Case: People with no history of violence have been committing brutal murders while experiencing powerful hallucinations.
Destination: Braddock Heights, Maryland
I think the biggest problem with this episode is simply that it tries to do a bit too much, combining several themes or issues that could easily have formed the basis of a whole episode - in many cases have done - into one episode that then becomes a bit of a mess.
'Trust no one' was one of the show's founding principles, but of course Mulder and Scully never follow it, because they trust one another implicitly and have done since very early on, at least since after 'Ice'. That trust has already been shaken a little bit in this season, back in 'Grotesque', but here Scully comes to believe Mulder betrayed her, which is her worst nightmare. It's an interesting plot, but it feels like it needed a bit more room to breathe beyond the breakneck pace followed here - look, Scully's starting to doubt Mulder! And now she's disappeared! And now she's run home to her mum! She's threatening to kill Mulder! Oh hang on, now she's totally fine again and there's still ten minutes of the episode left!
Paranoia is also, of course, a founding principle of the show and another subject to which it would return - though Mulder tends to be more susceptible to paranoia-inducement than Scully, usually. It's nice to see their roles reversed but again, giving a little more time to what Scully thinks are earth-shattering revelations might have been nice.
I think aspects of this story were inspired by the debate about whether violence on television might provoke violent behaviour that used to be all the rage during the 1990s (it came up once or twice on The West Wing as well). Scully suggests something along these lines early on, before the Lone Gunmen reveal the problem to be subliminal messaging, an even older TV-related paranoia. The X-Files has played around with ideas like this before while not quite following them through, particularly in 'Blood', and it certainly fits in perfectly with the show's overall themes, but the actual shows and videos used somehow don't inspire the right levels of creepiness, perhaps because we don't see enough of them.
The there's the 'one of our heroes is dead' fakeout, which comes up several times throughout the series, though it's more often Mulder in the position of Schrodinger's Regular Character (you don't know whether or not they're dead until you see the body - possibly not even then) because of his tendency to run off after aliens. These scenes, by their nature, have to be played for high emotion, which makes it rather awkward when they're inserted into Monster of the Week episodes in the middle of half a dozen other things - they're really better saved for sweeps episodes and season finales, unless the supposed death is very closely linked to the nature of the Monster of the Week (episodes about being out of phase, for example, or ghost stories). Having said that, this one is nicely done, and to be fair, the audience are never really convinced that Scully might be dead - only Mulder is really worried and it's more about his reaction than anything else.
It all culminates in another recurring motif, with one of our heroes threatening to kill the other while under the influence of... something. I think this scene suffers a bit from coming so soon after 'Pusher', which was a different situation but culminated in a similar visual, with one of our heroes pointing a gun at the other, and was brilliant. Scully's breakdown is just rushed through a bit quickly here.
And it's all something to do with X and the CSM (Scully refers to him onscreen as 'Cancer Man' here) and the Conspiracy and everything as well. I'm confused! I liked the final scene between the Cigarette Smoking Man and X though, in which X has to cover up for himself, and we can't quite be sure the CSM believes him...
- It's always great to see the Lone Gunmen, and you certainly wouldn't want to do an episode about paranoia and conspiracy theories without them.
- Always nice to see Mrs Scully too, and her faith in Mulder is rather lovely (despite him and his alien conspiracy obsession having inadvertently got one daughter kidnapped and the other killed).
Scully: I was so sure, Mulder. I saw things and I heard things, and it was just like world was turned upside-down. Everybody was out to get me.
Mulder: Now you know how I feel most of the time.
Mulder (to X): You're a coward! You work in the shadows, you feed me scraps of information, hoping that I can piece it together. You make me risk my life, you risk my partner's life and you never risk your own!
Some nice ideas, but a bit too jumbled and rushed. Two and a half out of four subliminal messages.
Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.