Season 4 of “The X-Files” employees a cool motif of pausing in the current of the narrative to provide bittersweet glimpses of the agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder might have become. It’s easy to forget that before they got swept up in their mysterious search for the truth, both Scully and Mulder were go-getters with stellar educations and bright futures. In between the important revelations about the story, this season shows us Scully the talented doctor and Mulder the promising profiler and super agent. It puts the sacrifices they’ve both made into a more personal perspective. These character’s aren’t just zealots, they’re people. Before the little green men got the better of them, they had hopes, dreams, and a future they didn’t need to fight.
Criminals in Season 4 tend toward the serial and the phenomena tend toward the medical, giving the leads opportunities to stretch their neglected career muscles. Although we’ve already seen Scully perform numerous autopsies, she hasn’t had many chances to rock out with her doc out, as it were, with live patients. This season, she can draw upon her expertise to offer explanations or skepticism, and not just her innate faith in science.
The African myth in “Teliko” may concern mysterious spirits who kill and leave their victims bleached, but the medical oddity of a man with no pituitary gland lies at the heart of the matter. In “Sanguinarium,” Scully suggests overwork, exhaustion, and malpractice as the reasons for the bloody death of a plastic surgery patient. The real explanation has more to do with satanic ritual than medical error, but it was still nice to see her mixing with the people who are ostensibly her peers. Even in myth-tastic episodes “Tunguska” and “Terma,” her investigations and Congressional testimony in hinge in large part on her training as a physician.
“Leonard Betts” stands out because it gives us both a glimpse into Scully the doctor and introduces the event that will shake her faith in medicine and science to the core. The agents investigate a man who can regenerate body parts after his headless corpse walks out of the morgue. They learn that cancer consumes every cell in his body. He must eat cancerous tissue to live, even if he has to kill to get it. When he confronts Scully and says, “I’m sorry, but you’ve got something I need,” we get our first clue about Scully’s abduction-related illness.
In “Paper Hearts,” Mulder’s past and present collide when he reopens a serial killer case that he solved back when he had a brilliant career ahead of him. This time, when Mulder’s dreams lead him to discover evidence of hitherto unknown victims, the killer tries to convince Mulder that Samantha is among them. His analytical training wars with his desperation to have a concrete explanation for what happened to his sister.
“The Field Where I Died.” Mulder and Scully aid an ATF investigation into a potentially suicidal cult leader. Mulder become obsessed with one particularly troubled cult member. Melissa, one of the leader’s wives, exhibits multiple personalities. Based on what the personalities say, Mulder believes they’re actually manifestations of her past lives. One of the personalities manifests as a Civil War nurse who hid in a bunker during a battle on what is now cult property. She claims that Mulder was her lover who died in that battle.
Mulder manipulates the ATF’s search for a bunker of weapons to keep questioning Melissa. He says all the right things to convince his supervisors that his motives only concern the case. Scully suspects that he cares less about the safety of the cult members than about delving into Melissa’s past lives. During hypnosis, Mulder talks about other lives where he and Melissa were lovers separated by circumstance. The episode ends when, unable to find enough evidence to hold them, they have to release the cult members. Back at the farm, the leader gets them all to drink poison punch.
“The Field Where I Died” is almost a great episode, but in the end, it bugs me. The actors do valiant jobs with the challenging material and the writing mostly holds up. In the end, although it shows a great deal of Mulder’s emotional fragility and depth, it tends too much toward the moist and melodramatic for my taste. Of course, I might also be biased by the insinuation that anybody other than Scully is Mulder’s soulmate.
Even the myth-ier episodes keep with the theme drawing attention to aspects of characters’ personalities neglected by their consuming missions. Standout ep “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man” casts fascinating light on the eponymous character. We learn that CSM was a smart and loyal young soldier and friend of Bill Mulder who was recruited to kill JFK when the president was perceived as being too weak against the Communists.
After that, he drops off the map and becomes a man who shapes history from the shadows. He assassinated Martin Luther King, bossed J. Edgar Hoover around and had dealings with Saddam Hussein. Once the threat of Communism dissipated, he devoted himself entirely to the ramifications of our planet’s otherworldly visitations. All the while, he naively channels his dreams, his ego and his desire for a fresh start into a series of unpublished noir detective manuscripts.
Around this period, the show even flirts with giving Alex Krycek some depth. He comes back into the equation in “Tunguska,” along with a diplomatic pouch containing a chunk of black oil-filled space rock. The myth episodes in the first half of Season 4 achieve the remarkable feat of almost, nearly, making me feel sorry for Rat Boy. Shocking, I know. When Mulder, Skinner, and various Russians take turns beating the crap out of Krycek, I almost soften to him. He seems pitiful and desperate while doing his greasy best to make Mulder trust him. It almost worked, but I powered through those feelings of weakness. That was for the best, because later in season 4 we see him rise to ever-higher levels of deviousness and control.
Season premiere “Herrenvolk” begins where “Talitha Cumi” ended and, along with pivotal myth combo “Tunguska” and “Terma,” reveals a couple of key facts about what in the hell is actually going on with the black oil. By the time you’ve watched those three episodes, you’ve seen a farm where clones of Samantha work as mindless drones to raise bees, and you know the ultimate goal is, in the words of alien guy Jeremiah Smith, “hegemony, a new origin of the species.” You know that people have been catalogued and tested through their smallpox vaccinations, and that as far as dealing with the black oil goes, the Cold War is far from over. You’ll also see the second of Mulder’s mysterious informants, the cold and terrifying X, killed when the Syndicate figures out he’d been leaking information.
While Scully treats a man who got infected by the oil when he tried to take a sample of the space rock, Mulder looks for the rock’s origin. On the advice of X’s successor, a United Nations employee named Marita Covarrubias, he travels to Russia. Mulder brings Krycek along because Rat Boy’s parents (apparently he wasn’t spawned fully formed like an evil Athena) were Russian, so he speaks the language. They get caught while spying on a mining gulag near the location of the infamous Tunguska explosion. Krycek buddies up to their captors and leaves Mulder to be subjected to black oil experiments.
Eventually, Mulder escapes, and Krycek maliciously tags along; in time, they hook up with different groups of locals. Krycek’s new friends have all cut off one arm to protect themselves from the black oil experiments. They do Krycek the unwanted favor of hacking off his with a hot knife, just to be on the safe side.
Back in the States, Scully has to testify to a shady Congressional panel about the whereabouts of the space rock (stolen by a Russian) and her partner (stolen by different Russians). When she won’t tell them what they want to know, they lock up her for contempt of Congress. Thankfully, Mulder shows up just before things become impossible for her. Alas, the rock, and the potential proof it represents, is gone. We see that Krycek was behind the whole series of events and any sympathy we ever felt for him vanishes. Unlike nearly every other character in season 4, Krycek doesn’t seem to have any deeper levels. Once a Rat Boy, always a Rat Boy.