Celebrating 20 years of The X-Files (Part 2): Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man

The second part of the celebration takes a look at one of the most iconic villains on the show.  He has many names – Cancer Man, CSM, Smoking Man, C.G.B. Spender, that chain smoking b*stard but he is most famously known as The Cigarette Smoking Man, played by William B. Davis.

Mulder and Scully are the heroes we believe in.  Their quest for the truth is very noble. To write about two characters that are independent, often stubborn yet flawed is not an easy challenge but I found myself wanting to go in a different direction.  As I look back at the show, The Cigarette Smoking Man is a complicated individual and despite his villainous notoriety, his actions and his motivations can be explained.

The_Smoking_Man_(X-Files)It would be easy to describe him as the modern day Darth Vader – his suits, his Morley cigarettes and his own sly sense of humour are akin to Darth Vader’s iconic heavy breathing, his red light sabre and his black armour suit.  But as The X-Files proves time and time again, there’s more to him than that.  You definitely can’t trust him and he certainly has more lives than a cat, but he operates between that fine line of him being the enemy or a friend.

If I had to describe The Cigarette Smoking Man in one word then it would be a survivor.  If we take one of my favourite episodes from the show, Musings from a Cigarette Smoking Man and applied them as gospel fact, then this man has been at the centre of defining American history.  From the assassination of JFK and Martin Luther King, he has played an active role, almost learning the tools of the trade of what it takes to be a government conspirator and orchestrator.  His decisions to partake in those highly publicised events were not taken on a whim or a simple eagerness to climb up the ladder.  Some of his actions were thoughtfully internalised and if sacrifices had to be made, then he would comply with it.  My memory takes me back to a scene in that episode where he described Dr. King as an “extraordinary man” and out of respect, he would be the shooter on that fateful day.  His rise to the syndicate, a powerful group of men working with the alien colonists to ensure their survival and humanity’s future by creating alien/human hybrids, seemed inevitable, offering valuable experience to the cause.  In the pilot episode he loiters around the FBI offices of people he had influence over (e.g. Blevins and Skinner during the early seasons), watching and listening.  While others may not pay that much attention to him, his mind would plot his next move like a psychological chess game.

Yet despite the growing power and the influence, the Cigarette Smoking Man strikes me as a character that is terribly alone through the fault of his own actions.  These decisions he continuously had to make (to misdirect Mulder and Scully’s pursuit of the truth) left him alienated and despised by the people who closely knew him.  He had two known affairs on the show, fathering two children – Jeffery Spender (from his ex-wife, Cassandra Spender), and Fox Mulder (from his affair with Mulder’s mother, Teena Mulder).  He subjected his ex-wife to horrible experiments because she was key to his work with the alien colonists.  He haunted the Mulder family through the years, knowing of his affair with Mulder’s mother whilst still being the best friend to Mulder’s father, Bill Mulder.  It could explain Bill Mulder’s frosty relationship with his son during the early seasons.  Maybe he suspected his wife of having an affair but ultimately Bill Mulder had to live with the burden of what his job at the State Department really entailed and how that tore apart the family.

It almost feels like a Greek tragedy with CSM – watching his two sons grow up without any hands on involvement.  Loyal to his own cause of protecting the interests of the group, this was his sacrifice – becoming the outsider whilst holding photographs melancholy.  Despite this, he still managed to hold some influence.  He carefully engineered the path for his sons to achieve their goals.  Both entered the FBI and one way or another excelled.  Yet at the same time, he really only preferred one son and that was Fox Mulder.

No matter how much Mulder hated him, you can argue that Mulder would have been dead long time ago if it wasn’t for CSM’s careful watchfulness over him.  He was definitely protective of Mulder, managing him as much as possible whilst he exercised the least amount of damage Mulder could cause.  The term “kill Mulder and you turn one man’s quest into a crusade” would often be mentioned along those lines, a sentiment no doubt echoed by CSM himself.  If there was a way to get Mulder on side, he could be an asset rather than a hindrance.  In Redux: Part II, he tries to recruit his son to join him in his work in exchange for Scully’s cure for cancer and a reunion with his long lost sister, Samantha – sounds awfully familiar to Darth Vader asking Luke Skywalker to join him on the Dark Side! Although Mulder didn’t accept the deal, it is the idea of a father wanting his son to except his beliefs, his judgement and his reasoning behind what he does.  In other words, he seeks personal recognition and acknowledgement.

He wants to cement his legacy and what better way of ensuring one’s legacy is through the descendants of your children.  With Mulder’s passionate, open-minded, workaholic and intelligent attributes, the Cigarette Smoking Man can identify a lot of himself in Mulder unlike his other son, Jeffrey.  Jeffrey was a total opposite of Mulder.  Yes he followed the rules and was obedient but he was always playing catch-up most of the time.  Whilst Mulder was strong in his convictions and his belief, in the eyes of CSM, he probably viewed Jeffrey as weak and ungrateful, unable to fulfil simple instructions or see the bigger picture.  Through Jeffrey’s betrayal, CSM had no doubt in his mind who was the better son and killed Jeffrey in Mulder’s basement office at the end of One Son.

The Cigarette Smoking Man was not afraid to make those tough decisions.  He ruthlessly pursued his business in order to protect the secrets he knows.  If it meant getting his hands dirty, then so be it.  Despite my own initial shock of seeing him murder his own child in One Son, nothing should surprise you about his character.  This is the sort of burden he lives with.  You see he doesn’t view himself as the villain…he views himself as a hero, a saviour even.

He sacrificed his wife while the rest of the syndicate sacrificed their children to the alien colonists.  It was a decision not taken lightly but this tactic (along with receiving a sample of the alien DNA) delayed an alien invasion, stalling for time so that a cure could be worked on…and it almost worked.  He experimented on himself in order to extract genetic alien material from Mulder when he learned that Mulder possessed the very thing he needed to ensure humanity’s survival (The Sixth Extinction Part II: Amor Fati).  In his eyes, this secret and the decisions he had been holding onto for fifty years was a selfless, altruistic act in which an outsider, like Mulder or anyone else trying to expose these secrets, will never fully understand.  It’s during the later seasons of the show where The Cigarette Smoking Man shows a more reflective, empathetic look at the consequences of those decisions.  Sure he had made mistakes, but he views them as totally justifiable in the long run.  It’s easy to make everything black and white or right or wrong but his words are aimed to put yourself in his position – what would you have done if you were in his shoes?  A question no doubt Mulder got time and time again.

Whether you think the Cigarette Smoking Man is the devil or simply a misunderstood character, his lasting influence on the show is undeniable.  If Mulder and Scully are the moral searchers of the truth, then the Cigarette Smoking Man can be viewed as the voice of reason.  Why else do you think his character is called upon on many occasions, even after his so-called demise?  He even returns in the new Season 10 comics!  It’s because he always has something to say and what he says is valuable. While we despise and question his actions, there is always an ulterior motive, a motive that might surprise everyone.

That’s what makes TV villains so intriguing to watch – their plans are devious but their motivations as not as clear-cut as everyone hopes them to be.  In the case of The Cigarette Smoking Man, he’s one of the best.

My Top 5 Cigarette Smoking Man Quotes:

 “Don’t try and threaten me, Mulder. I’ve watched presidents die.”

“You can kill a man but you can’t kill what he stands for. Not unless you first break his spirit. That’s a beautiful thing to see.”

“Life is like a box of chocolates. A cheap, thoughtless, perfunctory gift that nobody ever asks for. Unreturnable because all you get back is another box of chocolates. So you’re stuck with this undefinable whipped mint crap that you mindlessly wolf down when there’s nothing else left to eat. Sure, once in a while there’s a peanut butter cup or an English toffee. But they’re gone too fast and the taste is… fleeting. So, you end up with nothing but broken bits filled with hardened jelly and teeth-shattering nuts. And if you’re desperate enough to eat those, all you got left is an empty box filled with useless brown paper wrappers.”

“Don’t be so dramatic. Only part of you is dying. The part that played the hero. You’ve suffered enough – for the X-Files, for your partner, for the world. You’re not Christ, you’re not Prince Hamlet – you’re not even Ralph Nader!”

“I can kill you whenever I damn well please. But not today.”

Don't Be Shy - Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: