Two Fathers and One Son are a mixed bag.
They are very messy and convoluted episodes of television, attempting to resolve a long-running plot without committing to a resolution. They swing wildly between clichéd ambiguity and b-movie exposition. They strain to stitch together half-a-decade of storytelling into a ninety-minute finalé, while trying to avoid drawing attention to any of the countless elements that might contradict or undermine the story that they are telling. They are both ambitious and efficient, energised and noncommittal.
At the same time, Two Fathers and One Son make a valiant effort to bring the vast sprawling global conspiracy down to a more manageable level. Over the years, the conspiracy has evolved from a few alien abductions to a vast plot against the majority of mankind. Although they doesn’t always succeed, Two Fathers and One Son try to ground this crazy story about faceless rebels and looming colonisation in the trauma of a single family unit. The fate of mankind plays out against the backdrop of a family collapsing under its own weight.
While it doesn’t work as well as it might, it does help to draw attention to the larger themes that have played out across The X-Files as they relate to power and control, legacy and guilty, abuse and exploitation. It seems appropriate that Two Fathers and One Son should push these ideas to the fore as it attempts to close off the show’s long-running conspiracy thread, reminding viewers of what it was actually talking about.
In many ways, The X-Files is a story about fathers. Both Mulder and Scully are looking for father figures, albeit in very different ways. Scully finds herself drawn to more human and tragic father figures, like Jack Willis in Lazarus or Clyde Bruckman in Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose or Alfred Fellig in Tithonus. Scully’s father figures tend to end in deeply personal tragedies, quietly fading from the world. Scully’s father figures tend to pop up in the show’s “monster of the week” episodes.
In contrast, Mulder tends to mythologise his father figures. After all, The X-Files has repeatedly threatened to send Mulder on a traditional hero’s journey, tying his family into a vast conspiracy perpetrated against the people of the world by sinister forces beyond their control. Fox Mulder’s strained relationship with his father is not just a strained father and son dynamic, it is the culmination of a larger generational conflict. Bill Mulder did not just betray Fox and Samantha, he betrayed the entire planet.
Mulder has found himself wrestling with father figures over the course of the mythology. Deep Throat was the first and most obvious example, the distant father figure who tried to support Mulder’s work from afar. Recalling a family separated by divorce, the two mused in E.B.E. about how difficult it would be to attend a baseball game together. On his death bed in The Blessing Way, Mulder finds himself visited by both Deep Throat and William Mulder. When Mulder imagines paradise in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati, Deep Throat is present in the place of his father.
Deep Throat is not the only father figure haunting the mythology. Since Talitha Cumi, the show has repeatedly implied that the Cigarette-Smoking Man might be the biological father of either Fox or Samantha Mulder. (Or both.) A stock comparison for the character has always been “Darth Vader.” Although One Son has the Cigarette-Smoking Man explicitly identify Mulder as “Bill Mulder’s son”, some ambiguity lingers. William seems to suggest that Fox Mulder and Jeffrey Spender are half-brothers. Even members of the production team remain divided on the subject.
As such, it makes sense to wrap up the mythology of The X-Files on a story that is so concerned with fathers that the combined title implies that that Mulder is caught between two fathers – between the conscientious (but compromised) William Mulder and the collaborating (and unapologetic) Cigarette Smoking Man. In the end, it seems that the mythology comes down to a choice between those two father figures for Mulder. “Expose anything and you only expose your father,” the Cigarette-Smoking Man observed in Anasazi. Perhaps he was more right than he knew.
One of the more interesting (and perhaps controversial) elements of the two-parter is the way that it consciously and repeatedly sidelines Mulder and Scully. The script goes out of its way to keep the pair out of the primary plot for the longest possible time. In Two Fathers, Mulder ignores Spender’s request for assistance with his mother. When Scully finally convinces him to act, the duo are quickly caught breaking into Spender’s basement office and are placed on “administrative leave” while the plot unfolds around them.
Even in One Son, Mulder and Scully are largely passive participants. Cassandra begs Mulder to kill her, but Fowley arrives before he can act. Mulder and Scully are then promptly quarantined by the Centre for Disease Control as colonisation continues apace. When the two are finally released, Scully finds herself relegated to digging up dirt about Fowley as Mulder skulks around his former partner’s apartment so the Cigarette-Smoking Man can show up and deliver a lot of exposition to him.
In short, Mulder and Scully have no real impact on the events of Two Fathers and One Son. They try (and fail) to stop Cassandra’s train before hopping in a car with Skinner to race towards El Rico Air Force Base. We never even see Mulder and Scully reach El Rico Air Force Base, but it is quite clear that they arrived too late. The episode cuts to Mulder and Scully (and Spender) reviewing the discovery of the burnt corpses of the conspirators and their family. It seems safe to say that Mulder and Scully had no significant impact in how Two Fathers and One Son played out at all.
On a purely dramatic level, this is highly frustrating. Mulder and Scully are the heroes of the show; it is Mulder’s pursuit of the truth that has powered the show to this point. In writing Two Fathers and One Son so that Mulder and Scully never encounter an alien or confront the conspirators, it feels like Carter and Spotnitz missed a fairly significant plot beat. After all, the first half of the sixth season is dedicated to the idea that Mulder and Scully are the real focus of the show and the X-files are just window dressing. So doing this without them feels weird.
To be fair, there is a certain perspective whereby this decision to sideline Mulder and Scully makes sense, and not just as a way of decluttering the board so that Two Fathers and One Son can focus on the conspirators. The X-Files is often a show about how the powerful prey on the weak, about the tendency of authority to abuse its power and the difficulty in bringing any of those people to account. This was particularly true in the show’s earliest seasons, where it really felt like Mulder and Scully were struggling against impossible odds.
In that context, it would make sense that the conspirators had to answer to a higher power. There were no avenues of justice open to Mulder and Scully that could hold these men to account for their crimes. If The X-Files were still the same show that it had been in its first season, there would be something appropriate about the conspirators being burnt in a scene evoking their original capitulation and collaboration with the colonists all those years ago. However, the show has changed quite a bit in the intervening years.
In those early episodes, it often seemed like a major accomplishment if Mulder and Scully were even allowed to bear witness to horrific atrocities, let alone resist them. However, the show has changed since then. Episodes like Anasazi made Mulder a central figure of the conspiracy, the son of a conspirator who seemed poised to inherit the sins of his father. The late second season made Mulder and Scully much more active participants in the mythology. Scully’s abduction made her a victim of it; Mulder’s father made him an heir to it.
This all makes their passivity in Two Fathers and One Son frustrating, even if there might be something approaching to a thematic point to it. The only thing thing that Mulder really does over the course of Two Fathers and One Son is to consider the offer made by the Cigarette-Smoking Man. More than that, it seems like Mulder accepts the offer to join the conspirators and embrace salvation, leaving the rest of the world to die as colonisation begins. It is a very strange dramatic beat, if only because One Son never puts the emphasis on it that it really should.
“The Cigarette-Smoking Man came looking for his son who has now taken up the futile cause that used to be mine, against his father,” Mulder confesses to Fowley. “Because there’s nothing to be done. And at some point, you just have to accept that the only way those you love are going to survive is if you give up.” It seems like Mulder has given up. He hands her a piece of paper directing them to El Rico Air Force Base. “That’s where it all begins. That’s where we need to be if we want to survive it.”
In that fateful moment, as it looks like the world is coming to an end, Mulder seems to accept his inheritance. He seems to embrace his role as a crown prince in a conspiracy that has destroyed hundreds (if not thousands) of lives and doomed mankind. Taking Fowley with him, he begins to gather his family. When Scully tells him that she is on her way to pick him up, Mulder presumes to make her decision for her. “We’re coming to get you. You’re coming with us.” It is not an offer or a proposal, but a statement.
It is not a sequence that reflects particularly well on Mulder. In a way, Mulder makes the same mistakes and errors that his father did all those years ago. He presumes to speak for Scully, to make a terrible choice on her behalf. He refuses to grant Scully the freedom to make her own decision, to spend the same time weighing her options as he did. Mulder denies Scully’s agency. Mulder knows best, and he speaks with the authority of somebody who feels they hold the right to make unspeakable decisions in the name of a greater good that aligns with their own.
It is a sequence that is hard to reconcile with Mulder’s empathy and sympathy; episodes like Oubliette and Mind’s Eye emphasised that Mulder was a character who had a great deal of compassion. In the heat of One Son, the compassion seems to evaporate. However, the decision that Mulder makes here is not entirely out of character in the context of the mythology. In You Only Expose Your Father, Elizabeth Kubrick argues that Mulder has already compromised himself:
Even Fox Mulder is implicated in the exchange of women: he has risked Scully’s life in order to find truth (One Breath) and chosen to trade the false Samantha for Scully in End Game, a trade that despite his doubts about the clone’s identity plainly fills him with guilt. Seen in the light of Paper Clip, Bill Mulder’s rage at his son in End Game is marked as an identification: Fox has repeated his father’s crime. In Paper Clip, the Well-Manicured Man, after reporting Bill Mulder’s use of Samantha as “insurance”, tells Fox Mulder that “you have become your father” – perhaps not only in his unwillingness to remain silent but also in risking the lives of others.
This is a rather cynical theme, even for The X-Files. It suggests that perhaps even Mulder can find himself compromised. After all, the choice implicit in Two Fathers and One Son is the choice between Bill Mulder and C.G.B. Spender. This is not a binary choice between “good” and “evil.” Bill Mulder might have hesitated to involve himself in colonisation, but he chose to ally himself with the conspirators when the chips were down.
The Cigarette-Smoking Man might acknowledge and recognise that Fox Mulder is “Bill Mulder’s son” at the end of the episode, but that is hardly the most ringing of endorsements. Bill Mulder turned over his daughter to the colonists in order to increase the odds of his survival. He might have hesitated, but he relented. He kept the secret for over two decades. He alternated between actively and passively complicit in a conspiracy against mankind. Bill Mulder is not a hero, and Mulder’s identification with him is not a validation.
Two Fathers and One Son seems relentlessly critical of all its male characters. While Fox Mulder allows himself to become complicit in the conspiracy as the deadline approaches, Spender finds himself resisting. However, Spender’s motivations are no more altruistic than those which seem to guide Mulder. Spender is not motivated by greater good of humanity; he is trying to save his mother. His sympathy cannot even extend to Marita Covarrubias, a woman who was subject to the experimentation by the same men who conducted the procedures on his mother.
Spender can barely acknowledge Marita, let alone bring himself to help her. “Please stay away from me. I can’t help you.” Spender eventually does decide to help Marita, but only once she reveals that she has information he can use. Spender’s compassion for a woman subjected to horrific experimentation extends no further than his own needs. In a way, both Spender and Mulder prove themselves children of the conspiracy. Mulder is willing to sacrifice humanity and make Scully’s decisions for her; Spender’s empathy does not extend beyond his own family.
It makes sense that Scully would be the only truly heroic character in the whole narrative. When Mulder insists on taking her to El Rico Air Force Base so that they can sit out the apocalypse, Scully refuses to give up. She refuses to accept that the end has been scheduled. She commits to the hope that it can all be averted. And she refuses to let Mulder speak for her. “Scully, it’s no use,” Mulder protests. Scully refuses to be swayed. “Mulder, I’m going there whether you’re coming or not.”
Although episodes like Christmas Carol and Emily might muddy the water significantly, there have been strong feminist undercurrents to the mythology since the late second season. A major recurring theme of the mythology is the exploitation and manipulation of women’s bodies by male authorities without their consent. Cassandra Spender is just the latest in a long line of female victims of the conspiracy. Over the first six seasons of the show, Marita was the only woman to visit in the conspirators’ secret New York gentlemen’s club.
The mythology’s focus on “hybrids” reinforces a feminist reading of the show, suggesting that The X-Files is about male authority figures trying to control women’s reproductive choices. To be entirely honest, this is a theme that can get a bit muddled over the show’s run – particularly in the sequence from The Post-Modern Prometheus through to Emily in the early fifth season. Still, it feels like Two Fathers and One Son does try to bring the mythology back to that idea, suggesting even Mulder and Spender are somewhat complicit.
It has been argued that The X-Files can be read as a postmodernist deconstruction of “traditional” family values. After all, the show aired against the backdrop of the nineties; it was at a point where America was caught up in its own “culture wars” as long-held assumptions were challenged and critiqued. The idea of the white nuclear heterosexual family as the building block of contemporary society was being evaluated and examined. The perception of the American family was changing; the depiction of the American family was changing.
In 1992, Republican Vice President Dan Quayle argued that the increasing depiction of single working parents in popular culture (specifically Murphy Brown) was undermining the American family. In 1996, Friends had depicted the first gay marriage on prime-time American television with The One With the Lesbian Wedding in 1996. In the late nineties, shows like Ellen and Will & Grace had continued to challenge the idea of the traditional family as the cornerstone of contemporary society.
The X-Files was perhaps a bit more subtle in its critique, but even the titles of Two Fathers and One Son draw attention to the criticisms buried within the episode. As Elyce Rae Helford argues in Scully Hits the Glass Ceiling, this criticism was a recurring motif:
Anderson may have been joking in 1994 when she claimed to have become an unsexy yet hypersexualised “reproduction symbol.” The alienation and subversion of the patriarchal family that runs as a motif through The X-Files has produced similar repercussions. According to Halberstam and Livingston, posthuman “[e]xtrafamiliar desire exposes the family as a magic trick pulled by science and sustained by social science. Mommy and daddy are not sexy, and the Freudian family sitcom isn’t funny anymore.” Mulder and Scully’s extrafamiliar desire, standing for where we live now, together with that exhibited by the fringe groups with which they are linked, have provided posthuman alternatives to the nuclear family structure. Certainly, the family has been radically undermined – most notably in the case of the Mulders. The incestuous Peacocks and the Cigarette-Smoking Man stand in for the biological family boiled down to essential impulses – matriarchal self-sacrifice, on the one hand, and patriarchal fascism, on the other – with “purity control” the goal.
In a way, then, this is the perfect time for Two Fathers and One Son. The first half of the sixth season teased viewers with the idea of a more conventional and traditional romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully. This is the perfect point to reassert their unconventional and untraditional dynamic.
Two Fathers and One Son work hard to keep Mulder and Scully sidelined for most of the action. The execution is somewhat awkward, as the plot has to keep jumping back to sequences of Mulder and Scully doing little of importance; it would probably have been easy just to write it as a “Mulder and Scully lite” episode with Mulder and Scully finding the burnt bodies at the end, remaining fleetingly aware of what actually happened. However, while the way that the story sidelines Mulder and Scully is clumsy, the result is fascinating.
In many ways, Two Fathers and One Son play as a “day in the life” story for the conspirators who have been lurking in the shadows for most of the show’s run. Through the eyes of Jeffrey Spender, the show peels back the curtain to give an idea of what it must be like to work on something this massive and this important and this earth-shattering. As if to demonstrate how novel this is, Two Fathers and One Son offer a rare story where Krycek doesn’t seem particularly ambiguous or sinister. He is just a guy doing a job, having perhaps the most human of reactions to everything.
To Mulder and Scully, Krycek is the ultimate survivor – a traitorous rat who will do anything to keep breathing. Two Fathers and One Son present Krycek as a competent middle-manager. He presents the video footage to the conspirators, presumably because he is the only person in the room young enough to work a VCR. He shadows Jeffrey Spender so as to assist him in the assassination of the rebel posing as the Second Elder. He is quite friendly to the new recruit. When Krycek freaks out at the climax of One Son, it feels like an honest reaction to the enormity of events.
Indeed, it is possible that Krycek is too human in Two Fathers and One Son. It is Krycek who clues Jeffrey Spender into the plans for Cassandra. For possibly the only time in the history of the show, the conspiracy is undermined because Krycek provided somebody with too much information. Still, Two Fathers and One Son provides a nice sense of just what it must be like to help keeping this machine in perpetual motion – to get a sense of what life might be like inside the cabal that the show has generally filtered through shadows and mysteries.
Even the Cigarette-Smoking Man seems more human than he has been since Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man. There is no doubt that the Cigarette-Smoking Man has done truly horrible things in pursuit of his own survival, but there is something quite heartbreaking about the character’s central dilemma in Two Fathers and One Son. In the same two-parter where Mulder and Scully discover his name – well, a name – the Cigarette-Smoking Man finds himself reunited with his wife and trying to forge a relationship with his son.
The climax of One Son finds the Cigarette-Smoking Man repeating the same mistake that the conspirators have made time and time again, allowing his selfishness to doom mankind. In their original deal with the colonists, the conspirators bought time and hope for themselves at the expense of the rest of humanity, even if some hoped to continue work on a vaccine. At the end, the Cigarette-Smoking Man cannot bring himself to kill Cassandra, even with the knowledge that his decision dooms mankind and even as she begs him to end her life.
“I can’t do it to you,” the Cigarette-Smoking Man admits, robbing Cassandra of the last piece of agency that she has left. “I can’t.” The Cigarette-Smoking Man’s refusal to kill Cassandra allows the rebels to discover of her existence, forcing the conspirators to decide to reveal her presence to the colonists. It is that stubborn refusal to consider anything beyond his own wishes that originally doomed mankind and which threatens to doom mankind once again. There is a hubris inherent in the conspiracy that brings it all toppling down in a way that feels oddly appropriate.
This human element would be sorely missing from the resurrected conspiracy in the eighth and ninth seasons. As easy as it is to joke that Toothpick Man was just a politically-correct update of the Cigarette-Smoking Man, the grand mythology of the final seasons never managed the quirky intimacy and humanity that defined a lot of the best mythology stories of the first seven seasons. The eighth season had the search for Mulder to provide a human dimension, but the ninth season was not so lucky.
Perhaps that is why – for all its flaws – Two Fathers and One Son works better as a “final” mythology episode than The Truth. Both episodes stubbornly refuse to actually resolve any of their plot points, but Two Fathers and One Son offer a much more Shakespearean tragedy. Even as the plotting gets a little out of control and the dialogue grows increasingly wonky, there is enough gravity and humanity to hold the centre together. In contrast, The Truth plays out as an over-long clip show where Mulder has figured out how to encode flashback video files into his powerpoint.
Still, there are problems with the basic structure of Two Fathers and One Son. As much as the two-parter hinges on the broken family dynamic between the three Spender characters, it suffers from the fact that the Cigarette-Smoking Man is really the only member of the Spender family that the audience knows and cares about. Cassandra Spender is often reduced to a macguffin or an exposition machine, while Jeffrey Spender has primarily been defined as an obstacle to Mulder and Scully.
So the decision to hang so much of Two Fathers and One Son on Jeffrey Spender feels like a strange choice. The character has not received a great deal of development or exploration since he first appeared in Patient X. His single most memorable moment outside of Two Fathers and One Son is his one-scene appearance at the start of Terms of Endearment. There is no reason to particularly care about Jeffrey Spender in the middle of all this, particularly given the decision to kill (or at least appear to kill) the character off at the climax of One Son.
This does feel like a structural issue with the fifth and sixth seasons. Jeffrey Spender was introduced in Patient X, an episode written and shot after the production of The X-Files: Fight the Future, but broadcast before the release of the film. With the emphasis on the Mulder and Scully dynamic at the start of the sixth season, there was little room to develop Spender as anything beyond a one-dimensional foil. There is a sense that the slot occupied by S.R. 819 might have worked better as a Spender-centric episode than a Skinner-centric episode.
Two Fathers and One Son simply doesn’t have enough room to flesh out Spender’s character and give him an arc while still dealing with all the dangling threads of the conspiracy storyline. Diana Fowley is similarly impeded. “Do you wonder why I’ve chosen you?” the Cigarette-Smoking Man muses in conversation with Fowley. “You’ve never betrayed me. Now I need someone to trust.” Of course, Fowley has only appeared twice prior to this; it is more that she simply hasn’t had the chance to betray him.
Fowley remains a troublesome character, because Carter and Spotnitz continue to use her to generate romantic tension between Mulder and Scully. In One Son, Fowley adds an awkward romantic triangle on top of a plot that is already heavily overloaded. As with The End, there is a sense that Fowley exists primarily so Scully can be jealous. “Mulder, this stinks, and not just because I think that woman is a… well, I think you know what I think that woman is,” Scully reflects. Mulder replies, “No. Actually, you hide your feelings very well.”
Dutifully, One Son gives us a scene where Fowley kisses Mulder and another where Scully tracks down the dirty on Fowley. To be fair, this is another moment where Two Fathers and One Son harks back to the earlier seasons, as Scully points out that Mulder is far too trusting. When Scully points out that Fowley has a huge gap in her service record, Mulder is dismissive. “I hope you’ve got something more than that to indict her with.” For a man whose catchphrase is “trust no one”, Mulder is pretty damn trusting.
To be fair, this is a recurring feature of Mulder’s character. “I want to believe” and “trust no one” are almost incompatible as central philosophies, and Mulder will always tend more towards the former than the latter. It is this character trait that made it so easy for conspirators to mislead and misdirect Mulder in episodes like E.B.E. or Colony. For all his sarcasm and cynicism, Mulder is far too trusting for his own good; he is far too easily blinded by his own prejudices and his own desperate desire for validation and support.
The problem with Two Fathers and One Son is the way that the episode takes this quintessential character trait and uses it for cheap romantic tension. It isn’t so much a question of whether Mulder trusts Scully or Fowley, it is more of a question as to whether Mulder is romantically interested in Scully or Fowley. This diminishes all the characters and relationships involved, wallowing in melodramatic cliché. The X-Files was a show that could do melodrama quite well (this two-parter is one big family break-up), but Fowley just pushes it too far.
More interesting is the implication that Fowley has been an active participant in the conspiracy for quite some time. Apparently she was keeping tabs on the Mutual UFO Network. “Special Agent Diana Fowley of the FBI was visiting every European chapter collecting data on female abductees,” Scully explains. Fowley wasn’t working on just any part of the conspiracy; she was actively involved with the exploitation of women’s bodies. Fowley was part of the misogynistic machinery underpinning the conspiracy.
It is a very effective illustration of just how that sort of institutionalised sexism works; that these systems and mechanisms are so strong and compelling that they become self-perpetuating. Even women like Diana Fowley or Marita Covarrubias can become part of a larger machine dedicated to the exploitation and control of women’s bodies. Internalised misogyny is a controversial element of contemporary feminism, with many feminists arguing that contemporary culture has created a climate where even identifying as a feminist is seen as undesirable.
Writer Ariel Levy has written a great deal on the way that sexism has become internalised and self-perpetuating. In her book Female Chauvanist Pigs, the author explains that the modern Playboy magazine is mostly run by women and that The Man Show had two female producers. Levy observed, “Only 30 years ago, our mothers were ‘burning their bras’ and picketing Playboy, and suddenly we were getting implants and getting the bunny logo as supposed symbols of our liberation.”
All this hints at a more interesting direction for Fowley than the show ultimately takes, which is a shame given how much effort Two Fathers and One Son make to ensure that the character survives the purge at the end of the episode. Then again, maybe there is just too much going on here for any of it to resolve in a completely satisfactory way. There are a wealth of good ideas here, but there are so many of them that they ultimately end up fighting for attention and squeezing one another out. It seems the underdeveloped ideas are the most interesting.
Still, Two Fathers and One Son arguably work best as a collection of memorable and distinctive images. The teaser to One Son is probably the most quintessential X-Files image ever. In a flashback to the origins of the conspiracy, the Cigarette-Smoking Man lies down a folded American flag in a gesture of submission to the alien colonists as they flood into an aircraft hanger in a sequence that feels like a grotesque parody of the iconic imagery of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
There was a point where mankind (and America in particular) looked to the sky in wonder; now it seems to exist as a place of judgement and reckoning. The torture implements hanging behind Jeffrey Spender as he tries to reassure his mother that everything is okay speak volumes. The image of Mulder sitting in the dark and contemplating the end of all things captures the existential dread of the two-parter quite well. Even the sight of the conspirators all bundled up and ready to leave sticks in the memory.
Two Fathers and One Son are far from flawless. They are not the best of the show’s mythology episodes, only intermittently recapturing the momentum and joy that made the conspiracy story thread so compelling. However, they are packed with memorable images and they do make a conscious effort to bring the conspiracy back to its core themes of family and power. They are not the perfect conclusion to a half-decade of storytelling – some might argue they are not a conclusion at all – but they do pretty good job under the circumstances.
And so the paradox of the sixth season remains in play. Two Fathers and One Son is both an ending and a return to business as usual. It is an odd mix, but then this is an odd episode.
Filed under: Movies, The X-Files Tagged: | ariel levy, conspiracy, diana fowley, family, internalised sexism, jeffrey spender, Misogyny, mythology, nineties, nuclear family, one son, Television, the x-files, two fathers