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The X-Files – E.B.E. (Review)

While the show was on the air, it seemed like the series’ “mythology arc” – the on-going recurring story arc concerning the government and the Syndicate and the aliens and the colonists and Samantha Mulder – was the best part of the show. Given how The Truth bungled tying up all the loose ends generated over nine years of mythology, hindsight has been somewhat harsh to these episodes. It’s a lot harder to get caught up in Mulder’s cat-and-mouse game against the government when you know the show won’t bother to offer a satisfying conclusion.

And yet, perhaps that isn’t the appeal of these conspiracy episodes. Perhaps these over-arching mythology episodes didn’t grab our attention because they promised long-form storytelling with set-up and pay-off. Certainly, there’s little direct connective tissue between The Pilot, Deep Throat, Fallen Angel and E.B.E., barring the appearance of Deep Throat, who has also guested in shows like Eve or Ghost in the Machine or Young at Heart. At this point in the run, there’s no hint of Mulder’s convoluted familial ties this stretched secret conspiracy, no suggestion the government was complicit in the abduction of Mulder’s sister.

Instead, E.B.E. offers another clever and interesting suggestion about why this government conspiracy plot line appeals to us. It’s nothing to do with a developing story arc, at least not in this place. It’s just a wonderful channel through which we may express our mistrust of authority, the most direct way to focus our well-honed paranoia against those in government, the most straight-forward expression of post Cold War anxiety.

The truth was in here...

The truth was in here…

Perhaps the best line in E.B.E. belongs to Deep Throat, explaining why he disclosed genuine information to Mulder, along with misinformation. “A lie, Mr. Mulder, is most convincingly hidden between two truths.” Carter himself has praised the line, describing is as “beautiful because it’s so true.” In a way, that’s the inverse of what The X-Files is – it’s a truth sandwiched between a bunch of fictions, a convenient science-fiction narrative that allows the audience to probe its own deep-seated fears and anxieties.

The line comes in the middle of a lovely scene, where Mulder confronts Deep Throat in an aquarium. The aquarium is an atmospheric setting for what amounts to little more than a heated exchange between two characters, but it sees Mulder laying the truth out in a surprisingly candid way, as Morgan and Wong justify the show’s paranoia and the general feeling of mistrust in American popular consciousness.

Armed and dangerous...

Armed and dangerous…

Deep Throat tries to defend his decision to cover-up alien life by suggesting the “reaction” to such a revelation might be “dangerous.” Mulder is having none of it:

Dangerous? You mean in a sense of outrage like the reaction to the Kennedy assassinations or M.I.A.s or radiation experiments on terminal patients, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Roswell, the Tuskegee experiments, where will it end? Oh, I guess it won’t end as long as… men like you decide what is truth.

Of course, Roswell and the JFK assassination conspiracy theories both belong to a particular branch of American popular folklore, but Mulder’s other references are quite pointed. The American government has been complicit in some very questionable behaviour, enough that doubt and suspicion have become a credible response to that authority.

Boxed in...

Boxed in…

As Jan Delasara argues in PopLit, PopCult and The X-Files: A Critical Exploration, this is The X-Files plugging itself directly into the zeitgeist:

Later (in E.B.E., 1v16), Deep Throat confesses to committing horrible crimes in conjunction with his government position. His hope is that he can atone for what he has done by assisting Mulder in his search for the truth. “In this transference of guilt, Mulder becomes the custodian of America’s secret postwar history. He is now the haunted one, the living ‘memory bank’ of officially denied images…” In acquiescing to this role of atonement, Mulder acknowledges and begins a life-or-death struggle with what psychologist Carl Jung would call our collective Shadow.

It’s an exploration of guilt and secrets, and the cycle of violence that secrets ultimate enable.

Fog of war...

Fog of war…

E.B.E. is the first script from Morgan and Wong that really explores Mulder’s point-of-view. The two writers seem to have a much stronger grasp of Scully as a character, and seem to assume her viewpoint with greater skill and ease. Indeed, E.B.E. is interesting because it explores a rather skeptical perspective on conspiracy and UFO subculture, making the rather elegant point that – in a very substantial way – Scully is far more cynical and suspicious than Mulder.

Meeting the Lone Gunmen for the first time, Scully is fairly unimpressed by their grand theories about an omnipresent government. Langly, Byers and Frohike are rather distinct from Max Fenig. Fenig was the victim of horrific abuse chasing his tormentor and struggling to deal with a memory he had clearly repressed. Fenig knew he was looking for something very personal and very particular, even if he didn’t know quite what it was. In contrast, the Lone Gunmen seem to be looking for anything.

Off-the-clock...

Off-the-clock…

Byers and his allies have constructed their own secret history of the United States, with the government as some sort of omniscient evil force with sinister designs on its population. The trio cite lack of transparency as evidence of their claims. The trio claim the government is using twenty-dollar-bills to keep track of us, a theory not too dissimilar from a spoof conspiracy theory I once heard about keeping the penny in circulation to help fingerprint the population. When Scully points out that a lot of countries use the same technology, Langly retorts, “How come it’s on the inside? Other countries put that strip on the outside.” Byers cuts in, “What are they hiding?”

To Langly and Byers, the government has been so corrupted that any hint of secrecy or lack of transparency is vindication of their own conspiracy theirs. The evidence is the absence, which makes their narrative that much easier to believe. I’ve remarked before that one the great things about conspiracy theories is that they become self-reinforcing. If you believe hard enough, the very absence of evidence becomes compelling testimony in its own right.

Picture not-quite-perfect...

Picture not-quite-perfect…

Scully tears into the trio using the power of logic. “I think you give the government too much credit,” she contends. “I mean, the government can’t control the deficit or manage crime…  what makes you think they could plan and execute such an elaborate conspiracy?” It’s a powerful argument, and it’s something that cuts right to the heart of the conspiratorial mindset. There’s a very clear need to believe that there is somebody in control of all this darkness and pain and suffering – to believe that everything happens for a reason, even if that reason is a government acting against your best interests.

The thought that all of this is random, that there is no grand meaning, that all of these disasters and embarrassments are nothing but human error or chance or cruel coincidence is too much to bear. The only thing worse than imagining a cigarette-smoking bogey man driving the world to the brink of destruction is the possibility that there is nobody at the wheel. E.B.E. makes it clear that there’s a certain romanticism to the belief in conspiracies, to the idea that the twentieth century is the product of perfect stage management by a secretive cabal.

All washed up...

All washed up…

It also allows the conspiracy theories an important role, giving their life meaning – elevating them from boring bit players in the day-to-day drama of life into heroic crusaders casting light into the void. Again, Scully is perceptive here. “Did you see the way they answered the telephone?” she asks Mulder. “They probably think that every call that they get is monitored and they’re followed wherever they go. It’s a form of self-delusion. It makes them think that what they’re doing is important enough that somebody would…”

E.B.E. suggests that conspiracy theory is a way of making sense of something that defies sense, a romantic and self-aggrandising philosophy that projects fears and uncertainties on to something suitably alien. It’s a world view, perhaps something akin to religion. Rather like Fallen Angel seems to view Max’s obsession affectionately, as an expression of something he can’t admit to himself, E.B.E. hints that there is a lot to recommend the conspiratorial worldview. The “UFO party” towards the end, as enthusiastic UFO-ologists prepare to welcome their “space brothers”, might be the most enthusiastic image of the season.

You know what's remarkable? That Turkey looks in no way like Vancouver!

You know what’s remarkable? That Turkey looks in no way like Vancouver!

And E.B.E. is a little taken with that sort of romanticism. It’s fairly candid about how Mulder is chasing his own tail, and about how Mulder can never really get that proof he so desperately wants (because – if he does – the show is over). And yet, despite that cynical outlook and the fatalism of Mulder’s quest, E.B.E. remains curiously optimistic about it. Even Deep Throat, who betrays Mulder here, can hope for Mulder to succeed, and can encourage him on even after lying to him.

The journey itself is worth the effort – the pursuit of the truth isn’t about a destination or a piece of paper, it’s about momentum and movement. “When a shark stops swimming, it will die,” Deep Throat tells Mulder. “Don’t stop swimming.” In a way, E.B.E. can almost be read as a defence of the stubborn refusal of the conspiracy episodes to make sense. The mythology keeps forging forward, even past the point where it’s possible for it to make sense, just like Mulder’s quest. It’s the investigation that is worthwhile, not the findings.

Eye spy...

Eye spy…

Like a lot of the first season, E.B.E. anchors this fascination with a sinister government conspiracy in post war anxieties. More than that, though, the episode makes a point to hint at cycles of violence and mistakes repeated since the end of the Second World War. Deep Throat’s personal history with the aliens is anchored in his history “with the CIA in Vietnam”, recalling a sighting “for five nights over Hanoi.” In contrast E.B.E. opens with a sighting over modern-day Iraq (and a version of Turkey that looks a lot like Vancouver).

The Gulf War and Vietnam are compared and contrasted repeatedly. “UFOs are frequently witnessed by soldiers during wartime,” Mulder tells Scully at one point. The truck driver they interview claims to be a veteran, of the Gulf War, rather than Iraq. Gulf War Syndrome is described by Langly as “Agent Orange of the nineties.” Deep Throat reveals that the entire episode has seen the United States government playing out something that happened decades ago in Vietnam.

In Deep...

In Deep…

History repeats, a theme that seems particularly prescient in light of comparisons made between the subsequent Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and the Vietnam War. In particular, E.B.E. suggests that American history has become stuck in something of a loop in the wake of the Second World War, suggesting that the end of the Cold War doesn’t bring about Fukuyama’s “end of history” and the victory of western liberal democracy so much as an attempt to desperately maintain the status quo.

Suggesting that the CIA is funding radicals in Russia, Byers teases, “You don’t believe that the C.I.A., threatened by a loss of power and funding because of the collapse of the Cold War, wouldn’t dream of having the old enemy back?” Again, this builds off the idea in Fallen Angel that the United States is simply looking for another suitable ideological opponent to justify restrictions on liberty, defense department spending and other nefarious possibilities. The first season of The X-Files is very much rooted in the idea of the United States trying to perpetuate the Cold War, while later seasons would explore what the end of the Cold War actually meant.

A sleeper...

A sleeper…

E.B.E. is also interesting because it adds a sense of ambiguity to Deep Throat, as Glenn Morgan concedes:

E.B.E., one of the first season’s most exciting UFO yarns, shed some murky light onto Mulder’s enigmatic informant Deep Throat and his possible motivations. The inspiration again came from the show’s online fans, who sought more information on the character. The two writers also wanted to know more about Deep Throat, and first wrote the scene where Deep Throat confesses a past crime to Mulder. “The episode is built from that last scene,” Morgan reveals. “Deep Throat says he killed an alien, but you never know whether he’s lying or not. Everyone will ask, ‘Is he lying or not?’ I think that worked.”

In a way, this is a fairly logical development for Deep Throat, partially as a practical extension of the show’s “Trust No One” mantra and also to help undercut the increasingly worrying use of Deep Throat as a storytelling crutch in episodes like Young at Heart.

Nothing of note...

Nothing of note…

It’s worth noting that, at this point in the show’s run, Deep Throat is really the show’s only recurring character. William B. Davis has appeared twice, but it’s hazy whether his CIA handler from Young at Heart is meant to be the Cigarette Smoking Man. Skinner has yet to be introduced, Scully’s family have only appeared once, and this episode gives us the Lone Gunmen – who aren’t seen again until early in the show’s second year.

As such, anything the series does to him becomes important, as we discover in The Erlenmeyer Flask. Deep Throat isn’t a regular, but he’s a familiar face. He has become such a formulaic part of The X-Files that he can be casually inserted into episodes like Eve or Ghost in the Machine whenever the narrative needs a short cut. He’s a character we trust, and a character Mulder trusts absolutely, which makes his betrayal here all the more effective.

Keeping an eye on things...

Keeping an eye on things…

After all, the show’s tagline isn’t “trust almost no one” or “only trust people you like.” The show’s paranoia is anchored in the idea that anybody could be somebody other than who we think they are. That nice lady borrowing a pen at a bus station? She’s a top class secret agent. That nice old man who has been feeding you information? He’s lying to you. Deep Throat’s betrayal is upsetting – in a way more upsetting then even murdering him would be – because it teaches us that we can’t take anybody on this show at face value. We are truly alone.

And, again, E.B.E. suggests that Mulder is actually something of a romantic. Despite the fact that he seems like a guy in desperate need of a tinfoil hat, he is completely unquestioning of Deep Throat. In fact, the show even makes a point to hint towards the relationship between Mulder and Deep Throat as something comparable to a father-son dynamic. The two shoot the breeze talking about baseball. “Ah, maybe this year we can catch a game at Camden Yards,” Deep Throat suggests. He then mournfully qualifies, “Of course, we wouldn’t be able to sit together.”

Quality time...

Quality time…

Scully – the level-headed sceptic – is the one who first challenges Deep Throat, pointing out that they can’t really afford to have unquestioning faith in anybody. Scully doesn’t really believe in the same sinister conspiracy as Mulder, at least not yet, but she’s a lot more thoughtful about it. She’s the one who sees through Mulder’s deep-seated romanticism, creating a delightful reversal where Mulder is the lead who is too trusting and too unquestioning.

E.B.E. is also notable for the introduction of the Lone Gunmen, Mulder’s conspiracy theorist newsletter-printing friends. Unlike his former partners in episodes like Ghost in the Machine or Young at Heart, it’s easy to imagine Mulder building a sustainable relationship with the trio of characters. They appear briefly in one scene here, but they are memorable and effective. It’s hardly the most auspicious of introductions – E.B.E. was clearly never written to launch its own spin-off – but that’s probably why it works so well.

Photo finish...

Photo finish…

The X-Files is often maligned for the way that Chris Carter refused to properly map out his vast government or alien conspiracy, instead plotting off-the-cuff, with sudden changes in focus from episode-to-episode. However, the strengths of this approach are often over-looked, as that sort of spontaneous plotting allows more lee-way to develop in an organic or unexpected manner. As Dean Haglund notes, the Lone Gunmen had a convoluted road to stardom:

But I want to  talk about The X-Files series first. The Lone Gunmen were introduced how early in the first season?

We were just supposed to be day players back in an episode called “E.B.E.” which stood for Extraterrestrial Biological Entity. And I think it was a way to get Mulder inside a top-secret facility. They needed some guise. And at the time [episode writers] James Wong and Glenn Morgan said they saw these three guys in an airport handing out UFO pamphlets, and they were all very diverse, and they thought that was hilarious. So they created these characters, and it was just going to be a one-off thing. But I think because suddenly realized that the Lone Gunmen were the representation of the online, the early, early online fan gatherings that were happening back then. And they were happening in newsgroups. There was a newsgroup called alt.tv.xfiles.

Aha!

Do you remember that?

I not only remember it, that’s where I wrote my reviews back in the day.

That was the thing; everybody assumed that [creators] Chris Carter and Frank [Spotnitz] and [writer] Vince [Gilligan] were all lurking on the site. And in fact, they were, because they were so excited that this was the first time writers got a chance to get direct feedback anonymously. Like, you could see the feedback honestly. Because if you go, “I’m Frank, I write the show.”  Then everybody goes, “oh, I love the show,” and it’s hard to get honest feedback of what they [really] think of the show. But if you’re just lurking in the newsgroup, you can see how everybody is complaining about this, or you know, some of the ideas that the fans had back then were very, very passionate and very cogent. So Chris Carter really appreciated that, and [after] putting in the Lone Gunmen, the newsgroup went wild, going, oh, well, this proves it. And for seasons two and three, we would say lines that actually appeared on the newsgroup. So we would take an actual sentence from the newsgroup and give it to the Lone Gunmen to say.

Oh, that’s wild.

So we had this great symbiotic relationship with the fans early on, and I don’t think the Lone Gunmen would have been as popular were it not for the Internet and the newsgroups at the time.

Elements like the Lone Gunmen were able to grow and develop in a looser sort of way than they might have in a more rigid or structured storytelling model.

Power to the people...

Power to the people…

Indeed, the development of the Lone Gunmen points to a particularly interesting aspect of The X-Files, one of the things that defined it as a show well ahead of its time – it was very much engaged with the on-line fandom, using various on-line forums and discussion groups to gauge the response of the audience to particular elements or plot points. As Paul Cantor notes in Popular Culture and Spontaneous Order or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Tube, it’s a wonderful demonstration of one of the relatively unique attributes of television as a medium:

In the case of The X-Files, the producers discovered a new feedback mechanism – the Internet. They carefully monitored the many web sites that sprung up to discuss and celebrate the show and learned a great deal in the process. For example, when in a first-season episode entitled “E.B.E.” The X-Files introduced a new set of characters called the Lone Gunmen – three paranoid conspiracy theorists and computer experts who help the hero of the show, Fox Mulder, in his struggle against the government – the writers who thought them up (Glen Morgan and James Wong) felt that they were a failure and were ready to drop them from future episodes. But the Lone Gunmen caught on immediately with one of the core segments of the X-Files audience. As technological nerds, they appealed to precisely the fans who were among the first to take advantage of the Internet. Because of the popularity of the Lone Gunmen as judged by the X-Files web sites, the producers decided to bring the characters back. If the rest is not exactly television history, the quirkiness of the Lone Gunmen certainly contributed something to The X-Files, especially an element of humor that helped lighten the prevailing dark mood of the show. Somehow the show’s audience, or a segment of it, was better able than the producers to sense the potential long-term contribution these characters might make to the series. The Romantic aesthetic tells us that giving in to audience demands can only corrupt an artist’s vision. But the customer may occasionally be right, and artists who listen to their audience may learn to improve their art.

As this example from the history of The X-Files reminds us, unlike many forms of art, a television series cannot be created all at once, but must of necessity be produced over long stretches of time – weeks at first, but over years if the series is successful. This is one reason the television series does not fit the “perfect plan” model of artistic creation, but it is very well suited to the feedback model. Creating episode after episode, and unable to go back and alter earlier efforts in light of subsequent developments, television producers often find themselves in the embarrassing position of having introduced lapses in continuity into their shows, if not outright contradictions. A devoted fan may have fun pointing out such inconsistencies, but they mark television shows as failures according to the strict demands of coherence imposed by the organic model of poetic form. But what a television series loses in coherence over the years, it gains in its ability to experiment with new possibilities and find out ways to improve the show and expand its range. As the case of the Lone Gunmen demonstrates, in its long run a successful television series will often introduce new characters, and see which ones click with its audience. Characters who prove to be unpopular will be dropped, and characters who are popular will see their roles expanded. Although the addition of a popular character may not always improve a show artistically, it often does and can sometimes revitalize the whole series. And in the serial character of much television production, it yet again proves impossible to maintain a strict division between high culture and popular.

Again, E.B.E. seems an episode that seems to have been written as a pre-emptive defense against many of the (legitimate) criticisms that would be leveled against the mythology in the years ahead – a justification of the whole “government conspiracy” arc as an expression of deep-seated anxieties, an argument that the journey is more interesting than the destination, and a demonstration of the strengths of Carter’s on-the-fly production style.

Suddenly, I don't feel too bad about their travel expenses...

Suddenly, I don’t feel too bad about their travel expenses…

E.B.E. is a pretty great episode, and another that demonstrates the appeal of such “mythology” episodes in the early part of the show’s run. It’s easy to see why Carter might have wanted to produce more episodes like this, more closely connected to one another. The results of that particular experiment were decidedly mixed, but E.B.E. is strong enough to stand on its own merits, as a late-season gem.

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

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