X-Files Flashback: ‘Soft Light’

Season 2, Episode 23
Director: James A. Contner
Writer: Vince Gilligan

Late in its second season, The X-Files lucked out and stumbled upon a writer that would remain a large series influence for the remainder of its run. The same writer would move on to create one of television history’s greatest dramas and its recent, Emmy-nominated spin-off. That writer is Vince Gilligan, and “Soft Light” was his first produced X-Files episode. Gilligan’s contributions would substantially grow over the course of the series, but “Soft Light” gets things started on an appropriately sinister note.

We kick things off in a Richmond, Virginia, hotel (Gilligan grew up near Richmond and frequently visited his grandparents there) where Chester Ray Banton (Tony Shalhoub) bangs on a hotel room door in a dimly lit hallway. Across the hall, another resident of the hotel watches from his hotel door peephole. As Banton backs up, his shadow extends under the door, and the observing man disappears into a black, burnt spot on the floor. Mulder and Scully are called in by a former FBI academy student of Scully’s who was assigned the disappearance – the latest of many – as her first case. They eventually discover Banton’s involvement thanks to his penchant for hiding out in a brightly lit (the “soft light” of the title) train station. Banton was experimenting with dark matter and accidentally exposed himself to a particle accelerator, causing his shadow to effectively become dark matter that absorbs those who touch it. It wasn’t entirely clear if the accident was entirely accidental given the nefarious acts of his partner later.

Mulder reaches out to X who attempts to kidnap Banton but ends up releasing him by accident. Banton wants to kill himself in the particle accelerator after killing Scully’s former student, but he is trapped by his colleague who immediately contacts X. X shoots the colleague and removes Banton from the chamber, using the colleague’s body as a decoy. We close with X supervising experiments on Banton in a government facility.

“Soft Light” bears little thematic resemblance to Breaking Bad. There is, I suppose, the occurrence of bad things happening to good people (Scully’s student’s intentional murder), but it’s not an unusual happening with the larger context of The X-Files. This episode bears a stronger resemblance to Gilligan’s earlier cinematic work like Wilder Napalm. The interest in the supernatural. The inability for a man to control his inflicted abilities. It all stems from the comics that heavily influenced Gilligan. What is highlighted here is the excellent dialogue, the confidence that Gilligan employs to convey the silly plot, that carries the episode.

The other major star of “Soft Light” is actor Tony Shalhoub who harnesses his by-now patented set of quirks and ticks to convey Banton’s sleepless neuroses. His is a great performance despite somewhat being limited to a series of “Don’t come near me” histrionics. His strongest moment comes at the end when he cries a single tear at an unpleasant future as the subject of government experiments. That is one of Gilligan’s more substantial contributions: the enhanced sinister nature of X.

Overall, the episode is a solid entry in The X-Files collection. It’s perhaps better known for the future promise of greatness (Gillian, Shalhoub) than for greatness displayed now.

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