Destination: Northwest US, Washington D.C., New York City, West Virginia, Maryland, Connecticut
From the first frame to the last, ‘Paper Clip’ is a rather slick episode of The X-Files. When you factor in that it’s the third act in the good ole three-parter paradigm, it’s easily elevated from really well done to superior. Because The X-Files was still so young, its growing mythology was a relatively safe investment. The conspiracy was intelligible and cogent but not without intrigue or complexity, and maybe most important of all, the story of these two rogue agents was brimming with possibility. And all of that promise was wrapped in that trustful closeness one has with a TV show’s third season.
The resolution of ‘The Blessing Way’ cliffhanger subverts expectations in spades. With Scully’s life in certain danger, it’s Mulder who appears (after most were convinced he was dead) outside his own door. He bursts into the apartment loaded for bear, which ignites an anxious stalemate with him, Scully and Skinner. And all three have a gun pointing at the other. The look on Scully’s face when she meets Mulder’s eyes is devastatingly perfect. In one hot moment, she registers the requisite relief and joy her partner is alive but right there it dawns on her that her dream was REAL. Don’t take my word for it though: a quick Google search would show that the subsequent scene where Mulder and Scully step into the elevator together spawned a million fan fics. The two EXEUNT stage right. So little time, so much to do. By the way, whenever the driving force of the episode is “Me and you, girl, go against the world, against the world, hell yeah the world” it’s 100% awesome.
Now, because not everyone knows Mulder is alive yet (a ticking clock!) and there’s this recently unearthed picture from the 1970s of his dad surrounded by shadowy men (including Cigarette-Smoking Man, Deep Throat and Well-Manicured Man), the two must use their most covert resources for help. (Hello, The Lone Gunmen!) Byers and Langly know not only the men in the picture by name but also the terrible project with which they’re associated. Enter Operation Paper Clip, a Nazi wartime program with scientists doing god-awful things to people ‘in the name of science’ (regrettably, this was a real thing). Mulder and Scully go to press one of the men (Victor Klemper, who ends up dead by the episode’s end no doubt because of his ‘cooperation’) where they’re told about an indistinct warehouse in Virginia that houses all the answers. The set piece that is this warehouse, 20 years later, still blows my mind. Even though there’s an oblique reference to the pilot which was, itself, an homage to the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the concept that there’s a giant seemingly innocuous building in the middle of nowhere, filled with countless file cabinets cataloging humans stats right down to a tissue sample, where once inside you will only gain access to its dark corners if you know Napier’s Constant, feels so specifically eerie creepy sinister. I realize it sounds dramatic but the scope of this show re-wired the way I understand the world and the power that fiction holds within it because of scenes like this one.
Well naturally, one answer bears another question since both of them basically have a file, Scully’s with a recent tissue sample and Mulder’s name on a label underneath his sister, Samantha’s. Before they leave, Mulder sees a giant flying ship outside and Scully feels dozens of tiny beings run by her in the pitch black. The two don’t immediately discuss the fullness of what they experienced but Mulder does hightail it to Connecticut to ask his mom what the hell. She finally breaks down that his dad made her choose which child would be ‘abducted’ and she couldn’t so he did and she hates him in his grave to this day because of it. It’s all really, like, wow. When Mulder and Scully return to Victor Klemper’s, they’re met by the Well-Manicured Man. He’s all of the sudden like a fire hydrant of information and while Mulder’s eager to drink from it, Scully is rightly suspicious. After all he knows whence they came.
Nevertheless, the whole overarching plan of the Syndicate has already begun to go to hell. Juxtaposed with these great strides of Mulder and Scully’s is the inevitable dissension among men with a common goal but wildly different methods. Cigarette-Smoking Man looks anywhere from incompetent to fraudulent to his peers with Scully’s sister being shot instead of her (his assassins on the chopping block) and then there's the whole ‘Mulder’s still alive’ thing. In a stroke of creative genius, Skinner acts as our liaison to this opaque world. So as the true motivations of the people behind the subterfuge grow ever more corrupt, Walter Skinner’s allegiance to Mulder and Scully crystallizes. And it’s a beautiful thing that culminates in Skinner telling Cigarette-Smoking Man to blow it out his arse. It’s also the exact right amount of pushback the story needs at this point. After toeing the Syndicate line thus far (with many moments of appearing hamstrung), Skinner takes this huge professional but now-personal risk in his confrontation of Cigarette-Smoking Man in order to guarantee the immediate safe return (to the FBI and their lives) of Mulder and Scully and he leverages the MOST BADASS thing ever, an entire community of people as incalculable as that warehouse of files, who elevate over the modern world in pretty much every way imaginable.
As so often with The X-Files, the small battles along the way are won at a great cost and Melissa dies by the episode’s end. The symbolism of this is told throughout ‘Paper Clip’ using a belief of the Navajo people about the birth of a white buffalo up north that happened in tandem with Mulder’s healing ritual. As the story goes, it’s revealed that the mother died shortly after the baby was born, we see that she is Scully’s sister and the uncommon white buffalo baby--the Mulder and Scully fight, rare and sacred. Mulder and Scully share a beautiful moment at the end in Melissa’s now empty hospital room. With a tinge of world-weariness, they acknowledge their losses, affirm their partnership and pledge to seek the Truth. To this x-phile, the show is never better than when it lays THAT under its narrative.
*Recent news story about a book written about Operation Paper Clip here.
*The scene where Mrs. Scully is frantically looking for her daughter in the hospital ER and is asking about a Dana Scully but is corrected that it’s in fact Melissa Scully is so well done. The creatives spotted a small opportunity to expand the emotional depth and nailed it.
*As always, a welcome visit to The Lone Gunmen lair. I love it that while they have their own theories, they are extraordinarily knowledgeable about damn near everything.
*Speaking of TLG, Frohike again shows he’s almost old-timey in his manners and gentlemanly skills when he delivers the news of Melissa landing in the hospital. He removes his hat before he tells Scully and it’s really sweet.
*Mulder sends Albert Hosteen in Scully’s place when she’s unable to safely visit her sister in the hospital. It’s another lovely and rich touch that the creative team just knew to jump on.
*Scully does this great thing when she and Mulder arrive at the warehouse. She makes them slow down and consider the implications of whatever they are about to find in respect to Mulder’s dad who is still inexplicably linked to this f*ckery.
*Speaking of the warehouse, for my money, this was the episode that MASTERED the use of flashlights.
*Skinner brokers the deal to get Mulder and Scully back but the seeds of that are grown at this gauzy diner very off the beaten path after Mulder and Scully have narrowly escaped detection at the warehouse. They haven’t slept, changed clothes or eaten in a day. It’s all so dramatic!
*Skinner gets his arse kicked left, right and center in defense of the Truth. At one point, he gets separated from the DAT tape by Krycek and company in the stairwell at the hospital where Melissa is housed in a particularly rowdy manner.
*Once Krycek and his team recover the DAT tape, there’s this moment where they pull up to a deli to grab something. Everyone goes in but Krycek. In the next moment, he sees the clock on the dash blinking and it occurs to him that the car is rigged to blow and he’s about to blow with it. So much excitement when he scampers out across the parking lot just barely escaping the blast. Question: were they all supposed to die or was the car armed by one of the two other men once they were clear, therefore making Krycek seem more expendable than the others? What happened here?
*The scene where Mulder and Scully go back to see Klemper in his exotic flower greenhouse, they are besieged with rain. Not just the scene, but the actual production too. The raindrops are so loud on the plastic roof that you can barely hear the dialogue at times. As someone who’s worked in production, I can guarantee that the crew was cursing the hell out of that Vancouver rain that day!
Mulder: “Your cigarette-smoking friend killed my father for that tape, then he killed me.”
Skinner: “What are you taking about?”
Mulder: “I was a dead man. Now I’m back.”
Mulder: “C’mon, Scully. Let’s go.”
Mulder: “There are truths out there that aren’t on that tape.”
Scully: “I went to your father’s funeral. I told your mother you were going to be okay.”
Mulder: “How did you know?”
Scully: “I just knew.”
Cigarette-Smoking Man: “There was a mistake. It will be rectified.”
Well-Manicured Man: “By whom? By whom will it be rectified? Your ineffectual assassins?”
Scully: “What do you think your father would have been doing here?”
Mulder: “I don’t know. He never came home wearing a miner’s cap.”
Mulder: “Lots of files.”
Scully: “Lots and lots of files.”
Albert Hosteen: “My father taught me when I was a boy that this is how life is. That for something to live, another thing must often be sacrificed.”
Mulder: “Mom, listen to me! I need to know! Did he make you make a choice?”
Mrs. Mulder: “No, I couldn’t choose. It was your father’s choice and I hated him for it. Even in his grave I hate him still.”
Cigarette-Smoking Man: “What is this?”
Skinner: “This is where you pucker up and kiss my ass.”
Cigarette-Smoking Man: “Now, listen, you.”
Skinner: “No, you listen to me, you son of a bitch! This man’s name is Albert Hosteen. You should remember that. Because if Agents Mulder and Scully come down with so much as a case of the flu, Albert is prepared to recite, chapter and verse, file for file, everything on your precious tape.”
Cigarette-Smoking Man: “It’s a nice try, Skinner.”
Skinner: “I’m sure you’re thinking Albert is an old man and there are plenty of ways you might kill him, too. Which is why, in the ancient oral tradition of his people, he’s told twenty other men the information on those files. So unless you kill every Navajo living in four states, that information is available with a simple phone call. Welcome to the wonderful world of high technology.”
Scully: “I’ve heard the truth, Mulder. Now what I want are the answers.”
Final Analysis: From these stunning threads of the conspiracy revealed to Skinner’s massive badass attitude, and everything in between: a real standout!