This is the end. I never thought I’d hear myself say those words after all these years. You put your life into something… build it, protect it… The end is as unimaginable as your own death or the death of your children. I could never have scripted the events that led us to this. None of us could. All the brilliant men… the secret that we kept so well. It happened simply, like this.
– the Cigarette-Smoking Man channels his inner Chris Carter
Two Fathers and One Son bring that big themes of the sixth season crashing together in a truly glorious cacophony. It is an ending that isn’t really an ending; an uneven and unsatisfying conclusion that sits awkwardly in the middle of the season. It is the end of everything and the end of nothing. On one hand, the two-parter wraps up a recurring plot that kicked into high gear at the end of the second season. On the other hand, it also conveniently resets the show to the classic status quo by returning Mulder and Scully to the basement after half-a-year away.
The result is an episode caught between two extremes. It is at once a bold ending for a story thread that had come to define discussions of The X-Files in popular culture and the rubber band snapping the show back into a familiar shape after a radical and experimental ten-episode stretch of the season. The two-parter is as messy and as awkward as that description would suggest, vacilating between dramatic extremes in the blink of an eye. The script bounces around without anything to truly tether it, with the two-parter struggling to identify even its focal characters.
Two Fathers and One Son were written to essentially resolve the show’s mythology. According to The End and the Beginning, the goal was to resolve issues left hanging from The X-Files: Fight the Future:
“I think if there was any trouble with the movie,” explains Chris Carter, “it was that we promised so much that we didn’t deliver all of it. I think we wanted to deliver at lot, and all at once, in these two episodes.”
“I think we ran into a problem,” says executive producer Frank Spotnitz, cowriter with Carter on the movie as well as on 6×11 and 6×12, “when they advertised the movie with the tagline ‘The Truth Is Revealed’. I didn’t object, but it crossed my mind then what a dangerous idea that was to say, because everybody’s idea of the truth is a different thing. To my mind, the movie delivered the truth about what was going on in the conspiracy. But it wasn’t the truth that a lot of other people were thinking the movie was going to reveal.”
This is a fair criticism of Fight the Future. Any fans expecting an actual resolution from the film were inevitably disappointed. At most, Fight the Future did make it clear that the franchise was focusing on Mulder and Scully.
By this point in the run of The X-Files, it was clear that the mythology had largely run its course. Carter had originally plotted the mythology for roughly five seasons, hoping to transition the franchise to the big screen after the show had produced enough episodes that Ten Thirteen and Fox could sell it into syndication. However, the show had become such a success that this was no longer a possibility. Fox wanted the best of both worlds from the franchise; they wanted films in theatres and a show on television.
As a result, Carter had to tweak and adjust a plan that was already quite hazy. The show had been stalling its central mythology since the start of the fourth season. Talitha Cumi had revealed that the aliens were plotting to colonise Earth with the assistance of the conspirators, explicitly spelling out something that had been implicit for quite some time. However, episodes like Herrenvolk, Tunguska and Terma felt like attempts to distract the audience with narrative sleight of hand and storytelling cul de sacs.
To be fair, the show could still produce an entertaining mythology episode. Episodes like Tempus Fugit, Max and Zero Sum are very exciting television; there is a lot to love about Gethsemane. At the same time, it seemed like the show had lost a lot of the momentum that had made the mythology so exciting. Redux I was essentially forty-five minutes of Mulder monologuing as he walked through grey corridors. Christmas Carol and Emily felt like ill-judged attempts to re-capture the popularity and success of Memento Mori.
The mythology of the fifth season was largely hampered by the fact that Fight the Future was already filmed before the season began. As a result, the show could feel like it was treading water – that it was heading towards a predetermined destination with a minimum amount of fuss. The biggest surprise in the fifth season was the way that Patient X and The Red and the Black suddenly energised the series. With the introduction of characters like Jeffrey Spender and the faceless rebels, it felt like the mythology was moving for the first time in over a year.
Of course, Patient X and The Red and the Black felt somewhat odd in the context of Fight the Future. The movie was already finished by the time that Carter and Spotnitz worked on the second two-parter of the fifth season. As a result, there was no mention of Jeffrey Spender or the faceless rebels in Fight the Future, no acknowledgement of the fairly significant events that had occurred. In hindsight, this makes a great deal of sense. Patient X and The Red and the Black were not building to Fight the Future; they were building to Two Fathers and One Son.
As such, the placement of both Fight the Future and the big Two Fathers/One Son two-parter is rather odd. Fight the Future is probably the biggest that the show would ever be – a massive blockbuster with gala premieres around the world, focusing incredible media attention on the series and everybody involved. It seems like that would be the perfect place to resolve something like this. The decision to defer the resolution of the mythology to the show itself makes a certain amount of sense, but it feels weird to do it in a two-parter in the middle of season.
Spotnitz argued that the incongruity was part of the appeal. Spotnitz. “We thought it would be great because no one expected us to do it [then],” he explained. He also explained the logic behind the decision to wrap up the show at this particular moment:
Our feeling was that the mythology was becoming an awful lot for people to continue to keep track of. And by definition every time you tell a new story you have to complicate [that mythology]; you can’t just keep repeating the same old information. As we sat down to the mythology episodes for February, [we felt that] we’d reached a critical mass. And so we [decided to] just bring it all to a head. Everybody in the syndicate is dead now except for Cigarette Smoking Man; that chapter is closed. But the consequences of what happened in Two Fathers/One Son certainly won’t be dropped; in fact, it’s the starting point now for the Cigarette Smoking Man’s actions in the coming season.
Even though we close the conspiracy, the events of the first six seasons will still reverberate through what happens in the final season of the show. I just think there is a lot less baggage that has to be carried now. You don’t need to keep track of all the complicated layers that had been involved in the conspiracy that we had destroyed.
Spotnitz certainly has a point. The mythology had been one of the defining features of The X-Files. It served to focus a lot of the chatter and discussion around the show. However, it had also grown bloated and over-stuffed. It was no longer buoying the show up; it seemed to weight the show down.
February Sweeps seemed to be the perfect place for an episode like this. Much like Triangle earlier in the season, Two Fathers and One Son received a flurry of media attention and publicity. “Five years of questions, two nights of answers,” Fox promised, announced a ten-night marathon of the show’s conspiracy episodes to promote the two-parter. Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz did a lot of publicity to raise awareness the episodes, with Carter even addressing the Television Critics Association Press Tour.
The effort paid off. Two Fathers and One Son were considered to be one of the success stories of the February Sweeps. Two Fathers earned an 11.5 Nielsen rating, a 16 share. It is estimated that over eleven million households (over eighteen million people) watched the episode. That makes Two Fathers the second-highest rated episode of the sixth season, just behind The Rain King. It is worth noting that no episode after this point would earn a higher viewing figure than Two Fathers. In a way, it really was the beginning of the end.
In the documentary The Truth About Season Six, Chris Carter acknowledged that “you can look at the show as pre-Two Fathers/One Son and post-Two Fathers/One Son.” The sixth season was very much a key season for The X-Files, full of contradiction and paradox. It was a season of change and transition. It was the very end of the show’s peak. It was the point at which it seemed like the future of The X-Files was more secure than ever, but that the series might also be closer to the end than to the beginning.
These contradictory themes were reflected in a lot of the scripts for the season. Time and change were recurring motifs across the sixth season, with the show clearly anxious about its growing comfort and the gravity that seemed to always pull the series back to a familiar status quo. There are no less than three stories hinging on time travel in the sixth season, more than there had been in the first five seasons put together. The sixth season found the show more willing to experiment, but also wryly aware that the status quo would reassert itself.
This paradox plays itself out in Two Fathers and One Son. As much as the episode is structured as an ending to a massive on-going story, it is located in the middle of the season for a show that already has at least another full season assured. As much as the two-parter is about clearing the board, it also puts Mulder and Scully right back to their default positions. As Spotnitz readily conceded, Two Fathers and One Son is not a real ending in any substantive sense. The First and Second Elder might be dead, but the Cigarette-Smoking Man and Krycek live on.
It is hard to read Two Fathers and One Son as a satisfactory conclusion to the mythology; particularly given that the episode so consciously and so carefully restricts its collateral damage to anonymous conspirators and guest stars who have been around for less than a year at this point. The First and Second Elders have been around since The Blessing Way, but the show has never even bothered to give them names or characters. They are simply old people who sit in fancy rooms and talk about abstract nouns like “colonisation” and “the project.”
It seems like Chris Carter cannot bring himself to properly close out any significant story threads. Just like S.R. 819 pulled back on killing off Skinner, Two Fathers and One Son refuses to kill off characters like the Cigarette-Smoking Man or Krycek. Even Jeffrey Spender’s “death” is eventually reversed in William. Carter was already downplaying the idea of Two Fathers and One Son as an ending before the episode even aired:
“There’s going to be a lot of stuff explained – you’re going to understand this conspiracy after the end of the two-parter,” Carter said Saturday at the Television Critics Association Press Tour. And then, of course, the teaser: “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything’s wrapped up and finished.”
It is hard to figure out exactly what Two Fathers and One Son accomplished. “The rebels are going to win,” Krycek warns Spender towards the end of One Son, but the episode is decidedly nebulous. Are the rebels winning the battle over the colonisation of Earth? Are they winning the larger war? Does the death of the conspirators at the climax of One Son mean the end of the conspiracy, or a minor interruption?
Two Fathers and One Son never commits to anything decisively. The episode seems to imply that this is the end of the conspiracy as an organisation and of colonisation as an objective, but it never quite confirms this. As a result, the same characters and themes only fade into the background until the season-ending cliffhanger requires the reemergence of the conspirators. The Cigarette-Smoking Man returns in Biogenesis, while Mulder is haunted by visions of colonisation in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati.
Eventually it seems like these elements reassert themselves within the context of The X-Files narrative. The show has not shed its mythology, it has just shed some of the superficial trappings. The Cigarette-Smoking Man is clearly still working in some official capacity when he takes Scully on a road trip in En Ami. The eighth and ninth seasons suggest that the colonists haven’t missed a beat. The date of colonisation revealed in The Truth is close enough to the date alluded to in The Red and the Black.
If anything, it appears that Two Fathers and One Son taught the colonists that they probably shouldn’t rely on corrupt conspirators to help them plot the extinction of mankind; in later seasons, the colonists seem to conduct most of their business through “supersoldiers.” This change in emphasis arguably makes a lot more sense from an internal perspective, but it is much less dramatically satisfying. The idea of ambiguous conversations in shadowy rooms might have been a cliché at this point in the show’s run, but it gave the conspiracy a very human element.
There is a sense that Two Fathers and One Son are reluctant to commit to their big scary ideas. Carter and Spotnitz keep their hand hovering over the big red button as the two-parter barrels along, but they refuse to push it. The show creates a sense of impending and building doom as the episodes continue, but it never seems to go anywhere. As One Son builds towards its climax, it becomes more and more likely that the conspirators are ready to summon the apocalypse and begin colonisation. It really seems like the show is racing desperately against time.
Krycek tells Spender that the conspirators are already on their way to El Rico Air Base. “They’ll be transported by the colonists and begin medical preparations to receive the hybrid genes,” he explains. As Mulder and Scully get in the car with Skinner to intercept the conspirators, there is a palpable anxiety that time is running out. “We don’t have much time,” Mulder insists. “If somebody overheard us, it might create mass panic.” This is the end, it seems. It really feels like all the conspirators have to do is to send a “communication” and the end of the world can begin.
There is a sense that it would be really gutsy to let the conspirators send that communication, to push the button and watch five-and-a-half seasons of storytelling finally pay off. Two Fathers and One Son could be truly striking pieces of television if Mulder and Scully were finally and truly confronted with the terrible beauty of the doomsday that had been lurking in the shadows for half a century. It would be an amazing conclusion of Mulder’s arc, to see him receive the proof he had sought for so long in the most horrific manner possible.
Instead, Two Fathers and One Son hesitate. It is interesting to compare and contrast Two Fathers and One Son to The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now, the two-part second season finalé of Millennium. With the release of Fight the Future pending, Carter had left the second season of Millennium in the hands of Glen Morgan and James Wong. Over the course of the second season, it became clear that the show was building towards a fairly massive climax. The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now features the unleashing of a biblical apocalypse.
In theory, the scale of Two Fathers and One Son should be similar. Both episodes are about the arrival of armageddon, watching the final seconds count down on the doomsday clock. A number of superficial similarities only reinforce the comparison. At the start of The Fourth Horseman, Frank Black and Peter Watts are put into quarantine as the Marberg Virus is identified. At the start of One Son, Mulder and Scully are taken into custody by the CDC as a smokescreen to separate them from Cassandra Spender.
There is considerable thematic overlap between the mythology that Morgan and Wong developed on the second season of Millennium and the conspiracy storyline on The X-Files. Both Two Fathers/One Son and The Fourth Horseman/The Time is Now feature ruminations on “responsibility” by a chosen few. The Cigarette-Smoking Man’s extended monologues stop just short of the rhetoric employed by Mister Lott in The Time is Now, but the subtext remains the same. This is a story about powerful men trying to advance their own interests as the world dies.
The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now commit to their apocalypse. Although filmed on a much smaller budget, the second season finalé of Millennium gives the impression of a civilisation on the cusp of collapse. In contrast, Two Fathers and One Son never quite invest the same effort in this end of the world. It never feels like the show would allow the conspirators to hand over Cassandra Spender and signal the beginning of the end. It feels like that would be a decision that would “break” the show; a creative gambit from which recovery would be impossible.
(To be fair to the writing staff, this makes a certain amount of sense. Millennium never quite recovered from the impact of The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now, which is essentially a series finalé sitting right in the middle of the show’s run. Given the problems hounding the third season of Millennium, it makes sense that Carter and Spotnitz would be reluctant to take such a massive risk with the more popular and iconic television show. Of course, The X-Files was a more stable show than Millennium, and so would have been better positioned to take the gamble.)
As a result, Two Fathers and One Son feels astonishingly non-committal. Nothing happens here that is irreversible. There is very little that cannot be undone with a line of dialogue or a reference there. This is very much about “the illusion of change”, to reference a likely-apocryphal quote from Stan Lee. The two named characters who are killed off in Two Fathers and One Son – Cassandra and Jeffrey Spender – have only been fleeting and under-developed presences in the year since they joined the recurring cast.
There are other more mechanical problems with the story. On the commentary for One Son, Frank Spotnitz concedes that the two-parter is a troubled episode in many respects:
Part of the problem with an episode like this and why I say at the outset that this is not one of the most dramatically successful episodes in the mythology is that it’s answering questions and it’s answering a whole lot of questions in a very short period of time, and it’s a lot to follow, and it’s just not as much fun and it’s not as interesting to answer questions as it is to ask them. But this is one of the big storylines that it’s important to understand in order to make sense of the X-Files mythology and really this chapter that’s coming to a close here is the biggest chapter we had time to explore in the nine years we were on the air.
Spotnitz makes a fair point. Asking questions is exciting, because it broadens the scope of the story. It makes it seem like anything is possible. In contrast, answering questions tends to limit or hedge in the story. It is less exciting.
Two Fathers and One Son is a mess from a scripting perspective. The episode absolutely has to cram five years of continuity into ninety minutes of television. Carter and Spotnitz draw from the length and breadth of the mythology so as to better convince the audience that it must all fit together somehow. Cassandra confirms that the “purity” referenced in The Erlenmeyer Flask is another name for the black oil. The alien foetus stolen by Scully in The Erlenmeyer Flask is suddenly of vital importance again, reinforcing the sense of history at work here.
There are lots of other references. The opening scene of Two Fathers takes place on board one of the train carriages that were featured in Nisei and 731. Scully references the burnt bodies from Patient X and The Red and the Black. The branding of the “Rousch” company featured in The Beginning reappears, possibly a nod to television critic Matt Rousch. Scully even ties it all back into her abduction in Duane Barry and Ascension, asking Mulder, “What if what she tells us could expose who did this to me?”
The two-parter does a decent job of tying all these random elements together. Of course, this all requires a very selective reading of the mythology. “A state of emergency will be declared because of a massive outbreak of the alien virus delivered by bees,” the Cigarette-Smoking Man explains, tying in the bees featured in Herrenvolk, Zero Sum and Fight the Future. However, making this connection explicit invites the audience to wonder why the bees in Herrenvolk and Zero Sum were carrying smallpox.
There are points where Two Fathers and One Son have to acknowledge how convoluted the mythology has become. When Mulder discovers Marita Covarrubias in One Son, he is shocked to discover that she has been a guinea pig in a government experiment – just not the same government experiment as Cassandra Spender. (Mulder even asks, “Like the tests on Cassandra Spender?”) It is not an absurd complication to the plot, but it does demonstrate how things could become so messed up and muddled – purposes and counter-purposes.
Two Fathers and One Son desperately try to avoid drawing attention to the pieces of the puzzle that just don’t fit. If the conspirators are collaborating, why were they killing any aliens who crashed on Earth in episodes like E.B.E. and Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man? How come the black oil seems to change its behaviour between every appearance? How do Colony and End Game fit into things? These rough edges can be smoothed over with some speculation (“something something something rebels something something something lies”), but it is clear that it is impossible to resolve everything.
In a way, it feels like Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz might sympathise with the mysterious cabal conspiring against humanity. The conspirators spent fifty years building this mystery up, only to watch it come down in the space of a few hours. Carter must have felt the same way, having invested so much energy and time in developing this mythology only to try and provide closure in the very limit space provided. There is a sense that – like the conspirators – Carter has created something that might be too big to resolve tidily.
The bulk of Two Fathers is framed as a monologue from the Cigarette-Smoking Man to Diana Fowley. Some of the dialogue is offered in a knowing and winking fashion. It is the Cigarette-Smoking Man who acknowledges Two Fathers and One Son is really “the end” of something into which he put his life. The Cigarette-Smoking Man’s admission that he could never have scripted the events leading to this point feels like a nice piece of self-deprecation from Carter and Spotnitz.
This is obviously a big and emotional moment for Carter. In episodes like The Post-Modern Prometheus, it seemed like Carter considered The X-Files to be a child – something that he had created, and something that had grown right before his eyes. There is an understandable reluctance to simply tidy all of that away so casually. As Doctor Openshaw confesses to the Cigarette-Smoking Man, “A man should never live long enough to see his children… or his work destroyed.” It feels like the show is sorry to have to wrap all this up.
Unfortunately, not all of Two Fathers and One Son is so knowing. As much as the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s narration provides a nice opportunity for introspection and reflection, it can be rather laboured and awkward. Carter’s monologues can easily become indulgent and unnecessary, conveying information that the actors or the dialogue should be able to provide. Carter’s monologues can seem oppressive or heavy-handed, even feeling like bad storytelling.
As much as the Cigarette-Smoking Man provides context and commentary, he also spends a significant amount of time explaining stuff that just happened on camera. He explains, “My colleagues had become old men blind to the fact that the faceless rebels already held the upper hand… that they’d used their powers of disguise to infiltrate our group.” It is a completely superfluous piece of dialogue; anybody paying attention to what is happening on screen should be aware of what has happened.
The two-parter finds itself bouncing between two extremes. On the one hand, there is Chris Carter’s trademark ambiguity and mystery. Even as more details of “the project” come to the fore, characters keep talking in riddles and abstract nouns. “I had prepared a syringe for her as agreed,” Doctor Openshaw remarks of Cassandra. “But the rebels came.” The Cigarette-Smoking Man responds, “They saved her to expose us.” Openshaw agrees, “She’s the key to everything.” It is painfully abstract.
At the same time, it quickly becomes clear why the show tends to discuss its conspiracy in such ambiguous terms. As various characters clearly articulate what is happening, it becomes harder and harder to take any of it seriously. “What are they here for?” Mulder asks Cassandra. For once, he gets a straight answer. “To wipe us off the planet,” she explains. “They’re taking over the universe. They’re infecting all other life-forms with a black substance called Purity. It’s their life force. It’s what they’re made of.”
That is a very succinct summary of the mythology, but it also sounds like dialogue lifted from a B-movie. One of the defining features of The X-Files was the way that the show tended to treat even the goofiest plot elements with dignity and weight. Both Frank Spotnitz and Chris Carter have talked at length about how hard the show worked to avoid being classified as “sci-fi”, crediting that approach with the show’s mainstream success. As with Dreamland I and Dreamland II, it is strange to see Two Fathers and One Son so candidly embrace sci-fi dialogue.
There is a sense that Two Fathers and One Son are caught between a rock and a hard place. The polished ambiguous dialogue that provides incredible weight to everyday nouns has become so familiar that is almost a recurring joke; imagine what conversation at the conspirators’ Christmas party must be like. (“You brought The Gift. Nobody must know. The Karaoke must proceed as planned.”) However, actually articulating the plot points of the mythology in simple English sounds completely ridiculous and almost comical after so many years of stoic minimalism.
Two Fathers and One Son emphasise this problem by having characters awkwardly transition from one style to another. Conversations will begin with the use of abstract nouns and ominous vagaries, but then clumsily shift to blunt exposition. Consider this exchange between Krycek and Spender in Two Fathers:
It’s shocking at first. The acceptance of the idea, it’s… It’s something you thought only children and fools believed in. It undermines your beliefs– in yourself, in the world… but then you come to understand.
Well, the responsibility that this knowledge demands but the men who have it. The great sacrifice by great men like your father.
The sacrifice of your mother.
What do you know about that?
Just that she’s… been the subject of an experiment for 25 years.
Nicholas Lea does great work with admittedly corny dialogue. Over the course of the two-parter, it feels like Krycek isn’t sure what to make of Spender; it is as if he has to teach himself to use proper English once again instead of relying on ambiguity and mystery. (It also seems like Krycek might suspect that Spender is a little slow.)
Two Fathers and One Son is a mess. Part of this is down to the fact that it is unwilling to make any truly bold moves in resolving the show’s long-running mythology, instead working hard to leave just about every door open for a return or resurrection. However, part of this is simply down to the fact that the show has been running for more than five years at this point, without a clear blueprint in place. Trying to make sense of all those little threads and connections was always going to be difficult.
It is arguably a miracle that the two-parter works at all, let alone that it winds up making a certain amount of sense and connecting back thematically to the heart of the series. It is hard to argue that Two Fathers and One Son is a highlight of the show’s run, but it is a qualified success. It works just enough. The show stops just short of committing to a satisfying finalé, but Two Fathers and One Son is arguably a more fulfilling resolution to The X-Files than The Truth would ever be.
The sixth season can really be seen as the beginning of the end for The X-Files. It is the year that say the ratings begin to slump as tensions behind the scenes continued to mount. The sixth season was the first season of The X-Files to begin closer to the end of the show’s run than the beginning. In that respect, Two Fathers and One Son serves to signal the beginning of that end. It is the show’s first real attempt at providing a measure of closure to the stories it began telling half-a-decade earlier.
Two Fathers and One Son is not the worst attempt at closure that The X-Files would ever make. In fact, it is not bad for a first attempt.
Filed under: The X-Files Tagged: | cgb spender, children, chris carter, conclusions, conspiracie, endings, fathers, files, frank spotnitz, mythology, one son, parents, resolution, sons, spender, Television, the x-files, two fathers, x-files