X-Files Flashback: ‘Fearful Symmetry’

Season 2, Episode 18
Director: James Whitmore, Jr.
Writer: Steve De Jarnatt

It’s admittedly odd that, after all the loss of human life on The X-Files, the appearance of a dead elephant strikes a note of sorrow deep within me. It’s really the first time the show has elicited a reaction other than fear or pure, unadulterated joy. Something of a supernatural variation on PETA videos and the Sea World/killer whale documentary Blackfish, “Fearful Symmetry” dives into territory that many viewers will find incredibly upsetting – the capture and torture of innocent animals for human observation and pleasure. Still, this being The X-Files, the episode tries to take the Earth-bound topic and spice it up with a potential alien-abduction slant. The result? A Frankenstein’s monster of a mess.

In the prologue, a mysterious force tramples through a downtown area, causing mass destruction and crushing the spine of a construction worker. The next morning, a trucker meets the elephant head-on in a bank of fog. He avoids hitting the elephant, which later dies due to exhaustion. Mulder and Scully investigate the nearby zoo which is fraught with drama – animals keep disappearing potentially due to a PETA-like group, a gorilla (Sophie) that communicates via sign language is basically being deported, and the zoo’s animal trainer (known for his cruel treatment of animals) is forced to report to Willa Ambrose (Jayne Atkinson, House of Cards), a woman who cares deeply for the animals. After a member of the militant animal rights group breaks into the zoo, a tiger disappears into a blinding white light, and the animal rights group member is mauled by an invisible force, most likely a tiger. But who’s counting really?

Mulder immediately believes these mysterious events to be the result of alien abductions – kind of an intergalactic “Noah’s ark” as he describes. When the zoo is shuttered, Sophie is boxed up and ready to be shipped out of the country, which is unfortunate because she is the missing link (no pun intended) between the mysterious disappearances and the bright lights – something she communicates via sign language. In the end, Ambrose garners the assistance of the animal trainer to kidnap Sophie, causing the accidental death of the militant animal group’s leader. Mulder tracks down the gorilla and is locked in a room with her. She attacks him out of fear but signs to him “man save man” before disappearing in a blinding white light.

So, the problem with “well intended” episodes like “Fearful Symmetry” – it never hurts to dedicate an hour of primetime television to animal preservation – is that the focus on the message overtakes dramatic credibility. The various pieces of the episode are only connected by the theoretical alien abduction, and I personally found that to be an incredibly weak plot device. Granted, it is The X-Files, and there’s always the sense that they could write themselves out of a corner by being beamed up. The invisible animal segments were intriguing enough, but you definitely have the sense that the writers had a great idea (invisible animals causing mass destruction are super cool – see Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted) but had no idea what to do with it. As a result, the alien abductions are never confirmed, and the invisible animals are never truly explained (maybe in a throw-away moment by Mulder).

What we’re left with is an idealistic episode in “Fearful Symmetry,” one that highlights the dangers and ill-effects of caging wild animals, that ultimately goes absolutely nowhere by the end. What we’re left with is a lingering sense of sadness over the death of innocent animals and a broad sense of confusion over what exactly happened.

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