Season 7, Episode 18
Director: Kim Manners
Writer: Steven Maeda, Greg Walker
Cigarettes kill. No, really. In The X-Files‘ “Brand X,” they literally kill, and the results are depicted gruesomely in one of the more disgusting and unnerving episodes of The X-Files to date. While some special effects are a little difficult to (ahem) swallow, the episode builds tension with its The Insider-esqe plot and a whole lotta bugs. As a result, “Brand X” again proves the series can provide some creepiness without diving whole-heartedly into the supernatural.
The prologue introduces Dr. James Scobie, a researcher who is being guarded by the FBI via Agent Skinner in advance of his testimony against a Big Tobacco company – the fictitious Morley corporation based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Before the night is over, Scobie is found dead in the bathroom, lips and attached skin largely eaten away. Mulder and Scully are called in to investigate, and, when a second victim is uncovered, they discover that genetically engineered tobacco beetles are responsible for filling the lungs, effectively drowning their victims, and eating the closest skin to the mouth. Mulder is exposed to cigarette smoke and contracts the insects, nearly dying. Scully and Skinner’s investigation leads to a Morley test subject – Darryl Weaver (Tobin Bell, Saw) – who is apparently immune to the bugs. After Weave is apprehended, Scully determines that Weaver’s body is extraordinarily full of nicotine and realizes the high amounts of the drug are killing the bugs before they infect his lungs. The nicotine treatment works on Mulder, but he finds he’s craving cigarettes, a habit that disgusts Scully. Mulder throws his cigarette pack in the trash but casts a longing glance at them as the episode ends.
There are two properly effective aspects of “Brand X.” First, Tobin Bell’s performance as the remaining research subject is appropriately creepy and unsettling. He carries the air of a man who has nearly cheated death and walks through the episode without concern or limitations. Bell’s oddly expressive face is well used here in the episode, and, while he’s not strictly a villain, he does provide an interesting character around which to build a mystery. Second, the bug effects are just fantastically creepy. While the model heads demonstrating the damage made by the genetically engineered beetles aren’t extremely well sculpted, the imagined effects and subsequent blurry camera shots are effective and pretty gross. Plus, additional shots of bugs flying out of people’s mouths are nasty as well. It makes me not-so-fondly recall the first time I’d seen The Blue Lagoon when Brooke Shield’s parent (I think) died and a spider escaped from his mouth. For a movie about illicit pre-teen sex, that is the only image I remember from it. One and done, folks. One and done.
“Brand X” was downgraded a bit in terms of its reputation for its similarities to The Insider. That’s a bit unfair, in my opinion. The Insider deals very specifically with the media and the impacts of turning evidence against major corporations on the life of the informant. “Brand X” has less lofty goals. It just wants to creep you out while showing the evils of not only smoking but also of major corporations. I suppose that indictment of major corporations makes it a close second cousin to The Insider, but the similarities end there. After all, when Jeffrey Wigand tried to testify against his employer, he wasn’t eaten alive by bugs living in his lungs. What a movie that would have made…