X-Files Flashback: ‘Improbable’


Season 9, Episode 13
Director: Chris Carter
Writer: Chris Carter

There are some X-Files “lite” episodes that I really cherish. “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” and “The Post-Modern Prometheus” are two that always come to mind when the sub-genre in mentioned. I have absolutely no issues with a series that normally traffics in deadly serious conspiracy theories burns off a few episodes that feature a lighter touch. It cuts the tedium. It lets the viewers reset their expectations and truly enjoy The X-Files minus the stress of the heavier outings. But, when those “lite” episodes become obsessed with quirk and whimsy, the results can drive you insane. “Improbable” is one such episode.

The prologue unfolds in a casino as Wayne (Ray McKinnon, creator of Rectify) is dealt a losing hand. Frustrated, he seeks out an attractive blonde experiencing bad luck at a slot machine. The same woman is later found dead in the restroom, and Wayne disappears after receiving a Mad Hatter-like lecture from a man (Burt Reynolds) playing solitaire at the bar. The case attracts the attention of Reyes who takes a numerological approach to linking this crime with a series of unsolved female murders. She shares her theories – somehow numerology links the victims – with Scully, but Scully uncovers a more reliable pattern – similar markings on each victims’ face.

Wayne continues to float in and out of the episode, constantly engaging / being tormented by Burt Reynolds. Reyes consults a professional numerologist (Ellen Green, Little Shop of Horrors) who is later murdered by Wayne before she can reveal a potential pattern to the murders. Scully and Reyes finally bump into the killer, and Scully recognizes the markings found on the victims’ faces on Wayne’s ring. Wayne appears to escape to a parking garage but disappears, leaving Scully and Reyes trapped. They meet Burt Reynolds who, somehow, convinces them to play several games of checkers. The pattern of the checkers reveals the killer is still within the garage. He attacks Reyes, but Doggett bursts onto the scene and shoots him. Burt Reynolds is gone, and we cut to a comically bustling Italian neighborhood where two men sing. The camera pulls back to reveal a neighborhood constructed in the image of Burt Reynolds.

First, let me confess that I knew absolutely nothing about numerology going into “Improbable.” And that’s completely fine. I should be able to walk into the episode, have Chris Carter quickly explain it, and experience something I’d not experienced before as part of the overall entertainment. In theory, that’s how most successful films and television should work. “Improbable,” however, serves up numerology as this secret club into which we will never gain access. It becomes a frustratingly opaque barrier within the episode. And worse, the direction and set design of the episode underscore Carter’s “I know more than you” whimsy. “Improbable” is an X-Files episode that considers itself brilliant. It’s really just maddeningly pretentious.

Aside from the numerology, the exterior scenes had to have been deliberately shot with artificiality in mind. The sets strongly resemble something from Disney’s Hollywood Studios or any Universal Studios backlot. The effect is clearly intentional, but there doesn’t appear to be any reason for it. Carter gives us a montage of objects and people clustered in apparently important groups of numbers, potentially indicating that a secret pattern exists within the episode. Yet, I can so little about the outcome that I didn’t bother to figure it out. Apart from the annoyingly pretentious number play, Carter fills the episode with a selection of French and Italian pop songs featuring rhythms so repetitive and obnoxious that I had to mute them for long periods of time. Couple that with the numerology and the fake sets and the elaborately pointless camera angles… The overall effect is akin to spending an hour inside the mind of a lunatic. It’s not a place or an episode I ever want to revisit.

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