Season 7, Episode 15: “En Ami”
Original Airdate: March 19, 2000
Throughout the run of the show, the Cigarette-Smoking Man has appeared both as a simple bogeyman and a complex figure whose life has been a series of painful choices. The latter is interesting, of course—the Cigarette-Smoking Man as a steely-eyed family man, raising Samantha Mulder as his own alongside a son he would later be the death of—but there’s plenty of merit in the former. Since The X-Files has so often disregarded consistent character development, having a guy who you can always count on to be Very Bad is both a comfort and a mile marker. Draw too much sympathy for a guy like that and he ceases to be useful, as a Very Bad. Starts, instead, to be sort of depressing.
“En Ami” is written by the Cigarette-Smoking Man himself, William B. Davis. It’s one of a handful of season seven episodes written by members of the cast (Duchovny collaborated on “Amor Fati” and solo-wrote the upcoming “Hollywood, A.D.”; Anderson wrote “All Things,” which I’ll cover next week), and if you’ll excuse me for saying, you’ve gotta be wary of an episode written by an actor. Particularly if the episode in question focuses very keenly on that actor’s character. It was William B. Davis’ job to feel the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s role very deeply, to sympathize with his choices and to—maybe even, I am not an acting teacher, but—fancy him the hero of every story.
So this is the story of a man who is the hero of the story, but still a little bad because ultimately he has to be because one episode in season seven is not allowed to rewrite everything before it. And if that seems like a wet noodle of a concept then you are not wrong! And unfortunately, the episode’s essential premise is also on the weak side. Mulder and Scully are tipped to a story about a boy who was miraculously cured of cancer by “angels” who left a small, abduction-like incision in the back of his neck. Turns out this curing is a show put on by the Cigarette-Smoking Man to attract Scully’s attention. He tells her that he is dying, and that before he dies he wants to redeem himself by telling her what he knows about curing cancer, which is to say, how to do it.
Scully is frankly only a tiny percentage of the amount of skeptical she ought to be, particularly when the Cigarette-Smoking Man pulls out that old abusive evergreen—I’ll only tell you this if you keep it a secret from your loved ones. Meaning Mulder. Scully, to her credit, goes on this road trip wearing a wire, and with a plan to mail Mulder tapes of what she records. Scully, to her un-credit, for some reason does not count on the fact that the Cigarette-Smoking Man (1) almost never works alone (2) has been doing this crap a long time. The tapes she drops in the mail are intercepted, and Scully plays the patsy role just the way he planned.
To further allay Scully’s fears, and/or to elicit pouty faces from the viewers, the Cigarette-Smoking Man tells her repeatedly that this is all an exercise in atonement for him. “A dying man who wants to make right” “All I want is a chance to do something in service to man before I go” “Before I die, I’d like to prove that I’m capable of something more.” Eventually—like a born con—he reveals to her that he has lied just a tiniest bit. He’s not planning to show her the cure for cancer, he instead needs her to accompany him to a meeting where a man will deliver Some Science (extraterrestrial in nature, natch) that will cure everything. You know, everything.
At this point Scully thinks she’s figured out his angle—you’re only doing this so you can be cured, etc—but the old con shakes his head, looks super-super-super sad, and tells her that he’s a lonely man. That theoretically he could be cured, but, he’s a lonely man. And here’s where it gets tough to stomach the script, because if this was just a straight-ahead con—if he was just playing Scully for a fool—it would be annoying, to see Scully fall for this line? But at least we’d have the comfortingly strong characterization of the Very Bad comma can’t ever trust him. Instead, William B. Davis milks this scene for sympathy. He chokes up, his eyes get watery, he looks genuinely pained. Is he seeing the truth in his con, I guess maybe. But all this pathos, all at once, doesn’t feel as dramatic as it ought. It feels like acting, or fanfic. It feels like one man’s notes on one character’s heroism.
What’s truly frustrating is that the charade of it seems entirely beneath this powerful man. Why did he have to participate in this fairly uncomplicated operation, why couldn’t he send someone to act in his place? Why couldn’t he choose some other cancer-hating scientist (there must be one or two)? We’re left to believe that he chose her because he truly does feel partial to Scully, or maybe because he’s a letch who wanted to see her in a pretty black dress. But if he feels partial to Scully, what took him so long (and why does he keep reminding her that he “saved” her from the cancer he could have prevented her from getting at all)? Furthermore, if it’s death that’s making him re-evaluate his relationships, how could he so easily brush off the one with Mulder (“I’ve tired of Mulder’s mule-headedness” he insists)?
Scully plays her role, and the Cigarette-Smoking Man gets his Science Disk, and then he sighs and throws it in the water and looks sad and why, honestly, what. Are we meant to believe that this guy—who just a few episodes ago was trapping Mulder into a super-risky operation, in search of his own immortality—is now squeamish about looking at data he got by tricking Scully? That’s nonsense. There’s plenty of dark, complicated emotion to mine from the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s past, plenty of ways to make us feel conflicted about his Very Bad. “En Ami” instead is a poor plan with poor follow-through, less substantial even than the smoke the man blows.