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.
3 is the first absolute misfire from the second season of The X-Files.
It’s easy enough to account for the problems with 3. The production on the episode was a mess. It was the first episode produced without one of the show’s two lead characters. It existed to plug a hole in the schedule caused by factors outside the control of the production staff. Writers Glen Morgan and James Wong were working on both this and One Breath simultaneously. And it’s also a traditional monster story, which is something that The X-Files had struggled with and would struggle with again.
To be fair, 3 does what it says on the tin. It is the episode between Ascension and One Breath, a forty-five minute breather that fills a broadcast slot and allows the show to continue on while Gillian Anderson takes maternity leave. The fact that there was only one slot to fill without Anderson is a testament to both the production team’s organisational skill and Anderson’s work ethic. Really, all that 3 needs to do is exist.
Even with that in mind, 3 still feels like a disappointment. Given how Anderson’s pregnancy managed to spur the production team to create a compelling long-form story for the show, culminating in stories like Duane Barry and One Breath, it’s disappointing that her absence doesn’t inspire the same creativity. Seeing The X-Files without Scully should be the opportunity for a fascinating adventure or insightful character study; it could play with audience expectations or the show’s rigid format. Instead, the result is just a mess.
To be fair, 3 does have some interesting ideas. Most obviously, it is all about missing pieces and absences – which is a pretty effective way of exploring Scully’s absence from the show. 3 is an episode that emphasises incompleteness. There’s a beautiful irony here. Despite the episode’s title, it is a single-episode story that sits in the middle of a three-part adventure, breaking the flow between Ascension and One Breath. One could skip 3 and miss absolutely nothing, something to which the episode draws attention.
It’s an unnecessary piece of the larger puzzle. The episode is structured in such a way as to lead the audience to believe that Kristen Killar is part of the Unholy Trinity. The Son refers to the female Unholy Spirit, and the episode introduced Kristen as a sexy temptress. However, this is all misdirection. It turns out that the Unholy Spirit is actually a random female character, and Kristen is a victim of the Unholy Trinity rather than a member. She’s the fourth member of a trinity, much as 3 is the fourth installment of a trilogy.
Even the title itself draws attention to the superfluous nature of the story. There is more here than required, yet also less. The X-Files does not need an “Unholy Trinity.” It does not need three, in any way, shape or form. Instead, it is a show that works with two leads. Mulder and Scully are really all that you need for The X-Files. There’s a paradox here. More is less. An episode titled 3 feels somehow incomplete, unnecessary.
3 feels completely divorced from the material concerns of Scully’s absence, while still being informed by it. 3‘s first act features Mulder reopening the X-files and adding Scully’s case file to the large cabinets. Her badge and her glasses are filed as evidence. She is being tucked away. The matter is being put to rest. However, there’s no reference to an on-going investigation; no suggestion that the Bureau is currently conducting an exhaustive manhunt. Viewers looking for any advancement or development of that plot had best look elsewhere.
To be fair, working from an original teleplay by Chris Ruppenthal, Glen Morgan and James Wong do try to insert some mirroring between 3 and One Breath, although these attempts are clumsy. As with Mulder’s attempts to catch the reflection of the Son, sometimes it works and some times it doesn’t. Most obviously, 3 and One Breath are meditations on faith – with a particular emphasis on Catholocism. Given that 3 features vampires, it should be no surprise that the show touches on religious themes.
However, there’s considerable overlap in the religious iconography of both 3 and One Breath. Both feature biblical verses drawn from the Gospel of John, the most abstract and metaphorical of the four canon gospels. Here, the Unholy Trinity subscribe to an overtly literal interpretation, scrawling a reference on the wall of the crime scene. Mulder dismissively observes, “They have the same feeble grasp of the Bible as all those big-haired preachers do.” In this case, the Unholy Trinity focus on the reference to the consumption of blood and literally enact it.
It’s a strange line from Mulder, particularly in light of the character’s subsequently confirmed atheism. It seems to suggest Mulder supports a particular reading of the Gospel of John. It is worth noting that the Gospel of John is arguably the gospel most directly connected to the nineties theology of The X-Files. Certain biblical scholars – most notably Rudolf Bultmann – have drawn attention to the gnostic elements of the Gospel of John.
Given the connection between gnosticism and nineties spirituality, it makes sense that the Gospel of John would provide an overlap between the spirituality of The X-Files and Catholic doctrine. As such, it forms a bridge between Mulder’s more abstract free-form faith and Scully’s more traditional Catholic beliefs. “I Want to Believe” encompasses a wide and diverse range of possibilities.
One Breath also quotes from the Gospel of John, with Scully’s tombstone assuring viewers that “the Spirit is the Truth.” It provides a nice counterpoint to the use of biblical quotation here, while also providing a nice thematic connection between Scully and the female “Spirits” featured in 3. If Scully is associated with “the Spirit”, then is makes sense that 3 tries to fill the void left in her absence with an “Unholy Spirit” – the only member of the Unholy Trinity to get a name distinct from their Christian counterpart. Kristen, then, is a substitute for a substitute – a character set up as the Unholy Spirit, only for the episode to ultimately reveal that she is not.
Other mirroring occurs. Attempting to justify his feeding habits to Mulder, the Son explains that eternal life is all that has meaning. (Once again, the trio seem to lean on a heavily literal interpretation of a religious concept.) He boasts, “Look, what nobody realizes is that there is no afterlife. I know this. Listen, listen, I know this because when we prolong our lives by taking theirs all I see is such … horror in their eyes and that’s because at that moment they’re face-to-face with death and then suddenly they realize there’s nothing else. There’s no heaven. There’s no soul. There’s just rot and there’s just decay.”
Naturally, One Breath also provides a counterpoint to this. Scully’s experiences suggest that there is an afterlife. That there is something beyond this world. Scully’s religious experiences provide a direct rebuttal of the cynicism and nihilism (and literalism) of the Unholy Trinity. Perhaps that’s the best way to look at 3, as an episode that lightly brushes against concepts and themes that One Breath will explore more thoroughly.
Of course, 3 also demonstrates how The X-Files was cleverly (and playfully) developing the sexual tension between Mulder and Scully. For all that Kristen suggests that Scully is “not a lover, a friend” to Mulder, 3 very much feels like a fling for a character coming out of a long-term relationship. Scully is gone, and the first thing that Mulder does is to have a one-episode stand with a guest-star played by David Duchovny’s then-girlfriend.
(That said, treating Kristen as a stand-in for Scully and implying that Mulder seeks to redeem himself by protecting Kristen reinforces the rather unfortunate sense that Scully’s abduction is all about Mulder – something unfortunately reinforced by airing Firewalker directly after One Breath. It’s an issue that is the inevitable result of production realities, and it’s something that Morgan and Wong address quite well in One Breath, but 3 plays into that in a completely unironic way.)
Still, even with these interesting elements, 3 is still a complete mess of an episode. Director David Nutter collaborates with Wong and Morgan again on 3. The director makes sure that the hour remains moody and atmospheric. 3 is a very visually rich episode of The X-Files. At the same time, very little of the show makes any sense. 3 is full of all sorts of thematic connections and metaphors, but little substance tying those elements together into a cohesive or functional story.
The Los Angeles setting, the family vibe and the bloody message on the wall serve to evoke the “Helter Skelter” killings committed by the Manson Family. On arriving at the scene, Mulder is politely informed, “Look, LAPD’s seen – I don’t know, what? – maybe a couple of weird crime scenes down the years.” The Manson Family element is fairly quickly brushed aside, even if it complements the unwholesome family vibe of the Unholy Trinity’s attempts to reunite with Kristen as Mulder faces the loss of his own surrogate family member.
This is to say nothing of the plot itself. How is the Son still working at the blood bank if everybody knows he is destroying light bulbs? He’s still a relatively new employee, but how come people have noticed that he is breaking light bulbs, but not that he is stealing blood? And that’s before we get the questions raised by his resurrection in the final act. The whole thing is so casual that viewers to wonder how he escaped the locker in the morgue or how much fun his autopsy must have been or what the CCTV footage must have looked like.
Even David Duchovny has criticised the episode’s lack of internal logic. “Why do I let her shave me, for God’s sake?” he wonders, and it’s hard to think of an answer beyond “it makes for a nice visual and a tense sequence.” To be fair, writers Glen Morgan and James Wong will be the first to concede the problems with the episode. As Morgan conceded to X-Files Confidential:
“Several mistakes took place,” says Glen Morgan. “Howard Gordon was supposed to do episode seven, but it w asn’t going to happen. There was a script by Chris Ruppenthal that was sitting around, and we said, ‘Look, we’ll do number seven and eight back to back.’ Howard agreed, and then I read the script and said, ‘Oh my God!’ It was a lot of work to do. That was mistake number one. I think mistake number two was to just do a vampire show, which to me shouldn’t be a mistake. If there’s one thing that’s kind of a letdown about The X – Files audience, it’s that even though it’s a show that should be able to do anything , the Internet and feedback tells me, ‘You just shouldn’t do vampires.’ My feeling is, Why not? We did the manitou last year, which was essentially a werewolf, and they hated that to.
“My feeling,” he elaborates, “is that it’s a legend that’s been around since the eleventh century. In starting to do research, I began to find out about these people who felt it was a sexual fetish to ingest blood. Obviously the [Broadcast] Standards people say, ‘Hugh? What the …’ I think we caved in on too many points to the Standards people. In the first draft it was a really kinky, erotic episode. It lost that because we didn’t battle hard enough with the Standards people. Then we took heat for Mulder falling for this woman. People said, ‘How could he sexually accept someone so soon after he lost Scully?’ but to me that would be the perfect time. Another problem is that Perrey Reeves is David’s real – life girlfriend. I think because the two of them have a sexual relationship offscreen, there’s a tension that’s missing that you’d have with two people who haven’t messed around. The whole thing is that she should have been so alluring and there would be a chemistry between them, and there wasn’t at all. That’s why I think it wasn’t successful.”
With all these different factors, it’s hard to imagine how 3 could have turned out well.
At the same time, it feels like a shame. 3 really solidifies the idea that The X-Files is – as a show – fundamentally about Mulder and Scully. It cannot function in the absence of either protagonist. This isn’t a problem for a show in its sophomore season, one that was lucky to get renewed after a ropey first season. However, this would become a problem for the show down the line, when Chris Carter would have to confront the idea of The X-Files without Mulder and Scully.
Would 3 have worked better if Alex Krycek had been kept around as Mulder’s partner for an episode or two? Would the show itself have been stronger in the long term if it had allowed Gillian Anderson a bit more time after the birth of her daughter? Of course, there’s no way to know. 3 feels like an episode that really should be a big deal, but wound up treated as the runt of the litter – an opportunity to do something unique that instead got lost in the production team’s focus on the episodes around it.
(Even with that in mind, it’s hard to complain. Would a better version of 3 be worth a weaker version of One Breath, assuming that quality can be distributed across episodes in such a fashion? It’s all idle conjecture. While 3 is a pretty weak episode, it is the first real dud of the second season. It is forgivable, particularly in light of the issues that the production team had to work around – the fact that the first serious misstep comes this far into the season is a testament to their ability.)
3 is also notable because it is the show’s first proper “vampire” story. As a rule, The X-Files has stayed away from the classic horror movie monsters. When Chris Carter signed his exclusive contract with Fox and began developing the show, he claimed that he “didn’t want to do something that was limited to vampires.” For some reason the show doesn’t tend to do traditional ghouls particularly well – Shapes and Shadows rank among the weaker stories of the first season, despite being centred around horror genre staples werewolves and ghosts.
Generally speaking, these classic monsters are an awkward fit for The X-Files. The show generally struggles when it tries to do a straight-up classic monster story, as shows like 3 or Alpha atest. In contrast, the show works a lot better when it approaches these monsters playfully. Vince Gilligan’s Bad Blood is the best vampire story from the show’s run, and The Post-Modern Prometheus is an energetic and affectionate homage to the Frankenstein story. Even Fluke Man from The Host feels like a modernised take on a classic Universal movie monster.
It is interesting to wonder why more conventional takes on classic movie monsters don’t fit comfortably on The X-Files. It is quite reasonable to argue that episodes like Shapes, 3 and Alpha all have serious problems outside the featured monster of the week. At the same time, The X-Files feels like a show that is unfolding at a transitional moment in American popular consciousness. One of the more convincing interpretations of The X-Files suggests that it is a show about the passing of American gothic, the shadows that are retreating in an era of globalisation.
The strongest monsters of the week generally feel very much anchored in American sensibilities. The show is anchored in an American UFO mythology. Squeeze suggested that Eugene Tooms was the embodiment of urban brutality, a predator for American cities. Home is about the secrets hidden in the rapidly-disappearing small-town America. Pusher is a perversion of the American Dream. Drive is about the urge to move west until you hit the sea.
In contrast, the classic movie monsters feel a little more old world than most of the creatures featured on the show, and so they don’t fit with the show’s aesthetic. One of the biggest problems with Shapes is that it wanted to be a traditional werewolf story, despite the uniqueness of its Native American setting. 3 falls into the same trap. Despite the use of syringes to extract blood for later, the vampires in 3 seem curiously quaint.
It is frustrating, because vampires were a monster particularly suited to the nineties, as William J. Palmer noted in The Films of the Nineties: The Decade of Spin:
That is why, in the nineties, AIDS is a subtext of any vampire movie. Blood kills! The nineties audience knows this and that is what vampire movies are all about. One critic described Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire as “an erotic dreamscape, a blooming midnight reverie of blood and danger and sin.” Sex in the age of AIDS is just that sort of nightmare – sinful, dangerous, and a terrible threat to the blood. Lestat, in the novel and in the film, is like a conscienceless carrier of the AIDS virus through the centuries, “a sexual seducer… for an age of erotic knowingness.” The nineties film audience knows that the worst crime of the new sexual landscape is the erotic act that knowingly infects the blood of the sexual partner.
AIDS is an element of 3. Mulder explicitly mentions the sickness when Kristen offers him her blood. “Aren’t you afraid?” he asks. However, it never seems like the episode explores it as well as it might.
Part of this is undoubtedly down to the limitations imposed by Broadcast Standards and Practices, but the whole episode feels rather hamfisted in its presentation of sexuality – vampire or otherwise. The kinkiness seems forced, and 3 plays like an even more earnest version of the sensationalist sexual horror presented in Gender Bender. Mulder becomes a voyeur. “I don’t know who the hell you are, freak, but we’re two consenting adults,” a random victim observes moments before becoming a midnight snack.
Indeed, voyeurism becomes something of a recurring motif – perhaps reflecting the limitations on the sexual kinks acceptable to Broadcast Standards and Practises. When Kristen finds the Son waiting in her house after her night with Mulder, he remarks, “I’ve been watching. I had to wait for you to finish.” Sure, there are occasional moments where 3 seems genuinely uncomfortable – Kristen tells us that “blood tastes dangerous” and alludes to “blood sports” in the bedroom – but mostly it all seems very generic.
There’s also just the faintest whiff of moral panic about the whole thing. The episode plays into classic horror sensibilities in the same way that Gender Bender did in the first season – that sex is dangerous and those engaged in practices outside the norm will be punished. The episode opens with a character who helpfully confirms he is an adulterer shortly before being brutally murdered. Even Kristen’s partner for the club seems to be punished for indulging in kinky sex, despite his protestation that he and Kristen are “two consenting adults.”
The vampire subculture was one that emerged into the mainstream in the late eighties and nineties, with various clubs and societies springing up around the world – aided by the development of the internet. As with the emergence of a lot of these subcultures existing outside the norm, this emergence prompted a predictable moral panic. The infamous case of Australian “lesbian vampire killer” Tracy Wigginton probably did not help matters.
3 feels rather trite in its handling of this subculture. Mulder effectively “saves” Kristen from the subculture, after the episode makes the expected link between Kristen’s “deviance” from sexual norms and a history of sexual abuse. Describing her experiences, she muses, “‘Abused’ is too frail a word.” When she is tempted to consume Mulder’s blood, Mulder refuses, which is his right. However, the matter is not framed as an issue of Mulder’s consent. It is about “fixing” Kristen’s sexuality to make it more heteronormative.
“That’s not who you are,” Mulder tells her, somewhat presumptively. “Doesn’t make you happy.” Of course, he is entirely correct. The episode is written to support that position. It feels like a rather exploitative way of exploring a subculture, and one that makes The X-Files feel disappointingly reactionary. For a show that is very much engaged with the developing and diverse spirituality of the nineties, The X-Files can seem very narrow-minded.
3 feels like a disappointment. It is the first true disappointment of the second season.
- Little Green Men
- The Host
- Duane Barry
- One Breath
- Red Museum
- Excelsis Dei
- Die Hand Die Verletzt
- Fresh Bones
- End Game
- Fearful Symmetry
- Død Kälm
- X-tra: (Topps) Trick of the Light
- The Calusari
- F. Emasculata
- Soft Light
- X-tra: (Topps) #4-6 – Firebird
- Our Town