The Pine Bluff Variant 5×18: Oh, is this the Pepsi Challenge?

Musta been something I ate.

We were overdue for this.

The last three episodes haven’t been… bad… they’ve just been rather quiet and unassuming, a characteristic I know how to appreciate but, dang it, this is The X-Files. I should be nearly falling off my chair with excitement more often than not. Usually, that kind of adrenaline rush is brought on by vile beasties and such, but “The Pine Bluff Variant” ignores the usual scares for an old-fashioned, Hollywood style action mystery – it’s a welcome departure.

This episode is a pure thriller from top to bottom. I don’t think the series ever had another episode that was quite like it in tone and if not for a few key elements like the familiar characters, the distinctive cinematography and particularly horrific effects of the biotoxin, it wouldn’t even feel like an X-File. The closest episode to it in style would have to be “F. Emasculata” (2×22), which has a rare sense of urgency to it for a non-mythology episode, with “Sleepless” (2×4) running second just because both episodes are echoes of The Manchurian Candidate in their own way.

All three episodes are what I like to refer to as Half-Caff: They involve a more generalized and vague government conspiracy than the mythology proper that’s centered around a highly coveted piece of science or technology. It’s one of my favorite sub-types of Monster of the Week episodes because the “monster” is so much more dangerous than an individual mutant, it’s all encompassing and nearly invisible – it’s a government. And isn’t The X-Files, a product of men who grew up in the Nixon era, a show grounded in government distrust? It’s a foundation of cement, really. The monsters, the aliens, they’re all just stand-ins and allegories for groups of nameless, faceless men with all the power and none of the integrity, men who control the future of the masses while exercising no self-control over their own whims. At least, that’s how you’ll feel if you watch too much of this show.

Mulder made a mistake and opened his mouth a little too wide back in “Patient X” (5×13) voicing not only his then doubts as to the existence of extra-terrestrials, but also some particularly jaded views on the Federal government. I always appreciate continuity on The X-Files when I see it, and goodness knows it becomes a hot commodity in later seasons, so I think it was clever of writer John Shiban to throw in a nod to a significant moment earlier in the season.

But back to Mulder… thank heaven for this episode! Mulder has either been irritating or relatively useless for the last five episodes, that is when he’s even present. Finally, he’s redeemed as our anti-hero hero and I’m forcefully and gleefully reminded why I love this man… er… character. Yes.

Mulder has one of his greatest moments ever here with his,  “If you touch me again you better kill me!” line. Actually, that entire interrogation scene is golden both for Mulder’s sarcasm and his action hero antics. If you haven’t watched it in a while, please do. Pop it in the player a moment for your own sake. Go on. It’s okay. I’ll wait.


And we’re back.

Not to be outdone, Mulder isn’t the only one with a chance to shine, Scully wakes up this episode and I just love her when she has attitude. I know her little feet can’t reach the peddles but I swear, she’s more dangerous than Mulder. U.S. Attorney Leamus has no idea how narrowly he escaped a hurtin’.

The villain isn’t the only object of her wrath, either, as wonderfully evidenced in that scene where Scully tracks Mulder to an out of the way motel. Scully’s furious at Mulder, more so because he’s lying to her than because he’s colluding with a dangerous criminal. Even so, she doesn’t betray him when she has the chance. It’s like I said back in “Demons” (4×23), Scully will defend Mulder whether he’s innocent or guilty, as long as he needs her she will compulsively be there. She might not be happy about it, though.

Things were supposed to be a little tense between Mulder and Scully this season what with Mulder’s doubts about the existence of aliens and Scully dealing with the after-effects of her cancer, but whatever the writers intended, for the most part, they didn’t pull it off. I can’t think of when the characters have ever felt closer.


This is absolutely the best episode John Shiban ever gave the show solo and it’s one of the best examples of how The X-Files could transform itself from week to week and from genre to genre. The more I think about it, the more I wonder why I don’t see it pop up more often on “Best Of” lists.

I’m still not sure what the government gets out of this in the end. Were they using these terrorists to test the biotoxin or were they trying to retrieve the stolen technology from them? If the former, were the terrorists aware they were being used? Is August Bremmer a government plant put there to organize and control them into using the weapon the way the government sees fit?

In the end, I just don’t care. I enjoy the ride far too much to be disappointed by my own inability to follow a plot.

I’ve always loved this episode, but watching Scully and Skinner walk into that movie theater again with flashlights flashing… it just may have rolled up into my top ten favorites.


Random Comments:

Kate Braidwood, the daughter of Tom Braidwood, the First Director on the show and the actor who plays Frohike, shows up in this episode as the Usherette.

Putting the biotoxin on the bank’s money sounds scary in theory, but it would never make it out into the general population anyhow. The moment someone who worked at the bank touched it they’d die, which would lead to an investigation, which would lead to the money being confiscated. After all, how can anyone pass on the cash without flesh?

So the motel featured so heavily in this episode… I feel as though I’ve seen it several times, a fact which I can neither confirm nor deny. But if I’m not much mistaken, it’s not only the motel from “Conduit” (1×3) and “Wetwired” (3×23), but possibly from “Colony” (2×16) and “Tempus Fugit” (4×17) as well. But I’m not going to bother to go back and check so…

The set design and lighting in that F.B.I. conference room is immaculate. Come to think of it, the set designs throughout this entire episode are amazing.

Oh, my Shippers, you caught that moment, right? Right? Right.

Best Quotes:

Scully: Maybe you can tell me what’s going on.
Motel Manager: What?
Scully: There seems to be a problem. A man just told me you gave him keys to my room. Room 130.
Motel Manager: Who are you?
Scully: Who am I? Who is he?
Motel Manager: Mister, uh, Kaplan.
Scully: Mr. Kaplan?
Motel Manager: Yes.
Scully: Thank you.
Motel Manager: Are you the wife?
Scully: Not even close.


Scully: Exactly what agency are you guys from?
Agents: [Stony silence]
Scully: Obviously not the Office of Information.


Scully: Oh, Mulder, what did they do to you?
Mulder: [Winces]
Scully: This needs to be set. You’re in pain.
Mulder: Yeah, if you keep pullin’ it around like that…


Mulder: If you don’t hear from me by midnight, feed my fish.

30 responses to “The Pine Bluff Variant 5×18: Oh, is this the Pepsi Challenge?

  1. Wow, a very glowing review there Salome, and I have to whole heartedly agree with you on this one, nice comparison to F Emasculata, plus like that episode, it is essentially The X Files in action movie mode. The bank robbery scene reminded of similar classic scenes in movies like Heat and Point Break. Only Robert De Niro wasn’t wearing a Dracula mask of course. Quick question though, this episode was filmed and is set in 1998, why was the cinema showing Die Hard With a Vengeance, a film from 1995?

    Okay, I’m being bloody minded there and I really shouldn’t be. I’m currently rewatching season five and I’ve got this one coming up shortly and reading this is getting me hyped up for it again.

    • Ugh, I’m jealous that you still have it to look forward to.

      And, yes! Heat! That’s what I was thinking of but couldn’t think of. 🙂 Boy, do I luvs me some Al Pacino. But that’s another obsession for another blog.

      If I remember John Shiban’s commentary correctly, and I’m sure I don’t because I listened to it a couple of weeks ago, Die Hard had some similarities in style/theme that they were going for in this episode so it was a nod to that and, more importantly, Die Hard is owned by Fox so the rights were cheap.

  2. Well, it’s understandable then if that’s why they went for Die Hard. Not the first time the Bruce Willis movie franchise has been referenced in the series though. It was glimpsed in the season three classic Wetwired as well.

    As for Al Pacino, welcome to the club Salome, you can never go wrong with the legend that is Al. 🙂

  3. So I take it you’re a big fan then? 😀

  4. Can a Rabid Stalker ever be in check? LOL

  5. I’m starting to worry for Mr Pacino now. I really am. 🙂

  6. I’m glad I’m not the only one who never quite understood the plot here. But like you said, it’s such a fun episode that who even cares? Mulder undercover and being sassy and awesome, Scully not taking crap from anyone . . . that bit where she tells the hotel owner than she’s not even close to being his wife is pretty much great. And I love what this episode says about Mulder and Scully’s relationship: she’s mad at him and she’s afraid he’s done something crazy, but she’ll still protect him. Theirs is a partnership that can stand up to conflict.

    I never thought about the biotoxin not making it out to the public. That makes the terrorists’ plans rather less frightening. Did they really not think that through? Or was the point to make the money unusable? Or was it just sort of a vague threat–“this is a taste of the horrible things we could do if we wanted to”?

    And okay, I watched this episode last week and I’m not sure which shipper moment you mean. Hint?

    • I haven’t seen this episode in a while but I’m thinking “the moment” must be in the scene where Scully is setting and icing Mulder’s finger. I’m trying hard to remember that scene!

      • That’s it! Don’t try too hard, go back and watch it. 🙂

        Sigh. I love it when an episode comes along where I can adore both characters individually and together.

        • I just read the transcripts of that scene, and yes, it is definitely a gem! Scully is way nicer to Mulder than he deserves and proves (yet again) that no matter how big of a dick he is to her (ordering her out of his apartment) she will always be there to take care of him.

  7. I enjoyed this episode as well; the score Mark Snow wrote for it was also very “urgent” in its sound. I always believed that 50% of the show’s awesomeness was due to the score presented each week.

  8. Agree 100% with the Mark Snow comments – this is the third time I’ve watched this episode and I have to say I was on edge the whole time – probably about 90% because of the music. Mark Snow was such an asset to the series.

    I remember the first time I watched this episode, I hated Mulder HARD for about the first twenty minutes – until we learn, as Scully learns, about the deep cover mission. David does such a fine job of playing cold, dismissive Mulder. It hurts so good.

    Anyway, this was a freaking awesome episode. I have a personal interest in bioterrorism – I’ve read everything Richard Preston has written. I’ve written papers on it in grad school. I think being a victim of a bioterror weapon is probably the worst way to die, in my opinion. I think, given this aired in 1998, this was a bit ahead of it’s time. Sure bioterror was out there and known, but it didn’t really become the hype until the anthrax scares in what, 2002-ish? I find, as I rewatch the series, how very much ahead of its time The X-Files was in so many ways – the nth reason I love this series the mostest. 😉

    And the shipper moment………….. 😀

    • The topic is kind of creepy looking back. I bet if it had aired in 2002 it would be better remembered by the general public, kinda like the way 24 addressed our national fears.

      • Oh god, 24 was 75% anxiety, 25% fearmongering… But I watched the hell out of it. It was good at addressing more current issues – bio and nuclear weapons, torture and whether it is effective or not in gathering information, etc. Over time it became so incredibly unrealistic I think I quit after season 6.

        • Unfortunately, there are only so many times a similar premise will be believable. I watched and enjoyed it to the end, but it stopped feeling “possible” to me after about Season 3. For that matter, the mythology of The X-Files…

  9. I completely agree with your assessment of this episode. If I could coherently put together a top 10 list, this would probably be on it. However, I can’t pick just 10 (or 15, or 25, or…), so take that with a grain of salt.

    I love the moment when Mulder tries to order Scully from his apartment. He’s trying to protect her, and will do whatever he has to do to keep her out of this. But then she has to go and be all caring and fix his boo-boo, and he breaks down and tells her everything. Ah, young love.

  10. Thank you for making me go back and re-watch this episode! It had been a while, I think it’s one of those episodes I skimmed over usually gearing up for the movie. I will never make that mistake again. This is absolutely getting Mulder back to our somewhat self-destructive hero, and there is something incredibly satisfying about how Skinner, Scully, and Mulder all band together at the end.
    I probably can’t say this enough, but thank you so much for these reviews! I am really enjoying watching all your ‘A’ rated episodes and reading the reviews as I go.

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  13. “for groups of nameless, faceless men ”

    I see what you did there.

  14. There is a lot to love in this episode despite the confusing resolution to the plot.

    At first I was shocked at the implication that the government/people in power would so callously kill the innocent moviegoers just to test a new bio-weapon. But then I realized this is the XF universe and it is quite in line with what they’ve been doing all along. Besides, what’s a few dead people compared to the impending near genocide of the human race that they’ve been planning for last 50 years.

    Now, why did Bremmer save Mulder’s life and expose the government’s culpability in this whole affair? Killing a bunch of innocents in the theater nor tainting money with the intent of distributing it to thousands / (millions?) of people was not an issue. So why spare Mulder and risk the position that Bremmer just solidified? Sadly, it seems like they were just milking the “Mulder is in danger and might get killed” suspense angle for the episode (which played out very well on screen) and exposing the Bremmer-government connection to the audience.

  15. I don’t think this episode is amazing. I think it’s good, but not up there with the best. I’d give it a B+. I guess I maybe because it doesn’t really feel like x files. I appreciate the change in pace and genre and it is definitely one of Season 5’s better episodes.

    We know Mulder isn’t a bad guy / traitor, and we know he won’t die. I wish they stoped trying to trick the audience otherwise. Plus the movie is coming up.

    Anyone else think the bad government guy has scary stare eyes?

    That blue dress Scully wears is very noticeable. I like Mulder’s hair in this episode, seems to be more free, and less gel.

    When in the cinema why did Sculy pick up the cinema ticket, just after she said it may be the mode of transmission?

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  17. Is anyone reminded of the movie “Point Break?” The “Ex-Presidents all don masks and make Keanu Reeve does the same prior to robbing a bank. Did a plot get stolen here?

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