Written by Mat Beck
Directed by Rob Bowman
In which Mulder is given a tip on a case involving unusual violence related to television signals, and things get complicated when Scully becomes the latest unwilling test subject...
Status Report - Memorable Quotes - Final Analysis
While the previous seasons built towards the season finale, dropping hints about something ominous on the horizon involving the conspiracy, the third season has devoted more time and effort towards establishing the psychological interaction between the two agents. The previous episode delved into the issues that exist between Mulder and Scully, while this episode reveals just how deadly those issues can be, left unaddressed.
One similarity between this episode and the end of the first two seasons is the focus of the conspiracy at this time: cleaning house. “The Erlenmeyer Flask” involved a trap set for Deep Throat, while “Anasazi” involved a plot to uncover Mulder’s hidden resources. This episode returns to the first season gambit of determining whether or not Mulder’s false informant is following orders or taking liberties.
On the face of it, this question is long overdue. Informant X risked his life by saving Mulder in “731”, but in the intervening episodes, his presence was sorely missed. Perhaps well aware of his situation, knowing the fate of his predecessor, Informant X contacts Mulder about a scheme of the conspiracy through an intermediary. As a result, Informant X gives Mulder the chance to actually expose a vital component of the conspiracy’s plan, all while keeping his own involvement at arm’s length.
In this particular case, there is also the open societal question of violence on television. There is the semi-popular theory that violence in the media has a causal relationship to violent behavior. Even to many with the field of psychology, this is a specious argument; violence has always existed within the human animal, and television is likely no more than an additional trigger for behavioral issues that pre-exist. In other words, television violence alone would only rarely be the root cause of violent behavior, but it can contribute to existing pressures. The conspiracy’s plan, however, seems to be designed to hide within the boundaries of such flawed conceptions.
The plan itself is so well-conceived, given the “real world” possibilities, that the involvement of the conspiracy is hardly a question. It’s apparent enough that Scully, caught in the effects of the altered television signal, automatically assumes that Cancer Man must be involved. In and of itself, that is interesting; what makes it brilliant is how something of such obvious utility is twisted into a means of exploring Scully’s psychology.
As this season has aptly demonstrated, Scully has allowed her fear of the truth to justify her selective acceptance of “extreme possibilities”. Deep down, Scully knows that her explanations for every new case cannot fully explain the phenomena in question. Even to the point of the previous episode, Scully was seemingly able to handle that subconscious contradiction. But perhaps having aired her feelings about Mulder’s issues resulted in a weakening of her own mental walls.
The signal alteration device “programs” the viewer to believe that the object or expression of the viewer’s greatest fear come to pass. For Scully, that fear is the ultimate betrayal of her trust and faith in Mulder. If Mulder relies on Scully to help him maintain hope for answers, then Scully has grown dependent on Mulder for the emotional support to keep living with the knowledge of what has happened to her in recent years.
The idea that Mulder would betray Scully, and her horrified and violent breakdown at the thought of it, echoes the events of “Anasazi”. As a result of a more targeted effort by the conspiracy, Mulder became highly paranoid and accused Scully of being the conspiracy’s tool. Scully turns around and makes the same accusation in this episode, proving to the audience that the two characters have become utterly dependent on each other.
It’s not very hard to understand why the conspiracy would be conducting such experiments. What seems odd is the timing. This is several years after the successful completion of perfected control technology, hardwired into the nanotech used with the “super-soldiers” deployed in the Persian Gulf Conflict. That same technology was in the chip implanted in Scully’s neck. Why, then, would such limited means of population control be tested in 1996?
It might have something to do with the extent to which the control chip technology can be employed. The control implants would require a person to actually be implanted with the chip for the control functions to work. A large percent of the population, under the conspiracy’s strategy, would be implanted with the chips under false pretense; however, this would not necessarily cover enough of the population to make the process of Colonization as smooth as the conspiracy would like it to be.
After all, a certain number of people will be directed to the lighthouse locations, while the majority of people will be earmarked for infection by Purity. Considering that this process was meant to involve extensive bee attacks, something that could easily cause panic and would ultimately be very hard to control, a means of “pacifying” the masses would be necessary.
The tests in this episode seem to take advantage of the idea that the majority of the world, by 2012, will have access to television. Since the Syndicate deals exclusively with the United States, that assumption is not far from the truth. The signal alteration device allows the conspiracy to test the degree to which the technology can alter behavior, without affecting millions at once.
The conspiracy sets up the most logical test condition possible: get a person to believe in their greatest fear and act out in an uncharacteristically violent manner. Unlike most hypnosis or subliminal effects, there is little chance that the subject would have a predilection to believe in such things; in fact, they are predisposed to disbelieve it. The goal, then, is to completely convince a person that the one thing they do not want to accept is in fact the truth.
By proving that such a thing is possible, the conspiracy would have some level of assurance that they could send out a signal on every station, leading up to the day of Colonization, influencing the masses to willingly allow themselves to be infected. More than that, once the rapid process of gestation had begun, the signals could be used to keep the populace from reacting, keeping attempts to counter the progressive spread.
While this makes sense, it sounds like something that the conspiracy would have attempted long before 1996. One could reason that the experiment would need to be in an isolated area, and that cable television would take longer to establish itself in such areas. But that seems too facile an argument.
More likely is the idea that Cancer Man has been cleaning house, as with Luis Cardinal in “Apocrypha”, and a situation had to be concocted to test Informant X’s loyalties. Cancer Man sets up a test of the signal alteration device, and then makes sure that Informant X knows about it. He orders Informant X to eliminate all personnel involved with the experiment once investigations begin regarding the deaths, and then waits to see if Mulder is tipped off.
The implication is simple: Cancer Man continues to work towards restoration of his status within the conspiracy, to better control events towards his intended goal. The audience is meant to understand that Informant X is on very thin ice, because his involvement in the events surrounding the season finale naturally follows. Cancer Man has to have some idea of what to expect in the near future, especially at it pertains to Mulder and Scully, and he is preparing to take advantage.
An important aspect of this episode is Mulder’s immunity to the signal’s effects, and this presents something of a continuity problem. Obviously, there is little in Mulder’s past experience to suggest that he is red-green color blind. For instance, wouldn’t this have come up at some point when Mulder looks at fresh blood? If he’s red-green color blind, he ought to have trouble recognizing if something is blood or something of similar consistency. Sure, context helps, but not in every situation depicted during the course of the series.
This is such an obvious plot device that it actually takes something away from an otherwise strong episode. It’s not as though this was established earlier in the series in a way that would make it memorable. Mulder has to be immune to the effects, of course, because someone has to remain sane enough to talk Scully down and then investigate the source.
It also seems a bit contrived for Scully to be dead, something that feels like an unnecessary sidebar to the whole episode. Sure, one could imagine that the possibility would exist for such an outcome, but logically, the audience knows better. In fact, the writers have to smooth over the idea that Ma Scully might have been called, so that Mulder remains the only person to view the potential body. That said, Duchovny does a great job selling the plot point, especially when he has the near-breakdown in his car.
Plot device issues aside, the progression of Scully’s psychosis is great to watch, if only because it’s done so well. It doesn’t take long for the audience to be given clues about the effect on Scully, and that means that the tension starts early in the episode. It’s not as though the writers tried to sell the idea that Mulder was actually betraying Scully; rather, the writers were specifically demonstrating how the reinforcing nature of the rogue signal quickly drove Scully to violence. Gillian does a great job of communicating Scully’s paranoia.
Mulder’s established background in psychology, however, comes in very handy. Mulder immediately realizes that there must be something more than just bad television at work, because he has the education and experience in profiling. He knows that root causes of violent behavior are much more difficult to pin down than most people would like to believe. It definitely helps that he was given a tip that something was specifically different about the case, but since he doesn’t trust the source, his expertise plays a vital part.
Using the Lone Gunmen as a means of delivering exposition is a good move. Frankly, this is what the characters were created to do: give Mulder (and therefore Scully) technical support outside of the Bureau. After all, wouldn’t the Bureau be less secure, given the circumstances? Mulder could have told Scully the truth from the beginning, though, and if he had, it wouldn’t seem like an obvious example of the plot dictating character.
Bringing Ma Scully into the fold is somewhat more difficult. For one thing, the woman must have been ready to drop dead after Mulder’s initial phone call. It’s been about 18 months since Scully’s abduction, and Melissa’s death is still fresh, a year after the fact. Suddenly getting the news that her daughter is missing under mysterious circumstances again had to be incredibly hard.
At the same time, this plays into the idea of trust. Mulder knows that Scully would turn to her mother if she felt things were falling apart, and his bond with Ma Scully is strong enough that she can’t lie to him. It makes sense that Ma Scully would be able to talk her daughter down. It’s just surprising that Ma Scully doesn’t turn around and beat the hell out of Fox for getting her daughter into so much trouble.
Speaking of, the writers do a great job with the dynamic between Mulder and Ma Scully. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than a mother figure getting away with “Fox”; the only other person to call him that was his father, and then only with an underlying tone of annoyance. Similarly, Mulder never refers to Scully as Dana, expect with her mother. It suggests a bond that probably explains why Ma Scully is so tolerant of Mulder’s role in Scully’s life.
The end of the episode could be interpreted as though Cancer Man had no previous knowledge that Informant X has been contacting Mulder. This is clearly not the case, however. Previous episodes have demonstrated that Informant X was giving Mulder information for a purpose, often advantageous to the conspiracy in some fashion, even as disinformation. The final scene is more indicative of the failure of Informant X’s attempt to remain detached, now that he has acted beyond his mandate.
As the season comes to a close, the last few episodes have allowed the usual threats to the X-Files department to remain in the background; the audience is already well aware of the likelihood that things will come to a head. The writers instead choose to focus on the psychological issues of trust between Mulder and Scully, something that has been an unofficial arc over the course of the season. By blending conspiracy and character into one relatively consistent package, this episode manages to overcome its own inherent weaknesses.
SOURCE: “This area’s always been known for its criminal element.”
MULDER: “Especially when Congress is in session.”
MULDER: “Who told you to contact me? How do I know I’m not being played?”
SOURCE: “I guess you don’t.”
SCULLY: “Look at this…there must be hundreds of videos here.”
MULDER: “Anything good?”
MULDER: “I just watched 36 hours of Bernard Shaw and Bobbie Batista. I’m about ready to kill somebody, too…”
MULDER: “As it does in almost every American home, but television does not equal violence. I don’t care what anybody says. Unless you consider bad taste an act of violence…”
MULDER: “I bet all you guys were officers in the audio-visual club in high school, huh?”
MULDER: “Mind control?”
LANGLY: “57 channels of it…”
MULDER: “Don’t lay this off on me, you sneaky son of a bitch! You pulled me into this situation because you didn’t have the courage to reveal the truth yourself!”
INFORMANT X: “Feel better now?”
Overall, this was another strong psychological episode, this time melded with the conspiracy in a logical and consistent way. Some plot devices are a bit too contrived, but the strengths of the episode outweigh the weaknesses. Two great performances by David and Gillian give the episode the necessary gravitas, and there’s enough foreshadowing to make sense of some elements of the season finale.
Final Rating: 8/10
Back to Season 3
Back to Reviews