Both on camera and behind the scenes, Season 5 of “The X-Files" represents a transitional period for the show. It was the final season filmed in Vancouver and it comes in on the short side, with only 20 episodes. They shortened the production run in order to facilitate filming “Fight the Future.” They even titled the last episode “The End.” It includes a literal purging by fire of the X-Files themselves. That event helps to set up the first “X-Files” film and also provides a turning point for the plot and the characters. Before that happens, the season presents a kind of topsy-turvy vision of who Mulder and Scully are and how they relate to each other.
Although a number of important myth-related truths are revealed in Season 5, it all has a tone of narrative otherness. In episode after episode, it’s hard to tell what really happened or whose explanation to believe. Elements of fantasy and faith intertwine with Mulder and Scully’s evolving worldviews to create an atmosphere where the characters tend not to act like themselves and the truth gets buried behind layers of uncertainty.
The second half of Season 5 kicks off with “Kill Switch,” written by novelist and cybernetics enthusiast William Gibson. “Kill Switch” explores a rogue artificial intelligence theme similar to Season 1′s “Ghost in the Machine.” The more sophisticated technology and theories behind the later episode reflect how far our understanding of computers evolved between 1993 and 1998. “Kill Switch” also has a great example of things that are perceived but should not be believed. The sentient AI traps Mulder because it wants information. It hooks him into a vividly terrifying virtual reality where naughty nurses alternately cut off his limbs and seductively question him. It all seems very real, but in “The X-Files,” sometimes the more you see of something, the less you ought to believe it.
In “Kill Switch,” Mulder sees an event which seems very real but which is, in fact, a fiction. In “Folie a Deux,” he gets a glimpse of a creature so odd it makes everyone think he’s gone crazy. In that case, however, the skittering bug-thing that hides in the light and turns people into zombies is all too real and too deadly. In “Mind’s Eye,” Guest Who Was Already Big Lili Taylor plays a blind woman whose only vision comes from watching a killer’s brutal work through his own eyes.
In addition to Lili Taylor, the second half of season 5 offers a number of other Guests Who Later Got Big. In “Travelers,” there’s Garret Dillahunt, who went on to roles in “Deadwood,” “The 4400,” “John from Cincinnati,” and “The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” as well as Fredric Lahne, who I recognized as the Yellow-Eyed Demon from “Supernatural.” The demonic social worker in “All Souls” is Glenn Morshower, who was Aaron Pierce on “24.” “The Pine Bluff Variant” features Sam Anderson, a.k.a. Bernard Nadler from “Lost.”
One of my favorite episodes from Season 5, “All Souls” stands out for how it plays with the perception-versus-reality motif and how it shows Mulder and Scully as something like funhouse mirror versions of themselves. Scully’s priest asks her to investigate the case of a wheelchair bound girl who somehow walked out of her house and was found kneeling with her eyes burned out. The girl was one of a set of developmentally disabled quadruplets, all of whom eventually turn up dead. Their situation bears a striking resemblance to the story of the Nephilim, half-human, half-angel children whose souls must be returned to heaven before the devil can claim them.
Scully has long struggled with how much to believe in the proof of science versus the oblique certainty of faith. The seemingly impossible things she witnesses in “All Souls,” the visions of angels and demons and of her dead daughter Emily, almost turn her world upside down. Scully’s abduction and cancer, not to mention everything she’s seen while investigating the X-Files, left her uncertain about what is and is not possible. Interacting with what she perceives as the literal forces of good an evil doesn’t help. Her priest suggests mundane explanations for the experience, but Scully the skeptic, Scully the scientist, finds herself trusting evidence of her eyes and gut over that of her mind, no matter how impossible the conclusions.
At the same time, we see Mulder mired in a sea of disbelief. Just as events helped to shape Scully into a person for whom the impossible can seem probable, they’ve served to close Mulder off to things he might have once believed. Mulder’s fear that he might have been a tool of the conspiracy all along, that everything he’d seen was a lie, is in full force during Season 5. The seed of doubt, once planted, makes it impossible for him to believe Scully in this episode. This role reversal of believer and nonbeliever, open mind and closed one, makes “All Souls” a powerful lens into the characters’ unlikely evolutions.
A large part of the genesis of Mulder as skeptic and Scully as believer comes from the events of “Patient X” and “The Red and the Black.” They meet multiple abductee Cassandra Spender, who believes the aliens are here to teach and lead us, but that a great conflict has started between the alien races. Weighed down by the revelations from “Redux” and “Redux II,” Mulder thinks she’s just a victim of governmental tests and conspiracy.
Her son, prickly young Agent Jeffery Spender, doesn’t want them to have anything to do with Cassandra, but Scully can’t seem to stay away. Cassandra was taken from Skyland Mountain, just like Scully. She feels a connection to Cassandra, and her strange willingness to believe Cassandra’s story causes some tension with her partner. The whole thing really pisses Agent Spender off, but soon he’ll have other stuff to deal with. Later we discover that his father is the not-as-dead-as-he-seemed Cigarette Smoking Man. In time, Scully and Cassandra feel called by their implants to a meeting place with other abductees.
Once they get there, disaster strikes. A group of guys show up who look like our old friends the alien bounty hunters – except they have sewn up all the orifices on their faces, and they start setting the abductees on fire. Before they can finish, an alien ship comes, sets the faceless ones on fire themselves, and leaves, taking Cassandra along.
At the same time, Krycek comes back with a black oil-infected Russian boy in tow. He tries to sell what he knows to the Syndicate, but Marita Covarrubias (with whom he’d been involved) double crosses him. She gets the boy and the Russian vaccine, but becomes infected herself. In a rare moment of cooperation Krycek tries to convince Mulder that there’s more going on than governmental bioweapons testing. He tells Mulder that, just as Cassandra said, a war has started between different alien factions. The attacks on abductees are the rebels’ way of upsetting the plans for invasion and colonization.
Scully survived her ordeal with burns and total memory loss. She gets hypnotized and recovers some of the event. Mulder thinks they’re false memories and Scully is left with her beliefs and identity rung out by the experience. A later run-in with the sewn-up-face aliens and some memory loss of his own doesn’t clarify much for Mulder. It ends with the characters having basically switched from their traditional roles and unsure of whether it’s safe to see and believe.
Luckily, this topsy-turvy separation from reality we see in Season 5 doesn’t yield just uncertainty and paranoia. It also results in the carefree, carnival-atmosphere “X-Files” comedy classic “Bad Blood.” Mulder and Scully go to Texas to investigate the world’s least sexy and least scary vampire. He has fake fangs and has to drug his victims, but when he chooses Mulder for dinner, Mulder has to stake him.
When Mulder and Scully explain themselves to Skinner, we get to see the event from their disparate perspectives. In Mulder’s mind, he’s gentle and inquisitive while Scully stomps around being cranky. From Scully’s point of view, Mulder acts the role of impulsive loon with no respect for her feelings. The audience is left to assume the truth probably lies somewhere between the two versions. Since even the agents aren’t sure what they saw, we can’t be either. The episode’s superb comedy, a great GWLGB appearance by Luke Wilson and Mulder’s performance of the theme from “Shaft” make it a nice break from the heavy tone of the season. “Bad Blood” also proves that while not knowing what to believe can be scary, under the right circumstances, it can also be a hell of a good time.