The Great X-Files Rewatch: Season Four, Part One
My apologies for losing track of The X-Files AGAIN. The problem is I keep stalling out at specific episodes that I don’t want to watch or that I watch but then don’t want to write about. Also I’ve just finished inhaling two seasons of Fringe (which is also quite a bit like The X-Files, and sort of filled my quota for sci-fi thrills on its own while I was watching it).
For those of you who may have forgotten that I was even doing the Great X-Files Rewatch, I’ve set up a page with links to all the individual entries.
Anyway, I’m going to open up this recap of the first half of season four of The X-Files with five words. True X-Files fans will immediately cringe: “The Field Where I Died.”
For those of you who don’t know the show that well: “The Field Where I Died” is an utterly, hopelessly, charmlessly cheesy episode in the early part of the fourth season, and maybe the most egregious example of a self-indulgent streak that started to appear here in year four. (And which got completely out of hand over the next five.)
In the episode, there’s a compound with some weird, culty church. Everyone, both the investigators and the cultists themselves, keep name-dropping real life events (Jamestown! Waco!) making the episode feel like a mid-grade episode of Law and Order—that unnecessary “ripped from the headlines” vibe. One of the cultists, a young woman, has a (trauma-induced) split personality. Her alternate personality—who is, for some reason, an old Jewish dude?—is the only one who will cooperate with authorities, so Mulder and Scully keep trying to question her/him. Unfortunately, this involves making this perfectly lovely young actress—who, don’t get me wrong, was just trying to pay her bills, I’m sure—scrunch up her face, hold an imaginary cigarette, and talk in a voice that is part Joan Rivers, part Gilbert Gottfried.
Yeah. And then there’s a bunch of nonsense where she also thinks that she was been reincarnated, that one of her original personas was in the Civil War and that Mulder was also there in a different personality. So he wants to be hypnotized and take in all his past life experiences and it’s really boring and dumb and there is no real insight to be had here. Mulder believes in supernatural things: uh, check. Mulder’s past is a puzzle: noted. We didn’t need this episode to understand any of those truths.
Also, there is a severe miscalculation at the end of the show—when the cult leader is SPOILER? TRUST ME, JUST SKIP THIS ONE inducing his flock to commit mass suicide and the show is aiming for a really serious, somber tone, there’s a view of the split personality girl there in the back row, and her face is scrunched and she’s holding the phantom cigarette (because, of course, she’s retreated into the alternate persona) and it’s unintentionally HILARIOUS. Sorry, if you’re making faces that ridiculous during your mass suicide, I’m gonna laugh at you.
(On the upside, Scully’s hair is dynamite in this episode—for the whole season, really. Every season she cuts it a little shorter, gets a little spunkier.)
I track X-Files angst and deconstruct why the mytharc sometimes sucks, ahead.
Of course “The Field Where I Died [Ridiculously and While Making Grotesque Faces],” is not alone in its self-indulgence. And, like I said above, it’s going to get more and more common as I trek along. So, in honor of “Field,” I’m introducing a new concept to my X-Files write-ups: the Angst Spectrum.
An explanation: at this point in X-Files history, the show was getting some real credibility—it had won several Golden Globes and been nominated for several Emmys, and its stars were getting nominated for both pretty regularly. The ratings were starting to take off and the whole concept was starting to penetrate into pop culture. Because of this, the creative folks behind the scenes naturally felt a little more leeway than they’d had before in terms of developing characters—i.e., spending less time chasing monsters and more time giving their prime actors dramatic monologues, and heaping tragedy on them so that they could act the crap out of it. Sometimes it worked. Season 4’s “Memento Mori,” (coming up in the second half of the season) in which Scully discovers that she has cancer, is really a pretty incredible hour’s worth of television. Sometimes it very much didn’t, as in the case of Mulder’s “Field Where I Died” navel-gazing voyage into past lives. So, the angst spectrum is meant to be a helpful guide for just how wrong or right these Emmy-bait episodes get it. “The Field Where I Died,” is getting the spot of honor at the very tail end of WRONG, a 0.0. Discounting the final season (which I haven’t yet seen) they never did it worse than this. “Memento Mori” is hovering there at the far right with a score in the high nines. Let’s say 9.8. Gillian Anderson makes me cry.
Subsequent episodes will get placed as I see fit. I am working on a screenshot.
Early season 4 actually does have some goodies, luckily. At that time the show was getting a little more experimental, sometimes hitting on interesting variations on their formula, such as with “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man.” This episode provided an origin story for the Cigarette Smoking Man. Mulder and Scully only register as disembodied voices over CSM’s surveillance device. We learn that young CSM was the military with Bill Mulder (that’s Mulder’s dad, for the uninitiated), that CSM was behind the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr., and that his secret ambition is to write spy novels. Notably, the episode makes viewers emphasize with CSM while also giving us hard proof that he is an out-and-out villain. Also, the episode gives a lot away without giving too much—we get a sense of his bigness, his historical and cultural presence in the U.S. government (shadowy as it is), but we don’t learn anything about what present atrocities he might have a hand in. There are, in fact, still plenty of CSM revelations coming up. The episode’s not perfect, but it’s fascinating in its own way.
“Home” is maybe the most infamous of early season 4. It first played in October 1996 and then not again until 1999, under the promotion of “the most disturbing episode of The X-Files ever! Not seen for years!” (I remember it vividly; it was my freshman year of college and it was quite an event in the dorms.) The episode is certainly full of wrongness: infanticide, incest, some really brutal murders, and a disabled lady who gets pulled around on like a big skateboard. Is it scary, though? Kinda not, unfortunately; I’ve always found it a bit cartoony. Now compare it to “Unruhe,” which comes two episodes later in the rotation, about a guy with mental problems who kidnaps women and gives them lobotomies to save them from demons only he can see. TERRIFYING. Pruitt Taylor Vince, who plays the baddie, is a first-class guest star—you might know him from everything—and what’s really impressive to me is how, when Scully first goes to question him he seems perfectly normal. He’s like, a nice, helpful guy. Then she puts together some circumstantial evidence and gives him a look of suspicion, and then he grabs her, and next thing we know she’s strapped to a dental chair trying to reason with his craziness—which is still sort of eerily rational. She tells him she doesn’t have any demons (they call them “howlers”) and he says something like, “Yes you do, they’re just telling you to say you don’t” and he does it so coolly. I’m not sure there’s anything a villain can do that’s more evil than screwing with the victim’s mind, yet this episode is so within the realm of real-life possibility. (It even takes place in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is literally pretty close to home for me. Filmed in Vancouver as usual, obviously.) Freakin’ scary.
Now let’s look at some entries on the Angst Spectrum!
“Paper Hearts” is an interesting episode, very unusual in that it wouldn’t be out of place in any police procedural on TV today—super conventional for The X-Files, but well done all the same. There’s a guy who murders little girls. Mulder put him in prison at some unspecified point in the past (The X-Files often brought villains from its earlier seasons back years later, although not in this case; this guy appeared in this episode only). The serial killer’s signature is to cut a heart shape out of the fabric of whatever the little girl was wearing. A dream leads Mulder to a new body, one law enforcement didn’t know existed, and then later to a book with all the fabric hearts pressed between the pages. There are two that are unidentified, and the killer smirks to Mulder that one of them belonged to Mulder’s sister Samantha. The rest of the episode is about Mulder Getting Too Involved and Trusting Too Much in a Sociopathic Killer, and so on, trying to find out if all his memories of Samantha being abducted by aliens are actually bunk, if she was actually kidnapped and killed by an evil-but-totally-human vacuum cleaner salesman.
In a climactic moment Mulder has to decide whether it’s worth it to allow the serial killer to string him along any longer—whether the possibility that the guy can lead Mulder to a definitive answer about his sister is enough to keep Mulder from just ridding the world of the guy. And he rids the world of the guy, shoots him to save another little girl who’s been taken. The episode turns out to be nothing more than a divergence, though it’s a compelling one, well-acted by Duchovny and one of the last times the Samantha Question would be addressed in any kind of satisfying way. Just on the good side of the angst spectrum, let’s give this one a 7.0.
How about “Never Again”? This episode can be pretty divisive, from what I understand, but I am pro. The episode’s raison d’etre is to explore Scully’s disenchantment with being Mulder’s faithful gal Friday with a scalpel. It’s the episode where she broaches the subject (first and only time in my recollection) of why Mulder has a desk and she doesn’t. They bicker, Mulder goes on vacation (to Graceland) but not before casually ordering Scully to keep an eye on some paranoic he’s been chasing. She complains that he’s setting her itinerary for her-they’re supposed to be partners and everything-but she travels to Philly and grudgingly surveils the guy. She finds out he’s with the mob or something, and hands the job of surveillance over to the local law enforcement, which she later grudgingly reports to Mulder on the phone. And he does the Guy Thing. The Thing That Guys Do. He sighs heavily, then says, “OK, Scully, give me the number of the guy in the Philly field office.” Like, “all right, lady, hand it over, I’ll fix it.”
For the rest of the episode Scully makes questionable choices, like having a one-night stand with an intense drunk guy who (oops) thinks he is being directed by a sentient tattoo. She talks about her dad, and her susceptibility to falling under the influence of strong, confident male figures.
So things go really wrong with Tattoo Man; he does try to kill her and everything. But she does successfully resist him because, hey, she’s still a well-trained FBI agent. Still, she gets banged up; plus she’s embarrassed. And then Mulder sort of ridicules what happened to her and they have this beautiful, restrained moment where she just refuses to engage with it by getting defensive or mad or offended or anything, and then Mulder clearly feels weird about it.
Mulder: …All this because I didn’t get you a desk?
Scully: Not everything is about you, Mulder. This is my life.
Mulder: Yes, but it’s–
And the episode ends. The show very, VERY rarely used a shot this wide in the X-Files office, so it really drives home the distance that has begun to crop up between Mulder and Scully. I love this development, because our dynamic duo—while elements of their relationship are undoubtedly awesome—they also have these blind spots, like their insane codependency on one another, and speaking as a feminist, I have to say, there is no WAY that gender does not factor into that, and I love that this episode hazards this question, even though it is not able to answer it. Like Scully, I’ve also questioned how much influence a man can or should have over my life, even a good man. So, I’ll put this episode also at the positive end of the angst spectrum—an 8.5.
I’ve heard “Never Again” detractors, but I’m going to assume they are mostly “who cares what Scully feels? more aliens, please” fanboys.
Looking Long Term
This is the point where the mytharc episodes really started to get kind of unwatchable for me. Not without exception, I hasten to add, but this is the point when the fanastic mythology episodes like “Nisei / 731” start getting replaced with episodes like “Tunguska / Terma”. I watched T & T twice, trying to figure out what they’re doing that’s so different from “Nisei” and “731”—what makes them so much less entertaining to me that first I dreaded watching them, and then had to watch them again just to come up with something to say about them that wasn’t, “UGH.”
Here are some thoughts:
Mulder spends almost the entirety of the two episodes in Russia, and our American government foes like Smoking Man barely make cameos. It’s hard to get engaged in the plot when it’s just a bunch of rando actors speaking Hollywood Russian to each other and delivering ridiculous dialogue like “the Cold War is NOT over!” Was foreign expansion really necessary at this point, X-Files? Every now and then the show would impress upon viewers the startling breadth of the government conspiracy—see the enormous warehouse full of an entire population’s illegally-obtained DNA samples in “Paper Clip”—and do it very well. And then, sometimes, the show would shoot too high. Cigarette Smoking Man was the sniper responsible for JFK? Really? “The Cold War is not over”? REALLY? It’s like the uncanny valley. I can go to a lot of improbable places for fiction. But when artists of fiction skew too close to reality, it seems faker. It draws attention to the manufactured world around them.
Additionally, Scully has very little to do in this pair of episodes except be confronted by various governmental authorities and refuse to answer the question “Where is Mulder?” Eventually she addresses a congressional panel to refuse to answer the question “Where is Mulder?” In fact, I don’t think Scully will be so ill-used again until the first X-Files movie.
Oh, what? We have a strong female character working side-by-side with Mulder? Do you mean Marita Covarrubias? Blecccchhh. She shows up in the season 3 finale or season 4 premiere (I forget) as a high-level informant, basically a narrative replacement for the murdered Mr. X. Who was himself a replacement for the murdered Deep Throat. See, Mulder’s got to get his top-secret tips somehow. It does not make sense, though, that this woman who works for an above-ground government agency is somehow able to relay all this info to Mulder when the first two guys had to skulk around in the shadows and both got killed anyway.
Also, I can’t help but think that she was brought on to sex it up with Mulder a little bit. In “Tunguska” they have a weirdly intimate energy together when he visits her for information. Maybe the producers were setting something up there. If that’s the case, we should consider ourselves lucky that they quickly realized how totally boring and generic she was and shuffled her off. Version 2.0 was Diana Fowley—someone we’ll meet in season six, I think. Again, with the dual objective of relaying secret information and sexing up Mulder, Fowley was more successful on both counts, although I don’t know anyone who liked her character as long as she was around.
Finally, to return to the shortcomings of “Tunguska” and “Terma,” the stakes in these episodes seem very low–the real danger of the black oil virus is NEVER (not up to this point, and to my recollection never afterwards) properly established. Does it kill people? It seemed to in season three, but nobody really dies of it here. Does it instead make them submissive, like the clones or the late-era super soldiers, like a willing army? Mulder gets tortured with it with seemingly no ill effects. Also, it wasn’t manufactured, like so many frightening X-Files substances, or like the major “let’s kidnap women and have them implanted with alien embryos; they’ll carry them to term, and then we’ll release the women back out into the world with no memory of the event and their DNA all jacked up”–it was clearly a biological entity, extraterrestrial, sure, but where is the menace? OK, it looks gross, like little black slugs crawling in and out of people’s orifices. There’s a certain body horror that is met by the basic image there. But we never have enough of an understanding of the black oil and what it can do, so how can it be feared enough to set this whole action plot in motion? One idea is that the episodes are possibly trying to set up some connection between the black oil and the secret spread of smallpox that the government is ALSO responsible for in the X-verse, but by the end of this season (in the Skinner-centric “Zero Sum”) the smallpox is being spread by bees. SO WHAT IS IT, X-FILES?
Ten minutes from the end of “Terma,” when Mulder is figuring out that he’s been played by the old KGB guy whom I know as Hans from The Mighty Ducks (Flying V!), Mulder narrates to Scully that the scheme has been “executed perfectly.” I really couldn’t scoff enough. The two episodes are a snooze from beginning to end—no suspense, no point. That’s all in the execution. Immediately after this revelation, Mulder and Scully hop a helicopter to Canada, then both run around kind of aimlessly. Then there’s an explosion. Then Hans threatens to kill Scully. And just walks away instead. The mytharc episodes are supposed to be highly concentrated with the series’ most important thematic issues. Answers given, questions raised. This pair seems to go NOWHERE. Krycek does get his arm cut off. So there’s that. But I forgot that it had ever happened, so clearly every time Krycek appears subsequent to this, it is not mentioned or mentioned so briefly that it’s easy to miss.
The X-Files still has good times ahead. A few good seasons, on to the passable ones. And then that mysterious season 9 which I have never watched before, but which I have heard tell of as being just one step above getting kicked in the face. I have a fondness for Robert Patrick, so perhaps I’ll fare a bit better than that.
BUT. The fault lines are showing. I watch these episodes and know, for sure, that this inflated sense of self-importance is what is going to ultimately sink this show. Lends an interesting bit of dramatic irony to the proceedings. Let’s see where it goes.