Coming off the heels of Season Three, the fourth season of The X-Files is a bit of a strange animal. Whereas Season Three took a lot of chances with the narrative and let itself unpredictably intersperse humor throughout, Season Four seemed a return to the the otherwise dark and heavy subject matter that was more characteristic of Season Two.
Which is not to say that this season was without its humorous moments1 but it did not let its hair down in the same way the Season Three did.
That being said, Season Four is arguably a definitive one for the Series, perhaps more so than even the landmark first season. Many of the plot threads from the past 73 episodes come together in these twenty-four. And while most go unresolved in a fashion that characterizes the Series, the writer perform well overall, striving — and almost managing — to make every minute count.
- Herrenvolk. Everything dies. While I cannot say I was expecting the Syndicate to bury its secrets in rural Canada, the conspiracy and the story that follows it did go approximately where I (as a viewer) expected it to go. This is a dense episode that feels longer than its actual run time. The colonization angle continues to play out, though we have strange twists with “The Bees” and the flowering shrubs and the self-sufficient agriculture communities populated by cloned “drone” childen. It is interesting to see these enigmas crop up even as we resolve certain other plot threads in ways that are predictable2. But Season Four starts off with the right reminders of what the conspiracy is and we drop some hooks into the water to bait the next twenty-three episodes.
- Home. A good and creepy monster-of-the-week; perhaps a new classic? Cannot say that it was especially supernatural but it was right off the chart in terms of delivering The Willies. After all, there’s nothing like a pre-running water, pre-electricity, run-down, Civil War-era farm house to induce severe paranoid claustrophobia.
- Teliko. Deceive. Inveigle. Obfuscate. Is this the first episode that begins with a special tag line that isn’t part of the Mythology? This is an interesting one with Scully at the center of the plot; the weird albinism/cannibalism conditions, all that botany… You wonder if botany isn’t going to be a big part of this Season since it’s factored so heavily into the first and third episodes.
- Unruhe. Perhaps one of the most disturbing episodes to date: the psychic photography bit combined with the schizophrenia brings some serious terror with it. What doesn’t sit right with me however is how often the writers deem it appropriate to put Scully into damsel-in-distress mode — not that she has any arm-waving moments but how many episodes have we seen during the Series’ run where Scully is somehow captured or tied up or otherwise held hostage?
- The Field Where I Died. Why doesn’t this episode open with the inciting crime? The episodes seems ever so slightly disjointed from the Series’ overall narrative; the past-life regression fits well enough and the references to Samantha are there but it’s like a figurine slightly out of scale with its neighbors on the shelf. To the writers’ credit, they did well here to muddy the waters with multiple personalities vs. past lives. But then again Mulder’s hypnotic monologue comes across as unforgivably bad Beat poetry…
- Sanguinarium. Delightfully unresolved! All that black magick and blood sacrifice… Not a pivotal or even particular interesting episode; but fun just the same.
- Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man. Allegedly this episode tells Cancer Man’s backstory — but did we really need this? It seems too much, too over the top. Wasn’t it enough for Cancer Man to be instrumental in the greatest conspiracy of all time3? Having him involved in both JFK and MLK assassinations seems overkill; it is distraction from what we know about him. Besides, these elements appear to add up to continuity errors with what we already know about him. If he is busy killing the great American leaders, when would he have had time to cover up evidence of E.B.E. visitation and colonization? Let’s assume that this episode is non-canon and move on4.
- Tunguska. With this name, how could this not be a killer episode? This is where Season Four starts to heat up, getting back on track after what feels like a six episode hiatus from the central plot. You get the feeling (especially with Scully’s opening testimony before those Congressmen) that episode seven is supposed to serve as a partial setup for the sequence that begins here. In many ways we experience some interesting reversals here: we have a return to the “old” Skinner who is unwilling to go out on a limb for Mulder & Scully, we have renewed tension between the Cancer Man and the Well-Manicured Man. The Black Oil thread comes into the fore again here and we’re left wondering: why does it kill everyone except Krycek5?
- Terma. E pur si muove. The opener is a little discontiguous and seems to make you forget that it’s “part two of two”. Just the same, it picks up with Mulder in the Siberian gulag, subject to The Black Oil/The Black Cancer, trying to figure out escape and revenge on Krycek. The plot takes some tight turns back home as well, with Scully and Skinner appearing before Congress and Scully’s rhetorical stand that lands her in jail. True to form, the episode brings our protagonists (and by extension: us) so close to The Truth, so close to some breakthrough, only to snatch it away through conspirators and interfering circumstance. Some new and interesting findings but never enough to be credible. Also, the final twist with Krycek was certainly interesting: was he perhaps KGB all along?
- Paper Hearts. This episode is creepy and unnerving in the way that episodes like “Irresistible” and “Oubliette” were… The dream/deja vu angle plus proposed “psychic nexus” are enough to give this episode the requisite paranormal edge, but this is one that could have played out well (or perhaps even better) without that. There is enough ambiguity around the conflict that the psychic stuff could just be Mulder projecting onto it, confabulating new explanations to suit his proclivities. The writers pull this one off masterfully though, getting Mulder emotionally involved with this killer via his sister.
- El Mundo Gira. In a way, this is the episode that got my hopes up that we would see a return to the wit and charm of Season Three’s more light-hearted, self-parodying interludes. However, while this episode appears early on not to take itself all that seriously, it manages by the end to have contorted itself into one that does. There were some interesting twists with respect to the “Chupacabra” neo-legend but ultimately this was not all that fulfilling of a story.
- Leonard Betts. The cancer vampire! Despite the premise, this episode turned out not to be at all cheesy; a well conceived and executed story by the writers that fits very well into the overall story arc, hitting all the right notes to be a successful stand-alone episode while referencing back on existing plot threads. It’s an interesting premise and having a deformed/cancerous Betts tell Scully “You have something I need…” was a master-stroke of a hook to circle back on the abduction/cancer link hinted at during Season Three.
- Never Again. An episode completely around Scully6 and while it’s not really all that paranormal, it’s certainly weird. Ergot-induced homicidal hallucinations? At least Scully got a date (and a tattoo) out of the deal, right…? It is out of balance without Mulder though and Scully seems … not herself.
- Memento Mori. We circle back on Scully’s cancer and work our way once again to the women in Pennsylvania that are part of the UFO/abductee network. We get a bit more elucidation on the conspiracy, we see another turn in Skinner (who is taking on the martyr’s mantle by all appearances), and we delve more into the alien hybridization theme. Which starts to beg the question: are we to take from this (the hybridization plot elements) that we as a culture have become intertwined with the aliens? That is to say, have we become “one body” with whatever it is that the aliens represent in the story arc? Have we allowed the paranoia and the persecution to become a part of us? And to take that one step further: is that why it’s made Scully sick? And if that’s the case, is Scully an on-screen stand-in for us?
- Kaddish. Hate crimes + Kabbalah = Revenge of the Golem7.
- Unrequited. I am not so sure that I understand the episode’s title in this context. Thematically speaking, this is a solid episode but otherwise it’s a little thin. There is no “real” paranormal action here (i.e., our villain does not actually turn invisible) and the “scientific” angle about the guy “just using your blindspot against you”… Well, it doesn’t even come remotely close to reality.
- Tempus Fugit. The Second Coming of Max! The writers pull off an interesting stunt here by diving way back into Season One to bring back an otherwise throw-away character and immerse him in the Mythology/Conspiracy — though that involvement comes across as tangential (see below). What is interesting here is the beginning of a strong push within the plot to place all of the UFO activity around military ops/military cover-ups; of course, this is immediately thrown into doubt by the Missing Time.
- Max. The continuation of episode 17 (above); as mentioned, this should tie directly into the E.T./E.B.E. plot threads but ultimately feels tangential to the Mythology. We have a plot that (as it resolves) could just as easily be high-tech industrial espionage by two complete lunatics; it need not have anything to do with extra-terrestrial organisms at all. Granted, those two lunatics (i.e., Max and “his sister”) are convinced that this high-tech apparatus is alien in origin; but bear in mind that they are both medicated for mental illnesses. Again, as viewers we are frustrated because even our skepticism is called into question as alien technology is apparently co-opted by government agencies or else Missing Time and Abductions enter the equation to further confound everything.
- Synchrony. An interesting take on time travel. The whole cryobiology angle plus the quantum physics makes this a fringe science-heavy episode8. Not the best writing perhaps (I felt that they telegraphed the ending way too early on) but still worthwhile.
- Small Potatoes. The most humorous episode of the season, nearing but not quite reaching the comedic appeal of Season Three9 ; the comedy here was more “screwball” than “dark”. Not that this was a bad episode; it certainly kept you on your toes — what with a shapeshifting son of a carnival freak that takes a shine to the opportunities furnished via Mulder’s form. Makes you wonder out loud: “Hey Scully… Would you have gone all the way?”
- Zero Sum. We have never seen Skinner gets his hands dirty; you ask immediately Why now? There is (curiously) no Scully in this episode, though it is certainly deep within the Mythology — and consequent to the conspiracy. We return to the thread with The Bees that we started back in Season Three and gave full attention to during Season Four’s opener. In a way, The Bees seem to come out of nowhere — weren’t they just a deus ex machina means of escape in the first episode? It seems that the UN Special Secretary is “involved” as we had suspected all along; and we confirm for ourselves that of all the characters, Skinner is the most royally screwed.
- Elegy. We come around again on Scully’s cancer; this time, the wraiths just provide the paranormal backdrop against which we can focus on how Scully’s condition worsens. It has been easy as a viewer to let this critical component of the plot become washed out in the noise of far-reaching conspiracies and hokey monsters run amok. The writers keep dropping reminders: the nosebleeds, Skinner’s accusations toward Cancer Man, concerned entreaties from Mulder… But these last couple of episodes seem to be stepping up the frequency and intensity of these reminders. And what we get here (at long last?) is this: if Season Two was about the crossroads of life and death10, Season Four visits with our mortality — the road signs leading up to that intersection.
- Demons. Season Four seems to have an abundance of episodes where the supernatural/paranormal element is either absent or tenuous at best; this is another one of those. Though the attention is given over to alien abduction and the consequences it has had on the victims, the sinister component is not the abduction itself but the psychiatric treatment given to these characters11 The episode seems like filler; though the psychiatric treatment appears to give Mulder access to long-repressed memories, they could just as easily have been hallucinations and confabulations. With so much doubt around the events, we wonder if it’s worth even considering that the writers are trying to set up the possibility that Cancer Man was more intimately involved in Mulder’s family than we’d dared imagine before.
- Gethsemane. Believe The Lie. The strongest season finale of the Series thus far; but also one that you immediately approach with your own paranoid skepticism. The validity of every statement and portrayed event is thrown into immediate uncertainty. If the fact that they don’t show Mulder’s body wasn’t enough for you, the opening text (above) is your explicit invitation. It’s a bit of a cheap trick; effective and well-played, but in many ways a dig on viewers. An alien corpse found in deepest Yukon Territory that (after much DOD interference) appears to be a hoax? Increased but unresolved tension in Scully’s family over her cancer? Suggestion after suggestion that the fantastic alien conspiracy is just a cover story for a more sinister and far-reaching government plot to enable unfettered Defense programs? The hint that Mulder may have been but a pawn in that more mundane conspiracy all along? Of course Mulder’s fragile character would contemplate suicide. But with all of that new information, with all of those still unresolved plot threads, how could we “believe the lie” when Scully tells us Mulder is dead?
By the end of Season Four, the Series has definitely hit its stride. It’s conventions and tropes are all well-established, it has a good rhythm going, and the actors have all mastered each character. Though we have many exemplary episodes here, I found myself pining often for Season Three’s see-saw of serious/humorous; the Series needs its hard-core Mythology episodes but it just as badly needs episodes like “Small Potatoes” and “War of the Coprophages” to lighten the mood from time to time. Sadly, I believe those episodes will be fewer and farther between as the Series progresses.
Just the same, onward to Season Five.
- Intentional or otherwise. [↩]
- I’m referring to the resurrection of Mulder’s mother and the execution of “X”. [↩]
- I am referring, of course, to the aliens. Why go heavy on The Great American Conspiracy when we’re already having enough fun with the Deep Alien Conspiracy? [↩]
- Though I will acknowledge two things. First: they did some interesting choices with the camera work. Like how the JFK assassination bits were in that under-saturated color that we associate with film footage from that era. And how the MLK assassination sketch is shot all in black-and-white. Second: we get a great line from Deep Throat: “I’m the Liar. You’re the Killer.” [↩]
- We’re also left wondering where all of Season Three’s black comedy went; turning Krycek into a blundering fool isn’t cutting it. [↩]
- Except for a quick cut scene to Mulder on vacation in Graceland. [↩]
- And really, as far as the “traditional” archetypal monster movie villains go, is this the closest we’ve gotten to Frankenstein? [↩]
- As opposed to just “fringe”? [↩]
- But too little, too late? No room for saving graces? [↩]
- See also, my write-up of Season Two. There were so many episodes about ghosts and zombies and resurrections and reincarnation… [↩]
- Dare I say it? “Oh no, Mulder! You’re stuck in a K-hole!” [↩]
About Rob FrieselSoftware engineer by day, science fiction writer by night; weekend homebrewer. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →
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