X-Files Flashback: ‘Roland’

Season 1, Episode 23
Director: David Nutter
Writer: Chris Ruppenthal

The X-Files twenty-third episode, “Roland,” is something of a pre-cursor to 1997’s Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting. That is, if Will Hunting were mentally challenged and a murderer. Details. At any rate, this episode is a bit flatter than recent offerings largely because there really isn’t anything particularly threatening or terrifying about it. It just kind of lies there, limply. Flaccid, you might say.

“Roland” revolves around Roland Fuller (Željko Ivanek, Damages), a mentally challenged janitor who works at an aeronautics research facility. There, scientists are testing a prototype jet engine in hopes of having it push Mach 15. Easily assumed to be of low IQ and insignificant, Roland nevertheless traps one of the scientists in the wind tunnel and shreds him to bits. Later, he dunks another scientist in liquid nitrogen and shatters his face by simply throwing it on the floor. All the while, Roland completes incorrect equations and outstanding work in hopes of pushing the engine to Mach 15 himself. Make no mistake, though, that Roland’s condition is not faked. Somehow, he is able to overcome his challenges and excel at scientific research. When Mulder and Scully are brought in to investigate the deaths, they discover that Roland’s twin brother, Arthur Grable, was one of the original researchers but was killed in a freak accident. Grable’s body was then cryogenically frozen in hopes that cloning advancements would allow his eventual return. Mulder and Scully eventually hypothesize that Grable consciousness, which is somehow still sentient from within the cryogenic chamber, is controlling Roland, making him kill and complete the research from beyond the grave (can?). At the end, they are able to save the last scientist before Roland/Grable can kill again, and Roland appears free from his brother’s influence. Or is he???

This episode suffers a first-class offense for an episode of The X-Files: it is neither particularly thrilling nor it is especially supernaturally inclined enough to warrant much attention. It could easily be an episode of Castle, and, no offense to Castle, that’s not a good thing. The expensive-looking “Roland” is somewhat haphazardly plotted with a love interest introduced to amp up Roland’s erratic behavior and, most egregiously, an undefined psychic connection between Roland and Grable. It wasn’t clear if Grable faked his death, returned from the grave, or was indeed controlling Roland from the canister. Typically, The X-Files goes into a bit more detail around the supernatural element, but details are very scarce here. The focus of the episode is effectively saving Roland from Grable’s influence, not determining what type of entity Grable actually is. The plot felt confused and not particularly well defined, and it was one of the very few episodes for which I needed to read a recap. Plus, I’m not sure I felt extremely comfortable with a “monster of the week” episode focusing on a mentally challenged janitor.

Ultimately, I just didn’t find Roland or his actions all that compelling. That fact is not due to a lack of acting prowess by Ivanek who convincingly portrays Roland without falling into those Forrest Gump stereotypes with which we’re very familiar. He effectively conveys the inner struggle of a man trapped by his physicality and tormented by an unseen entity. It is easily the most effective aspect of the episode. As far as Mulder and Scully’s involvement, they’re strictly there to move the plot along. There is little advancement in their characters or in the relationship, which is incredibly disappointing given the run up to the first season finale. In that aspect, “Roland” felt most like a midseason bridge episode. As such, it’s not a bad entry by any means. It’s just not very interesting. That may be the bigger sin.

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