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The X-Files – Blood (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

It’s interesting to get The Host and Blood produced back-to-back. Both episodes serve to draw writer Darin Morgan into the world of The X-Files. Brother of staff writer Glen Morgan, Darin Morgan would go on to become one of the most unique and distinctive voices to work on Chris Carter’s television shows – his scripts for The X-Files and Millennium stand out among the very best episodes the shows ever produced, with a very subversive and wry approach to the subject matter.

Morgan enjoyed one of the most surreal paths to the writers’ room imaginable. An actor with a few scattered credits on eighties television, including various shows his brother worked on like 21 Jump Street and The Commish, Morgan was cast as in the thankless role of “Fluke man” in The Host. However, he also found himself drawn into the production of the next episode, Blood. An episode with some production difficulties, Darin Morgan offered some ideas on how to develop the story.

Blood work...

Blood work…

Ultimately, Darin Morgan didn’t write Blood. The script was written by Glen Morgan and James Wong, with Darin receiving a “story” credit on the finished episode. However, his ideas had impressed producer Howard Gordon, who would later propose that Darin Morgan join the writing staff. Morgan would accept the invitation and write Humbug later in the second season, before producing two genuine classics during the show’s phenomenal third year. (And also War of the Coprophages.) Darin Morgan would later write two more scripts for Millennium.

As such, Blood isn’t really a Darin Morgan episode. As it was written by Glen Morgan and James Wong, their own sensibilities shine through on the broadcast episode. However, Blood does contain a few of the wonderful trademarks of Darin Morgan’s approach to the show, not least of which a very post-modern cynicism about cynicism. Blood feels like a rather subtle and incisive critique of the culture of paranoia that The X-Files thrives on, refusing to offer clear-cut answers and suggesting that Mulder might be just a little bit off-balance.

A very calculated title drop!

A very calculated title drop!

With The X-Files as a product of the nineties, Blood was inevitable. The brief on Morgan and Wong’s writing board just read “postal workers.” It might seem sparse but – in the mid-nineties – those two words were easy fodder for The X-Files, a show that thrived on paranoia and uncertainty. After all, the phrase “going postal” had entered the popular lexicon only a year before, appearing in articles published in The St. Petersberg Times and The Los Angeles Times.

The history of spree killing by postal employees dated back to at least 1986, when Patrick Sherrill killed fourteen people before turning the gun on himself in the small town of Edmond, Oklahoma. The event shook contemporary America – it was the point at which the possibility of this sort of random brutality impressed itself upon the popular consciousness. However, the early nineties saw a spate of spree killings, with three high-profile incidents in 1991 and four such incidents in 1993.

The stairway to heaven...?

The stairway to heaven…?

It The X-Files was going to engage with the anxieties of nineties America, it would have to touch on these sorts of fears and concerns. Indeed, The X-Files returns to the theme of workplace violence a few times over its nine-year run. The events of Folie à Deux are spurred by a workplace hostage situation. Empedocles opens with an example of workplace violence as a demonstration of the type of evil that might be passed from person to person.

It is worth noting that spree – or rampage – killing is not a phenomenon unique to the eighties and nineties. In the United States, there are records of spree attacks dating back to the nineteenth century. With the qualification that the field itself has not been exhaustively researched and investigated, it has been argued that “public murder occurs at a fairly constant level across time and cultures.” It is debatable how much of the paranoia around spree killing is down to sensationalist reporting and media attention given to such tragedies.

Hands-on approach...

Hands-on approach…

Still, it is worth conceding that the postal service had a remarkably high rate of spree killings in the early nineties. There has been extensive debate of this phenomenon, with multiple accounts offered and numerous reasons suggested. In Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder, James Alan Fox and Jack Levin observe:

According to union president Moe Biller, the fundamental problem was the “quasi-military structure and culture” of the Postal Service. Even Postmaster General Runyon seemed to agree, vowing to change the “authoritarian management style.” Postal workers around the country protested bitterly about capricious managers who treated them like children. Some letter carriers complained that their bathroom breaks were being monitored by managers wishing to make certain that time wasn’t being wasted. Other workers allegedly were suspected or sent home for minor rule infractions such as whistling on the job. Still other postal employees reported being spied on by supervisors with an overaggressive concern for productivity.

More important than the issues of management style and job stress, however, was the concern for job security, which was especially prevalent at the post office. Despite civil service protections, many postal workers perceived – rightly or wrongly – that their jobs were on the line because of automation and reorganisation, and they worried about the implications for their careers.

These arguments anchor the spree killings in issues of paranoia and anxiety.

A bit watered down...

A bit watered down…

Writing in Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream, Robert I. Simon suggested that these impulses were responses to stressful realities, but the decision to act on these anxieties was down to “depression and paranoia”:

Why has the postal service experienced so much violence? No one knows for sure. For one thing, a continuing automation process has been placing great stress on postal employees, who are hard pressed to keep up with the pace of the new equipment. Another major part seems to come from inadequately careful selection of employees. Lack of tact and management skills among postal supervisors is another contributing factor. Each year, in the postal service, there are 150,000 grievance proceedings and 69,000 disciplinary actions in the army of 825,000 employees. This is a very high index of supervisor-employee difficulties – 1 out of every 12 employees is disciplined annually, and 2 out of every 11 file grievances against their supervisors. On the other hand, a report by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention found post offices have a lower homicide rate than many other industries. Programs aimed at reducing violence in the postal service have led to fewer violent incidents.

In media interviews, an alarmingly large number of postal workers admitted that they strongly identified with the killers in the violent post office events, stating that they themselves harboured similar revenge impulses but did not act on them. In this instance especially, the bad men did what the good ones dreamed about doing. The difference between the two groups depends on many factors – among the significant ones, the degree of depression and paranoia.

Given that The X-Files is a show based around the idea that paranoia and cynicism are really the only ways to survive in the modern world, the fact that these attitudes are so strongly associated with postal violence makes Blood a rather fascinating piece of television.

Handling the situation personally...

Handling the situation personally…

On the surface, Blood is an extremely typical episode of The X-Files. It’s a show about how the horrific tens to intrude on the mundane, the horrors the lurk behind the day-to-day American experience. A significant portion of Blood is devoted to local authorities observing that these sorts of things simply don’t happen in this kind of community. It’s a sentiment that certainly feels familiar – it’s the understandable response to any act of horrific brutality.

“Things like this aren’t supposed to happen here,” Spencer assures Mulder. “Since colonial times, there’s only been three murders in this area. In the last six months, seven people have killed twenty-two. Per capita, that’s higher than the combined homicide rate of Detroit, D.C. and Los Angeles. This town is not any of those places.” When Mulder suggests that drugs might be involved, Spencer can’t even continence the idea, “Agent Mulder, this town is mainly made up of apple and cherry growers. These folks don’t drink much. They certainly don’t do drugs.”

Mechanical trouble...

Mechanical trouble…

There’s an understandable sense of denial about what is going on in this small community. Indeed, when Mulder tries to solve the case, he meets some resistance from the local community who don’t respond well to the outside world intruding in. Accused of using illegal pesticides on his crops, Larry Winter attacks Mulder, “You don’t live here, Mulder. I live here. I have my heart in this town. I have three children. I’m not going to dump poison on them.”

In many respects, Blood feels like it belongs with that special class of X-Files episodes that explore the erosion of small-town innocence in the nineties, the stories that peer into the dark spaces that exist in idealised communities that claim to exist separate from the fears and anxieties that terrorise larger urban centres. Blood almost plays as a companion piece to Gender Bender or Home about the romanticised version of “small-town America” that was already vanishing in the mid-nineties.

Lone (Gunmen) Rangers...

Lone (Gunmen) Rangers…

However, that isn’t the most interesting aspect of Blood. The most fascinating element of the episode is the way that it seems implicitly critical of The X-Files itself. After all, the show plays into a particularly paranoid sensibility – a world where ominous and sinister conspiracies operate just beyond out perception, where the government is listening to every word that we say, where experiments are being run on the civilian populations who mistaken trust their governments. It might explore a culture of anxiety and paranoia, but it also plays into it.

Blood is built around the idea that these things don’t necessarily happen in a vacuum. There is no singular cause for all of this violence. “I’m convinced an outside factor is responsible,” Mulder’s report insists, “but I must concede frustration as to a determination of the cause.” While Scully does find evidence of some chemical factor, it’s explicitly not the pesticide itself. As she tells Mulder, “I find little physiological evidence that L.S.D.M. has toxically affected you… even after massive ingestion.”

The "M" is a little redundant...

The “M” is a little redundant…

In an interview with Starlog, Glen Morgan and James Wong suggested that Blood was specifically about these outside factors bearing down on a character:

Their second effort this year was Blood, an episode Wong calls “our attempt at portraying how some of these spree killers might have gotten their ideas.” In this case, the ideas were transmitted through the digital displays of machines and household appliances. “As we wrote,” Morgan explains, “we were thinking, what do you have in your house that you’re going to deal with every day that scares you? Blood is very visual. Jim and I used the least amount of dialogue possible, because the episode deals with people receiving messages and looking at things. The fourth act is really intense, and William Sanderson, who plays Funsch, did a great job.”

And Blood suggests that it isn’t any one individual factor.

We'll catch it post...

We’ll catch it post…

It could be the chemicals in the pesticide, even if Scully finds no evidence of that. It could be the workplace stress on these characters. It could be secret messages being delivered through technology. In one of the episode’s best sequences, Funsch finds himself confronted with a wall of televisions playing images of wanton destruction and murder – riots in American cities, Charles Manson, war overseas.

As these images flood into the mind of a man dealing with the fact that he was recently fired from a job he likely held for most of his life, he happens to notice a “gun” section of the store, helpfully advertised with a big friendly neon sign. Naturally, Funsch can buy a sniper rifle and ammunition there, no questions asked. Blood isn’t an episode about moral panic or gun control or anything as transparent as that.

Ah, good old paper sign! You won't tell me to kill anybody...

Ah, good old paper sign! You won’t tell me to kill anybody…

Blood is an episode that is very much based around the idea that living in an atmosphere of constant fear and anxiety is not a healthy way to live. This seems pretty self-evident, given that stress and uncertainty have been shown to have demonstrative effects on an individual’s mental and physical health. However, it is an interesting idea to explore on The X-Files, given the show’s tendency to wallow in that paranoia and anxiety.

In particular, Blood is the first episode of the second season to broach the idea that Mulder doesn’t really function without Scully. Due to Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy, Scully was consciously sidelined during the first block of the second season, leaving the show to focus on Mulder. Episodes like Little Green Men and The Host might be stories told in a world without the X-files, but they are both episodes happy to let Mulder do the heavy lifting, reducing Scully to a supporting character who might offer a last-minute save, some kind words or some pseudo-science.

A shot in the arm...

A shot in the arm…

The Host flirts with the idea that Mulder may not have the sort of interpersonal skills that allow him to do his job – he handles Skinner in entirely the wrong way, for example – but the episode unapologetically sides with Mulder. His big confrontation with Skinner has Mulder righteously glossing over any role his his self-righteous indignance and indifference may have had in episode’s second death so he can get up on his moral high horse.

In contrast, Blood is a lot less willing to indulge Mulder. Scully is only a supporting character here, but Morgan and Wong approach her the same way that they did in Ice – she’s a voice of reason who exists to temper the fact that Mulder’s paranoia is unlikely to make him many friends. Her major scene features Mulder being a jerk to just about everybody in the community and convincing the local law enforcement to stop listening to him. He flippantly dismisses this, joking with Scully, “Yeah, he’s probably one of those people that thinks Elvis is dead.”

The producers have discovered the most efficient way yet of concealing Gillian Anderson's pregnancy...

The producers have discovered the most efficient way yet of concealing Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy…

However, Blood is most interesting because it’s decidedly open-ended. In this respect, it feels like a Darin Morgan episode, despite the fact that he only contributed the story to the show. After Scully dismisses the idea of the pesticide as the cause of the spree violence, Mulder latches on to the idea that the killers were provoked through messages sent via various readouts. “The electronic devices relayed messages that told them specifically what to do with their fear in order to alleviate it,” he insists. “The messages were relayed purposely.”

Certainly, this is not outside the realm of possibility. The X-Files has never been too restricted by the limitations of technology or logistics or science. After all, The Host featured a gigantic half-man-half-fluke-worm creature. The idea that somebody is sending precisely-calibrated messages to various readouts with split-second timing designed to drive specific people over the edge is not outside the kind of things that viewers take for granted on this show.

Loose wires...

Loose wires…

However, without explicitly confirming anything – because paranoia works best if it’s vague and uncertain – Blood implies that Mulder himself my be suffering from paranoid delusions. After all, it is worth noting that several of the machines displaying those messages were visible to multiple characters. It seems odd that only one person in the lift could have been checking the floor, just as it seems weird that the auto-mechanic just keeps missing the messages on his read-out. It seems more likely that those messages were projected out onto those devices.

More than that, Mulder only really starts to fixate on the idea of those readouts being directed messages from a sinister force after he is exposed to the chemicals in the pesticide. Mulder talks about how the people focused on their own fears and anxieties when freaking out, but Mulder’s own paranoia is built around the idea of a sinister outside force controlling everything. Of course Mulder sees a conspiracy meticulously and carefully crafted by some all-seeing unseen adversary.

A quick cut...

A quick cut…

The episode’s final scene – Mulder taunted by an anonymous opponent who evades justice and accountability – is really the perfect encapsulation of how Mulder sees the world. Across its run, The X-Files plays with the idea of Mulder as a deeply tragic hero who is always on the edge of breaking away from reality. Darin Morgan is probably the writer who handles this version of Mulder best, presenting a version of a man chasing ghosts and aliens as a way of dealing with his existential crisis.

While the closing scene of Blood lacks the emotional impact of Mulder’s final scene in Jose Chung’s From Outer Space or his fate as suggested in Clive Bruckman’s Final Repose, it is still a scene that invites us to pity Mulder. He’s chasing something may only exist inside his head. One of the problems with Mulder’s arc as the show went on and he recovered more and more evidence, was that it became harder and harder to accept Mulder’s belief in the paranormal as anything other than rational and logical.

I always feel like, somebody's watching me...

I always feel like, somebody’s watching me…

By demonstrating that aliens and conspiracies actually existed, the show almost inverted the dynamic between Mulder and Scully. Mulder’s beliefs were substantive and demonstrable; Scully’s skepticism was akin to arguing that the world was flat. While the show would do some interesting things with this reversal, it did mean losing the tragedy Mulder as a man chasing demons that may not exist; instead it shifted to the tragedy of man chasing criminals that may not be caught.

Blood touches on the bizarre nature of The X-Files. Paranoia is anchored in suspicions that cannot be justified, cover-ups that cannot be confirmed; however, The X-Files exists in a world where those suspicions almost inevitably turn out to be correct and cover-ups are just waiting to be uncovered. It’s a romantic form of paranoia, a television show where paranoia isn’t just a crazy attempt to make sense of something unexplainable, but the key to understanding how the world actually works.

Candid camera...

Candid camera…

As such, despite the fact that the actual script was written by James Morgan and Glen Wong, Blood still retains Darin Morgan’s wonderfully post-modern cynicism about the show’s self-styled cynicism. It is almost a sly subversion of The X-Files. It’s an example of how paranoia isn’t something to be lauded or celebrated, but something that isolates people and pushes them to scary places. In a way, it’s perfectly suited to this stretch of the second season, a cautionary tale about Mulder’s tendency to indulge his own paranoia without Scully to hold him back and anchor him.

Indeed, Blood even suggests that Mulder’s world view isn’t as heroic as it might first appear. Mulder abhors the idea of lying to unsuspecting population, but Blood forces him to participate in such a lie himself. Pragmatic realities prevent him from disclosing the purposes of the blood tests on local residents, forcing him to cover it up and disguise it as something more innocuous. Of course, this is the only way that Mulder could get to do those tests, but it does suggest there’s something just a little hypocritical about Mulder’s position. After all, if Mulder can rationalise a cover-up for the greater good, why can’t elected officials?

This one's in the bag...

This one’s in the bag…

(It also underscores the similarities between Mulder and Funsch. Funsch is immediately suspicious of the blood tests, and is entirely correct in his suspicions – people are trying to extract his blood for a purpose to which he would not consent. Funsch freaks out at this, and it’s hard to imagine that Mulder would behave any differently. Of course, Mulder wouldn’t climb a clock tower and threaten to shoot innocent people, but Blood suggests that Mulder’s paranoia is a complex and not entirely endearing attribute.)

There are admittedly some problems with the episode. Due to its nature as a show about random violence, the episode is structured a bit repetitively. While Funsch is the central character of the episode – played brilliantly by William Sanderson – quite a lot of Blood is spent with guest stars who get strange messages from appliances before inevitably acting randomly and violently. Each of these feel like scenes that don’t necessarily advance the plot so much as they ensure that the audience is still paying attention.

A hail of bullets...

A hail of bullets…

It also seems a little strange that Mulder and Scully are collaborating so casually after all the secrecy of Little Green Men and Mulder’s laments about how the Bureau is trying to keep them apart in The Host. While it’s clear that Mulder and Scully aren’t partners again here, it doesn’t feel quite as bad as Mulder made it seem. While this is a bit of a confusing continuity and plot point, it’s easy enough to forgive Blood as it’s the first episode that feels like it’s really dealing with what an investigation run by Mulder without Scully might look like.

David Nutter’s direction on Blood is quite fantastic. A show with a minimal amount of dialogue, it requires a director capable of convey mood and atmosphere very well. If Blood is structured as a sequence of recurring set pieces, then Nutter serves credit for the way that he shoots these set pieces. There are lots of quick disorienting cuts and shots that exist to put us into the minds of various characters. The camera is frequently angled to give us a strange or unusual shot of something that should be familiar or comfortable. Blood is another example of David Nutter’s fantastic work with Glen Morgan and James Wong.

This mail man is a people person...

This mail man is a people person…

Blood might not be brilliant, and it might not be a perfect encapsulation of what Darin Morgan would bring to the show. However, it is an absolutely fascinating episode of The X-Files, one which dares to play with the show’s central concepts a bit.

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

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