"The Pine Bluff Variant"
Written by John Shiban
Directed by Rob Bowman
In which Mulder seems to aid a domestic terrorist during a sting operation, a fact that only Scully recognizes, and her search for answers uncovers a cover assignment and a conspiracy...
Status Report - Memorable Quotes - Final Analysis
A lot of fans find John Shiban to be one of the bottom-tier writers for the series. In particular, his more light-hearted episodes tend to run counter to the continuity and logic of the series. Episodes like this one, however, make one wonder if the problem is the writer or the executive producers with a set of restrictions a mile long and no sense of direction.
Whatever the case, this is one of the few episodes by Shiban with a focus on conspiracy, and that serves to mask some of the fundamental problems that typically arise in a Shiban script. In general, the characterization is very strong. Continuity is used to explain why Mulder has been in deep cover (something that explains what Mulder has been doing over the past few months), Scully is driven and using her acquired paranoia and medical knowledge to question authority, and Skinner actually gets to show some range.
This episode highlights the fact that Mulder and Scully have been drifting apart. For all that “The Red and the Black” helped to bridge some of the divide that had come in the aftermath of “Redux”, something that film production schedules drove more than creative concerns, there are still issues of trust and individual purpose. Mulder is trying to figure out what kind of truth he should be looking for, while Scully has very recently come to question how much she’s willing to sacrifice. Both play an enormous part in the psychology of both characters in “Fight the Future”.
Skinner’s allegiance continues to shift incrementally, which is to say, his allegiance still feels like a matter of episode-specific convenience. It’s important for Skinner to be shown as an emerging ally for Mulder and Scully ramping up to the film, because his judgment must also be questioned to push the agents into less certain territory. It’s also rather telling that Mulder’s assignment is related to domestic terrorism, which of course, is where the agents will eventually spend a short tenure.
This episode therefore provides an interesting and subtle context for the months leading into “Fight the Future”. Scully is more or less on her own, with investigations few and far between. Mulder is undercover and obviously not working with Scully very much. Scully still knows Mulder better than anyone else in the world, but his crisis of faith has made it difficult to trust in his motives. In short, the conspiracy has managed to sidetrack Mulder while the Syndicate works out internal issues.
Being almost entirely a side venture, a smokescreen to deflect Mulder from pushing his investigations into the Skyland Mountain and Ruskin Dam incidents, this episode’s conspiracy is rather simple in execution. Mulder is assigned undercover within a domestic terror group with aspirations to use biological agents to kill people. The leader of the terror cell is actually a US deep cover agent, working for the CIA, who wanted to take a great deal of money and lace that money with a quick-killing biological agent. For purposes of deniability, Mulder’s task was to legitimize the fact that the contamination of the money was a terrorist act.
All of which fits within the convoluted nature of the conspiracy and its satellite operations. Why not use money laced with a biological agent that doesn’t spread easily to eliminate foreign opponents, all in the name of covert national security? If anything, this situation ought to make Mulder wonder why certain enemies manage to escape that fate.
For all that the episode is a neat little conspiracy tale devoid of the usual Shiban mistakes, there are still a number of silly plot holes that rely on rather convenient gaps in logic. They begin to crop up rather early in the episode. For instance, if the CIA agent and Skinner were aware of Mulder’s deep cover status, why would they include him on an FBI assignment where it would be all too easy for him to be seen helping the suspect that must, according to the plan, escape? At the very least, Scully should have been far away from the case to ensure that Mulder’s behavior wasn’t highlighted as unusual.
Not only that, but why risk Mulder’s credibility with Haley by including him on the operation? Haley came to Mulder after the press conference in “Patient X”; why not keep Mulder on the back burner during open operations and ensure that the deep cover agent isn’t compromised on either side. Of course, that would have prevented the central drama between Mulder and Scully.
It only gets worse as Scully is informed of Mulder’s cover assignment. At that point, she should have either been brought into the fold completely, to help Mulder maintain his cover, or she should have been ordered to stay away from Mulder and remain behind the scenes in the ongoing investigation. If anything, Scully helps to add to the risk to Mulder by becoming a distraction.
The police knew that two boys survived at the theatre, but they don’t seem to be able to work out the rather obvious reason for that. It’s hard to believe that the boys would keep silent under the circumstances. But that mystery is necessary to keep the story moving until the big revelation at the end. With repeated viewing, it’s too much of a plot contrivance.
Far worse is the scene where Mulder and Scully openly discuss the case and Mulder’s true mission in his apartment. Given the sensitivity of the mission and Mulder’s precarious situation, it makes no sense at all for Scully, a relatively seasoned agent with more than a little experience with the paranoid mind, to initiate and continue that conversation. This is followed by a conversation with Skinner, meant to be private, during which Skinner openly speaks in a way to communicate fully the context!
The next set of plot contrivances come during the bank robbery. The terrorists use an aerosol spray to apply the biological agent to the money. Without protective covering to prevent the aerosolized weapon from, say, wafting back onto their hands, clothing, masks, etc. Then there’s the small matter of Haley screaming at Mulder to shoot the wounded teller. He hesitates far too long to maintain cover, and illogically Bremer seems to give Mulder an excuse not to act. It doesn’t make sense, and worse, it’s clearly designed just to maintain tension as long as possible.
The result is an episode that helps to flesh out the context of the late fifth season in a very good way, leading into the feature film, but doesn’t quite pass muster on its own merits. The progression of the plot relies on staging each revelation as another layer of lies and deception, and while that works well enough, the structure is often left bare for all to see. That lack of depth makes this an intriguing yet frustratingly average installment.
SCULLY: “Our best indications are that exposure was limited and that the toxin was transmitted directly and not contagious.”
CIA AGENT: “How do you know that?”
MULDER: “We’re not all dead?”
MANAGER: “Are you the wife?”
SCULLY: “Not even close…”
MULDER: “I want people to know the truth.”
CIA AGENT: “Well, sometimes our job is to protect those people from knowing it.”
Overall, this episode brings to light some interesting aspects of the latter half of the fifth season, but the internal logic of the story is often suspect. While there are a number of scenes that presage the feature film and point out important character dynamics, there are also too many plot contrivances and conveniences to count.
Final Rating: 6/10
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