Revisiting the X-Files, Part 2: The Second Encounter

It’s often the case that the first season of a television show involves a certain amount of workshopping to get the central concept polished and refined, before the series really hits its stride in a subsequent season. To an extent, this is true of The X-Files, which spent most of season 1 establishing the show’s status quo and then started really delivering on that concept’s promise in season 2- but at the same time, there’s a decent chunk at the start of the season where it looks like they might be rethinking the entire concept.

As of the start of season 2 of The X-Files, the X-Files division has been shut down, Agent Mulder’s stuck in a stultifying post listening to wiretap evidence, and Scully’s teaching trainees at Quantico how to unpack corpses. In the series opener, Little Green Men – another excellent episode from the star writing team of Glen Morgan and James Wong – Mulder isn’t even sure he believes in the old crusade any more, and ponders whether his memories of his sister’s abduction are really all they’re cracked up to be. Scully, for her part, seems to want to see where the chase takes them regardless of the reality or otherwise of Mulder’s memories – working on the basis that it doesn’t necessarily matter whether the inspiration for a project is rational or not if leads you to an interesting and illuminating end result.

 

Less patient shows would have the X-Files division reinstated by the end of episode 1 of the new season, but Chris Carter and team prove willing to play the long game here, continuing to play keep-away with the audience for the first mystery-of-the-week episode, the delightfully gruesome Host. A downside of both Little Green Men and Host is that Scully is given a distinctly secondary role in both of them – something which would persist for the first seven or so episodes of the season, which happens to be the period when the showrunners seem to be experimenting with different models of how the show could work.

On the one hand, the fact that Mulder and Scully are divided up is the major plot point here, and it’s nice that they bother to make the shutdown of the X-File division actually stick for a bit. On the other hand, Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy meant that she wasn’t able to take as active a role as she might otherwise have, and part of me suspects that Chris Carter and team were hedging their bets in case Anderson ended up having to take a substantial amount of time off. On the third hand (X-Files, remember, weird mutants are part of the deal), the double act is what we’re here for, and it surely wouldn’t have involved an absurd amount of work to give her a larger role in these episodes beyond being a dispensary of lab results (and indeed after these first two episodes the writers start doing a better job of keeping her involved).

Whilst on balance it’s good that Carter and his team put the effort in to accommodate Anderson and her pregnancy, it does mean the season gets off to a bit of a shaky start. That said, these episodes do at least give us reason to hold out hope that the status quo will be restored. For one thing, its evident that there’s another informant somewhere in the FBI willing to step up and take up Deep Throat’s mantle – an informant who wants to see to it that the division is reinstated. For another, Assistant Director Skinner becomes dissatisfied with the Cigarette Smoking Man’s apparent skirting of the law in trying to find reasons to put Mulder out of the FBI for good – and the events of episodes like Host give Skinner strong reasons to think that he might have been too hasty about approving the shutdown of the X-Files.

This increased role for Skinner is an important new development for the show; though he’d appeared momentarily in the previous season, it’s here that his niche in the show is really filled out, and it really helps. Something the first season sometimes suffered from was that the chain of command above Mulder and Scully was fuzzy and ill-defined, as indeed was the structure of the FBI around them in general. Having Skinner in place not only gives Mulder and Scully a specific authority figure to bounce off, but a refreshed sense that they are part of an institution – with the restrictions, oversight, and office politics that implies. (In season 1 most of the office politics took the form of juvenile sneering at the X-Files duo by agents from more fashionable bits of the FBI – like the FBI is a big high school with a jocks-vs.-nerds dynamic in full swing.)

Host is also responsible for the introduction of another player in The X-Files, although a more behind-the-scenes one: the man in the rubber suit playing this episode’s monster happens to be Darin Morgan, brother of regular series writer Glen, and after his day of glory in front of the camera – he’s really a very good monster – he pitched the idea for Morgan and Wong’s next script, Blood, for which he got a story credit. How much of the original kernel survived after Glen and James did their magic is open to question, but Darin would go on to write a clutch of the more quirky episodes of this season – only a few, mind, but they were well-received enough that Darin would be brought back to write episodes for the two reunion seasons decades later.

Blood itself is pretty good – with an apparent rational explanations for the goings-on with just a few weird outstanding features to leave you wondering whether Mulder and Scully really got to the bottom of the mystery or just scratched the surface. That said, Darin lets his sense of humour get away with him when it comes to piling on the spree-killing cliches at the end. (A university clock tower and a disgruntled postal worker? Uh-oh!)

Back in season 1 I thought that the cheesiest episodes were the ones written by the team of Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, but on the basis of Gordon’s solo episode Miracle Man I pondered whether Gansa was the weak link in that team. This theory seems confirmed by the Gordon-penned episode Sleepless, in which Gordon capably weaves together significant long-term plot developments with a really tasty mystery-of-the-week – a killer who works through dreams, played by Tony Todd channelling all the terrible gravitas he mustered in the title role in the Candyman series.

The episode in question combines a compelling mystery – riffing slightly on Jacob’s Ladder perhaps, but taking the concept in a radically different direction – with some great character work from Duchovny, who benefits from having a new character to bounce off in the form of Special Agent Alex Krycek (Nicholas Lea), a fresh young lad who worms his way into the case supposedly because he’s a big fan of Mulder and Scully’s X-Files work and believes it should continue.

As it will turn out in the long run, of course, this is far from the truth – and my main criticism of the episode is the way it tips its hand on that front in the final scene, in which we see Krycek reporting to the Cigarette Smoking Man. It would have been far more effective to retain an ambiguity about his motives for as long as possible – keeping it unclear whether he’s a spy sent to undermine Mulder’s investigations or an endearingly green investigator, perhaps one we might come to fear will lose his life in the course of an investigation before it becomes apparent to us that he’s a traitor. As it stands, this is the one and only episode for which Nicholas Lea has to keep the audience guessing, and he does a pretty reasonable job.

The episode also sees Steven Williams make his onscreen debut as “X” – Mulder’s new source from within the deep state, and effectively a replacement for Deep Throat. The major challenge Williams has is creating the impression that X is more that just Deep Throat with the serial numbers filed off – that he is another, distinct character with a different approach to things, rather than a wholly interchangeable dispensing machine for plot points. The script here doesn’t give him much to work with, but savour his delivery of his parting remark that, whilst Deep Throat might have been willing to die for the cause, he personally isn’t; it would be a while before the series made more of that, but it’s glorious when it does.

Season 2 gears up to a whole new level with Duane Barry – both the best metaplot episode and the best Chris Carter-penned episode of the series up to this point. The titular character (Steve Railsback) is an ex-FBI agent and purported alien abductee who, having suffered serious neurological damage, has a propensity towards violent lashing-out which has kept him incarcerated in a mental institution for over a decade. Now he’s escaped, he’s holed up in a travel agency with hostages, and Lucy Kadzin (CCH Pounder), the agent in charge of the hostage negotiations, wants a negotiator versed in the abductee subculture who can talk Barry’s language: cue Mulder.

Duane’s flashbacks constitute some of the most terrifying “alien abduction”-type imagery the show had conjured to date.

What follows is an intense hostage negotiation episode which undergoes a bizarre series of twists and turns as it progresses towards the resolution of the crisis – a resolution which opens up a whole consecutive can of worms which spill over into Ascension, the second half of this two-parter (one of only two episodes Paul Brown would write for the series), because whilst the damage Barry’s suffered might have made him dangerously antisocial, there’s evidence to suggest his abduction experience was no delusion.

Carter directs Duane Barry as well as writing the script, and is able to extract excellent performances from all concerned. Duchovny’s tense negotiations with Railsback are naturally at centre stage, but the rest of the case is not neglected. Despite having been guilty in the past of giving Scully a somewhat secondary role, Carter makes sure Anderson’s involvement in this episode, limited as it was due to her pregnancy, is of pivotal importance; on top of that, Pounder’s performance is a standout in the long conga line of FBI supporting cast that the X-Files churned through, and could have qualified as her audition tape for her later role in The Shield.

As well as wrapping up the plot of Duane Barry, Paul Brown uses followup episode Ascension – which kicks off with the aftermath of Scully being snatched from her home by Duane – to pick up the strand that Glen Morgan and James Wong left hanging in Beyond the Sea where they hinted at some capacity for psychic capabilities within Scully’s family. (Specifically, just as Scully dreamed of her father as he died, Scully’s mother dreamed of Scully’s kidnapping as it happened.) File under “versions of The X-Files we have lost” the variant where Scully developed full-blown telepathy and made regular use of it – and for that matter, add Scully to the long list of female characters in science fiction TV shows who are given latent or actual psychic powers but then barely get to do anything useful with them they wouldn’t have accomplished through conventional means anyway. (Other entrants include Cally from Blake’s 7, Troi from Star Trek: the Next Generation and, of course, Madeleine Wool from Darkplace…)

Still throwing in this bit of continuity is a nice touch, and Brown does a good job of making space for it in an episode where his mandated checklist also includes temporarily writing out both Scully and Krycek, prompting the scales to fall from Skinner’s eyes, and inspiring Skinner to reopen the X-Files division simply because that’s the best way to hurt whoever it is that doesn’t want Scully’s disappearance to be solved. Brown does such a good job with the episode that I’m not sure why they didn’t get him to write more for the show – the only other episode he’d write would come later this season.

Perhaps a bigger challenge was faced by Chris Ruppenthal (returning for his last waltz as an X-Files writer, having penned the awkward mixed bag which was Roland last season), Glen Morgan and James Wong for 3, the sole episode this season to not feature Scully at all. (As it turned out, Anderson came back to work mere days after giving birth, avoiding a prolonged absence for Scully.) They do a somewhat more credible pass at the idea of Mulder investigating alone than season 1’s The Jersey Devil did, and on top of that tell a somewhat more interesting story – one which manages to do the goth-punk fetishwear-and-blood-spatters stylings of Vampire: the Masquerade better than Kindred: the Embraced ever did. That said, the episode mostly pulls muster by hyping up the atmosphere and the erotic tension and downplaying any actual clever character stuff, and it feels like the series would have been in serious trouble had Anderson’s absence been longer.

For Anderson’s return, Glen Morgan and James Wong turn out One Breath, an absolute tour de force. As well as providing Anderson with an episode which doesn’t call on her to do much aside from lying down or sitting comfortably and delivering some intense emotional drama surrounding her living will and Mulder’s desperation as her condition deteriorates, we also have Mulder having some decidedly revealing conversations with some major players. Skinner displays a far more human side than we’ve seen so far, X proves himself to be much more of a cold and ruthless chess player than Deep Throat ever was, and the Cigarette Smoking Man proves to be simultaneously more human and more cold than we’ve expected him to date when Mulder finally, for the first time, has a one-on-one conversation with him.

It’s an excellent episode which hits something of an emotional peak for the series, and if it took about a third of a season of slightly off-balance episodes to get here, well, maybe that was worth it. Some of the bits with Scully’s struggle to decide to live verge on the mawkish, but they’re more than balanced out by the dark places Mulder finds himself in when he’s otherwise powerless to help her.

So, after no less than eight episodes of transitional hoo-hah, the series finally returns to its accepted status quo and the usual formula with Firewalker, a Howard Gordon-penned episode. To a certain extent, it’s a riff on Ice‘s “extremophile infection” theme, but Gordon provides a good treatment of the subject matter and throws in some nice touches.

As in Ice, Scully drops her scepticism about Mulder’s latest theory once clear physical evidence is present, and the duo have clearly learned something from their experiences there – they call in the CDC quarantine as soon as it becomes apparent what they’re dealing with – and on top of that there’s a nice bit where Mulder heads off somewhere to do a thing and Scully accuses him of coddling her by leaving her behind, and Mulder points out that Scully has an important autopsy job to do, and without the information from that everyone will end up dead. Duchovny really nails the response, getting across the importance with which Mulder regards the task and the edge of fear that it’s already too late for everyone which is really vital to ensure that it doesn’t across as Mulder giving Scully busywork, but rather reminding her that her job’s substantially more important than his errand. Sure, it’s a little annoying that she needed reminding in the first place, but Duchovny does it in as respectful a manner as he can, and Scully ends up doing a bang-up job of saving herself from the episode’s major danger whilst Mulder’s away dealing with the lesser menace.

Gordon also comes up with the story outline for Død Kalm, the final episode he’d co-write with Alex Gansa. In fact, it would be Gansa’s last writing credit on the show, and whilst I’m not too hot on his other contributions, he at least goes out strong here. In principle, Død Kalm is another “stuck in a location where bad shit is going down” episode like Firewalker, but it’s a much more multilayered delight than that. Whether it’s Anderson and Duchovny’s excellent character work under some pretty intense makeup as they suffer from the hyper-aging afflicting a US Navy ship, or the skillfully constructed layers of fakeouts as the duo eliminate potential causes for the phenomenon, or the images offered (such as Scully’s wild scramble to find drinkable water), or the hints of something alien and ancient off the coast of Norway behind all this, the episode overcomes a somewhat cheesy beginning to become one of the most atmospheric the series had offered to date. If we had to sit through substantially less successful Gordon/Gansa scripts as the price for this one, so be it.

Sadly, Gordon is also responsible for Fresh Bones, an episode which tries to tell an anti-racist, pro-refugee narrative but unfortunately spoils that by having a stereotypical, shallow depiction of voodoo be the episode’s main manifestation of supernatural threat. I can see what Gordon was going for – malevolent magic being resorted to as an oppressed population’s only resort against oppressors who otherwise hold all the cards, yadda yadda – but the end result is a depiction of black Haitians as creepy, threatening figures following a scary, gruesome religion, rather than… you know… human beings. The episode’s main redeeming feature is that it’s the source of this delightful meme image:

Chris Carter’s episodes continue to improve dramatically across the season. Red Museum is a delicious bait-and-switch: an investigation which looks for all the world like a mystery-of-the-week episode, but is in fact riddled with links to the wider mytharc – from a followup on what the mysterious “purity control” substance from The Erlenmeyer Flask was being used for, to a welcome reappearance of the Crew Cut Man (Lindsey Ginter) who first appeared as a Syndicate assassin in that episode, to the appearance of an eccentric cult of hardcore vegetarians (largely present to act as a red herring) whose prophecies of a great global change in 2012 fits with the colonisation agenda.

Carter does and excellent job of persuading the viewer that the vegetarians-vs.-meat farmers angle is the main plot here for the first couple of acts, but what’s really nice is the way he keeps them relevant once the Syndicate stuff hits high gear – particularly given the Crew Cut Man’s last stand in the slaughterhouse, a deliciously creepy venue for the showdown.

That said, when Carter stumbles, he really stumbles. Mystery-of-the-week episode Irresistible is an experiment with the format which simply doesn’t work, not because the underlying idea is necessarily bad but because Carter botches the execution. It’s a rare instance of the series presenting a case with an entirely conventional explanation, and an even rarer instance of the series not even bothering to mislead you on that front: we know from the start of the episode that supercreep Donnie Pfaster (Nick Chinlund) is responsible for the action this time, his fetish for harvesting nails and hair from corpses hitting the point where he takes to killing women to produce additional corpses for him to collect body parts from.

So far, so conventional serial killer narrative, with the question being whether Mulder’s psychological profiling skills and Scully’s forensics can help them identify Pfaster as the killer. Part of the problem with the episode is that, as soon as Scully sees Pfaster’s work, she more or less completely loses her nerve, and remains spooked for the entire rest of the episode to the point where she can hardly function as an FBI agent.

Had Pfaster’s activities been more invasive, this moment of squeamishness on Scully’s part would make far more sense, but here we have a woman who, week after week, cuts open corpses with clinical detachment and imparts far greater mutilations on them than simply trimming their hair and nails, but the events of this episode bother the shit out of her. Perhaps it’s realistic to some extent that weird, random details like that would affect Scully more than more overtly gruesome acts of brutality, but it still doesn’t quite ring true.

Between this and Pfaster’s targeting of Scully, it almost feels like Carter half-believes in Scully’s own misgivings about her suitability for the job, and the fact that Carter goes back to the “Scully gets kidnapped” well again, this early, is deeply annoying. Seriously, dude: you spent the first third of the season on a plot culminating in that; you have to let the field lie fallow for a while before you go harvest it again.

Part of the problem here is that the episode we get isn’t quite the episode Carter intended; the original plan was for Pfaster to be a full-on necrophiliac, but the network thought that was too much for The X-Files and demanded that Carter tone it down. (A desire to write more hard-edged material than would be permitted in The X-Files itself ultimately led Carter to cook up Millennium.) So, rather than raping corpses, Pfaster gives them haircuts and manicures, and I don’t think Carter quite does the legwork necessary to adjust Scully’s responses appropriately; it’s like Scully’s responding to the original version of the script whilst the audience is being presented with the revised story.

That said, the downfall of the episode isn’t entirely down to Carter’s script; it’s also lumbered with some really unusually poor performances from the supporting cast. Chinlund’s performance as Pfaster is just ridiculous – it’s reminiscent of Norman Bates doing a Peter Lorre impersonation, a real exercise in absurd scenery-chewing to the point where you wonder how he’s even able to get anyone into his confidence in the first place. Meanwhile, Bruce Weitz as Agent Moe Bucks presents such a glibly dismissive attitude to the whole affair that you wonder how he even got a job in the Bureau in the first place – he’s inclined to treat the concept of a serial killer as though it’s in some way as unlikely and absurd as aliens, despite the fact that Pfaster’s progression is following decidedly well-known trends.

With F. Emasculata, Chris Carter and Howard Gordon – two of the most hit-and-miss writers on the series – team up to come up with an episode which is one of their best. Whilst Carter had written episodes before where Mulder and Scully spend much of the running time working separately, this time around he and Gordon manage to do it right by making sure that both of them have equally interesting tasks at hand – with Scully using her medical skills to investigate a mysterious quarantine at a prison, Mulder has to join the US Marshals on a manhunt to find two escaped prisoners who, having breached the quarantine, might put a great number of people in danger. The apocalyptic tenor of the episode, the comparatively down-to-earth nature of the danger within it (there’s basically nothing overtly supernatural here), and the cynicism underpinning the conspiracy behind everything, along with the way that both Mulder’s instinct to tell the public the truth and Scully’s (and Cigarette Smoking Man’s) worry that mass panic would cause more mayhem than the disease itself both seem to have some legitimacy to them, all combine to make the episode one of the darkest the series has offered to date.

Paul Brown’s sole other writing credit for the series comes in this mid-season run of conventional episodes. Excelsis Dei was apparently a bit of a nightmare to shoot – the script only getting to the cast and crew two days before filming was due to begin, and whilst I’m not aware of anyone officially saying that late delivery was the reason Brown didn’t get more X-Files work, it’d certainly make sense if that were the case.

At the same time, I have to wonder whether there’s a bit more to it than that. The plot twist here is that a traditional Chinese medicine remedy gives rise to supernatural effects, but the presentation of this idea via orderly Gung Bituen (Sab Shimono) is, at best, a muddled collection of tropes which don’t convincingly add up into any sort of insight into the subject at hand. At worst, the episode is pretty much flat-out racist, trading on the idea that other cultures have access to out-and-out magic and making the one Asian character in the entire episode the hub of the trouble.

It’s a shame that the script goes in this unfortunate direction, because early in it has actually quite a decent feminist angle: Mulder and Scully become aware of the situation in this nursing home when orderly Michele Charters (Teryl Rothery) claims to have been raped by an invisible entity. Mulder scoffs at the notion at first, claiming that all the cases that he’s looked into of rape by invisible entities came to nothing in the end, and indeed he spends much of the episode being a shade more sceptical than Scully is – in effect, Mulder’s exhibiting the privileged white dude’s ability to be flippant about the subject in a way which feels kind of true to life, Scully’s doing the emotional labour of trying to wake him up.

Unfortunately, Brown seems to lose sight of this strand over the course of the episode, with the only reference to the plotline in Scully’s end-of-episode monologue being a passing mention that Charters’ civil suit against the federal government (which runs the nursing home) was settled out of court. In addition, by having the spirits in the nursing home be said to be taking revenge for their mistreatment by the callous staff, the episode comes shockingly close to claiming that Charters deserved to be raped. Perhaps, had the episode been in the hands of the cast and crew longer, the extra pairs of eyes would have spotted this problem and done something about it.

Frances Bay joins the long list of Twin Peaks actors who got work on The X-Files in her role as Dorothy, a resident of the home who’s closely involved in what’s going down and seems to have a certain level of psychic perception. There’s a particular scene where a surely orderly tries to force her to eat some creamed corn – imagery which will jump out at Twin Peaks fans, particularly in connection with her role in that series.

This season also includes the only two X-Files episodes written by Sara B. Charno. Aubrey combines particularly grim themes about serial killing and genetic predisposition with a brace of meaty parts for men and women alike; in particular, Deborah Strang turns in an excellent performance as a troubled policewoman whose pregnancy kicks off a radical transformation, and Morgan Woodward is particularly fun as a wizened, aged serial killer who thinks he’s managed to get away with most of his crimes, only to come face to face with the same terror he inflicted on others. (Scully even gets to save Mulder’s life at a crucial moment, which helps go a little way towards rebalancing the damsel in distress/dude in distress ratio.)

Charno’s sole other writing credit, The Calusari, has a similarly bleak feel to it, but dives directly into some tricky areas and does a poor job of handling them. The overall message of the episode is “neglect your ancestral culture’s superstitions and practices at your peril, because bad shit happens if you decide to live your life in a way your parents disapprove of!”, which isn’t exactly very progressive or tolerant, and this is exacerbated by the fact that the titular Calusari a) don’t actually partake of any of the actual traditions of the real-life Calusari and b) come across visually as a sort of mashup of Orthodox rabbis with just a slight pinch of “Catholic priest” about their vestments when they’re doing their rituals too, which is a particularly dodgy look in an episode which tries to make Eastern European folk culture look super-scary.

The ending is a shameless rip-off of The Exorcist, and in general the episode is a bit of a mess; allegedly Charno used her real-life knowledge of “Eastern medicine” in writing it (which she was supposedly a practitioner of), but it sure as shit looks like she just threw together a bunch of scary ritual elements with a minor pinch of Hollywood Kabbalah (red strings as protection) and a snifter of “Oh, no, you see the swastika was originally a symbol of good luck and protection…”. On the whole, despite the high quality of Aubrey, I am not altogether surprised or sad that Charno didn’t get a second chance here.

Another writer whose sole X-Files script credit comes this season is Steve De Jarnatt, who offers up Fearful Symmetry. In his wider career, De Jarnatt is known mainly as the writer and director of the romance-in-nuclear-war movie Miracle Mile, which before he secured funding to direct it himself floated around Hollywood as a much-praised spec script which nobody wanted to actually film because, you know, it’s a romance set during a nuclear war.

This script, however, is not one of his best – wasting a little too much time as it does thrashing out an overly heavy-handed animal rights-vs.-zoos angle and generally cramming way too much dialogue into its running time, the actors having to gabble at points in order to fit their lines into the space available. The episode starts off with a really solid idea – an escaped elephant on a rampage, for at least part of which it seems to have turned invisible – but De Jarnatt doesn’t really seem to have a very solid idea of where he wants to go from there.

Glen Morgan and James Wong’s main writing contributions to this season were largely either split between the early metaplot arc, or involved them adding a bit of extra juice to others’ scripts. The only mystery-of-the-week episode that’s written by them top to toe is Die Hand Die Verletzt, but it’s a doozy: as well as being a spooky tale in its own right, it’s also an absolutely savage takedown of the Satanic Panic conspiracy theory, as seen in The Devil’s Web, Michelle Remembers, and other trash that blighted the intellectual landscape of suburban and small town America from the late 1970s to mid-1990s.

Our heroes find themselves at a dead end.

The lackadaisical, only-doing-the-bits-of-our-religion-we-like Satanists who control the small town in question perfectly skewer the lip service paid to religion by so many insincere authority figures; the fact that they use the rhetoric of the Satanic Panic as a deflection tactic is all the more delicious. On top of that, Morgan and Wong go out of their way to point out how the rhetoric of the Panic clove disturbingly close to the antisemitic rhetoric of Nazi Germany, merely substituting one scapegoated group for another. The episode also enjoys a really excellent performance from Susan Blommaert as Phyllis Paddock, a supply teacher who ends up becoming both ally and adversary to the protagonists. Morgan and Wong would take an extended break from the series after this in order to helm their own show, Space: Above and Beyond, an alien invasion drama which got snuffed out before its time.

Though Glen Morgan had gone, Darin Morgan was only too happy to step up and provide new scripts for the series. His Humbug has Mulder and Scully investigating a murder in a community which, having been founded by members of P.T. Barnum’s sideshows, remains steeped in the old carny ways – both a haven for those whose physical abnormalities open up a career as “freaks” and for those who earn their spots in the sideshows through their personal skills (such as escapologists) or through their willingness to engage in aberrant behaviour (like the “geeks” who eat live animals for people’s entertainment).

Darin is sailing into tricky waters here, though I think he does a pretty good job (and a downright excellent job by 1990s standards). The subject matter was in the zeitgeist at the time, with the more skills-and-acts flavour of sideshow getting a brief revival during the era (what with festivals like Lollapalooza including sideshow performers), and Morgan makes sure to have Michael J. Anderson (Twin Peaks‘ Man From Another Place himself!) upbraid Mulder at one point for assuming he’d had a circus background himself, when in fact he just runs the local hotel.

It helps a lot that Morgan makes sure to give the “freaks” plenty of humanising features. The “human alligator” whose murder sparks the episode is not just shown to be a loving father, but is also established as being an escapologist, so his act isn’t just a shallow exploitation of his physical condition but is based at least in part on his circus skills. In fact, circus training seems to be a constant background feature of life in the town – along with a healthy appreciation for the art of the grift as practiced by P.T. Barnum. It helps that, for what’s a rather comedic episode, whenever a character has to be the butt of a joke it’s usually at the expense of Doctor Blockhead (Jim Rose, real-life circus performer), who as an escapologist of physically average attributes is (to use his term) a “self-made freak”.

The really clever thing about the episode, however, is how setting Mulder and Scully’s search in the context of an unusual community immediately sets the rest of the series in a different light. An awful lot of mystery-of-the-week episodes end up boiling down to Mulder and Scully chasing down some strange mutant whose abnormality means that he, she, they or it cannot exist in regular society – see Eugene Tooms, see the “flukeman” that Morgan himself played earlier this season – but Mulder and Scully’s definitions of normality and abnormality are majoritarian things, defined by the statistical average. In a place where most of the evidence – through choice or through birth – skews sharply away from the average, can they still define normative behaviours and draw a line between acceptable eccentricity and dangerous habits? As it turns out, they can – murder is murder wherever it happens – but it takes some logical sleuthing from Scully to figure out what’s happened, and an intervention from The Conundrum (played by real-life circus attraction The Enigma) to put an end to the horror.

The season sees the X-Files writing debut of future Breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan in the form of Soft Light, an episode which adeptly plays with fun sci-fi particle accelerator nonsense, the show’s long-running conspiratorial themes, and a bit of extra feminist anger for Scully to express for good measure as she tries to aid the career of one of her female ex-students. Particularly nice is the way that “X”, after being contacted by Mulder seeking assistance, hijacks the action of much of the rest of the episode for his own ends – another really nice contrast between him and Deep Throat.

With Morgan and Wong out of the picture, for a while Chris Carter reserved writing duties on the mytharc episodes to himself and Frank Spotnitz. Carter also seems to have decided that, based off the success of the Duane Barry/Ascension, that multi-part stories would be the best way to deliver mytharc developments; the next one we get is the one-two hit of Colony/End Game.

Colony, penned by Carter based off story ideas he’d cooked up in conjunction with David Duchovny, is a really ballsy move: this early in the series, Carter more or less puts all of his cards on the table. Not only do we learn a bunch of secrets over the course of the episode (and End Game), not only do we have an apparent return of Samantha, Mulder’s sister (played here by Megan Leitch) which, once it unravels, reveals an ugly truth behind her abduction, but we get a direct statement of “the Truth” behind the mytharc which is clear and unequivocal as we ever get in the series in the opening narration of the episode.

Specifically, we’re told in Mulder’s voiceover that the aliens he and Scully have been chasing are definitely real, and they are definitely conspiring with terrestrial allies to colonise the Earth. As far as the X-Files mytharc goes, that’s pretty much it; all the other significant plot developments over the coming seasons consist of a string of embellishments, complications, and restatements of that premise, but the essential premise doesn’t really change all that radically until the revival seasons (in which, in a deliciously bleak development, it turns out that the Greys are no longer interested in colonising Earth because we fucked the environment up too badly).

Still, the major wrinkle we’re introduced to in these two episodes is pretty badass, coming in the form of the infamous Alien Bounty Hunter (Brian Thompson), a shapeshifting hitman for the alien puppetmasters. Sure, the whole “unstoppable shapeshifting killer” angle is highly Terminator 2 – right down to Thompson physically and facially resembling a compromise between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Robert Patrick – but it’s still a good concept, particularly when you want to crank the paranoia dial up to 11.

In a nice touch, Scully once again proves to be better at the whole conspiracy-and-paranoia thing than Mulder is, realising that the duo shouldn’t trust this suspiciously chummy CIA agent who’s trying to help them out well before Mulder concedes it. This doesn’t save her from being kidnapped at the beginning of End Game, in what’s become a really infuriating habit of her’s this season. It’s almost like the writer’s room brainstormed a whole bunch of different “Scully gets kidnapped” concepts for use to cover Anderson’s childbirth, and though the Duane Barry one eventually got chosen, everyone else was allowed to deploy their ideas in their own episodes anyway so nobody would feel left out. Still, at least Spotnitz has Scully handle this kidnapping as calmly and professionally as possible – by this point she must be used to the whole routine.

Spotnitz does a little better with Our Town, his first mystery-of-the-week script – which includes a scene where Scully gets to take the lead in trying to talk down a violent suspect with a hostage (a male hostage, even!), although he shits the bed by having her kidnapped yet again for the episode finale. It’s all part of an otherwise quite fun chicken-cults-and-cannibalism story which, as well as offering a competently-delivered set of scares, accomplishes a new level of nuance in the depiction of Scully’s scepticism: this time she’s sceptical about taking on the case not because she disbelieves in the paranormal, but because she’s unconvinced that it’s involved here and suspect that the case is a diversion offered up to the X-Files division to keep them busy and out of trouble. This is not the scepticism of a rational, materialist scientist so much as it’s the scepticism born of someone who has been fucked with by a demonstrably extant conspiracy enough to know that appearances can be deceiving.

The series wraps up with Anasazi, a bold attempt by Chris Carter to simultaneously zoom out the scale of the grand conspiracy by hinting at its international nature whilst at the same time throwing a cat among the pigeons by opening up the question of whether the Greys were just as much victims of the colonisation plan as anyone else, with the episode culminating in Mulder finding a literal mass grave of extraterrestrials – with smallpox vaccine scars. (In retrospect, seeding stories about vaccination programs having dubious purposes may have been somewhat irresponsible, but Carter and colleagues weren’t to know that in 2019 significant enough populations in the US would be refusing vaccines to make measles outbreaks a significant threat again.)

The title comes from the Navajo language, which is a plot point in the episode – the Department of Defense UFO documents which kick off the plot were transcribed into Navajo by codetalkers, because the conspiracy dates back to the 1940s when Navajo codetalkers constituted the US government’s most secure form of encryption. Significant parts play out on a reservation, with the Navajo residents played by Native American actors (not all Navajo actors, but it’s something) including Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman, who plays one of the original WWII-vintage codetalkers, Albert Hosteen.

Unfortunately, his role gets spun out into a generic “Native American elder with deep spiritual knowledge” trope – an angle which is seeded here and is emphasised more and more later int he show – which feels like Chris Carter clumsily stumbling directly into a cheesy stereotype which his script had carefully laid all the groundwork needed to avoid the trap; it might have been better had Westerman’s his role been strictly limited to being the codetalker who transcribed the original documents, so that his enigmatic statements in earlier scenes wouldn’t constitute snippets of cheesy, sanitised “spirituality” so much as they would be direct references to his lived experiences.

Here’s the Truth Mulder was searching for: if your government thinks it can get away with something that looks remarkably like the Holocaust, it will try it.

Still, aside from this the episode is pretty solid. There’s a deliciously paranoid plot point about the conspirators tampering with the water supply in Mulder’s apartment building in order to encourage erratic behaviour in him as part of a plot to discredit and incriminate him. Duchovny does a great job of playing Mulder under the influence of the tainted water – violent, petulant, brattish, it’s like he’s reverted to being a sulky teenager, and Scully having to shoot him to prevent him doing something rash is the culmination of a determination to help him despite himself which speaks well to Scully’s empathy and her sense of when something isn’t right about Mulder’s behaviour, even though he does act like a total shit towards her.

Plus, since it had become evident this season that the alien project was one of colonisation, it’s only right that real-life colonised populations be represented in the overall mytharc. Perhaps part of the reason Anglosphere pop culture was so big on aliens in the 1990s was because we’d become a bit more aware of our colonial history – the threat of colonisation by super-advanced aliens is a particularly potent source of horror when you consider what colonisation actually entails.

One thought on “Revisiting the X-Files, Part 2: The Second Encounter

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