X-Files Flashback: ‘Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man’

Season 4, Episode 7
Director: James Wong
Writer: Glen Morgan

The X-Files again takes a break from the supernatural and looks back into the past to build a character around its most unfamiliar evil force, the Smoking Man/Cigarette Smoking Man/Cancer Man. The episode is interesting enough, compelling enough, and humorous enough to make it an effective contribution to the overall mythology of the series. Fans likely wanted to know more about the man, and, even after this episode, I doubt many questions were answered. Still, this monologue recited by Smoking Man (William B. Davis) at the end of the episode made it all worthwhile:

Life is like a box of chocolates. A cheap, thoughtless, perfunctory gift that nobody ever asks for. Unreturnable because all you get back is another box of chocolates. So you’re stuck with this undefinable whipped mint crap that you mindlessly wolf down when there’s nothing else left to eat. Sure, once in a while there’s a peanut butter cup or an English toffee. But they’re gone too fast and the taste is… fleeting. So, you end up with nothing but broken bits filled with hardened jelly and teeth-shattering nuts. And if you’re desperate enough to eat those, all you got left is an empty box filled with useless brown paper wrappers.

That, my friends, is everything.

The episode begins as an off-screen Mulder and Scully meet with the Lone Gunmen, observed by the Smoking Man with surveillance equipment and a sniper rifle. They discuss information about the Smoking Man’s past as he prepares to assassinate someone. This scene is employed as a framing device for various flashbacks into the Smoking Man’s past. The first sequence happens in the early 60s when the young Army Smoking Man is asked by a collection of men to assassinate JFK in Dallas, Texas, and select Lee Harvey Oswald as a patsy. The second sequence involves the Smoking Man assassinating Dr. Martin Luther King despite admiring his philosophy.

The third sequence is more comic in tone as it alludes to the Smoking Man’s wide-reaching conspiratorial reach from the Anita Hill controversy to the Rodney King trial to the winner of the Super Bowl and to the Oscars. Later, Deep Throat contacts the Smoking Man and reveals the recovery of a UFO and a live alien. They discuss the alien’s fate and flip a coin to determine that Deep Throat will shoot the man. Through all 30 years these sections cover, he attempts to write and publish a novel, which is consistently rejected by multiple publishers. In the mid-90s after overhearing Mulder and Scully meet, he finally succeeds in attracting a publisher who agrees to print the Cigarette Smoking Man’s work in serial form, and he types up his resignation letter. The publication – Roman a Clef – is a trashy magazine, and he will obviously go nowhere with his writing. He rips up the resignation letter, leading to the classic monologue about life above. In the end, the Smoking Man decides not to assassinate one of the Lone Gunmen, citing the final line from his novel: “I can kill you whenever I please, but not today.”

There isn’t much to say about this episode. The revisionist history segments are interesting and go a long way toward illustrating the path the Cigarette Smoking Man took to becoming the hardened man we’ve grown to know. Here is the man who gave up a personal life to his career. Here is a man who envied Bill Mulder’s family life, a fact that apparently plagued him for several years. Here is a man who did what his country told him to but lost his soul along the way. And here is a man who wanted to be so much more (a writer) but was far more successful as a conspiratorial power player. After all of this, I’m not all that certain we learned a great deal about what makes this man tick. Yes, we’ve seen instances of his life that, I suspect, were designed to provide that data, but I only have more questions than answers.

In the end, “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man” becomes a little bit of a cop out as the Smoking Man is unable to kill the Lone Gunman, an event that would have hindered any spin-off plans they apparently had. Yet, there is no justifiable rationale for the Smoking Man not to have killed him, in my opinion. It’s a cop out, plain and simple, and an unfortunate way to end a fairly decent episode.

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