Blood on the Threshold
by Sarah Stegall
copyright ©1996 by Sarah Stegall
Writer: Chris Carter
Director: R. W. Goodwin
At the end of “The Erlenmeyer Flask“, Deep Throat died in Scully’s arms while ransoming Mulder’s life. In “Anasazi“, at the end of the second season, Mulder’s father died in his arms so that his son would not learn his secrets. At the end of last season’s opener, “Blessing Way” and “Paper Clip“, the blood of Dana Scully’s sister marked the threshold of her apartment, and the death intended for Scully passed her by. This year X (Steven Williams), Mulder’s last pipeline into the heart of mystery, literally dies on his doorstep, and the life of Mulder’s mother is restored. It seems that Chris Carter, series creator and writer of this season’s opener, “Herrenvolk”, has taken the theme of sacrifice as the subtext for The X-Files. Each season is marked by martyrdom, and The X-Files looks less like a horror series and more like a Biblical epic every year.
Picking up where last season’s “Talitha Cumi” left off, Mulder and Scully zero in on mystery man Jeremiah Smith (Roy Thinnes), who has promised to reveal the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s secrets to them. Naturally, once they escape from the assassin (Brian Thompson) sent to kill him, Smith dummies up, and thenceforward expresses himself in cryptic locutions which conceal as much as they reveal. Mulder and Smith wind up in Canada on a plantation right out of “The Stepford Wives”, where Mulder discovers his silent sister, still eight years old, working in a bee-filled greenhouse with other equally silent children (could these identical boys be the “Adams” of the Litchfield experiment in “Eve”?). Mulder finds out that “Samantha” is one of several clones, and when he tries to bring one of them with him, Smith protests that “She’s not your sister.” “Then what is she?” he angrily (and rightly) asks–and of course gets no answer. No self- respecting X-File character would ever come right out and say something as obvious as “They’ve cloned your sister and turned her into a serf.”
Meanwhile, Scully is deciphering a code, with the help of the always-adorable Agent Pendrell (Brendan Beiser) which exposes more of the smallpox-vaccination tagging scheme hinted at in “Paper Clip” a year ago. While she pursues this line of investigation with bulldog intensity, Mulder and Smith are attacked by the icepick-wielding assassin again, and Mulder is knocked out. We next find him stumbling down the corridors of the hospital where his mother lies dying, in shock and incoherent, with no explanation of Smith’s or Samantha’s whereabouts. He collapses beside his mother’s bed into the arms of his partner, in an embrace reminiscent of the one beside another hospital bed that ended “Paper Clip”. From the final clue X left scrawled in his own blood, Mulder pursues his investigation about the Canadian farm at the United Nations. As he is talking to a blonde informant I am certain we will see again, the assassin, in a surprise twist, heals Mrs. Mulder at the behest of the Cigarette Smoking Man.
It is harder and harder to write about The X-Files because there are two different audiences for it–the long- term viewers who need no explanation, and the newer audience who may not understand the plot, much less the nuances, of this increasingly self-referential show. Matters are not helped by the ambiguity built into a series where “open” endings are the norm, and where to preserve the milieu of mystery characters are forced to speak in riddles about the most ordinary things. As a long time X-Phile, I can say that I found this episode immensely satisfying and exciting, going beyond my expectations not only in what was revealed (not much) but how it was revealed (superbly). It was good to see the further implications of the smallpox scheme explored. The ground for Samantha’s re-appearance and for the actions of the alien pilot was well prepared in “Colony” and “End Game”. While confusing for newcomers who have not seen those episodes, for those of us who have it grounds the show in a sense of internal history to have echoes of the past resounding in the present. Best of all, this time around the interaction between Mulder and Scully harked back to the earlier Carter scripts like the pilot, “Deep Throat”, “Darkness Falls”, and “Irresistible“, where they function as two halves of the same brain. They are a great team even when they are split up, so much so that now Scully is accused of mouthing Mulder’s theories.
It seems to me a great turning point has come for Fox Mulder in “Herrenvolk”. In the hospital scenes in Act Four, I was struck by his silence, his anguish, his hopelessness. In the United Nations scenes which follow, the normally glib Fox Mulder is struck dumb with grief. The naturalness of this performance is one of David Duchovny’s finest portrayals, as he manages to convey in an entirely authentic moment the depths of Mulder’s despair and bewilderment. Yet Mrs. Mulder is still alive, and Samantha may be. What has so crushed him? I believe Mulder is mourning the death of hope. He now knows that Samantha cannot be restored to him, and that there is no hope of healing his broken past. Samantha is dead or cloned or otherwise changed beyond human ken, and if anything of his sister or his past is restored to him it will not be his peace of mind. Mulder will not abandon his crusade, but he may conduct it with a different motivation now, with the desperation of a man who has, as the Smoking Man so astutely noted, nothing left to lose.
Scully marks a milestone of her own, as she publicly and irrevocably aligns herself with Mulder by validating his paranoid conspiracy theories to a host of government bureaucrats. Gillian Anderson presents a wonderful Scully, whose fear about the plot she is uncovering seeps through her cool and rational presentation to Skinner and the FBI brass.
There were some interestingly nasty moments in “Herrenvolk”, not least of them the implication that the Assassin murdered the Samantha-clone left in the car when Mulder was knocked out. And how did the First Elder get his hands on X’s photos of the Smoking Man and Mrs. Mulder arguing outside the summer house? We last saw them as Mulder handed them to Assistant Director Skinner. X’s last words to Dana Scully sent a chill down my back: “Protect the mother.” *The* mother? Not “Mulder’s mother” or “Mrs. Mulder”? Maybe it’s nothing, but I could not help thinking that that is the chief imperative of a hive mentality, be it a bee hive or an alien colony–protect the mother. It makes me wonder again just what Mrs. Mulder’s role in things might be. And finally, what are we to make of the Smoking Man’s statement to the assassin, that Mulder in and of himself is central to “the equation”?
The increasing involvement of the lead characters in their own investigations threatens to unbalance The X-Files. In the early years, conspiracy and UFO episodes were counter- weighted with stand-alone episodes like “Squeeze” and “Beyond the Sea”, which owed nothing to the conspiracy arc. Now with Mulder, Scully, and their families moving to center stage in the conspiracy plotlines, no freestanding plot can compare in strength or impact. How can we expect Mulder and Scully to be deeply concerned about non-alien mutants, ghosts, or what have you when the other cases threaten their families? Carter contends that a Mulder/Scully romance would destroy their concentration and take away from the storylines, yet what could destroy one’s concentration more effectively than the murder of a sister or a father? This storyline can work, certainly: Sophocles made it work in “Oedipus Rex”, where his main character pursues his investigation in the teeth of the direst warnings, only to find himself at the heart of the mystery. The question is whether the *other* stories can be made strong enough to hold their own. I hope it proves to be the case.
As always, the production values of the season opener showcase the talents of those involved. New Director of Photography Ron Stannett, replacing the much beloved John Bartley, surprised me with many sun-drenched scenes on the Canadian plantation. Rather than washing them out, the light intensified the horror of those scenes. We *expect* nightmares in the dark, so we discount them, but the devil we see by daylight scares us more. Stannett shows he has not abandoned the traditions set by Bartley when he drenches the beehive scene (and how wonderfully poetic, to have a race of clones keeping bees) in the same luminous darkness Bartley was master of. The supporting roles, as ever, were first rate: Mitch Pileggi’s Skinner now comes across as a secret but bewildered supporter of Scully, who is concerned not that she is embarrassing the Bureau with her wild theories but confusing it. The entire hour was worth Agent Pendrell in a suit. I want to see a great deal more of this resourceful little lab rat. I’m not crazy about seeing humanoid aliens, as they seem to bring the awe-filled mystery of an alien race into the downright mundane, but Roy Thinnes and Brian Thompson were both menacing and otherworldly in subtle and believable ways. And the appearance of the Assistant to the Special Representative to the Secretary General, the blonde informant in Act Four who tells Mulder “Not everything dies”, looks like someone we will see again. I am reminded that the part of X, now vacant, was originally written for a woman.
So Mulder’s family is enlarged by a host of clonesisters, Scully comes into her own as Mulder’s equal in the eyes of the Bureau (at least as eccentric as he is), and the Cigarette Smoking Man stuns us all as a compassionate Machiavelli. Once again Chris Carter re-invents his show’s format, proving that he has more facets than Jeremiah Smith has faces. Though “Talitha Cumi” only deserves three out of five sunflower seeds, “Herrenvolk” earns a full five out of five.