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The X-Files – Season 2 (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.

The first few seasons of a television show are very much about defining the show – figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and what form the show will take. After all, a lot of discussion and planning takes place during development, but all of that is on paper. It’s only once you’ve worked with the cast and had a chance to gauge audience response that it is possible to truly understand a television show.

The first two seasons of The X-Files seem like an attempt to map out the show, to mark the boundaries and do some fine calibration. The show had been a sleeper hit in its first season, popular enough to secure a second season on Fox. However, the second season had seen the series become a breakout hit. It climbed rather dramatically in the ratings, and the show would continue that ascent through to the fifth season in the lead-in to the feature film. However, the second season still feels like it’s a learning curve.

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There are exceptional episodes in the second season. The season provides a wealth of classic stories. Fresh Bones and Our Town stand out as two of the best monster-of-the-week stories that the show had done by this point in its life-cycle. Even outside of that, there are classics like One Breath or Humbug or The Host or F. Emasculata. However, there are also quite a few misfires like Fearful Symmetry or Excelsis Dei or 3.

There are a lot of points in the second season where it feels like The X-Files is experimenting, trying new things that would ultimately become part of the show’s unique identity. Not all of these elements worked, but that is the luxury of a second season. It allows the production team to do that sort of experimentation so they might find their groove.

xfiles-duanebarry16While The X-Files had not been a huge success during its first season, it had been enough of a success to earn a second season. The Erlenmeyer Flask had earned “the highest 18-to-49 rating ever for a Friday night Fox series.” During that season, the ratings climbed dramatically. The show climbed from 105th position in the Nielsen ratings up to 63rd. More than that, the show was attracting the right sort of fans for Fox – popular among 18-to-49 demographics sought be advertisers. The show was already producing spin-off novels, reference books and even a comic.

This growing popularity was even apparent outside the United States. In Britain, the BBC had originally consigned The X-Files to a broadcast slot on BBC2, effectively treating the show as a cult property. However, the series was so popular that it was moved to BBC1 in the middle of the run, with the BBC deciding to air Humbug before Fearful Symmetry on BBC1, as if trying to capitalise on this popularity and to sell The X-Files as popular hit rather than a cult show.

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Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy forced the team to keep the X-Files closed for the first eight episodes of the year, constructing a rather tight long-form story. Die Hand Die Verletzt and Humbug demonstrated that comedy could work within the confines of the show. Colony and End Game suggested a truly epic mythology. Irresistible and F. Emasculata demonstrated that the series could venture outside the paranormal for good stories.

At the same time, there were ideas that didn’t quite work. In particular, Scully’s absence caused a bit of a challenge for the show. The series wasn’t sure how to write an episode without Scully, resulting in the mess that was 3. As soon as Gillian Anderson returned, the series launched right back into monster-of-the-week stories like Firewalker without any real exploration of what had happened to one of our two lead characters.

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The character of Scully seemed to pose a bit of a problem for the show in the second season as a whole. Her limited availability in the first run of episodes reduced her to a supporting character in Mulder’s quest. Little Green Men, The Host, Blood and Sleepless were all driven by Mulder. Scully would play a minimal role in those stories. In Ascension, Scully was abducted. She was returned in One Breath.

However, even outside of that, Scully seemed to spend a disproportionate amount of time as a victim. Scully was abducted as leverage against Mulder in both of the big two-parters of the season. In Ascension, she was taken away to hinder Mulder’s question; in End Game, she was held as ransom for Samantha. While Mulder would be incapacitated in stories like Aubrey, Død Kälm or End Game, he was never tied up and gagged like Scully was in Ascension, Irresistible or Our Town.

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Scully was never allowed time to properly work through what had happened to her. It was fleetingly mentioned in Firewalker, and explored somewhat superficially through the relationship between Trepkos and O’Neil, but the show only really engaged with it in Irresistible. Even then, it was handled through allegory rather than tackled directly. Given how much attention Mulder’s family and history receives over the course of the second season, this feels like a miscalculation.

To be fair, the show would work hard to correct this error in future. Anasazi features Scully protecting Mulder from himself at great risk to herself. The show would become a bit more cautious about putting Scully in peril in the third season and beyond – it would become less frequent, and the series seemed to acknowledge that Scully was quite capable of taking care of herself. Still, watching the second season, it seems clear that The X-Files does need to work harder on Scully as a lead character.

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There were other problems. The show took on a distinctly science-fiction bent with episodes like Fearful SymmetryDød Kälm and Soft Light trying to tell more high-concept stories – these stories felt a little too abstract and too conventionally “sci-fi” for the show. The series had difficulty managing its portrayal of other cultures. Fresh Bones and Our Town handled potentially problematic subjects very well, but they were offset against shows like Excelsis Dei or The Calusari.

There is an uncomfortable sense that the show is trying to set Mulder up as a “chosen one”, suggesting that he is the archetypal hero. David Duchovny earned his first story credits on the second season, on episodes that developed Mulder as a character and expanded upon his family life. It feels like episodes like End Game and Anasazi are suggesting that Mulder is somehow an important figure in this epic conspiracy drama.

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Based on these episodes, and the fact that all sides of this conspiracy seem keenly interested in Mulder, it would not be particularly surprising if Albert Hosteen were to suggest Mulder had been foretold to vanquish the dark conspiracy at work. The show pulls back from this a bit in later seasons, but it remains a part of the show. The identity of Mulder’s father becomes a recurring plot thread, and the idea of Mulder-as-chosen-one returns with a vengeance during Biogenesis and Amor Fati.

The X-Files always felt strongest when Mulder and Scully were simply witnesses to the unknown, observers exploring and uncovering dark and terrible secrets. Making Mulder a “chosen one” feels only a few steps removed from putting him on the archetypal hero’s journey. With its alien civil war and hints at a complex back story, Colony and End Game feel like they owe enough to Star Wars without turning Mulder into Luke Skywalker.

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Still, despite these missteps, there is a lot to like about the second season of The X-Files. It does a lot of things very well, and figures out how to do them consistently. The “monster-of-the-week” stories struggled a bit in the middle of the season. Having waited eight episodes to reunite Mulder and Scully, it seemed like the show was eager to get back to business. However, the episodes weren’t necessarily strong enough to support this enthusiasm.

Having built up Scully’s return and the reopening of the X-Files, the show needed a very strong string of episodes to celebrate Mulder and Scully returning to the classic formula. Instead, the episodes fizzled. 3 was the first “proper” X-File since the end of the first season, and it was a disaster. Firewalker was a solid episode, but it wasn’t quite good enough to serve as the reunion of Mulder and Scully. Red Museum was a convoluted mess. Excelsis Dei was a disaster.

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However, the show seemed to find its feet later in the season. The third season would figure out a way to consistently produce “monster-of-the-week” stories on par with episodes like Fresh Bones and Our Town. The use of comedy in episodes like Die Hand Die Verletzt and Humbug opened up an entirely new world to the writers on The X-Files. Even episodes like F. Emasculata demonstrated that it was possible to slip outside the standard formula to tell an exciting story.

At the same time, the conspiracy broadened and deepened. The first eight episodes of the season demonstrated that The X-Files was perfectly willing to change things up, if it wanted to. The only limit that those eight episodes imposed was the idea that The X-Files had to be about Mulder and Scully, which would obviously become a problem in the show’s later years, but worked fine at the time. Threads like the closing of the X-Files and Scully’s abduction could dangle, and need not be resolved immediately.

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The show actually advanced its central plots. Little Green Men teased us with some genuine aliens. We got a better look at them in Duane Barry. However, Colony and End Game simply pushed the envelop – giving us shape-changing aliens with toxic blood. The first season had been somewhat coy about the actual existence of aliens. E.B.E. had been one giant tease building to a non-reveal. However, the second season of The X-Files did put its cards on the table.

Colony and End Game dramatically set the stakes. These were no longer random alien visitors. They were aliens on a mission of colonisation and possibly hybridisation. Even the aliens knew who Mulder was. They had a plan. Nobody was confessing what that plan might be, but Colony and End Game made it quite clear that the larger conspiracy was about more than simply concealing the existence of extraterrestrials from the American public. (And Anasazi takes it further, making it an international conspiracy.)

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This was the show’s central mythology as it would develop and expand across the rest of the run. Carter has boasted that he originally had a “five year plan” for the show, but it is the second season where that plan begins to take shape. The third season would build off that, clarifying and refining the plan, moulding the clay that the second season has produced. However, it’s the second season that establishes a lot of the core ingredients – warring shape-changing aliens, government experiments, colonisation, collaboration.

The expanding mythology brought a wealth of supporting characters along for the ride. An iconic visual part of the show, William B. David had been given four words to say over the course of the first season. However, the second season gave the character a lot more to do. He got to have involved philosophical conversations with Mulder in One Breath and F. Emasculata. He got a personal relationship to Mulder in Anasazi. Davis excelled with the material, and it is no wonder his role expanded.

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Similarly, Mitch Pileggi got more to do as Skinner. Introduced in Tooms as a new superior for Mulder and Scully, the second season expanded and developed his character. Skinner was more than just an obstacle for the duo. He became something of a reluctant ally. He was not entirely convinced by Mulder and Scully, and a lot more orthodox and pragmatic in his conduct, but he would stand by the duo. By the end of the second season, Skinner felt like an essential part of the series.

Having appearing only once in the first season, the Lone Gunmen establish themselves as an essential part of The X-Files over the course of the second season. They appeared quite frequently over the course of the season, in both mythology and stand-alone episodes. The group appeared without Langley for the first and only time in Fearful Symmetry. The fourth member of the group – the Thinker – becomes a vital player in Anasazi.

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That is to say nothing of the characters the second season added to the cast list. Steven Williams’ Mr. X remains the most intriguing and enigmatic of Mulder’s informants – his self-interest giving him a bit more edge and ambiguity than Deep Throat ever had. Williams was never given too much to do, but he played Mulder’s contact with a sense of underlying frustration and anger. Even before Soft Light, it was difficult to tell whose side he was on. Krycek also débuted.

Behind the scenes, The X-Files creative team was coalescing into its most iconic form. Although all three would return to the show over the next couple of years, it did mark the departure of writing and directing superteam of Glen Morgan, James Wong and David Nutter. All three had been formative influences on The X-Files in its early years, and all three left to help launch Space: Above and Beyond. Carter worked hard to fill the gaps created by these departures.

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Darin Morgan had pitched the idea for Blood, although he did not write the script. He had impressed Howard Gordon enough to earn a place on the writing staff. A notoriously slow writer, Morgan only produced one full teleplay by the end of the season. However, Humbug would become one of the show’s most iconic and distinctive episodes. Morgan would stay on staff into the third season, and would be the first X-Files writer to earn an Emmy for his work on the show.

The second season also features the first television credit for writer Vince Gilligan on the script for Soft Light. Gilligan would decline Carter’s first invitation to join the writing staff, but would sign on towards the end of the third season. Gilligan would develop one of the most distinctive voices in the show’s writers’ room, and his work on The X-Files would serve as a launching pad towards Breaking Bad.

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The directorial staff also changed. David Nutter departed the show, but Kim Manners joined the staff. One of the show’s most prolific directors, Manners only directed two episodes of the second season. On both Die Hand Die Verletzt and Humbug, he demonstrated that a lighter touch could work very well on The X-Files. At the same time, Rob Bowman became more of a defining influence on the look and shape of the show. He directed six of the season’s last fourteen episodes, a phenomenal workload.

The second season of The X-Files is not the show’s strongest season. However, it is a season that does a lot of the groundwork for what lies ahead. It moves the show into a very strong starting position for the following season.

You might be interested in our reviews of other seasons of The X-Files:

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

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2 Responses

  1. Xfiles board game coming out soon is S1-3 of the show

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