As I mentioned in my discussion of Season One, it has been about ten years since I have seen The X-Files; and as I mentioned there, the series seems to have held up well over time. Happy coincidences seem to have us re-watching these almost as if in preparation for a coming film sequel.
Settling in to watch Season Two, it’s easy to find yourself tempted to skip entire episodes (e.g., “The Host”) and just focus on that central “Mythology” plot. However, it’s worth noting that there is a great deal of character development and exegesis on the milieu that takes place outside of those “core” episodes. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what to discard and what to keep. But part of you will no doubt know; and part of you will squirm through it.
One thing is for certain, Season Two opens without missing a beat.
- Little Green Men. This is a great way to resume the series. It is not a straight-up “let’s pick up right where we left off” take on things; the writers honor our unambiguous end to the first season, put some distance between the characters, put some distance between the “old” story, and intelligently reel us back in. We are given a portrait of a Bureau that puts Mulder on some soul-deadening electronic surveillance as penance, a Bureau that farms out Scully to Quantico for classes in forensic medicine. One of the things that makes it such a strong start is that Duchovny and Anderson have already found their feet with these characters and dive right in; there are no awkward false starts like we had in the first season. We are presented a tough hiatus for our protagonists and are then thrust immediately into the core mythos with the right tension. Clearly with Deep Throat dead at the end of The Erlenmeyer Flask, we need to get some of that dramatic tension from elsewhere. The Cancer Man comes immediately back (though we still have no clue what his role is and under what pretense does he attend meetings at FBI headquarters); we also get an ambiguous friend/foe with Skinner, who appears to be back for good. We start the second season with more meat and bones than the first did.
- The Host. What can you really say about Season Two’s second episode? It grafts itself onto Season Two’s story arc well enough (e.g., “You have a friend in the FBI…”) and we start to see Skinner emerge as a prominent character whose role is neither incidental nor entirely adversarial… But at the same time: isn’t this a little bit of an over-the-top monster-of-the-week monster? I’m down with the references to Chernobyl but this whole mutant man/fluke thing seems a bit… Self-mocking?
- Blood. There is some of the core paranoia here, even if it’s not part of the core storyline. Some serious government conspiracy suggestions, all wrapped up around a hallucinogenic pesticide and its highly toxic, highly psychoactive side effects1. The episode seems to serve as punctuation for the series’ milieu; it’s illustrative even if you don’t notice it and (in some ways) could do without it.
- Sleepless. We follow Mulder as he chases down some sleepless Vietnam veteran2 that can turn his dreams into murderous reality through some latent psychic powers. Krycek arrives on the scene; it seems too obvious too early that he is not to be trusted. This is an oddly tempered “monster of the week” episode that seems (again) to help round out the milieu, focusing on what seems like the Cancer Man’s back story — inasmuch as he has a long history of involvement in secret Pentagon projects. The plot thickens around the characters central to the plot (even if the central plot itself goes unexplored).
- Duane Barry. The most important part of the Season Two story arc begins with what feels like a throwaway episode. We are given the tale of Duane Barry, an alleged alien abductee whose legitimacy is immediately in question because of his residence in a psychiatric institution. As a viewer, we go along with this because the central premise (i.e., an alien abductee) is close enough to the central plot but all the while figuring that this must be a red herring. By about one-third to one-half of the way through this particular episode, we must start to credit the writers rather highly; we are given good development for Mulder here, keeping his character consistent while still giving him enough reasons to maintain some faith in Duane Barry (regardless of whether or not we do) while Scully gives us even more facts about Barry to confirm what we suspected from the beginning: that the man just has some head trauma that has permanently damaged him, cognitively. After Barry’s capture and surgery though, the story twists into one of the most Phildickian episodes to date and submits to us an intense intra-season cliffhanger.
- Ascension. Deny Everything. We pick up where “Duane Barry” left off, with the shit hitting the fan in rather a big way. An extremely suspenseful and action-packed episode, it hits all the high notes that are the hallmarks of the show: suspense, action, conspiracy. We discover Krycek’s involvement with the Cancer Man, only confirming our suspicions from earlier. Scully’s abduction3 and Skinner’s reinstatement of the X-Files gives us several strong elements that shape the rest of the season.
- 3. First: I found it strange that it took us 31 episodes to get to vampires; part of me was certain that this would be a Season One agenda item — relatively easy to work through while the actors, directors, and writers will still finding their feet4. Ranking this episode on a scale of 1 to 5 for vampire tropes, it scores a 4; the story has a bit of Vampire: The Masquerade going on, manages not to be too Anne Rice, and has just enough folklore and mythology to keep it interesting. A couple of this episode’s strongest moments: it manages to humanize Mulder a bit and it’s interesting how Scully’s presence was worked into the show even while in absentia.
- One Breath. In what might also have been sub-titled “Mulder’s Crucible”, this episode is oddly dense and it is no wonder that it is widely regarded as one of the Series’ best. We see Scully return but she is in the hospital and at death’s door; her living will would have the doctors pull the plug. In his deepest depression, Mulder does everything he can think of to find ways to save her, playing his hand very heavily against the Cancer Man — we also get the first on-screen use of the name “Cancer Man”. The writers push the limits here and manage to pack a great many details into this standard-length episode. We have Cancer Man telling Mulder that he’s “becoming a player,” Deep Throat’s “replacement” intensifies his involvement, the Lone Gunmen come out of the woodwork… We find that the story advances in strange ways, often by side-stepping where we expect it to go and though a part of us (as viewers) is disappointed that Mulder misses his opportunity for revenge, we know that it is probably for the best.
- Firewalker. This is the first episode with Scully back in action after her abduction. She and Mulder are called out to a volcano research site where they are tasked with researching a disappearance that has a few signs that point to “homicide”. The “silicon-based fungus” angle turns out to be one of the best non-alien, non-conspirator antagonists the show has had. Certainly by now the pattern has emerged on most viewers that the Series’ individual episodes fall into one of three categories: (1) aliens, (2) an X-Files spin on classic monster tropes, or (3) a vaguely scientific “threat” of a new species. This latter category has given us some of the best material (see also: “Darkness Falls” from Season One) and to be honest, this is one of my favorite episodes of the entire Series. That said: as of this episode, Mulder and Scully appear to be the most quarantined officers in FBI history.
- Red Museum. This episode contains an interesting twist, I thought. It seems to start off as a relatively tame, throwaway “monster of the week” story about rBGH. It quickly gets weird though and by the end of the hour, we can see how it is a follow-up to “The Erlenmeyer Flask” episode that concluded Season One. Some unexpected thrills here; but I must say it also had moments that were oddly reminiscent of “Gender Bender” (from Season One) and I found myself asking, “Why do all of these cults have their convocations in barns?”
- Excelsis Dei. Pretty damn creepy; all this business about run-down nursing homes and degenerative brain disorders and Malaysian spirit mushrooms tapping into some ghost world… It’s not a great episode but it sure seems to be the one most likely to make your skin crawl thus far in Season Two. One important thing that I did note here was how the writers seem to have cast Scully’s character just a little different in these post-abduction stories. She seems more sensitive than before, less callous, more likely to suspect that something strange is afoot. And in this particular story arc, you wonder if perhaps the rape element doesn’t change the stakes for her; perhaps it becomes a more emotionally charged item when that enters the equation.
- Aubrey. Two episodes in a row where Scully is the driving force behind the investigation. Here, it’s implied that there is a genetic component to a certain serial killer’s tendencies (plus a spiritual connection?) and a pregnancy5 in that killer’s estranged granddaughter bring those tendencies out in her. Again, in some ways it seems like a bit of a throwaway episode (except for the spot-on suspense and pacing) but what makes it a keeper is how the writers have targeted Scully during these past couple stories, to focus on her character and highlight her post-abduction changes.
- Irresistable. As this episode closes, you get the sense that Season Two should have been sub-titled “Scully’s Crucible”. Although this episode does not contain any paranormal phenomena, that only seems to make the sinister fetishistic/necrophiliac character that much more disturbing. We follow a Bizzaro World Six Feet Under‘s David (with even worse control issues) through a downward spiral of murderous perverse sexuality. What is especially well done in this episode is the camera work — e.g., you really notice how well they work with depth-of-field, lighting, and atmospheric effects like fog. This episode’s music is not the best in the series though and we could have done without Mulder’s post-script narration.
- Die Hand Die Verletzt. This one throws us off our usual rhythm; why doesn’t the crime take place before the opening credits? The black magic/devil worship stuff is a little out there and strange (I presume that it’s supposed to be the case) but it gives us a supernatural angle to work with. And once again, Scully seems to catch the emotional brunt of it once the child molestation angle comes throttling into play. Overall, not a favorite episode but this one really underscores how dark the tone of this second Season has been.
- Fresh Bones. Finally, we get to zombies; too bad they’re the not-really-dead-and-so-not-really-reanimated Voodoo zombies. If you hadn’t figured it out by now, the geist for Season Two seems to focus on the crossroads between life and death; this episode, with its Voodoo and zombie reanimation angle, is no exception. The writers do well to honor the Voodoo fiction tropes (with respect to raising the dead) though I have a margin of skepticism here about whether it honors the cultural aspects. The revenge angle in this episode is the most compelling element; the music is excellent, too.
- Colony. There is a pretty strong “holy shit!” moment here when you realize that this is episode one of two6. The show’s typical cold open takes on a double-meaning here as we discover that Mulder is subject to some intense hypothermia after following some alien-related evidence into the arctic circle. This one is part of that core mythos, and gets particularly explicit in its treatment of this part of the arc. The “Gregor” clones from all over the country are in danger from an alien bounty hunter, we get to meet Mulder’s family when his sister comes “back”, the conspiracy goes deeper than we suspected (hoped?)…
- End Game. Part two of two7 and the conclusion to this arc is just as strong as the first. We have Skinner as the almost unlikely hero (the writers really like to have him play both sides, don’t they?); we learn more about the Bounty Hunter aspect of these aliens, more about the hybridization and cloning, more about their attempts to colonize and their justifying indictment of human civilization8. Our picture of the alien conspiracy and the government’s (governments’?) involvement is becoming much more clear. We see how “Scully’s crucible” over the past 10 or so episodes has brought her character to this point, how it involves and invests her, and how it has prepared her for the role she takes. We also have a strong denouement with Scully’s closing narrative focusing on science and framing up Mulder’s closing remark about having “the faith to keep looking”.
- Fearful Symmetry. Not so sure about this one… The plot goes like this: aliens start abducting animals from a zoo to impregnate them as a means of playing at conservationists. I suppose it ties in with the premise for alien colonization that we just finished learning about (see above: “Colony” and “End Game”) but something about it seems silly at the same time. On the other hand, any episode that features the Lone Gunmen (however briefly) is worth the viewing. The “keeper” moment here is when you (the male viewer) realize that Melvin Frohike is your on-screen proxy: nerdy and paranoid and ogling Special Agent Dana Scully.
- Død Kalm. More questions than answers here; the episode features some inexplicable aging via a substance that Scully dubs “heavy salt”. What is the heavy salt? Where does it comes from? Why does it make you age faster when a diet heavy on the potato chips does not? There is some suggestion that this ties in with some old Norwegian folklore — but I’m unfamiliar with which myth and I certainly haven’t found it on my own yet.
- Humbug. With a name inspired by folklore surrounding P.T. Barnum and his circus, it is no surprise that the backdrop for this episode is a (how shall we put this?) winter community for circus freaks. Seems some inexplicable and mysterious murders are taking place there which have the locals rather perturbed. Mulder & Scully’s investigation features multiple fact-or-fiction moments that are confounded further by the overtly surreal setting. By the end we have it pinned onto a conjoined twin whose twin appeared to have never quite developed; meanwhile, his fatal complications from alcoholism force the undeveloped twin to try and seek out new hosts. All very weird and implausible stuff but it works in a kind of allegorical sense. Also: any episode featuring Jim Rose and The Conundrum is worthwhile, even if it is on that basis alone.
- The Calusari. Another episode that plays on that “frontiers-of-life-and-death” theme; this time we explore some Romanian superstition/folklore9 that would have a stillborn twin possess the still-living twin. Apparently the stillborn twin spirit doing the possessing is some kind of “pure evil” spirit; one of the Romanian priests likens him to Hitler. It’s a bit of a “B-” episode; but again, let’s not let Mulder have the closing narration.
- F. Emasculata. Another of those “science as science fiction” episodes (see also: “Firewalker” from earlier this season). Here we have an insect that plays host to a microbe that causes some seriously disgusting flu-like symptoms and erupting boils (complete with instant death) after only about 36 hours. Ultimately, this is a bit unsatisfying because it’s never clear what causes death in these victims — one of the doctors says that it’s the microbe but everything else points to the larval gestation. The episode is significant however, because we have the return of Cancer Man (first appearance since “One Breath”) and his involvement (as the on-screen proxy for Big Government Conspiracies) is to co-opt Mulder/Scully by putting them at the center of the cover-up. After the last few episodes, this one snaps us back into the milieu without the distracting circus freaks or Romanian caricatures.
- Soft Light. Not sure that I understand this one: a particle accelerator causes a man’s sub-atomic particles to come un-glued and turn him into a … human laser beam? A human black hole? I get the sense that this episode is meant to fill in a bit of Scully’s back-story (re: her former student) and to cast a little more viewer doubt on “X” — but none of those threads are fully realized and seem to have been played loosely.
- Our Town. Yet again with our “life-and-death-crossroads” theme: an Ozark-area town in Arkansas plays host to a (cargo?) cult that prolongs their lives through cannibalism. Now, cannibalism is one of those goes-for-the-jugular plot devices that is almost certain to catch you as disturbing; then the writers here go and build it up in such an indirect way that it takes you by surprise. Granted, they have Scully play the “prions” card too early but you’re likely to be distracted by Mulder’s reiteration of the Indian folklore bit.
- Anasazi. éí ‘aaníígÓÓ ‘áhoot’é. One hell of a cliffhanger to close Season Two. We end very much at the thick of the core mythos, with the government conspiracies running thick and wild and with Mulder getting “too close to the truth”. We open on a Navajo adolescent finding some mummified aliens buried in the desert; meanwhile “The Thinker” (some hacker friend of the Lone Gunmen) cracks the Department of Defense database and pull original (though encrypted) copies of the MJ12 initiative. Things unravel quickly: Mulder’s psychotic break after Cancer Man et al. poison his water; Mulder’s father was part of the MJ12 conspiracy; Krycek returns as an assassin… All of this building to Mulder following the Navajo boy out to the buried train car where he finds dozens (hundreds?) of mummified bodies with unusual features. Was he just burned alive…?10
Now we wait for Season Three’s arrival…
- Effecting none other than Deadwood‘s E.B. Pharnum. [↩]
- Who is apparently acquainted with Uncle Rico… [↩]
- For off-camera, “Oh, right, Gillian Anderson is pregnant” reasons. [↩]
- Then again, maybe vampires just carry too much cultural baggage and folks thought that that this was exactly the kind of thing that they didn’t want to screw up while the show was still finding its feet. [↩]
- The father being Lost‘s John Locke. [↩]
- Season Two’s second two-part arc. [↩]
- …and here I am saying to myself: “Previously, on X-Files…” [↩]
- All things considered, the “indictment” angle works for the central mythos but it gives the viewer a bit of pause: if this is the political statement that the writers are making, how long do they expect us to believe these aliens have been hanging out here watching us? [↩]
- The Romanian folklore bit (like the Haitian voodoo stuff in “Fresh Bones”) seems a bit over the top; I’m sure it’s researched at least a little bit but I wonder about the validity. [↩]
- Consider the “crossroads-of-life-and-death” angle, it seems fitting to end the season with a question of whether Mulder is alive or not. [↩]
About Rob FrieselSoftware engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →
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