"Ascension"
Written by Paul Brown
Directed by Michael Lange



In which Mulder tries to save Scully from Duane Barry’s plan to have her abducted, and ends up facing changes when the attempt goes very wrong...

Synopsis - Analysis - Memorable Quotes - Observations


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Synopsis

As the episode begins, Mulder listens in horror to the message that Scully left on his answering machine. Moments later, he’s at her apartment, and as he surveys the crime scene, he sees the details of the abduction clear in his mind. By the time that Margaret Scully arrives, Mulder is almost numb, unable to explain what happened. After some of the shock has worn off, Ma Scully explains that she had a dream about Scully being taken away, but she didn’t say anything because Scully wouldn’t have believed.

Later that morning, at FBI Headquarters, Skinner runs through a meeting on the incident with Mulder, Krycek, and several other agents and officials. The cigarette-smoking man sits in the room as well, though not as an official part of the discussion. Skinner reviews what Scully had unearthed regarding Duane Barry’s medical history, and puts forward the theory that this was the cause for Scully’s abduction. However, he also puts the alien abduction theory on the table, placing Mulder in the difficult position of defending that theory.

Mulder dodges the trap somewhat, explaining that the mystery of how Duane found Scully cannot be explained by psychosis. Skinner dismisses those concerns, focusing on the task of finding Scully. He orders Mulder not to get involved with the case, saying that Mulder is “too close” to it.

A little later that morning, near Rixeyville, Virginia, a police officer pulls over Duane’s car. When Duane begins babbling about having to get someplace, without knowing where that place is, the officer pulls his gun and demands that Duane get out of the car. When Scully, tied up and gagged in the trunk of the car, tries to get the officer’s attention, Duane uses the distraction to shoot the officer. Duane makes sure that Scully knows he’s not happy.

That afternoon, Mulder works with the Video Production Unit, and after some manipulation of the shooting video, Mulder is able to identify Scully when Duane opens the trunk. About an hour later, as Mulder reviews the transcript from the hostage negotiations with Duane (in “Duane Barry”), Krycek stops by to check in on how Mulder is doing. He’s there when Mulder catches on to Duane’s reference to “ascending to the stars”. He checks on the location of the shooting, and then flips through the phone book to an ad for “Ascend to the Stars: Skyland Mountain”.

Armed with that information, Mulder intends to disregard orders and hunt down Duane. Krycek, recognizing that he wouldn’t be able to persuade Mulder to follow orders, decides to come along for the ride. Of course, before they leave, Krycek checks in with the cigarette-smoking man, telling his superior that he’ll “hold him off until they locate her”.

Within hours, Mulder and Krycek are in the Warrenton, Virginia area. Mulder is obviously way past good judgment, and working on no sleep for several days. While discussing the situation, Mulder makes it clear that either Duane used the implant to track Scully, or someone else told him where Scully would be.

The agents arrive at the bottom of the tram system, which takes visitors to Skyland Mountain. The operator explains that the tram is not operating, due to the summer hours, and that when Duane Barry arrived, he made Duane drive to the summit. Mulder forces the operator to let him use the tram, and ignores the operator’s warnings about keeping the tram speed down. As Mulder approaches the top of the tram system, Krycek brutally knocks out the operator and stops the tram, trapping Mulder. He reports to his superior again, promising to hold Mulder until he gets further orders.

Of course, Mulder has no intention of waiting, and tries climbing on top of the tram, perhaps intending to climb along the wire the rest of the way. Krycek, seeing what Mulder is up to, lets the tram complete the trip, tensing when Mulder nearly falls off the tram car. Once at the top, Mulder quickly finds Duane’s car, and retrieves Scully’s gold cross necklace from the empty trunk.

Hearing a noise, Mulder looks up, and sees something unknown in the air. Once the object speeds off, Mulder hears Duane laughing hysterically, and runs to the man’s position. He finds Duane alone, and the crazed man swears that the aliens took Scully instead of him. As they stand on the mountain, an unmarked helicopter roars overhead, and Duane thinks it’s the alien again.

Later that night, Mulder interrogates Duane in one of the rooms at the resort. Duane still insists that the aliens took Scully. Mulder sees that Duane’s face is burned, and demands to know where he got the wounds. Duane swears that it was from the alien vessel. Duane also insists that the military was in on it. Frustrated by his inability to get something concrete from Duane, Mulder grabs the man by the throat and starts suffocating him. A few seconds later, the moment passes, and Mulder leaves, ashamed.

Krycek is waiting for him outside, and wants to know what transpired. Mulder warns Krycek to keep people out of the interrogation room. Meanwhile, Mulder envisions that Scully is being used in some kind of reproductive experiment. As rescue personnel arrive, Mulder notices that Krycek is in the room with Duane Barry. Once he sees Mulder, Krycek comes out and claims that Duane was gagging, and that Duane was blaming Mulder. As Skinner arrives, very displeased with Mulder, Duane Barry suddenly starts to gag again. This time, it’s much worse, and within moments, Duane Barry is dead.

The next morning, Mulder stops by the morgue at the FBI academy at Quantico, hoping to get a copy of the autopsy report. The pathologist explains that Duane Barry likely died of asphyxiation, but Mulder doesn’t want to believe he was responsible. He asks the pathologist to run toxicological tests, but the pathologist explains that Mulder will have to go through normal military channels. Mulder realizes that the autopsy was conducted by the military, not the Bureau.

Meanwhile, Krycek meets with the cigarette-smoking man, who instructs Krycek to confirm Mulder’s version of events at Skyland Mountain, to preserve Mulder’s trust in him. Krycek wonders why Mulder simply isn’t eliminated, considering the threat that he apparently poses. The cigarette-smoking man replies that if Mulder is killed, the conspiracy risks making one man’s religion into a crusade. Krycek appears to accept that, and wonders about Scully’s fate. The cigarette-smoking man makes it clear that Krycek doesn’t need to know, and that demanding answers would be a very bad idea.

A few hours later, Skinner reviews the incident at Skyland Mountain with Mulder. Like before, there are several agents present, as well as the cigarette-smoking man. Skinner notes that Mulder attacked Duane, and that Krycek reported entering the room to help Duane when he started gagging. Regardless, Krycek has confirmed Mulder’s story, but the Office of Professional Conduct wants to convene on the matter and question the agents. Mulder puts forward the theory that Duane was killed by injection or ingestion of poison, and accuses the military of covering it up. When he is dismissed, he convinces Krycek to give him his car keys, rather than go to OPC.

Mulder tries to visit Senator Matheson (“Little Green Men”), but he is intercepted by his most recent informant. The informant tells Mulder that the senator cannot help him, and that “all channels of appeal and recourse are closed”. Mulder scoffs at his informant, claiming that his predecessor would have helped. The informant prepares to leave, but reminds Mulder that the government, meaning the conspiracy, has only one policy: Deny Everything.

Once back into Krycek’s car, Mulder plays a hunch, and opens the ashtray. He finds the remains of cigarettes, and he knows what that must mean. The next day, Mulder goes to Skinner personally and delivers his allegations against Krycek, claiming that Krycek was acting against the interests of the case. Skinner calls for Krycek based on the allegations, and Mulder produces the cigarette butts, reminding Skinner that unmarked helicopters had been in the area of Skyland Mountain. Mulder claims that the cigarette-smoking man and his theoretical superiors had to be responsible for Scully’s abduction.

Skinner admits that he wasn’t the one to assign Krycek with Mulder, and then he learns that Krycek has disappeared. Mulder seethes at the thought that such things could be done with impunity, and he demands that Skinner let him do something. Instead, Skinner is the one who takes action; he re-opens the X-Files.

Shortly afterward, Mulder meets with Ma Scully. She’s had the dream again, and it frightens her. Mulder shows her the gold cross necklace that he found in Duane’s car, and gives it back to Scully’s mother. But she hands it back to him, and tells him to give it back to Scully when he finds her.


Analysis

This episode is the climax of the long-running subplot entailing the attempt by the conspiracy to place limitations on Mulder’s credibility. Having effectively used him to spread disinformation to the fringe element for at least a couple of years, the conspiracy miscalculated when it assigned Scully to replace Diana Fowley as Mulder’s “handler”. Instead of monitoring and controlling Mulder’s activities, Scully actually gave them a degree of credence.

It made sense, then, for the conspiracy to begin an effort to identify and eliminate Mulder’s support system, at least until it could be determined how to redirect his efforts away from dangerous ground. It’s also clear at this stage that Mulder’s continued survival is utterly paramount. One can only assume that they need Mulder alive for some future purpose, and the later seasons muddle through the possibilities, even while stridently avoiding a definitive answer.

With the X-Files closed and Mulder’s original informant eliminated for stepping over the line, the subsequent months were spent pushing Mulder to his psychological limits. By placing him on the endless wiretap projects, the conspiracy hoped to drive him towards desperate action, to see what he was still capable of accomplishing without the direct resources of the X-Files.

What they discovered, of course, was that Mulder and Scully had developed the kind of deep bond that reassignment couldn’t destroy. Scully was still invested in Mulder’s personal crusade, and that was all Mulder needed to regain his desire for the truth. Using both a new informant and Alex Krycek, the conspiracy was able to evaluate Scully’s importance.

It’s clear from this episode that there are no aliens involved. This is the first real look into the details of the conspiracy at work, and it is done very effectively. Having long since acquired Scully’s genetic profile, the conspiracy would see that Scully had secondary potential for use in the reproductive and implant experiments. As such, having become expendable, Scully is “reassigned” as a test subject.

Much of this episode is about Mulder’s realization of just how far the conspiracy spreads. For the moment, at least, the character of Walter Skinner takes the initial step from conspiracy lackey to Mulder’s semi-ally. In these early seasons, Skinner’s character arc is sensible and realistic, and the fine line he walks is completely justified.

At the same time, it’s not at all clear that Skinner is making a decision that upsets the conspiracy. After all, the assessment of Mulder’s support system has already been completed by the end of this episode. Mulder has no one to turn to, no one that he can trust without question. By openly abducting Scully, the conspiracy has delivered a powerful message; go too far, and your friends and loved ones will pay the price.

The desire to keep Mulder alive permeates this episode. Contrary to some interpretations, Krycek does not try to kill Mulder in this episode. It’s clear that Krycek only starts the tram car to prevent Mulder from endangering himself to get to the end of the ride. Krycek’s expression exudes concern for Mulder’s life, even if he doesn’t understand why that is so important.

The oft-repeated excuse that Mulder’s survival is required to keep him from becoming a martyr don’t have even the slightest ring of truth. It certainly sounds good, and it’s easy to see how those enmeshed in the conspiracy might fool themselves into believing it. But it just doesn’t make sense, especially considering how powerful the conspiracy is at this point. There’s no reason that Mulder cannot be killed, which means that there must be some other factor involved.

While it’s never stated completely, it would seem that in later seasons, Mulder’s specific genetic code has been identified as important to the ultimate aims of the conspiracy. There are hints that ancient prophecy regarding the coming Colonization point to a specific person providing the key to preventing Colonization, and for at least a little while, Mulder is the one assumed to be that person.

Here’s the interesting thing. Much of that supposition appears to come exclusively in the later seasons, when the markings on the recovered alien vessels are deciphered as genetic information. However, if that’s the case, then why would the conspiracy have worked so hard to keep Mulder alive, even when he was making things difficult?

The answer, of course, is that at least someone in the conspiracy was aware of Mulder’s true potential, long before he was working on the X-Files. Considering that at least some small fraction of the genetic code of the one destined to save mankind was recovered at Roswell (keeping in mind the markings found on the wreckage), it’s quite possible that one of the original conspirators figured out what it meant.

The obvious candidate, especially in light of the series as a whole, is the cigarette-smoking man. This also casts an interesting light on the project as a whole. If the cigarette-smoking man had knowledge of a specific genetic trait or sequence, and he was secretly looking for a match to that sequence in the population, that adds a potential double-meaning to the genetic database that the conspiracy developed prior to 1973.

Such a theory also goes a long way towards explaining some of the evidence uncovered over the course of the first several seasons. However, in terms of this episode, it proves a very important point. The cigarette-smoking man is willing to lie to his subordinates and colleagues, when it is necessary to make certain his needs are met.

That said, there are some plot conveniences that push this episode forward, regardless of how well justified that decision might have been. For instance, it’s not at all clear how Mulder would have been able to convince the video technician to allow him to get involved on the case. In the same scene, there’s no explanation for how Mulder was able to determine that a particular police shooting would yield evidence in Scully’s abduction. It’s a bit too easy, especially given the time frames involved.

It’s also odd to have the cigarette-smoking man sitting in on all these meetings, considering the fact that he is leading a conspiracy (or at least, leading the real conspiracy within a larger effort). Granted, this is meant to illustrate just how integrated the conspiracy has become in terms of the Bureau, but it also betrays overconfidence. Never mind the fact that it makes Mulder look incredibly dense, considering that the conspiracy is practically broadcasting their existence! Instead, Mulder doesn’t figure it out until he finds cigarette butts in Krycek’s car...which he checks for and suddenly makes the correct assumption about! It’s also hard to believe that Mulder would get away with writing such an unsubstantiated report, ditching OPC, and facing charges associated with the death of a suspect…among other things!

Also unfortunate is the sudden disappearance of Krycek, who should have been allowed to continue on for more than a handful of episodes. Linking Mulder with a partner who was actively working for the conspiracy could have been played out over a longer period of time, especially since Krycek would have to work very hard to keep his loyalties a secret. But it appears that Krycek’s involvement was the victim of Chris Carter’s desire to step back from the serialization of the series.

It leaves to question, especially given the later revelations regarding his background, how Krycek got involved with the conspiracy in the first place. It’s not even clear where he fits into the overall scheme, though a relationship with the cigarette-smoking man is obvious. It might have been nice to have Krycek’s background explored at some point, though of course, it’s a lucky thing that Skinner managed to squeak out some past history here or there.

Unlike last episode, which found its hard-hitting hostage premise appended with somewhat jarring ties to the larger mythology, this episode is nothing but a fast-paced mythology primer. This is easily the first episode to truly address the scope of the conspiracy, and it serves as the jumping point for the season finale, if nothing else.


Memorable Quotes

SKINNER: “He’s following orders from alien voices in his head.”
KRYCEK: “Yes.”
SKINNER: “Well, that’s an interesting spin on the Nuremburg defense…”

KRYCEK: “The US Department of Transportation estimates that over 190,000 fatal car crashes every year are linked to sleepiness.”
MULDER: “Did they estimate how many people are put to sleep listening to their statistics?”

DUANE: “They took her!”
MULDER: “Who?”
DUANE: “Them!”

CSM: “Kill Mulder, and you risk turning one man’s religion into a crusade.”

INFORMANT: “There are no answers for you, Mr. Mulder. They have only one policy: Deny Everything.”

SKINNER: “There’s nothing you can do.”
MULDER: “What can you do about it?”
SKINNER: “There’s only one thing I can do, Agent Mulder. As of right now, I’m reopening the X-Files. That’s what they fear the most.”


Observations

- This episode gives us the first good look at Scully’s apartment. Oddly, over the course of the series, Scully’s apartment would change without warning...sometimes several times a season!

- Scully’s current building number: 1419, apartment number 35...

- The cigarette-smoking man looks like he’s watching porno, not an FBI SAR meeting!

- Love the use of the Nick Cave...

- Since when does police video have that kind of resolution?

- How do they get such good cellular reception in that parking garage, anyway?

- Gotta love how Mulder completely ignores the traffic arrows painted on the garage floor...

- I wonder why Krycek memorized all of those statistics?

- If the tram cars can’t be run safely at top speed, why allow the passengers to have speed controls that go that high?

- Love how Krycek has to fix his hair after slamming the tram operator with his gun!

- Mulder’s Law: if safety equipment is too hard to figure out in less than three seconds...ignore it!

- Exactly where is that big lake supposed to be in Warrenton, Virginia? I mean, that’s big...and I don’t remember seeing a lake like that in that part of Virginia...

- Never mind the fact that Warrenton is nowhere near the Blue Ridge, and to go from Rixeyville to Warrenton, you have to go away from the mountains!

- At almost 9 PM on an August night, it wouldn’t even be dark on the East Coast, let alone the mountain summit...

- So all of that stuff with Scully is supposed to be in the back of a train car? Awfully big for the train cars shown in later seasons!

- Once again, incorrect CPR technique...

- It’s almost impossible to read the date on Duane Barry’s toe tag, but none of the possibilities can possibly be correct. It’s at most a couple days after the last episode, and that was specifically early August 1994. The toe tag looks like June 21, 1994!

- Now, Skyland Mountain is in Skyland, VA. At least that’s in the Blue Ridge, in the woods...but still nowhere near a big lake, and hundreds of miles from Warrenton!

- Why didn’t Krycek think to clean out the car, knowing the current stakes?

- Mulder goes from five-day facial hair to cleanly shaven to three-day facial hair, all within the space of 24 hours!

- Just once, I think I should try submitting a report like Mulder’s...it ought to amuse the Director...

- Doesn’t “with impunity” imply “can’t do anything about it”?

- Love the music and camerawork for the final scene...

Despite some pacing problems, and the occasional lack of focus, this episode does a great job of setting up the critical “Scully abduction” plot thread. As convoluted and bastardized as that plot thread would become, at this stage of the game, it was one of the best episodes of the series to date.

I give it a 9/10.


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