Sunday, October 25, 2015

Episode Review: "All Souls" (5x17)

Today is "All Souls" day in the 204-day rewatch (somewhat appropriate, with All Souls' Day being just around the corner). The full review is below and also on the Top Ten Religious Episodes page.

All Souls (5x17)
Original airdate: 4/26/98
Teleplay by: Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban
Story by: Billy Brown and Dan Angel
Directed by: Allen Coulter


This episode in some ways parallels “Revelations,” especially with Scully’s visit to the confessional, her role in protecting a child, and the message of a religious figure that seems aimed directly at Scully but not her partner. But a major aspect of this episode is Scully coming to terms with the death of her daughter Emily in “Christmas Carol”/“Emily” and the role that Scully played in Emily’s death by discontinuing her medical treatment. In the first confessional scene, Scully tells the priest, “An innocent girl is dead because of me. I could’ve saved her life, but I let her die.” On the surface, it seems that she is talking about the last girl in the episode, whom Scully does not manage to save from death, but the words could also apply to Emily. Scully tells the priest that she is not sure he can offer forgiveness for the sin she has come to confess, which is letting the girl die, but what this really highlights is the guilt that Scully clearly still carries. The priest can offer her forgiveness, but she also needs to forgive herself.

In the teaser, Father McCue explains baptism and the rite of initiation: it takes away original sin and confers grace, “bringing the soul into God’s family.” This, then, sets up the theme of family, adoption, and fatherhood that runs throughout the episode. The Kernofs have adopted Dara, just as Father Gregory is trying to adopt another one of the four girls. This recalls Scully’s attempt to adopt Emily and highlights her tenuous identity as Emily’s mother.

At the end of the teaser, when Dara’s father finds her in the street, the scene closes with the shot on a telephone pole that looks like a cross. Throughout the episode, there are additional cross images, both upright and upside down, used in set design and as the focus of shots.

We see the transition in Scully’s church attendance from “Revelations” to the “Redux” arc to “All Souls”: in “Revelations” she hadn’t been to confession for six years, and when she was facing cancer she didn’t feel the need for religion (“Redux”), but now she is attending church on Easter, and it has been several months (rather than years) since her last confession. Father McCue comments on seeing her at mass again recently, and she says she’s been trying to come more often.

The fact that Scully’s involvement in the story begins on Easter Sunday, Resurrection Day, brings in the theme of life after death. Although the characters in the episode are not resurrected, what Scully struggles with, as she especially discusses with the priest in her final scene, is the fact of the “life after this one” and reconciling that with the physical death of the girls and Emily. As a doctor, a scientist, and an agent, Scully fights to protect and preserve life. But the fate of the soul is another matter.


Scully tells the priest that she relates to how Mr. Kernof was feeling about their daughter’s death. He’s angry with God and can’t understand how “God could forsake the life of an innocent girl. How God, in His mercy, could let this happen.” The priest asks if Scully is saying that she has been angry with God, although she doesn’t directly answer this question. She is clearly struggling to understand the loss of Emily, and both how God could to allow Emily’s death and how Scully herself could allow her death. But Scully’s increased church attendance suggests that she is wrestling with God personally rather than running away from him or avoiding him. Mulder’s rhetorical questions later also echo what Mrs. Kernof says here: “Why would God allow this to happen? Why do bad things happen to good people?” The underlying question of “Why?” is what Scully is trying to understand.

Scully also brings up her struggle between faith and science, the two major aspects of her character. She tells the priest, “As much as I have my faith, Father, I am a scientist trained to weigh evidence. But science only teaches us how, not why.” While she views the world through the lens of science and tries to explain things in these terms, she also recognizes science’s limitations in answering the big questions in life. Science can tell her how Dara and Emily died, but it cannot explain the reason for their deaths.

Scully expresses to Mulder that she believes “God has his reasons,” and she brings this up as a question to Father McCue. He responds that this is how God rewards our faith. In the end, Scully says to the priest, “Maybe that’s what faith is,” referring to her accepting the loss of Emily, that the girl’s soul was released to heaven. The theme tying these moments together, and the progression that Scully is on throughout the episode, is that while she struggles to understand the reason behind the loss, she also has faith in the mystery of God’s reasons and purposes, but faith also includes accepting her own personal suffering and loss if ultimately it leads to the greater good of releasing someone else from the suffering of this life into the afterlife.

The coroner describes Dara genuflecting, in a kneeling position, which is typically a position of prayer (as Scully later describes it), and makes a religious connection, saying, “It’s as if God himself struck her down.” This evokes images of being struck down with lightning, as it appears happened to Dara during the storm; this idea of being struck down is usually associated with instant judgment, but it’s already been pointed out twice that this girl is innocent. (Instead, Scully feels like she is the one who deserves to be struck down in punishment.) We later learn that the girls apparently have seen the seraphim and therefore “were smote with the brightness of his countenance.” Although here this is an encounter with an angel, this recalls the biblical idea that no one can see the face of God and live (Exod. 33:20). However, Scully has a vision of the same being, and she lives to tell about it (because she isn’t one of the Nephilim?), which is why Father McCue discounts what she saw.

The theme of prayer returns when Mulder is interviewing Father Gregory, who is praying. Mulder says mockingly, “What are you asking for, Father? Mercy or forgiveness? You know they say when you talk to God it’s prayer, but when God talks to you, it’s schizophrenia. What is your God telling you, Father?” Father Gregory, not to be provoked, says he is praying for the girls’ souls. In a sense, it seems this is also what the girls were praying for, since by the end we see that their position of prayer led to their souls being released to heaven. Mulder’s comments, although sarcastic, have a ring of truth. It is common and socially acceptable for people to pray, whether to God or in any other context, but it is generally understood to be one-way communication, or communication that is answered with deeds rather than words. But when people claim to hear the voice of God, it is often interpreted differently--with good reason, though, since just because someone has claimed to hear the voice of God does not mean they actually have. A similar exchange happens between Mulder and Scully in the later episode “Orison”: Mulder says of their suspect that “plenty of nut bags” think they are being directed by God, and then he asks Scully, “Has he [God] ever spoken to you?” Scully, justifiably, replies, “I’m trying not to take offense,” and then she explains to Mulder the signs she has seen and what she thinks they mean. This is an example of how God’s communication is perceived not through an audible voice but through events and circumstances that take on a particular meaning or seem to defy explanation.

Along with being frozen in a position of prayer, the girls also have their eyes burned out. Mulder references “the mote in the eye, the eyes as windows to the soul, an eye for an eye” as “ancient scripture ... maybe even the Bible.” The mote in the eye is from Matthew 7:3-5, referring to the hypocrite who points out the mote, or small speck, in another person’s eye while overlooking the beam in their own eye. “An eye for an eye” refers to the lex talionis, or law of retribution, familiar from the Bible (Exod. 21:24; Lev. 24:20) and other ancient Near Eastern cultures. The common theme to both of these phrases is judgment, which fits with the idea of being struck down by God. The other phrase, “the eyes as the windows to the soul,” is not from the Bible and seems to have a different sense, relating more to transparency and enlightenment. Throughout the episode there is also a focus on windows in certain shots (such as opening the scene with Scully and the coroner, and Paula kneeling in the light of the window at her death), highlighting the use of windows to allow light into the darkness, and perhaps also suggesting transition--in this instance, from life to the afterlife.

The connection between eyes and enlightenment relates to the theme of seeing in the episode. Mulder later accuses Father Gregory of burning their eyes out and charges, “Did they see you for who you are, like I do?” But Scully is the one who sees things here that Mulder does not. Father Gregory says their prejudices blind them from seeing what is happening here. This connects also with the visions that Scully has. She tells the priest, “I was meant to see Emily,” and she tells Father McCue, “I’ve seen things.” Scully believes that the visions of Emily help her to save (the soul, if not the body, of) the girls. Her vision of the man with four faces may be to help her understand who the girls are and what she needs to protect them from.

Mulder refers to the inverted cross as being a sacrilege against the church, but as Father Gregory later explains (appealing to Scully first to relate the story), it is a reference to St. Peter being crucified upside down and therefore is meant to symbolize humility rather than sacrilege. The fact of the upside-down cross symbolizes Father Gregory’s upside-down faith: his humility, in the tradition of Peter, is well intended, but his separation from the Roman Catholic church to found his own church, and his book full of fringe and apocryphal texts, show that his faith is not quite orthodox and may be a bit turned on its head. But the description of Peter as “St. Peter the Sinner” in the church’s name draws some connections between Peter and Scully, since she is seen throughout the episode in a confessional to confess a sin that she thinks the priest may not be able to forgive.

The idea of judgment plays a dual part in the episode. Scully tells the priest that she brought Mulder onto the case to keep her feelings from clouding her judgment, and later Mulder says basically the same words to her: “I think you should step away. Personal issues are making you lose your objectivity, clouding your judgment.” In this sense, “judgment” refers to discernment and the ability to draw clear and accurate conclusions. But Scully also uses “judgment” in a different sense when she says to Mulder, after his acerbic words about Father Gregory, “I think you’re a little extreme in your judgment.” This is the more negative sense of the word, emphasizing one person judging another, often rashly or unfairly. Just as Scully has brought in personal issues, so has Mulder let his own personal feelings about religion cloud his perception of the facts.

As in “Revelations” and “Orison” in particular, Mulder is closed off and even hostile toward the religious figures--here, Father Gregory. In this case, Mulder says, “Religion has masqueraded as the paranormal since the dawn of time to justify some of the most horrible acts in history.” Based on his comments in “Revelations” (that “fanatics behaving fanatically using religion as a justification ... give bona fide paranoiacs like myself a bad name”), it is clear that part of what he takes personally is being lumped together in the same category as fanatics and religious extremists. On the other hand, we see later in “Signs & Wonders” that Scully also takes it personally when Mulder lumps her faith together with that of the fanatics simply because their beliefs are based on the same book. But in “All Souls,” Mulder’s skepticism and hostility serve the storytelling function of placing him opposite Scully, to retain their dynamic of believer and skeptic.

The sign outside Father Gregory’s church says, “The darkness is upon us,” which does not appear to be a biblical quote but certainly projects his own worldview. He sees himself battling the darkness but thinks that his side is losing ground in this fight. The fact that he dies at the hands of the devil would seem to justify his beliefs.

Like Owen Jarvis in “Revelations” (and later, Rev. Orison in “Orison”), Father Gregory notices Scully’s cross necklace and appeals to her faith, assuming that she’ll understand what he’s saying. He tells her that “there is a struggle between good and evil for all souls,” which is similar to what Mr. Kryder told her in “Revelations” (“The forces of darkness ... [want] to claim all souls.... This is the great war between good and evil.”) Father Gregory also refers to “the messengers,” which Scully comes to understand, as does the priest in the confessional. It is religious language, which Scully feels is speaking directly to her. Father Gregory even goes a step further, to address Scully directly once Mulder has left the interrogation room, because he believes that she has already guessed what the girls are.

The title, “All Souls,” seems to come directly from the dialogue in the church with Father Gregory. In the scheme of things, the struggle between Father Gregory (and Scully) and the social worker, Starkey, over the fate of the girls’ souls seems to be a metaphor for the larger religious struggle to save souls from the darkness and evil so that in the end those souls can be released to heaven rather than suffer a worse fate.

As Scully is coming to understand the identity of the girls as the “messengers,” she mentions on the phone to Mulder that she has discovered something “winglike” on Paula Koklos. After Mulder gets off the phone, the same scene ends with him seeing a bird flying up from the dead third girl. The bird here connects with the wing imagery of angels, but in light of the baptism in the teaser and Scully’s later reference to the baptism as Dara being “submerged in the Spirit,” the bird may also represent the Holy Spirit, which was present in the form of a dove at the baptism of Jesus (Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32). But the bird flying upward also suggests the girl’s soul flying up toward heaven.

Perhaps because of her previous experience with Kevin Kryder in “Revelations,” Scully seems quick to accept that she was meant to save the girls. She is more open to hearing what Father Gregory has to say, even if she is not simply going to fall in line with his actions or interpretation of events. The twist is that saving the girls means something different here than it did with Kevin: she is fighting a spiritual battle, not merely one of flesh and blood.

The use of the confessional, which frames the entire episode, also frames the entire story within the context of Scully coming to terms with the death of Emily. The final vision of Emily, as Scully must let her go, depicts visually what Scully is dealing with emotionally, releasing Emily to heaven and along with that, releasing her own anger and guilt. Since the entire confessional visit is after the completion of the case, clearly the experience and visions themselves have not yet brought her peace, but we see that she is on her way to finding understanding and acceptance. With her final words, she is coming to see that faith means accepting what goes beyond science and the physical world.

References:

Father Gregory’s “Bible” (The Book of St. Peter the Sinner) contains the Gnostic Gospels, the Book of Enoch, the Book of J, and the Apocrypha. The gnostic gospels are a genre of texts that are similar in genre to the biblical Gospels but are written from a gnostic worldview, often highlighting secret teachings by Jesus or his disciples as well as a gnostic cosmology. (The term is also familiar from the well-known book on the subject, The Gnostic Gospels, written by Elaine Pagels.) The Book of Enoch may be intended as the book of 1 Enoch, which includes an account of the Nephilim. The Book of J is actually a book published in 1990 by David Rosenberg and Harold Bloom. Based on the “JEDP” theory of multiple sources in the first five books of the Bible, this book reconstructs the J narrative as its own text. The Apocrypha contains a number of texts typically included in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles but excluded from the Protestant canon, based on the fact that they were largely or entirely not written in Hebrew (as were the Old Testament books) and did not appear to be accepted as canon by early Jews. What all of these texts have in common is that they lie outside the universally accepted biblical canon, much as Father Gregory himself lies outside the context of the traditional church.

Father Gregory appeals to Scully to recount the story of St. Peter and his crucifixion. Peter’s death is not related in the Bible, but church tradition indicates that Peter was crucified upside down in Rome, a tradition that is attested in the apocryphal Acts of Peter. (Ironically, this text is not shown as part of Father Gregory’s Book of St. Peter the Sinner.)

Father McCue tells Scully that the being she saw in a vision was “a seraphim.” “Seraphim” is actually the (Hebrew) plural form of “seraph.” Seraphim appear in the Bible only in Isaiah 6, where they are depicted as six-winged creatures surrounding the throne of God, singing, “Holy, holy, holy.” When the throne of God is described in the book of Revelation, it is surrounded by four living creatures, each with six wings, singing, “Holy, holy, holy”; the first creature is like a lion, the second an ox, the third a human, and the fourth an eagle (Rev. 4:6-8). This idea of the four faces comes from Ezekiel and the description of the cherubim accompanying the chariot carrying away God’s presence from the temple. The cherubim each have four faces and four wings; the four faces are a human, a lion, an ox, and an eagle (Ezek. 1:6-10; cf. 10:15-25). Father McCue’s version of the seraph has the faces of “a man, a lion, an eagle, and a bull.” Clearly this is the amalgamation of the biblical images of the cherubim and seraphim, both of which are apparently winged beings (angels?) that accompany God’s presence and God’s throne.

Father McCue also tells Scully the story of the Nephilim. In the Bible, the Nephilim appear in Genesis 6, where it is briefly recounted that before the flood, the “sons of God” took human wives; “the Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them” (Gen. 6:1-3 NRSV). From this brief mention of the Nephilim, many stories developed about these fallen angels (since the Hebrew verb behind this name means “to fall”) who were the offspring of angels and human women. As Father McCue recounts the story, “The angel descends from heaven and fathers four children with a mortal woman. Their offspring are the Nephilim, the ‘Fallen Ones.’ They have the souls of angels, but they weren’t meant to be. They’re deformed, tormented. So the Lord sends the Seraphim to Earth to bring back the souls of the Nephilim to keep the devil from claiming them as his own.” As he tells Scully, this story is not in the Bible. It may be intended as a variation of the story in the extrabiblical book of 1 Enoch, which seems to be alluded to in the inclusion of the Book of Enoch in the collection of texts at Father Gregory’s church.

Discussion Questions:

1) Scully struggles to reconcile her faith with her training in science. What is the relationship between faith and science. Do you agree with Scully that science tells us how things happen, but not why? How do we answer the question of why?

2) Father Gregory tells the agents that their secular prejudices blind them from seeing that “there is a struggle between good and evil for all souls.” Although most souls are not claimed the way that the girls’ are in this episode, is there any truth to what Father Gregory says? If so, how does this struggle for all souls play out in our daily lives? How can we avoid being blind to the spiritual reality around us?

3) Scully says that God has his reasons, however mysterious. What does this mean? Is this a cause for comfort or hope? Why do God’s reasons remain a mystery to us?

4) Both Mrs. Kernof and Mulder bring up the question, “Why would God allow this to happen?” In this situation, why might God have allowed Emily or the other girls to die? Why does God allow death and tragedy in our lives instead of intervening and preventing it all from happening?

5) In the end, Scully still struggles to reconcile her belief in the afterlife with the fact of the girls’ death. She closes by saying, “Maybe that’s what faith is.” What do you think she means by this? What part does faith play in our understanding of the significance of death and what happens after death? What role does faith play in coping with loss and grief?