Wile E. Coyote Beats ACME
"The Goldberg Variation" Plot Summary:
In Chicago, several mobsters play poker. Anthony Catrone gets four kings and bets four grand. Mousy visitor Henry Weems, who threw in three tens to take five cards, sees the four grand and doubles it. Catrone raises him $15,000, but Weems complains that that's more than he needs. "You're going to need Depends," Catrone assures him. But Weems has drawn a straight flush. "Beginner's luck," he deadpans, getting up to cash out. Two cronies of Catrone's throw him off the top of the skyscraper. Moments later, Weems climbs out of an elevator pit, rubbing his face.
Scully meets Mulder in Chicago, where he tells her that two agents who had staked out mob boss Catrone saw Weems thrown from the roof...and saw him walk away. Mulder believes Weems may have incredible powers of recuperation, but Scully says that sounds more like Wile E. Coyote, and it was more likely a gust of wind that saved the man's life, or the fact that he fell into a laundry cart full of towels. "He got lucky," Mulder muses, joking that it's not a very scientific theory. They find a prosthetic eyeball on the floor, so Mulder quickly gets a list of people who have made appointments for replacement eyes in the past day.
In Melrose Park, Illinois, Mulder and Scully enter a building where Weems works as a superintendent. There a woman begs for help with her flooding sink. While Scully meets Maggie Lupone's ailing son Richie, Mulder tries to fix the sink. The floor collapses as the pipes explode, sending the soaking wet Mulder falling to the floor below. He assures Scully that he got lucky, however: "My ass broke the fall." He has also found Henry Weems, who stands a few feet away wearing an eye patch.
Weems informs the two agents that they might as well go away, because he won't testify against Catrone, no matter what sort of witness protection they have to offer. Mulder is more interested in how lucky Weems was to survive a 30-foot fall. Reluctantly, Weems admits he did play poker with Catrone, but says he wasn't all that lucky; he got a bruise on his elbow, and lost his artificial eye, which Mulder returns. In addition to being an ineffective super, Weems builds Rube Goldberg-type contraptions, including a model in which a series of metal balls trigger a toy hangman device.
As the agents leave, a thug enters the building. Mulder realizes he lost his keys in the fall and buzzes the door just as the hit man prepares to shoot Weems. The bullet breaks a lamp, which falls onto an ironing board, tripping the thug who ends up hanging from a shoelace from the ceiling fan as Weems gapes. An hour later, Mulder tells Scully that he thinks the dead man had a heart attack. Then he spins out the scenario of seemingly random events which killed Weems' would-be assassin, whom the police identify as Catrone's enforcer "Angie the Animal." It looks like another series of unlikely coincidences in Weems' favor, though Weems himself has fled the scene.
After a brief conversation with Richie from upstairs, during which Scully learns that Weems built the boy a basketball contraption like his own hangman, she wonders aloud to Mulder why Weems doesn't just buy a lottery ticket if he's so lucky. Hidden behind a wall panel, the wanted man listens. While Mulder and Scully discover that Weems has no record - no police record, no IRS record, no drivers' license - the lucky man who has chosen to live off the radar heads to a convenience store. Since the $28 million jackpot is too high for his needs, he buys a scratch-off ticket. Weems wins $100,000, but when he learns he will get the money through the mail in smaller increments, he throws out the ticket. A punk in the store grabs it out of the trash and stands in the street gloating about his good fortune, despite Weems' warnings that something bad will happen. Sure enough, a truck strikes the punk.
Mulder has discovered that Weems "retired from the world" in 1989, when he was the only survivor of a commuter jet crash that cost him his eye. Since then, he moved to Melrose Park and stayed away from people. When Scully wonders why Weems would have left, Mulder says the important question is why he has come back into public view. At the convenience store, Mulder explains his theory that bad things happening in the wake of Weems' luck may be part of the package. He and Scully also realize that Weems bought his lottery ticket within an hour of Scully talking about him doing so, which makes them think she was overheard.
Back at the apartment building, Mulder sends Scully to the roof so he can start looking in the basement. Meanwhile, another hit man enters. Mulder hauls Weems out of his hiding place and calls Scully on the cell phone, giving the thug a chance to shoot. Yet the bullet ricochets off the pocket knife in Weems' pocket, glances through Mulder's sleeve, bounces off a metal door knocker, and hits the hit man. At the hospital, Mulder gets a bandage for his injured arm and plays cards with Weems, who wins every best-of. "How's it feel to be the luckiest man alive?" the agent jokes breezily. "It's a nightmare," Weems warns.
When Weems gets lucky, terrible things happen. He figured it was OK to play cards with the mobsters because they deserved whatever they got. Scully guesses that Weems wants the money to help Richie, who will die without an experimental liver treatment, since a liver donor with the boy's rare blood type has not been found. The treatment program in England costs $100,000. Scully suggests that Weems' immediate priority should be protection from Catrone, but Weems scoffs that Catrone needs protection from him.
After Weems leaves the hospital, Scully tells Mulder he was irresponsible to put faith in blind luck, then demonstrates that the string of random coincidences is over as she flips an ace to beat Weems' king. Mulder races outside to yell for Weems, who is distracted and hit by a truck just as a pair of mobsters close in on him. He ends up with bruised ribs and a black eye, plus hospital security protection from Catrone's gang, who have learned that he may testify against them. Back at the building in Melrose Park, Richie's jaundice worsens and his mother sends him via ambulance to the same hospital. Before she can get there herself, however, Catrone's men kidnap her.
Weems feels terrible, since he knows Maggie was taken to stop him from testifying. Mulder suggests that maybe this, too, is happening for a reason - part of his uncanny streak of luck - but the super heads to Catrone, offering to trade himself for his neighbor. Scully says Richie must find a donor in the next few hours or there will be no hope of saving him. Mulder wonders aloud whether everything and everyone in Weems' life becomes part of his luck, the way all the pieces in his contraptions trigger one another to cause a desired effect. If so, Mulder hypothesizes, nothing is random. He opens the phone book and plunks his finger down on Grayson's Laundry - the name on the cart Weems fell into when Catrone's thugs hurled him off the skyscraper.
Catrone has Weems taken to the basement of his building, where Weems accidentally knocks an iron into a laundry cart filled with water. An electrical explosion results, creating a chain of mishaps that kill Catrone. As the power goes out in the building, then across Chicago, the letters in the children's hospital sign flicker until the only ones lit spell "RICHIE." Mulder finds Catrone dead in a Grayson's Laundry basket. The mobster's donor bracelet clearly identies the rare blood type he shares with Richie Lupone.
"What were the odds of a perfect match?" Mulder asks Scully, as the two watch Weems and Maggie playing with the basketball contraption in Richie's recovery room. "Maybe everything does happen for a reason," muses a happy Scully.
This was one of The X-Files' rare feel-good episodes, and it succeeded magnificently, like last season's "The Unnatural" (briefly recalled in "The Goldberg Variation" when Scully told Richie she liked baseball). "I feel lucky," joked Mulder when he snuck into Weems' building, and he was. Despite some obvious hokiness, like the fact that Weems sat in Seat 13 on the fateful Flight 7, it had the sort of good-guys-win feeling from old movies where you can be sure the mobsters will get what's coming.
It was hard to tell whether we were watching comedy or tragedy, which created the drama of the episode. I figured Richie would end up with a liver from one of the thugs if we were in for a happy ending, but it also seemed possible that Weems' or Maggie's life might be the price for his survival in a tit-for-tat world. Interestingly, Weems doesn't live in a tit-for-tat world. But he's the kind of guy who doesn't like to cause suffering even for strangers if that's the price of his good luck, making him an extremely likable character - the opposite of the creep from "Hungry" who couldn't stop eating people's brains even though he knew it was wrong. Catrone, who looked like the love child of John Travolta and Alec Baldwin, was a perfect stereotype of just such a selfish, nasty sonofabitch, so the poetic justice of his death generated humor rather than pathos.
I don't know much about Rube Goldberg's contraptions other than that they were designed to perform simple tasks in roundabout fashions, but I enjoyed the contrivance of fate working along the same lines. I could almost believe we live in a universe where the higher powers are actually benevolent, but ludicrously roundabout in their methods. Compared to the usual world of the X-Files where just about everything unexplainable seems to happen for a bad reason, it was nice to get a ray of hope.
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