“Deadalive” (season 8, episode 15; originally aired 4/1/2001)/ “Three Words” (season 8, episode 16; originally aired 4/8/2001)
In which Mulder isn’t dead…
It’s a measure of a show’s effectiveness to see how convincingly the writers can threaten a major character, and have that character’s subsequent survival not be a cheat. If you’d asked me to bet on this years ago, before I had any idea there’d be a season 9, or that Mulder would remain a central figure in the franchise pretty much permanently, I still would’ve laid down money that ole Spooky would end up pulling through his abduction and subsequent internment. The fact that David Duchovny’s name appeared regularly in the opening credits was a pretty big clue, but as much as I like Doggett, it’s hard to imagine an X-Files with no Mulder in it, not even haunting the periphery. Scully’s tearful monologue over his grave describes a situation in which our hero’s death would’ve been powerfully moving, and could, potentially, have served as a dark, brutal capper to the series’ main arc. It’s possible that Doggett and a grieving Scully could’ve moved on with their lives. It just doesn’t seem likely.
So yes, the actual fact of Mulder’s survival isn’t a huge shock. But “Deadalive,” which devotes a full hour to getting our second favorite alien abductee back on his feet, manages to make that transition suspenseful regardless of the inevitability of its outcome, largely by putting Mulder (who stays unconscious for most of the hour) through a series of increasingly unsettling crises. He starts off buried, and then things somehow manage to get worse, so that by the time the happy ending rolls around, it almost feels earned. It isn’t, exactly, and the story loses points for a resolution that once again has a terrifying alien force failing to think things through on a basic level, but on the whole, both episodes this week find the show turning to straight serialization with strong results. Where recents seasons were muddied by impossibly elaborate collections of plots and double crosses, season 8 has been sticking largely to a straight line.
“Deadalive” and “Three Words” aren’t exactly a two-parter; as Todd pointed out last week, “Deadalive” is really just the conclusion of the cliffhanger at the end of “This Is Not Happening,” while “Three Words” shows Mulder trying to re-integrate himself back into his former life (without much success). The latter episode is mainly focused on a new potential source of information: a census worker who gets himself suicided when he tries to get a CD to the White House in the most direct, and least likely to succeed, way. But the stories are strongly connected, to a degree that feels strangely modern. The show has done multi-episode storylines before, but the amount that the status quo has shifted over the course of these four entries generates an impressive amount of narrative energy. Agent Doggett’s presence adds a new dimension that can’t just be tossed away. The situation, which held in stasis for so long even while making feints toward change, really is new. For the first time, Mulder and Scully have an ally committed to the cause, an ally beyond the Lone Gunmen and Skinner trying to cover their backs and his own ass. It alters the dynamic of the series, and while that dynamic has served Chris Carter and his writing staff well for a long time, it’s exciting to see such a change. Even if it doesn’t end up working (which, if what I’ve heard about season 9 is correct, is an understatement), it’s still a thrill to watch right now.
Before we can get there, though, Mulder has to come back from the dead, and it’s not a pleasant journey. At least, it isn’t for him. “Deadalive” opens in Raleigh, NC, with Mulder’s burial; Scully talks about how Mulder was the last person in his family (leaving out the bit where he presumably fathered her child), and how, despite all his efforts, he never uncovered the truth. Then “Three Months Later” pops up on the screen. When a show finds itself in a situation where it needs to generate suspense from the apparent death of a character it has no intention of killing, the trick is to push as far as you can possibly go before pulling back. If Mulder had been found in dire condition but still alive, that would’ve been okay, but it wouldn’t have created much tension; having him dead and buried for a quarter of a year creates a scenario in which the suspense comes as much from “how” he’ll come back as it does from “if.”
In this case, the “how” isn’t comforting: a fishing boat discovers the floating body of Billy Miles, the abductee who was taken the same time Mulder was, and the poor kid is in a hell of a state. But when a doctor starts to perform an autopsy, Billy starts breathing; the news gets to Skinner, and he makes the connection, calling the county to have Mulder’s corpse exhumed right before he gets in touch with Doggett.
The whole thing goes down fast, and rightfully so—it’s nightmarish, right up to the discovery that Mulder is alive, but his tissue is dead, so he’s not doing great. This puts poor Scully in a hell of a state, and while Anderson’s performance is as reliably stricken as ever (the pay-off at the end of Scully and Mulder’s first scene together is fantastic), it’s irritating how much time Skinner and Doggett spend trying to shield her from what’s going on. Her very obvious pregnancy makes her vulnerable, sure, and the situation would be emotionally exhausting for anyone, but Doggett acts like she’s going to break if she has to deal with reality, and that seems like an unintentional insult. Worse, Scully is largely pushed to the side for the majority of both episodes, hovering over Mulder’s bedside in the first, and then giving him worried looks as he decides to get in over his head in the second. This is justifiable, given her condition; I don’t really want to see a very pregnant Scully running around doing action and what-not. But Mulder’s comment about how her priorities will change once she gives birth (in that she’ll have much more important things to worry about than the X-Files) is disconcerting. Is this it for Awesome Scully? Is she going to be in Mom mode for the rest of the run? There’s nothing wrong with moms, and of course they can be awesome, but for the first time, the undeniable impact of her pregnancy finally hit home for me, and it was a bit of a bummer.
Strip away the worrying and Doggett’s unsettling conversations with Kersh (which really just serve to put Doggett even more in the “good guys” camp), the main focus of “Deadalive” is Billy’s remarkable “recovery” and the reappearance of Alex Krycek, who shows up at the Bureau with the remote control that allows him to activate the nanobots in Skinner’s bloodstream whenever he wants to. Billy’s story is the creepier of the two; there’s a fantastically gross scene of him showering off his old skin (which doesn’t sound gross on the page, but visually, all that gunk and blood getting stripped off, before you have any idea what’s going on, is very disturbing to watch), and then a brief conversation between him and Scully, but he’s gone by the time we know the truth. It’s not the real Billy anymore—he was returned alive in a comatose state in order to let an alien virus grow and take over his system, and the result is a perfect replication. Or something; since the focus is on Mulder, Billy is presented more as a horrifying possibility than as a case that needs to be investigated for itself. Still, it’s a neat subplot, and Billy’s fate lends weight to the hook of “Three Words”: the government is using the census to target people of a specific genetic make-up, and it’s doubtful good things are going to happen to the folks they pick.
As for Krycek, it’s always fun to see Krycek, and his slimy smugness adds a more specific form of menace. Krycek offers a vaccine to Skinner that could save Mulder (is this how vaccines work? I was under the impression that giving someone a vaccine for a disease they already have isn’t going to help much), but only if Skinner is willing make sure Scully doesn’t deliver her baby. This is not a smart play on Krycek’s part, because Skinner would never force Scully to miscarriage to save anyone. If Krycek really wanted to interfere with Scully, why wouldn’t he just target her himself? She’s not exactly fast on her feet at this point.
Skinner responds by taking Mulder off life support in order to kill him to save Scully’s baby, I guess operating on the assumption that if Scully found out what was happening, she might be tempted, or to stop Krycek from making similar offers, or, well, who knows. It’s kind of dumb, and really only happens to give the writers a convenient way to save Mulder after Krycek intentionally breaks the bottle with the vaccine in front of Doggett. (One undeniable positive from Krycek’s return is watching Doggett get a crack at the guy. Everybody should get a chance to beat the shit out of Krycek.) Mulder’s life support was actually working to keep the virus incubating inside him; by turning it off, Skinner inadvertently gave Scully and the hospital’s doctors a chance to save him. Which they do.
It makes less sense the more you think about it. but the last scene makes up for the contrivance. Mulder finally wakes up, Scully’s in tears at his bedside, and he says, “Who are you?” And he’s totally fucking with her. It’s a great, tension breaking gag that shows what Mulder brought to the show without undercutting the sincerity of the moment. Scully’s laugh is pretty sweet, too.
“Three Words” finds Duchovny back on his feet and ready for action, and he brings a new energy to the part. Mulder has always had a strong sense of humor, and having been without that humor for so long (Scully and Doggett can both be very funny, but both are inherently serious people), it’s neat to have it back at full power. Todd has noted Duchovny’s performance this season wasn’t all that invested, and Mulder in this episode definitely has a semi-irritated “oh fuck this” vibe that could come from an actor who doesn’t give a shit about the lines he’s reading anymore. Yet the vibe works, especially in the context of all these characters who worked so hard to rescue him. They finally succeeded in saving their friend’s life, but now that he’s back, they have to deal with the fact that he’s kind of a pain in the ass, just like he’s always been. Mulder doesn’t even seem all that grateful. There’s a sense that he’s come to the end of a rope, and his normal obsessions have taken over what little sense of patience and common sense he has left. This doesn’t make him a bad guy, and he’s not even an anti-hero, but this is a story where we spend as much time watching Mulder from the outside as we do seeing events from his perspective, and that makes things interesting.
Whatever way you look at it, though, Mulder does not much care for Doggett. The first meeting between the two men, Mulder shoves Doggett (this is after Absalom takes Doggett hostage and gets himself killed; Mulder immediately blames Doggett for the death), and relations improve only slightly from there. This makes sense from a character perspective. Mulder has spent most of his life working against guys who look just like Doggett, by the book career agents who devote their lives to crossing every t and making sure the truth remains a rumor. He’s always proven more than few times that he’s capable of making snap, unsympathetic judgements when he feels like he’s being threatened. And maybe there’s some vague feeling of having been replaced in Scully’s life by a new partner—not romantic jealousy, but the instinctive dislike that comes up whenever you feel like a stranger is supplanting you in your own life. But even taking that into account, Mulder’s aggression comes off a little too intense, a concept that works fine in theory but doesn’t quite translate onto the screen. Infighting between heroes is a potentially strong concept, but it only works if everyone has a clear, understandable reason for disliking each other. Mulder’s anger could work, but in practice, it mostly just makes him look like a jerk.
While “Three Words” lacks “Deadalive”’s emotional depth, it’s stronger plotwise, building to its inevitable conclusion in classic X-Files style, via mystery, hope, and then a betrayal that crushes almost all hope except for the little bit that’s necessary for our heroes to survive. Absalom’s death is abrupt (for a planning man, he’s not that bright), but it’s always good to have loose ends cleaned up, and Doggett is taking even more steps towards becoming a true believer, without losing the practicality that makes him such a strong character. Scully’s skepticism depended on logic and science; Doggett’s is a more basic need to have bad guy responsible when bad shit goes down. Everything else is unnecessary. So it’s gratifying to see him finally catch on to John Knowle’s betrayal, and confront the man directly. There may be a crazy alien invasion conspiracy going on, but here’s an actual person Doggett can tell off, so that’s good enough for now. (Of course, Knowle isn’t an actual person anymore, so maybe Doggett’s approach isn’t the most effective.)
So, Mulder is back, the government is up to no good, the aliens are up to no good, and Scully is going to give birth any day now. Also, the Lone Gunmen are very happy to see Mulder up and about, especially Frohike, which is as adorable as it sounds. Unfortunately, Kersh refuses to accept Scully’s request to reinstate Mulder to active duty, which both makes sense, and gives us a good reason to keep Doggett around, whatever Mulder thinks of him. This is more heroes than The X-Files has ever had. It’ll be interesting to see if they can accomplish any good before it all goes to hell.
- So I’m guessing Mulder wasn’t embalmed.
- The first shot of Billy post-shower, standing in a hospital hallway, looking like a ghost in the fading sunlight, is gorgeous.
- Oh, the “three words” were “Fight The Future,” so I guess Chris Carter really loves that phrase. (Maybe the census taker was just trying to get the president a burned copy of the movie soundtrack?)
Next week: We take Saturday off to recover from Thanksgiving. Todd will be back on December 7th with “Empedocies” and “Vienen.”