Case: A man claiming to be an alien abductee takes four people hostage in a travel agent's. Mulder is called in to negotiate with him.
Destination: Richmond, Virginia
I'm not usually that huge a fan of the alien abduction/conspiracy episodes of The X-Files. I'm here for the spooky and the paranormal, the ghosts and the vampires and the pyromaniacs. But there are exceptions and 'Duane Barry' is one of them - a fantastic episode, an exercise in tension and underlying horror held together by a wonderfully twitchy performance from Steve Railsback as Duane Barry.
One of the things I love about this episode is the way you're never quite sure who to believe, at least until the end. Barry's story matches what Mulder expects to hear, but it's impossible to tell whether that's because he has really been abducted or because he knows how the story should go. The reference to the real-life case of Phineas Gage suggests even more strongly to viewers that Barry is not to be trusted. So often in its more paranormal episodes, The X-Files reports the most extreme version of an old folktale or urban myth, which is eventually revealed to be the truth. Here, the episode reports the slightly pop-culture-distorted version of the story of Gage's personality changes after his head injury, with the implicit suggestion that this is 'the truth' about Barry. Duane Barry's tick of referring to himself in the third person by his full name is also a great way to keep it unclear to what extent he’s mentally ill (not that I haven't referred to myself in the third person every now and again, but it stands out as unusual) and how much of his story is genuine.
You have to feel for poor Mulder here, called in for his expertise on alien abductions but expected not to believe in them or to suggest any belief in them to Barry, as that would constitute supporting Barry's delusion (one wonders why they called for Mulder in the first place). Although his background in criminal psychology might be a help, Mulder isn't given any of the information he'd need to put that bit of his expertise to good use, and is left desperately trying to follow a list of instructions that Barry already knows and isn't buying. It's only when Mulder goes off-book that he's able to earn Barry's trust, but that puts Mulder himself in an increasingly vulnerable position given his own background. As Mulder questions him against advice you can see him getting more and more desperate to get information from Barry, for his own reasons.
Of course, by the end, it's become increasingly clear that Barry is, in fact, telling the truth - and the random bright light and missing time halfway through the episode were a pretty big clue too. Railsback gets all the showcase acting as Barry, but CCH Pounder as Agent Kazdin is a wonderfully grounded presence as well, and her slightly embarrassed look as she calls Mulder in to tell him about the implants they've found in Barry's body is fantastic. I also loved Scully testing the alien barcode on a random shop till.
This episode isn't perfect - maybe I was looking away when it was explained how Barry knew anything about Scully, who she was, and where to find her. And at the end, the supposedly critical Duane Barry obviously either wan't that badly hurt, or the aliens healed him for mysterious reasons of their own. But it’s a great blend of the main elements of the show, horror, crime thriller and alien abductions, with a brilliantly creepy opening abduction and a sense of tension and uncertainty maintained throughout. It's also, despite being a myth arc episode, completely accessible to new viewers, which is always a plus when you're about to launch major new plot developments. Brilliant stuff.
It's our usual policy here to avoid talking about future developments in retro reviews, so that anyone watching the series for the first time can follow along at their own pace. There are one or two things worth saying about 'Duane Barry' with the benefit of hindsight, though, so look away now if you're a first time viewer and you don't want to be spoiled.
With hindsight, of course, this is essentially the episode that changed the X-Files forever - it's certainly life-changing for Scully. One of the weird things about the nature of television is that we viewers were all well aware of that at the time. We didn't know how future developments would go, exactly, but we all knew that Gillian Anderson was pregnant and that Scully would be abducted by aliens to allow her some (very short) maternity leave. (Of course, for we British viewers all this had also been screened in America months beforehand and was common knowledge - I don't know whether Americans knew quite as much as we did going in). I'd love to know how this episode plays for new viewers discovering the series on DVD - is there any indication of how momentous this episode will be from the story itself? I suspect not.
On re-watching, one of the things that really struck me about this episode was how much it focused on the suffering of the abductees. Although he's telling the truth about his abductions, Barry is clearly not the sanest of individuals, and the suffering and violation he's experienced have obviously had a serious negative effect on him. When Mulder questions him about what the aliens were doing to young children, you can see the pain in his eyes as he contemplates what might have happened to his sister - but with hindsight of course, this is also what's about to happen to Scully, who will not be able to come out of this experience unchanged, even if she survives. And then there's Mulder's line to Kazdin, asking her, "Would you like to know what they do to a woman’s ovaries?"...
Oh, this is also the episode where we get to see Mulder in Speedos. The grown-up academic side of me wants to point out that objectification of one gender when the other is fully clothed is inappropriate. The 12-or-13-year old who first watched this episode still enjoys that particular directorial choice (from Chris Carter, directing for the first time).
Mulder: Let the others go and take me.
Final Analysis: A brilliant, tense hostage negotiation episode in its own right, as well as a milestone in X-Files history. Four out of four alien barcodes.
Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.