Season 9, Episode 7: “John Doe”
Original Airdate: January 13, 2002
So, I like John Doggett. I actually like him a whole lot. I like him in spite of the fact that his characterization is often inconsistent and that his development has suffered while the show has struggled to find new traction in the post-everything era. He’s as willful as Mulder was, and, like Mulder, has had his life reshaped by a painful loss. How these two men dealt with that grief marks their primary difference. Whereas Mulder drew his strength from that past—structuring his entire career in order to discover the truth about his sister—Doggett has worked hard to move on from his son’s murder.
Doggett’s repression was dealt with directly in the season eight episode “Empedocles” (not covered in this rewatch), and now returns—beautifully—in “John Doe.” We wake up with Doggett somewhere bright and sunny; it’s Mexico, we suppose. He’s only got one shoe because someone has stolen the other one. He chases the shoe thief and in the course of that chase gets himself arrested. In the course of getting himself arrested he realizes that he has neither identification nor any memory of who he might be.
In jail, Doggett draws the attention of Domingo, a local coyote. He bails Doggett out and then insists that means Doggett is his for the working. Doggett, even memory-deprived, quickly disarms Domingo’s lieutenant and leaves the two men scowling. But he’s in a strange, corrupt town with no memory and no friends—just a tattoo from his days in the Marines. So the leaving doesn’t last. He heads back to Domingo, works for him under the glare of the ruffled-feather lieutenant. It could be weeks that he’s there, and it is.
As with many Vince Gilligan-written episodes, “John Doe” works because of its strong character arcs. Robert Patrick does a wonderful job as Amnesia-Doggett, his eyes in a perpetual squint and his muscles ever-tense. It’s clear that although his memory is gone, there’s something left beneath. Muscle memory, or training. Reyes gets a moment to shine (and speak Spanish!) as she battles her way towards her partner. And while Domingo’s characterization errs on the side of stock, his lieutenant gets some mileage out of Quietly Seething in a Corner, Then Snapping.
And, as with many Vince Gilligan-written episodes, the supernatural component is negligible. The town, it turns out, is not only cartel-owned, but creepy-guy-owned. The cartel leader is a vampire-looking dude with the ability to extract the memories of his victims. This is apparently a fate worse than death, dealt only to the people who have made lots of trouble for the cartel. Swap out the mind-biter for a powerful new drug and you got yourself a non-X-File. Do we care? Nah. It’s a clear bright spot in a dark and dismal season, both in its script and in its shooting. Why should it have to hew to the show’s collapsing structure?
So: Doggett lives his new life, his memory-missing life. Weeks pass. He takes one step to discovering his own identity, calling the Marines and giving his own description, hoping that they’ll be able to identify him. And he keeps having this dream, a dream about being awakened early in the morning by a little boy who wants to show him something. We know that it’s his son, and he does, too. When Reyes finds him, he asks her for his son’s name, and her face falls. She doesn’t want to make him relive the pain of it, but it’s the pain that revives him, that cuts through the cartel’s trick and brings his identity and his memories roaring back.
Before leaving Mexico, he confronts the cartel leader who took his mind. Doggett doesn’t have any jurisdiction in Mexico, but he appears to have all the moral jurisdiction in the world as he slams the man for taking his memories, and the memory of the man he had originally been seeking (fate: weirdly unknown?). The cartel leader—who saw Doggett’s memories when he removed them from his head—asks him, “Why would you want to struggle, so long, and hard, to get that pain back?” And Doggett says, proudly, “Because it’s mine.” And this, perhaps, this is what makes this episode part of the X-Files, moreso than would an alien or a mutant. It is this stalwart belief that pain makes you, more pain makes you better, and living within that pain keeps you alive.