Season 3, Episode 20: “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space'”
“Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’” is the last full episode Darin Morgan ever wrote for The X-Files (yes, I know, start the tears of despair now). Of all four of them, it is perhaps the most brilliant, and also the hardest to figure out. Notice I said “brilliant,” I didn’t say “best.” The general consensus on Darin Morgan’s episodes seem to be this – they’re all brilliant, they’re all clever, but “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” was a masterpiece of television never seen before or since and not even “Jose Chung” could top it.
I don’t think that’s an unfair call, and to understand why, we need to take a deep look at, well, Darin Morgan. This isn’t going to be a traditional review. In fact, it’s going to be more like an in-depth comparison of mainly “Clyde Bruckman” and “Jose Chung,” which are generally considered Darin Morgan’s best, and a look at the themes and techniques used in both. By doing that, we might be able to see why people seem to find a problem with “Jose Chung” they don’t find in “Clyde Bruckman.”
To illustrate this, I’m going to be quoting the hell out of other, better reviewers, so be prepared.
We’ll start with A.V. Club’s review of “Jose Chung,” in which they make the following statement:
“Jose Chung’s” is one of the very finest episodes of television I’ve ever seen, but I’m not sure it’s a terrific episode of The X-Files. It’s like how “The Body” is a tremendous episode of Buffy that also seems to simultaneously stand outside of the series and comment on the rest of its concerns. If The X-Files were a Lord of the Rings-length novel, then “Jose Chung’s” would be its first appendix, a source that is at once in love with the main text and critical of it, a place where real human concerns creep around the edges of the show’s chilly implausibilities. This is Morgan’s finest script, but “Clyde Bruckman” is probably a better script for the show proper (hence it being the one that won him an Emmy). But the very best episodes of television are like this sometimes. They push so far and press so much against the constraints of the shows they belong to that they cease to be episodes of that show and become something else entirely. “Jose Chung’s” is an episode of The X-Files, but only nominally and largely because it features Mulder and Scully and aliens. Like “The Body” was Joss Whedon laying out in very precise terms many of the things he was interested in and obsessed with, “Jose Chung’s” feels like a direct, personal statement to the audience from Darin Morgan. It’s thrilling and funny and moving and intellectually rigorous. It’s everything I want television to be.
And there’s a sense of irony to this, because Mulder and Scully show up much more in “Jose Chung” than they do at “Clyde Bruckman.” In “Jose Chung,” though, Mulder and Scully aren’t really Mulder and Scully so much as they are just two of the people in this cast of characters, two perspectives in a multitude of perspectives.
And that’s the problem some people have with “Jose Chung.” It pokes fun at The X-Files, and does so in an immensely clever way, but at the same time, it doesn’t really poke fun at The X-Files. It pokes fun at, well, humanity, and it uses The X-Files to do it.
Each Darin Morgan episode has an underlying theme. “Humbug” questioned the meaning of normalcy, “Clyde Bruckman” explored fate and free will, “War of the Coprophages” studied the effects of panic and fear, and “Jose Chung” explores the meaning of truth, or, more specifically, the search for truth. Yeah. In The X-Files.
If that sounds like a lofty order, that’s exactly what it is. But, if anyone is going to do it, Darin Morgan certainly is the one to choose, and as a result we get an episode that has more philosophy in it than The X-Files will have for a long time, until Season 6’s “Milagro.”
Darin Morgan’s intention is not to reveal the meaning of truth, but rather, to claim that the search for truth, which is such a huge part of The X-Files, has so many different meanings that it really has no meaning at all. In the episode, this claim is presented as a means of poking fun at the show, which is about the search for truth, or a truth, but by the end of the episode, it’s made pretty clear that what Darin Morgan is saying really doesn’t have anything to do with The X-Files but instead about humanity as a whole, and once you realize that, the whole thing turns pretty dark.
You see, here’s the thing about shrouding really profound ideas in humor – those ideas don’t usually hit you very hard, but they leave a much greater impact on you than if they had just been said outright, or in a more serious context. Also, it enables the more seriously written parts to stand out amongst the humor, and those parts are usually more beautifully written. The first time I heard Jose Chung’s final monologue, I teared up, and not because I was sad, but because the writing was just so damn good that it really, deeply touched me.
And it’s because of moments like that, really that ending moment in particular, that leads me to conclude that “Jose Chung” is indeed the most brilliant episode Darin Morgan wrote, perhaps the most brilliant episode that was ever written for the series, simply because the way it incorporates its themes into the humor and ties it all together at the end is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, read, or heard.
Wow, you might say. That’s high praise. Surely “Jose Chung” is the best Darin Morgan episode?
Nope. That distinction, at the end of the day, still goes to “Clyde Bruckman.”
Like A.V. Club said, there’s a reason “Clyde Bruckman” won the Emmy and there’s a reason Harlan Ellison congratulated Darin Morgan on it (for those of you that aren’t familiar with Harlan Ellison, basically that’s an insanely huge deal). “Jose Chung” is the most brilliant in its philosophy and writing, but as a storytelling device, “Clyde Bruckman” knocks it out of the water. In “Jose Chung” there’s not really a story, and, while it reaches the conclusion that the search for truth is meaningless because everyone is alone in their perspective and value of truth, it doesn’t really tell us what to do with that. And it doesn’t tell The X-Files what to do with that, either.
Salome, the author of Musings of an X-Phile, states very aptly:
As I said, “Jose Chung’s” isn’t an exercise in subtlety. The philosophy of the episode is announced early when Chung tells Scully that, “Truth is as subjective as reality.” Since “the truth” is essentially what The X-Files is all about, or the search for it, anyway, Morgan is really taking loving dig at what he sees as a fruitless effort.
He brings the point home with the way he paints his characters. Take Roky, Faulkner and Mulder for instance. With all three the search for alien life is actually a metaphor for the search for meaning and purpose, the search for truth. Rory’s search leads him to a cult to try to make sense of the universe and chart it out in diagrams that he can comprehend. Faulkner has a dead-end life that he’s trying to escape so he watches the skies waiting for someone to take him away, to make his life interesting. And Mulder is trying to ease the pain of past trauma and loss hoping that if he can prove the existence of alien life what happened to him and his sister will… what? Make sense?
In the end it’s all for nothing. Scully wastes her life away in the basement at a job that’s pointless since the search for truth is futile. The answers Mulder is looking for elude him once again. The two teenagers who not long ago had been groping each other in the back of a car searching for a connection find themselves more locked inside their own minds than ever. Everyone’s all alone just going through the motions because they don’t know what’s true and they can’t rely on anyone else to tell them because everyone’s perceptions are just as faulty as their own.
“In the end it’s all for nothing.” And that’s exactly where “Jose Chung” slips in its race to outshine “Clyde Bruckman.” “Clyde Bruckman” gave us something. It gave us an exploration of fate and free will, but it didn’t come to a specific conclusion about either one; instead it gave us circumstances in which both seemed equally likely to have an affect on people’s lives. It’s not clear whether or not Bruckman believes in fate or free will, because in life it’s not clear which one is the dominating force, or if they’re even part of our lives at all. “Clyde Bruckman” seems to suggest that perhaps it’s a mixture of the two, and even if fate leads us in a certain direction, we still have free will to point us in another. It’s a balance. To lose balance of one would be to lose a certain grasp on reality, morality, or whatever, which is why the killer, Puppet, asks the same question before he commits a murder – “Why do I do the things I do?” He is so wrapped up in the notion of fate as a controlling force that he seems to have lost a concept of free will, and it’s turned him into a crazy murdering “homicidal maniac.” Clyde Bruckman inflicts his own death, even though he predicted it earlier in the episode. And Scully, at the end, throws the phone at the TV because she has come to realize that there while there is no reliable vision of the future, there’s also no escaping it, either.
What does “Jose Chung” give us? Well, every character has their own version of the story. Jose Chung tells us this outright, when he says that “truth is as subjective as reality.” We never get to see the “true” story, because, according to Jose Chung and by extension Darin Morgan, there is no true story. There is no truth. Every character has their own truth and is therefore isolated in their search. And it doesn’t matter where you search for the truth – in aliens, in science, in government conspiracies, in other human beings – in the end, it’s meaningless.
Which is a tough pill for The X-Files to swallow, because in order for the rest of the show to even function, there has to be some amount of objectivity in truth. Mulder and Scully’s search would carry no weight otherwise. Darin Morgan knows this; he’s not trying to make their search meaningless or dismantle “the truth” as it appears in the show. Because Darin Morgan isn’t talking about that sort of truth, the Truth with a capital T that Mulder is constantly rambling on about. He’s talking about truth as it relates to humanity in general, and that makes his conclusion really, really depressing if you think about it.
Even when that’s all said and done, “Jose Chung” is still very funny. It’s a comedy, after all. It makes me laugh. At points, it’s hysterical. And like I said, the way it weaves its philosophy into its humor makes it by far the most brilliant out of the Darin Morgan quartet. The episode is more than just philosophy, after all. It’s comedy, and the comedy is worth acknowledging too.
But it’s comedy that ends with this.
“For although we may not be alone in the universe, in our own separate ways, on this planet, we are all alone.”
Final score for “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’” is 9.5/10. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, slightly ridiculous. But “Jose Chung,” at the end of the day, separates its brilliant self with The X-Files and does so quite intentionally. The episode’s final line not only illustrates the isolation in the search for truth, but also the isolation in the search for connection, which none of the characters in the episode ever seem to find. And yes, that includes Mulder and Scully.
And while only Mulder and Scully could have investigated the murders in “Clyde Bruckman,” “Jose Chung” makes it clear that it doesn’t really matter who you are, your search for the truth and your attempt to connect with other humans is futile. That’s about as far away from the heart and soul of The X-Files as you can get, which is why I think that “Jose Chung” isn’t so much poking fun at The X-Files as it is using it to illustrate Darin Morgan’s rather dark view on the human condition. Whether you agree with his view or not, it still isn’t compatible with The X-Files as a whole.
And, unless I’ve unwittingly given this impression, let me say that I don’t dislike “Jose Chung” because of this. I love “Jose Chung.” But unlike “Clyde Bruckman,” “War of the Coprophages,” and “Humbug,” “Jose Chung” never seemed to love me back.
For those that care about this sort of thing, “Jose Chung” is saturated with philosophies such as relativism, which is basically the belief that things such as knowledge, truth, etc. are not absolute, but relative to the context of the society or person from which they originate. There is also a shred of nihilism, which is the belief that since life is meaningless, things like morality and religion have no purpose and should not be pursued.
Relativism I have no problem with, but I have never been able to tolerate nihilism, not even a little. I think it’s a useless philosophy which only exists for the sake of itself and offers nothing to anyone. At best, it’s harmless, at worst, it’s used to justify immoral behavior and I think that’s bad.
Why do I bring this up? Well, for one thing I think it’s cool that I can talk about philosophies in relation to an X-Files episode. For another, this might explain why “Jose Chung,” for me, at least, isn’t quite as good as “Clyde Bruckman.” There’s a little nihilistic flavor to “Jose Chung” and I guess something within me reacted negatively to it.
Again, it’s up for you to decide. And you can also decide not to decide, because you may just be like normal people and only want to watch the damn thing, not worry about all this philosophy mumbo jumbo. And really, who can blame you? For all my rambling about the philosophy of “Jose Chung,” it’s an episode that still makes me laugh out loud (a noble feat in and of itself) and maybe that’s it’s most lasting quality.
Notable Nuggets (THERE ARE TOO MANY)
- Despite the fact that their search for the truth is futile, every character in this episode is hysterical and, as is typical with Darin Morgan, memorable as hell.
- I never get tired of Scully fangirling to Jose Chung.
- The scene where Mulder asks Jose Chung not to trivialize the search for aliens makes me choke up every time.
- Best opener, best closer for any episode? Quite possibly.
- That ending monologue…perhaps one of the most incredible moments in entertainment history, and I mean that wholeheartedly. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. The most serious, depressing moment in the entire episode is also the most beautiful. It was when I first watched it that I became convinced that Darin Morgan was some sort of understated genius. It’s brilliant, brilliant stuff.
- Farewell, Darin Morgan. I love you.