Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The alien corn

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The X-Files episode "Founder's Mutation"

For the first five minutes of “Founder’s Mutation,” the second episode of the belated revival of The X-Files, even the most skeptical fan might start to feel a glimmer of hope. After a gory cold open that wouldn’t have been out of place in the show’s prime, we cut to the most reassuring sight imaginable: Mulder and Scully, attired in sharp suits, kneeling over a fresh corpse with a crime scene photographer clicking away. (It’s an image so engrained in the show’s visual fabric that Darin Morgan was making fun of it twenty years ago in “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” but it’s still good to see again.) Unfortunately, it soon becomes hard for the viewer to sustain that sense of optimism. The storyline is even more incoherent than usual, with plot points drawn apparently at random from a raffle drum in the writer’s room: genetic manipulation, sinister birds, psychokinesis, evil corporations, infrasound, psychic siblings, mind control, experiments on babies, alien DNA. Much of it plays, ironically enough, as if it had been written by an extraterrestrial who knew how such scenes looked and sounded but not what they meant, or as if we were watching our own hazy memories of the episode twenty or so years down the line: it’s all a little blurred, with scenes thrown together from what feel like two different stories, just as I can never remember the difference between, say, “Roland” and “Young at Heart.” Even our guest star, Doug Savant, is the kind of middling name actor the show would have featured in the mid-nineties, which only underlines the sense that we’re nostalgically recalling—and quickly forgetting—the installment even as it unfolds.

Which is all just to say that “Founder’s Mutation,” despite the hopes I expressed yesterday, is pretty corny, even dire. (Given the percentages that characterized the show even in its best years, a six-episode run could be expected to include one great episode, two good ones, and three mediocre or worse—and we’re burning through the latter at an alarming rate.) The only way to make sense of it as a piece of television is to view it as a sort of transitional casefile, an episode that looks and moves like a standard Monster of the Week but is really seeking other effects. And in fact, when you start thinking of it less as a proper story than as a sort of tone poem or a scrapbook of stock tropes designed to spark certain responses in Mulder and Scully, it becomes slightly more explicable. The show has never been shy about trading on nightmarish images of pregnancy or fetal trauma, and “Founder’s Mutation,” with its procession of children suffering from hideous genetic deformities, crosses that line even more than usual. Here, the images seem intended only to evoke feelings in Mulder and Scully about their lost son, and as it turns out, those segments, which feature some good work from both Duchovny and Anderson, are the best part of the episode. They’re still a little off, though, especially when you consider that little William Mulder came and went so late in the show’s run that he doesn’t have much resonance even for true fans. And it feels borderline tasteless to have those emotions triggered by images of genuine pain.

The X-Files episode "Eve"

But what bothered me the most about the episode, given the role it plays in this limited run, is its cavalier attitude toward narrative resolution. There’s a widespread misconception, which apparently extends even to the show’s writers, that the strength of The X-Files lay in its willingness to leave stories open-ended. It’s true that its overarching mythology never tied anything off or explained much of anything, although most fans would probably argue that this was a bug, not a feature. But when you look at the strongest Monster of the Week episodes, you find that there’s rarely any doubt about what really happened. Mulder and Scully may be left in doubt, or without any concrete evidence to show for their troubles, but the viewer usually has all the pieces. Episodes like “Pusher” or “Ice,” to name just two of the show’s best casefiles, are perfect narrative puzzles in which every element serves a purpose and every story point makes a surprising amount of sense. And it’s damning to compare “Founder’s Mutation,” which doesn’t make any sense at all, to a first-season episode like “Eve,” which hits many of the same beats but also holds together as a story, structured as a series of increasingly dark—but delicious—surprises. It’s not that Chris Carter and James Wong, who wrote and directed the episode, have forgotten how to do this: it’s that they clearly don’t think that viewers will find it necessary, as if frustration and loose ends were part of the show’s brand.

But at the risk of stating the obvious, narrative resolution within the confines of individual episodes is more important now than ever, since the show’s future is so finite. Viewers will embrace loose ends in a television show when there’s a chance that they’ll be addressed eventually, even if few series have ever managed to live up to that promise. (This is why the best Monsters of the Week tended to be more cleanly resolved than the episodes from the mytharc: we knew that we weren’t going to see the likes of Flukeman again, so there was greater pressure to supply what little closure the show was willing to provide.) We’re already a third of the way into a foreshortened season, and the odds that any of the story points raised over the last two nights are going to be revisited in a satisfying way are vanishingly small. Writing a television series can resemble an act of sleight of hand, or a confidence game, with the writers assuring us that answers are around the corner as they obfuscate matters even more, but in this case, the trick has no power—it only works when we have a full season or more of possibilities to anticipate. In this case, we know that the magic show is almost over, and that the performer hasn’t delivered on his line of patter in the past. We’re left with nothing but what the show can offer us in the moment, and if I remain absurdly hopeful that I’ll see something good over the coming weeks, it’s because at its best, The X-Files could immerse viewers in the moment as powerfully as any show ever made. Its past was a muddle, its future unknown, so it sought out small flashes of terror or clarity. It could still happen again. As Mulder said thirteen years ago: “Maybe there’s hope.” And he had about as much reason to believe it then as I do now.

Written by nevalalee

January 26, 2016 at 9:22 am

2 Responses

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  1. ha, you used the word obfuscate, a word I learned from none other than mulder himself in an epic rant against the powers that be that i think also included the word, “inveigle”. and then just this week i was chatting with one of my company’s VPs and she was like, “I need some help. there’s a word that means to hide and it begins with obs-something. Do you know what it is?” and of course i did.

    wakes

    February 5, 2016 at 9:04 pm

  2. @wakes: I can’t type the word “obfuscate” without thinking of that episode.

    nevalalee

    February 16, 2016 at 9:15 pm


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