The Goldberg Variation (The X-Files)
|"The Goldberg Variation"|
|The X-Files episode|
Mulder and Scully examine Henry Weems's Rube Goldberg machine, the inspiration for the episode's title.
|Episode no.||Season 7
|Directed by||Thomas J. Wright|
|Written by||Jeffrey Bell|
|Original air date||December 12, 1999|
|Running time||44 minutes|
"The Goldberg Variation" is the sixth episode of the seventh season of the science fiction television series The X-Files. It premiered on the Fox network in the United States on December 12, 1999. It was written by Jeffrey Bell, directed by Thomas J. Wright, and featured guest appearances by Willie Garson and Shia LaBeouf. The episode is a "Monster-of-the-Week" story, unconnected to the series' wider mythology. "The Goldberg Variation" earned a Nielsen household rating of 8.8, being watched by 14.49 million people in its initial broadcast. The episode received mixed-to-positive reviews.
The show centers on FBI special agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) who work on cases linked to the paranormal, called X-Files. Mulder is a believer in the paranormal, while the skeptical Scully has been assigned to debunk his work. In this episode, Mulder and Scully investigate a mysterious man named Henry Weems, who appears to be the luckiest man in the world. The title is a dual reference to Rube Goldberg machines and the Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Bell's original draft of the episode opened with a man falling thirty-thousand feet from an airplane and walking away unharmed. Due to budgetary reasons, the intro was later changed to a man falling out of a building. Willie Garson—who had appeared in the third season episode "The Walk"—was cast as Henry Weems, breaking a "long-standing rule" on the show to not recast previous actors. The first cut of the episode was four minutes under-time, and so various insert shots and new scenes had to be filmed in order to compensate.
In Chicago, a man by the name of Henry Weems wins $100,000 playing poker against a mobster named Joe Cutrona, though Weems appears ignorant of the basic rules of poker. Suspecting that Weems cheated, Cutrona attempts to kill him by throwing him off the 29th story of the building they are in. After Weems lands in an access hatch to a basement, he stands right back up and walks away, completely uninjured. Two agents in a car stationed outside witness the event and eventually tell Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), who promptly take the case. Mulder initially believes the man has the ability to cure himself, but Scully thinks he may just be very lucky by landing in a pile of laundry that was right under the access hatch.
The agents track down Weems, a handyman at an apartment building. He refuses to testify against Cutrona. Weems has a fascination with Rube Goldberg machines. As such, his apartment is filled with them. After meeting with Weems, Scully concludes that there is no X-File, but Mulder believes that his luck is the X-File in question. As the agents begin to leave the complex, one of Cutrona's enforcers comes to kill Weems. However, the assassin dies in an improbable cascade of events reminiscent of a Rube Goldberg machine: after being distracted when Mulder buzzes the intercom (when he forgot the car keys), he accidentally shoots a lamp that knocks over an ironing board, then trips over the ironing board and ends up getting strangled in a fan. The two agents rush back up stairs and find Weems unscathed. Weems notes he was also the sole survivor of a commuter jet crash that killed 20 people in December 1989, where he was placed in Seat 13 of Flight 7: lucky numbers.
Weems picks up a lottery ticket and wins $100,000 but learns that it would take 12 months to get the money, so he throws the ticket away. A man picks the ticket out of the trash and is then hit by a truck after Weems warned him (to no avail) that "something bad will happen." Later, Mulder comes to question Weems again and another one of Cutrona's enforcers comes to kill Weems but his bullet ricochets off Weems' pocket knife, barely grazes Mulder's arm, and hits and kills the enforcer. Weems confesses that he's been trying to find a way to get $100,000 to pay for an expensive medical treatment for the serious illness of a boy in his apartment building named Richie (Shia LaBeouf). Weems attempts at getting the money, however, have brought him above the radar. Later, after Weems is hit by a car, it appears that Henry's lucky streak has reached its end. Cutrona kidnaps Richie's mom, Maggie, to stop Henry from testifying against him. Weems turns himself in to Cutrona so he would let Maggie go; instead, they plan to kill him. As they are about to execute Weems in the basement (where Maggie is also being held), Cutrona and his mobster partner, Dominic, are killed in a bizarre turn of events, whereas Weems and Maggie are unharmed as Mulder arrives with backup. In the end, it turns out by surprise that Cutrona is an organ donor and a perfect match for Richie, who gets the treatment and lives. Weems then activates a toy Goldberg machine that he made for Richie earlier.
The episode's title is a pun. It refers to both cartoonist Rube Goldberg, who was famous for his drawings of incredibly complex machines made out of everyday objects that performed rudimentary tasks, as well as the harpsichord piece, the "Goldberg Variations", by Johann Sebastian Bach. The elaborate contraptions Henry Weems created are physical examples of such machines. Episode writer Jeffrey Bell noted that he wanted the episode to function "as a Rube Goldberg device" and so he wrote the story to revolve around the ideas of good luck and bad luck. Originally, the episode's opening scene was to have featured Weems falling thirty thousand feet from an airplane and walking away unscathed. Although Bell's pitch was met with enthusiasm, many writers and producers for the show were cautious, because they realized the episode would have several humorous moments. Executive producer Frank Spotnitz explained: "The episode had a lot of humorous moments that we were afraid of doing because as many people who like the funny ones hate the funny ones." Eventually, the episode was green-lighted, but pushed to later in the season because, according to Spotnitz, "we wanted to scare the hell out of everybody during the first few episodes."
Bell began crafting his script, adding a mafia-related sub-plot and replacing the airplane drop with a fall from a building, for budgetary reasons. The biggest hurdle for the episode, however, was crafting the Rube Goldberg machine. However, because Bell had "extra time" to write his script, the art department was given a head start on crafting the contraption. Gillian Anderson later explained that working with the machines required a lot of patience, because multiple takes had to be filmed in order to make sure everything went as planned. Rick Millikan, the show's casting director, broke a "long-standing rule" on the show and re-cast Willie Garson—who had appeared in the third season episode "The Walk"—as Henry Weems. Millikan noted that Garson was "literally the best person for the job."
After the episode was finished filming, the footage entered into a long period of editing. Series creator Chris Carter noted that the episode "wasn't cutting together well and that there were things that just didn't work." Once the resultant footage was reworked into an acceptable episode, it was four minutes under time. In order to compensate for this, additional inserts of the Rube Goldberg Machine were filmed as well as a scene featuring Mulder and Scully discussing the episode's back-story. The latter, which was filmed several months after the rest of the episode, required Anderson to wear a wig because her hair style had substantially changed.
When the episode was finally finished and aired, it was highly enjoyed by The X-Files cast and crew. Carter called the entry "tight, funny, touching, and quirky." Series writer Vince Gilligan was impressed with the episode, and noted that the episode represented the seventh season of the show as whole. He explained: "The seventh season, for my money, was one of our best because we took more storytelling risks than in previous years."
Broadcast and reception
"The Goldberg Variation" first aired in the United States on December 12, 1999. This episode earned a Nielsen rating of 8.8, with a 13 share, meaning that roughly 8.8 percent of all television-equipped households, and 13 percent of households watching television, were tuned in to the episode. It was viewed by 14.49 million viewers. The episode aired in the United Kingdom and Ireland on Sky1 on April 23, 2000 and received 0.78 million viewers, making it the fifth most watched episode that week.
The episode received mixed-to-positive reviews. Tom Kessenich, in his book Examinations, gave the episode a largely positive review. He favorably compared the episode to the sixth season episode "The Rain King" and noted that "'The Rain King' [written by Jeff Bell] was quite simply one of the joys of season six. So it hardly came as a surprise to me that I enjoyed Bell's 'The Goldberg Variation" entry for [season seven]. It was cute, light-hearted, and a little kooky, with a happy ending to boot." Den of Geek writer Juliette Harrisson named the episode the "finest stand-alone episode" of Season Seven and wrote, "Since 'The X-Files’ roots are in horror, feel-good episodes are few and far between, and something to be treasured when they appear. The Goldberg Variation is the perfect feel-good X-Files episode; not too soppy, not too harsh, but just the right mix of ludicrous gangster deaths and saving the cute kid." Paula Vitaris from Cinefantastique gave the episode a moderately positive review and awarded it three stars out of four. She called the episode a "charmer" and praised Willie Garvin's characterization of Harry Weems. Kenneth Silber from Space.com wrote positively of the episode, writing, "'The Goldberg Variation' is a clever, witty standout from the recent middling run of X-Files episodes." Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club awarded the episode a "B+" and called it a "fun" entry that shows off the series' "emotional palette". He felt that the episode successfully managed to convey a "clever and whimsical" feel, but that the conceit of a "good man" as the monster of the episode does not make it particularly scary. All-in-all, he felt that it "all works out in the end".
Other reviews were more mixed. Rich Rosell from Digitally Obsessed awarded the episode 3.5 out of 5 stars and noted that despite the episode being "Funny stuff," it was ultimately "a little uneven overall." Robert Shearman and Lars Pearson, in their book Wanting to Believe: A Critical Guide to The X-Files, Millennium & The Lone Gunmen, rated the episode three stars out of five. Despite calling the episode "a likeable piece of work", the two explained that the story itself was fine, but that the episode's set piece did not work with the plot. Shearman and Pearson, however, ultimately concluded that the premise was "such a well-meaning little bauble that you want to applaud it for its intent if nothing else."
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