Season 3, Episode 19
Director: Tucker Gates
Writer: Jeffrey Vlaming
The X-Files takes a break from the supernatural in “Hell Money,” an episode where the rich literally prey on the internal organs of the poor. While the episode feels fairly generic according to today’s standards (it takes on the feeling of a potential C.S.I. San Francisco episode), it doesn’t really qualify as an X-file, per se, since there was no unexplained event involved in the wrap-up of the plot. Still, “Hell Money” is a quality entry in the series thanks to its frequent usage of stark Chinese imagery and the opportunity to showcase three very strong Chinese-American actors.
Mulder and Scully arrive in San Francisco to investigate the latest in a West Coast-trend of Chinese men burned alive in funeral home crematoriums. They partner with SFPD detective Glen Chao (B.D. Wong) to explore the recent victim’s past, finding many Chinese characters referring to “ghosts” and a partially burned scraps of paper called “hell money” which is used to ward off spirits. Running in parallel to this story is the story of another Chinese immigrant Hsin who cares for his leukemia-suffering daughter, Kim (Lucy Liu). He becomes involved in the central gimmick of the episode – a lottery of sorts where participants pay money into a pot and a name is drawn. The individual who draws the name must draw again with the hope of winning the pot instead of selecting a token that indicates the body part he will lose.
As the investigation proceeds, Chao is revealed to be something of a double agent, helping Mulder and Scully while protecting the lottery at the same time. Conflicted, Chao enters the facility where the lottery takes place and reveals the entire thing to be a massive scam. Mulder and Scully follow and arrive just in time to stop the orchestrator of the game/chief surgeon (James Hong) from taking Hsin’s heart. They arrest him, but no one will testify against him. Chao goes missing and is seen at the end of the episode being burned alive in a crematorium, punishment for his crimes against the Chinese mafia.
Again, “Hell Money” doesn’t contain any of the standard X-Files supernatural / alien elements, which works at times. Aside from the minor complaint that the case doesn’t really qualify as an X-file, it’s an effective turn to have more realistic events serve as the source of horror rather than the more improbable. The immersion in the Chinese culture, art, and imagery also makes an effective diversion from the norm of the series. The real success of the episode, though, is the exploration of the wealthy literally taking the heart and soul of the poor, highlighted by Liu’s heartfelt and emotional subplot. These are the kinds of detours from the supernatural that are effective and welcomed from time to time.
One of the most unsettling aspects of the episode comes at the end when Wong, a relatively big name at the time thanks to his brief appearance in Jurassic Park, is burned alive. Granted, it’s not an iconic character of the series, but it’s the kind of late-inning surprise the show should take more often.