“Within” (season 8, episode 1; originally aired 11/5/2000)/“Without” (season 8, episode 2; originally aired 11/12/2000)
In which where’s Mulder?…
(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)
The first shots of “Within”—which are also the first shots of the eighth season—are confusing. Murky, out of focus, and unsettled, they show us things we aren’t ready to see yet. Objects move, voices mutter in the background, and as the scene goes on, it becomes more and more obvious that whatever’s happening here is not good, that what we’re seeing is horrible, even if it’s impossible to pin down just what it is. This seems to go on forever. Finally, near the very end, we see something that might be Mulder’s face. We see bright lights. We see objects. We hear screams. Then Scully jerks awake in her bed, and we realize that she’s been dreaming of Mulder; dreaming of him suffering in the hands of alien abductors.
Actually, it’s a little more awful than “just a dream,” but that isn’t confirmed until the second half of this week’s two-parter. All that’s really clear at the start is that Scully is thinking about Mulder, Mulder is missing, and wherever he is, something awful is probably happening to him. This is a great way to pick up after the cliffhanger ending of the previous season, and the pair of episodes that open season eight work well as an introduction to the new narrative status quo. Unlike so much of the mythology arcs of the show’s later years, the search for Mulder has a strong central purpose, with an obvious goal in mind, and that lends the arc greater urgency. While the various alien factions and cabals and conspiracies became difficult to keep track of, “Mulder is missing” doesn’t take much time to parse. The simplicity is a godsend in a show that at times seemed to have its head so far up its ass that it would never see the daylight again.
Which isn’t to say that Chris Carter has thrown off his love of melodramatic gloom and overheated monologues. We have to wait until the cold open of “Without” to get our first introductory narration (it’s Scully, unsurprisingly, talkin’ ’bout stuff), but all the standard tropes are here. The score through much of “Within” consists of an angelic voice (voices?) moaning in the background, in case we forget to remember that Scully is sad, and there’s a general tone of mourning through the hour, which comes to a head when Special Agent Doggett (Robert Patrick, about whom more in a moment) has the Mulder family tombstone shipped to the Bureau special delivery. The tombstone now has Fox’s name at the bottom, with the current year carved in for the date of his death. It’s a striking, implausible visual that fits in well with the visions Scully keeps having of Mulder, naked in a chair, his face riddled with steel needles, his eyes bulging. There’s something bracingly tactile about the image, something that grounds the show’s airier flights of rhetoric. Scully can throw out all the poetry she wants, but her partner is still stuck in a nightmare.
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Another reason to love that cold open: It serves as a subtle, sly commentary on a show that’s struggling to fight its new shape in the absence of its most prominent star. Todd and I have both gone to great lengths to extol the awesomeness of Special Agent Dana Scully, but as great as she is, this was never a show just about her. It wasn’t really just a show about Fox Mulder, either, but if either of the two had claim to the “main character” slot, it would’ve been him. You could argue that neither of them were the really the lead without too much trouble, but regardless of exactly how you put it, Mulder is still gone, and that leaves a pretty big hole in the center of the show’s structure. Mulder was, in a sense, the main driving force of the narrative. It was his quest for the truth that drove him and Scully forward, his obsession and need for answers that generated (in fictional terms) much of what The X-Files came to represent. On her own, Scully is a great FBI agent and remarkable woman who would not have dug too deeply into any of this. For good and for ill, Fox is what kept the motor running, and now he’s gone.
Which is what that cold open sets up. Everything’s confusing now; the world of the series itself is missing its focus. And so it's not surprising how fixated these first two episodes are on getting Mulder back. His absence has created a vacuum that must be filled, and “Within”/“Without” goes about that in two ways: the first, by introducing what’s presumably going to be a season-long plot to track the missing agent down; and the second, by giving us a new male protagonist for Scully to bounce off of. It’s surprisingly successful in both those aims. Plot-wise, as mentioned, having a clear goal set in place instead of some amorphous pursuit of “proof” gives the writing a sharpness and immediacy its earlier mythology arcs occasionally lacked. “Within” sets up the new (almost) status quo. Kersh has taken over the FBI, and he’s putting a team of agents on Mulder’s trail. Normally, this would be a good thing, but Kersh is, well, Kersh; neither Scully nor Skinner trust him, for obvious reasons, and the whole thing is less about saving a missing agent than it is about Kersh making a power play.
So once again, Scully is at odds with her superiors, but what makes this interesting is how quickly she and Skinner fall into the old space she and Mulder used to inhabit. This time, instead of standing back and looking mildly uncomfortable whenever her partner started ranting out about little gray men, Scully is the one in charge, shouting down her opponents and refusing to step back even when her opinions are clearly making everyone else do that “let’s not make eye contact” thing. Skinner tries to hold her back as best he can, which works roughly as well as you’d expect. As funny as it is to see him working against the bureaucracy for once (he even hangs out with the Lone Gunmen!), the real thrill here is Scully in action-hero mode. With no Mulder and with a desperately important objective, Scully is a force of nature. She spends some of “Within” moping about, even going to Mulder’s apartment and cuddling up on his bed with his shirt. (She thinks Mulder’s in town because the alien bounty hunter is walking around with Fox’s face, but there’s still some definite moping.) But once she shrugs that off, she is pissed, and it is a sight to behold.
Still, this is a show that needs two to tango, and as great as Skinner is, he’s not in a position career-wise to run around the country solving X-Files with Dana. He’s not the right kind personality, either; he’s seen enough by now to agree with most everything than Scully says, and he’s even, at times, more willing to go out on a limb than she is. Scully needs someone to argue with, and that’s where John Doggett comes in. He’s introduced as the head of the hunt for Mulder, trying to con his way into Scully’s trust. The conversation doesn’t work out as he’d planned (Scully eventually catches on and throws a cup of water in his face), but the first impression is important. I can imagine fans resisting anyone who might seem to be taking Mulder’s place, but Doggett comes across as a smart, likable guy. Even when he’s pretending to not be himself, he seems like a straight-shooter. Not in a boring, cardboard kind of way, and not even in the logical, science-minded style that typified Scully in the earlier seasons. Doggett is, well, just look at the damn name. He is, in a way, just as driven as Mulder was, and as Scully can be. But he’s got a cop’s mind. There’s cause and effect, there’s a crime and a perpetrator, and it’s his job to solve the former and stop the latter, and God help you if you get in his way.
This isn’t a revolutionary character design, but Robert Patrick brings a distinct, charismatic energy to the part. He’s best known for his iconic turn as a shape-shifting killer robot in Terminator 2, and it’s fun to see him shift that role’s icy, alien determination into a far more humanized context. He spends most of the first two episodes not really knowing what’s going on and trying to convince Scully to trust him, and it’s a measure of just how good Patrick is that even in a series based on elaborate, and near omnipresent, deception, you want her to accept him as an ally. This is a new kind of presence in this world, and it plays as though Doggett is actually a crossover guest star from something like Law & Order or Homicide: Life On The Street. We’re used to double-talk and poetry, hints and insinuations, and Doggett shows up and says, in effect, to hell with all that, let’s get this done. Sure, he’s set up to be the skeptic to Scully’s newly converted believer (Scully’s realization that she’s now spouting Mulder’s rhetoric is the funniest joke in either episode), but his skepticism is different than Scully’s was, just as her faith isn’t the same as Mulder’s. It’s a great way to maintain the back-and-forth dynamic while still finding new ways to reframe the same arguments.
Not that there’s a lot of time for in-depth arguing in “Within”/“Without.” Scully shouts at Doggett most of the time, and he acts kind of confused, and they reach a basic rapprochement by the end. In terms of plot, the episodes are solid, but not spectacular; their main reason for existing is giving just enough to tantalize about Mulder’s disappearance without resolving anything, and to their credit, neither hour comes across as overly strained or stalling. (Well, “Without” comes close, but it manages to get by with the general freakiness of the alien bounty hunter.) Scully comes to the conclusion that the aliens are now working to wipe out all evidence of their existence on Earth, which, okay, that sounds plausible enough, let’s just roll with it. This brings Gibson Praise, the boy with special powers whose physiology is proof of a connection between humans and aliens, back into the picture, and let’s us all marvel yet again that the hasn’t killed him off yet. I don’t mean that I want Praise to die; I mean that The X-Files is utterly ruthless when it comes to secondary characters, and I’m surprised that Gibson has lasted this long. There’s a decent fake-out when Doggett catches the alien bounty hunter in Mulder’s shape, although we don’t immediately know this. (I mean, sure, we do, but it’s played like we don’t.) This raises the question as to how big or little David Duchovny’s presence is going to be in the season. Todd could answer that question better than myself, but if I had to guess, I’d say he’ll be limited to pop ups in the mythology-arc stuff, plus some occasional creepy “dream” shots.
And those shots—which, since Gibson also sees them, aren’t really dreams at all—are creepy indeed, and make sure the stakes of the hunt for Mulder are very clear. That was always going to be a risk going into this season. As gratifying simple as “Find Fox” is for a mission statement, there was a chance that it could’ve come off like an airless stunt. The decision isn’t creatively driven; the writers didn’t decide to just write off one of their main characters for a while. In theory, it’s hard to believe Mulder could be gone for good, or that anything seriously drastic might happen to him. He might never be a regular again, but surely he’s a key part of the franchise. The shots of him in captivity tell a different story. This isn’t just some gooey cocoon, or a hazy peaceful oblivion. He’s being studied and tortured and sawed open, and while the aliens have the necessary technology to keep him alive, who knows how long they’ll bother? And if he survives, who knows what will be left of him?
- Scully’s pregnant, and Skinner knows. I’m not sure if this was revealed at the end of last season, even though I watched the finale before I started season eight, but there you go.
- Scully takes out the alien bounty hunter with one hell of a shot. Didn’t they have toxic blood, though?
- Speaking of the alien bounty hunter, it’s odd how he spends so much time not talking to people, when a word or two might alleviate suspicion, only to have an entire conversation with Scully as Skinner during the climax.
- “I think that it is true. And possible. And wherever Mulder is right now, he better damn well be smiling.”—Scully. Ha!
Next week: Todd watches as Scully struggles to have “Patience,” and then enjoys some Vince Gilligan craziness in “Roadrunners.”