Season 4, Episode 7: “Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man”
Original Air Date: November 17, 1996
So what’s it going to take for you to not take the Cigarette-Smoking Man seriously? Because this guy, he is serious. He’s been serious since day one, lurking in the shadows while Scully delivered some pro exposition. He’s been serious every single time that Mulder has shoved a gun in his face. He’s been serious when the Consortium didn’t believe him, he’s been serious when Krycek didn’t die, and he’s serious when Mulder didn’t die, either. So what’s it going to take? How about: a Lone Gunman.
Frohike, specifically, who claims to have found the truth about The Cancer Man and who has gathered Mulder and Scully together with Byers and Langly to report what he’s learned. He’s adamant that he has the truth, adamant enough that CSM himself has show up, too, shown up and installed himself in an abandoned building across the street from The Lone Gunmen’s offices. He’s got a rifle and a pack of cigarettes and he’s listening to every word that they say. What follows is an episode of flashbacks, each illustrating Frohike’s story, each necessarily unreliable. It would be easy enough to take “Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man” as canon, but the framing device makes it impossible. Anytime a man tells a story, that’s just the man’s story. So the game then becomes, what are we learning? What’s the point of an episode that’s forty minutes worth of probably-not-exactly?
We start with a truth, or at least something verifiable, the fact that the CSM was the son of a Communist spy who was executed when the CSM was a baby. His mother died of lung cancer and CSM was left a ward of the state. By 1962 he’s the army, being good at running. He hasn’t yet started smoking. Bill Mulder is there too, showing off photos of his smart little one-year-old. The CSM is plucked from the ranks by a room full of shadowy men and tasked with an unthinkable mission the assassination of the President of the United States as he rolls through downtown Dallas. He takes the mission without hesitation and acts as Lee Harvey Oswald’s point man, setting him up to take the fall as the CSM himself executes JFK. As Lee is hauled away, the CSM lights his first C. And a star is born.
There’s a significant amount of time spent on this particular piece of the CSM’s maybe-life, a significant amount of time watching the wrong man get taken down. Whether or not the CSM did kill JFK (remember when he told Mulder, “I’ve watched presidents die“?), the plot within a plot suits the CSM’s legend well. He’s always been the man who takes care of things while the rest of the Consortium sits in a dim room somewhere in New York City, the CSM traipses around hospitals and silos, pushing the agenda from the ground.
Frohike’s story picks up a few years later, as a young CSM listens to Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver a speech. The CSM is writing, also, working on a manuscript whose front page reads “TAKE A CHANCE: A Jack Colquitt Adventure. Written By Raul Bloodworth (Nom de Plum).” Raul Bloodworth! De Plum! You’d almost think he was an old softie, except then the CSM hears MLK use the word “communism” and the next thing you know he’s in a room full of important men. These important men are all older than the CSM, but it doesn’t seem to matter. He controls the table as well as the discussion and by the end of it he’s informed them that he himself will assassinate MLK. It would be ludicrous if it weren’t possible, if the CSM weren’t a loner and a control freak with a rejected manuscript it is of these elements that a good assassin is born.
We jump ahead to 1991, the CSM in a room full of younger men. Controlling the table still and dropping significant references to assure us all of their existence in the recent past. The Anita Hill thing has lost steam and the Rodney King trial has been moved to Simi Valley as the CSM instructed. Saddam Hussein calls on line two and the CSM ignores him. And most damning of all, the CSM declares, “What I don’t want to see is the Bills winning the Super Bowl. As long as I’m alive, that doesn’t happen.” Friends I do not mind telling you that I had my doubts about the true character of the CSM, but that. To cheat Marv Levy and Jim Kelly of their rings
Sorry. Forget it. Actually what this scene is is funny, this layering of things over things over things. You can almost hear Frohike’s voice underneath, and he also rigged the Oscars! And the Miracle on Ice! And he probably eats ice cream for dinner! It gets worse before it gets better; the CSM wishes a sad Merry Christmas to his employees and gifts them all with the same striped tie. One of them invites him to spend the holidays with his family, and the CSM refuses so pathetically that frankly even if this part is true, I disavow it. It’s too sad, too visible. I believe that the CSM is a loner, and I believe he loves being in the field, but I can’t believe that he would show that sort of weakness to the men who work for him. Remember his stoicism in the hospital, as he instructed the Bounty Hunter to save Mrs. Mulder that was as sentimental as the old bastard ever got, and even then you could hardly see it.
Deep Throat shows up then, calling up the CSM on Christmas Eve and inviting him to West Virginia to see an alien, an EBE on a ventilator. The two argue over what to do with the alien. The CSM notes that “a living EBE could advance Bill Mulder’s project by decades” while Deep Throat cites a Security Resolution indicating that they must execute it. They argue then about who should have to kill it, the CSM claiming that he’s never killed anyone and Deep Throat totally not buying it. They flip a coin for the honor, and Deep Throat loses. It’s a strong moment in the episode, to feed us another man’s origin story while we try to sort out the CSM’s. From here you could see Deep Throat turning on the conspiracy, you could see his decision to reach out to Mulder.
As the scene ends, we cut to the CSM in the present, staring out the window. He has turned the surveillance equipment off and suddenly our framing device has lost a side. This was Frohike’s story, except for the parts that weren’t. Except for the parts where the CSM wasn’t listening, but remembering. How’s that for plausible deniability? The device back on, we see the CSM reading Scully’s thesis, see a clip of Scully from the pilot, watch the CSM eavesdropping on Scully and Mulder’s first meeting. Frohike tells his audience that he believes the CSM to be “the most dangerous man alive, not so much because he believes in his actions, but because he believes his actions are all which life allows him.” We don’t see Mulder in this episode, but I wonder if that resonated with him at all if in Frohike’s story he saw his own impossible, internally-driven quest.
One of Raul Bloodworth’s stories makes it to publication. The editor on the phone tells the CSM that he’ll have to relinquish some control, and the CSM eagerly accepts the terms. He buys the magazine the day it hits the stands and finds the magazine to be trashy and his story to be changed. He sits dejected on a park bench and delivers a monologue that begins, “Life is like a box of chocolates a cheap, thoughtless, perfunctory gift that nobody ever asks for.” Mr. Bloodworth, it seems, does not shy from cliché or self-loathing.
At the end of the episode, Frohike admits that most of his findings are “based only on a story [he] read in one of [his] weekly subscriptions that rang a bell”; the CSM puts the chatty Lone Gunman in his crosshairs and then declines to kill him. Either because he is a very powerful man or a very weak one, or perhaps they’re one and the same. You could argue that it weakens our villain, to show him like this, but the episode is careful. It raises doubts and does not deliver answers. If there’s canon in here it’s scattered, and we know better. To not take the CSM seriously even after he’s gone and got maudlin on a park bench would be a mistake. He has, after all, seen presidents die.