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The X-Files – Duane Barry (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.

Duane Barry is Chris Carter’s directorial début on The X-Files, and it’s a staggering confident piece of work. From the opening scene where Carter’s camera stalks through Duane Barry’s run-down house through to the memorable abduction sequences and decision to play the episode’s big action sequence against a black screen, Duane Barry looks very impressive. It’s an episode that stays with the viewer, one that is every bit as visually distinctive as Blood earlier in the year.

It’s also a demonstration of how versatile The X-Files actually is. The show has already proven its horror bona fides, carving out a niche for itself on the Friday night line-up on Fox with a variety of spine-tingling adventures. While Duane Barry retains the show’s alien mythology, it arguably works best as a straight-up hostage suspense thriller. Mulder is drafted in to assist with a hostage crisis, and then finds himself getting more and more caught up in the story told by the raving gun man.

Duane's world...

Duane’s world…

This is pretty far outside the “procedural” format that has been loosely established by the show, and Duane Barry plays out rather differently than any of the earlier cases-of-the-week. Of course, The X-Files would go on to get more and more experimental in later seasons, but Duane Barry sees the show consciously stepping outside the box. This is a demonstration of how strong the show’s foundations are, proof that it can carry itself as a legitimate drama. Duane Barry is an episode that argues The X-Files is not cult television, but just good television.

It’s no wonder that Duane Barry picked up the show’s first two Primetime Emmy nominations and a significant number of Creative Emmy nominations on top. It’s also a damn fine piece of television.

The Truth is up there...

The Truth is up there…

To be fair, Duane Barry exists as a bit of happenstance. The entire evolution of the second season of The X-Files seemed to evolve by chance. Chris Carter closed the X-Files in The Erlenmeyer Flask because he was worried the show would not get a second season. It was Anderson’s pregnancy that led Carter to keep Mulder and Scully separated for the first stretch of the second season, building to Scully’s abduction during Ascension:

“When I closed the X-Files at the end of the first season,” Carter said, “it was partly because I wasn’t sure the show would be back for a second season and I thought that would be a good place to end it. But if we did get picked up for a second season, I knew that having Mulder and Scully separated would make it easier to work around Gillian’s pregnancy. So once the announcement came, the studio was not very happy about that plot development. They didn’t want to mess with something that was working so well. But it ended up becoming important to the mythology, to the characters, and to the disappearance of Gillian from the show — and it allowed the X-Files to be reopened to facilitate Mulder and Scully working together again when Gillian was ready to come back.”

This stretch of second season episodes was essential in defining the show’s identity and demonstrating what the series could do. In a way, this was very much in keeping with the style of The X-Files. The show tended to favour organic development and evolution over rigid structure and careful planning. This adaptability was one of the show’s strengths in its early years, allowing Carter to turn Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy and the prospect of cancellation into some truly iconic and memorable stories.

It's compulsive telly...

It’s compulsive telly…

As with all of the other episodes at the start of the second season, Duane Barry keeps the focus on Mulder. Due to Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy, it is really up to David Duchovny to carry the show solo. Duchovny’s performances in these episodes counts among his work on the show, rising to the challenges set by production realities. While it’s impossible to imagine The X-Files working in the long-term without both Mulder and Scully, as history demonstrated, Duchovny works hard to keep the home fires burning while Anderson is unavailable.

Duane Barry is an absolutely fascinating Mulder episode. Like Blood before it, Duane Barry is a story that hinges on the idea that Mulder may not be the most stable of individuals. After all, Duane Barry himself is introduced as something of a mirror to Mulder. “I checked on his records with the bureau,” Agent Kazden reveals after his capture. “It was exemplary. His accident was something of a mystery. Shot by his own weapon in a drug stakeout, left for dead in the woods. He was never the same. Lost everything… wife, kids, house…”

Talk about nightmare trips to the dentist...

Talk about nightmare trips to the dentist…

In many respects, he’s not too dissimilar from Mulder. Mulder was regarded as one of the most promising young agents at the FBI, until he underwent a personality change. Of course, the personality change wasn’t the result of a gunshot wound, but due to a revelation made under hypnotherapy. Many of his former colleagues encountered during the first season seem surprised at how his outlook has changed since he went to work at the X-Files. Perhaps Duane Barry represents a version of Mulder without “the fine thread of sanity” to hold him together.

(The unspoken implication is that Scully serves as Mulder’s “fine thread of sanity.” After all, Duane Barry suggests that Mulder might be starting to wander off the reservation, to feel too much empathy with the lunatic abductee. Carter’s earlier script for the season, The Host, made it clear that Mulder was not cut out for FBI grunt work and suggested that his relationship with Scully was all that really anchored him to the FBI. Is Duane Barry a version of Mulder without Scully to tether him?)

Chipping away at his sanity...

Chipping away at his sanity…

Appropriately enough, Duane Barry’s personal arc even offers the faintest trace of foreshadowing for Mulder. Early in the third season, the show would suggest that Mulder’s sister, Samantha, had been offered as a sacrifice to the aliens in Mulder’s stead. The choice was not made by Mulder or with his knowledge. As such, Duane Barry’s attempts to offer Scully to the aliens in his place represents a bit of twisted foreshadowing of Paper Clip. Barry is a broken and distorted version of Mulder.

It’s hard not to pity Duane Barry. Like Mulder, there’s a sense that Barry is just a pawn in something far larger – a powerless and hapless victim whose life was destroyed by something much larger and more incomprehensible. He recalls begging the aliens to stop their experiments and to let him go. “They know what I’m saying. But they just… go right on about their business.” They aren’t doing this to Barry because they hate him or because of who he is. The implication is that they know that they are causing suffering, but are indifferent to that fact.

"Scully never had to put up with this crap..."

“Scully never had to put up with this crap…”

These creatures have destroyed Duane Barry’s life – they have taken practically everything from him. However, he is completely unimportant to them. His involvement appears to be incidental. In Ascension, Barry happens to catch Nick Cave’s Red Right Hand playing on the radio, and there’s a sense that the song echoes his own experiences. “You’re one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan,” the song intones, and it’s hard not to feel like the choice of song was careful. (Indeed, the teaser to Ascension even features a shot of a red handprint in Scully’s apartment.)

In many respects, this is the heart of the paranoia in The X-Files – there’s a sense of disconnect and powerlessness in the show. Mulder’s life was destroyed by the fact that his sister was taken for reasons he cannot fathom. For all his efforts to fight the vast government conspiracy that targets the American public, Mulder is just a lone man in a basement, dismissed as a “spooky” quack by his colleagues.

Hear, hear...

Hear, hear…

As John Lyttle observed:

The X-Files represents a backlash against the hard-nosed, bottom-line Eighties and Nineties. That sense of permanent insecurity, of being outside an unheeding system, that the poor and displaced have always felt, we now all feel, the middle classes particularly, as the previous certainties of employment, of family, of our fixed place, erode. Eighties materialism promised much and delivered a nervous breakdown, so, of course, The X-Files deals in the immaterial, or, to punch the point home, the Not Material.

Duane Barry really hits on this sense of powerlessness.

Duane's story rings true with Mulder...

Duane’s story rings true with Mulder…

It’s an episode about a hostage-taker who is so uncertain about where he is and what he wants that he has to stop by a travel agent. “He’s bent on taking the Doctor with him to an alien abduction site, only he can’t quite remember where the site is so he stopped at a travel agency,” Kazdan explains to Mulder. If the situation weren’t so tense, and the stakes weren’t so high, it would be hilarious.

It’s worth noting that the show did begin to consciously drift away from this sense of powerlessness and isolation towards the end of the second season and into the third. Eventually The X-Files revealed that Mulder was not a lone crackpot who had stumbled on to something far more horrifying than the public could imagine. Instead, he became a central figure in the conspiracy himself, entangled through blood and family history. The show even suggested a “Chosen One” narrative for Mulder, including various plot twists about his parentage.

Looking out for himself...

Looking out for himself…

While The X-Files may have overplayed that approach slightly towards the end of Duchovny’s time on the show, both approaches to the character have their own merits. Duane Barry plays very well to the idea of Mulder as an innocent man whose life was irrevocably altered by a quirk of fate. Somebody who has made it his life’s work to try to comprehend something that may be impossible to comprehend and to fight something that could grind him under its heel without a second thought.

Despite its hostage thriller set-up, the bulk of the tension in Duane Barry is personal. When Mulder is drafted in to assist the FBI during a hostage negotiation, he finds himself drawn into Barry’s paranoid ramblings. It’s to the credit of Duane Barry that the episode embraces the ambiguity of this premise. Just how much is Mulder taken in by all this? How blinded is Mulder by his desire to believe? Can he remain objective in a situation like this?

Karaoke hostage negotiation...

Karaoke hostage negotiation…

The exchanges between Steve Railsback and David Duchovny play brilliantly. The episode leaves it to the viewer to decide just how completely Mulder is convinced by Barry’s logic. “I know you’re afraid,” he tells Barry at one point, venturing off-script. “I know the pain and the fear you must feel.” As much as the negotiation playbook asks Mulder to try to forge a connection with Barry, the episode suggests he’s wading in too deep.

However, this isn’t merely Mulder’s gift for psychological profiling shining through – this is more than simply the empathy that allows Mulder to go inside the head of disturbed individuals. Duane Barry suggests that Mulder is being blinded by his own self-interest, by his own desire for answers and his own sense of guilt over the abduction of Samantha. There are points where Mulder almost seems to forget about the hostages, so eager is he for answers.

Spot the problem...

Spot the problem…

“Where do they take you, Duane?” he asks. “Is there a ship? Do they take you to a ship, Duane? How do you get there? Are you conscious or being transported?” These don’t seem so much like questions trying to build empathy. They seem like questions probing for information. Mulder’s end goal here doesn’t seem to be to know more about Duane Barry, it seems to be know more about the aliens who abducted him.

The reason for Mulder’s interest is apparent. Later on, Mulder and Barry talk about Samantha, in a conversation that seems almost religious in nature – Barry is trying to validate Mulder’s faith that Samantha could be okay. “I’ve seen kids sometimes, young girls,” Barry admits. When Mulder asks what the aliens are doing with them, Barry explains, “Doing tests. You know… testing them. I tell them not to cry.” Fearing the answer, Mulder asks anyway, “Are they hurting them?”

Obviously the therapy is not working out for him...

Obviously the therapy is not working out for him…

One of the big problems with the start of the second season is the way that Scully is marginalised. To be fair, it’s a production necessity. Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy meant that she couldn’t do as much work as she might otherwise. (Indeed, she has discussed how difficult it was to get the “Scully dragged across the floor sequence” from the start of Ascension to work.) So the start of the second season could never be about Scully, from a sheer production logistics and mechanics perspective.

However, this creates one of the problems with the Scully abduction arc that echoes through the second season: this isn’t Scully’s story. The start of second season is very much built around Mulder as a necessity, and these episodes are very much Mulder’s story. The problem with Scully’s abduction – at least as originally presented – is that it’s treated as nothing more than a segment of Mulder’s story. Scully’s character arc isn’t leading to her abduction, Mulder’s is. Scully is abducted to punish Mulder.

Nothing of note...

Nothing of note…

Again, this is a decision that was forced by realities outside the control of the production team, even if one wonders why Scully couldn’t just be at a conference somewhere for a week or two. Duane Barry does do a bit of work to justify this, though. It turns Scully’s abduction into a delightfully ironic story twist. Little Green Men suggested that Mulder is seeking atonement for the loss of Samantha, and Duane Barry suggests a possibility.

Does Mulder want to go with Duane Barry to the abduction site? Does Mulder want to be taken by the aliens? The episode – and Duchovny’s performance – hint in that direction. Does Mulder hope that he might be able to arrange a trade, like Barry is trying to do with Doctor Hakkie? Or is it something darker? Does Mulder just want to leave this world behind and simply know that he was correct in his beliefs? Would it mean that he might finally have validation? It plays like a delightfully twisted version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The outside looking in...

The outside looking in…

After all, Mulder’s character arc would seem to lead towards abduction. Although the seventh season is a mess, Requiem works quite well because it plays Mulder’s story arc out to its logical conclusion. Mulder departs a world that won’t accept the truth, and becomes a part of the mythology he has been chasing for so long. He is finally and literally consumed by the UFO lore, just as he has been metaphorically consumed for decades. That is really the only possible ending for Mulder’s story arc, and the beauty of Requiem is the way that the episode realises that.

So Duane Barry works quite cleverly to set up the idea that Mulder might travel with Duane Barry and might finally be vindicated by meeting the alien forces he has been pursuing for years. It then pulls a clever switcheroo and has Scully going to the abduction site with Barry. It’s a very clever piece of storytelling, and it’s just about the only way to justify the abduction from a narrative perspective. It doesn’t quite excuse some of the trouble that the show has exploring the aftermath of Scully’s abduction later in the season, but it at least works well in context.

Putting the matter to bed...

Putting the matter to bed…

Duane Barry is a fantastic directorial début for Chris Carter, a fantastic episode of The X-Files and a beautiful piece of television.

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

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