Season 9, Episode 13: “Improbable”
Original Airdate: April 14, 2002
There is a lot of God in The X-Files, which is not really a surprise. The X-Files is often a show about explaining the unexplainable. It is also often a show about not being able to explain the unexplainable, and God is handy for that sort of thing. Unfortunately, the show’s Biblical parallels tend to be more exhausting than enlightening—which is why “Improbable” is such a pleasant (dare I say, improbable) surprise.
Because God is here, and He is Burt Reynolds. He is pleasant, he is all-knowing, he is wearing some very loud shirts, and he is apparently unable to alter the events in front of him. As God, he shuffles cards, plays checkers, and buries his advice in cryptic backtalk. Why he’s on Earth at all, right now, is a mystery. Maybe this is what he does all the time, or maybe this is a special occasion. Maybe he just likes the Feast of San Gennaro. But while he’s here he is trailing after a numerology-obsessed serial killer whose pattern has coincidentally-or-not just been clocked by Agent Reyes.
“Improbable” is a highly stylized episode, written and directed by the show’s own God, Chris Carter. Much like he did in “Post-Modern Prometheus,” Carter creates himself a whimsical pocket universe in which the bad things that happen are counterbalanced by goofy camera angles, musical numbers, and split-screens. (Unlike what he did in “Post-Modern Promethus,” the horrific-looking murders in “Improbable” are actually treated as horrific, not as something sweet that a monster did because he didn’t know any better.) While it’s not a straight-up laffer, the episode has a giddy, goofy energy to it—it’s like a Doctor Who episode with Reyes as the Doctor, Scully as the companion*, and Doggett as, uh…let’s say Mickey Smith.**
The plot, such as it is: Reyes apparently knows her numerology, and she’s noticed a bright numerological pattern in a series of unsolved murders. She floats the idea past Scully, who’s ready with the dismissal until she notices a pattern of bruising on each of the victims. Reyes goes to see a numerologist, played by the unsinkable Ellen Greene (who honestly, between her work in Little Shop of Horrors, Pushing Daisies, and this episode, should probably get a specific sort of award for amazing work in non-naturalistic environments). Reyes’ work in connecting these cases is applauded by the FBI (literally applauded, by a room full of agents) right up until she reveals her method. Faces fall as she starts talking numerical vibrational disharmonies, and fall further once they hear that Ellen Greene, numerologist, has been killed. By the killer.
Meanwhile, Burt Reynolds. He’s showing up wherever the killer is showing up, and the killer has noticed. On a Little Italy-esque street, surrounded by Central Casting: Italy, Burt Reynolds deals a little Three-card Monte and advises the killer to “choose better.” But—choose what? His victims? The killer is working a pattern, it turns out (groups of three women: a blonde, a redhead, a brunette), but is Burt Reynolds the sort of God to encourage a killer to kill better? Not exactly. “You know your problem?” he says to the killer. “It’s not the cards. It’s playing the hand you were dealt.” What he means is, break the pattern—but do it by not killing again. The killer scowls, and the killer stalks away, and God sighs. Clyde Bruckman as a deity, allowed only to watch.
While leaving the scene of the numerologist’s murder, Scully and Reyes ride the elevator with the killer. Scully notices a ring on the man’s hand, identifies it as the ring that caused the bruising pattern on the victim, and draws her weapon. The killer escapes into the parking garage. Reyes and Scully follow but lose him, somehow, and find themselves locked in the parking garage, alone, until they find God. Burt Reynolds is in his car, with a trunk full of CDs (“I love all music, but I prefer the stuff that lasts”) and a checkerboard. It’s for a regular game, he says. One he plays with a friend.
Scully and Reyes then play checkers with God, because this episode allows that sort of thing. He beats them easily, and then they play each other while Burt Reynolds dances nearby. After just a few moves, Reyes squints at the red on the board, then squints at the red in Scully’s hair, and ah-hah! She’s figured out the killer’s hair-centric pattern. Now it seems like they’ve got something, except they’re still in that garage, and then it turns out that the killer is also in the garage and has been the whole time (!?) and then he’s about to kill Reyes but then Mickey Sm—sorry, John Doggett appears and shoots the killer dead. And Reyes asks the killer why he killed but he doesn’t say, and then he dies, and then they look for God and God is disappeared.
So, yes, it’s either a little too messy or a little too neat, but it’s genuinely fun. Burt Reynolds is a charmer, and the nonsense about games and fates and winning and choice is not really all that nonsensical, particularly when compared to some of the soliloquies about fate and the universe that the show has dealt us over the past nine (9) seasons. The episode ends with music, Central Casting: Italy singing along to an Italian tune and dancing in the bright lights of what turns out to be a twinkle in Burt Reynolds’ cosmic eye. Is The X-Files a game, and if so, are we winning? Chris Carter only knows.
*OH MY GOD WHAT IF SCULLY WERE A COMPANION***
**More accurately, gun-toting parallel-universe-guy Ricky Smith.
***I MEAN OBVIOUSLY SHE SHOULD BE THE DOCTOR BUT TRUST NO ONE