The X-Files was a big thing for me in my middle and high school days. While I was too young to watch it in its first few seasons, I vividly remember being right in the sweet spot when the newly-launched FX channel began playing it five nights a week. I caught up easily. This was right around the time Season 5 was playing. It was the first series that I remember learning the episode titles of and making lists of favorites. Needless to say, this was my first favorite show, but it certainly had its fair share of stinkers. When trying to figure out which of these crappy episodes to feature in this column, I had a few factors to consider.
The time frame was of major importance. There were a few bad episodes in the first season, but the show was still finding its footing and that can’t really be faulted; there were also quite a few subpar outings in the later years, but it had passed its prime by then and there weren’t all that many good episodes anyway. No, to truly pick a bad episode, much as I did with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I went with when The X-Files was in its sweet spot, seasons 3-5. For my money, these are the best consistent strings of good-to-great episodes in pretty much any show. But even in here there were some clunkers, and none were perhaps more clunky than Season 5, episode 9, “Schizogeny.”
This is the episode that is lovingly referred to as “The Killer Tree Episode.” Yeah, so that’s the level at which we’re working already. It was written by new staff writers Jessica Scott and Mike Wollaeger, both of whom had worked on the show in other capacities for a while. Unfortunately, this was their only credited episode. This was made when the show was at the height of its popularity and its tropes were easy to pick out; new writers surely would have known this, which is why we get lots of wry and witty dialogue between Mulder and Scully even when there’s really no reason for it. It just comes across as insensitive a lot of the time when Mulder makes jokes during a murder investigation. But if the suspects are as annoying as they are in this episode, I guess it makes sense.
A whiny outcast kid named Bobby in rural Michigan (the Canadian part, naturally) is yelled at by his stepfather for being, I guess, a whiny outcast. Bobby, seemingly normal, yells at the much larger man and threatens him with a shovel before running into the nearby orchard. When the stepfather chases after him, roots from the wet ground spring up and pull his face into the mud, killing him. When Mulder and Scully show up, they find tons and tons of mud in the man’s lungs and stomach. How could a scrawny kid have done this? At school, Bobby is picked on, but now that everybody thinks he murdered his father (which, by the way, is wholly unsubstantiated at this point), he gets a wide berth. They go and talk to his shrink, Karin Matthews, who says the boy’s stepfather used to hit him. His mother, however, said, though they didn’t get along, the man never struck the boy. SO WHAT ARE WE TO THINK?!
Bobby likes a girl named Lisa and follows her home and wants to talk, but she’s like “Nah, you’re scary as hell now.” He says he’s finally standing up for himself. Her father, however, does not want her hanging around him, which he tells her before she screams at him and runs out of her own room. Luckily, that means she’s not there to see a tree branch break through the window and pull him out by the neck and face. The M.E. doesn’t think it was anything but a suicide, but Mulder (of course because he’s the hero) sees on the body a piece of wood in his neck, which clearly comes from the tree outside. M.E.s are always missing big pieces of wood in people’s necks. Lisa goes to stay with Karin while she waits for her aunt to come and get her, but, uh oh, something creepy’s going on. Karin seems to be having an argument with someone with a much deeper voice.
While investigating the tree, Mulder and Scully are met by a creepy guy with an ax who tells them he takes care of the trees (the Lorax of this story) but that the trees are sick. He chops into one with the ax and it begins to bleed. So, you know, pretty normal. The man also tells them that it hasn’t happened for 20 years, since a very evil man died…that man was Karin Matthews’ father. So we have three kids whose fathers were something mean to them and all three died. Mulder now believes the forest itself is doing the killing, or someone is controlling the forest. He believes this because he’s Mulder. Meanwhile, Karin/whatever’s in Karin’s head has Lisa locked in the basement and when the aunt comes to retrieve her, Karin says Lisa went to the train station. But Lisa breaks the window and her aunt comes over, says she’s going to call the cops, and then gets impaled by a branch. Damn, poor woman.
Mulder and Scully talk to Bobby again when they can’t find Lisa and he finally tells them that Karin’s therapy consisted of her making them yell at her like their fathers yelled at them. She promoted violence against their oppressive patriarchs. Real cool. They dig up Karin’s father’s grave and find it empty only to then find a skeleton embedded into Karin’s root cellar, surrounded by a tree’s base, which then causes Mulder to say the stupidest and most obvious/out of place line maybe ever: “Talk about putting down roots.” Is this the 1960s Batman show?!?! Did Lorenzo Semple Jr write this script?! Why is this allowed to be said? Why did David Duchovny agree to say this? A “talk about XYZ” joke hasn’t been funny in four decades. I’m surprised he didn’t say “but this is ridiculous!” as a follow-up.
Following this, Scully hasn’t yet slapped Mulder and she allows him to talk about her theory, saying that Karin is controlling the trees, and that she’s both murderer and victim. He drives after her as she goes to Bobby’s house but a tree nearly kills him as it falls on him. Karin chases Bobby into the orchard again and he yells at her to keep away, but it’s far too late. Karin’s “power,” which is really her father’s personality or hatred or whatever, causes the ground to begin to swallow him up like quicksand. Mulder arrives and tries to pull Bobby up while beseeching Karin to “Stand up to him! Told him what you should have told him 20 years ago! Tell him you’re not gonna take it Karin!” but this doesn’t work. Luckily, ax guy comes out of nowhere and beheads Karin. While Mulder and Bobby are now able to crawl out of the mud, Karin’s head and body get pulled into it.
I truly can’t get over just how dumb this episode is. Mulder always makes leaps of logic, or at least convenient connections, but there’s no evidence anywhere that the trees are being psychically controlled other than the fact that we, the audience, know that’s happening. Mulder seems to have access to information that he couldn’t possibly have, explained away by the fact that he’s an intuitive genius. Scully seemingly serves no purpose here other than to ask Mulder questions or act skeptical. Like I said, this seems to have been written by people who’ve taken the very basic notions of what an X-Files episode is and just put a story around it. It also completely goes away from being about Bobby and is eventually only about Karin, with Lisa just being a person in peril. It’s such an uneven and sloppily-plotted episode, and the lines all read like melodrama or farce, depending on who’s saying them.
While maybe not the worst episode of the show ever, it’s definitely the weakest during the best period, by a country mile.