The Great X-Files Rewatch: Season Three, Part Two
Season three is a truly wondrous time in X-Files history, but one episode from the tail end of that season really stands out as special for me. The episode is “Quagmire,” and it directly contributed to my Master’s degree.
It’s like this. I was supposed to write a paper about Moby Dick. I had read Moby Dick in its entirety (which, believe me, not everybody does, even Olympic-grade readers like grad students) and I felt so exhausted by the process that I had nothing conventional to say about it. Finally, at the eleventh hour, I remembered “Quagmire,” an episode of the show in which Mulder and Scully, stranded on a rock in the middle of a lake (long story) discuss that canonical novel. So I spun this whole academic argument out of the fact that two characters on a network television show were intelligently discussing one of the most ponderous works in American literature proved that the popular culture reach of the book was substantial. (I also used as evidence the fact that there is a chain of Moby Dick’s House of Kabobs restaurants.) Somehow this was acceptable.
Actually there has been a lot of academic scholarship done on The X-Files. The show had this awesome way of situating the supernatural stuff and the investigation stuff within much more complex mythological and sociopolitical frameworks. Really! In “Quagmire,” an elusive creature torments a small community, and is sought to be destroyed. Mulder and Scully’s conversation consciously evokes that same story from Moby Dick, but it also taps into our cultural knowledge of the story of Ahab and the unattainable white whale to lend some new perspective on Mulder’s own quest. Also, it’s just kind of fun to get confirmation that at least two television characters both can read, and do.
Late season 3 offers up a bona fide classic in “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” a completely unconventional episode in which a famous science fiction writer (played by Charles Nelson Reilly, because why not?) questions Scully about a case of supposed alien abduction that she and Mulder have recently investigated. The episode questions the reliability of the storyteller, showing how five different people can have five different conceptions of how things went. The show has some Men in Black (played by Jesse Ventura and Alex Trebek–again, WHY NOT?) and a claymation monster. Mulder eats an entire sweet potato pie in a Lynchian diner. It’s hysterical and strange and indicative of the best that this show ever offered.
Moving beyond ‘bests’ to ‘favorites,’ “Pusher” is in my top 5 episodes of all time, very underrated episode. It’s got a great villain in Robert Modell, a cheerful psychotic who can mentally ‘push’ others to do things: drive into oncoming traffic, set themselves on fire, and even have a heart attack. Mulder and Scully have a really cute moment where Scully is asleep on Mulder’s shoulder while they’re on a stakeout
(which, come on, who doesn’t love Mulder and Scully being cute?)
but that moment serves a greater purpose when, at the end, Modell is exercising control over Mulder and orders him to shoot Scully. The tension in the scene is amazing, and especially well-performed by Duchovny, who is visibly frantic and helpless at the same time.
“Wetwired” is also a great one, one of the quintessential episodes of The X-Files. It has a disturbing, seemingly supernatural inciting incident, which is actually explained away by technology. The government is behind the implementation of the technology, of course, and the whole thing ends on a note frustration and uncertainty—what Mulder has managed to uncover is the tip of a much more substantial conspiracy-riddled iceberg. Plus, there’s a great Mulder and Scully conflict. Their trust in one another is threatened, and Scully goes a little mad with paranoia. And at one point Mulder has to go look at a dead body, and identify it as being or not being Scully. GASP. That’s heavy. But it also has the Lone Gunmen, who are always lighteners of the mood.
“Syzygy” is kind of funny in a sort of mock-Heathers kind of way, but the most entertaining thing about it is identifying Ryan Reynolds as the football jock who dies before the opening credits, the better that we should not be exposed to his atrocious accent any longer than necessary. He seems to be doing Boston by way of Canada.
There are episodes I don’t care for here: “Teso dos Bichos,” AKA the One Where It’s Feral Cats, is definitely disposable. “Grotesque” is scary enough but utterly bleak and joyless. And so dark (visually dark) it’s hard to even discern what’s going on. “Avatar” (no relation to James Cameron’s magnum opus) is notable for being the first Skinner-centric episode (after this point they’d do about one of them per season). Though I love Skinner, this episode, about an old lady spirit who kills and injures on Skinner’s unwitting behalf, just sucks. According to the credits, Duchovny co-wrote this one, and the opening scene (one of the few sex scenes ever on The X-Files—neither Mulder nor Scully is involved, needless to say) is very PROVOCATIVE! in a dumb way that I blame on him. (See also his current TV show Californication, which I only know from commercials and posters, but I think I’ve got the general idea.)
Also, season 3 contributes a pair of episodes to the mytharc that are better left skipped: “Piper Maru” and “Apocrypha.” Oh, the black oil. What is with that black oil? And what does it have to do with Mulder going to Malaysia? It’s always nice to have Krycek back for some evildoing, but: snore.
Looking Long Term
Todd Van Der Werff of the AV Club is stealing all my thoughts. He’s in the process of recapping the third season over there, and in a recent entry he very eloquently expressed a thought I’ve been trying to articulate for about a week now. Here’s what he says:
But what I had also forgotten was that the show was always presenting some interestingly contradictory information. It was always pushing the viewer to accept that much of what Mulder believed might be bullshit, specifically fed to him to keep him away from the actual truth, which was more prosaic but more damaging. Season three is the last season where you can really sit back and say that maybe the aliens aren’t actually aliens but, rather, frightening government creations, birthed out of mad science and the U.S. government’s collusion with Nazi and Japanese scientists after World War II. Scully reaches some conclusions in “731” (which I couldn’t NOT watch after watching this one) that are, if anything, even more horrifying than the conclusions Mulder always reaches. The mythology episodes of season three are, more often than not, the show crying out, “Look at what’s been done in our names, under our watch,” and that gives them a moral center that makes them immensely powerful.
It’s that contradictory element—that sleight of hand that the show was playing with, really expertly, in the third season, that makes it unforgettable for me. Sci-fi shows sometimes get a bad rap for all their “it’s a mystery!” posturing. Lost was obviously organized a lot on the model of The X-Files, and look how much flak it got for engaging its viewers in questions that it didn’t ultimately plan on answering. What’s going on here on The X-Files in Season 3 is this infuriating process of one step forward—a major question is answered!—and two steps back—it raises five more questions in its place! This is a delicate balance. I think Lost managed it just fine (if I’d been hooked on it for six years instead of six months I might think differently, of course). Whether or not The X-Files kept it up for its nine seasons is up for debate (we’ll get discuss that more as we go along), but in Season 3 the show was Nadia Comaneci. Every development had me (and a million other viewers) begging for more, for months and years as the story continued to twist and turn.