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The X-Files – Redux II (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

Redux II would be a lot better if the audience believed anything that the episode was saying.

In fact, Redux II would be a lot better if it seemed like the show itself believed anything that the episode was saying.

"Hm. That resolution is unsatisfying. Deeply unsatisfying."

“Hm. That resolution is unsatisfying. Deeply unsatisfying.”

Redux II has a pretty shocking conclusion. The Cigarette-Smoking Man is killed off. After most of Redux II cleverly suggested that the mysterious “Quiet Willy” was going to pull the trigger on Fox Mulder, ending the threat to the conspiracy once and for all, he ultimately assassinates the Cigarette-Smoking Man. The villain spots the red laser pointer on his chest just a moment too late; the shot is fired, the villain falls. Lying there on the floor of his apartment, the Cigarette-Smoking Man gently holds a shattered picture of a young Fox and Samantha Mulder.

It is a pretty powerful death scene for one of the most iconic bad guys in the history of television. It manages to capture the strange intimacy at the heart of the show’s convoluted and complex mythology; The X-Files is ultimately a generational struggle between parents and children. Whether the Cigarette-Smoking Man is biologically related to Fox or Samantha Mulder ultimately doesn’t matter; he is very much a father figure. He embodies the sins of an entire generation who presumed they were acting in the best interests of their children.

Picture this...

Picture this…

That shot of the Cigarette-Smoking Man lying bleeding out on the floor of his apartment ultimate reveals him to be a pathetic and weak old man who has lost any real semblance of power. Given his pursuit of – and fascination with – power, this is an ironic end. He has been crushed by the same system that he used to crush so many others. The use of the sniper rifle even conjures up images of Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man, and the death in his own home reinforces the sense that this (as yet) anonymous villain was ultimately sad and failed.

It is more satisfying conclusion to the character’s arc than his next “death” in Requiem. It is infinitely more appropriate than his absolutely final death in The Truth. This would be the perfect place to leave this character. After all, he has served his purpose; he has made an impression. While The X-Files would always be reluctant to kill off Mulder or Scully, definitely and clearly killing off the Cigarette-Smoking Man would make for a shocking development in the series’ mythology.

"If I fire Skinner, I might end up with that plum recurring gig!"

“If I fire Skinner, I might end up with that plum recurring gig!”

If the audience could trust The X-Files to keep the Cigarette-Smoking Man dead, Redux II would have a hell of an ending. Instead, the show cannot let the character go. So instead of being “the one where the Cigarette-Smoking Man dies”, Redux II becomes “that one where the guy who last appeared in two early episodes of the first season dies.” That holds a lot less cache, and carries a lot less weight. Redux II would still have other problems, but it would feel a lot more substantial.

Then again, The X-Files was always reluctant to let got of supporting characters. It arguably kept several characters around much longer than it needed to, even after the show had run out of ideas about what it wanted to do with them. Krycek is a great character (and particularly fun), but he seems to wander through extended stretches of the mythology without a sense of direction. It could be argued that one of the (many) problems with troubled ninth season was a reluctance to completely let go of Mulder and Scully after their time had passed.

Road to recovery...

Road to recovery…

In many respects, the death of the Cigarette-Smoking Man in Redux II recalls the phenomenon of comic book death – the tendency to kill off popular characters in comic books and then promptly resurrect them again. The Death and Return of Superman is perhaps the most obvious example. It occurred in 1992 and 1993, and quickly became a massive pop culture phenomenon. It garnered headlines, sales, debate. It helped to fuel the comic book speculation market in the nineties.

However, the trend became particularly pronounced later in the nineties and into the new millennium. There are several examples of iconic comic book characters who have been killed off and resurrected – often to more media coverage than any other comic book story would get that year. Batman, Captain America, Johnny Storm, Wolverine. In fact, Marvel recently vowed to kill a popular character once every three months to help boost sales. It has been argued that the more canny stories treat this a clever cycle of death and rebirth, reinvention of iconic heroes.

Look at it this way, Mulder: if she doesn't make it, she'll be back the season finalé.

Look at it this way, Mulder: if she doesn’t make it, she’ll be back the season finalé.

That said, in a narrative sense, it devalues the currency of death. As Max Landis argues in his discussion of The Death and Return of Superman, it teaches the audience not to trust death. Instead of focusing on the death itself, it invites the audience to ponder how the return or resurrection will come about. This is grand when the resurrection is obviously the point – nobody suspected that Fox Mulder was dead after Anasazi or Gethsemane, for example – but it means that the story cannot trade on the poignancy of the death when the death itself is meant to be the point.

The X-Files comes to play the idea of death and resurrection far too often over the course of the mythology. There are certainly characters who stay dead – Mr. X, Deep Throat, William Mulder – but there are also those who simply refuse to die – the Cigarette-Smoking Man, Jeffrey Spender, Marita Covarrubbias. Even when it comes to Mulder himself, it seems like the show pulls his death and resurrection once too often. It is telling how far This is Not Happening and DeadAlive have to go to generate the same sort of tension that Anasazi or Gethsemane generated by cutting to black.

"Take the shot!"

“Take the shot!”

In an interview a year later with The X-Files Magazine, William B. Davis turned his death into a punchline, suggesting it was ultimately a minor setback for the character:

The reedy voice on the telephone, until now cheerful and friendly, suddenly cackles with familiar menace. “Kill me off for a few weeks?” it asks petulantly, referring to the events in Redux II. “Then I’m going to get revenge.”

It’s telling that the show has reached a point where William B. Davis considers a shot through his heart and a sad scene of him cradling a picture of two young children as his cue to take a few weeks of rest and relaxation.

Family fun...

Family fun…

In his memoir, Where There’s Smoke…, William B. Davis tackled the character’s death and resurrection with his usual wry and acerbic commentary:

While my billing and financial remuneration were improving, my actual participation in the series began to diminish in season five, primarily because I died – for the first time. I was to die on the show two more times before we were done. And another fourteen times on other shows since then. I died in the second episode of the season and didn’t reappear until episode fourteen. How did I come to life? Well, we don’t really know, but I was hiding in a cabin on top of Grouse Mountain, no, sorry, it was supposed to be North Hatley, Quebec. Anyone who knows them bother would never confuse them, Grouse Mountain being the Coastal Range in British Columbia with coniferous trees and heavy wet snow, while North Hatley is in the lower Appalachians with deciduous trees and dry snow.

It should be noted that this fascination with death and resurrection carried over to IDW’s recent launch of The X-Files: Season Ten. Writer Joe Harris immediately resurrected a significant portion of the deceased recurring cast.

Light at the end of the diner...

Light at the end of the diner…

Watching Redux II, there is a sense that the show is aware that it is going around in circles. Outside of that moving final shot of the Cigarette-Smoking Man, the episode refuses to commit to any plot point in a meaningful way. In Gethsemane, Michael Kritschgau revealed to Mulder that the show’s entire mythology was a lie. That was a pretty sharp twist from the show, one that seems immediately suspect. It certainly made it quite difficult to reconcile certain key moments from the show’s history.

Already, Redux II is backing away from those revelations and implications. Talking with Mulder, the Cigarette-Smoking Man suggests, “This man you spoke to, Michael Kritschgau, he has deceived you with beautiful lies. He’s told you that everything you’ve ever believed about the existence of extraterrestrial life is untrue.” For most of its run, The X-Files has thrived on mystery and ambiguity, but that mystery and ambiguity tended to spiral outwards. What is the black oil and how does it relate to what we know? What is the deal with bees?

Duchovny's contractual negotiations were not going well...

Duchovny’s contractual negotiations were not going well…

Instead, the Redux trilogy exists to cloud things that we already thought that we knew. The show begins to deliberately and consciously muddy the water on what had otherwise been fairly clear plot and character arcs. In the past, ambiguity had been used as part of the promise of delayed gratification. “The truth is out there,” the show implored; you could see why so many people expected answers and resolutions. Coming at an important point in the show’s lifecycle, the Redux trilogy changes the rules. Ambiguity is not just a delaying tactic, but a point of itself.

Redux II works hard to make the audience aware of that. The final scene of the episode assures the audience that Scully’s cancer has gone into remission. “What turned it around?” Skinner asks. Mulder replies, “I don’t know.” Just to be clear that the audience should not await an answer on this one, he states, “I don’t think we’ll ever know.” It could be the implant, it could be coincidence, it could be the hand of some benign unseen creator. Redux II celebrates that idea of mystery and ambiguity, rejecting clear resolution.

Looks like Scully's getting tired of all this as well...

Looks like Scully’s getting tired of all this as well…

Consider the short sequence with Samantha Mulder at the diner. Actor William B. Davis believed that this was the “real” Samantha at the time, and was shocked when it was ultimately revealed that it was not:

Someone asked how he could play some of the scenes knowing that what happens is going to be contradicted. What about the scene in Redux with Samantha, for example? Well, he certainly thought she was the real Samantha and that’s how he played it. Then a year later, he heard someone say, “No that wasn’t her,” and his reaction was “huh?”

Redux II treats Samantha in the same way that it treats the prospect of answers to the show’s central mysteries. It dangles them in front of the audience as it dangles Samantha in front of Fox, only to yank her away at the last moment. There is a point where this approach becomes unsustainable.

"I've just filmed my appearance in the feature film. I'm untouchable right now."

“I’ve just filmed my appearance in the feature film. I’m untouchable right now.”

Nevertheless, embracing ambiguity is a pretty gutsy move. For better or worse, Redux II suggests that perhaps The X-Files might not ever offer clear and concise answers to its sprawling mysteries and dangling threads. This is certainly a valid storytelling approach, even if it is one that threatens to provoke and upset the audience. However, there is a sense that it feels a bit strange to change the rules this late in game. One of the problems with The X-Files was that the show would change its mind about how much ambiguity was desirable from episode to episode.

For all that Redux II suggests that some mysteries are better left unresolved, later seasons go out their way to resolve plot points in the most convoluted and awkward manner possible. In many respects, the show’s last episode – The Truth – is a courtroom drama that puts the show’s mythology itself on trial. Characters and clips show up to provide evidence that it does all fit together in a way that makes some sort of sense. However, by that point, it had been over three years since One Son had put most of the mythology to rest.

Holding it together...

Holding it together…

The X-Files seemed to alternate wildly between a show that valued and appreciated ambiguity and a series that desperately wanted to show its own work. This imbalance becomes a problem. It is possible to construct a satisfyingly ambiguous long-form narrative with lots of uncertainties and mysteries – look at Twin Peaks, an obvious influence on The X-Files. It is also possible to construct a serialised television show that holds together quite well through an extended run – look at Breaking Bad, a show with obvious connections to The X-Files.

This creates problems. The X-Files has made such a big deal about exposing truths – even deeply uncomfortable truths – that such a dynamic shift feels a little uncomfortable. After all, the conversation between Mulder and Samantha in the diner suggests that answers and resolutions are a necessary part of human existence. “I can help you,” Mulder begs Samantha. “You were abducted, Samantha, I can help you to remember.” She replies, “I don’t want to, Fox. I don’t.”

So long, Blevins, we hardly knew ye...

So long, Blevins, we hardly knew ye…

The show seems to agree with Mulder, that it is important to remember even the things we don’t want to remember. There is an obvious divide between that clear thread running through The X-Files and the idea that some mysteries are better left unresolved. In some respects, it feels like The X-Files is trying to have its cake and eat it too. It is an approach that comes with a fair share of problems, and some sizeable internal inconsistency. Chris Carter has boasted that Redux made it possible to expand the mythology further and further, but it also diminishes the show.

To be fair, Redux II does develop and expand upon some of the show’s favourite recurring themes. As Scully lies in hospital, dying from her cancer, the Cigarette-Smoking Man makes an offer to Mulder. It is the same offer that he made to Skinner, trading Scully’s life in return for a favour. “Quit the FBI, come work for me. I can make your problems go away.” Skinner took the offer to help save Scully’s life, at terrible cost. Zero Sum explored the consequences of such trading and dealing.

"Don't mind me. I'll just sit in the car during this deeply emotional family reunion."

“Don’t mind me. I’ll just sit in the car during this deeply emotional family reunion.”

Mulder rejects the offer immediately. He does not need the same life lesson that the show gave Skinner. “No deal.” Mulder is sharp enough to see through the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s smoke and mirrors routine. “What have… what have you given me? A claim of a cure for Scully, is she cured? You show me my sister only to take her right back. You’ve given me nothing!” While it is possible that the Cigarette-Smoking Man did cure Scully, Redux II does not confirm it. Instead, Mulder seems to realise that no good can come of a deal with the metaphorical devil.

This idea recurs throughout Redux II. Not only does the Cigarette-Smoking Man offer Mulder a deal in return for a favour, Section Chief Scott Blevins makes a similar offer. Asking Mulder to turn on Skinner, Blevins urges, “Agent Mulder, if you name this man today in your testimony… we can file charges against him. Charges which may very well exonerate you.” Of course, the “may” there is telling. Mulder states the offer succinctly. “Name Skinner and save myself?”

"Skinner gave me a four-star seller rating on eBay."

“Skinner gave me a four-star seller rating on eBay.”

The X-Files is quite fond of playing with the metaphor of Mulder-as-Jesus. The religious themes seem to come to the fore in the big three-parters bridging the second and third, fourth and fifth, and sixth and seventh seasons of the show. There is a certain familiarity to the pattern. There are a trinity of religious trinities. Mulder endured his own death and resurrection over the course of Anasazi, The Blessing Way and Paper Clip. The Christ parallels will be pushed to their logical conclusion in Biogenesis, The Sixth Extinction and The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati.

The middle trilogy focuses on one particular part of the biblical story. The title of Gethsemane alludes to a very particular moment in the Gospel, the Agony in the Garden. According to the biblical story, Jesus Christ visited Gethsemane shortly before his crucifixion. While praying, he desperately begged God to lift his burden, before ultimately accepting his fate. Judas identified Christ to the authorities in the Garden of Gethsemane, condemning him to death.

Finding her religion...

Finding her religion…

As such, there are obvious parallels with Mulder’s character arc. As Amy M. Donaldson points out in We Want to Believe, Gethsemane draws rather heavily from the biblical story:

At the end of this episode, Mulder is alone in his apartment crying. But the title also foreshadows Mulder’s alleged death (which is the cliffhanger into the next season). The apparent betrayal is by Scully, who is seen at the beginning and end of the episode testifying before an FBI panel to the “illegitimacy of Agent Mulder’s work.”

While these plot points are ultimately revealed to be red herrings, Redux II presents Mulder with two different opportunities to lift his own burden. It is a theme that recurs in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati.

"Oh, hi guys. I hope you don't mind, thought I'd just pop in between my own personal drama."

“Oh, hi guys. I hope you don’t mind, thought I’d just pop in between my own personal drama.”

It is interesting to wonder whether Mulder’s refusal to compromise is ultimately what saved Scully. It would be a very mystical and religious interpretation of the episode, but it is not entirely out-of-character with the logic of Chris Carter’s world. Episodes like Red Museum have suggested that religious faith is firmly connected to the show’s central mythology; the writer would more overtly (and controversially) combine pseudo-religious spirituality with the larger conspiracy storyline in Closure.

To be fair, the idea of paralleling Mulder with Jesus Christ is the logical extension of the show’s efforts to send Mulder on the conventional and archetypal hero’s journey. David Duchovny has made a conscious effort to push Mulder to conform with the Joseph Campbell archetype, and it could be argued that Jesus Christ is perhaps the most archetypal of heroes; the man who died for the sins of the entire world. The X-Files doesn’t just suggest the comparison, but returns to it with incredible frequency; as the mythology grows more convoluted, it strains under the weight.

Finn McCool...

Finn McCool…

The Redux trilogy is also notable for introducing the character of Bill Scully. Pat Skipper was cast in the part for Memento Mori, but his scenes were ultimately cut. Bill provides an effective foil to Mulder, a character who exists to point out that Mulder is rather directly responsible for everything that has happened to Scully. In challenging Mulder, Bill Scully is not a character who endears himself to fandom; however, he provides a nice vehicle for the show to draw attention to some uncomfortable underlying themes.

“You see, she’s your big defender, but I think the truth is, she just doesn’t want to disappoint you,” Bill Scully asserts, an observation mirroring that made by the psychiatrist in Elegy. It makes a certain amount of sense. In Beyond the Sea, Scully was desperate to know that her father approved of her career choices. Episodes like Lazarus and all things confirm the observation in Never Again that Scully gravitates towards strong male father figures. It does underscore a potentially creepy aspect to any romantic relationship between the two.

Kid in the hall...

Kid in the hall…

More to the point, Bill Scully feels a righteous anger. Mulder’s quest has cause considerable collateral damage; that has been a recurring theme since the show began, one reinforced by Max and Tempus Fugit. When Mulder gets all righteous about being the only person willing to do anything to stop “the family tragedy”, Bill calls him out on it. “You’re the reason for it. And I’ve already lost one sister to this quest you’re on, now I’m losing another. Has it been worth it? To you, I mean, have you found what you’ve been looking for?”

One of the episode’s recurring motifs is news coverage of Senatorial debates over human cloning – particularly focusing on Ted Kennedy’s attempts to introduce the Human Cloning Prohibition Act in early 1997. Following the cloning of Dolly the Sheep in 1996, human cloning became part of the political and scientific debate in the late nineties. In fact, the scientists involved in cloning Dolly testified before a Senate hearing on the topic. Given the recurring theme of cloning in The X-Files, this was obviously of interest to the show.

Staring down the barrel of the gun...

Staring down the barrel of the gun…

The recurring use of news coverage of these debates provide a nice book-end to the use of archival news footage in Gethsemane. There, scientists talked at length about the possibilities inherent in a vast universe around us. Here, legislators and bureaucrats fear-monger about scientific advancement. In a way, this embodies the disillusionment that The X-Files feels, one of the many ways that the show seemed to tap into the nineties zeitgeist. The X-Files perfectly captured a particular moment in time, the apathy and disconnect of the decade.

While nowhere near as overt as something like Space, Redux II hits on the same core thematic points. Humanity used to look to the stars in awe and wonder; that awe and wonder with which looked outwards has been replaced by anxiety and fear with which look inwards. The word “alien” once held incredible and romantic promise; now it is something to be approached with dread and uncertainty. No wonder Mulder feels lost in the wilderness. Against such a backdrop, a crisis in faith is all but inevitable.

"Don't worry, the hospital staff all know me by now."

“Don’t worry, the hospital staff all know me by now.”

It is also worth pausing to discuss the cliffhanger. If the transition from Gethsemane to Redux I is one of the smoothest transitions in the show’s history, the transition from Redux I to Redux II is easily one of the lamest. The cliffhanger at the end of Redux I had Byers tell Mulder that the vial he recovered from the Pentagon contained nothing but deionised water. It is a stark conclusion to the episode, one which seems to sentence Scully to death. Much like everything else in Mulder’s life, his adventures in the Pentagon had been for naught.

Redux II decides to resolve this cliffhanger by revealing that… actually… there was more than just water in the vial. There was a magical microchip. It turns out that the Lone Gunmen are either really crap at turning stuff upside down and emptying it, or that the government contracted the design of those vials to some really shoddy contractors. On paper, it is an extension of the concept that bridged Gethsemane and Redux Ihey, here’s some stuff you didn’t see but was always there! – but the execution feels rather hollow.

Everybody chips in...

Everybody chips in…

The Redux trilogy is a flawed and convoluted beast. There is a sense that the mythology is growing a little too large and convoluted for its own good, as the writing staff try to balance everything heading into the feature film. The three episodes have a host of clever ideas, and build off familiar themes, but they also seem a little shaky and uneven. There is a sense that keeping everything on track is beginning to become a bit too much, that the mythology might soon be as far beyond the writing staff as it is beyond Mulder.

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

6 Responses

  1. I’m going to plug Joe Ford’s blog again. As usual he gives the show a fair shake, but I remember the frustration of his first viewing as Duchovny stopped being a relatable geek and became a chosen one with no friends or familial ties.

    • Very astute observation. I’m not particularly enamored with the transformation of Mulder from loser outsider to crown prince of the conspiracy myself.

  2. Redux II is the best part of a very uneven trilogy. I still get goosebumps during the Blevins confrontation scene – ‘The section chief is the man I’m about to name!’ Great editing, great scene.

    • My personal preference is towards Gethsemane, but Redux II has its charms. I think the consensus is definitely that Redux I is the weak link, though.

  3. All these problematic parts ultimately come together as an episode I really love, possibly without valid reason, but true nonetheless. Maybe it’s Mark Snow’s beautiful score that makes the whole thing work…

    • Yeah, I don’t hate Redux II. (Although it probably doesn’t help matters that I am ambivalent on Memento Mori.)

      Redux I on the other hand…

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