"Conduit"
Written by Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon
Directed by David Sackheim



In which Mulder is confronted with a case that reminds him all too much of his sister’s abduction

Synopsis - Analysis - Observations


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"You're actually going to turn in that script for 'Space'?"


Synopsis

The episode begins on the shores of a lake, where a woman named Darlene Morris is camping with her two children, Kevin and Ruby. She is sleeping in a trailer, while the kids are sleeping out by the fire. There is a sudden massive sound, bright lights, and the trailer starts to shake uncontrollably. Darlene is tossed out of her bed, and when she runs to the door, her hand is burned by the intense heat coming through the doorknob. Using an oven mit, she opens the door, and her unscathed son tells her that Ruby is gone. Distraught, Darlene turns to the skies, and screams out her daughter’s name.

Back in Washington, about a month later, Section Chief Blevins has called Agent Scully in for a meeting regarding Mulder’s latest 302. (A “302” is the designation at that time for a budget request form for a new case.) The case had come through channels based on a general search criterion that Mulder had set up through the regional offices (the actual procedure is very tedious, and they gloss over it here). The case involves a clipping from a tabloid about a teen taken by aliens.

Blevins appears to take exception to the idea of assigning a case based on nothing more than a tabloid headline, and speculates that it might have something to do with another case that Mulder opened shortly after discovering the X-Files a couple years earlier. The case is the disappearance of Samantha Mulder, and Mulder is the primary contact on the case. Blevins contends that the request for the present case is related to his questionable judgment where matters similar to Samantha’s disappearance are concerned, and is ready to disallow the 302. But Scully asks him to give her time to discuss it with Mulder herself and give a recommendation.

When Scully confronts Mulder about the less than inspiring origin of the “evidence”, Mulder points out that this case is special because of the location of the incident: Lake Okobogee. Lake Okobogee, according to Mulder, is a UFO hotspot at which a famous incident occurred in August 1967. A den mother and four of nine girl scouts reported seeing an unknown object, which had also been reported by a National Weather Service plane. Scully wonders why this is important, until Mulder points out that one of the four girl scouts was none other than Darlene Morris of Sioux City, Iowa.

Apparently that’s enough for Scully to recommend the 302 be approved, because in no time, Mulder and Scully are speaking with Darlene about the incident. They look over the house at first, and Mulder lingers over a family picture with Darlene, Kevin, and Ruby together, a wistful expression on his face. Mulder explains to Darlene that they know about her report through the Center for UFO Studies, and she tells them that she believes “they” took Ruby. Mulder asks to speak with Kevin.

Mulder finds Kevin sitting in front of a static-ridden television screen, writing zeroes and ones on a black piece of paper. When Mulder asks him about what he’s doing, Kevin tells him that the information he’s writing on the paper is coming from the television. Mulder asks to borrow the sheets that Kevin has completed, and he faxes them to someone in the Cryptography Section of the Bureau. He also confronts the local sheriff over why Darlene’s statements were never followed up on. The sheriff, of course, brushes off the criticism as nonsense.

As they leave the sheriff’s station, Scully comments on Mulder’s attitude. He pushes her comments away, and then notices a note stuffed under the windshield wiper of their car. It says, “I’m across the street follow me”. They see a young woman standing in front of the library, and enter the building shortly after she runs in. Her name is Tessa, and she tells them that Ruby was supposed to see her boyfriend Greg the night she disappeared. Tessa claims that Ruby was pregnant, and that she and Greg were planning on running away.

The agents begin searching for Greg, and wind up at a local bar filled with bikers. The bartender tells Mulder that Greg called in sick three weeks earlier, and hasn’t been back since. Mulder notices that the bartender has a tattoo of a flying saucer on his arm, and pretends not to believe in them. The bartender tells Mulder he should go out to Lake Okobogee sometime, and he might see something that will change his mind. He also shows Mulder a badly burnt ear, which he claims came from something he encountered at the lake in the middle of the night.

That night at their hotel, Scully is awoken when several men in black suits burst through her door. They demand to see Mulder, and soon they have broken into his room as well. They ask Mulder where he got the sheets with the zeros and ones from, and threaten Mulder with prosecution if he doesn’t explain himself. Mulder knows the man, named Holtzmann, and that’s he’s supposedly NSA. Holtzmann claims that the information is a signal from a DOD satellite. Mulder balks at telling them anything, but Scully tells them where Mulder got the papers.

The next morning, Mulder and Scully arrive at Darlene’s house to find the NSA agents rifling through Kevin’s room, destroying just about everything in the process. Darlene and Kevin are taken away in separate cars. Mulder comments on the delicate work of Holtzmann’s agents, but the other man is less than contrite. Scully eventually joins Mulder in Kevin’s bedroom, and looking down on the top of the trailer, Mulder notices that it’s scorched. The paint has been reduced to char.

At the regional office, Mulder and Scully consult with another agent. She tells them that the information, when scanned through a computer, resulted in nothing classified. However, it did have odd scraps of information embedding within the code: the double helix, Da Vinci’s universal man, a snippet from one of the Brandenberg concertos, and so on. But there are just fragments, nothing complete.

Mulder and Scully met Darlene and Kevin as they are released, but Darlene wants nothing to do with them now. Mulder insists that Kevin is the key to finding Ruby, because he is some kind of conduit, connected to whomever or whatever took his sister that night. Scully tells him that she believes his judgment is being affected by his own agenda, but Mulder ignores her.

He takes her to Lake Okobogee, to the spot where Darlene and the children had been camping. Scully notes how close the site is to the forest, but Mulder points out that the tops of the nearest trees have had branches burnt away. Not only that, but there are spots in the sand where extreme heat has turned patches into glass. At that very moment, Mulder notices a white wolf standing just outside the tree line on the beach, and when he makes eye contact, the wolf runs back into the forest. Mulder follows on a hunch, and finds other wolves sniffing at a small pile of rocks. Making the obvious assumption, he fires his gun to clear away the animals.

By the time Scully catches up with him, he’s confirmed by the smell that there is a body under the rocks, and he starts removing stones. Scully warns him that he’s disturbing a crime scene, but with a desperate tone of voice, he tells her that he has to know if it’s “her”. We’re not sure which “her” he’s referring to, but soon it doesn’t matter. The local law enforcement arrives and the body is identified as Greg, Ruby’s supposed boyfriend. Mulder finds a note in Greg’s wallet for a doctor’s appointment.

At the sheriff’s office, Mulder matches the handwriting on the note that had been left on their car with the note in Greg’s wallet. Soon Tessa is being questioned, and Mulder badgers her into admitting that she is the one pregnant with Greg’s child, and that Ruby never met with Greg the night she disappeared. Following the confession, Scully questions why Mulder would think that there was any remaining evidence to think that Ruby Morris is alive. Scully makes it clear that she knows it’s about his driving need to find Ruby in lieu of Samantha, but Mulder stubbornly vows to continue. He refuses to give up.

Scully goes with Mulder back to Darlene’s house, and they find it empty. Kevin’s latest scribblings are laid out on the living room floor. As Scully goes to the upstairs to check for someone there, she notices that the pages, when viewed from above, create a pattern that matches Ruby’s face.

On a hunch, Mulder picks up the search at Lake Okobogee, and they find Darlene’s camper sitting by a trail leading into the forest. They find Darlene on the trail, and she tells them that she saw it again, that it’s here. Mulder runs after Kevin, who is farther into the woods. He finds Kevin walking towards an ominous bright light, but as he runs to catch up, it turns out to be the bikers from the bar. Once the bikers have driven past, Kevin tells Mulder that Ruby has returned. Mulder doesn’t believe it, but then Scully cries out for him. As he runs with Kevin back onto the trail, he finds Scully over an unconscious Ruby Morris.

The next morning, Mulder and Scully are at the local hospital to visit Ruby. While Scully reviews Ruby’s medical chart, Mulder guesses correctly that she has symptoms of prolonged weightlessness. They go into the room to speak with Ruby, but despite Kevin’s insistence that Mulder can be trusted, Ruby refuses to speak. She’s been told, she says, not to tell. Darlene arrives and stops the interview. When Mulder tries to press Darlene into convincing Ruby to tell her story, Darlene refuses to let her daughter speak anymore about it, for her own protection.

Back in Washington, Scully listens to the tape recording of Mulder’s regression therapy with Dr. Heitz Werber. Mulder is recounting his memory of the night that Samantha was abducted. As the recording plays in the background, we see Mulder sitting in a church, clutching a picture of him and Samantha when they were children. He weeps openly as the screen fades to black.

Analysis

This episode presents more than a few problems in terms of the overall timeline of the first season, and how it is supposed to fit within the series mythology. But at the same time, it is the first episode to delve deeply into Mulder’s obsessive psychology, showing us just how scarred Samantha’s apparent abduction left him. It leaves the episode slightly unbalanced, especially after so many years of additional information and retellings of the events that shape this episode.

At the heart of this episode is the concept of seeking redemption. We would see this replayed over and over again, with Mulder and just about every other character on the series, but this is the first instance. Mulder slowly but surely identifies Ruby with Samantha, and himself and Kevin, until he can no longer truly separate the two situations by the end of the episode.

During the first three episodes, there is a clear sense that Mulder is being methodically isolated from the comforts of his former position within the VCU, and from my perspective, I think we’re seeing this play out yet again in this episode. Based on the severity of his reaction, we can speculate that this is the first case that Mulder has investigated with such a parallel to his sister’s abduction. It makes sense that this specific case would be made an issue, and therefore given more weight, so that Mulder’s state of mind can be exploited.

In the pilot episode, which takes place in March 1993, we see Mulder at the crossroads. He is still considered to be operating within the purview of the VCU, but he has gotten to a position where he can be manipulated. This episode takes place in August 1993, and at this point, Mulder has managed to get himself permanently transferred out of the VCU onto the X-Files, he’s at odds with the military, and now he’s been set against the NSA. On top of that, Scully has been placed in a position to do Mulder official, documented damage. It all adds up to a systematic effort to drive Mulder into the role of “lunatic fringe”, where his only outlets can be controlled and manipulated, even when he is unaware of it.

I’m not sure that setting this episode in August makes sense, but it does give enough of a window since the beginning of the series for it to be conceivable that Mulder is taken apart that quickly. Another couple of months would have been a better fit, but one could make the safe assumption that this effort had been in the planning for quite some time. After all, we know from later seasons that Mulder’s discovery of the X-Files was engineered by the conspiracy through Diana Fowley. Since she was to have left on another assignment shortly before the series began, that fits the profile.

We see the common element of the heat and radiation effects from the propulsion systems of alien technology come up again here. We also see the growing emergence of a theme. These events occur in cycles, whether it is related to conspiracy or some supernatural threat. The fact that Darlene’s daughter was chosen for this particular incident seems to be connected to her mother’s report of a sighting nearly 30 years before.

What marks this incident as different is the utter lack of mention of implants or some other means of linking the abduction or Kevin’s behavior to a planned abduction. That suggests that Ruby’s abduction is a singular incident with a specific purpose. But whether or not Ruby was part of a larger testing rationale, her abduction was clearly purposeful. The heat effects were directed and localized, as evidenced by the lack of gross injuries during the abduction itself.

Also interesting is the evidence that Ruby was in a weightless state for a month, which doesn’t fit the usual scenario either. In most of the testing done during abductions, the subjects are taken away in military craft modified using alien technology and relocated to military bases or the mobile rail/ship laboratories. This abduction doesn’t fit that pattern. It’s reasonable to assume, then, that this is a slightly different set of circumstances.

So either the conspirators deliberately staged an abduction that would not fit the pattern in order to throw Mulder off the track, or they took advantage of an incident that took place outside of their operations. Either version makes a certain amount of sense, but I think the first explanation makes more sense because of the additional aspects of the incident involving Kevin and the “conduit” effect.

If we assume that the conspiracy was behind Ruby’s abduction, and that it took place outside of the usual testing regimen, then it’s entirely possible that they would use this situation to conduct tests on other technologies they are attempting to perfect. The fact that Kevin is receiving and acting on information embedded within the random noise of the satellite television transmissions is very similar to what happens in later episodes, with more violent effects. The information is fragmented, yet Kevin interprets that information in a way that relates to Ruby. So perhaps this specific application is still in the earliest testing stages…perhaps to be ultimately used to control the masses during “colonization”.

However it works, Kevin is clearly being used as a lure. The information is embedded within an encryption code that is utilized by the DOD, yet it is used to transmit information has nothing to do with its normal application. Whatever lies within the signal to push Kevin to provide this evidence also directs him to where Ruby is later returned. The idea, it seems, is to use Kevin to manipulate the entire situation, and leave Mulder as vulnerable politically and emotionally as possible.

The choice of information to embed in the encryption is interesting, because it fits rather well with the information that is inscribed on the outside of the alien craft discovered in East Africa and Canada later in the series. General scientific, religious, and cultural material is apparently represented, and that fits that pattern. At the same time, we know that the Syndicate at this point had not yet recovered an entire alien vessel with those markings. So how does this fit into the picture?

Since we know that a similar vessel crashed at Roswell in 1947, leaving the technology and fragments for study, it might be possible to conclude that the information within the transmission was based on what they could recover from the fragments at the Roswell crash site. Also, this fits what we learn when Mulder is exposed to the information on the East African vessel. As Fowley said then, the Syndicate had encountered the effects of the fragments on certain humans before.

By sending that information through the transmission to Kevin, it could be a quick and dirty way to determine whether or not Mulder has additional information within the X-Files, something that might have been missed during Fowley’s time with Mulder. It’s unlikely that he would know anything at this point, since he seems to know very little at this stage of the game, but there are times when they use Mulder to gain information later in the series as well.

This episode, then, appears to represent the latest step in the plan to isolate and discredit Mulder, use him for disinformation purposes, and test their technology. Or, on the other hand, it could be an episode that stubbornly refuses to fit into the larger picture. Either way, it is a fairly average episode when all is said and done.

Observations

- Is the heat an effect of the radiation from the back-engineered propulsion systems?

- Unlike some other episodes, this version of Samantha’s abduction actually matches the one we saw in the pilot.

- Mulder’s little whisper: “Okobogee…”

- Scully’s continually changing hair and makeup rears its odd little head again this episode.

- Interesting books in the Morris entertainment center, aren’t there? I particularly like “Message From Absalom”, which has a rather intriguing connotation, and “The Philosopher’s Stone”.

- The biker angle feels just a little overdone, and it really doesn’t fit the rest of the episode very well.

- “And people call ME paranoid…”

- Even under the circumstances, shouldn’t Scully have made a point to stop Mulder from disturbing the crime scene sooner and more forcefully? It would have been in his best interests either way, since if it had been Ruby (or less likely, Samantha), he would have wanted every possible piece of evidence.

- Good job, Mulder, toss yourself and the small child onto the dark ground where the bikers can’t see you to avoid you…

- I know two years can feel like a long time, but shouldn’t Scully remember that you don’t perform chest compressions or CPR on someone who is unconscious, breathing, and has a beating heart?

- The regression scene at the very end is easily the best part of the episode, and arguably one of the best scenes in the series itself.

Overall, this episode stands well enough on its own, as an exploration of Mulder’s inner demons when it comes to Samantha’s disappearance. But it is a bit out of joint with the rest of the mytharc, as though it was set aside when it came time to weave things together.

I give it a 7/10.


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