"Trust is a hard thing to come by these days." -The Thing
On one level, "Sleepless" is your standard MotW riff. The premise–a government conducted experiment during the Vietnam War that created a group of soldiers who could stay perpetually awake–is engaging, and Tony Todd is well cast as the story's main antagonist, a man driven by decades of constant awareness into a deep, vengeful religious mania. Whether he's the Candyman or Death's expositor, Todd is a creepy, creepy dude; his voice alone sounds like something crawling out of the abyss in a really bad mood. Throw in the increased editing and visual competency of the second season, and you've got a solid, if unremarkable, forty minutes of TV.
But wait–there's more! X-Files is about to seriously pay-off on all the doom and gloom, and before things fall apart completely for Mulder and Scully, the pieces have to be in the right places. It's time to meet two new players: Deep Throat Redux, and that magnificent bastard himself, Alex Krycek.
We want to believe and we want the truth, but as Scully has warned Mulder time and again, the former doesn't automatically lead to the latter. Wanting to believe makes Mulder more open to his beloved "extreme possibilities," but it also means he's not entirely equipped to deal with the dark forces working behind the scenes. You get the sense watching them interact that Mulder has spent his whole life waiting for somebody like Scully to come along; somebody who would doubt him and question his every assumption, but somebody he could trust, who'd get his back if he needed to be brought back down to earth.
Unfortunately Scully's stuck at Quantico, and when a new agent muscles in on Mulder's territory, Mulder lets him along for the ride with a minimum of fuss. Sure, he tries to ditch Krycek a couple times, but given the repeated warnings from multiple fronts, it's a little sad how quickly he gives in. Nicholas Lea as Krycek certainly looks the part; the guy could've stepped out of a '50's sci-fi flick, or maybe some educational short on "Getting To Know Your Government Employees." And that he's not immediately dismissive of Mulder's more outré concepts helps.
Still, Mulder should've known better. He has his first face-to-face meeting with DT2 in "Sleepless." As played by Steven Williams, Mr. X (as he's referred to in the credits and, if I'm remembering right, later in the season) is different than his predecessor; more irritable for one, and a good deal more concerned about his own safety, for obvious reasons. He tells Mulder, "The truth is still out there–and it's never been more dangerous." It's a lesson it'll take another two episodes to land.
As for why Fox, the man who sees conspiracies in everything, would fail to realize he's being conned? In a way, I think you can connect it with the abilities of Tony Todd's character. During their tour in Vietnam, Todd's unit, made up entirely of no-sleep soldiers, went crazy and started killing indiscriminately. Todd decides it's his job to avenge the deaths of the innocents (apparently because it's the 24th anniversary of the unit's worst massacre), starting with the doctor who made them the men they were. But Todd doesn't just strangle the doc, or shoot him; in addition to not having slept a wink in over two decades, Todd has the ability to project dreams into reality. He murders the doctor by showing him a fire in his apartment–no fire exists in the physical world, but when Scully does her autopsy, she finds the man's body reacted as though it believed it was burning.
The dream thing is a so-so idea; it works here because the attack scenes are well-filmed and, as mentioned, Tony Todd is a scary, scary man. Plus, intentionally or not, the concept gains points for reflecting Mulder's great blind spot, and for serving as a warning, however indirectly, for the troubled times ahead. Because what we learn in "Sleepless" is that belief itself is dangerous. That if you jump too blindly, give in too freely, it might even be deadly. The final reveal, with Krycek reporting to the Cigarette Smoking Man, shows an extreme possibility that Mulder never gave much time to; Krycek's comment that "Scully is a problem," and the CSM's response–Every problem has a solution–shows that Mulder won't be the only one who suffers for his lapse.
Really, though, it's hard to blame Mulder for what happens next. For one thing, CSM's group moves so quickly that it's doubtful even a fully prepared paranoiac could've anticipated their next step; and for another, those steps are buried so deeply, and so obscurely, that it's next to impossible to know what's planned and what's merely happenstance. When Duane Barry (Steve Railsback) breaks out of a mental asylum at the start of "Duane Barry," he doesn't seem to have to received any push outside his own madness and fear to move; but given the number of times he talks about voices, and given what doctors eventually find buried inside him, whose to say he hasn't been taking marching orders from Mr. Marlboro himself?
Barry claims to have been abducted by aliens, but nobody believes him. So he kidnaps his psychiatrist and drags him to the site where he was originally abducted; unfortunately, he can't remember just where that site is, and when he stops at a travel agency to check, he winds up taking the whole place hostage. Mulder is called in because of his special experience with abductees, and while the rest of the agents working the scene dismiss the idea out of hand, Mulder takes Barry's story at face value. A brief light show seems to confirm his suspicions, and when a hostage is injured, Mulder trades himself for the wounded man. He earns Barry's trust as the two discuss the nature of abductions, and Mulder's own experience with his sister; but back in Washington, Scully has made a discovery about Barry's past that changes everything.
Or does it? The reveal here, that Barry is a former FBI agent with a bullet wound that destroyed the moral center of his brain, isn't all that convincing. We know that abductions are real in Mulder and Scully's world; sure, it's possible to explain Samantha's disappearance in a way that doesn't involve cattle mutilation and probing, but given everything they've uncovered, there's no doubt at this point that something strange is going on. Plus, the cold open with Barry in his house getting some unwelcome visitors is proof enough–it could be a hallucination, of course, but how often in genre television is the person seeing horrible things actually nuts?
There is some ambiguity, though, and that's due almost entirely to Steve Railsback. If William Sanderson is the go-to for creepy sad sacks, Railsback is your man for sympathetic psychopaths. He's got another hard-used face, and there's a sweaty intensity to his best performances that makes him impossible to look away from; but you still can't accept anything he says at face value. In "Duane Barry" and "Ascension," he's a man constantly riding the edge of madness, and no matter how much Mulder wants to think he's telling the truth about his abduction story, you can't really blame Fox for having doubts, especially when Scully gives him an excuse. Would you trust a guy who twitches so much?
But of course Mulder should trust Duane–delusional or not, the guy has connections. After he's taken out by the FBI, doctors find unusual pieces of metal inside his body, buried at the points where Barry had claimed the aliens had implanted tracking devices. Scully takes one of the metal bits home with her, but not before running it through a scanner at a grocery store; the scanner goes crazy, and when Scully gets to her house, she immediately calls Mulder to tell him the news. But it's too late; the gears are turning, the cabal has made their decision, and Duane Barry is on the loose again. And this time, he's taking Dana along for the ride.
"Duane," with its claustrophobic negotiations and visions, is all about the build–the infamous screw-turning that Henry James was so fond of. Nominally, "Ascension" is about climaxing that build; but really, it's more about frustration. Mulder spends most of the episode racing to find Scully before the worst can happen, but he's constantly foiled, either by his own need for sleep and emotional involvement in the case, or more directly by the efforts of his new "partner," Krycek. When Mulder finally tracks Barry down to Skyland Mountain, it turns out the worst is worse than even he imagined–Scully isn't dead. Not exactly. But she's been traded. Barry made a deal with someone, and the deal was, They took her. Not him.
There's something awful about that, worse in a way than if he'd just shot her in the back of the head and been done with it. The brief scenes Mulder imagines of Scully on an alien ship, held to a table and forced to undergo their "tests" (a nice bit here that makes use of Anderson's pregnancy) are bad enough, but the really terrible thing is, you don't know what's happening to her. You can't. Mulder's beliefs once again come back to haunt him, because if the things he's spent a lifetime hunting are true, something unimaginable is being done to the person he cares about most in the world. Something he can't control or stop, because it's out of his reach. And this isn't even the first time he's been through it.
Of course, "Ascension" doesn't end with Scully's abduction. Krycek makes a couple of overt moves during the episode, first getting rid of a tram operator so he can slow Mulder down (he knocks the guy unconscious, but later we hear the operator has "disappeared") and then killing Duane before Mulder can get the answers he wants so badly. Mulder's starting to catch on, though. Duane managed to find Dana at home somehow, and while you could just write that off as alien tech (she did have the implant, after all), the more obvious explanation is that somebody told Duane where to find her. Somebody with a vested interested in seeing Scully out of the picture.
When Mulder finds cigarette butts in the ashtray of Krycek's car, he doesn't need any more proof. He goes to Skinner with his suspicions, but again, it's too late. Krycek has left town. Duane's dead, Scully's gone, and all Mulder can do is stare up at the sky. Sometimes wanting to believe isn't just about little green men.
"Duane" and "Ascension" make up the first official two parter of the series, with a "To Be Continued" and everything, and they really feel like one unit. "Ascension" could've used a little trimming, but given the demands of network TV, it's impressive both episodes work out as well as they do. Duchovny does a great job holding things together; his usual laconic delivery degrades over the course of both eps, till by the end of "Ascension" he's just a suit held together by loss and rage. And he's not the only one who's pissed off–Krycek is one of my favorite characters on the show largely because of how well Lea plays contempt. The switches between open-faced newbie and arrogant gun-for-hire are well handled, and while it wouldn't become clear until later in the series, I love how much he can't stand Mulder. CSM is too world-weary and corrupt to give a crap about much of anything, but Krycek? That's a man who clearly loves his work.
My one biggest criticism with the whole Krycek plotline is that it's over too quickly. Obviously concessions had to be made, considering that the whole abduction arc was created whole-cloth to cover for Anderson's pregnancy (I feel like we should send the father a thank you note), but the potential for betrayal here is disappointingly mishandled. Why reveal he's a double agent so quickly? I'll buy that he needed to start taking a hand in things by "Ascension," but apart from foreshadowing Scully's disappearance, something which could easily have been done by someone else, there's no reason to show his true colors at the end of his first episode. If we hadn't known Krycek was evil, his attack on the tram operator would've been shocking; as is, it's merely inevitable. And while I liked his vanishing act on a thematic level–the situation's resolved, and all the loose threads have been neatly clipped–wouldn't the potential for pay-off have been greater if he'd kept Mulder's trust longer? With Scully gone, Fox desperately needs a confidante; having Krycek around, to appear on the surface friendly but undermine Mulder's every move, could've made for a terrific dynamic.
But we get what we get, and I can't complain too much. These three episodes raise the stakes without losing the core of the show's appeal, and solve a technical problem in the most creatively satisfying way possible. We've talked about belief, but belief is really a means to end; the truth is the ultimate prize (although if it means losing immortality, screw it). Or rather, the Truth. While we can all be fairly certain of what went down–what happened to Scully, and Duane, and that the night sky isn't as empty as we might like–there's nothing definite. Mulder never sees the aliens that haunt Duane, never sees a ship take Scully, never sees Krycek betraying him. Even this close, even when they reach in and destroy his life from the inside, the real answers remain just out of reach.
Good, Bad, the Rest:
"Duane Barry": Essential
--Mulder and Scully have a great phone conversation in "Sleepless" that's near flirting; nice of the writers to remind us how well these two click before Scully gets snatched, eh?
--Great use of "Red Right Hand" and Nick Cave in "Ascension."
--You catch the moment when Mulder calls Krycek "Alex"? Definite forehead slapper.
--"They have one policy: deny everything."
--I loved Mulder's last scene with Scully's mom. "It's probably scarier when you stop having the dream."