The X-Files: “Demons”

Whatever I Fear the Most

by Sarah Stegall

copyright © 1997 by Sarah Stegall

“Whatever I fear the most is whatever I see before me

whenever I let my guard down, whatever I was ignoring

whatever I fear the most is whatever I see before me

whatever I have been given, whatever I have been.”

–Toad the Wet Sprocket, “Whatever I Fear”

Written by R. W. Goodwin
Directed by Kim Manners

Whatever drives Fox Mulder, whether it is fear or guilt or a burning desire for truth, it has driven him past the point of no return in “Demons”. The most searing performance from David Duchovny this season lands on us like a ton of bricks in the last act of this deeply emotional episode. Fox Mulder’s pursuit of “the truth” has cost him everything a man normally holds dear, so the very fact that he continues in his quest hints to us that the pain he is fleeing is even greater. We have rarely seen that pain. We have seen the deadpan mask that hides it, and the jokes that deflect it, and the dogged determination that carries him onward, but we have rarely seen the emotional effects on Fox Mulder of the shattered life he lives. In “Demons”, R. W. Goodwin, X-Files producer and first-time scripter for “The X-Files”, lets us see past that carefully maintained facade to the bleak and despairing interior landscape where Mulder lives. 

Fox Mulder wakes up in a strange motel room, disoriented and apprehensive. He is covered with blood and has lost track of time. Scully rushes to his succor, and is convinced he has suffered some kind of stroke. Mulder, however, is more disturbed by his loss of memory and the fact that his gun has been fired. Blackouts after a crime are a well-known phenomenon in law enforcement, so he doesn’t have to draw a picture for Scully. Backtracking his own movements, Mulder finds himself entangled in a double murder, involving alien abductees and a dangerous memory-recovery experiment. Unfortunately for Mulder, the evidence against him is damning–the victims’ blood on his own shirt, his fingerprints at the murder scene, his bullets in the bodies. The local homicide detective (Jay Acavone) books him for murder. But Dana Scully is used to finding other explanations for the evidence presented to her; clearing Mulder of a homicide rap is child’s play to a woman who shrugs off alien implants and talking tattoos.

The premise of “Demons” is the same as the premise of The X-Files itself–Fox Mulder wakes one morning in mysterious circumstances, unable to remember the vitally important events of the night before, events which may have changed his life forever. His investigation (and Scully’s) can go forward only by going backward into a past Mulder does not remember. I have always thought it must be a particular torture to Fox Mulder, who is “cursed with a photographic memory”, that he cannot remember the exact events of his sister’s disappearance. As a psychologist, he must surely be aware of the implications of this kind of amnesia–not that he cannot remember, but that he dare not. Those fears are brought violently to the surface, like swamp gas erupting from buried corpses, when he voluntarily undergoes a radical and dangerous memory enhancement treatment. Suddenly he is besieged with images and sounds that act out his worst nightmares–that his parents voluntarily gave away his sister, or at least complied with her abduction, and that Mulder’s own nemesis, the Cigarette-Smoking Man, is as close to him as his own father. Mulder is being forced closer and closer to the possibility that he is the modern Orestes, caught between a father who sacrificed a daughter to the gods of war and a mother who will never forgive that act of betrayal.

p>My congratulations to R. W. Goodwin for a taut and thrilling story. While some of it was strained (Scully simply tells Mulder the police have put together evidence that will clear him–I’d have liked a little elaboration on that) and relied too much on coincidence (Scully just happens to be in the stationhouse when a cop–another abductee–commits suicide), the inherent suspense and the emotional weight of the tale take us past these minor problems. All the important elements are here–Mulder’s memory, Samantha’s abduction, the murky role of Bill Mulder and the Cigarette-Smoking Man, and best of all, the trust and loyalty between Mulder and Scully. Mulder is losing it all in this story–his career, his mind, his future and the core of his beliefs, but Scully is there like a rock for him. Without in any way damning his beliefs, she shows him other ways and other possibilities. She refuses to feed his delirium and his fear, and instead supports him not only through her usual exacting investigation, but through her refusal to be cowed by the evidence. 

Which brings us to the best ensemble performance this year since “Paper Hearts”. “Small Potatoes” gave David Duchovny a chance to step back and show us Mulder turned upside down; in “Demons” he gives us our hero turned inside out. The hypnosis scene in “Field Where I Died” gave him an excellent opportunity to turn in the kind of tear-streaked performance Emmy judges love, but “Demons” gave us Mulder’s heart and entrails on a plate. Now we see why Duchovny’s understated performances are so effective–when he drops the mask and lets us see the pain it hits an audience right between the eyes. Duchovny shows himself a master of contrasts in this episode, as he moves through bewilderment to fear to despair so stark it chills to the bone. Duchovny is an expert at peeling off the layers of his character, and this season he has shown us more of Mulder’s inner workings than in the previous three years. “Demons” caps a season of revelations, in which Duchovny’s performance often outweighed the script that launched it.

But I said it was an ensemble performance. Gillian Anderson brings us the best of Dana Scully once again–cool of head and warm of heart. Her allegiance to Mulder is, of course, a classic female-character trait in television. But it is her relentlessly logical pursuit of the evidence that places her apart from every other supportive-female stereotype of the genre. Increasingly, it is this well-rounded, deep characterization of a rational career woman that marks “The X-Files” apart in television. Mulder is driven by passions we cannot share (I hope), but Scully is us–an ordinary, intelligent, caring human being whose belief in her partner is fueled not by sentiment or loyalty but by a fundamental understanding of his soul. If Chris Carter and Gillian Anderson are remembered for anything, I hope it is for the creation of this strong female character. There is no one like her on television.

This episode, which brought us inside the pain and anguish of Fox Mulder, and inside the desperate faithfulness of Dana Scully, should have been the last episode of this season. That last image, with the broken Mulder allowing the barest touch of comfort from Scully, should have lasted us through the summer. As it is, for me it wrapped up a middling season with a powerful and effective episode. “Demons” gets five out of five sunflower seeds.