I PROMISE THIS BLOG WILL BE ABOUT OTHER THINGS TOO.
Guys. Guys. You guys. It just so happens I watched the first two episodes together, so here we are. Next post: something completely different!
Then, probably, let’s be honest, more X-FILES.
S1: E1 DEEP THROAT
Written by Chris Carter
Directed by Daniel Sackheim
COLD OPEN :
A SWAT team is storming a pleasant little suburban house, there’s a crazy naked dude hiding in the upstairs bedroom, and right off the bat, the show feels one hundred times slicker and more confident than it did just one measly week ago.
THIS IS THE ONE WHERE: Mulder meets Scully in a bar for the first and last time. There, he is approached by a mysterious gentleman while engaging in that most gentlemanly of activities, leak-taking. This friendly pervert is, of course, the man we will come to know and love as Deep Throat, although he’s never referred to as such in the episode (except in its title, because Chris Carter respects our intelligence). Anyway, this creepy bathroom buddy tells Mulder to stay away from this Air Force case he was just telling his new bestie Sculls all about (Sculls? Can I call you Sculls?). Mulder promptly ignores him, dragging Sculls off to Conspiracyville, Idaho, where they meet Baby Seth Green, see weird lights in the sky and gets the crap kicked out of him by some Men, who, as it happens, are dressed all In Black.
SECRET, SPOILERY STUFF: Your guess is as good as anyone’s! (See below)
THE GOOD, THE BAD: Scully’s a total professional again, maintaining a calm demeanor, typin’ away Doogie Howser-style, wearin’ glasses. Basically a class act, who, one would think, never even once danced around in the rain like a crazy person because aliens. Basically, if you had any hope that she might have been persuaded to drink Mulder’s Kool-Aid after the last episode, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Papa Murdoch needs to get these episodes into syndication, kiddies, which means down comes the RESET BUTTON!
To be fair, as weird as things got in the first episode, and as invested as Scully became in what was maybe her very first field investigation, she never actually saw anything that would utterly rock her world view. She came home, thought things through, got over it. Back to the typing and the glasses, for me, good sir!
Actually, Duchovny and Anderson both seem more restrained in this episode, which is just a sign that the actors are already figuring out what they’re doing and then doing that thing with real confidence. But they’re still essentially the odd couple we met last week: the somewhat bratty maverick who sneaks into military installations with the air of entitlement only found in kids raised in summer cottages on the Vinyard, and an eager, determined young woman who’s probably had to fight for every professional success she’s ever had. It’s a credit to the show that this subtext is so clear. These characters aren’t traditional stereotypes by any means, and yet we kind of all know versions of them, even if these particular versions are much, much hotter.
It’s fun, in what now feels like a weirdly prequelly way, to witness their formative growing pains. Anderson gives a wonderfully red-blooded performance in the scene where Scully takes the sleazy faux-reporter (who looks like the Platonic ideal of the Sitcom Dad) hostage; you really get the sense of a rookie agent getting her very first taste of real conflict, suspecting the entire time that she’s maybe gotten herself in over her head, and also SCREW this guy, because she trusted this guy.
In so many ways, this entire series is really all about Scully. It’s fine that Mulder is repeatedly vindicated – that’s important, but ultimately much less interesting than watching Scully’s struggle to remain balanced and stable in a world that’s constantly challenging her on every level. At one point in the episode, young Dana Scully actually says, with utter sincerity: “There are questions we have no business asking.” Anderson imbues the moment with just a hint of vulnerability, but enough to give us a glimpse into what really makes her tick: an abiding need to trust in the big institutions upon which our civilization is built. It’s what makes her an ideal government agent, and an ideal scientist, and, as we will soon learn, an ideal Catholic. In some fundamental way, she loves the big walls that surround us and keep us safe – which makes her both a perfect foil and complement for Mulder, who sees those same walls and wants only to throw rocks through them, because SCREW those walls and SCREW YOU DAD.
There’s a lot of good stuff happening in this episode, but here’s what really distinguished it for me, re-watching it as an adult: how beautifully and definitively it establishes the show’s central themes. The truth really is out there! And by out there I definitely mean “completely and permanently beyond the of reach of all humans, but mostly Fox Mulder.”
When my son was about three, he was really into planning birthday parties for his stuffed animals. Making decorations. Hanging decorations. Cooking. Baking. Sticking masking tape everywhere because, apparently, there ain’t no party like a masking tape party! But whenever I suggested we stop preparing and actually have the party, he’d get a panicky look in his eyes and insist we find something else to cover with masking tape. He never wanted the party to actually happen. It was like a dream where you keep doing the same things over and over again and you can never wake up, but with more masking tape.
This is the X-FILES.
There’s a scene in this episode where Mulder and Scully keep vigil outside an Air Force base where all the crazy recovered Roswell tech is supposed to be kept, and Scully falls asleep in the car. Then the rear windshield shatters (not at all symbolic of her delicately constructed worldview, I’m sure), and then Mulder pops in, completely ignoring the fact that Hertz is gonna be PISSED, and invites her to come watch the UFO light show with him. They stand together on a hillside watching these lights soar through the sky, far overhead, and it is a moment of purest mystery and wonderment. The lights dance around in the sky like old Atari graphics, but, as is often the case, the low-budget aesthetic only makes them eerier. Mark Snow’s score becomes surprisingly, hauntingly melancholic.
The moment took me completely off-guard. This is the deep, sad heart of this show, already fully on display, and somehow so much sadder looking back on it across the long stretch of the last two decades: two very lonely people standing outside a barbed wire fence staring up at cryptic, flickering lights that are utterly out of reach. They’re both so desperate to know exactly what it is they’re looking at, even if Scully is only barely aware of how much she shares this need with her partner.
The lights will always be out of reach. The photos will always just a little too blurry, the men in the black suits always unnamed and unknowable. Until, finally, startlingly, Mulder gets his wish and does see one of the crafts up close…only to have the memory wiped away by a team of faceless doctors. When he’s approached a second time by his avuncular informant, Mulder asked if “they’re here.” Deep Throat lands the episode – and starts off this series in earnest – by providing a deeply destabilizing reply: “They’ve been here for a long, long time.”
This is a world where nothing is as it seems, where all of our rock-solid supports are themselves built on foundations of lies, secrets and blood. Maybe the reason Scully so clings so unquestionably to our great institutions is because she, like all of us, fears on some deep level that if you probe too deeply into them, you’ll find nothing but horrors hiding underneath. Our comfortable, decadent world sits perched (to borrow the show’s own iconography) on a mountain of charred, misshapen skulls.
This episode is considered a classic, but by the end of it, Mulder and Scully have done literally nothing to help anyone. It’s all Scully can do to escape with Mulder alive and intact. They solve nothing. They learn nothing. No one’s minds are changed. No one’s lives are saved. This is WAITING FOR GODOT. This is THE PRISONER. This is a story of pure existential yearning, and when we get, a few years down the line, JOSE CHUNG’S FROM OUTER SPACE, and everyone claims it’s a deconstruction of Chris Carter’s vision, it’s maybe only because they’re forgetting the scene in DEEP THROAT when Mulder and Scully looked at the far-away lights and then got their asses handed to them and went home with nothing to show for it – in Mulder’s case, not even the memory.
But hey, even Sartre said (I’m paraphrasing) that good things could only happen on the far side of despair. If this show were just one big ol’ dour, nihilistic face-punch, I would have zero interest in it – not as a twenty-year old, and certainly not now. The secret beauty of the show is that the truth really IS out there. Somewhere, the aliens are real; at some point, the masking tape party really will begin. But the show is smart enough to know that the journey is more important than the destination, and also how important it is that this journey feel, at least most of the time, like an endless exercise in futility. The biggest question is: how the hell did Chris Carter sell the Fox network on this? “Basically I’m using the paranormal as a postmodernist metaphor for humanity’s endless battle against the ultimate unknowability of the universe.”
THE WEIRD: Given how heavily the series as a whole is weighted toward UFO phenomena, there’s a certain structural genius in starting off this series exactly this way: first an episode about UFOs and alien abductions that focuses on the human element, and then an episode that widens the lens to show us the bigger context of sinister Government Conspiracy. Both episodes show that Carter has done his homework: in the same way that the PILOT smartly incorporated real-world lore like unexplained nosebleeds and missing time, DEEP THROAT name-checks Roswell, Area 51 and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base – and, in an incredibly sharp touch, Mulder’s informant takes his name from a completely established-to-be-100-percent-real informant from an honest-to-goodness-real government conspiracy. And not just any conspiracy – the one that made doubters and cynics of all of us.
MVNPC: This week’s MVNPC goes to Motel Front Desk Guy Who Won’t Call the Police No Matter What You Tell Him, Scully. Never has a motel front desk guy looked so obliviously cheerful in the face of so desperate a law enforcement officer.
We all need to take a moment to thank Baby Seth Green for establishing that this is 1993 by literally kicking off his performance with the line, “That was EXTREME!”
By the end of this episode, Scully is TOTALLY a believer. I mean, this time for real. Right, guys? Right?