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The X-Files – The Erlenmeyer Flask (Review)

When you think about it, The X-Files conspiracy mythology is just a fancy way of dressing up generational “daddy issues.” Both Mulder and Scully have problems with their fathers, and it plays into the show’s wider themes. The X-Files is, appropriately enough, a show that helps define what is known as “Generation X”, the generation born following the post war baby boom, as the afterglow from America’s ascent to global superpower began to wear off. Existing in the wake of the Cold War, in a unipolar world, The X-Files was a vehicle for introspection.

One of the recurring themes of the show, and one that has come up quite a bit in the first season, is the weight of history bearing down on the current generation. Living in the shadow of Watergate, dealing with the revelation of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments, coping the Vietnam and other skeletons, it’s little wonder that Generation X seemed completely disillusioned with their elders. Jamie Notter argued that “unlike their parents who challenged leaders with an intent to replace them, Generation Xers tend to ignore leaders.”

Christine Henseler would go further, suggesting that there’s something close to righteous anger in the attitude that Generation X holds to its parents, holding “a world view” that “is based on change, on the need to combat corruption, dictatorships, abuse, AIDS.” The Erlenmeyer Flask seems the perfect place to end this season then, pushing all this uncertainty to the fore and killing the series’ much-loved father figure.

Bodies of proof...

Bodies of proof…

The Erlenmeyer Flask is quite overt in its handling of broken father figures. The central conspiracy is built around an experiment overseen by a male doctor to create new life. While E.B.E. played up the obvious father-son relationship between Mulder and Deep Throat, The Erlenmeyer Flask pushes it to the fore. Mulder rants about playing “the dutiful son jumping through hoops to impress his father. “My mother usually likes me home before the street lights come on,” he jokes.

We haven’t met Bill Mulder yet. Being honest, we don’t even know for sure whether Mulder’s father is alive. While Scully has a strong connection with her family – we’re introduced to her mother and father in Beyond the Sea, after they are referenced in The Pilot, and there’s talk about her brothers – Mulder seems relatively isolated. Samantha is a driving force for Mulder, but he doesn’t seem to talk about his parents that much. “I even made my parents call me Mulder,” he tells Scully in Tooms, hinting at a fractured relationship.

Heart of Darkness...

Heart of Darkness…

Outside of the obvious subtext of Mulder’s relationship with Deep Throat, the only time the show has offered a glimpse into Mulder’s dynamic with his father was in Roland. In the second-last episode of this first season, Mulder recounted a dream he had about his father to the eponymous character. Dreaming of swimming, Mulder described his father as a man he could never reach, a man whose presence was somehow corrupted by another individual. So far, we’ve seen that Mulder doesn’t have the strongest rapport with male authority figures.

As such, it seems reasonable to intuit a rift between Mulder and his father, a fitting symbolic representation of the conflict between the modern generation and its direct predecessor. There’s been much written about the relationship between the post war Baby Boomers and Generation X. It’s been argued that Generation X “felt the future had been given to their parents and older siblings and found the future disappointing and somewhat unappealing.” It’s also suggested that Generation X grew up against the back drop of high divorce rates and single parents, as “latchkey kids”, wrestling with “issues of resentment and abandonment.”

Keeping the darkness at bay...

Keeping the darkness at bay…

This is all pop psychology of course, but it permeates a lot of The X-Files. It is also pushed to the fore here. In “You Only Expose Your Father”: The Imaginary, Voyeurism and the Symbolic Order in The X-Files, author Elizabeth Bubek argues that The Erlenmeyer Flask is really a show about delving into the show’s daddy issues:

The Erlenmeyer Flask is in many ways a pivotal episode in The X-Files’ argument about patriarchal power. Mulder’s reference to the unequal father/son dynamics of his relationship with Deep Throat reflects shifts in the depiction both of the paternal authority and of the need for more than a desire to believe.

As we’ve seen in a lot of his work so far this season, Chris Carter is hardly subtle. On top of the loaded dialogue between Mulder and Deep Throat, Mulder is also directed to a laboratory at “Zeus Storage” on Pandora Street.”

Don't taze me, bro!

Don’t taze me, bro!

Zeus and Pandora were, in many ways, an embodiment of the same sort of father-child relationship that The X-Files loves to explore. According to Greek mythology, Pandora was the first human woman, created on the orders of Zeus. She was given a “pithos” (more of a jar than a box) and instructed by Zeus never to open it. Her curiosity got the better of her, and she opened it – revealing all the most grotesque of sins and evils to the world.

It’s quite similar to what Mulder is doing, and what The X-Files suggests that Generation X is coming to terms with. Living in the prosperity of post war America, the show frequently pokes at the shady secrets and compromises that made that prosperity possible. Later on in the show, Mulder will discover a dark well-kept secret about his own father that nearly destroys the relationship between them, but it’s really just a way of making the show’s subtext explicit.

Keeping it on ice...

Keeping it on ice…

The X-Files is about opening the box given to Generation X and discovering all the darkness nested inside – the exploitation and protection of German and Japanese war criminal scientists in the wake of the Second World War, medical knowledge procured through the Tuskegee experiments, the use of fascist powers by democratic officials to manage opposition. As such, it’s probably no real surprise that Mulder has daddy issues. (Later on, opening a file rather than a box, he discovers that his own life what bought by his father by sacrificing Samantha’s.)

It’s worth noting that The Erlenmeyer Flask brings all of these past sins to the fore. While the audience knows that character as “Deep Throat”, The Erlenmeyer Flask marks a rare occasion where the dialogue actually uses the description – providing a firm link to Watergate. We’re told that these sinister scientific experiments are apparently run out of a lab in “Los Alamos”, the famous birth place of the nuclear bomb. When Scully asks about the kind of people they are dealing with, Deep Throat makes a fairly explicit comparison between the conduct of these people and those who worked at Tuskegee.

The sleep of the just...

The sleep of the just…

“In 1987,” Deep Throat tells Scully, “a group of children from a southern state were given what their parents thought was a routine inoculation. What they were injected with was a clone DNA from the contents of that package you’re holding as a test. That’s the kind of people you’re dealing with!” It’s exactly the same sort of atrocity committed in the past, just allowed to continue indefinitely. These abuses go on and on and on until they are exposed to the cold light of day, until they can no longer be denied or obscured or justified. After all, Pandora managed to trap hope inside the box.

So The Erlenmeyer Flask has Deep Throat die for his sins, completing a character arc that began in his last appearance. In E.B.E., it was revealed that Deep Throat had taken the weight of murdering an alien upon himself, and this his assistance to Mulder was an attempt to atone for that act of violence – a crime so dark and secret that nobody even knows aliens exist, let alone that Deep Throat murdered on of them. Dying to save Mulder’s life here seems almost poetic – strangely appropriate.

Going green...

Going green…

There’s also something decidedly practical about this. It seems like The X-Files has struggled with Deep Throat as a character. In many of his early appearances, he’s more of a plot contrivance – a way to get Mulder to where the story needs him to be, and to fill in the blanks that would otherwise be left vacant. He didn’t really exist as a character until E.B.E. It’s quite telling that the show stopped using Deep Throat as a go-to source of plot information at that point, with E.B.E. undermining his trustworthiness and his credibility.

“I fear you’ve become to dependent on me,” Deep Throat confesses to Mulder here, and it seems like he could be speaking for the writers as well. Giving Mulder a character who can provide so much information so easily undermines the show’s central narrative tension, and also suggests that Mulder’s task isn’t as impossible as it might otherwise be. Undermining and killing Deep Throat ups the stakes dramatically, even if the show feels a little clumsy into introducing a Deep Throat substitute so rapidly in the form of Mr. X.

Pandora's jar...

Pandora’s jar…

It’s also worth noting that Chris Carter is on fairly fine form here, drawing from a wealth of influences to tie the season together. Apparently, the episode had its origins in a newspaper story in Los Angeles about a medical mystery:

“A lot of the ideas come from the writers knowing what scares us and what scares others the most and building X-Files from those themes,” Carter says. “For example, ‘The Erlenmeyer Flask,’ which was the season finale last year, has a little element in it from the news. In the not-too-distant past, a woman was rushed to an emergency room with blood that had crystallized. After being exposed to it, doctors suffered from the fumes. I took that as a tiny element and incorporated it into a story I had been wanting to tell all year. It became, I felt, a perfect season finale, which revolved around the ideas that there is alien DNA that has been captured as a result of a Roswell-like incident, and this tissue is sitting in a lab in a government facility somewhere, and someone has been running tests with it. So, it’s a wedding of different ideas looking for good visuals, a good scare, and good tension, with the characters continually testing their own personal biases and beliefs about things.”

One of the interesting aspects of The X-Files has been a way that it tries to craft a very nineties urban mythology, building off all manner of modern fears and insecurities to craft something uniquely unsettling. Gender Bender hits on all manner of AIDs panic stories and fear, while Eve explores suburban gothic. In this case, though, it’s worth noting that there is documented evidence of this case – even if the cause ultimately remains a mystery.

Working in the dark...

Working in the dark…

In “Last Week We Had an Omen”: The Mythological X-Files, Leslie Jones argues that The Erlenmeyer Flask belongs to the same subset of episodes as Shapes or The Jersey Devil, built around trying to establish an American folk lore:

I include The Erlenmeyer Flask because of Chris Carter’s drawing upon the 1993 incident in Riverside, California, where a woman allegedly emitted toxic fumes when brought into a hospital emergency room. At the time this story hit the papers, a number of people who subscribe to the Folklore BBS on the Internet jumped to the conclusion that this was an example of an urban legend that had made it into the media, an event that has occurred a number of times in the past. … However, in the Riverside incident, the would-be legend-spotters were quickly set straight by folkorists in the L.A. area, who confirmed the veracity of the story. Nonetheless, the story did have all the earmarks of a good urban legend, and Carter’s use of it in The Erlenmeyer Flask (and the subsequent incorporation of the motif of toxic blood as a marker of ‘alienation’ into episodes of the second season) seems to me an example of how real events are turned into folklore.

As such, The Erlenmeyer Flask provides a nice capstone to the season.

The outside looking in...

The outside looking in…

Similarly, Carter explicitly acknowledges the influence of The Silence of the Lambs here. Early on, an officer name drops the movie (“I know it’s not Silence of the Lambs, but it’s what we do”) and one of the action set pieces involves a fugitive escaping from an ambulance. Given the massive influence that The Silence of the Lambs had on the show, the reference feel entirely appropriate and well-earned, without feeling too indulgent.

Later mythology episodes would become a little too crowded or convoluted for their own good, but The Erlenmeyer Flask works on its own terms. Indeed, you could make a case that The Erlenmeyer Flask is really the point at which the show embraces the idea of a mythology. In an online chat, Carter would cite The Erlenmeyer Flask as evidence that he’d really planned the whole conspiracy out from the start (“you really see the basis of the larger mythology”), but it’s hardly the most compelling piece of proof. We’ve already had a number of episodes about the government’s relationship with aliens (including Fallen Angel and E.B.E.), but there’s no real sense of a single unifying story.

Mulder's a little tied up...

Mulder’s a little tied up…

Even The Erlenmeyer Flask – outside of Deep Throat’s character arc – stands alone. The Cigarette-Smoking Man appears, but he has no lines. The most meaningful connection he forms to The Pilot is a reprise of that iconic closing shot. It isn’t as if The Erlenmeyer Flask closes off any lingering plot threads. The fact that it builds off Tooms and pays off a suggestion in Fallen Angel seems more like lucky coincidence than any grand design on the part of Carter and his producers.

The mythology is something that evolved over time, and certainly didn’t come into being overnight. Looking at the haphazard development of Deep Throat across the season and the late introduction of Skinner, it seems hard to argue that Carter had any real idea where he was going with this when he wrote The Pilot. It’s not even fully formed by the end of The Erlenmeyer Flask, although it would be pretty firmly cemented in the first few episodes of the show’s second season.

"NSA, eat your heart out!"

“NSA, eat your heart out!”

It is worth noting that The Erlenmeyer Flask seems like it should represent the end of Scully’s character arc. She was introduced in The Pilot to discredit Mulder. There was some early suggestion that The X-Files might attempt to balance the outlooks of Mulder and Scully, but that never really happened. So – with the exception of some mediocre Howard Gordon scripts – we’re left with the implication that Mulder is right and Scully is wrong.

And The Erlenmeyer Flask has Scully effectively concede that to her partner, representing quite dramatic character growth over the course of the season. In a scene I’m surprised Mulder never made a point to reference again over the next six years, Scully effectively concedes his world view is correct. “I just want to say that I was wrong,” she tells him. “If you’d have listened to me, we wouldn’t be here right now. I should know by now to trust your instincts.” It feels a little weird.

Shedding some light on the matter...

Shedding some light on the matter…

To be clear, it’s well earned. The X-Files exists in a universe where Mulder will be right most of the time. Scully is smart enough to recognise that. However, this scene here feels weird in context, as the show would push Scully back into the context of sceptic over the next year. (Even after the events of Duane Barry and Ascension.) While Scully was never as firmly stuck in the mud as pop culture would have many viewers believe, she was still quite steadfast in her refusal to embrace Mulder’s “crazy theory of the week.”

There’s an argument to be made that Scully was never able to accept the paranormal over the long-term, despite short-term breakthroughs – that Scully could rationalise on a case-by-case basis, but her identity was so firmly defined that she couldn’t alter it accept the big picture in the grand scheme of things. I’m not sure I like that theory. Alternatively, it’s suggested that Scully adopts the role of sceptic to balance Mulder, to anchor her partner a bit – to preserve a dynamic that benefits both them. This feels more firmly in character for Scully.

I think I'm paranoid...

I think I’m paranoid…

While The Erlenmeyer Flask might be Carter’s strongest script of the season, there are still some problems. For one thing, it seems like Scully smuggled an alien baby out of a government facility. Even with Deep Throat’s help, it’s still somewhat ropey – what did she do, hide it under her shirt and pretend to be second-season Gillian Anderson? Similarly, it seems a bit weird to believe that Scully never kept back-up details or proof or evidence of anything that went on, and that everything could be destroyed so readily. (Similarly, Mulder didn’t immediately circle back to Zeus storage, or suspect why the Crew Cut Man chased him away?)

There’s also some clunky Carter-esque dialogue as well. Anderson and Duchovny are both great here, but neither seems especially happy to be reading lines like “okay, Mulder, but I’m warning you… if this is monkey pee, you’re on your own” or using the phrase “get off” as a way to ensure the audience notes that Mulder’s father-son relationship with Deep Throat is dysfunctional. Still, Carter seems to rein himself in a bit here, and the episode is the stronger for it.

Road to nowhere...

Road to nowhere…

The Erlenmeyer Flask is a pretty great way to close out the first season of The X-Files, and to set up a much stronger second year.

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

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