Investigating The X-Files: Season 4, part 2

I recall fans feeling a little underwhelmed with the first “X-Files” movie. Many said it felt like one very long episode and not the blow-the-doors-off, revelation-filled extravaganza they hoped for. I agreed at the time, but I no longer draw the same conclusion as to why it turned out that way. Watching “The X-Files” in a super compressed way the last few weeks has made me appreciate how inherently cinematic the show tends to be. Important plot events almost invariably occur over carefully paced two to three episode arcs that unfold the story in controlled and frequently elegant ways. “The X-Files” tends to owe more to the movies than to average primetime drama.

I noticed over the past few weeks that I’d written phrases like “great combo” and “fabulous one-two punch” over and over again. The stories that Chris Carter wanted to tell simply would not fit into one 42-minute chunk of TV. Arcs like the one that unfolds in season 4 through “Memento Mori,” “Tempus Fugit,” “Max,” “Zero Sum,” “Demons,” and “Gethsemane,” provide great richness of character and plot. After a few seasons of that standard of storytelling, I’m not surprised that “Fight the Future” felt a touch anticlimactic. It’s hard to blame X-phile audiences for wanting all the impact of a whole season of television in one sitting, but it’s also not hard to see why they didn’t happen.

The myth arc in the second half of Season 4 begins with “Memento Mori,” the episode when Scully receives her cancer diagnosis. Gillian Anderson’s moving voiceover of Scully’s letters to Mulder help to structure the episode. She begins the story with a certain resignation toward her diagnosis and mortality; Mulder approaches her illness with his typical fiery rejection of the possibility of failure. They learn that all the MUFON woman have died of their cancer, possibly as a result of the “treatments” given to them by an evil Syndicate doctor.

Mulder believes if he can know what the Cigarette Smoking Man knows about the project he’ll be able to find a cure for Scully. Skinner talks him out of making a deal with CSM, but then agrees to a deal himself. In later episode “Zero Sum,” the devil gets his due by making Skinner destroy evidence of tests using hyper-aggressive bees to spread smallpox. In “Memento Mori,” Mulder discovers that the abducted women, including Scully, had eggs taken during their abductions. He meets a group of alien-human clones working to subvert the project that created, but isn’t able to find the miracle cure he seeks.

In time, bolstered by Mulder’s dogged optimism and a desire to do what the MUFON women could not, Scully commits herself to working and fighting for as long as she can. Despite this determination, her fear and hopelessness form an undercurrent for almost every episode in the second half of Season 4. Her mortality weighs heaviest in episodes like “Never Again,” when she plays with living on the edge in order to feel alive, and in “Elegy’s” painfully beautiful scene between Scully and her therapist.

Episodes “Max” and “Tempus Fugit” not only contribute to the longer, cinema-worthy story of season 4, but also conclude the tale that began way back in Season 1 episode “Fallen Angel.” A plane carrying  multiple-abductee and/or loveable but paranoid nut job Max Fenig crashes. There’s evidence he had acquired a piece of alien technology and was bringing it to Mulder in Washington. After seeing some very alien-looking wreckage at the bottom of a lake, Mulder develops a theory.

He thinks a UFO took control of the plane in order to get Max and the tech he carried. A military fighter then shot down the UFO, leaving the crippled passenger plane to plummet to earth and become shrouded in a suspicious cover up. Max’s death helps to prove that his theories about life from other planets and governmental conspiracy were largely founded in truth. In the end, he was as more a victim of humanity and its power plays than of his otherworldly tormentors.

In “Demons,” Mulder wakes up in a motel room covered in someone else’s blood and with two days erased from his memory. Scully deduces that he underwent a controversial treatment involving electrical brain stimulation and ketamine in order to recover memories of his past. He recalls his parents fighting because his mother was having an affair with the Cigarette Smoking Man; later, CSM made her choose Samantha to be taken. The downsides to the treatment? It makes Mulder doubt that his dad was really his biological father. It also causes seizures, memory loss, and suicidal tendencies. Mulder was present when another patient killed herself and her husband, resulting in his bloody clothes. Mulder doesn’t get in any legal trouble for the deaths, but Scully worries that the experience left him mentally and emotionally wounded.

The season concludes with “Gethsemane,” the episode with a cliffhanger so brutal, it makes the one at the end of “Anasazi” (which I myself previously described as “the cliffhangeriest cliffhanger that ever hung”) look like afternoon snack time at the cliffhanger preschool. It begins with Scully coming to Mulder’s apartment to identify what is presumably his body. She testifies to an FBI panel that Mulder was deceived into believing that an alien body found frozen in the mountains in Canada wasn’t a hoax. Then a guy from the Department of Defense convinced Scully and, ostensibly, Mulder that not just that body but all the evidence they’d ever found (including Scully’s cancer) were created to make Mulder believe a lie. At this point, the aforementioned suicidal tendencies kick in and Mulder tops himself. Or so we think. All these years later, knowing how everything turns out, this still really got to me.

When “Gethsemane” aired originally, I called up my best X-phile friend immediately. She and I said, “But, but, but. . .” to each other for ten solid minutes. On one hand, you knew the show hadn’t been cancelled and Mulder couldn’t really be dead. On the other hand, damn, Scully did weave a hell of a convincing tale. There she sat, all full of cancer, looking so sad and desperate. Gillian Anderson puts so much restrained authority into her description of the event, it’s hard not to doubt what you almost certainly know is true.

Many individual episodes are just as striking, but rather less traumatic, as the grand, cinematic story structures that weave through the season. Season 4 has some real standouts that seem to have all the tension, mystery, or comedy of a whole movie packed into 42 minutes. Infamous episode “Home” stands out as the most unforgettable mini-movie of the season. It combines classic horror tropes to build suspense and capitalize on what you don’t see with the modern horror tendency to gross you out so bad you almost think you’ll never eat again. Nothing in this story of a yucky, scary inbred family who will kill to maintain their way of life is excessively graphic by, like, “Saw” standards. Still, that doesn’t mean I necessarily want to watch it alone in the dark.

My favorite episode of the season, “Small Potatoes,” also does an excellent job at loading a whole movie’s worth of events into a small space. Five babies with weird, vestigial tails are born in a small town, but all the mothers claim to have only slept with their husbands. Mulder and Scully notice that local loser Eddie Van Blundht, played by “X-Files” writer, actor, and general genius Darin Morgan, has a scar where his own tail used to be. Turns out, Eddie has a layer of controllable muscle tissue all over his body that allows him to borrow other people’s physical appearance. He disguised himself as women’s husbands to help them get pregnant, whether they liked it or not. Eventually, he locks Mulder in a basement and decides to masquerade as him for a while.

Eddie likes Mulder’s handsome physique, but can’t believe what a loser the guy is. Eddie may be clumsy and nerdy, but he knows how to have a good time. He’s had ample experience seducing women, albeit in disguise. As a good listener with Mulder’s bedroom eyes and few of his neuroses, Eddie almost manages to get Scully to succumb to his charms before the real Mulder shows up. David Duchovny’s performance as Eddie trying to match Mulder’s seriousness and self confidence made me hoot out loud.

“Small Potatoes” may not have the horror of “Home” or the emotion of “Memento Mori,” but it still exemplifies part of what makes season 4 so great. It tells a rich story with well-rounded characters that doesn’t rely on safe television tropes. Thriving in a television landscape that didn’t yet know “The Sopranos” or “Arrested Development,” the quality of the storytelling still comes as a pleasant surprise.

Posted in Professional, The X-Files
4 comments on “Investigating The X-Files: Season 4, part 2
  1. T V Static says:

    This was particularly good one. So true about knowing that Mulder didn’t off himself…. it’s different looking back and seeing that.
    Small potatoes was one of the first episodes I saw and that really got me hooked on the show. I was quite young when the X-files seasons started (about 7 or 8) so I missed the first few seasons before I really caught on. I loved going back in time with the episodes though and hearing your point of view as somebody who watched them week to week, which I didn’t do until about Season 6.
    Keep up the good work as I really enjoy reading these. I plan to read them again when I finish each part!

  2. T V Static says:

    oh and just by way of commenting- I am beginning to think that the Mulder and Scully climatic cell phone hang-ups are probably the best in the world. How many times through-out the season do we feel the stress of one partner for the other when their cell mysteriously cuts out?

  3. sweetcamera says:

    I’m kind of surprised that you didn’t mention “Unruhe”. Not only is it an intensely imaginative and suspenseful episode, but it provides a beautiful and subtle foreshadowing of Scully’s incipient cancer diagnosis. Look where Gerry Schnauz sees the “howlers” in Scully- exactly where the nasopharyngeal mass resides. It also kicks ass when Mulder howls for Scully and charges at the RV’s door.

  4. Johnny Matthis says:

    Watching “Home” as a 13 year old was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life.

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