossing over into a mainstream hit.
The setup Morgan and Wong exploit is a simple one: There’s a creepy house at the edge of a small town in the middle of nowhere. That house holds a family that doesn’t want anything to do with anyone who might disrupt them. This is, basically, the show’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre episode, only here the family are three inbred brothers, products of generations of incest, attempting to beget another child with their own mother.
Morgan and Wong were fantastic at taking old horror movie templates and updating them for the show’s universe, as they did when they turned The Thing into “Ice” (S1E8) and folded any number of ’80s Satanism chillers into “Die Hand Die Verletzt” (S2E14). Morgan and Wong understand both what makes The X-Files work and what makes those old horror movies work, and they understand where and how the two intersect. “Home” is somehow both a creepy house horror movie and an episode of The X-Files. That the two overlap so comfortably is proof that the show’s template was so elastic as to incorporate almost anything the writers and producers could throw at it, but it���s also evidence that the weirdness and wildness of America was becoming almost commonplace. The rise of mass communication (and especially the Internet) made little local monsters and urban legends into well-known national gures, the best spreading and choking out more localized phenomena. In earlier decades, you had to be road-tripping through the Texas wilderness to run across a family of chainsaw-wielding freaks. Now, Mulder and Scully could pop in and out of a small town to hang out with an inbred sideshow for just a few days’ time.
Two touches set “Home” apart from other episodes. One is Morgan and Wong’s sense of grim humor. One of the common fan complaints against the episode when it first aired was that Mulder and Scully’s jokes destroyed any mood the episode had built up to that point, but the jokes actually enhance the atmosphere. The humor builds on the realistic rapport between our two protagonists because by now, we know that Mulder and Scully stare directly into the face of awful, awful things and find a way to keep going. Plus, the writers had a terrific sense of when, exactly, a dark wisecrack would lighten the mood just enough to break the tension—and to deepen the next plunge into utter terror.
And why does the episode need those tension-breaking moments? Certainly much of that suspense is due to Morgan and Wong’s script, but this is also possibly the most evocatively directed episode of The X-Files. Director Kim Manners proves equally at ease with the gentle domesticity of small-town life (particularly in a small town with a sheri named Andy Taylor, played by Tucker Smallwood) as he does with the chilling horror sequences. In particular, this might literally be the darkest episode of the series, with shots emphasizing narrow slits of light to highlight, say, Mrs. Peacock (Karin Konoval) lurking underneath a bed.
The killing of the Taylors is where everything good about “Home” comes together. Directorial flourishes like a zoom in on a door lock that remains open, the careful tilts up from the looming headlights of the Peacocks’ stolen car, or the way the camera simply takes in Mrs. Taylor’s (Judith Maxie) ngers just coming into contact with the pool of her husband’s oozing blood help underline that this is, as much as anything else, a clash of societies writ small. Manners finds a way in this sequence to distill the essence of that nightmare in which someone is in your house, but you can’t quite find them, and he even manages to include a slight rumination on the word home. Is home what the Peacocks inhabit in their insular, closed-off world? Or is it the quiet, pleasant life of the Taylors, all cozy porches and silent moments together? Does it mean what Mulder and Scully share, a life spent endlessly on the road, building a home in each new city?
Maybe that ambiguity is why a sense of intense melancholy pervades “Home.” Just before he’s killed, Sheri Taylor sits on his front step and looks out over his little town, talking about how he wants to take one last look before it all goes away, and it seems almost as much a mourning for the death of the great, weird America that The X-Files so obsessively chronicled, the local subcultures that were both a part of the larger national community and separate from it. The Peacocks have existed separately from the rest of the country since the Civil War, but the encroachment of the modern world has finally reached their door, and they react in the only way they know how: by lashing out.
Which is, in its own way, understandable. “Home” is spine-tingling, terrifying television, but it’s also something that’s harder to pin down. Mulder and Scully are our heroes, but they also represent the world that threatens to homogenize all of that weirdness. We’re not meant to sympathize with the Peacocks in the way we are other monsters on the show, but there’s a melancholy here all the same. The old ways of life are dying, as high-speed electrical cables smooth out our differences, one connection at a time. So, yes, Mulder and Scully are our heroes—but they never met a place they couldn’t make a little less wild, a little more tame. The eldest Peacock and his mother escape at episode’s end to continue the Peacock way of life, but the abandoned country roads and bizarre little byways that they once thrived on are now disappearing. The world may be better for it, but it is no longer as unknowable.