So, vampires, then. Vampires.
For the first twenty minutes of "3," I was doing okay. Not great, but okay. There was a serious USA Up All Night vibe going on, from the opening scene with an old dude and a hottie in a Jacuzzi right through the L.A. setting and lame Club Tepes; it was trash, no doubt, but endurable trash. But then Mulder meets Kristen, an angst-ridden brunette with a hypodermic needle in her purse and a tendency to speak exclusively in Trite. The two make some sort of connection. Stupidity ensues.
You could say we've been spoiled in the last decade or so when it comes to genre TV; not so much in our expectations of quality, but in the concept and execution of multi-episode arcs. Series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer spent whole seasons developing a single plot-thread, weaving it in and out of the background, while more recent shows like Lost are entirely devoted to telling one cohesive (well, relatively cohesive) story. Hell, even Heroes, for all its awfulness, understands the value of epic. Scully's abduction storyline, from disappearance to return, last three episodes. She gets grabbed in "Ascension," she remains gone in "3," and then she's back for "One Breath." Regardless of its effect down the line, as is, the whole thing is pretty abrupt. For all the sturm und drang, it's barely a blip on the radar; while the writers came up with a terrific work-around for Gillian Anderson's absence, they never really followed through on the opportunity it provided. Which is something you get used to on this show, I guess.
Doesn't help that the one episode we get to see of Mulder struggling on his own is just really, really, really not very good. Vampires are always a tricky ground to cover genre-wise; even more so than werewolves, they're old news. It seems like every possible iteration on their themes, from sex to immortality to general paleness, has been done to death. Worse, vampires invite lazy writing; all Goth-with-pointy teeth and over-heated metaphors, and not much else.
"3" makes no real attempt to change this. The trio of vampires that Mulder tracks down aren't exactly Anne Rice heavy, but they are pretty tedious. The only one we get to know at all, John, looks like he just got thrown out of a Creed concert. During interrogation he spouts the usual religious rhetoric, and in one of the ep's few cool moments, Mulder doesn't buy it–believing John's faking his condition, Mulder has him put in a cell with a high window. The sun rises, and John burns. Later on he comes back, which is about the only interesting thing he manages to accomplish, even if it a little vague.
And what of Kristen, the mysterious dark-haired stranger with whom Mulder is so immediately smitten? There's all kinds of back story, but it boils down to her being relatively innocent; the vampire trio is just following her around the country, mostly because she and John used to date. (And do blood sports!)
This is all supposed to be tragic, but it isn't. We don't spend enough time with Kristen or the vamps to get a real sense of their story, and what little time we do spend is full of terrible dialogue and heavy-handed attempts at mood. The ideas aren't necessarily bad–the question of just how far a person should be willing to go for immortality is a good one–but it mostly comes across as a series of grunts and yells.
And then there's the tedious romance between Mulder and Kristen, which is just all kinds of misguided. You can see what the writers were aiming for: Mulder is lost without Scully, Kirsten is caught between the real world and the darkness on the edge of town, together they can heal each other's wounds, and then do some kinky stuff involving candle wax. But it never gels. The writing isn't up to the task; the first scene between the two of them is just wince-inducing bad. Perrey Reeves, the actress who plays Kirsten, isn't all that hot either. She seems to be operating under the influence of a couple boxes of Sudafed.
So is Duchovny, but with him, it works. He's always been a low-key performer, but in this episode (and "One Breath") we get the closest we've yet seen to him bottoming out. Mulder has gone beyond desperation. The first scene after the cold open has him re-opening the X-Files and putting Scully's file in with the rest, a deeply upsetting image; and while he gets off a few quips during the investigation in L.A., it's like he's not really all there. At one point he says, "I don't sleep anymore," and it's not that hard to believe him.
Really, that's what makes "3" such a chore. Even stripped of context it would be disappointing, but coming after the one-two punch of "Duane Barry" and "Ascension," the let-down is severe. Scully's disappearance and Mulder's mourning for her are serious subjects, and they deserve better than to be background noise for a by-the-numbers erotic thriller. "3" has a rare definitive ending, with Kirsten and the others burnt to a permanent crisp; it's the ep's happiest moment, since you know you'll never have to hear any of them whine again.
There's a lot to like about "One Breath." For one, no vampires. For another, Scully's back! Maybe the lousiness of "3" is an intentional thing, to make us so grateful for Anderson's return that we don't notice how sloppily it's handled. "Breath" has some incredibly moving moments, once again showing off X-Files willingness to be as sincere as it damn well wants to be, and the visions Scully has in her coma, along with Mulder's desperate attempts to deal with her condition, are as involving as anything else in the arc.
But there are flaws here too, I think. The episode is unquestionably essential, but there's a certain sloppiness to the mythology. Nothing extreme, of course; we're still in the "oh, I'm sure everything comes together if we just have patience" phase. But… Well, how does Scully get into the hospital? Why bother returning her at all? Cancer Man (nee' Cigarette Smoking Man) tells Mulder he "likes" Scully, but I'm not buying; it's especially weird that she'd be released, only to have agents come hunting for her blood. (In a way, this fits in with the "alien abduction" idea, with the government trying to play catch-up with the UFOs, but doesn't Scully's disappearance eventually turn out to be entirely earthbound?) There's a definite sense of making-it-up-as-we-go here that earlier mythology episodes managed to avoid.
Also, the resolution of the whole coma situation is weak. There's a lot of New Agey talk, most of it delivered by Scully's sister Melissa (Melinda McGraw), and a few hints at religion, but what it really boils down to is we really want Scully to not be dead so, huzzah, she's not dead. I have nothing against faith, but this smacks of creative bankruptcy, especially given the lengths the ep goes to establish the danger Scully's in. A terrific appearance by a well-dressed Frohike at the hospital leads to a Lone Gunman scene where we learn it's all go something to do with alien DNA and so such. Establishing that Dana is basically doomed only to have her pull through for no clear reason is dramatically flat.
But like I said, there's good stuff. Those visions I mentioned before are eerily beautiful, especially the speech Dana's dead father gives her; even if the resolution of the coma plot isn't satisfying, what Scully sees of the beyond gives her plight greater importance. And while she's floating in the haze, Mulder's own struggles with his own grief and rage are equally well handled. There's a lot of moral confusion going on, and the idea that Mulder may need to compromise his ideals in order to affect the conspiracy around him is dramatically sound. He gets to confront Cancer Man for once, but when Mr. X gives him the chance to get revenge on the people who helped engineer Scully's kidnapping, Mulder takes the high road. It's not an easy choice, even if it means he's the better man; there's a moment later in his apartment when he breaks down completely, and seeing him so vulnerable is shocking.
Scenes like that, and like Scully's first conversation with Mulder after waking up, more than outweigh "Breath"'s flaws. Hell, even Skinner gets a chance to shine, delivering a monologue about his time in Vietnam in an attempt to explain to Mulder why he does what he does. In the end, it's really an episode more about the moments than the big picture, but as they are some pretty damn good moments, it's enough.
After all that emotional outpouring, it's odd how quickly "Firewalker" gets back into the regular swing of things. Apart from a couple exchanges about Scully's health, the episode could've taken place at any point in the first two seasons. It's standard MotW stuff: some scientists studying a volcano have gone missing, and when Mulder and Scully investigate, they find that the head of the project has apparently gone insane. Also, there's some kind of silicon-based fungus that kills people from the inside, but not before making them act all paranoid and weird.
"Firewalker" serves as a companion piece to "Ice" from season one, another story focusing on an isolated outpost, extreme temperatures, and internal parasites. The comparison does the later episode no favors. "Firewalker" lacks "Ice"'s intensity, and also its convincing threat; the fungus never seems all that threatening no matter how lethal it is, and its actual effect on its host, apart from the end result, is never made clear. We know that the members of the research team are supposed to be behaving oddly, but the oddness never goes beyond some twitching and the occasional shout.
Still, it's a competent enough piece of work, and it's hard not to get at least a small charge from seeing Scully back in the game. There's something different about Anderson's performance here, to; she seems more self-assured than before, and it's a welcome change. The episode is a cavalcade of That Guy actors, with Leland Orser (Mr. Nervous, probably best known as the guy who had fatal sex with a prostitute in Seven), Shawnee Smith (pre-Becker fame), and the great Bradley Whitford as the possibly-saner-than-he-looks Daniel Trepkos. Whitford played Josh Lyman on The West Wing, which means you get the usual whiplash you always get when dealing with WW alumni; it's not quite as bad as watching Billy Madison, but I kept expecting Donna to show up during Trepkos' more heated (ha!) monologues.
What saves "Firewalker" from being a total waste of time (and it's not all that memorable, regardless) is the pleasure in seeing the X-Files two leads working together again. Put anywhere else on the schedule, this one could've been a write-off; even the conversations about silicon-based life, while intriguing, never go anywhere. But after the sloppiness of "3" and the intensity of "One Breath," it's nice to get back to basics.
Good, Bad, The Rest:
"One Breath": Essential
"Firewalker": The Rest
--I really enjoy the perpetual mad-on Steven Williams has as Mr. X; you get the sense he'd just as soon punch Mulder in the face as help him.
--Maybe I'm a heartless bastard, but I found Mrs. Scully's monologue about Dana and the dead snake too corny for words.
--Frohike in a suit was great, though.
--One more week, everybody, and then it's hiatus time.