Signal to Noise Ratio
Written and Directed by James Wong
“Bad things happen when the birds gather.” — Mrs. Gilligan
This is one of the most densely packed, tightly written episodes of television I’ve seen in a while. “Founder’s Mutation” is only 45 minutes or so long, but I took six pages of notes. This is a true return to form, evoking the glory days of The X-Files’ past and closing a gaping emotional hole left behind when The X-Files went off the air. Veteran X-Files writer and director James Wong’s script adds new depth to characters we’ve been watching for decades, while keeping the focus on a fascinating and terrifying mystery that is both a standalone monster-of-the-week story, and part of the “new” mythology introduced in last week’s season opener.
Sanjay: Can’t anyone hear that?
A mysterious suicide at a genetics lab brings newly re-sworn agents Mulder and Scully back to the work they do best. What made Dr. Sonny Sanjay (Christopher Logan, “TRON: Legacy”) stick a letter opener in his ear? The clue lies in the dead man’s frenzied struggles, writhing in pain with his hands over his ears. No one else can hear what is driving him mad, and Sanjay ends his misery with a blade to his own auditory cortex. Mulder and Scully are interested not just in his death, but in the genetic research Sanjay was conducting. While investigating Sanjay’s apartment, Mulder himself suffers excruciating pain from a “noise” only he can hear; although she’s in the same room, Scully hears nothing. A sound which is not a sound is functioning as a weapon, which not only causes intense pain in the sufferer, but conveys a message: “find her”.
Mulder: Infrasound, Scully. Vibrations inaudible to the human ear.
As the agents discuss the results of Scully’s autopsy, Mulder suggests that infrasound — sound below the threshold of human hearing — may be at the root of these attacks. If it seems that Mulder just pulled this idea out of his hat, we can remember that he has encountered similar incidents before. The use of low-frequency sound in an X-File goes back not only to “Drive”, a sixth-season episode guest starring Bryan “Breaking Bad” Cranston, but to at least one story in the upcoming X-Files fiction anthology, “The X-Files: The Truth Is Out There”, which is set in Season 8. The idea also ties into the “new mythology” that Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz introduced in “Biogenesis”, the sixth-season finale, which showed Mulder suffering headaches and “hearing voices” after contact with an alien artifact. Between those stories, and Mulder’s training in psychology, it’s not too far a leap to conclude that Sanjay was the victim of some acoustic weapon or phenomenon.
Skinner: I assume you made copies?
Naturally, there must be roadblocks in this investigation. We get the usual obstructionism of government agents, which leads us to a classic face-off in Walter Skinner’s office. While appearing to dress his agents down, Skinner dismisses the Department of Defense flunky who has confiscated Mulder’s evidence. After the man leaves, Skinner hunkers down with Mulder and Scully; knowing his man, Skinner knows Mulder kept copies of classified files. A little later, as the three of them are being thrown off a crime scene by the DoD, we see that Mulder has palmed an important piece of evidence. There’s even a scene in which Scully warns Mulder that the cops are on their way, and urges him to hurry in their illegal and clandestine search of Sanjay’s apartment. Scully, who entered the scene 23 years ago as a by-the-book model agent, no longer even pretends to play by the rules any more. She and Skinner have both learned over the years that the game is rigged, and their only hope of success is to deceive, inveigle, and obfuscate.
Goldman: Dr. Scully, I was told you were the rational one.
It’s not all about sound. The heart of the case is the genetic research Sanjay was pursuing in the lab founded by Augustus Goldman (Doug Savant, “Scorpion”). Sanjay’s apartment contains horrifying images of children born with birth defects; a trip to Goldman’s headquarters confirms that he is dedicated to “saving the children”. But Scully, who has saved a few children herself, questions Goldman’s motives and methods: he locks up and isolates children with “special” mutations, in the name of science. and here is where Wong opens up the emotional heart of the story: after their visit, Scully confronts Mulder over William, the son she gave up for adoption. In a troubled, heartbreaking speech, Scully lays out all the guilt and fear and longing she has kept inside after “abandoning” William. She speculates on his age, wishes she had been there for him as he was growing up. And Mulder, while never as emotive on this subject as Scully, is still warm and sympathetic.
Scully: Was I just an incubator?
Mulder: You’re never ‘just’ anything to me, Scully.
William was a plot device for Season 8, and has been a source of frustration for fans ever since his conception, birth and adoption. Was he really Mulder’s son? Was he an accident? How and when did Mulder and Scully begin a sexual relationship? In all their interactions in the season of William’s birth, Mulder seems more concerned with Scully’s welfare than with his putative son; it was always hard to get a read on his feelings about the baby. There was never any real attention paid to that story, one which demanded at least emotional closure. We got a few minutes of discussion about the boy in the movie, “The X-Files: I Want to Believe”, but that was it. I very much feared that pressure from fans to bring William back into The X-Files would turn it into a soap opera, and take the focus away from the cases. The very last thing I wanted to see was a long story arc that involved William-angst. Wong solves this problem in a magnificently satisfying way: with imagination and fantasy. In separate and heartbreaking fantasy sequences, Scully and Mulder imagine what raising their son would have been like. In each fantasy, they’re alone; Mulder without Scully, Scully without Mulder. As a mother, Scully is fun and supportive; as a father, Mulder is a companion and teacher. Both fantasies let us see our favorite agents as parents, but not as a couple. And both fantasies end with an expression of each parent’s deepest fear: Scully’s William is becoming an alien, thanks to her alien DNA, and Mulder’s William is abducted just like his sister was.
Kyle: I just want to find my sister.
Scully and Mulder’s solid police work turns up a young janitor as the link between all the acoustic-attack incidents. They go to interview Kyle Gilligan (named, doubtless, for Vince Gilligan, who wrote the episode “Drive”). Birds gather on the lawn, as they did before Sanjay’s suicide, drawn by the infrasound phenomenon. Mulder writhes in pain, but Scully finds Kyle (Jonathan Whitesell, “The 100”) and stops him. A long and complicated story leads the agents and Kyle back to Goldman’s lab, and a meeting between a long-lost brother and sister. This was surely a poignant turn of events for Mulder, who must have heard echoes of his own life when faced with a brother and sister separated by the cold-blooded machinations of their father, who must have winced when Kyle reveals his single-minded dedication to finding his lost sister. Their reunion devolves into blood and death, and we are left with the implication, at least, that Mulder aided their escape. I hope we see this brother and sister team again; we could have a whole new superhero spinoff of The X-Files. X-Men, anyone?
Gupta: The truth is in here.
Mulder: Yeah, I’ve heard something like that.
Wong brings back the humor that he and Glen Morgan made a touchstone of their work in The X-Files. Mulder’s interview with Sanjay’s friend Gupta (Vik Sahay, “Chuck”) turns into an irony-laced conversation about secrets. Visual in-jokes include film clips from “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” (about divergent evolution) and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (about ancient astronauts seeding life on Earth, and involving a high-pitched sound to stimulate hominid intellectual development) playing in the backgrounds of a couple of scenes. As always, we get former 1013 Productions guest actors cycling through new roles: Christine Willes playing Scully’s colleague Sister Mary instead of her therapist, and Ryan Robbins from “Millennium”. Wong does not limit himself to humor; we get one nostalgic callback that really affected me. The final scene of Mulder sitting alone, staring at a photo of his son, mirrors the final scene of “Conduit”, the first-season episode that first explored in depth the tragedy of Samantha Mulder. Like “Conduit”, “Founder’s Mutation” forces Mulder, and now Scully, to deal with unbearable tragedy, and somehow find in it the strength to pursue their truth. Meanwhile, women tell stories that echo all the fears of motherhood: an unwed mother fears for her damaged baby, another woman accused of infanticide describes her self-cesarean. Scully is bombarded on every side with damaged children, frantic mothers, emotionally deprived childhoods. Fear for William drives both her and Mulder in a subliminal push to compensate for their lost son by helping an abandoned one.
This is an episode written with a sure hand, by a mind in command of every detail of The X-Files’ past. The characterizations were top-notch, as we FINALLY get some episodes focusing on the romantic relationship (or what’s left of it) between Mulder and Scully. The science was better: Scully quotes an actual article on human genetics (yes, I looked it up). The irony was richer: when Mulder and Scully drive off with Kyle, as his adoptive mother pleads for them not to take him away, Mulder and Scully look exactly like the black-suited government agents they’ve been fighting for decades. And the flashlights are back! There was a time I would have wondered why Mulder and Scully refused to turn on the lights while searching an apartment, but don’t worry about huge flashlights that light up a room. I don’t anymore; a symbol has more than one meaning. Naturally, Mulder has moved back into his basement office, and just as naturally, Scully seems to have no office at all.
For an impressive addition to the new mutation mythology, for the emotional satisfaction of seeing Mulder and Scully as parents, and for the magnificent closing scene of Mulder, isolated and vulnerable, this episode gets five sunflower seeds out of five.