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.
– C.G.B. Spender, 16 April 1995
The Blessing Way can be seen as a rebirth, both for Mulder and for the show around him. With the third season, the show’s mythology came into sharp focus. The relationship between the government and the colonists would be defined. Mulder would be sure of his deep personal connection to this mythos. There was a sense that everything was all building towards something. The third season of The X-Files was a truly spectacular piece of television.
However, before a rebirth, there must be a death. Anasazi feels like the death of the show. It is a season finalé that feels like it could be a series finalé, albeit a grim one. It feels like it offers closure for the first two seasons of The X-Files. It bookends the journey that began with The Pilot, closing off that chapter of the adventure so that Mulder and Scully could move on to something a bit different – something less random and chaotic, something that was a bit more planned and structured.
Of course, Anasazi isn’t the only time that the show tries this approach. Most notably, Requiem, the show’s seventh season finalé, tries to bring Mulder and Scully a full circle in order to bring closure to a certain stage of the show’s life-cycle. It is Chris Carter effectively killing The X-Files so that it might be reborn – burning the house down so he can build something new again. Much of the second season feels like The X-Files trying to figure itself out. Now that period is over. The show can begin in earnest.
Anasazi has an air of finality to it. Mulder finally goes off the rails, having balanced so precariously for so long. He attacks a superior and becomes the chief suspect in a murder investigation. While Mulder has done brash and reckless things before, Anasazi pushes the character past a point where recovery should be possible. Even if Scully can conclusively prove that Mulder’s water was drugged, it’s still hard to imagine Mulder pulling himself back from this.
Mulder finally gets his hands on proof. If “the truth” were really a literal object, as the show seems to suggest from time to time, it would look a lot like that data disc. Of course, it turns out that the disc is practically useless to him. It’s just a bait-and-switch. “Damn it,” he rants. “I’m so sick of this crap, BS and double talk. I can’t believe this.” He seems to speak for every fan who felt burned by how the mythology eventually played out. This looks like another near-miss, like the fetus in The Erlenmeyer Flask.
Except it isn’t. Scully recognises that this is not gibberish. It’s not another attempt to lead Mulder on, promising shocking revelations while pulling a switcheroo at the last minute. It’s another language, and Scully can get a translation. More than that, Scully does get a translation. Mulder and Scully have their hands on proof. Legitimate Department of Defence proof of alien contact. This is what Mulder has been seeking for years. This is a large part of what he wanted. This is an ending.
Similarly, the show itself begins to aggressively undermine its own core ideas – Anasazi picks at the foundations of The X-Files. Paranoid, Mulder seems to finally realise that investigating a government conspiracy as a federal agent may be counter-productive. “Is this another jerk off assignment where I end up doing the government’s dirty work?” he asks Skinner. Meanwhile, series creator Chris Carter cameos to ask Scully if she even remembers what her original role on the show was meant to be.
“Weren’t you originally assigned to agent Mulder to debunk his work?” Chris Carter asks, somewhat incredulously. The cameo from a key creative figure also lends Anasazi a bit of heft – as if Carter is popping by the set himself to close the book on his creation, or simply taking the last opportunity to stick his head in. The fact that he asks a pointed question illustrating how far Scully has gone “off model” feels itself a little bit pointed.
However, perhaps the most aggressive piece of deconstruction here is the way that Anasazi undermines the trust between Mulder and Scully. “Trust no one“ might be the show’s tagline, but Mulder and Scully need to trust each other for the show to function. Here, that trust is lost; thanks to the psychotropic drug, Mulder has embraced his paranoid philosophy and ridden it to the end of the line. “Look, you have my files and you have my gun,” he advises Scully. “Don’t ask me for my trust.” Later on, she shoots him.
If you are looking for an example of how to break The X-Files, Anasazi comes closer than any episode that isn’t either Requiem or based on a Darin Morgan script – it’s a show that pushed the series as far as possible, well aware that it could snap at any minute. It is an episode that could make for a relatively grim final episode of The X-Files, if push came to shove. It blows up absolutely everything the audience thinks that they know about the show.
Indeed, the script doesn’t even end with “to be continued…”, just “end season two.” If this had been the last episode of The X-Files, it would have completely crushed Mulder. His aliens he chases are just children who were the victims of government experiments involving the smallpox vaccine. It would have provided a particularly bleak answer to the question of what happened to Samantha. Of course, it’d be hard to reconcile with Colony or End Game, but it would work in a fairly broad sense.
The show contributes the apocalyptic atmosphere by creating a sense of incredible tension even outside Mulder and Scully. The episode opens with an earthquake. During a conversation with the Lone Gunmen, a woman who lived down the hall from Mulder murders her husband. “She just shot her husband,” a bystander remarks. “They’d been married for thirty years.” It feels like tensions are escalating even outside the world inhabited by Mulder and his colleagues.
Later on in the episode, Scully is almost shot through Mulder’s window. A car engine sounds, suggesting a drive-by shooting. This recalls anxiety over such random violence – with nineties surveys suggesting that between 38% and 59% of those injured in drive-by shootings were innocent bystanders. It also evokes the drive-by shooting on the White House in December 1994. (Mulder made a joking reference to the incident in Colony.)
Even after Mulder’s confrontation with Krycek, we very clearly hear the panic of ordinary people reacting to this chaos. “Oh my God! Somebody call the police!” There’s a palpable sense of unease running through the episode – as if the social order is about to break down, and tensions are about to boil over. It does feel like everything is balancing rather precariously, and that the entire world might be about to go crazy.
Still, this isn’t The Erlenmeyer Flask. There, the closing of The X-Files provided a possible series finalé, just in case the show did not get picked up for a second season. However, the show was a hit at this point in the second season. Carter knew that the show was coming back for a third season. The point of Anasazi was not to provide a suitable finalé in case the show never came back; the point was to knock everything down so it could be built back up.
The symbolism is obvious, if a little heavy-handed. This only looks like the end, it only passes for the end. Mulder hides from the bomb among the dead. He is “killed” by fire, evoking the story of the phoenix that rose from the ashes. The open lid of the box car allows the light to shine in from outside, creating a potent visual metaphor for Mulder’s rebirth. As much as Anasazi can be seen as the end, it is only the end of this particular iteration of the show. Everything changes.
Let’s talk about those changes. Anasazi makes explicit something that Colony hinted at quite heavily. Mulder is a special one. He isn’t just some poor fellow who randomly had his life turned upside down by events outside his control. This vast multi-national conspiracy is practically a family affair. Even if the Cigarette-Smoking Man is lying when he claims that Bill Mulder authorised these experiments, the fact that he knows Bill Mulder makes it clear that Mulder is not as much of an outsider as he may seem.
However, Anasazi makes it clear that Mulder is more than just a little connected. The episode hints fairly heavily that Mulder is some sort of chosen one. Explaining how he knew to expect Mulder (not Scully, mind you!), Albert Hosteen remarks, “Last week we had an omen.” Hosteen makes it clear there are mystical forces at work. “In the desert, things find a way to survive. Secrets are like this too. They push their way up through the sands of deception so that men can know them.”
Mulder responds by asking, “Why me?” It’s a moment that emphasises that it apparently has to be Mulder. Duchovny, who has a story credit on Anasazi, seems to take great pride in Mulder’s personal connection to the mythology:
I always liked it, actually, more when we were doing the show because it usually gave Mulder a kind of emotional stake, either through his sister or… he was personally involved in the episode and that was a relief and more fun for me as an actor to kind of approach. During the yearly grind of the show … so it was like, ‘Oh, I can understand this and I can chew this up a little bit,’ rather than just being a Law and Order procedural, ‘Did you do it? Did you do it? You didn’t do it. This is my theory,’ and get out of there. So in a way, I think I had the opposite reaction, ‘Oh, I wish this was more about me.’
The X-Files would invest quite heavily in that story arc in the years ahead. At one point in the middle of the show’s run, it seems like Mulder might be playing Luke Skywalker to the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s Darth Vader. The series even lays the Christ imagery on quite thick in The Blessing Way or The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati.
It’s easy to see the appeal of this approach from a mechanical point of view. It gives the audience a personal stake in an epic storyline, and gives Mulder a vested interest. It plays into the classic hero’s journey, which is a very efficient story-telling model. It also allows the show to turn its grand alien conspiracy into a heightened family melodrama, illustrating how certain patterns recur and how certain themes echo. Of course Mulder’s father was involved; The X-Files is fascinated with guilt that has been inherited.
To be fair, it does plug some pretty solid plot holes. Given how much trouble Mulder seems to cause for those in charge, it’s a wonder they haven’t seen fit to kill him off. The suggestion that they don’t want to make a martyr of Mulder always seemed a bit light – after all, nobody of consequence takes him seriously. If Mulder were found to have hung himself in his basement office before Scully was assigned to the X-Files, would anybody object too strenuously?
His relationship with Senator Mattheson perhaps offers some more plausible cover from the dark forces at work. However, even that seems a little too light as we get a sense of just how powerful the conspiracy is. The suggestion that the Cigarette Smoking Man might be holding back because he considers Mulder to be family at least justifies the conspiracy’s refusal to just kill Mulder off. “You wouldn’t… harm him?” Bill Mulder asks. “I’ve protected him this long, haven’t I?” the Cigarette Smoking Man responds.
However, this also feels like it undermines some of the more interesting themes of The X-Files. The revelations in Anasazi mean that Mulder could never have had a normal life. He was always going to get tangled up in this gigantic conspiracy somehow. He’s no longer an innocent bystander whose life was destroyed by a freak event, but is instead a prince returning to claim the throne that is rightfully his own.
One of the more powerful ideas of The X-Files is the idea that individuals are actually quite powerless in the face of all this corruption and moral decay – that there is no response to all of this beyond trying to live a good life and fight a pretty futile fight. Countless lives are warped and destroyed by sheer misfortune, caught in the crossfire of a conflict that exists almost beyond their comprehension. This theme remains a part of the show, but it’s undercut by Mulder’s blood ties to the conspiracy.
Those elements are still at play in Anasazi. The husband and wife in Mulder’s apartment building are innocent victims of a plot to discredit Mulder. The Thinker is apprehended and presumably murdered off-screen. Although we have a possible name for him (“Kenneth Soona”), we don’t know anything about who is or where he came from. He won’t even confirm his identity to Mulder. “I don’t want you to know my real name,” he admits. “I… I just don’t think it’s that important that you know.”
The X-Files feels more potent if these lives are destroyed as collateral damage by an unthinking and unfeeling government. Mulder’s journey is a lot more powerful if we believe that he could have had a normal life – if we can imagine a world where Mulder would be on a career fast-track and might even have hit “Assistant Director Mulder” at this point if it were not for one random event in November 1973.
Still, regardless of the problems generated by this addition to the mythos, it does pay into another of the key themes of The X-Files. Mulder’s discovery of his father’s complicity raises all manner of interesting questions. “Expose anything and you only expose your father,” the Cigarette-Smoking Man warns Mulder, articulating an idea that the show returns to time and again. There’s a sense that the sins of the father are visited upon the child.
Anasazi borrows quite liberally from the atrocities of history. Mulder’s description of the boxcar, with “bodies stacked floor to ceiling” can’t help but evoke horror stories about the liberation of Dachau. Chris Carter suggests Duchovny may have helped with that imagery, playing into the show’s themes:
You know what was very helpful in approaching that… David Duchovny had read something and it had jibed with something else I had read about the Holocaust and memory. Memories now are fading of this time. When the people who were involved in it die, then those memories will be… not necessarily lost, but they will be mutable through the impermanence of memory. That was all very interesting to me and it ended up, I would say, informing that whole mythology arc.
Indeed, Duchovny himself takes some credit for suggesting the Holocaust imagery. The images are haunting, not least because General Eisenhower worked so hard to document these abuses that they might never happen again. The traditional narrative positions the American soldiers as liberators of the concentration camps, so to have it happen again on American soil is terrifying.
However, paving the way for revelations in Paperclip and Nisei, Scully reveals that the United States government may not have closed the book on the Holocaust as popular history would lead people to believe. “Mulder,” Scully advises him over the phone, “in these files I found references to experiments that were conducted here in the US by Axis Power scientists who were given amnesty after the war.”
This programme included German scientists who have been implicated in the Holocaust and engaged in programmes concerned with biological or chemical warfare. Erich Traub conducted research on Plum Island. Kurt Blome shared information about his experiments at Dachau. These events run counter to the tradition historical narrative concerning the “de-naziification” of Germany by Allied forces in the aftermath of the Second World War.
In some respects, filling the space between the Cold War and the War on Terror, The X-Files can be read as post-traumatic narrative. It’s a story about Mulder and Scully confronting the horrors that have been committed in their name, which are only now being exposed to the harsh light of day. A lot of The X-Files is fixated on the consequences of past actions. Barring the fifth and sixth seasons, very little of The X-Files is about big currently-occurring events. It’s more about uncovering hidden secrets.
The X-Files is about trying to construct a narrative around those revelations and those uncertainties, to string together the dark secrets into something resembling a story so that we might be able to work through it. Mulder’s father admits as much in his last conversation with his son. “You’re going to learn of things, Fox,” Bill Mulder explains. “You’re going to hear the words and they’ll come to make sense to you.” The horror is almost too much to process of itself.
As Ilsa J. Bick suggests in The Trauma is Out There:
The X-Files recognises the futility and the failure of redemptive violence – and perhaps of revolution – as a means to effect radical change, but the series articulates no solution. Instead, The X-Files returns to loss, whether this loss is something just out of reach or briefly glimpsed (and therefore doubted as ‘reality’). These are losses of information, memory, belief, faith, and trust. These are losses of love. These losses are transmuted to a need to understand the trauma “out there” as a prelude to coming to grips with the trauma “in here.” For Mulder, these losses and traumas are signified as crises of belief, gaps in memory and fabrications in (personal) history overlaid with a preponderance of loaded, culturally predetermined symbols of which the Holocaust stands preeminent.
Anasazi returns, time and again, to the idea of things vanishing into history, lost forever.
However, it would seem that the only actual example of something truly and completely disappearing into history is the Anasazi tribe themselves. Even within the confines of The X-Files, the only explanation for an entire culture disappearing without a trace is the suggestion that they were abducted by aliens. Such a vanishing is simply not possible without the intervention of magical beings from outer space. In the real world, things don’t simply vanish like that – though we wish that they might.
For what it is worth, while there is still a great deal of speculation about the disappearance of the Anasazi, modern historians don’t rank “alien abduction” as the most likely explanation. There is some considerable evidence that the Anasazi never actually disappeared. It has been suggested that many modern Native American tribes are descended from the Anasazi, as if to prove that nothing ever disappears without a trace.
This idea is stated quite a few times over the course of Anasazi. Discussing the Anasazi with Mulder, Albert Hosteen reflects, “Nothing disappears without a trace.” Later on, the Cigarette Smoking Man proclaims, “Nothing vanishes without a trace!” Given how The X-Files positions Hosteen and the Cigarette Smoking Man as antagonistic and opposite forces within its larger narrative, the fact that both men agree on this fact lends it some weight.
One wonders why the government never burned those bodies or destroyed those files. Bill Mulder explicitly remarks on this to his former colleague. “The files should have been destroyed,” he insists. “They should have,” the Cigarette-Smoking Man agrees, “but they weren’t. Regret is an inevitable consequence of life.” Quite poetic – and some nice foreshadowing of how Glen Morgan and James Wong would develop the character in Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man.
The X-Files suggests that there is no escaping the past. Indeed, while later episodes would see Carter awkwardly using Native Americans as a gateway into New Age mysticism, they work quite well in the context of Anasazi. After all, for all that the Holocaust haunts the twentieth century – and rightly so – the United States of America was built on the systematic persecution and marginalisation of the Native American population, which has only recently been officially acknowledged.
The history of the relationship between the Native Americans and the settlers remains highly contentious. However, it is undeniable that the European settlers claimed Native American lands for their own, and forceably relocated entire tribes. The period of colonisation saw Native America populations drop dramatically, to the point where there were only 250,000 Native Americans living in the United States at the start of the twentieth century.
Although the box car at the end is rather heavy on the Holocaust imagery, there are overt references to the persecution and victimisation of the Native American population. The plaque on the car reads “Sierra Pacific Railroad.” This is an evocative name. With the press westward in the middle of the nineteenth century, “Pacific” was on everybody’s mind. Pacific Union and Central Pacific competed to see who would be the first to complete a transcontinental railroad, encouraged by the Pacific Railroad Acts. (Central Pacific’s building of the rail through the Sierra Nevada mountains being a significant moment in that push west.)
The expansion of the American railroad network is inexorably associated with the colonisation of America, and brought the settlers into direct conflict with the Native Americans. The trains are very much a literal expression of manifest destiny – a powerful engine pushing towards the west coast of the North American continent. The revelation that the bodies in the boxcar are marked with scars from smallpox vaccination also recalls the historical debate about the possible use of smallpox as a biological weapon against the Native Americans.
The use of the Native American community in Anasazi also underscores the idea that many people who think of themselves as “American” are really aliens themselves, as Paul A. Cantor notes in Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization:
More generally, the importance of Native Americans in the Anasazi trilogy casts an interesting light on what we saw in the immigrant episodes. Those episodes present various forms of immigrants to the United States as the aliens, and mainstream Americans of the natives. But as the presences of the Navajo and other Indian tribes in The X-Files repeated remind us, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants are not the true native Americans. The people who now take pride in being Americans are descended from immigrants who gained their title to the country only by displacing the original inhabitants. The Anasazi trilogy, and the general importance of Native Americans in The X-Files, works to deconstruct the simple alien-native binary. The Navajo are among the original natives of the American continent, and yet they and their language now appear profoundly alien to the people who regard themselves as mainstream Americans.
The episode emphasises this in its final moments, as Mulder finds the bodies of what he believes to be aliens in the boxcar. “But these aren’t human Scully,” Mulder insists. “From the look of it I’d say they were alien.” Scully responds, matter-of-factly, “Are you sure?”
The alien and the human co-mingle on The X-Files, reflected in the plans to create a “hybrid” that would unite both worlds – and taken to its logical conclusion in Biogenesis with the suggestion that all humans are inherently alien. Still, it’s an approach that works very well within the context of Anasazi, allowing Carter to hit on a later of the bigger themes of The X-Files in the space of a single episode.
It’s also worth noting that Anasazi manages to balance all of this with some pretty great work for Mulder and Scully. Perhaps acknowledging that Scully has been victimised quite a bit over the course of the second season, Anasazi effectively puts Mulder through his own gauntlet. Quite a few of Mulder’s trials reflect those already endured by Scully. Mulder loses his father, named Bill. Mulder is victimised by the government and then left for dead – forced to find his way back to the land of the living.
However, while Scully was taken into by a bright light into the sky, Mulder is buried in darkness under the ground. While Mulder helped Scully recover by abandoning violence and embracing faith, Scully saves Mulder from himself by shooting him. Anasazi underscores just how much Mulder needs Scully by allowing her to come to his rescue frequently and repeatedly – she gives him shelter, fights his corner, lights his way.
As ever, Carter’s script teases viewers relentlessly with the possibility of a romantic relationship between the pair. Arriving at her apartment, Mulder practically falls into Scully’s arms. She may be simply trying to support him, or it may be a failed and awkward embrace. He wakes up the next morning in her bed, stripped down to his underwear – perhaps another example, as with Duane Barry, of Carter playing Mulder as a simmering sex object for the ladies in the audience.
Special mention must be made of R.W. Goodwin’s direction. Anasazi has an incredible amount of stuff going on – enough to arguably sustain a two-parter of itself. Goodwin keeps the plot moving along at a tremendous speed – realising that the plot mechanics work best when the audience doesn’t have too much time to think things through. He does a lot of nice work here setting up and foreshadowing various twists. There is always a glass of water in frame in Mulder’s apartment, for example.
Anasazi closes the book on the first two seasons of The X-Files, but teases a pending rebirth.
- 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
Filed under: The X-Files | Tagged: albert hosteen, anasazi, bill mulder, chosen one, conspiracy, disappeared, genocide, Guilt, hero's journey, holocaust, mulder, mytharc, Native American, nazis, operation paperclip, paperclip, scully, the blessing way, the x-files, trauma, vanished, x-files, you only expose your father |