The X-Files: “The Blessing Way” & “Paper Clip”

The Blessing Way/Paper Clip

by Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 1995 by Sarah Stegall

Writer: Chris Carter
Director: Rob Bowman

The Navajo do not pray for rain. Unlike their neighbors, the Pueblo and Hopi, who dance for the favor of the gods when drought threatens, the nomadic Navajo will hold ceremonies to put themselves in harmony with nature, even if it means buckling down to wait out a season of no rain. Similarly, the Blessing Way Chant is designed not to heal the patient of his physical ills, but to restore him to the “path of beauty”, the road of balance and harmony. And if that means the patient dies, or loses an arm, or comes out of the experience scarred in some way, that too is part of the process of living and dying that the Navajo seek to align themselves with. The point of the ceremony, like the laying on of hands among Christians, is the renewal of spiritual force, not bodily health. Like their spiritual cousins the Zen Buddhists, the Dineh (Navajo) seek wholeness and understanding rather than the manipulation of cosmic forces.

This is a hard concept for Westerners to grasp, rooted as it is in a quiet acceptance rather than an active effort. We are used to doing things, used to “battling” the forces of nature to bend them to our wills. We fear time and decay, and most of all we fear change, even though these are as much a part of the universe we live in as eternity and continuity. We will go to great lengths to stave off change, which we see as corruption, from carving our words in stone to backing up our hard disks every day. We can engage in ritual practices like this, warding off mutation and alteration, or we can get ourselves into harmony with it.

A very great change is heralded in “The X-Files” with the conclusion of the three-act story that began with “Anasazi” and ended with “Paperclip”. Chris Carter, in reworking the conceptual substructure for this show, now entering its third year, does not have the luxury of drawing on elements already present in a fully formed and integrated cosmos, but must make up his universe as he goes along. Like all attempts at the deliberate creation of something which usually develops organically, this hybrid is sometimes successful and sometimes not. The seams show, a little, but for the most part, it breathes and moves. Whether it will continue to live on its own, or crumble under its own weight, we will have to see.

I attempted to synopsize the three hours of this story, and it doubled the length of this review. Rather than distort the tale out of all recognition by compressing it into this space, I will assume that my readers have seen all three episodes and are familiar enough with them to follow the discussion. My apologies if this leaves some of you in the dark, but this story line is so rich in detail that to summarize it is to risk twisting it.

As I said earlier, the actualization of a heretofore nebulous idea closes off certain possibilities; all choices result in the deaths of other choices, with the act of selection itself destroying even as it creates. One of the major appeals of this show from the beginning was that it allowed intelligent people who do not believe in UFOs to enjoy the thrill and the tease without having to buy into this premise. We must now regretfully say goodbye to the idea that Mulder is hallucinating or is deceived–there are indeed little grey aliens riding around our skies in space ships. Discarding the veil to reveal actual aliens and space ships is a daring act, perhaps one Carter felt driven to as the show matures. But it risks losing a major part of his audience, if we are asked to start suspending more and more of our disbelief every week. There are limits to what I will believe, even if Mulder looks me sincerely in the camera and says it. And if I can’t agree with Mulder or Scully’s beliefs, I will have lost any interest in the continuation of the series.

Yet Carter is apparently uninterested in keeping us in a safe and cozy place. He is risking much, but perhaps gaining much, in jarring us out of our comfort zones and keeping us off balance. He knows that familiarity breeds contempt, and nothing will kill “The X-Files” faster than giving people what they expect. We have come to count on (and television will necessarily continue to provide us with) certain formulas, certain plots, certain truisms in the execution of a 45-minute- a-week melodrama. Doubtless we will continue to get them in the next 22 episodes, but for now, we are faced with the task of integrating this new cosmos of Carter’s into what we know about the characters and situation we have come to identify with already. Certain themes and icons emerge to point us through a landscape which has, once again, been rendered murky and precarious.

The primary and overarching motif of this story is transformation. “Anasazi” is about betrayal. Everyone Mulder trusts turns on him–even Scully. Even though some of these betrayals are later shown to be the effects of his drugging, their emotional impact will be the same. Just because a nightmare is not “real” does not make it less frightening. So when Scully saves Mulder’s sanity and possibly his life, she reinforces his understanding that he can trust only her. “Blessing Way” is about loss and sacrifice. Scully loses her partner and her job; Mulder loses his father and nearly loses his life. Both of them are stripped down to the bedrock of commitment: who do you believe? Who do you trust? Who do you believe in? Surrounded by hostility and deception, Scully turns as cold and hard as ice. Even a precious scene with Frohike cannot soften her to human warmth again. Fear and isolation are turning her into a female counterpart of Mr. X: suspicious, jumpy, and unhappy. We see relatively little of Mulder in “Blessing Way”, as the middle act does for Scully what the first act did for him: depriving her of all support, to hang alone and defenseless in the howling dark. “Paperclip” restores them not only to one another, but to themselves and to the quest.

From the moment Fox Mulder stumbles into his apartment, he and Scully are joined as the two halves of one mind, operating as left and right hands of a single purpose. Even when they argue in front of the Well-Manicured Man, their disagreement is of a fundamentally different nature than their argument outside the hospital in the series pilot. Scully is no longer dismissing the idea of alien abduction out of hand, she is simply disagreeing with the evidence presented. Mulder’s transformation is profound: he not only leaves the decision over the tape to Scully, he does not even present his arguments to her. He knows she knows him well enough to know what he would say. His trust in her is complete; she has been drawn permanently into the sacred circle of his faith and hope. Scully is now part of the quest, which has become as personal and real to her as to Mulder. This personalization makes more emotional sense in the long run than to have Scully continue for another two to five years denying the evidence of her own eyes. She is now as fully invested in the outcome of their investigations as Mulder, and we can drop the false tension generated by her “skepticism”. She will never be as gullible as Mulder, who will take even the Well-Manicured Man at his word, but neither is she going to automatically discount his “extreme possibilities”. She knows there is a conspiracy now, without doubt.

So the theme of “Paperclip” is really about choices. Mulder says, “I think it has to do with fate”: I think this line is a mistake. Fox Mulder is not and never has been a pessimist who sits back and accepts what happens as preordained. Despite his clear understanding that he is overmatched in his efforts by the Smoking Man’s cronies (whom Shanna Swendson so brilliantly dubbed “the Smoke Ring”), he resolves to keep on trying. That is the only thing a hero can do. Scully joins him when she tells him, “I have to have something to put my back up against”. Those are the words of a fighter, not a fatalist. It is the effort that counts, because the effort–the sacrifice–shows us the fullest expression of the human heart. Mulder and Scully are heroes not because the hand of fate has been laid on them, but because the choose to go forward despite it.

The choices Bill Mulder made, the choices Deep Throat made, and now the choices Mulder and Scully make, are the ultimate expression of humanity. Only humans choose. All else obeys the invisible dictates of thermodynamics, instinct, and probability. The only thing ultimately interesting about Mulder and Scully’s investigations are what they tell us about ourselves. Mulder shows us heart and will; Scully shows us courage and faith. The point of a heroic quest is to bring back a truth that holds up a mirror to our souls. Mulder and Scully could choose to quit, or to be intimidated, or to go rogue and run from the Cigarette-Smoking Man for the rest of their lives. But they choose to return to the X-Files, to the basement office, to the pursuit of elusive cases bounded by hostility and frustration. It is difficult, and daunting, and dangerous. This is the path of harmony, the path of Beauty that takes them clear-eyed and aware into the heart of darkness, on a hero’s journey.

It is too early to tell what the long-term effects of these ordeals will be on Mulder and Scully. This arc will be a useless diversion if it merely gives back to us the Mulder and Scully we had before. First impressions would lead me to believe that Mulder is a profoundly changed man. He may finally be losing some of that urbane veneer that closed him off from Scully. Scully, however, is closing up. All we see of her inner life is a steely glare and a brief tear, right up to that final, long-overdue hug. Beyond that, she is a blank.

The single greatest flaw in this arc is the lack of connecting emotion between the various characters. Except for Margaret Scully, and the final scene between Mulder and Scully in Melissa’s hospital room, there is very little expression of emotion in this arc. This is fatal. Episodic drama is not an intellectual medium. There’s plenty of scenery chewing when Mulder confronts Krycek, or when the Cigarette-Smoking Man tries to bully Skinner. But when Scully loses Mulder to a hideous death (she thinks), when Mulder is brought back from death by Albert Hosteen’s (Floyd Red Crow Westerman) efforts, when Mulder meets his mother for the first time since his father’s murder–these scenes are so emotionally muted that a normal human cannot connect to them. Carter risks over-intellectualizing this series and boring his viewers, if he fails to remember that drama is about emotion. The puzzles are interesting, vital to the show, of course. But I find it difficult to connect with a Mulder who cannot even thank Albert for saving his life, who cannot comfort his mother, who takes Scully so much for granted he cannot even say “Did you miss me?” when he returns from the dead. Scully was an automaton in “Blessing Way”, save only for her thinly veiled contempt for Skinner. Can she summon up for us no more grief, joy, relief, or outrage than she shows in this extraordinary chain of events? One can underplay something too subtly and suck all the juice out of this show. If she shows so little of her inner reactions to us when her life is being irrevocably changed, how shallow will her reactions be to an “ordinary” X-File?

While we don’t need a soap opera (and I cannot conceive of Chris Carter writing soap opera), we do need a new relationship between Mulder and Scully. Naturally, this opens the long-simmering question of a love affair: I am not arguing here for one. Chris Carter has stated loudly and often that there will be no romance between Mulder and Scully, because such personal relationships would take the focus off their investigations. Yet he is willing to entangle “The X- Files” in some of the most powerful connections there are: family relationships. Am I really supposed to believe that a love affair would be more distracting than the murders of a father and a sister?

If you are going to involve the characters this personally, their emotions must be opened up for us. The emotional weight of the show rests on the main characters, not the puzzles they solve, and this requires a mature and evolving connection between them, based in an emotional reality the audience can understand. In our own lives we find relationships with co-workers and family members ripening as time and experience dictate: Mulder and Scully must not be trapped in stasis as they move through future episodes. I am hoping Carter will justify my confidence in him this season.

Beyond the sea-changes implicit in the character development in this arc, we see other tectonic shifts taking place. Skinner finally decides where his loyalties lie, and the Smoking Man loses some of his threat. It’s hard to be scared of a man who is visibly shaken. The relationship between Skinner and his agents must profoundly change: it’s not every day you can pull a gun on your boss and still go back to work on Monday. Mulder learns that his sister was sacrificed for him and Scully learns that her sister died in her place, burdens of guilt that could easily warp strong souls.

I’m going to have to buy a new thesaurus if I continue to write about John Bartley’s cinematography. The scene of Mulder’s epiphany in the mine, when the mothership rises in a stately blaze as shadows and emotions chase themselves across his face, is one of such stunning beauty I broke into applause. The dance of firelight and shadow on Mulder in the hogan, the sooty atmosphere of the Smoke Ring’s clubhouse, and the nearly silent stampede of aliens past Scully in the mine shaft make these scenes classics of composition and execution. Rob Bowman’s closeups of Mulder and Scully in the final episode were particularly eloquent: the tight shots of their reunion in front of the elevator shaft almost made up for the lack of substance in the script at that point. (Yeah, I really needed more dialogue between them. Really.)

It’s hard to know what to say about the acting. David Duchovny showed a fine range in “Anasazi”, between despair, grief, paranoia, and emotional exhaustion. In “Blessing Way”, he mostly lay flat on his back under a blanket of fir branches. I don’t know if his lack of engagement with Mrs. Mulder in their reunion scene was his doing or the scripts, but it left me cold. “Paperclip”, however, made up for any second-act weaknesses as he came back strongly to show a purposeful, charged up Mulder. For once, Mulder seemed to know what he was doing and why he was doing it. He addresses Skinner as an equal, cuts through his mother’s stoic denial with both urgency and calm, and overall reflects a man transformed. Again, Duchovny’s tendency to underplay serves him well in the scene with Scully before the elevator, where her fumbling efforts at welcoming him back spark a characteristic impatience that flits across his face. Duchovny gives us a wonderful moment of body language when Mulder stands silhouetted against the rising lights of the mothership, caught literally like a deer in the headlights, echoing fear and wonder.

Gillian Anderson deserves a great deal of credit for overcoming the stiffness written into her character. Somehow the warmth and honesty of Dana Scully bleed through the armor of her deadpan expression. Anderson was not given much to hang her performance on here–the writing called for her to be non-reactive most of the time, yet she gave us a wonderfully strong Scully throughout the entire storyline. Her one chance to unbend and show us Scully with her hair down came in “Blessing Way”, where she invites a lonely and grief-stricken Frohike in for coffee and sympathy. Best of all, when she tells Mulder to negotiate because “I want to see my sister”, she ends her thousand-yard stare at her partner with a self- conscious smile at her own seriousness, exactly the kind of unconventional expression we all indulge in, like laughing at a funeral even though it isn’t funny.

There are some faults in the writing and structure of this arc which bear examination. One of them is the voice- over narration by Albert Hosteen, whose dialogue, along with that of Bill Mulder and Deep Throat in the dream sequence, borders on the pretentious. In a context more deeply laid, perhaps in Paperclip, their epigrammatic speeches might have had more impact. As it is, it sounded rather as if they were intoning through the nose what could have been fine poetry. The image of the white buffalo calf was wasted. Its importance as a symbol and its relevance to either plot or subtext was never brought out. An image is effective because it speaks beyond its surface meaning to an unconscious recognition we can never precisely explain (which is why dreams affect us so powerfully). But when a symbol is stripped of its mystery and made flesh, leaving only its literal meaning, not only is our immediate grasp of its significance diminished but we lose all the depth imparted by the other, concatenated associations. When a cigar becomes just a cigar it is less interesting.

Similarly, the menace of the Cigarette-Smoking Man fades as he is revealed as a pawn of darker, yet more sinister powers. In retrospect, this suddenly makes his lurking presence in the previous two years of considerably less impact, and waters down the threat he used to pose. He is checkmated now, a less worthy opponent than he was. This may actually improve the conflicts built into the show, as we meet a more polished puppeteer in the Well-Manicured Man, played with urbane malignancy by John Neville.

The overall pacing of the arc suffered enormously from the long intermission between acts one and two of this drama. Second acts are almost always weaker than first acts, as they must bear more narrative weight with less dramatic underpinning than the teasing opener or the dynamic conclusion. To use the second act to open an entire season is risky, and did not pay off well. There were too many loose ends at both the beginning and the end of “Blessing Way” to appeal to new viewers or to appease the appetites of veterans. While closure has never been high on the list of X-Files priorities, it is more necessary than usual in a season premiere, whose purpose is not only to re-ignite interest among old-timers but to draw in new fans. Carter sometimes sacrificed the demands of the story to the demands of formula, which is more or less inevitable in television. However, failing to explain Mulder’s escape from the boxcar is unforgivable. While I can speculate on tunnels, secret compartments, or teleportation, there comes a point where some questions simply must be answered or we will throw down our remote controls in disgust.

Many viewers will be disappointed in this story thread and in any new directions, I suspect. The growing audience exerts an enormous pull on the direction the show takes, like a planet drawing in an errant satellite. “The X-Files” is coming of age, however, and it is time to move on. All art is an artifact of history, and “The X-Files” now has a two-year history to both support it and drag on it. I can live with Chris Carter’s total rewriting of Samantha and Fox Mulder’s biographical data as presented so far (even Samantha’s middle name has changed from Conduit), but to play too fast and loose with the audience’s collective memory is to risk alienating it. A confused audience is a disappearing one. Carter is walking the borders of the quirky, moody, convoluted territory of “Twin Peaks”, which both won and lost an audience for David Lynch. Lynch’s iconoclastic series prepared the ground for “The X-Files”, and if Carter can avoid the self- referential traps and corkscrew plotting of that landmark series, he will create a new benchmark not just in television, but in storytelling.

I said at the end of End Game that the show had entered a new dimension, giving us a more coherent background against which to understand the series. Then we got two or three weeks of pedestrian episodes which seemed to slip us right back into the same old same old. I sincerely hope that will not be the case this year. We cannot afford to return to business as usual, with no elaboration of the characters, their situation or the milieu revealed in these three stories. Although it is dangerous to predict which way “The X-Files” will turn next, I trust that we will see not only a transformed Mulder and Scully but a tightening of the tension inherent in their situation. Chris Carter has upped the ante for his team. Let’s hope it isn’t a bluff.

It will take some time to assimilate the new premises established in “Paperclip”: aliens are real, Mulder’s family is involved, Scully’s skepticism may be eroding. We must regain our balance, our sense of harmony, after so many changes. This ambitious revamping of the series breaks the molds that formed the standards by which I am judging it, but I will give this three-story arc (as opposed to the individual episodes) five sunflower seeds out of five.

I send gratitude in six directions.