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The X-Files – Three of a Kind (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

Unusual Suspects is perhaps an underrated episode.

The third episode broadcast of the fifth season is a light adventure that offers viewers an origin story of the Lone Gunman. Byers, Langley and Frohike have been around since E.B.E. towards the end of the first season, and have become an integral part of the show’s ensemble cast. Unusual Suspects is frequently written off as a piece of fluff designed to work around the limited availability of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson due to on-going production work on The X-Files: Fight the Future.

Viva Las Vegas...

Viva Las Vegas…

This seems dismissive of Vince Gilligan’s paranoid origin story, which is one of the few times that Gilligan engages directly with the themes that underpin the sprawling mythology at the heart of the show. Unusual Suspects is not a “mythology episode” in the way that gets episodes repackaged on DVD collections, but it does explore the idea of conspiracy and paranoia as a personal narrative. Unusual Suspects is a very sweet story about a lost and heartbroken man who builds a conspiracy mythology around himself because he has nothing else to do.

Three of a Kind is very much a sequel episode to Unusual Suspects, focusing again on the Lone Gunmen and bringing back Susanne Modeski. However, it is a much lighter and more disposable story. Barring the beautifully crafted prologue, Three of a Kind is an entirely disposable episode of television. It feels like filler. It is neither a beginning nor an end to the story of Byers or the Lone Gunmen. It is just a long middle, with the characters ending up back where they began. In a way, this makes it feel very much like a standard sixth season episode.

A man alone...

A man alone…

What does Three of a Kind actually accomplish? What does the story change about its characters or what we know about its characters? How are any of the characters different at the end of the episode than at the beginning? How will the events of Three of a Kind inform the viewers’ understanding of the Lone Gunmen the next time that they appear as background players in an episode? Will the viewer remember the events or revelations of Three of a Kind in any meaningful way?

The tragedy of Unusual Suspect made the glimpses of their shared existence in later episodes all the more effective. In Kill Switch, the quick shot of the three colleagues sleeping together on a couch was rendered all the more tragic because the audience knew that none of the three had a life outside of their grotty little office. When Morris!Mulder and Scully interrupted Frohike’s cooking in Dreamland II, it assured the viewers that these three lost souls had begun to build a functioning (if unconventional) life together.

What's the deal?

What’s the deal?

Three of a Kind lacks any of that. Sure, there are little changes by the end of the episode. With the closing scene, Byers knows that Susanne Modeski is free to fight the good fight in her own way. However, Byers is no more or no less alone than he was at the end of Unusual Suspects. As with Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man, there is a sense that the production team are reluctant to shake things up when it comes to the supporting cast, so the show resets Byers and his colleagues back to their factory settings.

As with the final scene of Unusual Suspects, Susanne still gets into a car to be driven away. The only difference is that she chooses to be driven away here. The episode makes it clear that she does not choose to abandon Byers, which would have been a much stronger emotional resolution to the plot. Because it would have been a resolution. Three of a Kind feels like a holding pattern or a stalling effort. “Someday,” she promises. This is not a “goodbye” so much as a “see you later.”

State of Phlox...

State of Phlox…

The ending would be all the more effective if it had some sense of impact or decisiveness. If Byers had chosen to go with Susanne, or if Susanne had chosen to remain with the Lone Gunmen. If Susanne explained that she no longer felt about Byers the way that she used to. Although it is very much a storytelling cliché and would have been the worst possible ending, even killing Susanne or Byers would have given Three of a Kind an emotional conclusion. As it stands, the episode has no ending or resolution.

Three of a Kind resets everything back to the status quo at the end of the episode, which feels like par for the course in the sixth season. A recurring idea in the sixth season has been the sense that The X-Files is a show that could run in perpetuity, and that the status quo is a physical force. Like gravity, the status quo will always pull Mulder and Scully back to their classic forms. In Dreamland I and Dreamland II, time itself reset “like a rubber band” so as to preserve the Mulder and Scully dynamic.

Lighting up a room...

Lighting up a room…

The sixth season is packed full of endings that not really endings. The fifth season finalé The End segues into the sixth season premiere The Beginning. The decision to wrap up the conspiracy storyline in Two Fathers and One Son was highly publicised, but the episode went out of its way to keep the resolution ambiguous. If anything, Two Fathers and One Son ended with the status quo reset, sending Mulder and Scully back to the basement where they belonged. The sixth season finalé, Biogenesis, reveals the conspiracy is not really ended.

To be fair, it is perfectly reasonable to argue that Three of a Kind doesn’t need an ending to really work. After all, The X-Files is about Mulder and Scully week-in and week-out, and relatively few episode fundamentally change the characters or our understanding of the characters. Episodes like Trevor or Monday don’t end with tidy resolutions or massive steps forward for our leads. Those episodes that do aim for a deeper meaning can misfire spectacularly, like Alpha. It is perhaps unreasonable to demand closure.

Cold reality...

Cold reality…

Still, these stories do typically provide some sense of closure for the characters involved. Mulder and Scully might not have arcs running through Trevor, but the story does allow Rawls to meet his son for the first time before he dies. Monday ends with Pam’s death, offering her a rather bleak escape from the repeating loop. Milagro ends with the self-sacrifice of Phillip Padgett. The Unnatural concludes with the death of Josh Exley, and even features a warm personal scene between Mulder and Scully that suggests a more intimate relationship is blossoming.

Three of a Kind is only the second episode focused around the Lone Gunmen, so this is very much their story in a way that Trevor or Monday is not necessarily a Mulder or Scully story. Susanne Modeski’s situation changes over the course of Three of a Kind, but she is firmly established as a secondary character. The teaser focuses the story on Byers, with Susanne existing as an ideal towards which he might strive. The ending of Three of a Kind changes nothing of significance for the focal characters.

 I was all of history's great acting robots: Acting Unit 0.8, Thespo-mat, David Duchovny!

“I was all of history’s great acting robots: Acting Unit 0.8, Thespo-mat, David Duchovny!”

In a way, Unusual Suspects had an easier time of it. It was what might be described as an “origin story”, a story about how these particular characters came together and started doing what they do. It is a term very much rooted in superhero comics, reflecting to the story that essentially sets up the status quo for a particular character. Year One, Zero Year and Earth One are all different origin stories for Batman. On film, movies like Batman, Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm and Batman Begins all offer an origin of one form or another.

A lot of the first instalments of superhero franchises will offer an origin story for their characters – Iron Man, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man. Both Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man offered origin stories for the eponymous webslinger, despite being released within a decade of each other. Even the superhero sequels, which have the luxury of already established their heroes, will frequently offer origin stories for their villains.

Playing his cards close to his chest...

Playing his cards close to his chest…

However, although the term “origin story” is inexorably linked to the superhero genre, it applies in a much broader context. Casino Royale is an “origin story” for James Bond. Star Trek was an “origin story” for James Tiberius Kirk and Spock. Even stories that aren’t necessarily setting up a status quo for sequels could be considered as “origin stories”, as Robin Rosenberg argues:

I think a well-done origin story is a good story, period. I happen to like Pride and Prejudice, so I often will use this example where, if Jane Austen had written subsequent novels with Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, then the book we know of as Pride and Prejudice would’ve been the origin story. An origin story often has a crisis or pivot point where characters either have something traumatic or dramatic happen to them that transforms them. Some origin stories have multiple points of transformation — the first Harry Potter book has multiple points of transformation.

The key seems to be transformation or evolution. Given the reality of monthly comic books, where the status quo is inescapable, the appeal of the “origin story” is obvious. Because every monthly comic book (like most network television shows) need to reset to the status quo at the end of the story, the “origin story” is one of the rare stories where the reader is assured transformation and evolution – even if that transformation or evolution is towards the status quo.

Feels like coming home...

Feels like coming home…

This perhaps explains why two of the most popular Batman stories of all-time are Frank Miller’s Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. In Year One, the reader watches Bruce Wayne transform himself into Batman and thus reach the point at which (the vast majority of) future Batman stories can begin. In The Dark Knight Returns, the reader gets to see a glimpse of the end of Bruce Wayne’s crusade. It affords Bruce Wayne an ending, something that characters in long-running serialised or episodic adventures are seldom afforded.

Unusual Suspects offered a sense of movement and transformation because it followed the evolution of the Lone Gunmen from three lonely guys living separate lives to a collective of paranoid conspiracy nuts. It explained how and why that transformation took place, taking advantage of the opportunity to explore some of the more existentialist themes of The X-Files. In fact, the teaser to Three of a Kind works so much better than the rest of the episode because it effectively restates those themes.

We would also have accepted "SPLAT!" as cause of death...

We would also have accepted “SPLAT!” as cause of death…

In contrast, Three of a Kind might have worked well were it willing to bookend the story of the Lone Gunmen, and to allow Byers some measure of closure or resolution. There is, after all, a nice sense of symmetry between Unusual Suspects and Three of a Kind. Unusual Suspects was broadcast as the third episode of the fifth season, although it was produced earlier; Three of a Kind was broadcast as the third-to-last episode of the sixth season, although it was produced earlier. Unusual Suspects guest stars Mulder; Three of a Kind guest stars Scully.

However, it is clear that Three of a Kind is simply unwilling to afford its characters closure. In Dreamland I, Scully lamented the fact that she would be stuck in a car with Mulder forever, chasing phantoms and spectres and aliens. In Three of a Kind, it is clear that Byers will be stuck with Langley and Frohike forever, chasing government conspiracies and cover-ups. While the emphasis on the status quo in other sixth season episodes can seem self-aware or wry, it seems frustrating and underwhelming in Three of a Kind.

The government doesn't stand a chance...

The government doesn’t stand a chance…

To be fair, Three of a Kind might work better if it were funnier. The flaws would be easier to forgive if Three of a Kind could keep the audience chuckling. The episode has a few good moments, but they don’t come quick enough or thick enough. Any time that Gillian Anderson plays giddy!Scully is wonderful, although special mention must be made of her deduction regarding “cause of death.” Similarly, Scully’s inability to tell the difference between Mulder and a robot is the best gag about Duchovny’s performance style since Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.”

However, a lot of the gags in Three of a Kind feel laboured and forced. The sequence of Langley getting sick during Scully’s autopsy would be tired even if it weren’t a cliché. The joke ratio for Three of a Kind seems remarkably low for a comedy episode, particularly one that doesn’t have any real plot on which to hang its jokes. The Unnatural seems to pack more funny jokes into its runtime on top of a compelling plot than Three of a Kind can crowd around its own bare sliver of a story.

In over his head...

In over his head…

The best part of Three of a Kind is the teaser. The sequence is rather removed from the rest of the episode, and would almost have worked better as a teaser to Unusual Suspects. Even on a technical level, the sequence is impressive – a long tracking shot of Byers arriving at his perfect house, hugging his perfect children, giving a snack to his perfect dog and embracing his perfect wife. It is a wonderfully affecting little sequence, even before it cuts to the image of Byers lost and alone in the desert.

As with Triangle, the long tracking shot is used cleverly to establish a feeling of unreality. The long take a camera movement that treats the audience almost as a character in the scene, but which at the same time emphasis the difference between the viewer and the camera because the camera can never blink. It is a creative choice which emphasises the artifice of the sequence, pushing away from conventional televisual language and into something altogether more uncanny.

Happily never after...

Happily never after…

It is almost a shame that the teaser for Three of a Kind arrived in the same season as Triangle, because that means it will never be the definitive long take of the sixth season of The X-Files. Nevertheless, the sequence is the most memorable and effective sequence of the episode. It does more to establish a tone and mood than any other part of the script, and provides a nice encapsulation of the core themes of Unusual Suspects. In a way, Byers’ romantic fantasy perhaps captures some of the core themes of The X-Files.

The nineties were a decade of spiritual listlessness and philosophical uncertainty. It seemed like the entire country had a crisis of faith; faith in government, faith in authority, faith in ideals. Byers dreams of an idealised world where everything worked out differently and that crisis was avoided. As with Unusual Suspects, the origin of this existential angst is traced directly back to the assassination of President Kennedy. To paraphrase Peter Watts, everyone’s trust died on that day.

One ring to rule them all...

One ring to rule them all…

“I keep having this beautiful dream,” Byers narrates at the start of the episode. “In my dream, the events of November 22nd, 1963, never happened. In it, my namesake was never assassinated. Other things are different, too, in my dream. My country is hopeful and innocent; young again. Young in spirit. My fellow citizens trust their elect officials, never once having been betrayed by them. My government is truly ‘of the people, by the people, for the people.’ All my hopes for my country, for myself… all are fulfilled.”

As with Unusual Suspects, a firm connection is made between Byers’ own personal happiness and his broader feelings of trust in the political establishment. It is suggested that Byers’ feelings of paranoia and his mistrust of authority are rooted in his own personal feelings of loss and isolation. The teaser to Three of a Kind closes with a beautiful shot of Byers standing alone in the desert, an image that effectively captures the feeling of loss and listlessness that so many X-Files characters feel. It is no coincidence that Scully’s dream in the teaser to Emily trades in the same imagery.

Deserted...

Deserted…

On the strength of the teaser alone, it is a shame that Three of a Kind remains Bryan Spicer’s only directorial credit on The X-Files. That said, he was not forgotten by writers Vince Gilligan and John Shiban. When it came time to spin the Lone Gunmen out of The X-Files and into their own spin-off, Spicer became a go-to director. Just under half the episodes of The Lone Gunmen are credited to Spicer, perhaps demonstrating how much the show owes to Three of a Kind more than Unusual Suspects.

It was around this time that the idea of a The Lone Gunmen began to gestate. Millennium, Chris Carter’s first attempt to launch into a second show, was widely conceded to be a failure at this point in its run. Fox would opt not to renew Millennium for a fourth season, instead greenlighting Carter’s Harsh Realm in its place. Harsh Realm would be unceremonious dumped from the schedule mid-way through its first season. Less than two years after Three of a Kind aired, these three characters would headline the first official spin-off from The X-Files.

Body of proof...

Body of proof…

According to John Shiban, Three of a Kind was considered more of a template for The Lone Gunmen than Unusual Suspects:

After the two X-Files episodes Unusual Suspects and Three of a Kind that starred the LG, we all immediately saw — especially after Three, which is a model for the series. When we saw how the characters carried the show, all three of us thought they could be stars and that this show would work.

Given the problems with Three of a Kind, it seems like The Lone Gunmen might have been doomed from the outset.

"On the upside, this does kinda count as our annual vacation..."

“On the upside, this does kinda count as our annual vacation…”

Aside from the presence of Bryan Spicer and the general tone, there is another indicator of the shape of things to come. Three of a Kind features a wonderfully eccentric cameo from Michael McKean as Morris Fletcher, the sleazy man in black from Dreamland I and Dreamland II. The character appears in a single scene, creepily hitting on a drugged-up Agent Scully. It is a delightfully odd moment, one that feels rather incongruous with everything else happening around it.

Given that none of the characters involved in Dreamland I and Dreamland II remember the events of the episode, and the fact that it seems unlikely Scully or Frohike would remember Fletcher from Three of a Kind, it does seem like Fletcher is the weirdest recurring character in the history of The X-Files. The character would go on to make an appearance in All About Yves, the final episode of The Lone Gunmen, before jumping back to The X-Files to appear in Jump the Shark. Fletcher’s character arc feels almost surreal.

He's very McKean...

He’s very McKean…

According to The End and the Beginning, McKean was very happy to make the cameo in Three of a Kind:

“I was delighted to do it,” says McKean, who took a short break from filming a pilot  – in Vancouver, of all places  – to  fly to L.A. to film his scene.

“I only had one script demand,” he  adds. “It was that Morris Fletcher not die.”

McKean apparently made quite an impression on Vince Gilligan, who recruited him as a regular actor on Better Call Saul years later.

Injecting a little action...

Injecting a little action…

Interestingly, the most meaningful development at the climax of Three of a Kind is the sequence where Susanne gives Byers a wedding ring. It is a small gesture, one that ultimately affects very little in the long term. It is particularly striking because Byers has actually been wearing a wedding a wedding ring since his first appearance in E.B.E. towards the end of the first season. It was a choice made by actor Bruce Harwood, one quite similar to the choice made by David Duchovny to wear his own wedding ring in flashback scenes for episodes like Unusual Suspects or Travelers.

It is a rather ironic touch, because it means that Three of a Kind has no material change whatsoever. Byers now has a wedding ring from Susanne, but it is very hard to distinguish that from the wedding ring that the character had been wearing for the past five seasons. Even the grand romantic gesture at the end of Three of a Kind ultimately feels like an effort to reset the status quo. Byers had a wedding ring in One Son, and he will have a wedding ring in Field Trip. The more things change.

Rings around each other...

Rings around each other…

To be fair to Harwood, the actor did try to account for this internal inconsistency in his own personal back story for Byers:

I wore my wedding ring in my first appearance as Byers, and later worked up a backstory where Byers’ wife was making a living for both of them, and the Lone Gunmen had set up shop in Byers’ basement. This led to a personal crisis when Three Of A Kind came along in Season 6 and Byers was supposed to be unmarried. I later learned that none of the producers or writers had noticed that Byers had been wearing a wedding ring for five years. I eventually got over it, imagining that Byers had been married after the disappearance of Susanne Modeski, divorced almost immediately – his wife got sick and tired of Langley and Frohike hanging around – and being Byers he wore the wedding ring out of misplaced loyalty for four years, taking it off finally just in time for Susanne Modeski to show up again.

It is a reasonable – if convoluted – explanation. It is not the craziest X-Files fan theory ever.

"Looks like you got the good Lone Gunmen episode, Mulder."

“Looks like you got the good Lone Gunmen episode, Mulder.”

Three of a Kind is a perfectly serviceable episode of television, but it feels disappointing. In a way, it demonstrates the risks facing a show approaching the end of its sixth year on television. There is a sense of fatigue here, and a reluctance to commit to anything that might shake up the status quo even if it would make for a better ending. Three of a Kind is noncommittal and bland, a sequel to Unusual Suspects that is afraid to close any of the lingering threads.

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

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