X-Files Flashback: ‘Via Negativa’

Via Negativa

Season 8, Episode 7
Director: Tony Wharmby
Writer: Frank Spotnitz

Now here I go again, I see the crystal visions
I keep my visions to myself, it’s only me
Who wants to wrap around your dreams and,
Have you any dreams you’d like to sell?
Dreams of loneliness,
Like a heartbeat, drives you mad…

— “Dreams,” Fleetwood Mac

When I look at an episode of The X-Files, I’m not always looking for brilliant scripts or thrilling stories. Not every episode can be the best of the series, but you do want to feel that the creative team at least tries to deliver excellence with each outing. “Via Negativa” manages to elevate its pulpy and slightly perplexing origins using an excellent combination of lighting, music, sound effects, and unsettling imagery. On paper, it doesn’t feel like much, but, when exercised, the episode pulls through and elicits some quiet terror.

The episode opens with two FBI agents on a stakeout with one having fallen asleep. When his partner wakes him up, they discover the house under surveillance is dark with its front door wide open. Upon further investigation, they discover a room full of dead bodies and are later murdered by a man possessing a third eye and wielding an axe. Scully later calls Doggett and informs him of the incident but explains she cannot immediately join him due to a personal conflict. When Doggett arrives on the scene, Skinner is already there. They find one of the FBI agents’ bodies locked in his car where he seems to have never left, and the second agent appears to have been murdered in an apartment, asleep in his bed. The FBI’s stakeout centered around cult leader Anthony Tipet and his “via Negativa,” a mixture of Christian and Eastern religious beliefs. When the investigation stalls, Doggett and Skinner investigate a call from Tipet to Andre Bormanis who supplies Tipet with hallucinogenic drugs, which leads them to take Bormanis in for questioning.

Doggett has a dream in which he sees both Tipet with a third eye floating in mid-air and Scully’s severed head in his hands, and Bormanis has a dream in which he’s mauled by rats and is later found in a similar state in his prison cell. Back in Doggett’s office, he meets the Lone Gunmen who tell him the long history of religious connection to the third eye and Tipet’s potential status as a “psychic assassin.” Doggett and Skinner return to Bormanis’s lab and find Tipet attempting to use a table saw to cut his head open. They stop Tipet quickly enough to save his life and take him to the hospital. Doggett continues to have concerns about Tipet’s ability to kill others even in his coma, which turns out to be an accurate assumption. In the end, Doggett struggles to discern between reality and dreams and, later, imagines Tipet commanding him to kill Scully. He then finds himself in Scully’s apartment with an axe but tries to use it on himself rather than harm Scully only to be awakened by Scully. Scully tells him that Tipet is dead, having never regained consciousness.

The large absence of Scully from “Via Negativa” allows for the script to continue to explore John Doggett’s character, something the audience needs after David Duchovny’s absence from the series. He delivers solidly, keeping the proceedings going efficiently and avoiding the monotone delivery that plagued him early one. But this episode isn’t about acting. It’s about the design of horror. It’s about the Seven-like presentation of the cult house and its many dead bodies. It’s about the shadowy cinematography. It’s about the score and sound design that plays jarring sounds, further underscoring the unsettling atmosphere. The style is king here, and “Via Negativa” is a classic example of style over substance. Not that there isn’t any substance, per se, but it’s not the strongest episode we’ve seen from a thematic perspective. But the horror film-touches employed here rule the day and make for a positive initial viewing experience. I’m not sure, though, that the episode would hold up on a second viewing.

You’ll have to let me know if that’s true…

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