The X-Files’ Cigarette Smoking Man: What’s Not to Love?

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The man known as “CSM” on The X-Files is a villain we know we should hate but end up loving anyway.

For discussion of CSM and other likable villains, listen to Sci Fi Fidelity:

I remember the evening like it was yesterday. My wife had gone out with friends on a Friday night in 1993 leaving me at home in command of the television’s remote control. I’m not sure I’d ever heard of The X-Files, but the guide’s description of “Ice,” the eighth episode of the show’s initial season, immediately caught my attention.

Needless to say, I became hooked on The X-Files as Mulder and Scully investigated the weird and paranormal, but one of the characters that simply demanded my attention and respect was Cigarette Smoking Man. No actual name, just “Cigarette Smoking Man” listed in the credits played by William B. Davis. From the start he oozed evil, and given that viewers typically saw him standing off to the side in a corner, smoke emanating from the ever present Morley dangling from his lips, he generated a persona that only grew more mysterious as the series progressed.

It certainly seemed that his primary focus was to prevent FBI agent Fox Mulder from learning the details of his sister Samantha’s mysterious abduction when they were children, but as Mulder grew closer to uncovering a more insidious government conspiracy, CSM’s grip on him likewise grew tighter. Or did it? We were supposed to loathe this character, but I became intrigued to the point that I actually liked him. How could you not like the rebel who defied the government ban on smoking in the workplace?

Eventually we learned that not only were CSM and Mulder’s father co-workers on one of these black ops projects, but Mulder’s mother may have had an affair with him. Say it with me: “Fox. I am your father.” The Darth Vader metaphor might be stretching it a bit, but the possibilities only added to the character’s allure. And then to learn that behind the scenes CSM was actually protecting Mulder, validated our trust that maybe he’s not as bad as he seems.

There were certainly other, less significant aspects that drew me to anticipate his appearance in each week’s The X-Files episode, but one that I still hear to this day is that accent. Born in Toronto, Davis’s vocal inflections were my first significant experience with Canadian speech. Of course, as a science fiction television fan, that accent has become ubiquitous since so many genre shows are filmed in Vancouver and Toronto, but in the 90s it just sounded cool. His rumpled gray suit that never appeared to fit quite right, and the fact that the other influential men in dark suits always deferred to his opinion left an indelible mark.

Hate Cigarette Smoking Man because he’s behind one of the most pervasive government coverups in human history? Nah. I don’t think so. Loved him then; love him now.

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For more discussion of villains we love (even though we’re not supposed to), listen to the November edition of the Sci Fi Fidelity podcast:

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