The X-Files Newbie Recap: “All Souls,” “The Pine Bluff Variant,” & “Folie à Deux”
"If I'm not back by midnight, feed my fish."
Scully feels, two episodes with beloved Walter and “you’re my one in five billion”? THIS WEEK IS JUST COPIOUS HURT.
Brace yourself for this one because I have a lot of feelings. I don’t enjoy watching Scully undergo emotional torture but when the symbolism is this vivid I can almost forgive it.
We begin with Scully in confession, relaying the tale of a strange case. She was approached by her priest a week ago and asked to help a local family named the Kernofs, whose daughter Dara recently died in strange circumstances. Dara was found down the road from her home with her eyes burned out and her body rigoured into what looks like a praying position. (To this lapsed Catholic, her stance looks distinctly Bernadette-esque. Not that that means anything, per se.) The best explanation the coroner can come up with is that she was struck by lightning. Scully visits the family and learns that the father in particular is having difficulty reconciling his faith with the loss of his daughter. It’s a similar dilemma to what Scully herself experienced with Emily, so she decides to try and help.
Although it’s not an official FBI case, Scully asks Mulder for help. Dara was adopted so she asks him to try and find the birth and adoption records. By the time he gets them, another girl is dead. This girl, Paula, had the same disabilities as Dara and died in the same manner. She was in a psychiatric facility pending adoption by a priest named Father Gregory. A social worker named Starkey intervened to delay the adoption at the last minute. He informs Mulder and Scully about it, and they decide to speak to Gregory.
The birth records show that Dara and Paula were part of a set of quadruplets. An inverted cross was found at the scene of Paula’s death. Father Gregory, who runs a church named for St. Peter (he who was crucified upside down), indicates that he knew the birth mother but won’t reveal her name as this would violate confessor privilege. He warns of a struggle between good and evil, one that they must accept lest they put their own lives and those of “the messengers” in danger. Outside, Mulder, ever the skeptic when it comes to religion, says he believes they’re dealing with a religious nutcase. Scully however is a bit spooked by Gregory’s words. At Mulder’s suggestion, she does an autopsy on Paula’s body. This reveals strange masses on Paula’s clavicles. Scully uncomfortably notes that the masses may well be wing-like. As if that wasn’t enough, Scully also sees Emily on the table instead of Paula. In confession, she says she thought it was a hallucination brought on by her emotional connection to the case. In hindsight however, she believes she was meant to see Emily as a message to her to save the girls.
Mulder gets a lead on the third sister. He and Starkey go looking for her in an abandoned warehouse. They find her dead and frozen in the same stance as the others. Father Gregory is at the scene, so Mulder arrests him.
In questioning, Gregory continues to be standoffish. Mulder is bullish and damning about organised religion (“when you talk to God it’s prayer, when God talks to you it’s schizophrenia”) but Gregory notices that Scully is being quiet. He claims the devil took the girls. Mulder scoffs and leaves, but before Scully follows Gregory says she’s already guessed what the girls are. He urges her to protect the last girl, Roberta.
Mulder learns that Roberta was adopted by a Maryland family. Unfortunately, there have been several allegations of child abuse through the years. Scully isn’t convinced Roberta is still there and tells Mulder he’s being misled. He’s taken aback. Taking her to one side, he expresses concern, saying he’s never seen Scully seem as vulnerable. She reveals that she had a vision of Emily. Mulder takes a breath and gently encourages her to step away from the case, saying it’s too personal for her. Scully refuses and tells him to go find Roberta while she finishes up with Gregory.
However, Starkey gets to Gregory first. He is, evidently, more than just a social worker. He demands to know where Roberta is but Gregory ignores him and starts to pray. Starkey slowly incinerates him from within and then disappears. By the time Scully gets back to the room, Gregory’s dead.
Mulder arrives at Roberta’s adoptive home. He discovers that her father was keeping her in the basement. The father admits that Gregory took Roberta from him a few weeks back. Mulder calls Scully, who tells him that Gregory’s dead. As she speaks to him, a figure suddenly appears before her. She looks up and sees a man with four different faces. Thoroughly spooked (and who wouldn’t be), she goes to Father McHugh for answers.
Father McHugh listens soberly and digs out a text containing the tale of the seraphim. This is an angel with four faces – that of a man, a lion, an eagle, and a bull. According to the story, the seraphim descended from heaven and fathered four children with a human woman. These were called the nephilim, or fallen ones. They had the souls of angels but they were not meant to be, and so were born deformed and tormented. God sent the seraphim to Earth to retrieve their souls, lest they fall into the devil’s hands. Any mortal who looks upon the seraphim would be “smote by the brightness of his countenance”, as to look upon him in all his glory is to be taken into heaven. Despite this rather breathtaking tale, Father McHugh doesn’t believe the man Scully saw is the seraphim. He thinks she’s seeing things, and the text the story appears in isn’t recognised by the Church. However, when she asks if he believes God would have reason to show her an angel, McHugh says yes for this is how he rewards her faith.
I’m so emotional but I’ll finish the episode before unpacking this. When Scully leaves, Starkey approaches. He claims the fourth girl, Roberta, has been found at Gregory’s church. They head over and Scully starts looking around. Starkey won’t come inside. She notices suddenly that his shadow has horns. Scully finds Roberta hiding under the stairs and goes to take her outside, away from Starkey. Suddenly, a bright light appears before them, and the figure Scully saw within it. Roberta starts moving towards it as Starkey yells at Scully to bring the girl to him. Scully tries to stop Roberta, but suddenly Emily appears in her place, saying “mommy, let me go.” Scully eventually loosens her grip and Emily walks towards the light and disappears. When the light vanishes, Roberta’s body is on the ground in the same praying pose as the others. Starkey is gone. Scully doesn’t approach Roberta’s body. She sits on a chair nearby and looks on from a distance.
Back in the confession box, Scully says she believes she released Roberta’s soul to heaven but she’s having difficulty accepting it. The priest is understanding, asking if she believes in a life after death, and if she thinks she is meant to understand it. He asks if she can accept her loss. Scully, tears rolling down her cheeks, replies “maybe that’s what faith is” as we fade to black.
Help me, this was agonising. And incredible. And devastating. I *love* angel lore and I was really hoping the show would tackle it at some stage but aligning it with Scully’s personal tragedy makes it more powerful than I could ever have hoped for. Let’s do some bullet points to try and keep things brief (lolz, as if this is ever my forte):
- I’d like to note that Father McHugh asked Scully to intervene after Easter Sunday Mass. Easter Sunday is when Jesus supposedly rose from the grave after being crucified on Good Friday, so let’s feel entirely free to read into that as deeply as we can. “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me will never die.” Given the events of the episode, this could be taken as an indication that the girls and Emily were taken into Heaven.
- During confession, Scully says science can only teach us how someone died, not why. It’s a painful sentiment but a necessary one, especially in light of her faith. I would imagine that for most religious people, the “why” of anything is the most difficult part. It’s one thing to believe in a higher power but quite another to separate our very human feelings of pain, loss and devastation from the understanding that everything is part of a plan. Even the most devout among us will struggle with this at some stage, and Scully sees all of her grief and conflicted feelings over Emily reflected in the Kernofs.
- When Mulder finds the third girl dead, he sees a bird flying away above her body. I’m not quite sure what kind of bird it is but it’s an incredibly poignant image and one which evokes freedom and release. Should it happen to be a dove, it’s also worth noting that the Holy Spirit takes the form of a white dove in Catholic lore.
- I know it’s in the Bible that humans can’t look on the face of God or his soldiers (the angels), but the image of the burned out eyes was still chilling. Also reminded me of Supernatural and Castiel’s tendency to wreck the joint on entering a room.
- Mulder’s aversion to organised religion is one of the more pleasingly consistent aspects of his character. His opinions would tend to reflect my own, as I have noted here before, and I always take it as a sign of his inherent goodness that he can’t stand anything which has been and continues to be so horrifically misinterpreted as justification for violence. Then again, as Scully would probably point out, this is the difference between organised religion – which many people would concede has some glaring flaws – and subjective faith.
- The very fact the Church doesn’t recognise the text containing the story of the seraphim may be taken as one of those flaws: humans cherrypicking the bits and pieces they consider to be canon (pun unintended). I wonder if this is why Gregory set up his own church, because he was the mother’s confessor and obviously believed in the seraphim. I also love the use of the inverted cross and reference to St. Peter, who believed he wasn’t worthy to be crucified in the same way as Jesus. The implication is that Gregory considered himself incapable (or unworthy) of comprehending the will of a higher being. It could also be taken, mind, as a link to Scully’s misplaced sense of self after what happens with Emily and the girls.
- Emily’s appearance links neatly, albeit soul-destroyingly, to the story of the nephilim. When she appears before Scully instead of Roberta, it’s almost a sign that her mother sees her as an angel as well: a being of unsanctioned origin, who was taken back by Heaven to keep her safe from those who would do her woe. Why isn’t there anaesthetic for this woe?
- Scully’s struggles with her faith are so interesting and so brilliantly conveyed. I have to admit that, as an atheist, it’s hard to put oneself in the position of someone grappling with their beliefs but the show (and Gillian) really capture the pain and turmoil she feels. I’m reminded of a quote from a novel called Amongst Women, where the lead character quipped that he’d never met a priest who wasn’t afraid to die. Scully has had a near-death experience and believes in life after death to some extent, but she still really struggles with the idea that Emily’s death, and those of the girls in this case, sent them to a better place. She blames herself for this inability to accept it as much as she does the fact of their deaths. No loss can be greater than that of a parent losing a child, and I would imagine that even the most ardent of believers would find it hard to accept a child is better off dead than in their arms. Scully’s difficulties with these experiences are profoundly human and so keenly felt. She concedes that having faith may mean accepting you’ll never understand, but that doesn’t soothe anyone’s wounds and certainly doesn’t replace a beloved child. This is heartbreaking to watch.
- On a character note, Scully never ever confides in those around her, no matter how much she’s feeling. Tellingly, she isn’t even speaking to her regular priest when she discusses the above.
Are we all crying yet? I’m in ribbons. This was SUCH AN EPISODE and I could honestly write about it all day, but we have two more episodes to do so let’s move on. I’ll definitely try and come back to this one again at some stage though. Let’s discuss in the comments!
The Pine Bluff Variant
Thankfully, this was easier on the emotions. Throwing Skinner into the forefront of an episode is one way of alleviating post-“All Souls” devastation. More to the point, this was also a genuinely excellent episode. Perfectly terrestrial yet high-stakes and hinting at a wider mystery while still offering a satisfying conclusion.
We open with the FBI waiting to intercept a suspect in a public park. The suspect, Jacob Steven Haley, has ties to a terrorist group. Haley meets a contact at a park bench and a number of agents move into position nearby. Haley passes an envelope to his contact, but the man soon drops to the ground from some unclear affliction. Haley spots the agents and makes a run for it. Mulder is hot on his tail but Haley escapes.
The next day, Scully reviews footage of the incident. The videotape seems to indicate that Mulder let Haley escape, but Mulder is evasive when she demands an answer. They’re both called to a hearing about the operation. Scully indicates that Haley’s contact died from what looks like a biotoxin. Another agent suggests it may have been stolen from Russia. Skinner and the agent in charge, Leamus, order that no information leave the room and sends everyone on their way.
Another member of the terrorist group, Bremner, appears at a cinema in Ohio. He contaminates the place with the biotoxin, leaving the staff and patrons dead. When two teenage boys break in later, they stumble upon a stomach-churning scene.
Scully is still suspicious of Mulder’s role in the park operation. Unbeknownst to her, he’s working with Haley. She tails him to a motel and watches him get into a car with Haley’s crew. She follows, but is stopped down the road by fellow FBI agents. They take her to see Skinner and Leamus, who reveal that Mulder’s in deep cover. He was approached by the terrorists – the New Spartans – after appearing at a conference in Boston. Scully is quite naturally appalled by all this but Skinner says it was him who advised Mulder not to tell her, as he’s attempting to find out what the group are planning.
Meanwhile, Mulder is taken to a dark room in the middle of nowhere to meet Haley. Some light torturing ensues as Haley attempts to find out if the park operation was a set-up. Mulder manages to convince him otherwise and is released, albeit with a broken finger.
Scully and Skinner roll up to the cinema in Ohio and try not to boke. The toxin, whatever it is, doesn’t appear to be airborne so Scully suggests it must have been something everyone touched. When Mulder arrives home later, Scully meets him. She tells him about what happened in Ohio and he gives her some details of his mission. Outside, Bremner listens from a wire tap he’s set up in Mulder’s house.
The next day, Mulder goes to Skinner and Leamus and tells them Haley wants transfer schedules for federal banks. Haley is also after surveillance files on his group, now thoroughly convinced there’s a mole in the operation. Skinner gets fidgety and suggests putting a tail on Mulder just in case. Leamus rules it out, saying it’s too dangerous. Mulder goes back to work on his lonesome.
Scully is able to determine that the biotoxin a bacterium. A strain of streptococcus, to be precise, which has been engineered to be lethal. It’s activated by dermal contact. The lab tells her it can’t be Russian as it’s too sophisticated, leaving her to do further research. She later calls Skinner and asks to speak to him privately before revealing that the toxin was engineered at the army’s Pine Bluff facility in the 60s. Although the bioweapons programme was officially discontinued several years ago, it appears to have continued in secret. Scully’s worried that Mulder’s been sent on a suicide mission. Skinner evidently shares her concern, because he doesn’t tell Leamus any of this.
Mulder meets Bremner and gives him the federal reserve schedules. Bremner gives him a mask and drags him along on the heist. The group hits a bank in Pennsylvania. They force a bank manager to open the vault and spread the toxin over the money inside. In the kerfuffle, a clerk is shot but not killed. Bremner orders Mulder to finish him off but he hesitates; eventually another gang member shoots the clerk dead instead. After leaving, Bremner pulls a gun on Mulder. Haley steps between them, saying the surveillance files Mulder turned over indicate Bremner is an FBI mole. Bremner pulls out a tape recorder and plays back the conversation he recorded between Mulder and Scully.
Meanwhile, Scully’s put two and two together and figured out that the bank intend to contaminate money to spread the toxin. She informs Skinner, but they have no way of contacting Mulder. Not one to be dissuaded, our tenacious heroic redhead reviews footage of the 27 robberies that took place that day and finds Mulder almost immediately (even in a mask). I’d love to think that she recognised his air of general ridiculousness but it’s actually the bandage on his broken finger which gives him away.
Haley and Mulder are marched to the edge of the terrorists’ compound. Bremner releases Haley. It looks like he’s about to shoot Mulder, but instead he shoots another gang member and tells Mulder to disappear. Mulder hurries to the road and gets back to the bank as soon as possible. Luckily, the place is already locked down and the contaminated bills are being removed. At Scully’s behest. Obviously. She updates him on the source of the biotoxin when Leamus appears and refutes all her theories. Both our heroes are appalled, accusing him of using the American public as unwitting test subjects for a biological weapon. (The government doesn’t have form in this area, or anything.) Leamus claims there’s no evidence of the toxin on the money, and sometimes their job is to protect people from knowing the truth. Standard shite, so.
In the final scene, we see a car roll slowly off the road and into a ditch. It’s Haley, slumped dead over the wheel from the effects of the biotoxin. Bremner gave him a set of keys when he let him go and these are, evidently, what infected him. That’s one way of resolving a power struggle, though it looks like Bremner is indeed a mole or undercover agent himself.
This was a great, action-packed episode. I love how gnarly TXF can be even when it isn’t focusing on aliens and things that go bump in the night. Episodes like these give our heroes a chance to show their staunch integrity in the cold light of day, and also lets Walter do his actual job with relative ease. Bremner is quite the intriguing figure, I must say. The show doesn’t explicitly indicate whether he’s an undercover agent or just a turncoat but it’s not hard to imagine the government sending agents into these groups to stir things up. It also gives them a group of ne’er-do-wells to test biological weapons on, not that that’s particularly humane. I find it hilarious that Mulder’s rampaging against the government gets him into such trouble on both sides of the law. His being sent anywhere as an undercover agent is such a laughably terrible idea I almost applaud it. Anyhoo, onwards!
Folie à Deux
A madness shared by two. It’s almost meta, you guys. Even Scully says so.
In this, a telemarketer starts seeing a weird insect creature fluttering through his office. He becomes convinced it’s his boss in disguise and loses the plot, holding up the office with a gun. Gun violence is a very real and terrible affliction in society so I don’t want to make light of that at all, but I can honestly understand why working as a telemarketer would drive someone over the edge.
Skinner calls our heroes to his office and says he’s sending them to Chicago to perform a “threat assessment”. This is before the aforementioned telemarketer, Gary, goes postal – the threat in question is a taped manifesto threatening violence. The company Gary works for, VinylRight, want the FBI to check it out as they had a similar incident with another disgruntled employee a few years back. Mulder asks why the Chicago field office can’t take care of it. Skinner says he wants them to go. Reading between the lines, Mulder senses the manifesto includes some strange and unusual things and declares “monsters! I’m your boy.”
Feeling equal parts self-indulgent and self-important, Mulder tells Scully he’ll go alone because it’s obviously nonsense. In Chicago, a VinylRight exec named Pincus plays him the tape. It speaks of a monster which hides in the light. Mulder advises Pincus to take some added precautions and heads off to analyse the tape. He calls Scully and asks her to look through the X-Files for the phrase “hiding in the light”.
Pincus schedules meetings with all VinylRight employees to assess their job satisfaction. Gary watches as a number of them emerge from the meeting looking like zombies. When the woman in the next cubicle over from him comes back looking like a ghost, it’s the final straw.
Scully calls Mulder a short while later with an update. She’s found a reference to “hiding in the light” in an X-File from 1992. A church deacon, concerned about an evil presence among his congregation, showed up for Mass with four handguns. He later committed suicide in prison. Mulder asks Scully to come to Chicago to help. Grinning in the magical way only Gillian Anderson can muster, she replies “I told you so” and sets about making arrangements. Delicious.
By the time she arrives, Gary’s taken the office hostage. Mulder walks right into the middle of it and is herded into the cafeteria with the other employees. Gary has separated the “zombies” from the other workers and isolated Pincus too. Mulder attempts to reason with him while reaching for his gun. Gary is distracted by a SWAT team climbing onto the roof, however, and fires indiscriminately into the ceiling. Outside, the agent in charge, Rice, calls Mulder’s phone and catches him off guard. Gary notices his gun and badge and takes it from him. One of the zombies tries to charge Gary but is shot and killed. To try and prevent further deaths, Scully and Rice decide to grant Gary’s request to record a television message.
Pincus tries to persuade Gary to let everyone go. Gary refuses, saying he’s the monster and he’s going to expose him on television. A cameraman is sent in. He carefully pivots about the room so the agents outside can see the situation. Scully spots Mulder on the camera. Rice notices the exterior wall is clear and assembles a team to go in. As Gary prepares to speak to the camera, Mulder steps between him and Pincus. The lights flicker and suddenly Mulder sees the insect creature flickering behind Gary. Immediately afterward, the FBI team burst through the wall and Gary is shot dead.
With that, Scully and Skinner are content to put the case to bed. Mulder however can’t stop thinking about the monster he saw. He finds variations of “hiding in the light” in five different X-Files, each with eerie similarities to this case. In addition, each of those cases took place within 20 miles of a VinylRight office. Mulder asks Scully to autopsy the body of the man Gary shot – the one he claimed was a zombie. She refuses. Mulder’s adamant he can prove something’s going on, and heads back to Chicago.
The Chicago field office contact Skinner shortly thereafter to report Mulder’s erratic behaviour. Scully is called in and asked to explain her partner’s behaviour. Take a shot every time that happens in this show and you’ll nuke your liver in no time. She is loyal to a fault, however, and says she’ll join Mulder to follow things up. Skinner says she’s scheduled to do an autopsy first – on the body of the “zombie”.
Mulder is now following Pincus. He trails him to the house of a VinylRight employee and spots the monster inside. It attacks a woman and leaves her looking, to Mulder’s eyes, like a zombie. When the woman is interviewed about the incident, Mulder attacks Pincus and has to be restrained by Skinner. (Swoon!) Mulder spots the monster hovering behind Skinner and freaks out all over again.
After all that, he unsurprisingly ends up tied to a hospital bed. Scully comes to check on him and, echoing the thoughts of everyone in the audience, Mulder chuckles – “Five years together, Scully, you must have seen this coming.” Scully’s brought the autopsy results on the shooting victim. The body is more decomposed than you would expect for someone who died a day ago, but otherwise there’s no sign of anything suspicious. Mulder asks her to check for evidence of bite marks. Scully thinks he’s deluded, but he responds with the most eloquently unnecessary turn of phrase this show has ever invoked: “Scully, you have to believe me. Nobody else on this whole damn planet does or ever will. You’re my one in five billion.”
I mean…c’mon. How is anyone supposed to move on from that?
Because Scully is as human as the rest of us (but mainly cos she’s an absolute treasure who cannot ignore her partner no matter how deranged he may seem) she goes and takes another look at the body. Sure enough, there are two bite marks on his neck. At the hospital, Mulder is freaking out because the monster’s hovering about outside his room. He calls for the nurse but she’s been zombified. When Scully arrives a short while later, she sees the nurse as Mulder does and hurries to his room. She shoots the monster twice. It falls out the window and disappears.
Back at HQ, Skinner is as deeply unimpressed as ever. Scully is able to show that a toxin was found in the shooting victim. Pincus has disappeared along with a number of key witnesses to the case. Beyond that, they have nothing. Outside, she and Mulder climb into the lift. She tells him she told Skinner “the truth” about the case, as far as she understood it. “Folie à deux,” she says. “A madness shared by two.”
This was also really fun. For a monster of the week, it certainly packed a punch. That insect monster thing was disturbing as feck, and even if Mulder is on the unhinged side at the best of times it’s still unnerving to see him restrained in a hospital bed. All praise to Scully, as ever, for sticking by him and proving that something shady was afoot…even if they can’t quite determine what.
I loved the exchange between them when they were first assigned the case. Mulder, presuming he was brought onto a non-case because he’s “monster boy”, and Scully pointing out that Skinner assigned it to *both* of them. I know it’s annoyingly in character for Mulder to be so stubborn and single-minded, but at this stage Scully really shouldn’t have to keep reminding him he’s part of a unit. Especially when she has to keep saving his ass in the end, and especially when he’s going around throwing phrases like “you’re my one in five billion” at her. That was totally unacceptable. I’m so appalled I’m going to find every single tacky merch item it was printed on and buy all of them before sobbing into the night.
Just one more episode to season’s end, X-Philes, which means next week will feature a recap of the first movie! I’m so excited. If you’re on Twitter, find me and keep an eye out for that excitable liveblog. Stay spooky!
—The Mary Sue has a strict comment policy that forbids, but is not limited to, personal insults toward anyone, hate speech, and trolling.—