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The X-Files – Firewalker (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.

Firewalker is a perfectly solid episode of The X-Files.

The problem is that Firewalker needs to be so much more than “solid.” It’s the first show of the season that has Mulder and Scully working together on an X-file. Nine episodes into the season, the show has finally put the two characters together and dropped them into a regular episodic adventure plot. Scully is back. There is no Cigarette-Smoking Man, no Skinner, no Krycek. The show had waited more than two months to get back to the familiar formula, so there was a palpable sense of anticipation.

Burn, baby, burn...

Burn, baby, burn…

To be fair to Firewalker, there’s a lot to like here. It’s a nice paranoia thriller, one that could easily serve as a text book example of a stand-alone X-Files episode. As you might expect from a script by Howard Gordon, Firewalker is also a nice character study for Mulder. It has a phenomenal guest cast – featuring actors like Bradley Whitford, Leland Orser and Shawnee Smith. On paper, Firewalker is a great episode of The X-Files. Divorced from context, it holds up rather well.

Unfortunately, Firewalker can’t be divorced from context. The episode has quite a few glaring problems. It seems a little disappointing that the first episode after Gillian Anderson’s return to full-time work on the show is a character study of Mulder. The plot is just a little too archetypal, feeling like a retread of Ice from the first season. The episode tries to get back to business as usual without bother to unpack everything that has happened since The Erlenmeyer Flask.

Into darkness...

Into darkness…

All of these problems are perfectly understandable. The show finally has the chance to revert back to the formula that worked so well in the first season – Mulder and Scully go to an exotic location and get caught up in spooky events. After eight episodes of having to work around production constraints, the show’s eagerness to get back into a familiar routine is palpable. Firewalker feels almost like Gillian Anderson was never away.

Ssigning Firewalker to Howard Gordon also seems like a mistake. Gordon is a member of the writing staff who seems to lean more towards Mulder than Scully. Gordon wrote the show’s first character study of Mulder, Conduit, after all. As such, it makes sense that Firewalker would explore Mulder’s character. However, this is a problem because Firewalker is the first episode to air after One Breath. Gillian Anderson is returning after a long period of limited availability. Mulder has already been in focus for the first eight episodes of the season.

I still can't believe they got that past Broadcast Standards and Practices...

I still can’t believe they got that past Broadcast Standards and Practices…

It is worth noting that Howard Gordon had been originally scheduled to write the episode that became 3, the show that would air while Gillian Anderson was unavailable. That makes a great deal more sense, as it would seem more appropriate to do a character study of Mulder while Scully is absent rather than directly following her return. Indeed, one gets a sense that Firewalker may have played a bit better in that slot, given the episode’s underlying themes and the comparisons that it makes between Mulder and Trepkos.

After all, the bulk of the second season has treated Scully as an object rather than a character. Due to Anderson’s limited availability, the show pushed Scully to the sidelines to focus on Mulder. In episodes like Little Green Men and The Host, Scully existed to emphasise Mulder’s loneliness. In Ascension, she was kidnapped as a means of punishing Mulder. As far as the second season has been concerned, Scully exists primarily as a character secondary to Mulder. She is someone for Mulder to pine after, or chase after, or mourn for.

Don't forget new civilisations, too!

Don’t forget new civilisations, too!

It’s hard to get too hung up on this. Gillian Anderson was pregnant, and the production had to work around her pregnancy. However, if the show absolutely has to produce an episode about how Scully is a martyr to Mulder’s cause, it makes the most sense to do it while the actress is unavailable. Scully is one of the most compelling and well-defined female characters in nineties television, so it feels like a waste to bring Gillian Anderson back just so Mulder can mope about his crusade puts her at risk.

However, that’s exactly what Firewalker does. It feels like Mulder is still mourning Scully, even after her return to the fold. The episode juxtaposes Mulder against Trepkos. Indeed, Trepkos is characterised in a manner quite similar to Mulder. He is brilliant and inspired, but difficult to work with. He is paranoid and confrontational, abrasive and isolated. There’s a sense that Mulder feels some empathy with Trepkos as he listens to the man’s recordings and rants.

Bursting her bubble...

Bursting her bubble…

“The possibility of this new, or perhaps unfathomably old, life form has left me sleepless, wondering if I haven’t lost all perspective,” Trepkos muses on some tape recordings that Mulder finds, “if my intense desire to find the truth hasn’t finally eclipsed the truth itself.” These recordings even sound quite similar to the (occasionally pretentious) monologues that Mulder will use to close out certain episodes. Coming face to face with Mulder, Trepkos offers, “The truth is an elephant described by three blind men.” One suspects he had Mulder at “truth.”

Trepkos is a man consumed by the ideas that he pursues. The episode’s monster fungus gestates inside a living organism, but eventually drives them insane, “essentially outgrowing its host.” It’s an effective metaphor for the experience shared by Mulder and Trepkos. Both men are infected and driven by a nebulous concept of “truth” that compels their actions and drives them in particular directions. Inevitably, the truth is much larger than either of them, and threatens to consume or destroy them.

And that is why Josh always came out on top in West Wing paint ball team building exercises...

And that is why Josh always came out on top in West Wing paint ball team building exercises…

In many respects, Trepkos is a grim reflection of Mulder – an example of what could happen if Mulder completely lost his grip on reality. Indeed, the conclusion of Trepkos’ character arc seems to foreshadow the ninth season of The X-Files. Much like Trepkos does here, the final season of the show saw Mulder disappearing into the ether. Mulder wandered off the reservation, falling off the radar, but always lurking somewhere out there – a dangling loose end and an unanswered question haunting the show.

Of course, Firewalker is airing directly after One Breath, an episode positively overflowing with stand-ins and reflections of Fox Mulder. It feels too much like Firewalker is retreading old ground, and that the episode is positioned rather unfortunately in the larger arc of the second season. Howard Gordon does construct a compelling mirror image, and Bradley Whitford is as effective as ever, but it feels a little bit too much.

Waiting to erupt into violence...

Waiting to erupt into violence…

This problem is confounded by the manner in which Gordon compares Mulder to Trepkos. Trepkos has an intern, a young woman by the name of O’Neil. She got drawn into his world completely by accident and – as a result – her life was destroyed. Trepkos convinced O’Neil to accompany him on his quest. “He promised me that this would be an adventure,” she recalls, “and that it would change my life. But eight months is a long time, and I just want to go home now.” She has given up so much to follow a man who is chasing his own version of the truth.

O’Neil is, of course, a stand-in for Scully. Much as Trepkos confronts the fact that his decisions got O’Neil killed, Mulder must face the fact that Scully paid a heavy price for her involvement in his pursuit of the truth. “I told her it would change her life,” Trepkos ironically repeats as he sits over O’Neil’s dead body. It would appear that Mulder can empathise. Scully has just recovered from an alien abduction. She was taken because of Mulder. So Mulder’s quest has changed her life.

Flame on, you crazy vulcanologist...

Flame on, you crazy vulcanologist…

Firewalker does make a number of references to Scully’s abduction, and does feature Scully repeated asserting that she is fine. However, given the way that Firewalker is built around Mulder and Trepkos rather than Scully and O’Neil, these references seem to exist to emphasise Mulder’s sense of guilt and responsibility. “Maybe you should take some time off,” he suggests before they begin the assignment.

Later, his concern prompts her to assure him, “Look, I know what you’re thinking but you have to get past that. We both do. I’m back, and I’m not going anywhere.” The “we both do” is really the only point where the episode alludes to the fact that Scully herself must working through her trauma. There’s a sense that the show isn’t quite ready to deal with the baggage that a plot like this creates, and the show doesn’t really focus on Scully until Irresistible.

Some neck getting that into the episode...

Some neck getting that into the episode…

The episode isn’t helped by the superficial similarities that exist between Firewalker and Ice. Again, this isn’t a fatal flaw of itself. The nature of The X-Files means that similarities between various episodes are inevitable. There are so many great horror ideas that can be explored in so many different ways that the show will likely double over them at some point. Indeed, both Ice and Firewalker belong to the subset of “ancient hostile organism strikes at humanity” episodes that includes other first and second season episodes like Darkness Falls or F. Emasculata.

The show was quite fond of environmental horror, perhaps reflecting Carter’s own environmental politics and increased awareness of green issues in the nineties. (Although one could also make the case that this was another example of The X-Files trumpeting its seventies influences.) The show emerged as part of the same pop cultural landscape that produced movies like Outbreak, and which was horrified by the emergence of the AIDS virus. As such, it’s no surprise that The X-Files was so fond of this sort of narrative.

More power to them...

More power to them…

In terms of actual plot mechanics, Firewalker is quite distinct from Ice. Ice is a story that pits Mulder and Scully against a broader collection of characters, focusing on the bond that exists between the two. Firewalker is more interested in the relationship between Mulder and Trepkos, as if to suggest that Mulder would be among those driving the paranoia, rather than a target of it. (Mulder does seems suspiciously okay with Trepkos murdering another member of the team in cold blood.)

That said, the fact the episode’s basic setting feels derivative of Iceonly with hot instead of cold! – doesn’t help matters. Both are episodes bunch of paranoid researchers locked in a tight space, waiting to kill one another following the discovery “a biological agent of unknown origin.” Indeed, even Mulder’s closing monologue recalls the ending of Ice, with proof of the unknown within his reach, but evading his grasp.

The mission is dead in the... fire?

The mission is dead in the… fire?

“All our specimens and field notes were confiscated by the military biohazard corps prior to our evacuation,” he notes. “Their presence has delayed for an indefinite period the arrival of the USGS data retrieval team. I suspect, though, that there will be little left for them to retrieve.” One would be forgiven for pondering if Mulder might have had more luck in his pursuit of the truth if he had joined one of those ominous “disaster clean-up” organisations that seem to exist within the federal government.

Given that Ice aired as one of the most popular episodes of the first season, and Firewalker was airing as the first pro forma episode of the second season, these similarities feel like a miscalculation on the part of the show. Firewalker is very much an archetypal episode of The X-Files. In fact, it is so archetypal you’ve seen it before. In the wake of an eight-episode opening arc, Firewalker marks so firm a return to the classic status quo that it is actually a return to a story from the previous season.

Those researchers were such fun guys...

Those researchers were such fun guys…

It’s a shame, because – on paper – Firewalker makes for an impressive episode. David Nutter remains one of the show’s most reliable directors. The production design on the episode is wonderful, in particular the volcanic caves and the monster itself. It helps that Firewalker is grounded in pseudo-science with varying degrees of grounded. Silicon-based lifeforms are a staple of science-fiction, but the parasite itself seems modeled on ophiocordyceps unilateralis, a real-life fungus that is absolutely terrifying and has made quite an impression in pop culture.

The creature itself is a wonderfully unsettling effect that is beautifully brought to life by the Toby Lindala. The “neck bulge” and “burst” effects are handled effectively, serving as some of the show’s more memorable visuals. Indeed, the monster is arguably another example of the season’s first eight episodes bleeding into Firewalker. Its design recalls the reproductive horror of the creature from Alien, and thus evokes Scully’s recent experiences. Of course, given the episode never gets a chance to properly focus on Scully, it does feel like a bit of a missed opportunity.

Everything's under (remote) control...

Everything’s under (remote) control…

The episode’s guest cast deserve special mention. Firewalker ranks (along with Ice, appropriately enough) as one of the strongest guest ensembles that the show has assembled to date. Bradley Whitford would obviously go on to greater fame on The West Wing, but he manages to turn Trepkos into an engaging counterpoint to Mulder. Leland Orser and Shawnee Smith would become staples of the horror genre in the years ahead. Indeed, Orser would have a small role in se7en, a horror film that would have a massive influence on Chris Carter’s next television show.

So Firewalker is a pretty solid episode that suffers greatly from its placement. This is Gillian Anderson’s triumphant return to The X-Files, and Firewalker is so quick to paint it as just another day at the office that misses an opportunity.

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

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2 Responses

  1. Modeled after Cordyceps? I don’t think so. The two people we see infected don’t display consistent behavior that would promote spore dispersal, i.e. one of them runs away and the other handcuffs herself to someone. Additionally, the spore-bearing structure shown under the microscope was clearly that of a Zygomycete, not an Ascomycete like Cordyceps. That being said, the science is pretty fuzzy throughout the episode.

    • Good points, Kurt.

      Although I thought that handcuffing herself to Scully was a way to ensure that Scully became infected, which is better than dying without dispersing the spore. And Tanaka’s decision to flee was probably in response to attempts to contain him.

      But, even allowing for that, it’s a fungal spore that gestates inside animal tissue and affects the host’s thought processes. The comparison seems apt – although, as you point out, it is rather fuzzy.

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