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The X-Files – Paper Clip (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.

And now we return to your scheduled viewing.

In many respects, Paper Clip feels like the real third season premiere. It establishes a lot of the recurring themes and ideas for the mythology of the season, from Krycek-on-the-run through to collaboration in the wake of the Second World War. It builds on the successful multi-part formula established by episodes like Ascension or End Game during the show’s second season. It moves things along in a way that The Blessing Way simply refused to. (It even resolves the cliffhanger from the last episode on screen.)

The light at the end of the tunnel...

The light at the end of the tunnel…

Paper Clip demonstrates the strengths of the third season of The X-Files. The third season was the point at which the show really pushed the mythology out, building on earlier implications that there was form to be found in the shadows. The third season also looked to the second season to determine what had worked and what had not worked. Paper Clip is very clearly modelled on the successful aspects of second parts like Ascension or End Game.

It moves. The power of Paper Clip comes from an incredible forward momentum that allows the show to maintain tension and excitement while refusing to allow the audience to catch their breath. Instead of resolving the bigger plot threads from the first episode, questions and hints are thrown out with reckless abandon as the script just drives through set pieces and emotional beats and suspenseful sequences. It is a very meticulously, very cleverly constructed piece of television.

Watching the skies...

Watching the skies…

This is the approach that write Frank Spotnitz used so well on End Game, using forward momentum to compensate for lack of immediate resolution. It is no surprise that Spotnitz praised the episode in X-Files Confidential:

I love Paper Clip. I was thrilled with the plot. I know it moved very fast for some people, but I actually think that for some of these shows you don’t need to understand everything. I think it is more exciting to go at rocket speed. Everybody was on the mark in that one; David and Gillian’s performances, Rob Bowman’s direction, Chris Carter’s writing – everything was just terrific in that show.

Spotnitz is entirely correct here. While The Blessing Game saw the series stumbling a bit as it tried to do something novel and distinct, Paper Clip pushes the show back into its comfort zone and just pushes everything as far as it will go.

Photo finish...

Photo finish…

When it came to The X-Files, Chris Carter was always economical with the answers. The questions always seemed to be more important. After all, questions tend to broaden the canvas; they spur speculation and possibilities and probabilities. On the other hand, answers are restrictive; they hem the plot in, they close off options and they discount avenues. There is always a conflict in these sorts of cult-but-also-mainstream shows between posing questions and offering answers.

There is a very valid argument that the answers are vitally important. That is why so many shows tend to polarise their fan bases with controversial resolutions, including Lost, Battlestar Galactica and How I Met Your Mother. What fans deem to be the wrong answers (or even inadequate answers) often retroactively colour what came before. To a certain extent, The X-Files is a victim of this. While the mythology was hugely popular at the time, retrospective reviews seem more cynical towards that aspect of the show.

A Fox-y file...

A Fox-y file…

After all, the show’s mythology did not stick the landing. It seems very hard to find somebody who was genuinely and thoroughly satisfied with The Truth, who thought that it paid off story threads that had been building for nine years. That dissatisfaction tends to reach backwards, and influence attitudes towards the earlier mythology episodes. It is hard to watch these stories without knowing where they go, without recognising the fruit borne from the seeds planted this early.

At the same time, a lot of these early mythology episodes work staggeringly well on their own. The beauty of the show’s third season is that both the monster-of-the-week and the conspiracy episodes are generally very well put together. Outside of The Blessing Way, the third season probably has the strongest mythology episodes the show ever produced. (Although more esoteric than those this season, the fourth season’s conspiracy episodes also work well as forty-five – or ninety – minute television stories.)

Buzzing along...

Buzzing along…

Paper Clip takes a few tricks from Ascension and End Game, and just keeps moving. There are set pieces and confrontations and revelations and stakes and chases and threats and reversals and betrayals, all hitting the audience in rapid succession. Even outside of the plot points, Paper Clip is over-flowing with memorable images: the greenhouse of Victor Klemper, the Nazi-cum-gardener; Mulder staring at a giant space craft overhead; Scully encountering aliens (or hybrids) in the mine; Krycek’s car exploding.

The pace disguises all manner of narrative short cuts that are taken here. Most obviously, Mulder and Scully’s journey seems incredibly linear for the infiltration of a vast sinister conspiracy against mankind. Mulder takes a photo to the Lone Gunmen; the Lone Gunmen point him to Victor Klemper; Klemper points them to the mine. Klemper even gives them the access code, making Mulder and Scully particularly reactive protagonists. Meanwhile, everything else tidies itself up around them.

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

Surviving by the Skin(ner) of his teeth…

Despite all the chaos caused by the DAT tape in Anasazi and The Blessing Way, the tape is very clearly a macguffin by the time that we reach Paper Clip. Albert Hosteen and his friends memorise the contents of the tape, but we never really get to know what’s on it. Mulder describes it as “defense department files that weren’t supposed to exist. The truth about our government’s involvement in a global conspiracy of silence about the existence of extraterrestrial life.” And yet it’s just a plot token.

Sure, the contents of the mine are much larger and more impressive, but Anasazi made it seem like the contents of the DAT tape were the “truth” that Mulder sought. Here, it is used as leverage to keep Mulder and Scully alive, but it seems a rather trite conclusion. The episode throws in some techno-babble about how the tape cannot be copied. “Whoever downloaded those files put a copy protector on them,” Skinner exposits. “I couldn’t get a hard copy to print either.” That’s very convenient.

A closer examination of US history...

A closer examination of US history…

And yet, despite this, it seems like the conspiracy is terrified about what the tape represents – what might happen if Mulder and Scully go public with it. However, it seems like Mulder and Scully have allowed their attention to wander past the tape. We never even find out what exactly is on there, and if Mulder and Scully have read it all. Still, Anasazi made the tape seem like a smoking gun, and Paper Clip brushes it aside by teasing bigger revelations inside the mines.

This does lead to the suggestion that Mulder is more interested in the truth relating to his immediate family than he is in exposing these sorts of deceptions to the public. As soon as the revelations about his father come out, Mulder brushes the DAT tape aside, as if more preoccupied with what he might unearth about Samantha than in what the tape could mean for the rest of the world. Revealing the existence of a conspiracy seems less important to Mulder than finding the details of how that conspiracy affects his family.

Things are looking up...

Things are looking up…

The episode is rather ambiguous on the point. It seems to suggest that Mulder and Scully’s decision to surrender the tape might be selfless, rather than selfish – allowing Scully to argue that they need to maintain their position inside the FBI so that they might be better positioned to expose more of the conspiracy. “Then what good are those answers to anybody but you, Mulder?” Scully asks Mulder, when he contemplates refusing to hand back the tape.

Scully advocates handing back the tape as a means to protect their access. “Those answers mean nothing if we’re going to be hunted down like animals,” she argues. “We are operating so far outside of the law right now, we’ve given up on the very notion of justice. We’ve turned ourselves into outsiders. We have lost our access and our protection.” However, she also has personal reasons for taking that side of the argument. “Look, I want exactly what you want. But I need to see my sister.”

Deeper underground...

Deeper underground…

Given the revelations about the conspirators in Two Fathers and One Son, how these powerful men sacrificed their duties and responsibilities in favour of their families, Paper Clip does dare to raise some interesting questions about Mulder and Scully’s motivations and idealism. (It also plays into the humanisation of the conspiracy here, suggeting these characters are more than just one-dimensional baddies.) “You have become your father,” the Well-Manicured Man suggests to Mulder, rather late in the episode.

He seems to be referring to the way that Bill and Fox Mulder both struggle with the enormity and the horror of the conspiracy at work in American life. However, perhaps he also alludes to the way that Mulder seems to be putting his family drama ahead of his crusade for the greater good. Bill Mulder compromised to save his family, and it seems like his son might be tempted to do the same. Instead of exposing what he knows and what he actually holds, Mulder is willing to risk that to know more about his father and his sister.

Mulder's back!

Mulder’s back!

While Paper Clip does at least try to justify the decision to render the DAT tape as little more than a fancy plot token, there are other examples where Paper Clip tries to gloss over what should be big life-altering and statusquo-shaking revelations by moving quickly. Mulder and Scully manage to find Samantha’s file in the mines, but Scully somehow loses it in all the action. Even taking a single folder with them for analysis later would seem rational and invaluable – more leverage, or even more information.

Instead, Paper Clip tries to gloss over these potential issues with speed. Mulder and Scully seem to be constantly moving over the course of the episode, never getting a moment to rest and evaluate what they have discovered. Scully herself concedes as much in the mine. “No, wait, hang on a second,” she protests before they barge into the mine. “Whatever we find in here… I don’t think you’ve had time to process everything that you’ve been through.” It’s a fair point, but it works to the episode’s advantage.

A matter of record...

A matter of record…

Of course, Paper Clip essentially ends with Mulder and Scully right back where they started, in terms of plot. You could watch Our Town and D.P.O. without any sense that much had changed – beyond a throwaway line from Scully in D.P.O. The impact of The Erlenmeyer Flask at the end of the first season affected the show dramatically. With Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy, Firewalker was the first “Mulder and Scully investigate an X-file together” plot since Roland.

This lack of impact would arguably become a problem for the mythology episodes later on, as Mulder and Scully tended to make incredible and horrific discoveries one week only to get back to “business as usual” the next. However, Paper Clip is shrewd enough to work around this. The revelations about Mulder’s father feel substantial enough that it doesn’t matter Mulder and Scully get set back to square one. It feels like Paper Clip has weight and effect, even though everything is back to normal in the next episode.

"Why can't the truth ever be somewhere pleasant?"

“Why can’t the truth ever be somewhere pleasant?”

The loss of Melissa Scully and the first mention of “hybrids” also helps to create a sense of movement, even if it doesn’t seem like Paper Clip has materially moved Mulder and Scully that much further along in their quest. The X-Files receives (and deserves) a lot of credit for popularising serialisation in major network drama, but there were constraints on the structure of the show. Carter could not up-end everything on a whim. The show could never be “broken” to the point the standard formula did not work.

In a way, this seems to hark back to Stan Lee’s infamous “illusion of change” quote, suggesting that the readers of superhero comics only wanted a sense of progress and evolution in their serialised story, and that these fans did not want to see their beloved characters actually change. The trick was to make it seem like things were growing and changing, but without actually altering the fundamentals. The characters always return to their most archetypal iterations.

Garden-variety plotting...

Garden-variety plotting…

This is arguably true of The X-Files as well. Frank Spotnitz made it literal in his Wildstorm comic book series, suggesting that the idealised “archetypal iteration” of Mulder and Scully was somewhere between seasons two and five. As much as Scully might rationalise returning the tape in return for amnesty, the truth is that The X-Files could not turn into a show with Mulder and Scully on the run. Paper Clip must end with the characters in a place where they can do that, while also maintaining the illusion of progress.

In the end, that’s perhaps the best measure of quality for these conspiracy episodes. Acknowledging that things cannot change so dramatically, does the episode present at least the illusion of forward momentum? Does it feel like the show is pushing forward, within the limitations imposed on a popular network television show in the nineties? By that measure, Paper Clip is a resounding success, having its cake and eating it too.

Opening doors...

Opening doors…

There are lots of interesting and fascinating little touches that exist around the periphery of Paper Clip. After two years of a faceless and all-powerful government conspiracy, it is amazing how well Chris Carter humanises the international syndicate here. These are the shadowy figures who seem to rule the world, the people who seeks to expose. While it might seem ridiculous that they all hang out in a New York Gentlemen’s Club together, it is a wonderful portrayal of that sort of conspiracy.

The Blessing Way and Paper Clip do suggest that these characters have some measure of humanity. The blood-thirsty and ruthless Cigarette-Smoking Man seems to be an exception rather than the rule. “I believe they would kill anyone if it is in the best interest of the work,” Victor Klemper warns Mulder and Scully, and he would seem to be right. However, they do not seem to relish and savour sadism in the way that Cigarette-Smoking Man does.

A breath of fresh air?

A breath of fresh air?

It’s hard to imagine the Well-Manicured Man taking such pleasure in gaining the upper hand over Skinner. “You ever wonder what it would be like to, uh… die in a plane crash?” the Cigarette-Smoking Man teases Skinner as soon as he seems to be in a position of power, demonstrating how crass and thuggish he really is, despite the tools at his disposal. “Of botulism? Even a heart attack’s not uncommon for a man your age.” The Cigarette-Smoking Man seems to relish the harm he can cause.

In contrast, the rest of the conspirators don’t seem so cartoonishly evil. “This is a serious mistake,” the First Elder reflects at the start of the episode. “An innocent woman has been shot.” He isn’t too shaken up by the accidental assassination attempt made on Melissa Scully, but he does seem to genuinely regret it. Of course, it is quite possible he is simply concerned about the risk of exposure. “Can this be traced?” another member of the group asks, almost immediately.

"I have really got to stop giving former Nazis my personal phone number..."

“I have really got to stop giving former Nazis my personal phone number…”

Similarly, the Well-Manicured Man doesn’t seem too happy to be working with a man like Victor Klemper. Their short clipped phone conversation is delightfully uncomfortable. Klemper seems to think that he is on friendly terms with with Well-Manicured Man, while the Well-Manicured Man just wants the conversation over and done with. “How are you, old friend?” Klemper proclaims. “It’s been far too many years.” The Well-Manicured Man is straight to the point, “What is it, Victor?”

While Klemper seems quite happy to have an excuse to talk to an old acquaintance, the Well-Manicured Man is all business. When Klemper mentions the visit from Fox Mulder, the Well-Manicured Man ignores the invitation to reminisce about old times. “What did you tell him, Victor?” he demands, bluntly. Klemper doesn’t reply with an answer, but a joke. “I told him that you were the most venal man I’ve ever met.” Talking on the phone, the Well-Manicured Man is spared having to fake a smile.

Hitting the ground running...

Hitting the ground running…

Even beyond the fact that the syndicate members seem somewhat human in the face of the horrible things they have done, Paper Clip continues to humanise the conspiracy by suggesting it is not a perfect faceless construct, but a flawed mechanism operated by clumsy individuals. It turns out that the conspiracy is just as clumsy and ineffective as any large bureaucracy. As Bill Mulder observed in Anasazi, it was incredibly stupid to document their crimes so thoroughly in the first place.

Here, it seems like nobody has any idea how to resolve the crisis. The Cigarette-Smoking Man’s solution to the problem is just more violence and brutality. When he assures the other members of the group that the situation will be resolves, the Well-Manicured Man tears into him. “By whom? By whom will this be rectified? Your ridiculously ineffectual assassins?” It’s a lovely scene that suggests so much about the organisation. Does the Cigarette-Smoking Man have quarterly reviews? Where does he rank on the totem pole?

Making light of the situation...

Making light of the situation…

These are men who make decisions that shape the future of the planet – the Well-Manicured Man boasted to Scully that they “invent” the future. There’s something darkly comic in the suggestion that they are really subject to the same random chaos as everybody else – that their best laid plains could be upset by the activities of a lone techno-anarchist hacker calling himself The Thinker. These are the people who interact with aliens on behalf of mankind.

After all, their track record in the three-parter is pretty embarrassing. First, they leave the documents accessible enough to be stolen. Second, they poison Mulder’s water supply, resulting in the death of one innocent person and simply pushing Mulder and Scully closer together. The assassination attempts push Skinner closer to Mulder and Scully. An assassination attempt on Scully kills her sister instead. During an attempt to kill Mulder and Scully in the mines, they seem to leave the back door unguarded.

"What's the point in being a member of a secret international cabal if you can't organise the occasional death squad?"

“What’s the point in being a member of a secret international cabal if you can’t organise the occasional death squad?”

It’s a deliciously bleak suggestion – that the men behind all these horrible conspiracies have absolutely no idea what they are doing, and that their only solution to a crisis involves death squads and assassins. “My God,” the Well-Manicured Man laments, “you presume to make us believe you can simply fix it with enough bullets?” The best that the conspiracy can do is outsource the matter to their “friends” – implied to be  the aliens – who just take the hybrids from the mines and don’t seem bothered by Mulder and Scully.

Paper Clip also solidifies a lot of what had been implied in the first two seasons. The X-Files is a show about the legacy of the Second World War. It a series produced in the wake of the Cold War, free to examine the costs of post-War prosperity and global dominance. The traditional American narrative of the Second World War is one of heroism and valour, but there’s also a shameful secret history of the aftermath that tends to get glossed over in discussions of the conflict.

Kry(cek) for justice...

Kry(cek) for justice…

As Adam Hochschild noted in The New York Times, the American narrative of the Second World War has traditionally been heroic:

All wars require a heroic narrative — to inspire soldiers to risk their lives and, afterward, to make them or their survivors feel they have not suffered or died in vain. Never has a heroic narrative been more durable than for the deadliest conflict of them all: World War II. It was the Good War, fought by the Greatest Generation, who bravely stopped Hitler, put the evildoers on trial at Nuremberg, restored democracy to a grateful Europe and brought it to a feudal Japan.

Two years before the airing of Paper Clip, there had been a massive controversy around a Smithsonian exhibit that would have challenged the traditional historical narrative about the end of that conflict.

He still wants to believe...

He still wants to believe…

While the Cold War had made it difficult and impolitic to question and critique American conduct during and after the Second World War, The X-Files was airing in a world where the threat of the Soviet Union no longer existed to force that conformity and acceptance. People could ask what had been done in their name, people could uncover the shameful secrets that had helped America become the world’s only superpower, standing at what  Francis Fukuyama had somewhat presumptively labelled “the end of history.”

What is most unsettling about Paper Clip has nothing to do with aliens. It has to do with the fact that a lot of the episode touches upon things that really happened. Not only did Operation: Paperclip exist exactly as the Lone Gunment describe it, it is quite easy to recognise the aspects of Operation: Paperclip that directly informed the narrative of Paper Clip. Chris Carter isn’t presenting some bleak and fantastical alternate America. This is a version of America where forgotten history mingles with the fantastic.

"Their filing system is even more organised than mine!"

“Their filing system is even more organised than mine!”

British writer Paul Cornell has confessed to a fascination with the popular depiction of little green men, like those seen in the mine at the climax of Paper Clip. To Cornell, the typical “grey” alien embodies a lot of contemporary anxieties and guilt:

One of the things that makes the Greys the only new folk monster to really catch on is that, in so many ways, they’re what we did (starving babies, shaved lab animals, concentration camp victims) returning to get us.

This mythology fascinates Cornell, who not only co-authored the X-Files guide book X-treme Possibilities, but also explored the idea of “the greys” as the manifestation of liberal guilt in his comic book Saucer Country and the short story “The Greys” from Interzone. The link between aliens and collective guilt plays throughout The X-Files, particularly the third season.

Point and shoot...

Point and shoot…

While the Soviet Union had claimed some German scientists in the wake of the Second World War, the United States actually claimed more. Discussing her book on the subject, Operation Paperclip, journalist Annie Jacobsen observed that – of the initial twenty-one German scientists recruited – many had strong ties to the regime:

The men profiled in this book were not nominal Nazis. Eight of the twenty-one—Otto Ambros, Theodor Benzinger, Kurt Blome, Walter Dornberger, Siegfried Knemeyer, Walter Schreiber, Walter Schieber, and Wernher von Braun—each at some point worked side by side with Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, or Hermann Göring during the war. Fifteen of the twenty-one were dedicated members of the Nazi Party; ten of them also joined the ultra-violent, ultra-nationalistic Nazi Party paramilitary squads, the SA (Sturmabteilung, or Storm Troopers) and the SS (Schutzstaffel, or Protection Squadron); two wore the Golden Party Badge, indicating favor bestowed by the Führer; one was given an award of one million reichsmarks for scientific achievement.

Six of the twenty-one stood trial at Nuremberg, a seventh was released without trial under mysterious circumstances, and an eighth stood trial in Dachau for regional war crimes. One was convicted of mass murder and slavery, served some time in prison, was granted clemency, and then was hired by the U.S. Department of Energy. They came to America at the behest of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Some officials believed that by endorsing the Paperclip program they were accepting the lesser of two evils—that if America didn’t recruit these scientists, the Soviet Communists surely would. Other generals and colonels respected and admired these men and said so.

Of course, these twenty-one were just the beginning. Soon, the United States government launched the even less scrupulous “Accelerated Paperclip” to hoover up the remaining scientists available.

Enemy mine...

Enemy mine…

All in all, it is estimated that Operation: Paperclip recruited 1,600 German scientists in the wake of the Second World War, and that the results of research conducted by members of the programme has generated over ten billion dollars. Those are phenomenal figures. Some of these former Nazis are even honoured and acknowledged for their contribution to the scientific knowledge of the United States. Hubertus Strughold, an obvious influence on Victor Klemper, had both a prestigious prize and a library named after him.

Paper Clip is overt about its influences. The character of Victor Klemper is very clearly modelled on Strughold. The episode isn’t even ambiguous. “He experimented on the Jews… drowned them, suffocated them, put them in pressure chambers,” Langly explains. “All in the name of science.” Byers adds, “Together with Von Braun, Klemper helped us win the space race. Using his scientific data on the effects of high-altitude flying, we were able to put astronauts on the moon before the Soviets.”

If it makes you feel any better, Strughold has been described as "friendly" and "relaxed." Yeah, I thought not.

If it makes you feel any better, Strughold has been described as “friendly” and “relaxed” by those who met him.
Yeah, I thought not.

Byers and Langly could just as easily be describing Hubertus Strughold, the German scientist who conducted low pressure experiments on Jewish prisoners and oxygen-deprivation experiments on epileptic children. These controversies first came to light in the early nineties. In 1993, the World Jewish Congress successfully petitioned to have Strunghold’s portrait removed from a mural at Ohio State University. In 1995, shortly before Paper Clip aired, the Air Force agreed to remove his name from the library at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas.

Paper Clip may reference Strughold obliquely through the character of Klemper, but it also references him overtly through the name of the mines. A fallen sign identifies the mines as “Strughold Mines.” The photograph of the conspirators at the mines – and the use of the mine as a central location – may be an acknowledgement of the seven German scientists employed by the US Bureau of Mines to work with the company Fischer-Tropsch in Louisiana, developing rocket fuel.

The stairway to heaven...?

The stairway to heaven…?

(Of course, the mine is also very symbolic. Of course Mulder and Scully discover these files hidden deep underground in old mines. They are excavating the past, unearthing secrets long thought buried and hidden. Much like the box car in Anasazi and the recurring Native American motif throughout the trilogy, it could also serve as a commentary on the expansion of the European settlers in North America. Prospecting and mining – exploitation of land belonging to a soon-to-be-oppressed culture – were big parts of that.)

The Well-Manicured Man shows up towards the end of Paper Clip to make the episode’s historical connections explicit, identifying the conspiracy as something grounded in the Second World War that only grew during the Cold War. “In 1947, a spacecraft was reportedly recovered in New Mexico,” he advises Mulder. “These incidents not only coincided with the end of World War II, but an ignominious project which brought Nazi scientists and war criminals to this country to exploit their knowledge.”

You do not mess with the Skin-man...

You do not mess with the Skin-man…

Discussing the vaccination and catalogue, the Well-Manicured Man reflects, “With the threat of nuclear holocaust in the 1950s, the government instructed men like your father to gather genetic data on the general populous for the purpose of post-apocalyptic identification.” This isn’t too far from the truth. While there is no record of DNA-tagging, kids were given dog tags at the height of the Cold War to assist with the identification of bodies in the event of nuclear holocaust. They also considered tattoos and fingerprints.

Paper Clip is also notable for the death of Melissa Scully. The episode is so jam-packed and fast-moving that Melissa Scully’s death winds up squeezed off-screen. We hear that she is recovering, that Albert Hosteen is nervous, and then we discover that she died before Dana Scully had a chance to say good bye. This is another mirroring of Mulder and Scully – Scully has now also lost a sister, just as Mulder was also recently resurrected and Scully recently underwent hypno-regression.

"You guys are just lucky that these chairs are super comfortable..."

“You guys are just lucky that these chairs are super comfortable…”

There is also an argument that Melissa Scully’s death plays into the feminist subtext of the series. As Kubek contends in You Only Expose Your Father, Melissa Scully dies as the result of the machinations of powerful men:

In that the three-part arc reveals that the “sacrifice” required by the Symbolic Order is in fact the daughter rather than the father, Anasazi/The Blessing Way/Paper Clip succeeds in exposing one of the secrets of the patriarchy: that which is secretly sacrificed by others (rather than openly sacrificing itself, like the Imaginary Father) is the feminine. This discovery draws into its web not only the female figures who die or are lost in these episodes but other characters that haunt the overall narrative. In the first season, these include abductees Darlene and Ruby Morris in Conduit; the ‘primitive’ woman murdered by the police in Jersey Devil; the psychotic female clones who are the government project of Eve; and the woman and little girl who become vehicles for masculine vengeance in Shadows and Born Again. The second season sees sacrificed not only 3’s Kristen and Firewalker’s Jessie but also B.J. Morrow in Aubrey, possessed by her murderous grandfather (another story in which repressed memory is presented as ‘underground’); a teenage girl driven mad by her father’s satanic rituals in Die Hand Die Verletzt; and a series of female animals experimented on in Fearful Symmetry. The sexual/reproductive focus of Mulder’s version of alien abduction in Duane Barry, where he comments on ‘what they do to a woman’s ovaries’, is justified not only by actual abductee narratives but by the logic of patriarchy that these episodes expose: the feminine is a privileged site of the father’s sadistic observation and introjection.

While the show has more than its fair share of male victims, there is an emphasis of the sexual assault subtext of the abduction. During her regression hypnosis in The Blessing Way, Scully seems to be dealing with a repressed sexual assault, recoiling from the touch of the male hypnotist.

Filing it all away...

Filing it all away…

“I was powerless,” she admits. “I couldn’t… I could not resist them.” The emphasis on “hybrids” makes it clear that the abductions are reproductive experiments, abuse of reproductive organs without consent. The Blessing Way and Paper Clip confirm that the conspiracy is run by powerful white men. Of Mulder’s three informants over the series – Deep Throat, Mr. X, Covarrubias – the old white man seems to be the one with the highest level of access.

While not as heavily into mysticism as The Blessing Way, the episode still features an uncomfortable amount of new age mysticism. The episode opens with Albert Hosteen telling us that “a white buffalo was born and every Native American knew, whether he believed the story or not, that this was a powerful omen and that great changes were coming.” This is a rather direct reference to the birth of “Miracle” in 1994, the first documented white buffalo born since 1933.

Holding the line...

Holding the line…

There is something just a little awkward about this. While the white buffalo is spiritually important to the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Siouxan Nations, it is not traditionally associated with the Navajo Nation. Carter admitted as much in his introduction to the episode:

I used that Native American bit of lore and belief in the episode, even though it wasn’t Navajo and mostly the episode reflects Navajo mythology. But I used it because I thought it was so powerful that all Native Americans might believe in it, and it ended up infusing the episode with portent, with potential.

It does feel a little cynical, blending various Native American beliefs into a generic new age spirituality. To be fair, Carter wasn’t alone in this. Hollywood was fascinated by Native American culture in the mid-nineties.

Lights in darkness...

Lights in darkness…

To be fair, Carter’s work on The X-Files wasn’t particularly bad, by the standards of other broadcast television. On Star Trek: Voyager, for example, the Native American character Chakotay was played by Mexican American Robert Beltran, and his belief system was an awkward amalgam of rituals and rites that came from conflicting sources and were often clumsily inserted into episodes. While conflating various tribal myths into a generic mysticism is not that bad, it still feels a little uncomfortable.

That said, Carter does seem to make storytelling something of a theme here. The episode opens with Hosteen telling a story that serves as a metaphor for the episode itself. Later, Skinner gains the upper hand on the Cigarette-Smoking Man by trading on the “ancient oral tradition” of the Navajo people. The Well-Manicured Man is unable to tell Mulder and Scully the truth, so communicates through metaphor and symbolism.

Walt Skinner is a breaking bad-ass...

Walt Skinner is a breaking bad-ass…

Perhaps Carter is slyly acknowledging the fact that Paper Clip is driven by story logic rather than real-world logic. After all, it seems highly unlikely that Skinner could not copy or print the tape, but that’s necessary for the story to work. Melissa Scully’s death has no direct causal impact on the events of the episode, but it does fulfil some narrative requirements. Melissa Scully dies so that the events of the trilogy have some weight, and so that Mulder’s resurrection from the dead does not feel too cheap.

This isn’t real world cause-and-effect logic. Melissa Scully does not die because Mulder did not die. This is the logic of stories. “My father taught me when I was a boy that this is how life is,” Albert reflects at one point. “That for something to live, another thing must often be sacrificed.” Not only is that a nice metaphor for the choice that Bill Mulder made and the choice that the conspirators are all making, but it also explains the death of Melissa Scully despite her seeming recovery.

Looks like they missed their window of opportunity..

Looks like they missed their window of opportunity..

Interestingly, Paper Clip represents something of a step back from the optimism of The Blessing Way. In The Blessing Way, Mulder was told that he had to return to the real world so that he might be able to bring these criminals to justice. Here, Scully seems to accept that this may be impossible. “History may be the only justice you’ll ever know,” she observes to Klemper. It seems like Paper Clip is divorcing the concepts of “truth” and “justice”, after Deep Throat so explicitly linked them in The Blessing Way.

Paper Clip is also a great episode for supporting players William B. Davis and Mitch Pileggi. Davis plays the Cigarette-Smoking Man as a character watching the ground fall out from beneath him. There is something fascinating about seeing a character so omnipotent and powerful suddenly at a loss. Davis also does great work in the scene where the Cigarette-Smoking Man seems to get the upper hand again. Far from humbled, he quickly slips back into his usual routine.

Mother pucker...

Mother pucker…

However, Skinner gets some of the best moments of the episode. For some reason, Skinner’s fight scenes always count among the best in the show. There is something quite impressive about seeing a high-level administrator knock the stuffing out of three goons in a stairwell, even if he’s ultimately outnumbered. However, Pileggi’s best moment comes during Skinner’s stand-off with the Cigarette-Smoking Man. “This is where you pucker up and kiss my ass.” Albert Hosteen’s bro nod at the end is a beautiful touch.

Ultimately, Paper Clip is an episode that puts most of the pieces back where it found them. However, it’s also a demonstration of how the journey can be as important as the destination. It’s a stunningly well-put-together episode, and one that is constructed well enough to excuse the various plot holes and logic gaps. After The Blessing Way, Paper Clip feels like a true start to the season.

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

4 Responses

  1. A digression (I do that a lot, sorry) – your points about the Syndicate are reminding me of two things; 1) I really hope the current run of Bond movies doesn’t drop Quantum, which seems like it was set up to split the difference between the original SPECTRE and the X-Files type of villains (the lukewarm public reaction to them in QOS was because the Bolivia plot was considered underwhelming, not becuse of the concept itself). 2) I also hope they’ve thought it through a little more than the X-Files crew did the Syndicate mythology. (The name “Quantum” being so obviously a tie in to the title of the movie they made at the time suggests they haven’t). It’s not the same level of mythology, but the way they’re being teased as having a presence in the highest levels of government and corporate power in the West (including Bond’s U.K.)… deserves a good payoff.

    Back on point: wasn’t “Strughold” eventually revealed as the leader of the Syndicate, as well?

    • Good spot, Chris! Well ahead of the curve. (I’d actually forgotten that character’s name until I googled just there. I always found the idea of casting a pretty big deal German actor as your big baddie in the motion picture without killing him off kinda sabotaged you when you had to return to television in a few months.)

      I really liked Quantum, and I think a twenty-first century Spectre is a concept that really could be used very well. After all, we’re probably just as paranoid now as we were in the nineties – if not moreso.

  2. Fantastic review as always. Minor niggle – you already used the “surviving by the Skin(ner) of his teeth” line in the previous review! But I’ll forgive you due to the “Kry(cek) for justice” line – which I expect to see again come Piper Maru!

    • Yep. I think the long pauses between batches (I wrote Season Two in May, Season Three in August and am currently writing Season Four in November/December) make me liable to repeat myself, alas.

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