War in the Shadows
by Sarah Stegall
copyright ©1995 by Sarah Stegall
Writer: Chris Carter (Colony), Frank Spotnitz (End Game)
Story by: David Duchovny (Colony)
Director: Nick Mark (Colony), Rob Bowman (End Game)
Up to now, “The X-Files”‘ Spooky Patrol has investigated hints and clues, isolated incidents, quirky events with a confused pattern and little meaning. But with “Colony” and “Endgame”, the series took a 90 degree turn into global engagement, as Mulder and Scully are drafted into a shadowy internecine war where neither side appears to hold the moral high ground. I find myself running out of superlatives as the series takes on a grand design, one in which our heroes assume a larger role as defenders of not just some abstract “truth”, but the possible future of the human species. Layer upon layer of deception peels away during this two hour epic, in which the direction and tone of the series must be forever altered.
In “Colony”, written by series creator Chris Carter from a story by himself and star David Duchovny, Mulder and Scully investigate the deaths of three unrelated yet physically identical abortion clinic doctors. The team uncovers what appears to be a plot with Cold-War overtones, recalling the darkest days of anti-Russian paranoia and the very birth of the CIA. A deadly assassin becomes their target as the chase leads them through several states and across the Arctic Circle. Mulder finds his past and his present intertwining as his long-lost sister Samantha (Megan Leitch) re-surfaces in the middle of the mystery, only to be lost again–or is she? The last half, “Endgame” (written by Frank Spotnitz) takes Mulder on a quest literally to the ends of the earth in his heroic search for truth.
If “The X-Files” has a motto, it is not “The truth is out there” but “We are not who we are”. The character who is not what he seems to be is almost a hallmark of the show. In “Colony”, Mulder himself turns out to be a ringer! Later we discover that not only are the doctors not Russians, they are not even human. The usual ambiguities apply: the “good guys” are not necessarily all that good. Their human-tissue experiments have more in common with the works of Nazi geneticists in the death camps, experimenting with human subjects. Time after time, Mulder and Scully’s allies–FBI agent Weiss, CIA agent Chappelle–turn out to be the enemy in disguise.
The implications of the Terminator-like alien are frightening: he is the ultimate exemplar of the stranger hiding behind the friendly face. More alarming, this supposed offworld assassin, fresh off the UFO express, knows enough about our history and our culture to concoct a tissue of plausible lies about the CIA and the Cold War. These aliens know enough about Mulder to convince his parents, for God’s sake, that this is Samantha. They know enough about him to push every emotional button he has. I began to wonder whether his involvement in the case was as accidental as it appeared.
Even Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), has some surprises for us. It would be so easy to make the part of Assistant Director Skinner into a caricature of the iron-jawed tyrant. Instead, we keep getting glimpses of a softer, more human side, of a man with old-fashioned ideas about loyalty, duty, and honor. I love watching Pileggi’s reactions as Skinner tries to reconcile his sense of duty to his office with his sense of loyalty to his agents. For him to come to Mulder’s aid not once but twice shows that he has more respect for his unruly agents than he would like to admit to. And to find him literally butting heads with the odious Mr. X (Steven Williams) was simply wonderful. This was a very nice piece of character development.
We have come to expect the outstanding from “The X-Files”, and we were well rewarded in the acting department. The power to move an audience, to manipulate their emotions and enter their dreams, is one of the headiest rewards of writing or acting. That brief moment when you hold the audience in the palm of your hand, their emotional response dependent on the next line or the next scene, on the smile of a beautiful woman or the tears of a sorrowing man, make up for the grueling hours and the endless frustrations of the performing arts. So surely David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are smiling in their sleep tonight.
Gillian Anderson has absolutely patented that wide-eyed look of apprehension and that look of intelligent skepticism. She once again turns in a fine performance, full of fire and spirit. I loved the scene between her and David Duchovny in Mulder’s office, where Dana Scully holds her own against her partner as they disagree on the pursuit of the case. Mulder angrily invites her to either agree with him totally or butt out. She reaches past his defensive belligerence to get to that mind she knows is hiding behind Mulder’s sulky reaction. Her reaction to the false Mulder in her hotel room is cool and competent. Scully’s skepticism serves her better than Mulder, as she doubts early on in the game that CIA Agent Chapel is everything that he appears to be. Her tenacity and courage lead her to the warehouse on “Edmonton” Street, where she witnesses the assassin’s destruction of the fetal tissue experiments being conducted by the aliens. Anderson showed us a resolute and daring Scully, one who does not hesitate to face down her superior or a decidedly hostile Mr. X when it came to rescuing her partner.
An actress blessed with both talent and beauty may choose to neglect one over the other–Hollywood does not demand much in the way of talent from most actresses (though they may have it). Many actresses would be content to walk through their lines, knowing that audiences would be satisfied with her face and figure onscreen. To her undying credit, Gillian Anderson gives us better than we deserve. She uses her beautiful face as she should–as another aid to her performance, not as its center. I am thinking particularly of the last scene, where against the stark background of the Arctic station, with its corrugated-tin walls and concrete, Scully sits beside Mulder’s bed, waiting for him to live or die. When she realizes that he will live, her rare and beautiful smile tells us many things about her struggle, about her feelings for Mulder, about the desperate battle she has helped him wage. Mulder does not see it, but we do, and it is a wonderful perspective into the complex woman behind the serene facade. Gillian Anderson knows how to use that face, and that is the mark of an accomplished actress.
I don’t know whether to compliment David Duchovny’s writing or his acting for the nuclear intensity of Mulder’s scenes with his father (Peter Donat). Mulder goes to embrace his father and the old man puts him off stiffly with a formal handshake and lecture. We see that Mulder gets his stubbornness from his father–it takes real obstinacy to keep trying after 22 years of this treatment. Later, the scene where he tells his flinty father that Samantha is, once again, lost to them, broke my heart. How does a 34 year old man manage to look like a shamed 14 year old? Guilt, contrition, and humiliation fought for dominance on Duchovny’s face. We see also that Mulder gets his “inquiring mind” from his mother, who even in her joy questions whether this is, indeed, her daughter come home. And the scene on the front porch between Fox and Samantha Mulder was exquisite–he so desperately wants to believe, but is struggling with his innate doubt. One of the most chilling things I have ever seen on television is David Duchovny as The Bad Guy. Talk about freezer burn! The look in his eyes as he manhandled Gillian Anderson was the coldest stare I’ve seen since Lee Van Cleef in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. The scene in the abortion clinic, where Mulder comes face to face with the truth about his “sister” as he meets the clones, is outstanding. I *saw* the birth of a bone-deep rage in Fox Mulder on David Duchovny’s face as he realizes the depth of his betrayal. This time the enemy has hit a vital spot in Mulder’s psyche, and his self-respect will depend on how he recovers from this blow. He may not have been willing to kill to learn the truth in “One Breath”, but he is willing to die to learn it, which is a different thing. [Anyone still maintaining that this man’s acting is ‘wooden’ is invited to meet me at dawn, ahorse or on foot, with their weapon of choice.]
I could only find one noteworthy plot flaw: Dana Scully foolishly calls Mulder with a secret message–from the middle of a crowded bus. Why not just take out an ad on TV? This is an example of the plot driving the character–Carter needed the alien assassin to know her plans so they made Scully do something stupidly out of character. It’s a plot “solution” that weakens the plot, but it is not a fatal wound. Her lapse in judgement results in her capture, thereby forcing Mulder to choose between his partner and the sister he has sought all his life. I’ll forgive the blunder for the enrichment of the story line.
Although I have no evidence, I would like to think that the tighter plot and more careful handling of important details in this arc owes something to the mind of David Duchovny, the professionally trained teacher of literature. Do lines like “an ether of vague memories” and “truth as elusive as memory” echo the poet in Duchovny? Moreover, I wondered who came up with the subtle levels of meaning in this script. On the surface, we can see the involvement of the plotline in the current controversies surrounding abortion, fetal-tissue research, and genetic engineering. We hear echoes of the “ethnic cleansing” of the Nineties and the racial purity campaigns of the Thirties. But on a more abstract level, we can see “Colony/Endgame” as the pitting of the individual against the mass mind. The aliens are, by nature, clones. They lack the genetic diversity and quite probably the emotional stability of a species which embraces change as part of its survival strategy. Less adaptable, less independent than our aggressively individualistic species, they would naturally look with suspicion on attempts to “dilute” their genetic code through hybridization. Whereas change comes naturally to non-clones, it must represent disaster to those whose evolution has dictated conformity at the cellular level.
A sea-change has taken place in the environment of “The X- Files”. As fun and trendy as it has been to play with nihilism, no scenario can be sustained indefinitely on the premise that we live in a chaotic and unpredictable universe. We can enjoy the occasional excursion into chaos, but we must always return to the ordered world we know. The failure to do so will ultimately bore the audience, who finds the novelty wearing off, and nothing more substantial to put in its place. We know there are dark and bitter nights full of death and fear, but we also know that the sun rises inexorably every morning. While we may say we like fantasy, we also subconsciously react to a story on the basis of our cell-deep knowledge of reality, based on mundane experience. To confront us week after week with ambiguity and despair and confusion is to risk losing our belief–and our attention. Carter has wisely moved us forward into a newer, more mature plot environment. From now on, we will know something of the structure of this secret empire against which Mulder and Scully struggle. We are being invaded slowly, silently, insidiously by an enemy who hides in our skin and behind the faces of our loved ones. The lines are more clearly drawn, the stakes are more clearly understood as Mulder and Scully are drawn into this war fought in the shadows. We lose something of the thrill, perhaps–the monster we imagine is always worse than the monster we see clearly–but we gain structure and coherence we were needing.
Series television rarely aspires to mediocrity, much less to this level of excellence. In my search for a basis of comparison, I could find no recent television series in which the writing and the acting approached this level. The closest I could come were miniseries such as “Lonesome Dove” and “Shogun”, where career-making performances matched up with outstanding storytelling to create a modern classic. “Colony/Endgame” is epochal storytelling that reflects our fears and hopes even as it shapes our mythos, the way “Star Trek” entered the mythos of modern America in the Sixties. Like all good stories, it tells us more than an entertaining adventure: it tells us something about trust and faith and the human spirit.
I award this one six sunflower seeds out of five. I may have to revise my rating system…