The Great X-Files Rewatch: Season Four, Part Two
Things take an interesting turn in the closing half of season four. At this point, our favorite agents of the paranormal have been through a great deal of detecting and uncovering and battling and angsting, but offscreen the show was at the height of its popularity, no doubt making a few bucks, and thus likely to be spun out for at least a few more profitable seasons. Thus, the characters were due for some major personal evolutions, and thus late season 4 barrels down the tracks, spurred on by Mulder’s increasing vulnerability to the dark forces in the government and Scully’s increasing vulnerability to the cancer that’s eating her brain. The show squeezes every bit of narrative tension it can out of those arcs.
Even Mulder and Scully’s status as BFFs is tested. The united front they created in seasons two and three begins to suffer some structural damage. Look at this screen capture, from “Tempus Fugit”:
If Mulder and Scully were a celebrity couple in the style of Brangelina or TomKat (…Mully? Sculder?), US Magazine would run this photo with the headline “CALLING IT QUITS?” See, Scully is understandably a little tired of being in giant government meetings where Mulder raises his hand and ask if anyone has considered the possibility that what they’re dealing with is alien interference of some kind and everyone gapes at him and asks if he’s kidding, like they haven’t been reading the FBI newsletter. Meanwhile, Mulder’s just getting increasingly pissed that the same guys who ask if he’s pulling their legs are the ones with E.T.s locked in their garages.
The show could have really pulled back at this point, done a bit more hemming and hawing, but the showrunners chose to do just the opposite. The show goes for broke, playing everything to the hilt: Scully’s cancer, Mulder’s immense frustration, the intensification of the government conspiracy. It begins the process of untying almost all the little narrative knots that have been built up over four years, making for an awesome end to the season.
Cancer, plane crashes, “Small Potatoes,” and the return of the angst spectrum, ahead!
TONIGHT! ON THE X-FILES! THEY LOSE…ONE OF THEIR OWN!
Ha ha ha. Well, if The X-Files had been produced ten years later than it was, it would have happened. As it was, all of us chumps sat around at home watching “Tempus Fugit” back in 1997 and were SHOCKED TO OUR CORES when the adorable Agent Pendrell got gunned down in its final minutes.
Who was Pendrell? He was never more than what you would call a recurring character. He was a techie, a minor geek, who the show decided to give one leading trait, and that was that he was secretly in love with Scully. He would kind of fawn over her when she paid him a visit (oblivious, of course, because Scully’s All Business). And, you know, I think that’s part of why they knocked him off in this pair of episodes. It was becoming less and less likely that Scully could not notice his attention, and there was no reason for her not to go for him once she knew. He was cute, he had a good job, he adored her. If she had to consciously reject him she had to have a conscious reason to do so, and in the fourth season, Mulder and Scully still kind of think they are living normal lives. Soon enough they’ll realize they’re not.
Anyway, Pendrell’s toast. He gets shot in a bar, while in the process of buying Scully a birthday drink. Yes, it’s Scully’s birthday! And she’s trying to protect a military dude who has witnessed a cover-up. Poor, luckless Pendrell gets in the way of an assassin’s bullet. This is not until after Mulder leads an entire bar of FBI agents in singing “Happy Birthday,” to Scully while the wait staff serve her a Pink Snowball with a sparkler in it. Scully chides Mulder with never having remembered her birthday in four years and he brushes it off, telling her that’s how he celebrates birthdays. The subtext here is that, at this point, Scully is living and working with cancer, and Mulder knows it. It’s nice.
But lest you think this episode, and its conclusion “Max,” are all about partying and the gunning down of promising secondary characters, in fact they are actually a return to the memorable and exciting twosomes of the earlier seasons–a pair of mythology episodes that are eminently watchable. “Tempus Fugit” features a kick-ass car chase on an airport runway in which a landing aircraft practically scrapes the roof of the car in which Mulder, Scully, and the military whistleblower are traveling. Also, “Max” has the best plane crash that you’re going to see on TV until seven years later when an awed America was introduced to Lost.
The second half of the fourth season also contains what is my default favorite episode of The X-Files for ever and ever, and that is “Small Potatoes.” How do I love thee, “Small Potatoes”? Let me count the ways.
- In the opening credits a woman giving birth comments to her admitting nurse that the father of the baby is “from another planet.” She gives birth to a baby with a squirmy little tail. Mulder and Scully pay her a visit of course, and have this conversation:
Mulder: When you were admitted you said that the baby’s father was from another planet. What did you mean by that exactly?
Amanda: You know, that he’s not from this planet.
Mulder: Were you abducted?
Amanda: Huh? No, no, he dropped by my apartment one day, and one thing sort of led to another…
Mulder: But the baby’s father is an alien?
Amanda: No, no, I didn’t say he was an alien, I said he was from another planet. His name is Luke Skywalker. He’s what’s known as a Jedi Knight.
Scully: Did he have a light saber?
- After finding a local guy with a tail-removal scar and checking the DNA, they discover that he is the father of this woman’s baby as well as the babies of like five other women. Because the guy is clearly a loser, Scully tells Mulder seriously, “On behalf of all the women in the world, I seriously doubt this is anything to do with consensual sex.”
- The episode couches the deeper psychological themes at work in the episode in delicious banter:
Mulder: Hey Scully, if you could be somebody else for a day, who would it be?
Scully: Hopefully myself.
Mulder: So boring! I mean, wouldn’t you even be tempted to try out someone else’s existence for a day, live your life as somebody else?
Scully: Looking like someone else, Mulder, and being someone else are completely different things.
Mulder: Well, maybe it’s not, I mean everybody else around you would treat you like you were somebody else, and ultimately maybe it’s other people’s reactions to us that make us who we are.
Scully: All right, then. Eleanor Roosevelt.
Mulder: It can’t be a dead person.
Scully: Why the hell not?
Mulder makes a face like “nerd!”
- Well, as Mulder and Scully quickly figure out, Eddie the Loser has a genetic condition that causes him to be able to take on the appearance of anyone he chooses. He chooses Mulder and follows Scully home to D.C. There, we are treated to David Duchovny’s Emmy reel.
Such as Eddie-finds-Mulder’s-meeting-with-Skinner-super-boring.
But Eddie does find preening in front of the mirror pretty cool, flashing Mulder’s badge and doing an unconvincing Travis Bickle.
The completely overwrought way that Duchovny pronounces “EFFF. BEEE. AYYYYYYEEEE” is comedy gold. Why yes, that badge is upside-down.
- Also wonderful: Eddie’s obvious disappointment that, despite outward appearances, Mulder’s life is not worth stealing. He rolls his eyes at Mulder’s “I Want to Believe,” poster (“Good night.”) and reacts with frustration when that sexy lady’s voice on the answering machine advertises her going rate. “I was born a loser,” Eddie later tells Mulder. “You’re one by choice.”
- Finally: the first Mulder / Scully kiss! Which is not official, because Mulder is not Mulder. And which is not particularly hot either, because Scully, despite having been plied with wine, looks vaguely repulsed at the approach. But it gave us fans a lot to squeal over back when we still thought Mulder and Scully were still going to get somewhere.
Classic, classic episode.
So where are we on the angst spectrum? I covered the very well-done “Memento Mori” in the last write-up; the half-dozen episodes that follow wisely pull back from the angst. There are some unremarkable procedural stand-alones (“Kaddish,” “Unrequited”), the big-bangin’ duo of “Tempus Fugit” and “Max” and then the charmingly funny “Small Potatoes.”
The last part of the season returns as a big one-two-three for angst lovers. First is “Elegy,” in which people have ghostly visions of slaughtered blonde girls who have been killed miles away, can stand as a solidly episode on its own. (Well, it works on me. Ghosts! Haunting a bowling alley.) But there’s some twistiness involved; who is being killed and why they’re being killed and what the ghostly visitations mean are all questions we think we know the answers to, but, as it happens, we don’t. The visitations, for example, happen specifically to people who themselves do not have long left to live. When this is discovered it depresses Scully because she, in fact, saw one of the blonde ghosts herself, though she hid the fact from Mulder. It’s a nice feature of Scully’s cancer arc that it didn’t always involve Scully wasting away in a hospital bed—it did sometimes, but it also sometimes involved Scully trying to go about her daily life and function in her career and actively forget what was physically wrong with her. And then always having the cancer force its way back into her consciousness. Mostly through nosebleeds, and in this case, through seeing dead blondes. And a nosebleed. Anyway, based on Scully’s practical and poignant fear of encroaching death, I’ll offer this episode an 8.0 on the angst spectrum. The episode loses at least a point for making Scully go visit the shrink she had in season 2 whose two main personal traits seem to be a monotone voice and cow eyes. Hate her.
The next episode is “Demons,” which opens quite dynamically—a bloody hotel room and a bloody Mulder stumbling around looking confused and not knowing what in the hell happened. Mulder calls Scully immediately, of course, and she jumps into her rocket ship and hurtles up to Providence to visit him. Or so it would seem, because she manages to make the trip from D.C. in less than two hours. And it’s not like she shows up in her pajamas, either. She’s all primped and ready for the day. I can’t even get out of my own house in less than an hour and a half. Anyway, the show involves Mulder dipping into memory regression, again. He takes part in a dangerous procedure meant to stimulate memory so that he can remember the dynamic in his family just before his sister Samantha was abducted. His parents were fighting, a lot, and there was this young colleague of his father’s who was always skulking around, being menacing and mysterious. And he’s played by the same actor who played the young smoking man in “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man.” So that‘s probably important.
The episode has this great, intriguing opening with the blood and Mulder’s extreme vulnerability, not knowing how he got to Rhode Island or what he might have done there. It doesn’t really add up to anything, though; no real revelations are had, no seeds planted that weren’t already there. Still, well-acted by Duchovny–give it a 7 out of 10.
As the season draws to a close, we get some great conspiracy-heavy episodes. “Zero Sum” is a Skinner-centric episode and a damn good one, too. A woman gets killed by a swarm of bees in a post office bathroom. At night, Skinner breaks in and methodically scrubs away all the evidence, then steals the woman’s body and disposes of it. We watch him clean, we watch him sneak around. We watch him quietly and stoically dump the woman’s body into an incinerator, all the while wondering just what the hell he is doing this for. Clearly he’s doing the bidding of someone bad, but why? The episode builds tension especially well and teases us viewers with questions. Over these four seasons we’ve grown to trust Skinner, but we are now uncomfortably close to the season finale, which is always a game-changer. Has he gone bad? Have we misread him this long? Or does he have some other motive that we don’t know about?
Luckily, it’s the latter. Turns out it’s all for Scully—who spends the episode offscreen, in the hospital supposedly. The whole X-Files crew knows that Scully’s illness is the result of her abduction, that the government was behind it, and that if anyone is able to cure her, it’s that damned dastardly Cigarette Smoking Man. Mulder, in a moment of desperation in Memento Mori, asked Skinner to contact CSM for him, and Skinner cut that notion down fast. And now, half a dozen episodes later we learn that he went and did it himself. Of course, no one can trust CSM, and he leaves little smoking guns everywhere Skinner goes. When will they learn that he doesn’t play by the rules? No honor among thieves in this guy.
All these tensions boil over in the season-ender, “Gesthemane.” In keeping with the title (which my lapsed Catholic ass needed to Google), the episode is all about belief. Scully is dying, and her mother has set up a dinner ambush for her with a priest. Scully says that she doesn’t feel an increased need for prayer, and that—not being a huge hypocrite—she’s not interested in pretending to have a deathbed conversion. Scully fights with her mom. She fights with her kinda dickish brother. Then Mulder calls her and asks if she wants to go look at an alien, and she’s like, “I’m OUTTA HERE.”
The alien has been discovered in a block of ice in the Yukon. It is clearly a hot property, because when Mulder goes to retrieve it, almost everybody in the expedition that discovered it has been murdered. Meanwhile, Scully is testing tissue samples from the creature and gets her butt kicked in a stairwell by some suit. Later, the suit—Kritschgau, a double agent guy who was not used enough, very underrated villain-slash-ally—he tells her that he is trying to keep her and Mulder from buying into the government’s trap. The alien is a plant. They are trying to distract and discredit Mulder and it’s Scully’s job to keep him from playing into it.
So, much argument between Mulder and Scully. “It’s real!” “No, it’s not!” Mulder’s grasping at the last straws of his belief in the paranormal; Scully is—reminder—dying of cancer and so, understandably tired of the trying job that put her in that situation in the first place.
And here I’ll return to the angst spectrum. Having all of his alien-extraction cohorts either murdered or proven to be phony, Scully’s attacker-cum-ally having described to him in detail how he’s been had by the government—again—Mulder returns to his home to watch (again) recorded footage of scientists (including Carl Sagan, I think) discussing their certainty that extraterrestrial life exists. And Mulder watches and, presumably, thinks about how little ground he’s actually gained in twenty years of obsessive pursuit, and he grapples with his inner emptiness, and, without being too showy, cries. It’s an extremely affecting moment, and, as we’ll see both the season-ending cliffhanger and the early half of the next season hinges on it emotionally. I give it a 9.4 out of 10.
And that angst sets up the cliffhanger to end all cliffhangers—”Gethsemane” ends as Scully identifies Mulder’s body. The medical examiner asks if she can confirm that it’s Mulder—gunshot wound to the face notwithstanding—and she nods grimly, and we cut away for the whole goddamned summer. The next day at school, I write “RIP Mulder” on the dry erase board on my locker and it sparks many conversations. All are forced to conclude that Mulder being dead can’t really matter if Scully is dying herself, anyway. Perhaps the show will continue in some kind of post-mortem limbo. Or maybe the two will become crimefighting zombies. At the time, we really did not know what this show was capable of; it was so good, though, and its worst eras were still in the future. Like I do with Mad Men or Breaking Bad today, I trusted The X-Files to write itself satisfactorily out of this quandary.
Looking Long Term
I wrote above about how this season sort of laid everything on the line, and it resulted in a big bang of a finale, as I’ve just described. Unfortunately, to come back from that the show needs to rebuild, which is often a somewhat awkward process, which is why first seasons are often so uneven. Some of what The X-Files has on their side in the upcoming season five (unlike the inaugural season of a new show) is a built-in audience that is willing to watch the show step out of its formula from time to time (see for example “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” a comic-book themed episode in the first half of season five); also, by this point, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson have perfected their chemistry and even middling or forgettable episodes are enjoyable enough to watch when such a delightful pair is at the center of them.
But I’ll talk about all of that more when we get to season five! Coming up then: OBVIOUS SPOILER! Mulder’s not really dead. Scully’s going to pull through, too. The show goes on for four more seasons. There is more chasing of aliens. Flashback episodes. Contributing work from Lili Taylor and Stephen King. And, to the delight of us all, Scully sings Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.”