X-Files Flashback: ‘Roadrunners’

Season 8, Episode 4
Director: Rod Hardy
Writer: Vince Gilligan

Vince Gilligan returns to The X-Files in season eight with an episode that gets all the entertainment, shock/gore, and creep value just right. All the ingredients are there: isolation, fanaticism, and a nasty, nasty worm. Yet, “Roadrunners” disappoints because it overly relies on a staid aspect of horror: religious fervor. It’s such an easy path of least resistance for thrills that, in the end, the episode hardly feels as accomplished as some of the best that Gilligan has delivered through the series’ years.

We open with a hitchhiker flagging down a bus full of passengers on a deserted highway. Yet, just after being picked up, he’s dismayed as the bus stops, and all passengers disembark. Outside, people begin to hack into one of the passengers, a seemingly crippled man. To his horror, the murderous crowd turns their attention to the hitchhiker. We then flash forward to Scully investigating the crime solo, unwilling to involve (or trust) Doggett in the case. She discovers a small community, cut off from the outside world’s modern conveniences like phone or electricity.

When the local mechanic floods her gas tank with water, Scully is rooked into treating the ailing hitchhiker who apparently has no memory of the earlier horrific scene. Instead, he has a gaping hole in his lower back and a pesky moving lump roaming around his upper back. As Doggett searches for Scully, the hitchhiker appears to be dying, and the townspeople (crying “AMEN” all the while) murder him and rip a large slug-like creature out of his back, implanting it in Scully despite her warnings of pregnancy. Doggett eventually discovers Scully and “surgically” removes the creature, shooting it as the townspeople attack. When the creature dies, they effectively give up their fervor and are arrested en masse.

Despite the admittedly entertaining and incredibly atmospheric episode, I have to admit to being very disappointed in Gilligan relying on old religious cult cliches to deliver the horror in “Roadrunners.” The remote townspeople have no characteristics other than their religion, which apparently condones murder as they worship a banana slug they believe to be the second coming of Jesus Christ. So, let’s just replay that one, shall we? A slug. Jesus Christ. Is Gilligan making some kind of atheistic play here? Is that the subtext?

Perhaps, but on the surface, the reliance of religious fanaticism to create an aura of horror just feels old and trite. Plus, we know nothing about the creature nor why they consider him Jesus. Additionally, when Doggett kills this creature, the townspeople just kind of all sigh together and hang out for a bit. There’s no reaction to the death of their supposed savior. Were they subject to mind control by the banana slug? There are just so many questions raised by – and I hate to say this – lazy plotting that it really works against the gains made by the filmmaking. Because, really, if Jesus Christ were to come back, then would he really come back as a creature that could be so easily dispatched by salt?

Finally, there’s an extremely uncomfortable rape subtext here with the creature forcibly entering its victims’ bodies through a vaginal wound in the lower back. This is indeed echoed by Scully’s persistent screams of “No!” and “I’m pregnant!” as the townspeople insert the phallic creature into her. Sorry if that’s taking the episode too far, but the allusions are all there in plain sight. Clearly, Vince Gilligan didn’t intend (at least I don’t think) to write an episode that featured subtexts of rape and atheism – or maybe he did. At any rate, “Roadrunners” raises all kinds of questions it seems ill-equipped to answer. And that’s a huge disappointment coming from the talented Gilligan.

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