Ah, Season 4. It’s arguably the highest critically rated season of The X-Files. I haven’t taken a head count or anything, but a quick, cursory Google search will reveal the depth of the fandom’s love for (almost) all things Season 4. Even the less die-hard, more casual fans praise it to the skies for its daring creativity. Me? I enjoy it. But then, it’s The X-Files and I’m still so in love with this series nearly a decade after it went off the air that there are maybe three episodes in its entire arsenal that I don’t enjoy.
Oh, wait. Two of those are in Season 4.
All right, I confess. I enjoy Season 4, but I don’t love it. How can that be, you ask, when it’s given us such a long list of television gems?
I’ll be the first to admit that Season 4 is the bearer of some of my all-time favorite episodes. “Home” (4×3) and “Small Potatoes” (4×20) would both be in my Top 10 list if I could ever make up my mind to create one. “Leonard Betts” (4×14) is one of the purest examples of everything that makes The X-Files great: science, humor, grossness, inventiveness, and drama. Likewise, “Memento Mori” (4×15) is the series’ emotional high point to date, some would say ever. Season 4 is also the season where David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson really got to strut and fret their hour across the stage, showcasing their massive talents almost effortlessly. Why would I complain?
I wouldn’t, couldn’t “complain” exactly. But just as high as Season 4 rises it falls just as far at moments. Sure, we can talk almost endlessly about the merits of the episodes I listed above, but let’s not forget the forgettables… “Teliko” (4×4), “Unrequited” (4×16), “El Mundo Gira” (4×11).
Then there’s another group of episodes that are more successful from a creative standpoint, but still remain a few rungs on the ladder lower than interesting: “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man” (4×7), “Synchrony” (4×19), “Kaddish” (4×12), “Max” (4×18).
And then there are a couple of episodes that are worse than boring, they’re irritating. I know you already know of what I type, so I won’t bother with a drawn-out rant. Here they shall remain nameless, but it’s not hard to pick them out of my previous reviews. Let’s just say that both episodes, while valiant in some ways, leave me with a sour taste in my mouth. They taint the overall flavor of the season.
The progress of the mythology is also touch and go for me, not quite the Masterpiece Theater of Season 3. Excepting, of course, the sucker punch of Scully’s cancer arc and the emotional cliffhanger that is “Gethsemene” (4×24). The “Tunguska”/”Terma” two-parter is memorable but needs to be watched with a notepad in hand to get the full effect. I love a puzzle, me, but it shouldn’t take two cups of coffee to follow the plot. “Tempus Fugit”/”Max” is well-done television, but as The X-Files goes it’s missing a little pepper or paprika or something. Overall, the best thing, and it is a very good thing, that I can say about the mythology this season is that it still seems to have a specific destination in mind, no doubt because this is around the time that Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz sat down and plotted the mythology arc all the way through to the future feature film.
Another aspect of this season that I’m not particularly fond of is its political overtones. Between “Teliko”, “El Mundo Gira” and “Kaddish” I’m officially exhausted by racism in prime time. The X-Files isn’t Law & Order, some things are better left as subtext. “Unrequited”, I’m sending a crooked eye your way as well.
Thankfully, for all my pseudo whining, there’s a lot of solid storytelling this season even more so than there are duds. Among my almost favorites are “Zero Sum” (4×21), “Paper Hearts” (4×8),”Unruhe” (4×2), “Elegy” (4×22) and “Demons” (4×23). That’s not a bad haul. Nope, not at all.
Now it’s that time. Noromos, cover your ears.
My Shipmates, what can I say? Have we ever seen so much fluff? Sure, we were rebuffed with a face full of cold water at a couple of points during the season, but almost as if Chris Carter were making a point of compensating us for it, we were graced with the goodness of “Memento Mori” and “Small Potatoes”. I swear I thought Scully’s cancer was going to bring out a full-on deathbed confession. I know I wasn’t alone.
Shipper fantasies aside, Season 4 brings Mulder and Scully’s partnership to a pivotal place. It’s interesting to note that Chris Carter & Co. intended from the beginning of this Season to plant distrust between our favorite two leads. Thankfully, it didn’t go as far as writer Glen Wong had imagined (see interview here), but it’s serious enough that by “Gethsemene” we have Scully refusing to hunt for Little Green Men any longer and Mulder contemplating suicide. It’s really Scully’s cancer arc that holds them together better than anything else would have, and interestingly, it’s Scully’s cancer and the guilt thereof that brings Mulder to his breaking point.
Episodes like “Never Again” (4×13) and a few scattered arguments aside, Mulder and Scully are closer than ever this season. Certainly, they’re more openly affectionate even in the deservedly maligned “The Field Where I Died” (4×5). And, hey, Mulder does decide to celebrate Scully’s birthday for the first time. (All it took was a death sentence). If Season 1 showcased them as buddies, Season 2 as siblings, and Season 3 as friends, I’d say Season 4 highlights their interdependence. I’m glad to see Scully finally admit in “Elegy” that she’s still in this whole X-Files thing because emotionally she needs Mulder, she’s not just there out of pity.
The bloom is off the romance that was Season 2 and to a lesser extent, Season 3, however. Their warts are starting to show. Ultimately, that’s a good thing, but it does take some getting used to.
For me, Season 4 is one of the high points of the series… and at the same time one of its low points. Either way, it marks a distinct evolution in tone and feel. Gone are any signs of less than top-of-the-line production. In are moments of high drama and high style. And it’s not just technical, the characters are evolving too along with their personal storylines. Just when you thought you knew where the Samantha plot was going…!
Angst is the uncontested star of this season, so I’m one of those who has to be in the mood to watch it in its full glory, but glory it has nonetheless. Even if you watch it piecemeal, there’s more than enough material for hours of fun. Yes, even with the angst. Perhaps because of it.
All in all, flubs and duds aside, Season 4 is progress and it bodes well for Season 5.
“Episode Best Watched on an Empty Stomach”
“Episode Best Watched Without Food in Your Mouth”
“I Can’t, I Won’t”
The Field Where I Died
“I Can, But Please Don’t Make Me”
“When Did This Show Get So Pretty?”
“When Did Scully Get So Hot?”
El Mundo Gira
“Don’t Sleep On It”
“You Might Possibly Sleep Through It”
Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man