Despite a notable absence of Darin Morgan, Bad Blood makes a much more convincing case for Vince Gilligan as the heir apparent to Darin Morgan than Small Potatoes did at the end of the fourth season.
Bad Blood finds Gilligan touching on some of the same broad ideas as Small Potatoes – how Mulder is perceived and how he perceives himself, a sly awareness of the show’s tropes and conventions. However, Bad Blood feels a lot more honed and focused than Small Potatoes. It felt like Small Potatoes only got to the meat of the story it wanted to tell in its final third, while Bad Blood is shrewd enough to put its core concepts front-and-centre. While Bad Blood has the same broad humour of Small Potatoes, it feels a lot more convincing when it comes to characters.
It could be argued that Gilligan drew quite heavily on the work of Darin Morgan in some of his scripts. There is no shame in this. After all, Darin Morgan is perhaps the most widely-praised writer to work on The X-Files. In this context, Bad Blood is something of a spiritual successor to Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.” Gilligan’s script is not quite as structurally or philosophically ambitious as Darin Morgan’s final credited script for the series, but it does hit on the same fundamental idea that truth is an inherently subjective construct.
Bad Blood is essentially an episode that is not only about how Mulder and Scully see each other, but how they see themselves.
It goes without saying that the concept behind Bad Blood is a storytelling classic. The most obvious cinematic reference point for Bad Blood is Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. That classic Japanese film inspired a wave of imitators – rejecting the idea that narration could be considered an objective accounting of events. However, it is far from the only example of such an approach to storytelling. Rashomon was itself based on Akutagawa’s short story In a Grove. However, there are a wealth of other such examples.
The classic nineteenth century gothic style of framing a story through one or two narrators – for example, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – draws the reader’s attention to implicit subjectivity and bias. Shakespeare arguably plays with it in the testimonies of Launcelot and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Even within the Bible, there are often competing accounts of the same event. The four gospels are the most obvious examples, each offering their own occasionally conflicting accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
Indeed, the idea of comparing and contrasting subjective accounts of the same event is such a common and frequent storytelling device that Gilligan is able to point to a rather unlikely source of inspiration for the episode:
I have to give credit to Frank and John, because they helped me come up with the unusual structure. They both remembered this old episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show, where Rob and Mary had a big fight and a neighbour came over to ask why they were mad at each other. One of them told the story the way he thought it happened, and the other told the story the way she thought it happened. The structure for Bad Blood was borrowed from that, and from the classic film Rashomon before that.
Of course, demonstrating that memory can be faulty and unreliable, the argument that Gilligan references took place between Rob and Laura – rather than Mary – in The Night the Roof Fell In. (Gilligan is apparently quite the fan of The Dick Van Dyke show, with Robert Modell comparing Skinner to Mel Cooley in both Pusher and Kitsunegari.)
The result is one of the best-loved episodes of The X-Files ever produced. There is a strong argument to be made that Bad Blood is the last truly indisputable classic that the show ever produced. To be fair, there are a lot of broadly-accepted classics with large fan-followings in the seasons ahead – Drive, Triangle, Field Trip, Hungry, X-Cops, Requiem, Improbable, to list a few examples. However, Bad Blood is one of the last episodes to generate a consensus opinion among fandom – probably the last episode that would generate controversy by its omission from a “top ten.”
Indeed, Gillian Anderson has repeatedly cited Bad Blood as one of her favourites, if not her absolute favourite. Producer Frank Spotnitz is similarly fond of the episode. It is not hard to see why the episode is so highly-regarded. The relationship between Mulder and Scully is very much at the heart of The X-Files, and Bad Blood really front-and-centres it in a way that is charming and self-aware. More than that, the script is genuinely funny. It is hard to objectively measure humour, but Gilligan’s script is absolutely packed to witty gags and one-liners.
Bad Blood fits quite comfortably within the larger context of the fifth season, particularly when it comes to the depiction of the dynamic between Mulder and Scully. The fifth season has been quite consciously and coyly playing up the possibility of romance between the two leads. The show has been wryly aware of the chemistry between Duchovny and Anderson for most of the show’s runtime, but earlier seasons had seen Carter vehemently denying any intention to pair the two up in any romantic capacity. In contrast, the fifth season makes it inevitable.
Detour finds the two agents sharing a motel room – against Bureau policy, as Scully points out – and features Scully arriving with wine and cheese. “Is this display of boyish agility turning you on?” Mulder asks Scully in Schizogeny. After returning from her holiday in Chinga, Scully jokes about getting her own “I Want to Believe” poster for a gentleman she met on vacation. In Kill Switch, part of Scully’s scepticism towards Esther (aka “Invisigoth”) seems to be rooted in the male cast’s response to her. (An earlier draft had Scully idly musing how she’d look with a nose ring.)
Bad Blood really plays up a romantic element to the relationship between Mulder and Scully. Both Mulder and Scully are incredibly passive-aggressive in their account of events. Mulder describes Sheriff Hartwell as having “a slight overbite”, in a modification clearly designed to provoke Scully. Later on, he makes a point of mocking Hartwell’s accent when conspiring to leave Scully alone with him. (“Don’t say I never do nothin’ for ya.”) When Mulder inspects Scully for bite marks – notably, she does not inspect him – he may as well be checking for hickeys.
At the same time, but Mulder and Scully recognise that Scully perhaps unhealthily devoted to Mulder. In Scully’s version of events, Mulder is completely oblivious to how awful a time Scully is having, because – from her perspective – she simply follows him along obligingly and pleasingly. In contrast, Mulder’s version of events finds Scully more than willing to rub this in his face; he returns to the hotel after a long evening of investigative work to find himself berated by Scully. “I just spent hours on my feet doing an autopsy, all for you. I do it all for you, Mulder.”
Of course, this discrepancy suggests a pretty sizeable difference in how Mulder and Scully see their relationship. From Scully’s perspective, she does everything she can to do to help Mulder without any recognition for it. He can barely remember her name. From Mulder’s perspective, Scully refuses to meet him half-way on anything that matters. Still, the problem is that Mulder generally doesn’t believe on meeting anybody half-way on anything that matters. As such, Mulder tends to dismiss a lot of the stuff that Scully sees as representing how devoted she is to him.
This is evident even outside of the subjective accounts of their adventure. Scully repeatedly reminds Mulder to testify that he was drugged, which is an obvious attempt to protect him – however, he focuses on the fact that she refuses to back up his story about vampires. (Ultimately, though, he seems to accept her advice on its own merits.) Mulder outlines what he expects of Scully early on. “Where is your proof?” Scully asks him after he outlines his own theories. Mulder replies, “You’re my proof. You were there.” That would suggest what Mulder wants from Scully.
Scully sees her scepticism as protecting Mulder – offering validation and legitimacy. In a way, it seems like Scully sees herself as tempering Mulder, a rational influence that prevents him from “overreacting.” In contrast, Mulder sees Scully’s reluctance to embrace his belief as hard-line fanaticism. Describing the slide-show sequence, Scully portrays Mulder as overly enthusiastic while Mulder portrays Scully as “less than enthusiastic.” The fact that both characters describe the other’s reaction with the adverb “characteristically” suggests that they see this as the default setting.
Mulder’s version of himself is quite informative. Not only does he portray Scully as something of a kill-joy, Mulder presents himself as decidedly even-handed and open-minded. Mulder’s version of himself offers a more cautious and careful theory about the nature of the case than usual – hedging his ideas and accepting he may be wrong. “Okay, look, Scully I-I don’t want to jump to any hasty conclusions, but on the strength of the evidence that we have here, I think that what we may be looking at is what appears to be a series of vampire or vampire-like acts.”
Indeed, Mulder’s version of himself is more polite and obliging than is usually the case. He is sensitive to the concerns of others, and frames his proposals in as non-confrontational a manner as possible. When Scully asks why he would theorise about vampires, her replies, “Uh… well, on the corpses drained of blood and the fang marks on the neck. But, as always, I’m very eager to hear your opinion.” When Scully insists that cannot be vampires because vampires do not exist, Mulder responds, “Well… that’s… one opinion, and I respect that.”
This is a far cry from Mulder’s typically righteous attitude; it is even at odds with his attitude towards Scully at the start of the episode. For all that Mulder claims to have respected Scully’s opinion and to adopted an open-minded approach to her perspective, he seems shocked at the idea that her version of events would not align with his own. Tellingly, it is Mulder who insists that the two of them “get [their] stories straight” before meeting Skinner, against Scully’s ethical (and procedural) objections to that.
In fact, Mulder portrays himself as something as a boy scout. Discussing the movie Rain Man, Sheriff Hartwell notes, “I’ll tell you what. I know I’m in law enforcement, but I’d like to take him to Vegas myself. Am I right?” Mulder’s response is polite yet firm. “Well, that would be illegal, right?” He even frames his interest in the case as humanitarian, telling Scully, “Nonetheless, I’m thinking a murder has been committed here and we can go down there and help bring a killer to justice in whatever form — mortal or… immortal he may take.”
Interestingly, Bad Blood suggests that Mulder’s internal narrative is entirely self-righteous. Mulder is just as fond of monologuing in his own account of events as he seems to be in real life, but with a focus on Scully pantomiming her own lack of interest. (It is not too far removed from his final scene in The Springfield Files.) The sense is that Mulder is aware of his own tendency towards filibustering, but sees himself as a font of wisdom rather than a man who might be in love with the sound of his own voice.
Mulder’s lack of self-awareness shines through in other ways as well. Both Mulder and Scully agree that Mulder plonks himself down on Scully’s bed after being dragged through the mud; Mulder just suggests that it happened after Scully left to do the autopsy. When Mulder pays for the pizza, his account emphasises that Mulder is a terrible tipper. “How much?” he asks. “It’s twelve-ninety-eight,” Ronnie replies. “Okay, there’s thirteen dollars,” Mulder offers. Mulder seems completely oblivious to his dickishness. (Mulder’s crappy tipping comes back in Dreamland I.)
In many ways, this helps to underscore the version of Mulder presented by writers like Vince Gilligan or Darin Morgan. Mulder is a character who might understand on an academic level that ranting and raving about aliens marginalises himself from the rest of the world, but who remains somewhat oblivious to how even his basic interactions with other people might seem antagonistic or douchey. The version of Mulder presented in Bad Blood seems like he’d have difficulty interacting with people even if he still worked in Behavioural Science.
It is interesting to wonder what Mulder’s life would be like if Samantha had never been abducted. Scripts by writers like Chris Carter and Howard Gordon seem to paint Mulder’s life as a tragedy rooted in that early loss – and in the subsequent recovery of the memory of that early loss. There is a sense that Mulder’s world was shattered by that trauma, and it destroyed hope that he might live a normal life. After all, Carter and Gordon scripts tend to portray Mulder as a young hotshot with a bright future ahead of him before that damned hypnosis tape.
In contrast, writers like Darin Morgan and Vince Gilligan seem to suggest that Mulder’s problems cannot be reduced to the fact that he works on the X-files. It isn’t what Mulder believes or where Mulder works that makes him so hard to deal with, it is the way that Mulder expresses himself and the way that Mulder deals with other people. For all that Mulder is a character driven by his pursuit of “the Truth” as a large overriding philosophical construct, he seems oblivious about more personal and intimate truths. He is minimally self-aware.
Of course, there is an extra layer of irony here. Mulder is a very successful forensic profiler. Even five years into its run, The X-Files is occasionally willing to reference Mulder’s ability to construct insightful and well-observed psychological profiles of serial killers and criminal offenders. However, Mulder seems blisfully unable to recognise problematic patterns in his own behaviour; whether it is the way that he treats Scully in episodes like Never Again or his strange willingness to trust strangers in episodes like E.B.E. or Colony despite his claims of cynicism.
This is an idea that Gilligan played with in Small Potatoes and would revisit in Dreamland. Mulder’s life is not that of a loser. He is handsome, intelligent, hard-working, educated and seems to be financially secure. there is absolutely no reason why Mulder should not be able to make those things work for him; no reason why he should remain “the FBI’s most unwanted.” When Gilligan puts characters like Eddie Van Blundht or Morris Fletcher in Mulder’s shoes, they thrive. The problem is not the world around Mulder, as much as he might like to think that; the problem is Mulder.
Even outside of the interesting character stuff, Bad Blood hits on some of the core ideas of Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”, calling into question the whole idea of “the Truth” as an objectively verifiable goal. “The Truth is Out There” become a bitterly ironic tease at the end of the opening credits. Which truth? Whose truth? There are so many competing versions of the truth, even from people who essentially witnessed the same events. As Mulder points out early in Bad Blood, Scully should in theory be able to validate everything he claims.
However, Bad Blood suggests that neither account of events could be considered entirely objective or factual. There is a nice gage around the sluglines, when Scully misremembers the name of the motel they visited. The two stories told run parallel, but are explicitly contradictory. Some of those differences are intentional passive-aggressive behaviour (Mulder’s reference to Sheriff Hartwell’s “slight over-bite”) while others are like just due to differences in perspective (the two accounts of Mulder’s return to the motel), but they are differences nonetheless.
In The Cult TV Book, Stacey Abbott argues that The X-Files‘ repeated subversion of objective narration was one of the things that helped to solidify it as an explicitly postmodern television show:
Jim Collins further argues that “within postmodern culture, identity must be conceived as an intersection of conflicting subject positions”, a perspective reflected in The X-Files’ use of “event episodes” to disrupt conventional storytelling by introducing different narrators (as in the episode The Unusual Suspects told from the point of view of conspiracy theorist organisation The Lone Gunmen) or various subject positions (as evidenced in Bad Blood where Scully and Mulder each tell their own version of their encounter with a vampire). In The X-Files, innovation was, therefore, characterised by intertextual referencing, generic manipulation, and the undermining of authoritative subject positions, all of which conforms to or established the parameters of postmodern TV.
While Gilligan may not have been as overtly playful as Darin Morgan, his scripts for episodes like Unusual Suspects or Drive or X-Cops were all very playful with the medium – drawing attention to The X-Files as television.
It is worth noting that Bad Blood is the rare example of The X-Files managing to do a traditional horror movie monster quite well within the framework of the show. Dating back to the first season, classic creatures have generally been tough for the series. Shadows was a lackluster ghost story; Shapes was a middling werewolf adventure. The show had tried to do a straightforward vampire in the second season with 3, but the episode never came together quite as well as it might have. The X-Files did not have a lot of luck bringing those archetypal monsters to life.
There are a lot of possible reasons for these issues. The X-Files was a show that was very much rooted in nineties America. A lot of the more traditional horror movie monsters – ghosts, werewolves, vampires, invisible men – are firmly rooted in a European aesthetic, in the style and mood of “the old world.” Even the Universal Monster Movies that popularised these sorts of creatures generally aspired towards a visual tone that evoked European gothic as opposed to contemporary Americana.
In contrast, the alien mythology at the heart of The X-Files is largely a twentieth-century North American invention – although some might argue that it is merely an American extension and revision of Celtic faerie mythology. Squeeze positioned the show’s first monster-of-the-week as the embodiment of urban violence. Episodes like Darkness Falls, Quagmire and Detour are rooted in a version of “wilderness” that feels very American, despite the influence of Nessie on Quagmire and the presence of the Conquistadors in Detour.
As such, it is a surprise that Bad Blood works as well as it does. The episode offers a very familiar vampire narrative that works fantastically. It even opens with Mulder putting a stake through the heart of an alleged vampire, along with glowing eyes and coffins. However, there are a number of factors that might explain why Bad Blood works as well as it does. The most obvious is that the vampire story is not the big hook of Bad Blood – it is not the part of the episode that most people talk about when they talk about the episode. It is a secondary concern.
However, even allowing for that fact that the vampires take a back seat to the exploration of Mulder and Scully, Bad Blood presents a fascinating twist on the classic vampire narrative while fitting within the larger recurring themes of the fifth season. The X-Files has always been a show that mourns the passing of quirky little spaces and creatures into the mists of history. As much as the monster might need to be defeated, The X-Files is often a little sad that coexistence is impossible and that the march of globalisation has eroded the shadows that would hide such oddities.
The fifth season has been particularly engaged with this idea – the question of whether it is possible to run out of monsters. Detour is a very traditional monster-of-the-week episode that allows one of the three monsters to escape at the end in what is almost an upbeat conclusion for the show. On a metatextual level, episodes like The Post-Modern Prometheus and Kitsunegari both feature “recycled” monsters. The Post-Modern Prometheus explicitly evokes Frankenstein; Kitsunegari traps Robert Patrick Modell in a sequel that he clearly does not want to make.
At the same time, there is some hope to be found. Kill Switch offered a delightful inversion of the show’s recurring “encroaching globalisation” themes, suggested that expanding digital frontiers might create even more shadows to hide new monsters that will stalk the American imagination. Bad Blood does something similar. It suggests that perhaps monsters don’t have to be destroyed by the creeping advance of civilisation. Vampires are among the most traditional monsters imaginable; if they can survive the transition to the twenty-first century, so can anyone else.
The big twist in Bad Blood is not that Ronnie is actually a vampire. The big twist is that the entire community is comprised of vampires. Indeed, Ronnie’s insistence on conforming to crude vampire stereotypes is seen as an insult to the more modernised residents. “I really need to apologize to you about Ronnie,” Sheriff Hartwell confesses to Scully. “He makes us all look bad. He’s just not who we are anymore. I mean, we pay taxes, we’re good neighbors.” Bela Legosi was so early twentieth-century.
Even if the vampire story in Bad Blood wasn’t building up to a clever pun about how an entire community of vampires “pulled up stakes”, it does provide a refreshing contrast to the usual tragedy of these sorts of monster stories. Society marches onwards, why can’t the monsters haunting society? Who says that these strange beings need to be left behind? If the EPA can change the meaning of “swamp” to “wetland”, then surely what it means to be a vampire can also change?
In many ways, The X-Files was a conservative and nostalgic piece of television. Watched as a whole, The X-Files seemed like a show that seemed incredibly wary of change and development, globalisation and advancement – consider the treatment of immigration in stories like Teliko or El Mundo Gira, or the paranoia around scientific research in Redux II or The Postmodern Prometheus. When they briefly returned to the show at the start of the fourth season, writers Glen Morgan and James Wong seemed to brutally skewer that conservatism in Home.
Bad Blood provides a nice contrast with the show’s tendency toward conservative nostalgia, suggesting that the future might not be such a scary place and that accepting the future is not a sign of weakness. Bad Blood ranks with Quagmire and Kill Switch as one of the most inherently optimistic monster-of-the-week stories. It turns out that the monsters are more resilient than we might expect or fear. Vampires are not going anywhere. These classic monster stories are not frozen in time; they are reflections of society, and so evolve alongside side society.
It helps that the vampire subplot ties itself back into the broad themes of the episode. Hartwell is concerned about how Ronnie will affect Mulder and Scully’s perception of the community. Indeed, even outside of their versions of the main story, Mulder and Scully are confronted with their own particular vision of vampires – Mulder gets a creepy coffin and an army of the undead advancing slowly; Scully gets a charming seduction. Hartwell’s description of the community suggests the truth is not adequately conveyed by either encounter.
It is also worth noting that Bad Blood is a script that very consciously and very cleverly emphasises some of the more interesting gender dynamics on The X-Files. Rather tellingly, the most sexualised character in the narrative is Sheriff Hartwell, with Scully reacting quite viscerally (“hoo-boy”) to his mere physical presence in Mulder’s version of events – Mulder’s insistence that Hartwell has “big buck teeth” serving to emphasise that Scully had objectified Hartwell before he even opened his mouth.
Hartwell is the character who serves to generate an immediate sexual attraction from Scully – a supposition supported in different ways in both versions of the story, and in the coda. More than that, he forces Mulder into the role of the jealous lover. Mulder makes a number of very clear passive-aggressive swipes at Hartwell, presenting him as something of a hick ditz. (“Y’all must be the gov’ment people.”) It is a dynamic that could easily seem lazy were the genders reversed – see Syzygy – but feels like a delightful subversion.
This continues a fairly broad trend in The X-Files of acknowledging the idea of a “female gaze” that is just as valid as the oft-cited “male gaze.” As Linda Badley argues in Scully Hits the Glass Ceiling:
The X-Files objectifies the male body rather than the female. The camera lingers on hunks such as Mulder and Assistant Director Skinner strip down to their Speedos. Scully, by contrast, keeps her clothes on – a “suggestive” Scully scene is one in which she wears pajamas. The power of the gaze is often transferred from the guy to the gals. Mulder watches X-rated videos the audience never sees instead of watching Scully, who possesses what in this series is the most privileged and invasive gaze of all – that of the medical scientist who examines and manipulates alienated (objectified, feminised) bodies. She is also allow the leisurely, body-assessing “male” gaze (for instance, at handsome Sheriff Hartwell in Bad Blood). Between Mulder and Scully, as Wilcox and Williams note, the gaze becomes a dialogue based on the question “What do you think?” Looking into each other’s eyes, Mulder and Scully “acknowledge each other as subjects rather than fetishising or denying the other person.” In these reversals and variations, the camera deconstructs the gendered gaze.
The issue may not be as clear cut as that – Never Again suggested that there was a double-standard at play when it came to Scully’s sexuality – but it is a nice reminder of how intriguing the gender dynamics on the show could be.
The X-Files was notable for drawing a fanbase that was pretty much evenly split in terms of gender. For a show that might be categorised as “cult”, the series demonstrated that it was not merely the domain of straight white male fandom. In the mid-nineties, this was much more of a rarity than it would be today – for all that the original Star Trek fandom had been driven by women, internet fandom was broadly classified as predominantly masculine until the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. (At the earliest.)
In contrast, the on-line fanbase for The X-Files featured an extremely visible and vocal number of female fans, in an era when most cult science-fiction television seemed oblivious to such diversity. The large female fanbases of shows like Supernatural, Doctor Who and Sherlock owe a clear debt to the way that The X-Files acknowledged and respected its diverse fans. After all, Mulder winds up kissing Krycek before he kisses Scully. Bad Blood demonstrates just how effortless the show made this look.
Bad Blood is a masterpiece. It is probably the strongest single episode of the fifth season, which is a considerable accomplishment given the quality of the season’s highlights. It is an episode that merits discussion in any debate about the best episodes of the series’ nine-season run. A lot of that is hard to objectively quantify – Duchovny and Anderson are perfect with one another, and Vince Gilligan’s script is genuinely hilarious – but Bad Blood also excels on just about any technical level imaginable. It is a triumph for the show.
- Redux I
- Redux II
- Unusual Suspects
- X-tra: (Topps) #34 – Skybuster
- The Post-Modern Prometheus
- Christmas Carol
- X-tra: (Topps) #35-36 – N.D.E.
- Kill Switch
- Bad Blood
- Patient X
- The Red and the Black
- X-tra: (Topps) #38 – Cam Rahn Bay
- Mind’s Eye
- X-tra: Season One (Topps) #7 – Fire
- All Souls
- The Pine Bluff Variant
- Folie à Deux
- The End
Filed under: The X-Files | Tagged: bad blood, Cliff Bole, david duchovny, gillian anderson, modernity, monsters, mulder, nostalgia, postmodernism, scully, subjectivity, vampires, vince gilligan, x-files |