The most important decision in “Founder’s Mutation” happens before the episode starts. It’s a decision that sacrifices plausibility in the name of narrative efficiency and momentum. That’s a difficult trick to pull off, but the episode works because it rewards viewers’ willingness to go along for the ride. This isn’t the best episode of The X-Files ever made, but it’s far more competent and confident than the premiere. It feels right, in a way “My Struggle” didn’t quite manage to pull off. That’s hard praise to pin down, but I stand by it. I liked the first episode, but I’m not sure I’d defend it; I’ll stand by “Founder’s Mutation.”
The decision, by the way, is to put Mulder and Scully back at their old jobs without bothering to explain in any way how this could be justified. It’s been over a decade since they worked for the FBI. Scully has been working as a doctor for Our Lady Of Sorrows Hospital since then (a fact that will become relevant later on in the hour), and Mulder has devoted his life to, I dunno, hiding and Internet porn; it seems a stretch that they’d both be willing to jump back into a line of work that did so much psychic and physical damage to them both over the years. And even that’s easier to buy than the idea that the scary corrupt evil government would once again think it’s totally fine to pay people to investigate their crimes.
All of this could probably have been explained away in a few scenes. It’s obvious why Mulder would want to come back to the job, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Scully’s been a bit bored. It’s even possible to justify the scary corrupt evil government wanting them around (keep my enemies closer, that sort of thing). But instead of any justification, we just get Mulder and Scully back to doing what they do best: staring at dead bodies before making crazy assumptions as to how those bodies got dead.
This is a good choice. It circumvents logic, but gets to the heart of what the show does best. The mythology stuff can work well, but you need a basic structure to work from, and to take too long making that structure happen would’ve been a mistake. “Founder’s Mutation” isn’t a monster of the week episode at its most pure; much of the emotional weight of the hour rests on Mulder and Scully’s grief over their missing son, William, and Dr. Augustus Goldman’s genetic manipulations are most likely part of the government project to mix alien and human DNA.
Still, the core is the same as it ever was. There’s a body; Scully does an autopsy; Mulder start theorizing; and eventually, the monsters show up. Only in this case, the “monsters” are just children with severe abnormalities who’ve been locked away for research. Some of those abnormalities appear to be already established genetic defects, but others suggest a new step in human evolution.
That’s an old concept, and thankfully, the episode is more interested in what’s going on around the mutants than it is on rubbing our noses in familiar material. Write and director James Wong (one of the show’s many talented alumni who returned for the new season) doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but he does find several striking images to keep that wheel rolling, giving the hour a sense of eerie foreboding that was lacking in the premiere.
Stripped to its essence, this is bare bones stuff: mad scientist doing mad scientist things, Mulder and Scully get involved, mad scientist ultimately pays the price for his transgressions, and our heroes wander away from the scene, largely unscathed by the events but a little wiser. What sticks, though, is the execution, from the flock of birds clustered to a lawn to signify impending doom, to Dr. Goldman’s falsely imprisoned ex-wife suddenly throwing an apple at a cat for no obvious reason. “Founder’s Mutation” mostly plays it safe, hitting beats that most fans should know well, but there’s a confidence and clarity to its visuals which, while not precisely revelatory, at least prevents the familiar from becoming tedious.
The same-ness also helps underline how some things have changed. For one, Mulder and Scully’s struggle against shadowy government forces is far more overty. At the crime scene, Mulder has to steal a victim’s cell phone in order to keep the investigation going, and later, Skinner uses the sluggishness of bureaucracy to give his agents more time to look into a case that the defense department clearly doesn’t want exposed. The idea of our heroes as a small force of light working at the edges of a vast and well-nigh impenetrable cloud of darkness has been with the show from the start, but there’s a blatantness to their struggles here that’s refreshing.
It’s also interesting to see Mulder and Scully get more active in their involvement in these cases. There’s no way to tell if this is a harbinger of things to come, but in “Founder’s Mutation,” Mulder and Scully locate Dr. Goldman’s missing son and bring him back to the doctor—an act which ostensibly seems to be one of kindness, but has more of a feel of “Well, let’s just light this fuse and see what happens.” Events quickly spiral out of control to a degree that neither of them could’ve predicted, but it’s unlikely that either of the two agents wouldn’t realize that putting Kyle, a teenager who can drive people to commit suicide with his mind, in the same room as the father who ruined his life was going to have a happy ending for the doctor. Given what we’ve learned about Goldman’s process (taking babies from vulnerable mothers through the hospital where Scully works, and then killing the mothers if they make a fuss about it), I doubt Mulder and Scully were all that disappointed at how things turned out.
Then there are the two imaginary flashbacks, twin sequences which represent the episode’s biggest departure from the usual format. In the first, Scully imagines taking young William to school, losing him to adolescence, worrying for him when he’s injured, and, finally, watching the alien DNA inside him take effect; in the second, which ends the episode, Mulder imagines doing dad stuff with William (watching 2001, launching model rockets), before losing him to an abduction much like his sister’s.
William is going to be a difficult selling point for this new version of the show. It’s a chunk of mythology which might have been better off left in the past, a traumatic event from the final seasons that never really had the weight the writers wanted it to. Here, it gives Scully and Mulder’s investment in Goldman’s work more of an emotional kick. Given that the bastard was operating on children, though, I’m not sure the story needed a personal touch. As is, every discussion our heroes have about their son is a worrying reminder of how far things went off track in those later seasons.
Yet those flashbacks weren’t terrible. Mawkish and maybe unnecessary, but not terrible. It was great seeing Gillian Anderson smile—not grin slightly, or twitch her lips, but actually full on smile. The idea that Mulder’s greatest fear for his son is a rerun of what happened to his sister shouldn’t have been surprising, but it still caught me off guard, to a degree that called back to one of my favorite moments in the show’s first season (Mulder’s hynoptic regression tapes in “Conduit.”) The sequences with faux-William were longer than they should’ve been, and leaned too heavily on sap, but the connection of the outlandish to legitimate parental fears of being unable to protect your child from the future was powerful. “Founder’s Mutation” is ultimately not the next step in evolution, but it is, at least, a step in the right direction. (I’m so sorry for that final sentence, I really really am.)
- Another change from the old: Mulder manages to leave Goldman’s lab with a sample of Kyle’s blood. For once, he actually has something like proof. Of what, we’ll have to wait and see.
- “I haven’t known pleasure for quite some time.” -Dr. Sanjay
- Mulder’s interactions with Gupta, Sanjay’s (male) lover was… I dunno. I think it came out okay? It helped that Scully pointed out later how strange it was that Sanjay still had to hide his sexual activities in 2016.
- “Bad things happen when the birds gather.”
- Hey, Mulder made an Obamacare joke, in case you were wondering if you were watching a new episode.
- That’s Hannibal’s Kacey Rohl as the doomed Agnes. And Battelstar Galactica’s Aaron Douglas as another in a long line of nameless government dudes getting in Mulder and Scully’s way.