Mr Burt

Burt Reynolds died last month. One of those people the word ‘icon’ is designed for, his career spanned decades, some of the best movies and TV shows ever made and some of the oddest too. It’s from that end of his pool of work that my favorite Reynolds performance comes; his turn on The X-Files episode ‘Improbable.’

The thirteenth episode of the ninth season of the show, ‘Improbable’ opens with a brace of scenes which set the expansive tone and approach of the episode out. In the first, Wayno (Ray McKinnon) loses at cards and grumpily slides up to the bar. There he meets Mr Burt, who knows what he’s going to order, what he wants to do and asks Wayno, politely, to surprise him. Wayno has a choice; leave the casino or go into the women’s washroom, kill someone and then leave. Just like he’s done before.

Wayno does not surprise Mr Burt.

The second scene tracks Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish) into the office where she confronts Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) with a new case. A string of murders, all seemingly connected by numerology and by the fact the victims are all women. Because just like it’s never lupus, it’s usually ladymurder. Scully is dubious but Reyes’ investigation leads directly to the killer and culminates in the pair of them being trapped in a parking garage with Mr Burt. He’s there to play a game with an old friend. Or, perhaps, two FBI agents…

Oh and Reynolds is playing God.

The show had a long and often dismal history exploring issues of faith but this is one of the occasions where it landed really, really solidly. From the moment we see Reynolds, eyes twinkling and mustache perfect, we know he’s not of this world. This was still the relatively early days of movie stars doing TV shows too, so there’s an extra post-modern frisson to him, The fact his character is named Mr Burt even drives the point home; he’s the extrusion into the world of the show of something much bigger, a Reynolds aspect. Cthulhu with a fondness for swing music. Morpheus of The Endless with really, really great shirts. Mr Burt. God.

And this God, to quote John 4:7-21, is love. That’s why the first thing we see him do is ask Wayno to surprise him. That’s why he waits in the parking garage with Scully and Reyes. Because God is love, and God loves everyone. Even terrifying, numerically obsessed and woman hating serial killers. Especially earnest FBI agents who just want people to believe they can do their jobs and their increasingly laconic, cynical, burnt out bosses. It’s not that he’s enabling Wayno’s behavior, it’s that he’s giving him the opportunity to change it. It’s not that he’s handing Reyes and Scully the solution to the case, it’s that he trusts them to figure it out for themselves, especially using the parameters of the game of Checkers. This is God as amiable parent, hands off even when the blood hits the floor but never fully absent.

In so many ways, that’s not good or acceptable. It’s easy in particular to view the end of the episode as completely de-powering the female agents, when Doggett shows up to rescue them. But while he does that, he also doesn’t have a conversation with God. In the transitional, not-quite-anywhere space of the car park, Scully and Reyes truly do go beyond. It’s just the nature of the beyond is that they can’t quite see that. Not comforting, not acceptable, but a surprising, even elegant way of merging the scientific, paranormal and spiritual approaches the show so often struggled with.

It’s why so many little moments land so well. Reyes, finally with the respect of her colleagues, resolutely sticking to her numerologist guns knowing full well what it costs her. Doggett, the most pragmatic human being on the planet, taking a chance and playing a hunch. Gillian Anderson’s glorious delivery on the final line of this exchange:

‘Keep your hands up!’



And Mr Burt’s love for music, so profound that it infects the world around him. Because what is purer, more holy, than music? None of this should work. All of it does, and all of it creates an episode that deals with massive issues like predestination, faith, how women are treated in the work place and the concept of redemption. It’s untidy in spots and, let’s not forget, is a story built on the bones of multiple dead women. But its also profoundly weird and weirdly profound and is the way I’ll always think of Burt Reynolds. Dance on, Mr Burt. Dance on.

This piece originally appeared as part of my weekly newsletter, The Full Lid. If you liked it, and want a weekly down of pop culture enthusiasm, occasional ketchup recipes and me enjoying things, then check out the archive and sign up here.

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