“Two Fathers” (season 6, episode 11; originally aired 2/7/1999)
In which all… okay some… okay maybe a couple of things, if that… is explained
“Two Fathers” and “One Son” are the episodes. Heavily hyped as closing off The X-Files’ mythology to that point and beginning a new chapter—which is true, more or less—the episodes landed with a great deal of advance buzz and kind reviews upon their initial airing. Yet as time has gone on, it’s been less and less kind to these episodes, which often feel like desperately frantic attempts to keep a top that’s running out of momentum spinning, even as you’re piling more and more of your favorite toys atop it. These are episodes that almost completely sideline the protagonists in favor of the supporting characters, and many of those supporting characters are either people we don’t really care about or people we don’t know nearly as well as the main supporting gang. They’re good episodes for the Cigarette Smoking Man, but… that’s about it.
That said, these episodes reaffirm my long-standing dream of watching a series about the characters who work for the Syndicate. The scenes in which the old men who hold the world’s future in their hands quibble over whether to side with the faceless rebel aliens are surprisingly involving, even now, when you know so much of this stuff will never add up. Through the middle three seasons of the show’s run, the series really built up the Syndicate as this group of men who really thought they were doing the right thing, even if they were probably doomed to failure, no matter what they did. (This is about the kindest thing I can say about the mythology post-season three.) The revelations of these episodes almost entirely focus on what the Syndicate’s long-term game is, and while they’re all largely things most fans have already figured out by this point, it’s also fun to hear William B. Davis croak them out to Diana Fowley (who’s little more than a plot point in this episode).
The problem is that the story hinges almost entirely on a character the show has labored to make interesting but largely failed to make interesting: Agent Spender. These two episodes are pivotal episodes for the whole series, supposedly, yet the show can’t be bothered to find the two agents much to do beyond hang out at Mulder’s apartment and go to the basketball court with African-American stereotypes. (The scene where Duchovny banters with them is legitimately painful.) This story was about Mulder’s quest for the truth about his sister, then Mulder and Scully’s quest for the truth about what happened to Scully, then Mulder and Scully’s gradual realization of what their country had done in the name of “security” in the post-World War II world. Then, gradually, it became an elaborate shell game, in which the “truth” got more and more distant from our heroes and became more and more important to other characters.
This is probably because once the Syndicate was introduced in earnest (something that really ramped up in seasons three and four), then the only real question about it was what it ultimately planned to do with the various experiments it was in charge of. The most obvious answer was that it was helping prepare the world for an alien invasion, in hopes that the lives of its members would be spared. Then, the show proceeded to head almost directly to this. So in the fourth and fifth seasons, the show began stalling in earnest, introducing characters that were meant to be important to the overall structure of the serialized story—like Gibson Praise or Cassandra Spender or (in a return appearance) Max Fenig—and then trying to build each one up as “the” clue to the whole conspiracy. This allowed the show to get away with a long series of sideways moves within the mythology that kept it from getting too cumbersome, but it gradually created an entirely separate problem, where it was never clear just why these people were so important. Surely they couldn’t all be so, right?
So in “Two Fathers,” the series pretty much just picks Cassandra to be the answer to a lot of questions and hopes we’ll forget about all of the other cards it had in its hand. Cassandra is the former wife of the Cigarette Smoking Man, his collateral sent away with the aliens in exchange for the Syndicate’s cooperation (cooperation that bought them the time to develop the vaccine to the alien virus). She’s also the first successful alien-human hybrid, the creation of which will mean the beginning of the colonization process. (The one thing Mulder and Scully get to do here is hang out with Cassandra, then contemplate killing her at the end, so as to stop colonization, never seemingly wondering whether an advanced alien race that’s bent on conquering the whole universe might not be able to get DNA samples from a recently deceased corpse.) She’s also a cantankerous woman whose presence seems to light up everybody who’s not her ex-husband, as well as the reason Spender doesn’t believe in aliens, all evidence to the contrary. (He’s vaguely embarrassed by her assertions.)
On the one hand, it’s thrilling to have the whole of the Syndicate storyline boiled down to one family’s internal struggles. It gives the whole storyline a nicely Shakespearean feel, and it returns to the idea that the Spenders and the Mulders were trapped in this never-ending cycle of misery by the knowledge they had of the alien race. I like when stories like this take the giant and make it ultra-personal, and through all of the cheese and hokum, that idea rings loud and true in this episode. On the other hand, we’re not nearly as invested in the Spender family dynamic as some of the other stories, so the show is frantically trying to fill in exposition about the colonization plans as well as the back-story of this marriage of convenience that produced a son who’s not sure where he fits in the food chain. There are whole seasons of material in this storyline, and they’re being condensed into one episode. It doesn’t really serve the story as well as it could be served.
But for all of its problems, “Two Fathers” is still propulsive fun. It’s held together by Chris Carter frantically hanging onto the tails of the various strands of the story as they jet off into space, but damned if he doesn’t keep everything constantly moving forward. This is grand, entertaining, dumb TV, and I don’t mean that as a pejorative. It’s superior TV that tells you exactly what to think, where the villains are hissable, the heroes are cheerable, and the story moves along like a rocket. I prefer The X-Files when it’s not quite this frenetic, but there’s just enough in “Two Fathers” to like that I enjoy it, just so long as I don’t think too hard about all of the ways it’s letting me (and the series) down.
- So this two-parter was supposed to close off the mythology and open a new chapter in the series’ run. So far as I can tell, it… mostly didn’t do that, but that will be up to Zack next week. It certainly clarified some things, but it mostly seems to be Carter saying, “I give up!” and blowing up his story.
- It’s a pretty neat retcon to call the black oil “purity” when back in “The Erlenmeyer Flask,” there was that “purity control” mention, tied to the alien fetus.
- Those are some dopey looking wigs in the black and white photograph.
- One of my curiosities has always been why the series didn’t do more with Armin Mueller-Stahl, established in the movie as the big heavy of the Syndicate. Was he just that expensive? I can’t imagine so. He’s a great actor!
- I like when the Cigarette Smoking Man tells Fowley that you “couldn’t have scripted” the path the Syndicate took to get to the desperate straits it’s in at episode’s end. Sure you couldn’t have.
- If this episode has one unquestionable good, it’s Alex Krycek kicking ass and taking names. I love when he kills the alien rebel before Spender can die.
- “Oh no! Mulder and Scully are off the X-Files! Oh no! They’re being removed from the FBI!” *snore*
“Collateral Damage” (season 3, episode 11; originally aired 1/22/1999)
In which John Locke, Spike, and Art Bell walk into a bar…
I’m not going to lie about this: The parts of Millennium where children and women are put in danger, then scream as evil men do evil things to them aren’t my favorite things to watch. They’re not my favorite things to watch on any crime procedurals, precisely because they try so hard to push my buttons. It’s easy to place a child in danger and make me care, simply because it’s a biological imperative to make sure the young survive to continue the species. And it’s easy to place a woman in danger and make people care, because our fiction has spent millennia giving us the idea that women are in a position of perpetual victimhood.
So when the criminal of the week started hosing down Peter Watts’ daughter on an operating table, after removing her clothes with scissors, I was prepared to completely write this episode off. I like the Watts character—though not what the show has done to him in this season—and I liked the idea of the Marburg Virus story strand coming back into play. But the way this all played out was so rank and manipulative that I pushed back against it. I didn’t need that. The show didn’t need that. It was so desperately and obviously pushing buttons that it all but begged me to stop caring the second the scissors and the sprayer came out. This was going to be just another episode about a closed-off psychopath whose pathology could only be understood by Frank, who would track him down through the bowels of the American underbelly.
But a weird thing happened as the episode rolled on. I started to get kind of into it. This may just be because my expectations for the series have fallen so far, but after that initial attempt to get me to care about Taylor Watts, an attempt based entirely on her relation to a recurring character and putting her in a situation transparently constructed to get me to worry about her, I liked that the episode settled in and became about something. Specifically, it’s telling us a story about how the relationship between Peter and Frank deteriorated after the Group released the Marburg Virus, killing Frank’s wife (and you’d expect that relationship to deteriorate, no?), and it’s telling us a story about the way the government treated veterans of the first Gulf War. There’s a lot of heady stuff going on in this episode, and once it settles in, it really starts to deliver on some of that promise.
One of the best things about it is a guest star performance from William the Bloody himself, James Marsters. Marsters plays Eric Swan, the ultimate mastermind behind the kidnapping, and the more we get to know him, the more he becomes an open wound. Swan claims that in the Gulf War, the government ordered him to fire a biological weapon on his own fellow troops, then blamed the resulting horror on the Iraqis. It’s a scarily plausible notion, and I love the way the episode underlines that everybody in the world of the show seems to believe it probably happened. (For all I know, something like this was hot on conspiracy theorists’ minds at the time.) It points the way toward another direction the series could have gone to differentiate from X-Files: the many, many, far more mundane ways that the government abuses its citizens, things that have nothing to do with aliens or the end of the world.
Marsters was, of course, riding high off the success of his turn on Buffy The Vampire Slayer the season before, when he took a somewhat garden variety Big Bad (if you can call a punk rock loving British vampire “garden variety”) and elevated him into this weirdly empathetic character, who loved a little too hard and constantly got punched by the universe for it. Buffy, of course, would ask Marsters to come back, and he’d finish out his run as Spike over on Angel, but this episode came at a curious time when he was in demand as a guest star because his run on Buffy had ended, but not yet started up again. He played plenty of villains in this window, and this is one of the creepiest, but I’m impressed by Marsters’ ability to make Swan—who has no real redeeming features, if you think about it, outside of the fact that he was used by his country—into this deeply sympathetic figure. You want him to pay, but you also want the people who twisted him into this person to pay. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, yet Marsters manages it ably.
The other ace in the hole for this episode is Terry O’Quinn. His work as Peter Watts has always been good, but in the third season, the show has too often attempted to outguess us as to the man’s true motives. Here, when all he wants to do is get his daughter back, he returns to the direct, fascinating man of seasons one and two, the guy who really believes in the cause the Millennium Group pursues and lets himself become a bit blinded by that. I’ve missed that guy, and it’s nice to have a little visit with him in this episode again, particularly in his scenes with Frank, which ring with the truth of two men who once believed in the same thing, then came to a parting of the ways over it. This episode really does examine that relationship as well as anything since season two ended, and it’s all the better for it. If this Peter Watts had showed up more in this season, I’d probably be more forgiving of the season as a whole. Plus, the moment that closes the episode, when Taylor asks her father if what Swan said about the government was true and he responds with stony silence, is chilling, that moment when a young adult first starts to realize that the world is often a cruel, cold place, where those you’re told care about you often don’t.
I’m not going to try and argue that “Collateral Damage” is a great episode of television. It’s not. But it’s a solid episode of a crime drama, and it does that Millennium thing where it’s less interested in whodunit than in why that character became so bruised in the first place. Anchored by the work from O’Quinn and Marsters—and the always dependable Lance Henriksen—the episode overcomes the pitfalls of its early going (and the consistent problems of season three, like the inability of the series to define Emma Hollis at all) to pull together a bunch of plot threads you might have suspected it dropped. That it does so without utterly dropping the ball or without coming apart at the seams is sort of amazing, and it’s mostly thanks to two men who aren’t even in the main cast.
- You know how Henriksen wants to do a Millennium remake or movie or whatever? How many times do you think that Jordan would be kidnapped in the first season (or first hour of the movie) alone?
- Another fun cameo: Art Bell, at the height of his Coast To Coast fame, pops up here as himself, as he agrees to help Frank out in tracking down Swan, who frequently calls into the show as Thomas Paine. Bell mostly just has to sit there and nod, but he does it pretty well.
- I like how the show comments on the death of Catherine and the Polaroid Stalker but not overtly. It’s like the series is trusting us to remember what’s happened in its history!
Next week: Zack finds out who the “One Son” is (spoiler: It’s Mulder!), then listens to “The Sound Of Snow.”