The Virus of Fear
by Sarah Stegall
copyright ©1995 by Sarah Stegall
Writer: Chris Carter and Howard Gordon
Director: Rob Bowman
For a guy who used to write for Walt Disney, Chris Carter sure knows a lot about fear. In Friday night’s episode of “The X-Files”, he and co-writer Howard Gordon mix fears the way a bartender blends drinks: an ounce of terror, two fingers of revulsion, and a dash of jitters.
We begin in the rain forests, where Dr. Robert Torrence is collecting specimens of the flora and fauna on behalf of a pharmaceutical company hoping to discover the next miracle drug. Dr. Torrence comes across the corpse of a creature with large, putrescent sores. He pops one of these zits and is rewarded with a spray of pus. To absolutely no one’s surprise, he comes down with a deadly illness that manifests itself in ugly, infectious boils. The disease next surfaces in a prison, and in the ensuing chaos two prisoners (John Pyper-Ferguson and John Tench) escape. Mulder and Scully are assigned to aid the U. S. Marshal (Dean Norris) in tracking them down; Mulder winds up tracking down the humans and Scully winds up tracking down the pestilence. Together they learn that this new plague was deliberately introduced into the prison, in a cold-blooded plan to make the captive population into cheap guinea pigs for the pharmaceutical company’s drug development program. Finally, they learn that Deputy Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), in his most cynical move all season, assigned them to the investigation knowing that the contempt in which Mulder, Scully, and the X- Files are held would discredit their findings, and vice versa. We are reminded once again that Mulder and Scully carry their own contagion, the virus of fear.
From Leviticus onward, the corruption of the flesh has been understood as an outward manifestation of an inner uncleanliness. The quarantine of lepers in ancient times was as much an aesthetic as a public health response, reflecting our fear of disfigurement. AIDS victims still meet this prejudice today — so long as they look “normal” society will let them pass, but you will not meet many full blown cases of Kaposi’s sarcoma even on the streets of San Francisco. The parallels between the Emasculata epidemic and the spread of HIV are quite clear in this story. The Emasculata parasite attacks the immune system, is incurable, and leads to a hideous death. As in the AIDS pandemic, the victims of the Emasculata epidemic are society’s untouchables, who evoke little sympathy from the mainstream. As long as the epidemic is confined to the paraiahs, who cares? But when the felons escape, the conspiracy comes to light. The fugitives’ threat to the community is doubled because they carry the contamination with them. Typically, the government’s response is denial, isolation, and disavowal. Treatment is secondary to control; it is more important to control information about the disease than it is to attack its spread.
Mulder and Scully are faced with a knotty problem in ethics: do they aid and abet the cover-up in order to prevent a deadly panic? Or do they spread “the truth” regardless of the public reaction, hoping to prevent further diffusion? For Scully, particularly, this is a divisive issue, pitting her responsibility as a physician against her duties as an investigator. Is Mulder arrogant to insist that the truth be told at all costs? Is Scully naive to insist on silence that may save lives? Both sides have good arguments, but the issue is made conveniently moot by the destruction of any shred of corroborating evidence of conspiracy. I love these plot twists that snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Obviously, this story has been told before: this spring’s “Outbreak” is itself only a newer version of “The Andromeda Strain”. In fact, “F. Emasculata” more closely resembles “The Stand”, and like the best of Stephen King, also has a point to make. I particularly liked the Smoking Man’s question to Mulder: “How many people are being infected while you stand here not doing your job?” Good point, Cancerman: Is Mulder’s personal crusade interfering with his duty to the law? In many ways, this episode was about loyalties. Mulder’s goals are not always those of the Bureau, and he sometimes gets lost in his own perspective, oblivious to what may very well be higher priorities. It’s this touch of arrogance, as much as his pain, that humanizes him for us.
The outstanding performance in “F. Emasculata” is Gillian Anderson. She shows us Dana Scully’s grit and determination in standing up to the bullying authorities. For a woman who was cowering in fear from a nine-year-old last week*, this refusal to be intimidated is quite a comeback. The scene where she submits to a test for the infection was especially good. Scully hesitates only a brief, very human moment before her determination to know the truth, good or bad, drives her to look into that microscope and read her fate. Her courage is matched by her honesty. Her opposition to Mulder is based on the merits of the case itself, not on any hidden agenda. This is why Mulder trusts her: she will argue with him fairly. Moreover, Scully has had her own doubts confirmed independently of Mulder: she may not believe in UFOs yet, but she now must believe in conspiracies and cover-ups. If Walter Skinner holds any lingering doubts about where Scully’s loyalties lie, they were put to rest in the final scene, when she substantiates Mulder’s suspicions and backs him up in angry denunciation of the intrigue they were scammed into. Throughout this episode, Gillian Anderson gave us a thoroughly believable, stand-up Scully, one I would like to see more of.
There were a lot of good touches in this episode, for which we can thank director Rob Bowman as well as the writers. The raid on the gas station had all the gritty realism of an episode of “Cops”. I loved it when Mulder’s seat belt jammed: the damned thing does it to me all the time. I am delighted to find out Mulder’s badge number at last. Mulder’s confrontation with Paul in the bus was tense and dramatic; Duchovny showed us the control that Mulder can exercise when he needs to. The timing of the shot that killed Paul was perfect. And anyone complaining that Mulder and Scully don’t use their cellular phones often enough can now shut up; their phone bill for this case must have been remarkable. Charles Martin Smith, as the doomed Dr. Osborne, gives us another version of his patented nebbish perfected in “The Untouchables”. His portrayal of the troubled company doctor, torn between his job and his conscience, showed us the heroism that can live in the hearts of the most unassuming and unlikely among us.
This episode teamed Carter, Gordon, and Rob Bowman again. This is a dynamite combination. It’s a pity we can get served this dish more often. I castigated Carter earlier this year for the repulsiveness shown us in “The Host”. Last night, I knew the icky pustules were there for a reason. If you are doing a television show, as opposed to a novel, you must show the audience what is going on, and if you are doing a show about contagion you cannot simply say, “These people are sick” and go on from there. So while I still think the gross-out factor in “The Host” was overkill for that absurd story line, for “F. Emasculata”, it is just right. I must say I am tired of hearing lines like “This is only the beginning.” We’ve been watching Fox Mulder investigate the X-Files for nearly two years now; he is well aware of the dangers. He and we don’t need the hook baited any more. I can forgive some of the scientific technobabble and inaccuracies in support of a strong and compelling story, with a believable premise and solid characterizations. The real story isn’t about the science anyway; it never is.
This one gets three sunflower seeds out of five.
*The original broadcast of “F. Emasculata” followed “The Calusari”.