I used to be a huge "Scooby Doo" fan. The jokes were terrible and the characters about as complex as a hula hoop schematic, but it had a sort-of talking dog, a dude in an ascot, and an endless supply of pratfalls. Plus, there were monsters–and in such colorful flavors! The Diving Helmet Guy, the Glowing Thing, Evil Pirate Man, and on, and on.
Of course, none of them were really monsters. As I got older, I stopped watching the show; part of it was the Scrappy Doo factor, but mostly it was the fact that at the end of every mystery, somebody was always wearing a rubber mask. There was never any supernatural force at work, just a park owner or a miserly landlady or any in a long line of interchangeable, thoroughly explicable creeps. You could say that it's important for kids to learn that the shadows really do vanish when you turn on the lights (or catch them in a complicated, highly implausible attempt at insurance fraud), but when you grow up, you find yourself wishing it wasn't quite so simple.
More than any other genre show before or since, The X-Files exploited a simple truth: we all want to believe. We might be afraid of what's lurking in the dark, but isn't there always a bit of wishing inside that fear? A hope that what we think we know isn't everything there is to know. That just once it might be nice to reach for a zipper and instead find nothing but cool scales.
In "Little Green Men," Mulder is having a crisis of faith. Stuck on the receiving end of the world's dullest wire-tap, he's still reeling from the events of last season, and with no mentor to guide him and no X-Files to focus his ambitions on, he's lost; and he's starting to wonder if his entire life has been spent chasing phantoms. Not even Scully's encouragement helps. She now spends her time teaching at Quantico, and at Mulder's insistence, the two only meet in the shadows. Maybe, he tells her, it's time to move on. Maybe They have finally accomplished what all of Scully's skepticism and basic common sense failed to do: turn Mulder into an unbeliever.
Luckily for him (and us), a supposedly deactivated satellite in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, just got a message from Out There. It's Mulder's last chance to get back on his game. All he has to do is stay alive long enough to bring back the proof.
We've talked a lot about the mythology of season one, so I'll try not belabor it here; but one of the things that surprised me the most about the first three episodes of the second season (and, if I'm remembering correctly, the ones beyond that) was how well they flow together. I'd always considered The X-Files a stand-alone show that occasionally tried for greater connectivity, but "Men," "The Host," and "Blood" are all closely involved with each other. (A bit less so with "Blood," but we'll get to that.) It makes sense, given the events of "Flask," but it's impressive in how it changes your investment in the characters. Mulder takes center stage for all three eps, and there's a much stronger sense of his main objective. Even better, there's a sense that objective might actually be obtainable. Logically, you know it's not possible–the castaways never fixed the boat no matter how many coconuts they had because if you made the S.S. Minnow sea-worthy again, there's no show. But the intensity here, both in Duchovny's performance and the storytelling, make you think maybe this time, things could really could change.
Two out of the three of this week's episodes deal heavily in paranoia, but while "Blood" gives us the dark vision of a world that's specifically designed to bring out the worst in you, "Little Green Men" is all about the groups within groups that Deep Throat once spoke so highly of. Scully chafes at Mulder's precautions for meeting together, but Mulder isn't the only one on his guard; we finally meet Fox's super important "friend at the hill," Senator Matheson (tip of the hat, must be), and even he assumes his office has been bugged. It's Matheson who tells Mulder about the Arecibo transmission, and Mulder leaves immediately without even bothering to let his supervisors know. A pissed off Skinner (I guess that's sort of redundant) calls Scully in on the carpet the next morning, demanding the whereabouts of her former partner, but she's just in the dark as they are; but not to worry, the Cigarette Smoking Man says after Scully leaves the room. She'll find him.
Of course she does, but thankfully, all her time that time with Mulder has let a little suspicion rub off. While she's dodging government agents at the airport, Mulder arrives at the research station. The time he spends there–probably no more than a day or two–forms the heart of "Men," giving us full justification for Mulder's obsessions without ignoring their inherent dangers. Early in the show, Mulder remembers the night his sister was abducted; the sequence is low tech but unsettling, with Samantha floating out a window while a spindly figure watches from the doorway. When the aliens return to Arecibo, Mulder initially dismisses it as a storm; Jorge, his scared ethnic sidekick, makes a run for it, only to die of fright outside. Which is bad enough, but things get really freaky when the light show starts up outside--the exact same light show that Mulder saw during his sister's abduction–and then the door flies open and the same gray figure comes slowly into view.
It's not surprising that Mulder reaches for his gun, as useless as it proves to be, but raises an important issue. For all his aspirations, Mulder has no clear concept of the secrets he's striving to uncover, and, apart from one lost sister, no real idea of the dangers those secrets may represent. It's a blind spot that will come to haunt him (and those closest to him) later in the season, but here, it connects back to the double-edged nature of belief. Boring as all those crusty old janitors were, they were pretty easy to take down in the end; just a couple of Shaggy pratfalls and a Scooby Snack or two would do the trick. A real live monster is something else entirely.
"Men" ends with Mulder back at his surveillance job, listening to the tape he took from station–a tape that should have a whole lot of weirdness on it, but is now just a couple hours worth of static. But he listens anyway. As he tells Scully (who arrived on site earlier in time to save his ass form a group of Blue Berets), his faith is restored, and when Mulder has faith, he has all the patience in the world.
Well, maybe not all the patience. "The Host" has Mulder reassigned to Newark, New Jersey, investigating the origins and cause of death on a corpse found rotting and rancid in the sewers. It seems like a waste of time (or it would to anyone who hadn't seen what killed the corpse in the cold open), and Mulder doesn't hesitate to tell Assistant Director Skinner just that in no uncertain terms. Fox comes off as a bit of a dick here, especially considering that Skinner went to bat for him at the end of "Men," but his frustration is more directed at the system than the AD himself; Mulder later confesses to Scully that he's thinking of quitting. But that's before he gets a call from an anonymous stranger–a "friend in the FBI"–and before the dull body in the sewer turns out to have a nasty bit of something inside it.
Is "Host" the first really, really icky X-Files? Given its frequent proximity to raw sewage, the whole giant flatworm in the gut thing, and the design of the monster itself, it's definitely in the running. Although the Flukeman is beyond "icky," honestly. A mutant giant fluke in the shape of a man, it doesn't have a single line of dialogue, or even a lot of visible attack time (most of its kills are made underwater or off camera), but it just looks wrong. The episode's greatest twist is that the creature is, initially at least, fairly easy to capture; but once it's taken into custody, no one knows what to do with the damn thing. The usual process is applied–Flukey is put in a psychiatric hospital for evaluation, he's being charged with murder, they even have him in his own cell–but every attempt to normalize the situation just throws its inherent other-ness into sharper contrast. Flukeman is never that much of a physical threat; given the thing's preferred habitat, it lacks the nervy intimacy of something like Eugene Tooms. But the plain fact of its existence is horrifying enough that it doesn't need to do more. At the end of the ep, Scully explains it with radiation poisoning from Chernobyl, but one look at the Flukeman, with its sucker mouth and half-intelligent eyes, makes her explanations meaningless.
The anonymous voice that urges Mulder on through the episode tells him that "Success is imperative" because the X-Files themselves must be reinstated. Mulder himself tells Skinner that the case should've been with him and Scully from the beginning; their department wasn't merely an outlet for his quixotic goals, but also a valuable tool for handling scenarios that the rest of the system isn't equipped to deal with. The dark comedy of an obvious late-show monstrosity tied down to a gurney bed like it was some junkie on a bad trip, just serves to underline Mulder's point.
"Host" has some clumsy moments–the circular structure, which has the creature getting caught at a sewage plant, then escaping from the authorities, then making its way back to the plant, is a little redundant, and the kicker ending seems more an expected twist than a justified one–but it holds up because of the Flukeman's irreconcilable ugliness, and because it continues down the path that "Little Green Men" started on. The X-Files will be back, there's no doubt, but at least the series is making its heroes (and, in a way, us) work for the reinstatement. It's a satisfying thing when a television series takes the time to make sense.
"Blood" doesn't directly continue this line, and it would be possible, without too many changes, to put the episode into any point of the series early chronology. While Mulder and Scully are still not officially paired together, when Mulder gets called in to work up a behavioral profile on a series of seemingly random spree killings, it's Scully he looks to when he needs some science-ing done. There are no tortured confrontations with higher ups, no late night conversations about choice and expectations. It's just solid, straightforward show–or at least as straightforward as the series got in its best moments.
Pity Ed Funsch. Not only does he have the dullest job in the world–inputting zip codes off of junk mail–he manages to get a paper cut right before his friendly but impotent boss downsizes him. Worse, he's played by William Sanderson, the young old man from Blade Runner (and a ton of other stuff). Sanderson's the ideal when it comes to sympathetic losers, an actor who you automatically like when you see him but can't help feeling uneasy around. "Blood" makes the most of this quality; the episode splits its time between following Mulder around while he investigates the surprising number of murders in Ed's home of Franklin, PA, and showing Ed's gradual disintegration into a potential killer himself. Sanderson's built in pathos gives his story a lot of tension, while also making him reminiscent of Roland from the first season, another innocent driven to violence by forces beyond his control. And like Roland, Ed's disintegration doesn't happen without a bizarre push: the digital displays on everyday appliances keep telling him to do things. Horrible things. The messages would be easy to write-off as hallucinations, if it weren't for the fact that other people have seen them too, right before they go kill crazy.
While "Blood" may not explicitly tie into the plots of "Men" and "Host," it's a memorable episode, due in no small part to its humor. As X-Files went on, it became far more willing to poke fun at itself, often with mixed results; but here it manages to deliver a story that's simultaneously absurd and frightening. There's the much welcome presence of the Lone Gunman team, for one; while Scully is present off and on, her interactions with Mulder are minimized till the end of the ep, and its nice to have at least one scene with him playing off of people who understand him. But there's also the nature of danger itself. A businessman slaughters an elevator full of people with his bare hands. A stack of TVs shows Ed a montage of violent images and then tells him to buy a gun. (Funny that the O.J. Simpson slow-speed car chase was in the mix.) A middle-aged woman visits a mechanic to pick up her car, and a diagnostic display plays on her worst fears–"HE'LL RAPE YOU." None of this is ha-ha funny, but the pulpy intensity of each sequence–of nearly the entire episode–makes you snicker even as you shudder. Someone's sending those messages and laughing while they do it.
And here's where "Blood" comes back to the show's main concerns. The conspiracy behind the spree killings, involving the testing of a new pesticide that heightens the fear response in insects and humans and an apparently limitless ability to tap into the read-outs of every piece of electronic equipment in the county, is grotesquely absurd. The cover-up of alien landings is bad enough, but here we have a cabal capable of the manipulation of an entire township. It's the punchline at the end of Mulder's deepest fears, a group so secret that you never be sure they exist at all. It's easy to get so caught up in his search for the truth that you forget just how important that truth really is. We want to believe because it would make life more interesting, but also because when the worst really is reality, hiding under the covers–or looking for a mask–is exactly what They want us to do.
Good, Bad, The Rest:
"Little Green Men": Essential
"The Host": Good
--Mitch Pileggi is always angry. He's like a gym coach whose favorite team loses the Super Bowl before every class.
--Was Anderson already pregnant when they started filming season two? It seems like they've got her in the baggiest clothes possible. (And they keep shooting her from unflattering angles.)
--The "ALL DONE NOW BYE BYE" message Mulder gets at the end of "Blood" haunted me for years.
--So what are you scared of?