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The X-Files – Fallen Angel (Review)

Fallen Angel is a remarkable episode. It’s really the point at which the show seems to say “huh, this conspiracy stuff is really exciting.” It’s also a complete reversal from the misfire that was Space, proving that there are people working on the show who can create monsters on a tiny special effects budget and create compelling secondary characters. Following Mulder’s investigation of a downed UFO – the eponymous “fallen angel” – the episode dives headlong into the murky world of cover-ups and secrets, kicking the show’s mythology arc into gear.

Shedding some light on the matter...

Shedding some light on the matter…

To be fair, the show has struggled to really figure out what to do with its recurring plot threads up until this point. The Pilot and Deep Throat effectively served as a single two-hour opening episode for the series, laying down the blueprint of the series to come. While the episodes establish aliens and the conspiracy to cover up the existence of aliens, there’s relatively little world-building done in them.

The Cigarette Smoking Man and Deep Throat were both established in those opening two episodes, but there was little real sense that they were welcoming the viewer into an expansive world. Neither character was intended to be a major player. William B. Davis jokes at the trepidation felt by the producers when a script gave him a big scene. (“Oh my god! But we don’t know if he can act?”) According to The X-Files Declassified, Jerry Hardin originally believed Deep Throat to be a one-shot character, with Carter playing coy about recurring appearances.

Calling it in...

Calling it in…

Certainly, Deep Throat’s appearance in Ghost in the Machine feels tacked on, as if the script ran short and Carter and the writers decided to jam Deep Throat in there to appease the fans who had responded so well to his debut. It all seemed a little haphazard, as if The X-Files had yet to figure out how it was going to use all these elements. Chris Carter’s The Jersey Devil, for example, struggled to integrate the show’s anti-authority suspicions with a decidedly local police department. (And Space seemed too trusting of NASA.)

Fallen Angel, then, is a massively important part of the show’s evolution. It’s the moment at which we really get a vague sense that maybe all this government conspiracy stuff might be ring-fenced to a particular kind of plot, leaving the show free to explore its own monster-of-the-week episodes. Fallen Angel makes it clear that Deep Throat was not unique in pitting Mulder and Scully against the United States government, and that there will be an on-going tension there.

Another fine mess you've gotten us into...

Another fine mess you’ve gotten us into…

In fact, Fallen Angel kicks all manner of long-running plots into gear. The idea that the government could shut down the X-Files, and that it is just waiting for an excuse, ups the tension on the entire show. As Carter concedes:

This episode also contains an important narrative element. When Scully comes to Mulder and says “They’re going to shut us down,” the idea that the X-Files projects can be terminated from above at any time resonates from that moment forward, a critical part of the narrative tension.

It provides effective foreshadowing of the season finalé, The Erlenmeyer Flask, suggesting that Deep Throat is the only thing really keeping the X-Files safe. Of course, the show would have to pull back from this a bit, for obvious reasons. Over the course of the show, a variety of reasons – with various degrees of plausibility – are offered for the fact that the government is funding a department devoted to exposing a conspiracy to which it is party.

The first season had a bit of thing for ears, didn't it?

The first season had a bit of thing for ears, didn’t it?

It doesn’t matter whether this foreshadowing was intentional or not. In fact, write Howard Gordon has confessed to The Truth is Out There that there wasn’t really any long-term planning done with that plot thread. Instead, it was a clever suggestion that opened doors to a path the show chose to explore. Truth be told, The X-Files never really devoted too much time to meticulous planning or sketching. Watching the show again, the conspiracy and the overall mythology plot seems to advance on the fly.

To be fair, this adds a lot of excitement to the early seasons, when the conspiracy feels expansive. It seems boundless, growing outwards and upwards in all manner of surprising directions. The problem arises when the show reaches a point where story points and developments start to close doors rather than open them, hemming the narrative in rather than allowing it freedom. Luckily, we’re a long way away from that.

Mulder can't sit on the fence any longer...

Mulder can’t sit on the fence any longer…

In fact, even Max himself becomes a part of the show’s expansive mythology, reappearing late in the fourth season after being declared dead at the end of Fallen Angel – although neither we nor Mulder see a body. Fenig hardly seems to have been a pawn in a carefully crafted over-arching plot, shuffled off-screen for more than three years before making a meticulously-crafted return.

Instead, the fact that Max appears this early in the first season and only pops up again in the fourth season seems a testament to the flexibility and spontaneity of the mythology plotting on The X-Files, grabbing the best idea on the table at any given moment. That approach eventually grows tiresome, but it’s also a large part of the appeal of these early episodes – a sense that the writers are exploring this murky world with as much excitement as the viewers. It’s a reckless approach, one prone to backfire, but it’s also exciting.

A site for sore eyes...

A site for sore eyes…

And Fallen Angel is exciting. Not too much actually happens. Mulder receives some level of personal indication, but proof remains elusive. Scully is given plausible deniability. To be fair, this makes sense. We are, after all, ten episodes into the first season of the show. The X-Files hinges on Mulder never being able to  grasp at genuine concrete proof, and Scully needs to convincingly remain a sceptic. If that balance changes, if Mulder ever manages to prove his crackpot theories – the show is over.

Like so many television shows, The X-Files needs an equilibrium in order to work – and that equilibrium means that the only way Mulder can ever be absolutely and incontrovertibly be proven right fro the whole world to see is in the final episode of the show. (And, perhaps, not even then.) Fallen Angel obviously plays within those rules, and it’s early enough that seeing the proof slip through Mulder’s fingers feels like legitimate tension rather than out-and-out teasing.

To the Max...

To the Max…

More than that, though, Fallen Angel works because it’s a tightly-written piece of television. The team of Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa tend to write better to Mulder’s sensibilities, so it’s no surprise that Fallen Angel gives us a glimpse at Mulder’s life. After all, how could he not believe when he sees the things that he sees and meets the resistance that he meets in pushing for the truth. Quite a few of the first season episodes question Mulder’s internal compass – Ice suggests that maybe he’s a bit too paranoid – but Fallen Angel is vindication for Mulder’s outlook.

Which, of course, means that Scully comes out of this looking particularly foolish. “It was a downed Libyan jet with a nuclear warhead over US air space,” she repeats the government cover story, prompting cynical laughs from Mulder. “They’d been picking up low grade levels of radiation indicating that a plutonium casing may have cracked. So to avoid mass panic…” It’s an absolutely crazy cover story, because there’s no way a real situation like that doesn’t end with a bombing and/or invasion of Libya.

Arrested developments...

Arrested developments…

To be fair, there’s something to be said about crafting a lie so audacious that it simply has to be believed – “go big or go home” – but Scully’s unquestioning acceptance of the “Libya flew a plane with a nuclear missile to the United States and yet somehow still exists” story makes it clear that she’s a gullible fool. Of course, Scully-centric stories tend to make Mulder look paranoid or insensitive or self-obsessed, but that’s a lot less frustrating because Mulder gets to be right most of the time. On the other hand, Scully seems to spend most Mulder-centric episodes in an extreme case of denial.

Still, Fallen Angel is a pretty great Mulder episode. Gordon and Gansa do good work developing Mulder’s character, building off their work in Conduit. There’s a sense that although Mulder might only be a blip in the “real” world, locked away in the basement of the FBI, he is something of a cult figure in the whole paranoia subculture. Mulder isn’t just an active FBI agent, he’s an enthusiastic participant in the whole underground movement, writing articles in cult magazines under pseudonyms, as if playing out an alternate life beyond that of a side-lined FBI agent.

Mulder on the grassy knoll...

Mulder on the grassy knoll…

That’s perhaps the strongest emotional hook in Fallen Angel, something that is arguably more compelling than invisible monsters or black storm troopers. Ghost in the Machine was an incredibly cynical script, suggesting that Mulder could never win because his basic human decency restricted his strategic options. Mulder doesn’t compromise, so he can’t match the ruthlessness or brutality of the people he plays against. Indeed, Fallen Angel ends with the observation that Mulder can’t even protect Max.

And yet, despite that, Fallen Angel feels weirdly optimistic. There’s a sense that all these people who are alone and isolated and marginalised are actually – in some strange way – looking out for one another. Mulder isn’t the lone crusader that he believes himself to be. He isn’t just stalked by the government, he’s keenly followed by those who share his cause. He’s surprised when Max mentions the article. “I didn’t think anyone was really paying attention,” he remarks. Max replies, “Somebody’s always paying attention Mr. Mulder.” In any other context on this show, those words would seem a threat. Here, there’s something strangely sweet about them.

Holding it together...

Holding it together…

That’s why I’m not at all surprised that Max returns in the fourth season, despite being abducted here and proclaimed deceased. Max is a wonderful supporting character, beautifully brought to life by actor Scott Bellis. There’s something earnest and damaged and incredibly endearing about Max’s curiosity and enthusiasm, obviously stemming from his own personal experience – much as Mulder’s beliefs are driven by his own past.

Max is the survivor of abuse, an individual who has managed to pull their life back together while struggling to find some reason for what happened, even if he seems unable to articulate it in those terms. Talking about blackouts when he was younger, it seems like Max isn’t even aware that he has been abducted multiple times. He’s just looking for answers, almost blind to the questions. Fallen Angel suggests some sort of external force at work, even beyond government conspiracies and alien cabals.

No small feet...

No small feet…

Fate also seems to be a part of all this. The alien could have undoubtedly tracked Max down anywhere, but the fact that Max was also searching for the creature suggests something bigger is at play. Max – the poor little nerdy kid with the epilepsy and the radio set – turns out to be the most important thing on the planet. The government might be looking for the alien, but the alien is looking for Max. Even at the heart of this vast machine, there’s something strangely human. Of course, it’s suggested that the creature’s designs for Max are far from wholesome, but Fallen Angel suggests that even Max Fenig gets to be centre of the universe.

Then again, that’s the nature of conspiracy theories, isn’t it? They impose order on a chaotic universe. Sure, it might be irrational and illogical order, but it’s order nonetheless. It’s easier to believe that somebody has a plan, that all these troubles are rooted in some purpose, no matter how cynical. “I want to believe,” more as a religious mantra than a catchy statement of intent. Conspiracy theories assume that we stand at the centre of the universe, that those in the “know” have some unique perception of the world around them, some greater knowledge about everything that is going on.

Let's see how this develops...

Let’s see how this develops…

And conspiracy theories are so appealing because they form logical traps, infinite loops that reinforce themselves. Why would the government allow Mulder and Scully to keep running the X-Files? Because it suits their purpose. Why do reports of UFOs slip out, if the army is dedicated to keeping it a secret? Because it’s easier to hide the truth in a maelstrom of conflicting information. Everything is part of the plan, even the complete lack of evidence of the plan. Absence of evidence becomes evidence itself.

Fallen Angel teases this in the final scene, as McGrath asks a question that has undoubtedly occurred to most of the people watching. Why does the conspiracy permit Mulder to keep poking around? Deep Throat is obviously protecting Mulder, but he offers a suitably vague and ambiguous answer to justify that particular plot hole. “I appreciate your frustration, but you and I both know Mulder’s work is a singular passion — poses a most unique dilemma. But his occasional insubordination is in the end, far less dangerous.”

In too deep?

In too deep?

When asked what Mulder could be less dangerous, Deep Throat gropes for a justification, “Than having him expose to the wrong people… what he knows… what he thinks he knows…” Ah, but does Mulder know that they know that he thinks that he knows? You see how the logic gets trapped in loops – the sort of paranoid “known knowns and unknown knowns” double-speak that easily patches up any potential gaps in logic.

Building off Ghost in the Machine, Gansa and Howard continue to develop The X-Files‘ view of American history as one rooted in the ghosts of the Second World War. Jackbooted thugs march around a small town, imposing their will on the residents, scaring them into compliance. The local doctor describes them – quite pointedly – as “fascists”, and Colonel Henderson and his men dress in distinctive black overalls, rather than standard military fatigues.

Out Foxed?

Out Foxed?

This is fascism on American shores, something very unsettling and unnerving, bullies throwing their weight around to get what they want – using coercion to scare the local residents into playing ball. Sometimes they do this by force, but they also have more insidious (and less blunt) means of control. When Scully informs a widow that she is “entitled to the truth,” the widow replies, “I can’t afford the truth. They said that if I spoke to anyone, they would withhold my husband’s pension. And I have a child to take care of.”

These are the ghosts of the Second World War, coming back to haunt us. These are nightmare reflections of trouble in foreign land, the unsettling sense that – no matter how often we might assure ourselves that “it could never happen here” – it probably could. It’s no coincidence that The X-Files aired in the wake of the Cold War, after America had vanquished the spectre of global communism. With no other threat on the horizon, the zeitgeist could focus inwards.

I'm surprised Mulder never tires of this...

I’m surprised Mulder never tires of this…

Ghost in the Machine suggested that America had still to come to terms with the development of the atomic bomb, a version of Pandora’s Box that represented a major game change for the entire planet. That shadow looms large here. The soldiers wounded in combat with the creature seem to have been poisoned by “ionised radiation.” Ionised radiation accounts for 5% of the energy released in a nuclear air blast. In short these soldiers are victims of the atomic age.

The decision to name the doctor working on these victims “Oppenheim” is hardly subtle. The name can’t help but evoke the man most responsible for the development of the atomic bomb, a man who struggled with the legacy he left to the world. The popular image of Oppenheimer is that of a man who loved science and the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but who witnessed that knowledge perverted to the most cynical of causes.

Bloody disgusting...

Bloody disgusting…

The X-Files seems preoccupied with America’s relationship to its past. And there’s a sense that Fallen Angel is fascinated with the concerns that must shape a post-Cold War United States. When Deep Throat briefs Mulder on Henderson, he explains that Henderson is very experienced at “reclamations.” Deep Throat expands, “During the cold war his job was to prevent technologies from downed US aircraft from  getting into Soviet hands.”

Henderson is a relic of a war that recently ended. Or did it? Fallen Angel suggests that the end of the Cold War does not necessarily mean “the end of history”, to borrow an oft-abused and misunderstood phrase. Gansa and Howard suggest that America cannot exist outside of a state of perpetual warfare and competition. The enemy just changes. Having defeated the rival power bloc on the planet, the military’s eyes turn skyward.

Watching the skies...

Watching the skies…

“They got to him first,” Mulder boasts at the end of the episode. “They beat us Colonel.” This whole episode is a competition between two superpowers. It just isn’t a conventional conflict – it’s a war that isn’t quite a war, it’s about manoeuvring and flanking your adversary. Framed in the context of Henderson’s personal history and Mulder’s assessment, this seems more like the sort of shady espionage and recovery that went on between the superpowers during the Cold War.

In that respect, Fallen Angel does feel quite different from the subsequent development of the conspiracy arc. Later stories would paint the American government as patsies, as co-conspirators collaborating with a vastly superior enemy. It was a very cynical take on authority, with the Syndicate bartering for their own lives at the expense of those underneath them. Fallen Angel at least hints at some faint suggestion of patriotism and pride – that the United States is its own power bloc in this conflict, not just a pawn. That’s another way that Fallen Angel, despite its grim tone, feels almost romantic.

We have lift-off...

We have lift-off…

It is also worth noting that Fallen Angel gets around the whole “we have a special effects budget of around ten dollars left after everything else” problem in a much shrewder way than Space did. As Chris Carter notes:

I’ve always believed that what you don’t see is scarier than what you do see. And we’ve always wanted to avoid the ‘monster of the week’ syndrome. The translucent force field in Fallen Angel, is much more malevolent than something that has a fangs or a fur coat or a waggly tail.

It seems weird, then, that Space opted from the “attack of the Photoshop” effect when the invisible alien here is so much more effective. In particular, that shot of Max dangling in the air is incredible stuff.



Fallen Angel is a great little episode, and it’s easy to see how it effectively served to branch off the government conspiracy plot line into its own run of episodes, each supposedly building on the last. There are problems lying ahead, but – taken on its own merits, Fallen Angel is a pretty impressive piece of television.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of The X-Files:


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