Investigating The X-Files: Season 6, part 1

I’ve noticed that after an important myth event, “The X-Files” tends to follow with a nice long patch of monsters of the week. They provide a well-deserved opportunity for decompression and reflection, but not all of these one-offs are created equal. Sometimes you get basically fine but forgettable eps like “Soft Light,” “Synchrony,” or “Hell Money.” Other times you get a classic like “Small Potatoes,” “Bad Blood,” or “The Post-Modern Prometheus.” Every now and then, the stars align and there’s a whole run of non-myth episodes that rock back to back. Season 6 kick-starts with one of these rare and wonderful runs. I gravitate toward it whenever I’m in the mood to watch a few eps without thinking too hard.

Although Season 5 might be my favorite of the series, the veritable typhoon it kicks off is a challenge to take in. Between the middle of season five and the first episode of season 6, the viewer experiences Cassandra Spender, the alien rebels, the loss of the X-files by fire, a feature film, and the introduction of Jeffery Spender, Diana Fowley, Gibson Praise, and Assistant Director Kersh, and the revelation that the black oil gestates into a violent juvenile alien which in turn grows up into the iconic “gray.” Almost like a reward for making it that far without your head exploding like Patrick Crump’s (played by Guest Who Later Got Big Bryan Cranston) in “Drive,” there are six episodes so quirky, funny, and fulfilling, it’s almost enough to make me wish the intellectual challenge of “The X-Files” mega-myth wouldn’t return.

Later in Season 6, enough truths and mysteries get explored to satisfy even the most avowed myth addict, but first you get “Triangle,” “Dreamland” parts I and II, “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas,” "Terms of Endearment” and “The Rain King.” All of them are defined by a strong sense of location (be it rural backwater, beatific suburbia, or time-warped cruise ship), notable and hilarious guest stars, and humorous meditation on the nature of Mulder and Scully’s relationship.

First up comes the stylistically ambitious “Triangle;” if you’re a shipper, then you already know why I relish this ep so much. Mulder goes through a time warp in the Bermuda Triangle and ends up on a cruise ship at the beginning of World War II. Cigarette Smoking Man, weasely Jeffrey Spender and Skinner all appear as Nazi officers who have taken charge of the ship looking for something called “Thor’s Hammer.” Turns out, “Thor’s Hammer” isn’t a weapon. It’s an atomic scientist with the power to change history if Hitler gets ahold of him. Scully plays the part of a sassy dame on board for his protection.

In the concurrent present, Scully and the Lone Gunmen rush around trying to figure out how to get Mulder out of the time warp. All the dialogue has a fun, retro feel, and Gillian Anderson really excels with it. In both storylines, she plays the part of a badass woman on a mission.  Even though she basically spends most of the episode running around, her “His Girl Friday” attitude (particularly when threatening Spender) makes it a ton of fun to watch. The excellent period-yet-modern dialogue, beautiful sets, and the cinematographic tribute to Hitchcock’s thriller “Rope” in the form of filming the episode primarily in four long takes make "Triangle" a real delight.

And of course, the episode gives us the famous Mulder and Scully Kiss Number One. I ought to resent the way Chris Carter plays with my emotions regarding my desperate nerd wish that that they  kiss and fall in love and get married and have babies and expose the truth and live happily ever after. Beginning in “Fight the Future,” there’s a perverse focus on almost but not quite letting the audience see The Kiss so many of us long for. “Triangle” presents an actual smooch, but it happens in an alternate timeline and in the context of Mulder as a gritty pulp hero, so it doesn’t really count. However, that doesn’t mean I didn’t rewind it three times.

After “Triangle” comes another story that hinges on a rift in space and time, the “Dreamland” two-parter with Guests Who Were Already Big Michael McKeon and Nora Dunn. McKeon plays a Man in Black who trades bodies with Mulder. Early in the episode, Scully asks if he ever thinks about settling down and raising a family. In the body of cover up artist Morris Fletcher, he gets the opportunity to live as both a family man and as the sort of person who invents the lies he and Scully are devoted to uncovering.

Mulder hates his life as Fletcher, but Fletcher can’t get enough of being Agent Fox Mulder. He takes full advantage of the opportunity to leave his responsibilities behind in favor of a life seducing ladies and flashing his badge. Like Eddie Van Blundht in “Small Potatoes,” he can’t believe that a guy as handsome as Fox has such a loser existence. Also like Eddie, he does his best to use his Mulder-skin to get into Scully’s conservative, FBI-issue suit pants.

“Dreamland” makes good use of both the comedic and emotional potential of the situation. Mulder has such a strange standard for normal behavior that even when Fletcher-as-Mulder starts playing computer golf, slapping her on the butt, and tattling to Kersh, Scully doesn’t suspect anything. When Mulder-as-Fletcher finally manages to convince her of the switch, it yields poignant results. With no solution in sight, Mulder and Scully have to ponder what their lives will be like if this is the thing that really, finally ends their partnership. Both actors have some great moments as they struggle to understand a separation almost as final as death.

“Terms of Endearment” is notable for having one of the best-ever “X-Files” guests and worst-ever costumes. Bruce Campbell plays Wayne Weinsider, a bigamist demon who wants nothing more than to have a normal, human-looking baby. When his pregnant wives’ ultrasounds show any kind of hellacious deformity, he goes all fiery and takes the spawn before anyone finds out. He doesn’t meet his match until he hooks up with a lady demon who wants a child of the horns and forked tail variety. She’s killed a number of normal infants on her quest for suitably demonic progeny.

Bruce Campbell looks surprisingly youthful and leading man-esque in the role, even with his terrible, rubbery demon costume. His combination of unexpected vulnerability and comedy chops makes episode’s dark subject matter hilarious and not a little touching. The episode also stands out in how it deals with the reccurring family theme. Most of the time in “The X-Files,” we see basically normal people (the Mulders, Scullys, and Spenders, notably) who manage to royally screw up and damage their children in serious ways. Wayne Weinsider is a thoroughly abnormal man who just wishes he could have a healthy child and family. I found the ironic contrast pretty striking.

Along with “The Beginning” and “Drive,” “The Rain King” shows “The X-Files” crew making good use of their new southern California shooting location. After seasons of foggy Vancouver dressed to look like other foggy places, the episode’s setting in drought-plagued Oklahoma stands out. It features “Saturday Night Live” alum Victoria Jackson as the object of desire for Holman Hardt, a weatherman whose unexpressed emotions manifest as meteorological oddities.

Mulder tries to help Holman figure out how to tell his ladylove about his feelings while she develops a crush on the brooding agent. Of course, there’s hardly anybody on the planet less qualified to give dating advice than Fox Mulder, whether he wants to admit it or not. “The Rain King” has exceptional casting and good-natured skewering of both small town life and Fox Mulder’s ego. 

“How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” has Mulder and Scully checking out a haunted house on Christmas Eve. Lily Tomlin and Ed Asner star as the ghosts of a couple who killed themselves for love and now make a hobby of driving other lovebirds to double murder as well. The episode provides a nice counterpoint to “Triangle” because it shows how it isn’t just shippers who mistake Mulder and Scully for a couple passionately in love. The ghosts do their damndest to psychoanalyze and mentally torture the agents. They hope a potent cocktail of loneliness, lack of self worth, and fear of betrayal by their partner will be enough to make them start shooting. In the end, both Mulder and Scully know themselves (and each other) well enough to escape unscathed and enjoy a touching Christmas moment to boot.

What the episode lacks in kissing it makes up in meaningful acknowledgement of the characters’ emotional intimacy, and it exemplifies what I love about this whole chunk of season 6. The production values in the wake of the film (cinematography and location scouting in particular) make it simply beautiful to watch. Combined with an expert balance of humor and sentiment, it makes for episodes that offer not just a break from the myth, but an example of “The X-Files” at its stylistic and narrative best.

Posted in Professional, The X-Files

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