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The X-Files – Folie à Deux (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.

Folie à Deux is the last stand-alone episode of the fifth season, and the last stand-alone episode to be produced in Vancouver. It is also a pretty essential episode before The X-Files: Fight the Future, reinforcing just how essential Mulder and Scully are to one another shortly before the movie threatens to break them up for good.

Folie à Deux is also one of Vince Gilligan’s most underrated scripts from the show’s entire run, a thoughtful examination of the relationship between Mulder and Scully that provides a clever counterpoint to his script of Bad Blood. If Bad Blood was essentially a story about how Mulder and Scully see the universe differently, then Folie à Deux represents an attempt to heal that rift, perhaps suggesting that Mulder and Scully have come to share their own unique form of madness.

Bugging Skinner...

Bugging Skinner…

As with The Pine Bluff Variant, Folie à Deux benefits from coming relatively late in the fifth season of show. For a variety of reasons, the fifth season did not feature a lot of interaction and communication between Mulder and Scully. Scripts frequently split up Mulder and Scully, often as a way to account for the busy schedules of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. It felt a little strange that The X-Files was building to its big summer film with a season that had rarely had the chance to celebrate just how great David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are together.

Vince Gilligan had played a fairly significant role in that. His fifth season credits tend to emphasise the divide between Mulder and Scully. Unusual Suspects was a flashback episode that featured Mulder without Scully. Bad Blood was a story about how differently Mulder and Scully see the world. Even his work on Christmas Carol and Emily kept Mulder and Scully largely separate from one another – whether it was Scully taking a Christmas vacation with her family, or Scully waiting alone in the hospital while Mulder went on an exciting adventure.

This guy really got it in the neck from his boss...

This guy really got it in the neck from his boss…

In many respects, Folie à Deux is the flip side of the coin to Bad Blood. In Bad Blood, Gilligan presented a fairly standard vampire mystery – but filtered separately through the lenses of Mulder and Scully. Mulder saw a vicious bloodsucker at work in a small town, while Scully saw a chain of events that could be rationally explained with just a little effort. In trying to “get [their] story straight”, Mulder revealed a very fundamental concern that their viewpoints were fundamentally irreconcilable.

Folie à Deux teases that idea out to its logical conclusion. Mulder becomes obsessed with a monster; convinced that there are dark forces at work in the world. Scully cannot see the monster, and so scarcely heeds Mulder’s paranoia. When Mulder has a body shipped up from Illinois, Scully tries to avoid performing a full autopsy. “Let’s start with the photos. In fact, let’s just do photos. External exam only.” The story builds to a point where Mulder is committed to a psychiatric hospital while Scully is unable to bring herself to believe what he believes.

Let's face it, it was probably always going to end like this...

Let’s face it, it was probably always going to end like this…

Interestingly, it seems like Folie à Deux is developing on the same ideas that Glen Morgan and James Wong were playing with when they wrote Never Again in the fourth season. Explaining their emphasis on the broken relationship between Mulder and Scully, Morgan suggested it might have formed a season-long arc. “I would have slowly split Mulder and Scully up over the course of the season, then in the last episode have Scully put Mulder away for his own good, which he would perceive as the ultimate betrayal.” It feels close enough to what happens here.

The arc never quite developed in the way that Morgan proposed. For all that Mulder and Scully seem to have grown apart over the course of the fifth season, it only really becomes a plot issue in The Pine Bluff Variant and Folie à Deux. Even the introduction of Diana Fowley in The End does little to create the sense of a permanent or long-term wedge. Mulder and Scully are firmly together in Fight the Future, and the long stretch of episodes at the start of the sixth season suggests that the fact Mulder and Scully both work on the X-files is not what holds them together.

Zombie! Zombie! Zombie-ee-ee!

Zombie! Zombie! Zombie-ee-ee!

That would ultimately seem to be the point of Folie à Deux. Mulder and Scully might not always see the same things in the same cases. They may not always agree on the details of what is happening. However, they do very much trust each other. Scully might be a rational woman of science with little time for bug monsters and undead zombies, but she can make a leap based on little more than Mulder’s conviction and three little marks at the base of a dead body’s neck. All of a sudden, those irreconcilable differences in Bad Blood don’t seem so important after all.

Gilligan himself has repeatedly suggested that Folie à Deux is underrated by fans. “I don’t really have a single favorite,” he confessed in a 2000 on-line chat with Fox. “For what it’s worth though, I can mention one that I was very proud of… That other people don’t usually consider one of my best and that was Folie à Deux. I had a lot of fun writing that one.” In a retrospective with X-Files Magazine in 2002, he singled Folie à Deux out as an episode “which I don’t think was as enjoyed by the fans as I would have hoped, but to this day is still one of my favorites.”

Circle of trust...

Circle of trust…

It is easy to see why Gilligan would be so fond of the episode. It is a very effective piece of television on its own terms, and a very effective example of the stuff that The X-Files does so well. As he explained himself, Folie à Deux plays on a variety of very basic and recognisable fears, making them perfect fodder for horror:

“This one uses the idea of making the mundane scary. Everyone knows what it’s like to be interrupted at dinner by an annoying call from a telemarketer. What if all this craziness is going on, that we don’t know about? What if a monster is running the telemarketing firm? The boss is a bug, but he’s this really nice guy when he’s in human form. He would probably not be a bad guy to work for. And also, there’s something really interesting and creepy about someone who speaks the truth or knows the truth, but is not believed by anyone. That’s what Mulder has always been,” VG concludes. “It’s a very basic idea, one that’s always good to go back to, because it’s the heart of the series. Mulder is the guy who sees what’s going on, and no one believes him.”

Much like Pusher, Folie à Deux uses a very simple story as a mirror and reflection of the way that Mulder looks at the world. Robert Modell mythologised himself like Mulder does; Gary sees monsters everywhere like Mulder does. Actors Roger Cross and Steve Bacic even appear in small law enforcement roles, linking the two episodes.

Gunning for the truth...

Gunning for the truth…

Gary Lambert is a lonely man who believes that he sees the way in which the world actually works. He has secret knowledge of a conspiracy against the people of the United States, orchestrated by those in power. Even his own employers are complicit in the scheme. The only thing that seems to anchor Gary is Nancy Aaronson, the friendly young woman who works in the cubicle next to him. She smiles and jokes with Gary, relieving his tension and helping to keep his anxiety grounded.

Gary Lambert is a very effective analogue to Fox Mulder, right down to answering his phone with a cheesy quip and in-joke. (“Smile and dial,” he taunts the hostage negotiators in deadpan, a private gag that nobody in the outside world would likely understand.) It is worth noting that Gary completely loses his grip on reality once Nancy is taken away from him. Once his cubicle-mate is transformed into an agent of the vast conspiracy, Gary is left alone in the world and forced to desperate measures. He sends the tape beforehand, but he arrives with the assault rifle after.

"Dial and smile!"

“Dial and smile!”

It is a very effective commentary on the relationship between Mulder and Scully. In hospital, Mulder refers to Scully as his “one in five billion.” She grounds him and anchors him. It is interesting to wonder what Mulder might have become without Scully to keep him honest and true. If Mulder had lost Scully during the events of Momento Mori, would he have become a ranting lunatic sending tape threats and waving a machine gun around? Would Skinner have completely lost track of Mulder? Would Mulder throw himself over the edge?

It is a fair question, one that is interesting to contemplate. Episodes like Christmas Carol and Emily have made it quite clear what Mulder has cost Scully. She has given up so much to be a part of this quest, and often feels sidelined or overlooked. As she pointed out in Never Again, she doesn’t even have her own desk. After Skinner assigns the case to the duo, Mulder goes on a little rant about how he is being victimised and ridiculed. Scully calls him out on it. “You’re saying ‘I’ a lot. I heard ‘we’.” Mulder seems to take Scully for granted.

Mulder could use a break...

Mulder could use a break…

Appropriately enough, given the title, Folie à Deux is a script that can be comfortably divided in half. Gilligan is a writer whose form definitely grew and improved over the course of his time on The X-Files. Many of his third and fourth season scripts could seem a little messy or cluttered, but his become a lot more structurally ambitious as the show pushed through into the fifth season and beyond. There is a sense that Gilligan has truly begun honing the sorts of skills that he would bring to bear on Breaking Bad.

As a companion piece to Bad Blood, the structure of Folie à Deux is quite intriguing. Bad Blood devoted two extended sections of the script to the same events, as seen by Mulder and Scully. There is something similar happening in Folie à Deux; the audience gets to see the idea of creeping insanity play out twice, once for Gary Lambert and once for Fox Mulder. Both Gary and Mulder are haunted by the same monster and the same visions. Both characters find themselves becoming more and more unhinged as nobody around them seems to see the truth.

Talking in circles...

Talking in circles…

It is interesting that both sections of the script make a point to separate Mulder and Scully, albeit in different ways. When Skinner first assigns the case to the duo, Mulder insists on investigating it alone. “There’s no reason both of us should go to Chicago. I’ll take care of it.” He assures her, “I’m monster boy, right?” Later, the dynamic is reversed. Mulder wants Scully to come with him to Illinois, but she refuses. “Mulder, I am not going to serve the delusions of Gary Lambert, a madman, by giving credence to them.” Mulder responds, “Then I’ll prove it without you.”

However, both halves of the story ultimately bring Mulder and Scully back together. In the first half, Scully offers Mulder support during the hostage crisis, insisting that the officers in charge should not expose him. The episode seems to suggest that Scully was correct, with Mulder almost taking Gary down single-handedly before his phone starts to ring. If that had happened, Mulder likely would never have seen the monster; he would have been fine. At the climax, Scully saves Mulder by essentially taking a massive leap of faith on his behalf.

Countin' shadows on the wall, that don't bother me at all...

Countin’ shadows on the wall, that don’t bother me at all…

The psychological condition alluded to in the title is real. “Folie à deux” is very rare, but it has been known to occur:

People suffering from schizophrenia, delusional disorder, or other psychotic disorders sometimes pass their symptoms along to those close to them. The medical literature on shared psychotic disorder consists almost exclusively of anecdotal cases with virtually no statistical data, but there are some patterns. Married couples and siblings are most likely to share psychoses, with sister pairs being more common than brother pairs. Ninety-five percent of cases occur within a nuclear family. The person with the root disorder, who usually experiences more severe symptoms, is often emotionally or financially dominant. The pair frequently lives in geographic, linguistic, or social isolation.

Perhaps it is not unusual that Mulder and Scully should come to share their delusions.

Things are looking up...

Things are looking up…

It is interesting to note that “folie à deux” is not a unique psychological condition. Such insanity does not need to be shared among two people. There have been reported cases of “folie à trois” or “folie à quatre.” There is even the recognised condition of “folie à famille”, where the insane beliefs have been shared among an entire family. Although the title Folie à Deux is implied to apply to both Mulder and Scully, it initially seems as though insanity has become contagious; that the delusions have transferred from Gary Lambert to Fox Mulder.

The fear of infectious insanity runs deep. Although Folie à Deux uses zombies in the “living dead” sense, zombies can also work well as an analogy for an infectious insanity. In Catch-22, Yossarian warns the chaplain, “Insanity is contagious.” The idea that paranoia and fear can ripple through a society from person-to-person is just as terrifying as the bacterial warfare at the heart of The Pine Bluff Variant. What if delusions and insanity could spread like the common cold, and all it took to lose one’s grip on reality was an infectious idea?

Matter of (tape) record...

Matter of (tape) record…

The X-Files has suggested on a number of occasions that evil is infectious and contagious. Bill Patterson was infected by John Mostow’s evil in Grotesque in the same way that Mulder seems to be infected by Gary’s insanity in Folie à Deux. The black oil was introduced in Piper Maru and Apocrypha as the physical embodiment of infectious evil, passing from person to person. The X-Files would address the idea of contagious evil rather directly in Empedocles, another episode about an office shooting.

That said, perhaps Folie à Deux overplays its hand slightly. Watching the episode, it seems quite clear that Mulder is not insane; that there really is a monster. The sequence where zombie!Nancy spies on Mulder before getting into the car with Pinkus feels like it exists simply to confirm that there is something going on here. Folie à Deux might have been a little stronger if it were willing to allow just a tiny bit more ambiguity about whether Mulder really is the only person who can see the monster – or if he simply had the misfortune of catching a contagious form of insanity.

"You really should get out more, Nancy."

“You really should get out more, Nancy.”

The first half of the episode builds to a hostage situation in an office environment. In some respects, this could be seen to build from the same anxieties about random violence that informed Blood early in the show’s second season. Certainly, it seemed like the nineties were populated with horrific accounts of workplace shootings – disgruntled employees (or ex-employees) rampaging through the office with guns. It was a very real and contemporary horror when Folie à Deux was broadcast.

Nathan Dunlap went on a rampage through Chuck E. Cheese in 1993, after he had been fired. In 1995, James Daniel Simpson shot five people and killed himself at a Walter Rossler plant in Texas. In 1996, Clifton McCree killed five people in Fort Lauderdale after before turning the weapon on himself. In 1997, Arturo Reyes Torres went on a shooting spree at Caltrans and Hastings Arthur Wise went on a rampage at the R. E. Phelon Company. In March 1998, two months before Folie à Deux aired, Matthew Beck killed four of his bosses at the Connecticut Lottery.

Cubicle warrior...

Cubicle warrior…

This is the context in which Folie à Deux aired, demonstrating just how keenly The X-Files was tuned into the zeitgeist. The image of Gary Lambert holding his fellow employees at gunpoint while rambling through paranoid delusions is a very powerful (and unsettling) basis for an episode. It grounds the horror of Folie à Deux in something altogether more mundane and realistic – if no easier to account for. It is very hard to understand why a person could murder their friends and colleagues in so ruthless a manner.

For all that Folie à Deux is the story of a soul-sucking insect creature that turns humans into zombie slaves, it is also a (very) darkly comic critique of corporate life. Gary claims that Mister Pinkus is a monster, “Only you can’t see that because he’s clouded all your minds but he means to take us all one by one – harvest our souls, make us into zombies, robots made out of meat.” It is a perfectly understandable fear, even in a world without giant soul-sucking insect monsters. Mister Pinkus is a really bleak metaphor for the more mechanical aspects of capitalism.

Talk about a job that sucks...

Talk about a job that sucks…

As Paul A. Cantor argues in Gilligan Unbound, Folie à Deux is probably the most blisteringly anti-capitalism episode of The X-Files since Hell Money. It is a script that touches on very real criticisms of current economic realities:

The episode is a transparent Marxist allegory, and as such one of the most left-wing in the history of The X-Files. In the person of the boss, it identifies capitalism as monstrous and portrays the process of alienation as it is defined by the young Marx and his followers, such as Gerg Lukacs. The boss is explicitly accused of “sucking the humanity” out of his workers. The rebellious worker tries to warns his colleagues and wants to go on television to alert the whole community to the problem. He accuses the boss of trying to turn his workers into “insects, not people – mindless drones.” In the ringing rhetoric of class conflict, the worker charges: “He wants to take away who we are, to control us.” In typical X-Files fashion, the episode manages to root its horror fantasy in the genuine realities of economic life.

Both Gary and Mulder seem to be infected with a criticism of contemporary capitalism. “Lambert knew your secret,” Mulder threatens Pinkus. “He knew you were sucking the humanity out of these people, feeding on them!”

Lift me up...

Lift me up…

Folie à Deux hits on these ideas quite well and quite thoroughly. After all, zombies have been associated with nightmarish versions of late-stage capitalism since at least Dawn of the Dead. In Monsters of the Market, David McNally referred to the victims of out-of-control capitalism as “those disfigured creatures, frequently depicted as zombies, who have been turned into mere bodies, unthinking and exploitable collections of flesh, blood, muscle and tissue.” In short, the ultimate in human resources. Or inhuman resources, perhaps.

It is telling that Scully first sees a zombie in her conversation with the nurse at the hospital, when confronted with the horrors of a massive and unfeeling bureaucracy. Scully has traveled a tremendous distance and just wants to tell Mulder that everything is okay. It is a visit that will undoubtedly do both Mulder and Scully a lot of good. However, it is also outside the strictly-defined visiting hours established by the hospital. “I’m sorry,” the nurse promises Scully. “Really. It’s hospital policy.” With that piece of dialogue, Scully immediately recognises the nurse as a zombie.

This is what happens when you work the graveyard shift.

This is what happens when you work the graveyard shift.

These shuffling and shambling creatures are the ultimate consumer; they have no independent thought or identity, and are drive by a single monstrous purpose. The use of the zombies in Folie à Deux is a very clever and very effective metaphor. It conveys a lot of information very quickly. After all, the critique of capitalism is mainly confined to the first half of the script. Once Folie à Deux boomerangs its attention back to Mulder, there is less room for this sort of commentary or critique. (Although it is still there, what with the nurse and all.)

If Folie à Deux builds on a subtle recurring theme of separation between Mulder and Scully running through the fifth season, it also manages to touch on something that has largely gone unspoken since Redux II. The first act makes a big deal out of Mulder’s disillusionment with his work, as he reacts with anger and bitterness towards Skinner’s decision to assign Mulder and Scully to this particular case. Mulder would normally react with interest to this idea, but he seems quite openly contemptuous of the assignment.

"Will you approave my expenses now, Mister Pinkus?"

“Will you approave my expenses now, Mister Pinkus?”

“I must’ve done something to piss him off,” Mulder remarks to Scully outside Skinner’s office. “To get stuck with this jerk-off assignment. Or have I finally reached that magic point in my career where every time somebody sees Bigfoot or the Virgin Mary on a tortilla I get called to offer my special insight on the matter?” It is a piece of dialogue that would not feel out of place in Patient X or The Red and the Black, acknowledging Mulder’s own uncertainties about his mission and his work.

The fifth season has hardly been consistent with this characterisation with Mulder over the course of the fifth season. There were hints of Mulder’s newfound skepticism to be found in The Post-Modern Prometheus and echoes of his public disillusionment reverberated into The Pine Bluff Variant, but it does not seem to have impacted his work in episodes like DetourSchizogeny, Chinga or Mind’s Eye. It seems a little strange that the only real hint of Mulder’s disillusionment comes one episode from the end of the fifth season.

"Don't cry for him. He's already dead. Inside. And now he's dead outside."

“Don’t cry for him. He’s already dead. Inside. And now he’s dead outside.”

More than that, though, there is a sense that Mulder should probably be less cynical at this point in the season. If Redux II had consciously reversed the dynamic between Mulder and Scully, Chris Carter designed The Red and the Black to help push them back towards their standard characterisation. Arguably, Mulder’s arc is not quite finished until he sees the space ship again in Fight the Future, but it does seem weird that Mulder should be more openly hostile to his work at the start of Folie à Deux than he did during any other stand-alone this season.

Of course, while Mulder’s skepticism does not fit entirely comfortably within the arc of the season, it does work rather well within the context of Folie à Deux itself. The episode flows a lot better if Mulder arrives in Illinois as a cynic convinced that he is dealing with a crackpot. It makes it a lot more compelling when he finally catches a glimpse of the monster just as the hostage rescue team comes sweeping into the office cafeteria. It would be much less of a sharp twist if Mulder arrived wanting to believe Gary.

Warding off evil...

Warding off evil…

Speaking of the monster, Folie à Deux presents the creature in an absolutely fascinating way. It is frequently presented as a blurred shape or a disjoint image. It moves like it is never consistent in focus, as if it cannot be caught by the human eye. Although this is a great (and very unsettling) effect, it was not intentional. According to Resist or Serve, the episode originally intended to feature the monster more heavily:

“I saw it the first day we were shooting the hostage scene,” reports Brian Markinson, who played the tormented  telemarketer Gary Lambert. “The monster walked on the set. It was a short woman wearing a bug suit. She had some kind of  breathing apparatus stuck in her throat. I thought, ‘This is what’s driving me crazy?’

“Then I looked up and I saw (director) Kim Manners. He had absolutely lost it. He just kept saying, “Oh, my God! My  career  – it’s over!'”

Whatever might have originally been intended, the finished effect works very well. The central tension of Folie à Deux is the question of whether Mulder has caught a contagious madness or whether he is simply seeing the true form of Mister Pinkus. As such, the decision to present the monster in such an ethereal fashion works very well. There is something decidedly unreal – almost stop-motion – about the effect, drawing attention to its artifice.

A triggering stressor...

A triggering stressor…

Folie à Deux is a superb – and underrated – little episode. It is the perfect stand-alone story to wrap up the fifth season and carry the show over into movie theatres.

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

2 Responses

  1. This is a very good and thorough review. It’s definitely one of my favorite episodes. I like these episodes that directly address belief and how it can affect out perception of reality. I like the idea of insanity contagion. In another context like the one of, say, “Kill Switch”, it could be very futuristic.

    I can see why one would think they perhaps overplayed it a bit if they wanted this to be an investigation of a purely psychological condition. But maybe it’s not so bad they played it like they did. In “Grotesque” insanity was induced by an obsessive compulsive type of empathy with a killer and a dependence upon it for a long stretch of time. John Mostows existence was never in question. In this episode the root cause is cast as incredible, but *not too* incredible. This reinforces the idea in the viewer that there has to be a villain somewhere. It invites the viewer to walk around in the same circles as Mulder and Gary. All roads lead back to Pinkus.

    The moment when Scully saw the marks on the deceased mans neck was great, that must’ve been the turning point for her. Remember when the coroner placed the time of death of one of the deceased hostages as much earlier? It caused me to wonder if that entire episode was Scullys delusion. But it seems odd that she should start to distort reality so drastically even after having had very little contact with any of the “infected”. Of course it could be discounted as coincidence and it seemingly is. It also seems to imply something about the company and Pinkus that isn’t really explored outside of Pinkus acting suspicious and creepy. After Gary died we also got very few of those second camera angle shots that had strongly helped us understand his state of sanity. I can’t remember getting any refutation from the camera regarding Pinkus’ not being a “monster” of some kind. We only get the unreliable narrator Mulders and later Scullys POV. I considered: Maybe he was a monster? Not in the metaphorical sense but more having to do with his being an agent of some nefarious corporation. This was surely an after effect of just having watched “The Pine Bluff Variant”. Eventually, this being an X-file and all, I started to share the folie a deux. This wouldn’t have been the case had Pinkus been cleared of all suspicion.

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