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The X-Files – The Pine Bluff Variant (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.

The Pine Bluff Variant is probably John Shiban’s best solo script for The X-Files.

It is the kind of story that the show does very well, a taut conspiracy thriller packed with sharp twists and turns. Not all of those twists and turns make a great deal of sense, but there is an incredible momentum to the episode that keeps it moving forward. John Shiban’s script is beautifully brought to life by Rob Bowman’s direction, with Bowman demonstrating once again why he was the perfect choice to direct The X-Files: Fight the Future. The Pine Bluff Variant is a well-constructed piece of television.

He who hunts monsters...

He who hunts monsters…

It also fits quite comfortably in the context of where the show is at this point in time. The fourth and fifth seasons of The X-Files saw the show really engaging with the dark underbelly of conspiracy culture just as Mulder when through his own dark midnight of the soul. After three seasons of endorsing paranoia and skepticism, The X-Files was ready to deal with the sorts of organised groups that believed in such conspiracies. The Pine Bluff Variant has Mulder infiltrating a militia a few months before the release of Fight the Future would recreate the Oklahoma City Bombing.

It is a thread with which the show had been playing since The Field Where I Died early in the fourth season. The Pine Bluff Variant is the last time that the series pushes these sorts of militia groups to the fore, with Mulder reaffirming and regaining his faith at the climax of Fight the Future. It is a suitably satisfying farewell to this recurring thematic motif.

Fleshing out the threat...

Fleshing out the threat…

The Pine Bluff Variant is constructed as something of a throwback. In many respects, The X-Files is informed by sixties and seventies cinema – the cinema that would have been watched and enjoyed by the writing staff when they were growing up. In form and function, The Pine Bluff Variant feels like an old-fashioned espionage story or paranoid thriller. Mulder’s journey into a world where the government is complicit in the mass murder of its own citizens as a weapons test cannot help but evoke classics like The Parallax View, Telefon or The Conversation.

The Pine Bluff Variant is absolutely fascinated with the question of who knows what and when they know it. Mulder and Skinner conspire to keep Scully in the dark for the longest possible time. While this initially seems a rather cold and mean-spirited decision to help up the dramatic tension, it seems to be the right call – August Bremer figures out that Mulder is a federal agent simply by eavesdropping on a conversation between the two characters. Bremer users the tape recording of Mulder as leverage against Jacob Haley, his own internal rival for control of the New Spartans.

Eating away at him...

Eating away at him…

According to the commentary, writer John Shiban was actually influenced by an earlier film when he started writing The Pine Bluff Variant:

I always wanted to do a story that was a thriller and a great thing about The X-Files is that you can do different genres. We did comedies, we did horror, we did drama, we did… the paradigm of The X-Files can stretch to do a lot of things and we hadn’t done a thriller like this in a long time or ever at this time and I was inspired by the movie The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, the Martin Ritt movie from 1965, based on the John le Carré novel, and I actually had been thinking about doing a story like this for a long time. I had a three-by-five card up on my bulletin board in my office that said ‘Mulder undercover’. And a couple of years went by before we found the right moment in the history of the show to do it.

It does feel like Shiban was genuinely excited about the opportunity to write a conspiracy thriller like this. There is a not a moment of The Pine Bluff Variant that feels wasted, with every beat feeling more tense than the last.

Executive decision...

Executive decision…

It is interesting to look at where The Pine Bluff Variant arrives in terms of the show around it. The episode fits quite comfortably within the framework of The X-Files. It is the story of the government conducting horrific and secret experiments upon their own population. It is not so different from a script like F. Emasculata about another potentially devastating outbreak. Neither The Pine Bluff Variant or F. Emasculata even hint at the existence or involvement or aliens. They are conspiracy narratives that do not tie explicitly into the larger mythology.

However, they arrive at different points in the history of the show. F. Emasculata arrived rather late in the second season, when the show’s big conspiracy mythology was still being formed. As such, there was more fluidity between the stand-alone adventures of Mulder and Scully and the larger conspiracy arc. The Cigarette-Smoking Man could still appear in episodes like Tooms or (maybe) Young at Heart. Mister X could play a fairly significant role in episodes like Sleepless or Soft Light. The Chinese wall that would be introduced in D.P.O. had yet to come down.

"Cigar-Smoking Man" sound much more imposing, anyway...

“Cigar-Smoking Man” sound much more imposing, anyway…

In contrast, The Pine Bluff Variant arrives at a point where there is a clear boundary between the epic mythology episodes of the show and the more stand-alone episodic adventures. The Pine Bluff Variant makes it quite clear that there is the big government conspiracy against the American people, which stands distinct from all the other government conspiracies against the American people. The Cigarette-Smoking Man does not appear in The Pine Bluff Variant, his place taken by Agent Leamus of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Agent Leamus fills a story function quite similar to that of the Cigarette-Smoking Man in the first two seasons of The X-Files. He is a mysterious authority figure who hangs around with Assistant Director Skinner, clearly knowing more than he wants to share about what is really going on. Indeed, the climax of The Pine Bluff Variant even throws Agent Leamus into an argument about authority and power with Mulder that evokes the heavy moral and political discussions between Mulder and the Cigarette-Smoking Man in episodes like One Breath and F. Emasculata.

Agent Anderson...

Agent Anderson…

“What do you hope to accomplish, Agent Mulder, as a whistle-blower?” Leamus demands. “To mobilize a civil rights action? To bring down the federal government? To do the very work that group you were a part of is so bent on doing? What do you want? Laws against those men, or laws protecting them?” Mulder replies, “I want people to know the truth.” Leamus responds, “Well sometimes our job is to protect those people from knowing it.” It is similar to the argument made by the Cigarette-Smoking Man about controlling information in F. Emasculata.

Of course, The Pine Bluff Variant could never work with the character of the Cigarette-Smoking Man as he exists at this point in the show’s history, and not just because he is hiding out in a cabin in Quebec. The Cigarette-Smoking Man has evolved as a character past the point where he can really exist purely as the embodiment of a particular philosophical or moral ideal. The Cigarette-Smoking Man is a character with his own human failings and motivations, with his own family and web of complex relationships.

Bag and tag 'em...

Bag and tag ’em…

The character of Agent Leamus comes with a lot less baggage. Sam Anderson is great in the role, conveying an incredible sense of self-righteousness beneath a fairly inoffensive exterior. It is a shame that the actor did not do more work with Ten Thirteen, as The Pine Bluff Variant suggests that the actor might have worked very well as a recurring player in the show’s own over-arching conspiracy. Agent Leamus is not the most nuanced or developed role – in fact, he needs to be broad and ambiguous for the episode to work – but Anderson makes him memorable.

Like a lot of the really interesting and strong paranoid mythology stuff running through The X-Files, the plot of The Pine Bluff Variant is anchored in just enough reality to make it unsettling and terrifying. August Bremer’s attack on the cinema is disturbing because the cinema is considered such a “safe” space in American popular culture, a place where people go to escape the real world and confront terrors on a screen. In theory, the use of the cinema in The Pine Bluff Variant mirrors the use of the bowling alley in John Shiban’s Elegy – a horrific intrusion into a safe space.

Lightening up the room...

Lightening up the room…

Of course, times have changed. The cinema is no longer regarded as a safe and secure environment that it would have been when The Pine Bluff Variant was released. Just as the threat of terrorism increased dramatically in the twenty-first century, it seemed like the number of violent attacks in cinemas also climbed. The most obvious example here is the murder of twelve people by James Holmes during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora in 2012, but there are lots of other examples of similar violence in the previously secure environment.

Even the idea of the government testing biological weapons on its own population feels just one step away from reality. The mythology of The X-Files shrewdly draws on real-life horror stories to give the saga just enough weight. While Paper Clip and Nisei might centre around plans for alien colonisation of Earth, they are reasonably accurate in their portrayal of how the United States benefited from the work of (and aided the escape of) various Axis war criminals following the Second World War. F. Emasculata recalls the radiation trials conducted upon prisoners.

We was robbed...

We was robbed…

The idea of the United States government conducting a biological weapons test on its own population might seem absurd, but there is some historical basis for the idea:

Between Sept. 20 and Sept. 27 of 1950, a Navy mine-laying vessel cruised the San Francisco coast, spraying an aerosol cocktail of Serratia and Bacillus microbes – all believed to be safe – over the famously foggy city from giant hoses on deck, according to declassified Army reports. According to lawyers who have reviewed the reports, researchers added fluorescent particles of zinc-cadmium-sulfide to better measure the impact. Based on results from monitoring equipment at 43 locations around the city, the Army determined that San Francisco had received enough of a dose for nearly all of the city’s 800,000 residents to inhale at least 5,000 of the particles.

In December 1984, it was revealed that the United States had conducted similar experiments in Washington in 1964 and 1965. The following year, there were trials conducted on the New York subway.

They have only a stub of information on which to work...

They have only a stub of information on which to work…

That is quite a harrowing and unsettling idea. The late nineties brought new concerns about the potential for biological warfare. It is no coincidence that the idea features in both The Pine Bluff Variant on The X-Files and The Fourth Horseman on Millennium, airing only two days apart from one another. The nineties had seen the public growing more and more aware of the threat posed by such biological agents. It seemed like the entire world was getting ready to usher in a horrific new ear of warfare.

In 1995, Iraq admitted to producing 19,000 liters of botulinum toxin and 8,500 liters of anthrax for use during the first Gulf War. The same year, the sarin nerve gas attacks upon the Tokyo subway brough Aum Shinrikyo to international attention – but it would be revealed that they had previously attempted to harness (and release) botulinum as a biological weapon. In 1994, it was suggested that Russia had sold the variola virus to both North Korea and Iraq to aide their own biological weapons programs.

Say it, don't spray it...

Say it, don’t spray it…

Indeed, the collapse of the Soviet Union had generated a whole wave of anxieties about the possibility of such weapons getting into the wrong hands. In 1992, Boris Yeltsin had ordered the Soviet Biopreparat officially disbanded. At the same time, there was a lot of anxiety about where all the equipment and expertise from that programme might go – with suggestions in the late nineties that certain individuals had been sharing research and equipment with the Iraqi and Iranian governments.

The Soviet Biopreparat are cited as a possible source of the biological outbreaks in both The Pine Bluff Variant and The Time is Now. When somebody wonders how the New Spartans could possibly have gotten ahold of something so dangerous and so threatening, Russia is given as the default answer. “The former Soviet Union,” one agent speculates. “Security on the Siberian Vector Lab is… lax. It’s conceivable it was stolen, though we have no confirmation from Moscow.” Of course, it turns out the weapon did not come from Russia at all.

"Damn good television."

“Damn good television.”

The Pine Bluff Variant also adopts a very interesting attitude to continuity. The X-Files is often cited as one of the first properly serialised network prime-time dramas – although that is usually reserved for the mythology episodes, where things do tend to build over time. The stand-alone episodes of The X-Files are normal rather episodic in nature. There might be a few background details that carry over from one episode to the next, but generally a viewer can hop across seasons through the monster-of-the-week shows without getting lost.

The Pine Bluff Variant is interesting because it very cleverly builds on a background detail from an earlier episode – a mythology episode, no less! – as the starting point of this particular story. “He spoke at a UFO conference in Boston where he broadcast his feelings about the government and their conspiracies against the American people,” Agent Leamus explains. “Somebody from the organization was listening so the man who escaped, Haley, sent out feelers in hopes that Agent Mulder was a man whose politics were in line with his own.”

Breaking him down...

Breaking him down…

This would be a logical starting point for a story like this even if we didn’t see the speech in question. However, it is quite clear that Agent Leamus is referring to Mulder’s big speech at the UFO conference at the start of Patient X. It is a small little piece of continuity, but one the fits quite comfortably within the context of the fifth season. It is a very rare example of something that happens in the mythology having an impact outside of it. (After all, it is not as if Mulder’s new-found skepticism in Redux II impacted Detour or Mind’s Eye.)

This might be the most obvious example of subtle continuity in The Pine Bluff Variant, but it is not the only one. There are a number of nice touches that lead into and out of the episode, suggesting a nice internal continuity without drawing attention to themselves. When we catch a quick glimpse of Mulder’s window as August Bremer eavesdrops on him, the sticky-tape outline of the “X” (last seen in Herrenvolk) can be distinguished. When Mulder’s finger is broken in The Pine Bluff Variant, it remains broken into Folie à Deux.

Tough call...

Tough call…

There is also another nice little bit of thematic continuity running through The Pine Bluff Variant. Mulder and Scully have spent extended sections of the fifth season separated from one another. More than ever, The X-Files feels like two separate shows that occasionally overlap and intersect. It began with Scully declining to accompany Mulder to the dig in Gethsemane, and only built through the sections of Redux I and Redux II that confined Scully to a hospital as Mulder delved deeper and deeper into the conspiracy. It was a pattern the would recur in Emily.

It seemed like Mulder and Scully spent more and more time apart over the course of the season. Flashbacks in Unusual Suspects and Travelers featured Mulder without Scully. Scully went on vacation away from Mulder in Christmas Carol and Chinga. Scully began her own investigation into a mysterious case without Mulder in All SoulsBad Blood emphasised their differences. It seemed like the episodes that featured Mulder and Scully working well as a team – like Detour – were relatively few and far between during the fifth season.

No bones about it...

No bones about it…

There are, of course, production realities at play here. The separation of Mulder and Scully is not developed well enough as a theme for it to be a conscious decision on the part of the production team – despite Glen Morgan’s suggestion at the end of the fourth season. Instead, it seems like David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were dealing with their own commitments and obligations. Some of those commitments involved work on post-production of Fight the Future, while other commitments took them outside the show.

After all, Fight the Future would mine much dramatic gold from the idea of breaking up Mulder and Scully – not at the behest of either agent or as a result of simmering long-term differences, but because the FBI no longer wanted them together. When the sixth season brought Mulder and Scully back without any link to the X-files, their relationship remained tighter than ever. There was no acknowledgement of any rift or distance between the two characters over the previous year or so.

Fingering the bad guys...

Fingering the bad guys…

At a convention, writer Vince Gilligan was explicitly asked about the perception of a growing rift between Mulder and Scully over the course of the fifth season:

Uhh… That is not anything conscious on our part. I think Mulder and Scully’s relationship is probably, I would think, is stronger than ever. You know, sometimes, with the logistics of doing a tv show and also doing a movie just about simultaneously, sometimes its very hard for the show to get two stars, to schedule their time such that they can do the work in the week they need them to do. Sometimes, frankly, we have to endeavor to schedule one scene with just Mulder or just Scully. We do that as little as possible because, honestly, who wants to see Mulder and Scully together? Maybe that’s what you’re thinking of but no, that’s not a conscious thing on our part to show a rift between them.

It should be noted that this is not the first time that fandom has perceived such a rift between the two lead characters. Examining the fan message boards during the third season, Kumail Nanjiani found similar issues.

"Dammit. If I hadn't seen the trailer for the movie, I'd be bricking it right now."

“Dammit. If I hadn’t seen the trailer for the movie, I’d be bricking it right now.”

However, even though the perceived rift might not have been planned from the outset, the last two stand-alones of the fifth season capitalise on the idea quite well. The Pine Bluff Variant and Folie à Deux are episodes that tease the idea of a growing gulf between Mulder and Scully as the show’s fifth season comes to an end and the movie looms large on the horizon. The opening act of The Pine Bluff Variant is centred on the idea that Scully might not be able to trust Mulder as much as she had thought.

It is a set-up that could easily seem contrived and fake. After all, Mulder and Scully have been through a lot together. If Scully can still trust Mulder after his paranoid breakdown (and subsequent accusations of betrayal) in Anasazi, they are pretty solid. However, the fact that the two characters seem to have spent more and more time apart over the season helps to sell the idea that Scully could be locked out of this secret. Similarly, Scully’s willingness to let Mulder explain himself (and to come to him with her suspicions) feels in character and organic.

This screening is pretty dead...

This screening is pretty dead…

On the commentary, John Shiban acknowledges that it was fun to play with that classic dynamic in a cheeky and subversive way. The X-Files is a show that has always been acutely aware of its audience and their expectations, willing to play with fandom’s assumptions:

As the show grew and has grown and the characters have changed, we tried to challenge ourselves and the actors with the new direction like Season 5 which did have a lot of distance between Mulder and Scully, opened up, dealt with Scully’s cancer in new ways. If you don’t do that… Chris Carter’s feeling – and our feeling – was that if you don’t mix it up even though sometimes the audience worries that the show’s gonna change, if you don’t mix it up I think the show stagnates and wouldn’t have continued on to be as successful and as good as it was.

As much as The Pine Bluff Variant might tease difficulties in the relationship between Mulder and Scully, the episode knows how far it can push things. Scully is brought into the loop quite quickly, with that paranoia not overstaying its welcome or stretched beyond breaking point.

"I want to take his face... off."

“I want to take his face… off.”

It should be noted that there are a few logical holes in The Pine Bluff Variant that don’t necessarily hold up to close scrutiny. The reveal that August Bremer is working for the Central Intelligence Agency is a brutal and shocking twist that really pulls the rug out from the audience – but it does leave a few unanswered questions. If August Bremer is willing to murder a theatre full of innocent people in order to test a biological weapon, why is he willing to save Mulder’s life at the risk of jeopardising his cover? He has to know that Mulder won’t keep quiet about this.

There are a few suggestions scattered throughout the episode that things are not as they might seem. When Mulder raises the issue of the civilians in the theatre, Agent Leamus asserts, “Agent Mulder, our government is not in the business of killing innocent civilians.” It is quite likely that he is simply lying to Mulder, but does it also hint that maybe the theatre incident is not what it appears to be? Could this just have been a set-up to cement Bremer’s place in the New Spartans. Then again, Skinner suggests to Scully that some of the bodies have been accurately identified.

"Mulder, you left one of your tapes in the machine again."

“Mulder, you left one of your tapes in the machine again.”

(Similarly, there are some questions about just how long it takes the weapon to work. The teaser suggests that the bacteria works very quickly – it is only a few moments before Jacob Haley claims his first victim. At the end of the episode, it seems to take a little while longer – Haley manages to drive a reasonable distance before succumbing to the effects of the bacteria. However, this relatively short incubation period does raise questions about how effective the plan to put it on money might be; if contact with a note only takes a few minutes to kill, how far can it spread?)

Still, these are minor plotting details that don’t detract too heavily from the narrative. John Shiban’s script is written to keep pushing onwards, and Rob Bowman’s direction gives the story a healthy sense of momentum. The Pine Bluff Variant almost works best as a collection of tense scenes tied together by a common plot. The bank robbery sequence is suitably nail-biting, while there is something very effective about Scully being surrounded by black unmarked cars. Haley’s interrogation of Mulder is a superb piece of editing, and Mulder’s “death march” is wonderfully atmospheric.

Wearing masks...

Wearing masks…

David Duchovny does great as Mulder, presenting a character who is very clearly dancing on the edge of a razor blade. On the commentary, John Shiban points out just how much Duchovny brings to the role:

This line here, by the way, that he says, ‘Is this the Pepsi Challenge?’, was David Duchovny’s improvisation and we loved it so much we put it in the show. David actually did a lot of that over the years. He came up with some great Mulder lines that we would use.

As played by Duchovny, Mulder seems like a character who would be interesting in just about any context. Duchovny does have a rare charm as a television leading man, which explains why he has worked so consistently in the medium.

"Well, somebody watched Lethal Weapon II."

“Well, somebody watched Lethal Weapon II.”

After five years, it is very easy to take the skill and care that goes into producing an episode of The X-Files for granted. After all, this is a well-honed machine at this point. However, the production on The Pine Bluff Variant is absolutely superb. In particular, Mark Snow provides a deliciously understated score to the episode. The soundtrack would not seem out of place on one of the classic conspiracy thrillers that inspired the episode, a very solemn and stately (and tense) affair that helps to ramp up the tension.

The Pine Bluff Variant is a beautiful piece of work, and a demonstration of just how perfectly everything can come together. It proves that – even five years into its run – The X-Files can really be anything that it wants to be. More than that, it can probably be whatever it wants to be rather well.

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

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