For those of you not suffering with us, I’ll have you know that the heat index of New York City is currently at about 3 billion degrees. This has been a summer of eschewing all those cool, free activities around the city in favor of window units, hermit-like behavior, and Netflix. So I felt not one iota of guilt for staying in for much of this weekend and crazy-marathoning the short list of finalists for our definitive favorite episodes of The X-Files.
Revisiting this series has been a complete and utter joy for me. Like Kim said in her intro to the first post in this series, The X-Files was a gateway fandom to many, myself included. It came into my life right when I needed it, too. For the ninth grade, I left behind my tiny, close-knit Catholic grade school class and moved over to the big (to me) public high school. It was the most awkward year of my existence. I didn’t know what to wear or how to talk to people, and subsequently had zero friends from 7am-3:30pm, Monday through Friday. It was tragic. I was Tai, but without Cher, Dionne, or a weed hook-up. So OBVIOUSLY, I was home on many a Friday night, where I fatefully met this show and subsequently, its fandom.
It was like coming home, you guys. We take it for granted now that there’s always a community ready and waiting to welcome us, no matter what show, book, movie, or celebrity we want to love together. But The X-Files and their fans CREATED that culture, at least in the online world. I’m sure I would have continued watching and enjoying the show even without our slow-ass dial-up connection and ye olde Usenet threads, but the connection to other fans and the ability to log-on right after an episode to dissect and flail just fueled the fire. It meant so much to me in that time to have something to care about and focus on. (I used to be able to recite every episode of the first four seasons, in order.) It distracted me from the rest of my pathetic, lonely situation. This fandom also spoiled me, because X-Philes are fucking SMART. I too know the Gossamer archive quite well and have been making myself insane for days trying to remember the title of one particularly exquisite novel-length story that I read and re-read. It’s really too bad that publishers hadn’t discovered that world yet, because 97% of X-Files fic would bring 50 Shades of Grey to even more shame than it brings itself.
During this marathon, Kim and I have been tweeting excessively about our favorite moments and our history with this show. And while we joke about being “drunk on our power,” we’re mostly just excited that we’ve inspired a few first-time watchers and re-watchers to embark on the journey. There’s so much STILL to mine from The X-Files and not just for nostalgia’s sake. I’ve been experiencing my standard feels in all the same places of course, but I’m also gaining new perspectives. For one, I’m realizing just how hard Chris Carter was trolling us for YEARS, denying at every turn that Mulder and Scully’s relationship was anything but platonic, when their love story was clearly the show’s raison d’être. More on that later.
It’s interesting too that David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, both of whom have at one time or another sought to distance themselves from the show, have been enthusiastically supportive of another movie and, in Gillian’s case, actively engaging with the fandom. Of course, they’ll both be at the 20th anniversary San Diego Comic Con panel with Chris Carter and “special guests.” (All fingers and toes crossed for a cameo by bald-headed sex god, Mitch Pileggi.) Not there? US. And we’re not likely to get over it.
For now, the countdown continues with episodes #10-#6. Agreements, arguments, and conspiracy theories in the comments, please.
10) “Leonard Betts” (4 x 12)
The X-Files was at the height of its popularity in Season Four and Fox gave it the coveted Post-Super Bowl slot. Post-Super Bowl episodes tend to start big in order to hook as many of the football viewers as possible…think Grey’s Anatomy opening with its three hot female leads taking a shower together or Alias opening with a shot of Jennifer Garner in lingerie. And boy, does “Leonard Betts” open big with a spectacular ambulance crash resulting in the decapitation of mild-mannered paramedic Leonard (played by future ER star Paul McCrane, whose character would go on to lose an arm on the show in an equally spectacular manner). And if that wasn’t enough to get them interested, the HEADLESS corpse then proceeds to kick its way out the morgue, hit the attendant over the head and walk away. Football fans…welcome to the world of The X-Files. It’s spooky and gross and weird here.
For most of the episode, “Leonard Betts” plays out like the standard monster of the week type. There’s the typical Mulder/Scully banter (David is particularly delightful in the early scenes, as Mulder is positively giddy at the prospect of someone who can regrow body parts), a compelling villain (Leonard is a wonderful villain because he is driven by biological imperative as opposed to psychotic blood lust) and the kind of gross-outs that only The X-Files could pull off. And what’s wonderful is that the special effects in this episode hold up in 2013 as much as they did in 1997. I dare you to watch the scene where Leonard regenerates without wanting to gag.
And then…the rug is pulled out from underneath us. Leonard, we have learned, needs cancerous tumors to survive. He eats them and he can look at someone and tell if they have cancer. He corners our heroine Dana Scully in an ambulance, looks at her and says…”I’m sorry…but you’ve got something I need.”
EXCUSE ME?!?!?!?! WHAT DID HE JUST SAY?????
I remember watching this and feeling like I was just punched in the face. Gillian is marvelous in this scene. You see the look of realization flit across her face. She knows in that moment that she believes him and she is HORRIFIED. Then, because she is Dana Scully, Ginger Queen of the Universe, she proceeds to kick the ever-loving shit out of him (in heels no less!), finally killing him with a defibrillator. But she is shaken. You see the numbness and shock in her face in her final scene with Mulder. And then the final scene, where she wakes up in the middle of the night, coughing and blood dripping from her nose, confirms it. Our tough as nails, unflappable, enigmatic Dr. Scully has cancer.
And THAT, dear readers, is how you reveal a plot twist.
Leonard Betts: I’m sorry…but you’ve got something I need.
9) “Beyond the Sea” (1 x 13)
“Beyond the Sea” was the first truly “Scully-centric” episode of the series and it served to fully humanize her. Not that she was a one-dimensional character beforehand but up until this episode, most of the focus had been on Mulder and what made HIM tick. Which is understandable…it WAS his quest that Scully (and us in her stead) was joining after all, and the parameters of that quest had to be established. But in this episode, we finally start to learn what makes Scully tick. We meet her parents and learn that she has a fear of disappointing her father and that he doesn’t approve of the path she has chosen. Take note: Daddy issues will become a long running theme on this show. We also learn that they way Scully copes with her emotions is to bury them underneath her work instead of deal with them. She throws herself into a case immediately after her father’s funeral and utters the first of MANY “I’m fine”s that will be said over the course of nine seasons when Mulder questions her emotional state. Mulder knows she’s not fine. But he lets it slide. Because he stuffs his emotions the same way.
What is also interesting about “Beyond the Sea” is we see for the first time Mulder and Scully reverse roles…he is the skeptic and she the believer. And why WOULDN’T she believe Luther Boggs? She’s incredibly vulnerable after her father’s death! (Who wouldn’t be? Who hasn’t lost someone suddenly and wanted one last chance to speak to them?) Scully desperately wants to know that her father was proud of her…and with his sudden death she realizes that she will never truly know and is devastated. And here comes Luther Lee Boggs (Brad Dourif, so memorable that even when he played Grima Wormtongue in Lord of the Rings, I saw Boggs), offering up potential answers for her. He says all the right things. And the way Gillian cries when she says she’ll believe him…if he lets her speak to him is heartbreaking. Her voice cracks and she sounds like a little girl. We NEVER see Scully like that again…not even at the height of her cancer diagnosis. HUMANIZING.
And then Mulder gets injured and everything changes. Mulder being injured makes her revert to her natural Scully-ness and skepticism. It awakens the RAGE in her that she had been bottling ever since her father’s death and she gives Boggs a piece of her mind in the most spectacular way possible (“Well, I came here to tell you that if he dies because of what you’ve done, four days from now, no one will be able to stop me from being the one that will throw the switch and gas you out of this life for good, you son of a bitch!”). And yet…Boggs still gives her the opportunity to get the answers from her father. And she turns him down. Much like Mulder eventually does in “One Breath” and “Redux II”, Scully gives up the chance to get her answers to sit by her partner’s bedside. Because he’s important. And she knows the truth deep down in her heart.
It’s interesting to look at “Beyond the Sea” in context of how we know initial orders of new series are handled in today’s television environment. Once shows have their pilots picked up to series, in most cases they are given an initial order of 13 episodes, with an option to pick up a “back order” of 9 episodes if the show is a hit. “Beyond the Sea” is episode 13 of season one of The X-Files, and had the show not been a hit, it is highly likely that this could have been the final episode, if it was a show airing in 2013. It’s a wonderful episode…but man what an unsatisfying ending it would have been! We were just getting to know the characters and they were only at the very tip of their potential. So I’m glad we watched TV differently in the 90’s. Because it would have been a shame to end there.
(Note: I have looked and looked and haven’t been able to find what the initial season order for the first season was. Clearly this is not something that was widely reported on in the 90’s. If anyone knows, please let us know in the comments!)
Mulder: Dana, after all you’ve seen. After all the evidence. Why can’t you believe?
Scully: I’m afraid. I’m afraid to believe.
Mulder: You couldn’t face that fear? Even if it meant never knowing what your father wanted to tell you?
Scully: But I do know.
Scully: He was my father.
8) “Memento Mori” (4 x 14)
And so begins the cancer arc, the storyline that would ground this out-there show and demand some of its best performances. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson both took home Golden Globes for this season, and Gillian pulled down the Emmy and SAG award too. (Good enough reason to gratuitously link to THIS, right? Right.) Gillian is particularly stunning in these episodes. Her embodiment of Scully as a character is so complete – every choice is organic. Other actresses might have started off the series by playing her as a generic tough broad, but how could they have possibly handled a turn like this? Gillian is really phenomenal, and I can’t seem to think of any other female character quite as complex and challenging as Dana Scully.
The schedule was shuffled when The X-Files was chosen to follow the Superbowl, so substandard episode “Never Again” immediately followed the ruthless gut punch of “Leonard Betts.” The move was a blessing in disguise – the events of “Never Again” can now be interpreted as Scully reacting to really bad news by totally losing it and her stoic resolve in the opening of this episode is her collecting herself. Writer/Producer Frank Spotnitz revealed in a recent HuffPo interview that “Memento Mori” was a rush job when former staff writer Darin Morgan couldn’t produce his last script and that Chris Carter decided to pull the trigger on Scully’s cancer last-minute. Spotnitz, Carter, Vince Gilligan, and John Shiban all have a writing credit on this one and shared the Emmy nomination. At times, Mulder’s investigation into the women of MUFON and the beginning of Scully’s treatment seem tacked together. But the emotional roundhouse kick of their shared scenes and Scully’s moments with Betsy Hagopian more than make up for it.
Among the writing staff, there wasn’t a consensus on moving forward with this storyline and some were no doubt worried that handing a main character a terminal illness might lead to melodrama. But think of how this plotline opened the show up to explore new themes and depths of character. How could someone as practical as Dana Scully look at the diagnosis that’s been handed to her and have any hope? She doesn’t, at first, and resigns herself to her fate. But we know that she HAS always had faith in things unseen: in God, in Mulder’s devotion to her, and in her own strength. And despite what she knows to be true, medically and scientifically, she decides to put her trust in those things and not give up.
I’m calling out Kim, who accused me at first of watching “Memento Mori” through shipper goggles and putting it on my list because of the hallway scene alone. We will forgive her though, because she texted me during our rewatch to concede the awesomeness of this episode as a whole. Still though, that hallway scene is a tear-jerker, especially bookended with the opening scene of Scully giving Mulder her prognosis. I’ve praised her a lot here, but David also did some extraordinary work in this arc. Not only does he find out that his (life) partner has a horrible, relentless disease, but also that it originated during her abduction and so essentially, BECAUSE of her association with him. That guilt weighs on him, but he doesn’t let her see it. Not yet.
They’re still trying to keep parts of themselves secret from each other at this point – that weight of what’s unspoken, to steal a phrase from Kim. The Scully voiceover that we hear throughout the episode is diary that she is writing to Mulder during her treatment. Not to her mom. Not to her brother. To Mulder. It’s as intimate as any love letter. When he tells her that he’s found and read it, she’s embarrassed and had planned to “throw it out.” You know, when she DECIDED TO LIVE. That diary was essentially the confession she was going to leave behind after her death.
In “Existence,” before we see the first REAL, no-excuses Mulder/Scully kiss, Mulder says, “I think what we both feared were the possibilities. The truth we both know.” At first pass, it’s a cheeseball line. But dig a little deeper and what it really means is this: to these two people, trust and truth are SYNONYMOUS with love. So when Scully writes to Mulder in this diary that she “has come to trust no other,” we know what she really means. GREATEST LOVE STORY OF ALL TIME.
Scully: For the first time I feel time like a heartbeat, the seconds pumping in my breast like a reckoning; the numerous mysteries that once seemed so distant and unreal threating clarity in the presence of a truth entertained not in youth, but only in its passage. I feel these words as if their meaning were weight being lifted from me. Knowing that you will read them and share my burden as I have come to trust no other. That you should know my heart, look into it, finding there the memory and experience that belong to you, that are you is a comfort to me now as I feel the tethers loose and the prospects darken for the continuance of a journey that began not so long ago and which began again with a faith shaken and strengthened by your convictions if not for which I might never have been so strong now, as I cross to face you and look at you incomplete, hoping that you will forgive me for not making the rest of the journey with you.
7) “Gethsemane/Redux/Redux II” (4 x 24, 5 x 01, 5 x 02)
So you gave your female lead terminal cancer. Where do you go from there?
If you’re The X-Files you end your fourth season on the apparent suicide of Special Agent Fox Mulder and Dana Scully tearfully reporting the death of her partner to an FBI panel. Fun for the whole family!
The “Gethsemane”/”Redux”/”Redux II” trilogy is DRIPPING with plot, and I won’t even attempt to cover it all here. What’s important to remember is Mulder’s crisis of faith (it ain’t called “Gethsemane” for nothing) and how he re-emerges from that dark place to keep fighting. (For Scully. Sorry, I’ll stop…I probably won’t.) Mulder receives information from Defense Department employee Michael Kritschgau that seems to prove that everything he’s been chasing – the entire government alien conspiracy – has been a hoax perpetrated to distract from shady military ops. The kicker? They gave Scully her cancer so that he would continue to believe. It almost destroys him.
Let’s be real: viewers didn’t believe that Mulder was really dead, especially since the first feature film had been announced at this point. The true cliffhanger was the wait to find out HOW he faked his death, why, and whether or not Scully knew the truth. The action in this three-parter ebbs and flows. “Redux” is a slog, but sets the scene for multiple payoffs in “Redux II.” And “Redux II” is a doozy, involving a Samantha/Mulder meeting; Scully’s cancer going into remission; the exposure of Blevins (NOT Skinner, that beautiful tropical fish) as the traitor within the FBI; and the apparent assassination of CSM, after he offers Mulder a deal with the devil.
The Cigarette Smoking Man is so misguided in his confidence that he knows exactly how Mulder operates; he projects himself and his experience of the elder Mulder onto Fox, to his own detriment. And even if a pre-series Mulder WOULD have sold his soul to find out the truth, this one would not. The character evolution of Fox Mulder is evident in the series of choices that he makes to put personal accountability and general humanity over his quest for answers, starting in “One Breath” with his decision to sit at Scully’s bedside instead of killing the men responsible for putting her there. (As a wise Hogwarts headmaster once said, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” #RELEVANT.) His plan to go off the grid and expose the conspiracy loses all steam when Scully is admitted to the hospital. When he shows up at her bedside again (she has a lot of bedsides, poor Dana), Skinner says, “You look pretty good for a dead man.” Mulder hurries past and replies, “I’m only half dead.” Half dead, but there. By resurfacing, he puts himself at risk for being held responsible for the death of the government operative who served to play his own dead body. Scully, who is sure that she’s dying, begs him to let her take the fall. (“Let me do this for you.”) But there’s no way that Mulder will allow her memory to be tarnished, let alone participate in that lie. Integrity, bitches – a concept that a sociopath like CSM can’t even begin to understand.
Also there are Mama Scully (along with Tami Taylor, one of the GREAT mothers in recent television history) and Dana’s brother Bill, boo hiss. Whenever the Scully clan shows up, they’re a reminder that, while Mulder was estranged from his family and colleagues and driven into a solitary existence, Dana’s got people. She has family, and early on in the series, she even has other FRIENDS. (What?!) She had a life outside of work that she sacrificed, and the people close to her still don’t understand why. While I think fan hatred of Bill is valid because he’s so closed off and dickish, the man does act how you’d expect someone to who holds Mulder responsible for the destruction of his family. In a very big brother-y way though, he ignores Scully’s personal agency in her own life. Maggie, on the other hand, sees herself in her daughter and struggles to support her. She tells Mulder in the abduction arc that, above all, she “respects” her. As a Navy wife, she understands loyalty, both to a person and to an ideal. But she rightfully rails against her for keeping her illness a secret from them, an avoidance that Scully seems ashamed of.
Mulder is put through the wringer in these episodes. He learns things that shake his entire belief system, at least for a while, (in PMP, he tells Shaineh that he’s “not sure he believes in that stuff any more.”); witnesses Scully’s deterioration; and faces the family who either directly or indirectly associate him with her seemingly inevitable death. He puts on a brave face for her, only falling apart in a devastatingly feels-y scene where he shows up to the hospital in the middle of the night and sobs over her sleeping form. (NOPE.)
Of course, we all know that a little life-saving microchip lives in that deionized water and our heroes will live to fight another day. A little beaten, a little tired, but even stronger in their bond.
Bill: You see, she’s your big defender, but I think the truth is, she just doesn’t want to disappoint you.
Mulder: If it works, I don’t care what you think she thinks.
Bill: You’re a real piece of work, you know that, Mr. Mulder.
Mulder: Why is that, because I don’t think the way you think? Because I won’t just sit passively back and watch the family tragedy unfold?
Bill: You’re the reason for it. And I’ve already lost one sister to this quest you’re on, now I’m losing another. Has it been worth it? To you, I mean, have you found what you’ve been looking for?
6) “Triangle” (6 x 03)
Let’s get this out-of-the-way first…
OMG MULDER AND SCULLY FINALLY KISS IN THIS EPISODE.
Sure, it’s in an alternate timeline/all in Mulder’s head, but whatever. The fact that it happens proves that Mulder THINKS about doing it (a lot). That, as Sage just said to me over gChat (cause that’s how we write these posts), when the world is falling down around him, all Mulder wants to do is plant one on Scully…the only thing stopping him is his fear of what comes next. The fact that she punches him right after the kiss is a demonstration of that fear. Yet…Mulder also seems to like the fact that she punches him. His little grin afterwards and his comment “I was expecting the left,” shows that he wouldn’t expect his Scully to react any other way than she did. Other episodes of The X-Files (“The Field Where I Died”, “The Sixth Extinction: Amor Fati”) have explored the idea that Mulder and Scully are inextricably linked through time (and space. Sorry, couldn’t help myself); they are each other’s constants and touchstones, and that is further evidenced in the way 1930’s Scully behaves. Sure, she is skeptical of him at first (he IS in a Nazi Uniform after all) but she grows to trust and believe him. Scully will ALWAYS have an innate trust in Mulder…be it in a past life, the present, or a future one. She will always trust him and she will always tell him the truth and she will always seek to save the world with him by her side. Soul. MATES.
Deliriously wonderful shippy stuff aside, “Triangle” also proves to be one of The X-Files‘ best artistic achievements. I’m sounding like a broken record here, but I really don’t understand how this episode didn’t take home a SLEW of Emmys. The art direction! The costuming! The scoring. All those looooooooooooooong unbroken tracking shots that gave a real-time feel to the episode (an homage to Hitchcock’s Rope). All the split-screen shots, especially where 1930’s Scully and present Scully cross paths. It’s all so wonderful and it’s Chris Carter at the top of his stylistic game.
And let’s have a quick word about Walter Skinner, shall we? When I was a 19-year-old college student getting into the fandom for the first time, I couldn’t see past the beauty of Fox Mulder to fully understand what a hunk of man Walter Skinner was. I never understood why he starred in so many smutty fan fics back in the day (because they were being written by grown women, that’s why)…but what a difference 20 years makes. 34-year-old Kim and 30-year-old Sage get it now. It’s the one thing we have both agreed on over the course of writing these posts. Walter Skinner is a sexy beast. And obviously, I ship Mulder and Scully (forever and ever, amen) but a little part of me desperately wanted Scully and Skinner to get it on. Which is why I cheered when this happened:
More on the Mulder/Scully/Skinner relationship tomorrow. I just had to get that off my chest.
Lastly, “Triangle” is also a delightful homage to The Wizard of Oz. Every person in Mulder’s life has a counterpart in the 30’s that embodies what Mulder thinks and knows about them, from Skinner being a soldier whose loyalties are uncertain to CSM being a leader of the SS to Spender being a weasel in every life…they were all there. And all the people Mulder cares about in the world were around his bedside when he woke up…Skinner…the Lone Gunmen…and of course, Scully. “But it was REAL,” Mulder swears. “No,” they say. “It wasn’t.”. They all leave Mulder to rest, and when he is alone, he touches his cheek and smiles. It still hurts from where Scully punched him. So WAS it real or was it all just in Mulder’s head? Well, to paraphrase Albus Dumbledore (again), of COURSE it was in his head. But how does that make it any less real?
Mulder: Hey, Scully.
Mulder: I love you.
Scully: Oh, brother.
HOO, BOY. These posts are both cathartic and exhausting. Our very five very, very favorite all-time episodes will be posted tomorrow, just in time for the panel at Comic Con!