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.
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.
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?
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.