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The X-Files – The Blessing Way (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

The Blessing Way is the first mythology episode of The X-Files that doesn’t really work.

And it doesn’t really work for a lot of the same reasons that some of the later mythology episodes don’t really work. Its pacing is terrible. It wallows in new age mysticism, allocating characters thoughtful monologues that awkwardly state themes and render subtext as supratext. It plays into the deification of Mulder, trying to bend Mulder’s story to fit into an archetypal “chosen one” narrative. More than that, it is very clearly a holding pattern, an effort to eat up time without moving forward.

Wiping it all out...

Wiping it all out…

However, despite the fact that The Blessing Way really doesn’t work, it is still a fascinating episode. It’s a wonderful demonstration of how The X-Files has developed a fleshed-out world inhabited by compelling characters. The best moments in The Blessing Way are character-focused, with Skinner caught between his duty to the government and his loyalty to his agents, the Cigarette-Smoking Man revealed to be middle-management at best, and the implication that even vast sinister government conspiracies are hostage to chaos.

The Blessing Way is an oddity, a rather strange piece of television that is almost endearing in its stubborn refusal to deliver what the audience wants and expects. That doesn’t make it good, but it does make it interesting.

The truth is up there...

The truth is up there…

It’s hard to imagine how casual viewers must have reacted to The Blessing Way. The second season had seen The X-Files climbing in popularity, and the summer hiatus had allowed the show to percolate in the public consciousness. The audience for The Blessing Way jumped by over two million households from Anasazi. The estimated number of total viewers almost doubled in the gap between Anasazi and The Blessing Way. One wonders how these viewers responded to long-winded monologues and new age mysticism. (Kevin Smith did not react well.)

There’s something rather bold about all this. The second season of The X-Files had opened with Little Green Men, a show that was practically a second pilot for the series. It was very welcoming for new viewers. In contrast, The Blessing Way opened the third season with a completely atypical episode of The X-Files that felt consciously at odds with what had made the show such a cult hit. There was minimal action, fleeting glimpses of aliens, and lots of waxing lyrical about death and dying.

Sitting it out...

Sitting it out…

In many respects, this was a very gutsy move for The X-Files. It was clearly a story that Chris Carter wanted to tell, even if it may not have been the perfect way to open the third season. In many respects, the third season is about The X-Files running with the stuff that worked in the second season, and getting even better at it. As such, The Blessing Way stands out as something of an oddity in light of both what came before and what came after. The show wouldn’t get this abstract and philosophical again until the sixth season or so.

One of the more intriguing features about The Blessing Way is that it steadfastly refuses to give the viewer what they expect going into it. Anasazi and Paper Clip fit together quite well, but The Blessing Way seems intentionally awkward. It is not the episode that anybody watching Anasazi would expect. Watching the episodes back-to-back is something of a dissonant experience, to the point where the cliffhanger from Anasazi seems to completely disappear.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

While Anasazi itself was layered with symbolism and thematic subtext, the cliffhanger ending the second season was remarkably straight forward. The Cigarette-Smoking Man had just ordered the destruction of the box car where Mulder was hiding. As much as Anasazi had torn The X-Files apart so that something new might be built on the foundation, the cliffhanger bridging the season was relatively straightforward: how would Mulder get out of the box car?

In a way, it’s a surprisingly simple cliffhanger. It isn’t as “big” or as “earth-shattering” as the revelation that the X-files were closed down back in The Erlenmeyer Flask. It’s not a moment that changes the whole meaning of the show. It isn’t a question that demands a significant block of the season, or even a significant block of the next episode, to answer. It’s a plot point that could, rather easily, be answered in the teaser to The Blessing Way.

Taped to the desk...

Taped to the desk…

So, from a plotting point of view, explaining how Mulder got out of the boxcar is really the only thing that The Blessing Way has to do. Sure, it inherits the character of Albert Hosteen and the DAT tape macguffin, but – at its most reductive – the cliffhanger asked “how will Mulder get out of this one?” And yet, despite this, The Blessing Way stubbornly refuses to answer that question. Instead, the episode opens with Mulder already outside the boxcar, buried under some rocks with the body of what looks like (but may not actually be) an alien.

There are any number of ways Mulder got out of that boxcar. Maybe there was a tunnel leading out from it, dug by the panicked hybrids. Maybe Mulder pulled himself out through the hole in the roof after the Cigarette-Smoking Man retreated. Maybe Mulder had just enough strength to pull himself and the body free – Mulder being reluctant to let go of proof – and shelter himself from the sun under the rocks. Or maybe there are other mysterious benign forces at play that “rescued” Mulder.

The truth is buried...

The truth is buried…

To be fair, this isn’t the first time that The X-Files has been vague with the specifics of a resolution to a vital plot point. In One Breath, Scully is returned to Mulder by forces unknown. The show never really explores how or why Scully was returned, particularly if the conspiracy took her to punish Mulder and especially since they were still interested in her blood work and lab results. However, One Breath gets away with that loose plotting for a number of reasons that simply don’t apply to The Blessing Way.

In many respects, The Blessing Way could be seen as a counterpoint to One Breath. In One Breath, Scully returns from a traumatic experience, guided by spiritual visions that lead her to return to the mortal world. The same is true of Mulder here. Mulder’s experiences in The Blessing Way feel rather analogous to Scully’s experiences in One Breath. However, One Breath is an episode that has the space to indulge in spirituality and mysticism. It is structured as an epilogue to an epic two-parter.

Search and destroy...

Search and destroy…

The Blessing Way sits right between Anasazi and Paper Clip, a quiet interlude positioned in the middle of an epic two-parter. Structurally, it does not work nearly as well – following an frantic season finalé with a quiet episode before another fast-paced run-around. One Breath had the luxury of standing apart from Duane Barry and Ascension. The Blessing Way instead divides Anasazi and Paper Clip, creating a sense that the sprawling three-part epic might flow better as a tighter two-part adventure.

There are lots of elements of The Blessing Way that seem excessive or superfluous. Mulder’s father was murdered in the previous episode, after only his third appearance. Having the character show up as a ghost in the episode directly following his death – even separated by the summer hiatus – feels a little clumsy. While Scully’s red herring attempt to connect the death of Kenneth Soona to the murder of William Mulder might have worked as a commentary on how conspiracies leave people chasing their own tails, it just plays as filler.

Straight arrows...

Straight arrows…

These elements contribute to the pacing issues with the show. As director and producer R.W. Goodwin confessed to X-Files Confidential:

“On a technical level,” he explains, “it is the kind of thing that is basically a monologue. To make it interesting, I wanted to keep the camera moving. I wanted to be circling around and floating and all of that, but because of the technical difficulties they had with the special effects, I was forced to make it much more static than I wanted. That’s just a minor thing, though. That is a case where a technical aspect overrides the creative aspect. Nobody’s fault; that’s just life. Frankly, I thought the third part of the story, ‘Paper Clip’, was just sensational. Rob Bowman did a great job with that.”

Watched in any context – as a stand-alone premiere, as the middle act of trilogy – The Blessing Way feels a little bit too indulgent and too relaxed for its own good.

Surviving by the Skin(ner) of his teeth...

Surviving by the Skin(ner) of his teeth…

However, despite these structural issues, The Blessing Way is interesting. According to his introduction for the episode, Chris Carter wrote The Blessing Way as an immensely personal story, drawing from his own experiences:

The Blessing Way is one of my favourite episodes because I got a chance to explore the death of Mulder’s father through Mulder, and it was an interesting time for me. I had just lost a parent, so it was a very personal episode to write and to research and to think about, and I had a whole summer to think about it, because it was an answer to a cliffhanger we had set up the season before. And Mulder’s journey into his own past through the ritual, the Native American ritual, was something I actually attempted to do as well, by going and partaking in just this kind of event.

It’s a very sweet sentiment, and that bleeds through into the episode. Despite the doom and gloom that surrounds it in Anasazi and Paper Clip, The Blessing Way is a staggeringly optimistic episode of The X-Files. It is a script that acknowledges the hope and faith that lie at the heart of the show, dismissing accusations of cynicism or pessimism.

Stars in his eyes...

Stars in his eyes…

Most obviously, The Blessing Way affirms the idea of life after death. It suggests that there is a place where spirits go and there is a chance to atone for the mistakes or missteps made on the mortal plane. Deep Throat may have died randomly and needlessly in The Erlenmeyer Flask, but Mulder will get to see him again. Mulder and his father may never have been able to work out the issues between them, but there will be another opportunity. Paper Clip may condemn William Mulder, but The Blessing Way does hold out for some small redemption in another life.

Despite Mulder’s mantra to “trust no one”, The Blessing Way is a show that asserts Mulder and Scully are not truly alone. They may lead the charge, but they have built up a network of loyal allies and supporters in their quest to seek the truth. The second season present Skinner as a sympathetic hurdle, but The Blessing Way and Paper Clip transform him into a staunch ally. Paper Clip has the entire Navajo Nation coming to the rescue. Even Frohike pops by for tea.

Frohike to a

Frohike to a “tea”…

However, The Blessing Way also suggests two other important and optimistic facts about Mulder’s quest for the truth. It suggests that the forces of darkness are not as all-knowing and as all-powerful as they might seem. The Blessing Way represents our first real glimpse of the men who claim to rule the world, who seem to drive the sinister conspiracy that hopes to grind Mulder and Scully down. They are – unsurprisingly – a bunch of middle-aged white guys in fancy suits in what looks like a private gentlemen’s club.

Far from controlling everything, The Blessing Way suggests that events spiral out of the control of even these most powerful individuals. For the first time in The Blessing Way, we get to see the hand that the Cigarette-Smoking Man is playing; and it appears he doesn’t hold any cards. The episode reveals that he is not quite the chess master that he might appear. At best, he is middle-management. He isn’t one step ahead; rather, he’s desperately trying to cover his own backside.

The hole in things...

The hole in things…

“Gentlemen… we have control,” the Cigarette-Smoking Man assures his colleagues – or, perhaps, his superiors. For the first time, this doesn’t sound like a sinister boast about his reach and his power; it is an awkward attempt to buy more time. The Blessing Way and Paper Clip strip the Cigarette-Smoking Man of a lot of his mystique, revealing that even the most powerful people on the planet can find their schemes put asunder by mere happenstance. As of the end of Paper Clip, the Cigarette-Smoking Man ends up humiliated by both Skinner and Krycek.

The other key revelation is that Mulder and Scully have powerful allies. In the past, it has often seemed that Mulder and Scully were fighting the entire world with nothing but each other to support them. Here, however, it’s revealed that there are other powerful forces that oppose the darkness. Skinner gets off the fence here even more than he did in End Game, and even the Well-Manicured Man steps up from inside the sinister cabal to assist Mulder and Scully.

In Deep (Throat)...

In Deep (Throat)…

One of the series’ most intriguing creations, actor John Neville has claimed that the Well-Manicured Man was originally written to appear in only these two opening episodes, but he proved popular enough to return time and again. Providing a bit of old-world charm in contrast to the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s thuggishness, Neville makes the Well-Manicured Man a delightfully multifaceted creation. Warning Scully about a planned assassination, she deduces that he is serving his own interests.

“Why should that surprise you?” he wonders. “Motives are rarely unselfish.” Of course, there is some irony to all of this, given the direction that the character’s arc takes over the next few years. While it’s possible to argue that all of his subsequent decisions are motivated by selfishness, a lot of the Well-Manicured Man’s actions speak to a certain optimism and romance. He is perhaps the most sympathetic character involved in the conspiracy, and one whose goals align with Mulder and Scully, even if never articulated.

Putting her neck on the line...

Putting her neck on the line…

However, there’s also the suggestion that Mulder and Scully are receiving support from even higher powers. During her hypnotherapy, Scully seems to remember being rescued from captivity by some other presence. “There was an alarm,” she offers. “They wanted to know if I was all right.” It suggests that Scully’s return was not entirely planned, despite the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s boast in One Breath. (After all, his assertion that he had nothing to do with the death of Bill Mulder in Anasazi is a lie.)

One of the more interesting fan theories suggests that these could have been similar to the ethereal “walk-ins” that exist at the periphery of The X-Files, first mentioned in Red Museum and revealed as benevolently interfering with the conspiracy years later in Closure. Perhaps they returned Scully in One Breath and saved Mulder here. Of course, it’s a massive contrivance – “a walk-in did it” is no more credible a narrative element than “a wizard did it”, but it does suggest that there are powerful forces at work in the world of The X-Files beyond monsters and horrors.

A lot to digest...

A lot to digest…

The Blessing Way also offers a more spiritual sort of hope. “My sister?” Mulder asks that vision of his father. “Is she here?” William Mulder replies, simply, “No.” It’s a small line, but it’s clearly meant to give Mulder hope and strength to go on. Of course, in hindsight, it reveals that either Carter had no real idea how he was going to pay off the Samantha subplot, or that he was simply being sadistic. It’s possible to try to make Samantha’s ultimate fate make sense in context of The Blessing Way, but it feels like a cheat.

More than that, though, The Blessing Way builds off Anasazi and even End Game to suggest that Mulder is a very special individual with an almost divine purpose. This is about has heavy as the “Mulder-as-Christ” subtext will get until Amor Fati, but it is pretty damn heavy. Mulder is explicitly killed and resurrected, earning considerably more fanfare than Scully did on her round-trip to the beyond and back again.

A rocky road to rebirth...

A rocky road to rebirth…

“I have returned from the dead to continue with you,” he tells Scully in a vision, wearing a pretty snazzy casual shirt and with his hair all nice. “Like a rising sun, I sensed in him a rebirth,” Hosteen admits in his somewhat excessive narration. Just in case the viewers don’t get the heavy-handed religious symbolism, Hosteen informs us that that Mulder returned to the land of the living on “the night of the third day.”

To be fair, the resurrection imagery isn’t too bad of itself. After all, Anasazi was very much about closing the book on a particular phase of The X-Files so that it could be reborn as a different show, built on the foundations of what came before. While a little heavy-handed, Mulder’s resurrection fits with that theme. Things get a little more uncomfortable when The Blessing Way insists that Mulder must return to the world of the living because he is destined to save the world.

What a man, what a man, what a manicured man...

What a man, what a man, what a man, what a manicured man…

“Awaken the sleep of reason and fight the monsters within and without,” Deep Throat pleads. William Mulder adds, “If you were to die now, the truth will die. And only the lies survive us.” It’s a narrative that transforms Mulder from an innocent party whose life was transformed and warped by random tragedy into another traditional hero on a clear quest. Mulder’s father is implicated in the conspiracy, and his sister was specifically targeted.

With The Blessing Way, the show loses any real sense of Mulder as a guy who may have been able to have a normal and fulfilling life. Instead, Mulder becomes a much more mythological character – caught in an epic battle, serving as a champion of the light against the forces of darkness. Here, the show leans rather heavy on the Joseph Campbell imagery; Campbell positioned the hero’s transformation at the lowest point of their journey – death and rebirth in the abyss. Deep Throat’s soliloquy alludes to Nietzsche’s abyss, but possibly Campbell’s too.

Footing the Bill...

Footing the Bill…

The optimism of The Blessing Way is perhaps best reflected in the idea that Mulder’s pursuit of the truth is tied into some pursuit of justice and fairness. The episode suggests that Mulder isn’t simply pursuing the truth so that he might document these abuses. He seeks to expose these injustices so that they might be set right again. “There is truth here, old friend, if that’s all you seek but there’s no justice or judgment without which truth is a vast, dead hollow,” Deep Throat suggests.

It’s a rather expansive view of Mulder’s crusade, suggesting that Mulder might actually have a chance of not just exposing the conspiracy, but vanquishing it – that his quest is not doomed to failure and that his victories need not be hollow. The Blessing Way is perhaps the most optimistic that the show has ever been, suggesting that Mulder can somehow save the world and right various historical wrongs. In a way, it is the perfect counterpoint to the grim apocalyptic atmosphere of Anasazi.

The Cigarette-Smoking Man picked the wrong week to try to cut back...

The Cigarette-Smoking Man picked the wrong week to try to cut back…

Still, The Blessing Way does make lots of room for character work. The space that it affords the characters between the action of Anasazi and Paper Clip is probably the episode’s most endearing feature. It is very hard to hate any episode that allows Frohike to share a late night cup of tea with Scully. There are any number other nice touches as well, such as the gift of the sunflower seeds to Mulder. “You asked for them during your worst fevers,” Hosteen reveals. It makes sense, given the connection between the seeds and Mulder’s father, established in Aubrey.

That said, The Blessing Way does struggle a bit with Scully. There are some nice ideas here. Scully’s decision to undergo hypnotherapy here provides another mirror between the two agents. If Mudler’s near-death experience recalls Scully’s earlier brush with the great beyond, then Scully’s confronting of a traumatic memory reflects Mulder’s own decision to remember Samantha’s abduction years after the fact.

“They mostly keep me around to class up their international conspiracy…”

However, The Blessing Way seems to completely reject Scully’s perspective. To be fair, this isn’t a surprise – it’s an old X-Files truism that Scully is wrong far more often than she’s right. However, the episodes will generally allow Scully to make some attempt at a rational explanation, and the show generally avoids chastising her for making the attempt. The Blessing Way marks one of the rare points in the show’s run where Scully’s rationalism is portrayed as a weakness.

“What are you so afraid of, Dana?” Melissa asks at one point after Scully dismisses the idea of hypnotherapy. “You afraid you might actually learn something about yourself? I mean, you are so, you are so shut off to the possibility there could be any other explanation except for your rigid scientific view of the world. It’s like you’ve lost all touch with your own intuition.” The use of the word “intuition” is interesting, given the gendered assumptions that come with it. It seems almost as if Melissa is challenging Scully’s femininity.

Hair-raising...

Hair-raising…

However, even leaving aside issues of gender, Melissa is entirely right here. Not only does the hypnotherapy lead Scully closer to the truth, but Melissa is promptly martyred – her life offered in place of Mulder’s. Indeed, at one point in the episode, Mulder is able to communicate directly and telepathically with Scully – beaming his message into her brain. It’s a delightfully hokey sequence, one that is so earnest and sincere that it almost works.

Still, it feels more than a little out of character for Scully to take a dream like that at face value, rushing out to assure Teena Mulder that her son is still alive. Scully chooses to do this at the funeral of Bill Mulder. It’s clear that the show is trying to have Scully make a leap of faith and trust, but perhaps it would be better to start with baby steps? “I know what you may have heard from the FBI, but I have a very strong feeling that your son is going to be found,” Scully insists. “I think he’s still alive.”

This sort of thing is not Scully's cup of tea at all...

This sort of thing is not Scully’s cup of tea at all…

That’s a very awkward boast to make to a widow who is also mourning her son. Sure, Scully might be convinced that Mulder is still alive, but there’s an element of recklessness to her visit with Teena Mulder. It’s the sort of awkward to-hell-with-the-potential-social-consequences decision that Mulder would make, and it seems weird that The Blessing Way tries to portray this as a positive development for Scully, as if she is broadening her horizons by potentially traumatising a grieving woman.

The Blessing Way also pushes issues of memory and history to the fore. The X-Files has been a show that played with the idea of how memory shapes perception and reality. Mulder’s entire life was up-ended by the memory of his sister’s abduction. The show’s attitude towards government and authority is informed by the collective memory of decades of abuse. The first year Topps’ X-Files tie-in comic by writer Stefan Petrucha and artist Charles Adlard focused on how memory relates to truth.

Boy, the Cigarette-Smoking Man does get grouchy if he doesn't get his morning smoke...

Boy, the Cigarette-Smoking Man does get grouchy if he doesn’t get his morning smoke…

Here, Hosteen discusses the difference between memory and history, suggesting that the latter is more malleable than the former. “Memory, like fire, is radiant and immutable while history serves only those who seek to control it, those who douse the flame of memory in order to put out the dangerous fire of truth. Beware these men for they are dangerous themselves and unwise.” It’s not the most subtle of dialogue, but it does underscore the essential optimism of The Blessing Way. Truth endures as long as there are people who remember it.

In Paper Clip, Skinner manages to secure leverage on the Cigarette-Smoking Man by using the collective memory of the Navajo Nation to secure Mulder and Scully’s reinstatement. Memory becomes power. Rather pointedly – especially when juxtaposed against the brutality that opens The Blessing Way – Skinner argues that the only way for the Cigarette-Smoking man to keep his secret would be to “kill every Navajo living in four states.” Genocide in service of a particular historical narrative.

Sleeping easy...

Sleeping easy…

This equation of memory and power is a recurring theme in The Blessing Way and Paper Clip. Scully is able to work through her scepticism by embracing the repressed memories of her experiences. When Melissa insists that Scully needs to find out what the chip in her neck does, Scully replies, “I don’t have access to the FBI labs.” Melissa responds, “I’m talking about access to your own memory.” Krycek is able to cover himself by threatening to use his own personal knowledge against the Cigarette-Smoking Man.

In contrast to all these characters, Teena Mulder is rendered largely powerless by her own refusal to remember. In The Blessing Way, Teena Mulder attempts to deny her own culpability in the conspiracy by claiming she doesn’t remember anything about what her husband did. “I need you to remember,” Mulder urges her, as she tries to avoid answering the obvious questions. In Paper Clip, confronted by her son’s discoveries, she finally admits the truth.

Grave danger!

Grave danger!

Teena Mulder is a character repeatedly traumatised by the past. In Talitha Cumi, a surprise visit from an old acquaintance leads to a very violent reaction – the embodiment of sins past literally puts her into a coma. Vince Gilligan would return to the idea of Teena Mulder’s forgetful complicity in Paper Hearts, making Teena’s willingness to forget something of a defining character trait. Even her final appearance in Sein Und Zeit has the character discussing the merits of forgetting painful memories with her son.

The Blessing Way is an episode that doesn’t quite work, but has enough ambition and energy that it remains interesting in its own right. It does weaken the epic three-parter significantly, sapping a lot of the momentum from Anasazi and spinning a lot of wheels to get to Paper Clip. It’s a rather inauspicious start to what would be a crucial season.

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

2 Responses

  1. Excellent review, as usual. I don’t have anything profound to say, just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed this line: “…he tells Scully in a vision, wearing a pretty snazzy casual shirt and with his hair all nice.” I,too, thought he was looking pretty snazzy.

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