by Sarah Stegall
Copyright 1995 by Sarah Stegall
Writer: Glen Morgan and James Wong
Director: David Nutter
“You can’t be afraid” — Fox Mulder
If I had to introduce a newcomer to this show, someone who had no idea what the series was about or what its special appeal was, this is the episode I would choose. Everything is here–the search for proof of alien contact, the heartbreak over Mulder’s sister Samantha, the understated sexual tension between Scully and Mulder, the quest Mulder has set himself, and the interference from the maddening Smoking Man and FBI bureaucrats. But most of all, we learn more about the enigmatic Agent Mulder himself in this episode than in any previous episode. It was high time: we’d learned the details about Samantha Mulder’s abduction in “Conduit”, learned of Scully’s family life in “Beyond the Sea”, even delved into Deep Throat’s shadowy past in “E.B.E.”, but heretofore we had not learned much about the man behind that badge.
Mulder and Scully have been separated by the closing of The X-Files. Scully, attempting to maintain contact with her former partner, meets him clandestinely in the Watergate garage, where she finds a remote, depressed Mulder consumed with self-doubt. That night, Mulder wakes from a nightmare replaying the events of Samantha’s abduction and is immediately hauled off to Capitol Hill to meet his mentor, Senator Richard Matheson (Raymond J. Barry). Matheson sends him on a secret mission to Puerto Rico to recover evidence of alien contact from a SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) project at Arecibo. Ditching Scully, he finds the station and discovers evidence that aliens are approaching, signalling from a location closer and closer to the earth. He discovers a terrified Puertoriqueno named Jorge Concepcion (Mike Gomez), who babbles in Spanish about colored lights in the sky and strange looking men. When Jorge runs out into a hurricane in a panic and is found dead of terror twenty minutes later, Mulder begins to wonder if he really wants to meet these aliens…and if they would really be there if he saw them. Some vision finally appears, and Mulder discovers that he is afraid, and that he could not have saved his sister anyway. Scully arrives in time to save Mulder from the retrieval team who will surely kill them both, and they flee for their lives with only one tape left to prove his story–a tape that later proves to be blank.
Surely this is one of the most poignant “X-Files” episodes ever filmed. Fox Mulder has failed again.
The overriding motif of this episode is Mulder’s constant failure to live up to the approval of the father figures in his life. Although at this point in the series all we know about his father is that the family refused to discuss his sister’s disappearance, we may read something of the distance that grew between father and son by the relationships he forms with authority figures. How confused can a man be who joins the FBI, surely the most patriarchal of hierarchies, only to rebel from within? Does this career clash mirror an inner conflict? Mulder the psychologist, well versed in Freud, must surely realize what he is challenging every time he deliberately flouts the Bureau’s rules and the authority of his superiors.
How devastating a loss Deep Throat must have been. In “The Erlenmeyer Flask”, Mulder said out loud that he had been “the dutiful son” to Deep Throat’s “Obi Wan Kenobi”. He had gone to and fro at Deep Throat’s implied command, sniffing out vague clues when even Scully, tirelessly loyal, had given up in disgust. He accepted the lies and misdirection of “E.B.E” and yet held on to the relationship with Deep Throat. Why? Just for the information he was getting? After “E.B.E”, how could he trust anything the man said? Rather, what Mulder needed was the reassurance of knowing Deep Throat’s fatherly figure was “watching from his lofty position” as Mulder searched for the truth.
Or is it the truth he is searching for? As even Mulder admits, there comes a time when anyone questions his innermost motives; is Mulder looking for little green men, or a little girl he lost long ago? And while I might have trouble believing a 34 year old man would still have any connection to an eight-year-old sister he was last seen fighting with, I can well believe that the real focus of Mulder’s search is not Samantha, but his unbroken family. Samantha’s disappearance shattered the Mulders, and Fox Mulder will spend his life trying to heal what cannot be mended. I wonder if he realizes how futile his quest really is.
Although the flashback sequence contains several discrepancies when compared with Mulder’s earlier version of events (the spelling of his hometown, the location of the abduction, the date–which makes the children nine years and thirteen years old, the Knicks jersey with the name of a player who didn’t make the roster for another 11 years), the most important image is there–at a moment of supreme crisis, when young Fox has one and only one chance to save his sister, he fails. He drops the gun. He is hypnotized, paralyzed by the Alien In the Doorway, whether by fear, wonder, or telepathy we don’t know. From that one shattering moment onward, his life is a desperate attempt to put it all back together again.
When “The X-Files” debuted, I was instantly suspicious of Samantha Mulder. I am always leery of the idea that a protagonist has involved himself in a story only out of personal involvement. The cop who solves crimes only because his father was a cop, the lawyer who takes a case only because he passionately believes the defendant, the doctor who attempts the risky but life-saving operation on his own fiancee is a cliche of television. It is an almost anti- intellectual conceit, to think that people do not solve crimes, try cases, or practice medicine out of sheer curiousity or moral conviction. So when we are told that Mulder chases aliens not because the truth is out there (a noble, dispassionate quest in the service of society) but because he wants to find his sister and expiate his own guilt (a selfish personal pursuit that does nothing for the society that pays his salary), I get really skeptical. Yet after this episode, I can find myself in better sympathy with Mulder. He is not really looking for Samantha as much as he is seeking what we all seek: wholeness. For whatever reason, wholeness has forged itself into the shape of his lost sister; for someone else, perhaps Scully, there might be some other worthy icon that would serve as the focus of a life’s pursuit. But for Mulder, who has no center, no root, no anchor for his soul, his icon is Samantha, for good or ill.
So when Senator Matheson, another father figure, gives Mulder a mission that will bring back the evidence he has been seeking, the joy and wonder on his face speak worlds. This is what Mulder needed, a King Arthur to send him on a knightly quest, a chance to redeem himself and his cause. To fail once again in this mission is heart-rending. How diligently he searches for the father figure who will free him of guilt, who will validate his search and heal his anguish. So desperate is Mulder for approval that he will give his loyalty to a stranger standing in the shadows (Deep Throat) or a politician with an agenda of his own (Matheson).
Yet his resentment at carrying this burden of guilt shows through in his problematic relationship with the one man who stands in an obviously paternal relationship to him: Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi). In “Little Green Men”, Skinner emerges as a true father figure, alternately scolding and protecting his errant son. Skinner’s glare of defiance at the Smoking Man’s taunt tells him, “Mulder may be a son of a bitch, but he’s my son of a bitch.” In this, Skinner combines the most destructive traits of the patriarch (infantilism, dependence, arrogance, bullying) with the most constructive (protectiveness, respect, and honor).
I found myself almost weeping for sheer pity at the conclusion of this masterpiece. Mulder is a much more human, much more believable character after we have seen his nightmares, his failures, his shattered hopes. I began to wonder what steel was in this man to make him pick himself up time and time again to go on in the face of repeated humiliation. This is a man doing penance for a lifetime, earning a graduate degree in patience.
No assessment of the story or subtext of this episode can be divorced from an acknowledgement of the outstanding camera work in “Little Green Men”. The writing is excellent, which is the norm for Glen Morgan and Jim Wong. But this is not a novel, it is television, and the images before us tell us as much or more than mere words. David Nutter is unparalleled as an interpreter of their work. From repeated and expressive closeups that exploit the subtlety of Duchovny’s work to the balls-out downhill car chase in Act Four, his hand is as sure as ever. John Bartley’s exquisite cinematography, from the stunning close-ups that show us the awe and wonder on Mulder’s face as he meets his nightmare, to the off-road road race Mulder engages in during his escape from the Blue Berets, shows off the depth and artistry built into every episode. One particular shot will stay with me always: at the end of the first act, as Senator Matheson is handing the printout of the alien message to Mulder, he and Mulder are caught in a close two-shot, filling the screen. Mulder asks, “What am I looking for?” and the Senator replies, “Contact” while crossing behind Mulder. The camera closes and holds on the look on Mulder’s face: innocence, wonder, and a little fear. Mulder has finally been handed his second chance, a way to make it up to the Senator for letting him down earlier. Here he can start over, redeem himself, and maybe end his quest. So when he still fails, the failure is even more touching, more heartbreaking now that we know what is at stake.
David Duchovny once more demonstrates his ability to let the camera into his soul. There is a lucidity about his gaze, an accessiblity in the closeups, far more convincing than the “actorly” portrayals we are used to on television. There seems to be no artifice, no impersonation in his portrayal; his understated reactions show not only the emotions Fox Mulder is suffering through, but his unsuccessful attempts at repressing them. Sometimes accused of wooden or obtuse acting, Duchovny here demonstrates a fine touch under the control of a first rate mind. He simultaneously reveals and conceals Mulder in an impressive and delicate exhibition of his growing skill as an actor.
As an exploration of character, this episode is outstanding even by the elevated standards of “The X-Files”. It will take another classic to come even close to the sheer pathos of Mulder’s dilemma. The only improvement that could have been made would be to have featured Dana Scully more prominently; after her strong and independent role in “The Erlenmeyer Flask“, it is a little disconcerting to see her driven by lesser motives than Mulder. Mulder is searching for the truth “out there”, she is searching for Mulder. His concern is for a mission with cosmic implications; hers is for him. It is a dropping back to the traditional motivations of Milton: “He for God, she for God in him.” I recognize that Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy probably dictated this lessening of Dana Scully’s usually solid presence in a story, but perhaps it was appropriate that we take one episode for a deeper look into the agonized soul of Fox Mulder.
This one gets five sunflower seeds out of five. Well done, very well done.