The X-Files Season 2

"Trust no one." Those were Deep Throat's last words when he was assassinated in the first season finale, and in season two, they really are words to live by. The second season of The X-Files ramps up the conspiracy storyline and adds new layers to the series' mythology. Even the standalone episodes had an added level of paranoia and mistrust. There's factionalism everywhere, from the top levels of the government conspiracy down to the anger that local police forces almost invariably have when the FBI turn up.

Mulder and Scully can't catch a break this season. To begin with, they're separated, with the X-Files shut down. Scully's been reassigned to teach at the FBI academy, while Mulder's being punished with largely pointless observations and follow-up assignments. Throughout the season, even after the X-Files are reinstated, they're pulled apart by forces beyond their control.

Early in the season, at least, this was due to practicalities. Gillian Anderson fell pregnant during the recording of the first season, so that some careful shooting was required even for the last few episodes of that run. For the second season, the Fox execs wanted to recast or replace the character, but Chris Carter fought to keep Anderson and he and the other main writers worked the season around her pregnancy. Having her largely separated from Mulder made this easier, with Scully often  speaking to him from offices or sitting next to him to hide the bump. You notice an awful lot of big coats as well. When her pregnancy reached a late stage, Anderson was written out for a short spell of episodes – and the solution chosen had a huge impact on the series from then on.

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The mythology got a shot in the arm even in the first episode, "Little Green Men," which starts with Mulder questioning his beliefs and the degree to which they allow him to be manipulated. The episode sees him sent by a US senator to the Arecibo telescope in Mexico (I rewatched this episode mere days after the telescope's collapse in 2020), on the trail of a UFO incident. It's a race against time to get proof before a clean-up team arrives and destroys the evidence. It ends up with Mulder finding genuine data from an alien signal, and even has him see an alien being, albeit briefly. It's the first time we actually see one of the alien visitors behind the series' mythos and it cements the direction for the series.

After that we get some "monster-of-the-week" episodes, and they kick off with one of the best remembered. "The Host" is "the one with the flukeman," easily the most memorable and revolting of the one-off monsters in the series. Half human, half flatworm, the flukeman is absolutely grotesque, a triumph of make-up and prosthetics. It's even more fun when you learn that writer and exec producer Glen Morgan got his brother Darin in to play the monster; he'd go on to write for the show from the very next episode. The episode itself is nicely atmospheric, but watching it now it's pretty slow. Still, it works purely on the basis of some arresting, stomach-churning imagery. It also has the distinction of introducing Steven Williams as X, the successor to Deep Throat, who becomes Mulder's main source of information. (Vocally, at least; he only appears on screen two episodes later.)

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The season continues with Darin Morgan's "Blood," a tense and effective take on the "going postal" theme, in which people are driven to acts of violence and murder by subliminal messaging in electronic devices. The source of the messages is theorised at but never explained; some of the most effective X-Files never give any more than a hint of an explanation. This is followed by "Sleepless," a Jacob's Ladder-esque story of marines who were part of a sleep deprivation experiment to create the perfect soldiers. The episode introduces Nicholas Lea as Alex Krycek, Mulder's new partner. Lea gives a great performance, coming across as a decent and open-minded agent who might actually be good for Mulder, who is unfairly set against him. Unfortunately, Krycek's double-dealing is revealed far too soon. He makes an excellent villain, and it's fun that we're a few steps ahead of Mulder on this, but the secrecy around it could have run all season.

The fifth and six instalments, "Duane Barry" and "Ascension," see Mulder pulled into a hostage situation when former agent Duane Barry – an amazing, intense performance by Steve Railsback (Helter Skelter) – escapes a mental institution. Believing that he's been repeatedly abducted by aliens but clearly suffering from severe mental issues, it's never clear whether Mulder is being taken in by delusions or whether they're the truth. Mulder's unorthodox approach to the situation almost works, until he questions Barry's statement, causing him to erupt into anger, and the assailant is shot by a sniper. He's taken into hospital and survives, but Scully uncovers multiple indications that he's telling the truth: he has impossibly fine holes drilled into his teeth, and there are metallic implants in his body bearing barcodes. In the first season, this would have been the end of the story, a situation resolved but with a greater mystery outstanding, but here, it leads directly to the following episode, where Barry escapes again. Tracking down Scully via the implant, he abducts her, successfully handing her over to his abductors in his place.

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The two-parter is one of the best stories in the series, certainly the strongest of the mythology stories so far. After trying their hardest to stay involved with each other's work through the season so far, Mulder and Scully are forcibly separated, with Scully's fate unknown and Mulder seeming completely lost without her, at least to begin with. The strength of the bond between them at the core of the series by now, with Mulder absolutely refusing to give up hope. However, he receives a boost when Skinner reopens the X-Files. There's a single episode in which Scully is entirely absent while Anderson had her daughter – the vampire tale "3," a qualified success which sees Mulder seek comfort in a brief romance with Kristen Kilar, played by Duchovny's then girlfriend Perry Reeves (there's a pattern emerging here).

Episode eight, "One Breath," deals with Scully's return, suddenly appearing in a coma. The episode deals with the conflicting feelings of Mulder, who refuses to let Scully die in spite of her apparently uncurable condition, and her family, who wish to release her (in accordance with her living will, in fact). The episode carefully balances Mulder's obsessions and belief in the extraterrestrial and Scully's faith in her religion, finally bringing her back to the waking world, albeit lacking any memory of what happened to her. On the lesser side, the episode also introduced Melinda McGraw as Melissa Scully, Dana's New Ager sister, who was intended to be a love interest for Mulder but absolutely lacks any chemistry with him. The episode also ups the complexity of the conspiracy, with Skinner proving to be a staunch ally, but one who is trapped by his loyalty to his position, and X, who has his own, opaque agenda.

From this point on, Scully can no longer even try to believe that the conspiracy doesn't exist, but she remains the more rational of the pair. Working together again, Mulder and Scully take on some memorable standalone episodes. "Firewalker," concerning a subterranean parasite, is too similar to season one's "Ice" to really stand out, but episode ten, "Red Museum," is deeply unnerving. A spate of teen kidnappings reveals experimentation on human behaviour, while dabbling in cultism and further conspiracy. It's kind of all over the place, but it works purely on tension and strong imagery. It could have been even weirder, though: the original concept was that it would be a crossover with the eccentric drama series Picket Fences.

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Episode eleven, "Excelsis Dei," is a reasonable poltergeist story that's sullied by its trivialised use of rape as a plot point. It's a shame; there's some arresting imagery, and a great guest cast, including Teryl Rothery (Stargate SG-1) and the late, great Eric Christmas. The excellent "Aubrey" stars Deborah Strang as a woman who is driven to murder by the genetic memory of her grandfather, and Terry O'Quinn as her husband. He would make multiple appearances in The X-Files and its spin-offs, but is best known these days as Locke on Lost. It's a great concept and made memorable by some fantastic performances.

It pales in comparison to episode thirteen, though. "Irresistible" (aka "Fascination") is the story of Donny Pfaster, a fetishist who is driven to murder to fuel his desires. With a deeply creepy performance by Nick Chinlund, it's a rare example of an X-Files episode with no paranormal elements whatsoever. No, this is a straightforward case of a serial killer, and is all the scarier for it. Anderson puts in an incredible performance, as Scully deals not only with the horror of facing Pfaster but also the PTSD from her abduction experience. One of the very best episodes of the series.

Also rather good is the next episode "Die Hand Die Verletzt," an episode that plays on the hysteria around satanic cults (not long ago in the memory in 1995), but twists to reveal the very Devil itself is involved. It's unfocused – the script doesn't seem sure whether it's about hysteria and blame or actual occultism – but overall it works. "Fresh Bones," a Voodoo-themed episode that deals with the abuse of refugees, has the guts to punch high with a genuine governmental conspiracy, and also features some of the most utterly terrifying imagery in the series. There are moments in this episode that have never left me and never will – serves me right for watching it when I was twelve!

The fifteenth and sixteenth episodes formed a two-part story, a major focal point of the series mythology. Unusually, the first part, "Colony," featured a story credit for Duchovny. The actor expressed an interest in facing an "alien bounty hunter" – a very Star Wars concept – and so Carter sat down with him and worked out a storyline which also brought back Mulder's long lost sister Samantha. Her disappearance being Mulder's main drive in unearthing the unknown, this could have resolved too much of the ongoing story. Instead, "Colony" and its follow-up "End Game," had it both ways, reuniting Mulder with his sister but raising even more unanswered questions when multiple duplicates are discovered, continuing the fascination with cloning first raised in the first season. This lets the series get away with the lack of chemistry between Duchovny and Samantha actor Megan Leitch. Rather better is Rebecca Toolan as their mother Teena, making her first appearance, and Peter Donat returning as Bill Mulder.

The most arresting presence in the two-parter, though, is big burly Brian Thompson as the Bounty Hunter. A regular face in genre telly, appearing on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Star Trek franchise as various heavies and monsters, he's a distinctly intimidating presence. His shapeshifting ability and relentless pursuit of his goals bring to mind the T-1000 from Terminator 2, released four years earlier. The episodes have received some commentary on their gender treatment: while Mulder's family-based and sensitive response to his sister's disappearance and reapperance is unusual for a male character in an action series, Scully's abduction by the Bounty Hunter is one of several times this season where her capture and rescue drives the plot. With its focus on cloning, introduction of a subplot on human-alien hybridisation and a genuine alien villain, the story makes a huge contribution to forwarding the conspiracy plotline.

Following "End Game" is a run of standalone episodes, leading up to the mythology-heavy finale. "Fearful Symmetry" is a bit of an oddity: an episode which revolves around the apparent alien abduction of zoo animals. It has some effective moments, not least some very affecting scenes where the gorilla Sophie speaks to her handler via American Sign Language, and it's one of those episodes where leaving the events unexplained improves it. On the whole, though, it doesn't quite work, and there's something that bothers me about an episode that discusses animal rights but had to move production to a different area where animal cruelty laws were more lax.

"Død Kalm" tackles the Philadelphia Experiment, which is just about the most X-Files thing to write an episode about, but uses it to tell the "regular characters mysteriously become elderly" storyline that is seemingly obligatory for every genre series. Cue some very shaky acting and unconvincing make-up. The next episode, though, is a belter. "Humbug," another script by Darin Morgan, involves a series of inexplicable murders that have followed a travelling sideshow. Utilising some real life sideshow performers and human oddities, it features perhaps the best cast credit ever: "The Conundrum (played by) The Enigma." It's a genuinely thoughtful discussion of the nature of monstrosity, humanity's fear of the other and the gradual elimination of the outliers of human form from society. Add a heartrending performance from weird old Vincent Schiavelli and another Twin Peaks alumnus in the form of Michael Anderson, and you've got a great episode. There's a deeply dark sense of humour pervading the episode, hinting at the more humorous direction the series will move in over the next few years.

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"The Calusari" is a creepy child episode, this time a full-on Exorcist riff with a bit of The Omen throne in, with some stereotypical rural Eastern Europeans included for colour. It has some unsettling moments but the whole is less than the sum of its parts. "F. Emasculata," a pandemic story with some truly unpleasant make-up effects, works pretty well. Watching it in 2020 has a different feel, of course, making it more timely and relevant than it did when it was first broadcast. The most interesting part is the level of conspiracy involved, as the pharmaceutical company that unwittingly unleashed the disease goes to extreme lengths to keep it under wraps, aided by government organisations that want to prevent panic. Both Skinner and the Smoking Man make major appearances, in an episode that furthers their involvement in the supression of the truth without dragging in the general mythology. And yet, you end up feeling sympathetic for their cause, as Mulder's insistence on making the truth known genuinely would cause panic and probably prevent the disease from ever becoming contained.

This increasing level of paranoia is followed up in the silly but effective "Soft Light," in which Tony "Monk" Shalhoub stars as a scientist whose shadow has become tranformed into dark matter and is lethal to anyone who comes into contact with it. Aside from the perennial sci-fi sin of throwing scientific terms around with no care or understanding of what they actually mean, the idea is pretty solid, even if the visuals are a bit wonky. It certainly sees the series push further into outlandish concepts, but Shalhoub's intense and committed performance sells it. Terrified of hurting anyone and running from a government he believes will seek to weaponise him, his paranoia is proven to be entirely justified. X returns as Mulder tries to use him – a mistake, as the man is even less trustworthy than he feared. The final shot of the episode is powerful enough to justify any of the earlier silliness. That's two episodes which build on the government's abuse of trust without ever tying into the alien mythology.

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As government-induced paranoia builds up, we get to enjoy one more choice standalone episode with the penultimate instalment of the season, "Our Town." In a wonderfully creepy set-up, a chicken processing plant is caught up in a conspiracy of murder, silencing and cannibalism. The truth about the townspeople eating those who don't play by the rules comes out when CJD becomes rampant in the populace, something that should be almost vanishingly rare unless people are ingesting a contaminated source. Of course, at the time the UK was being pulled into the BSE fiasco, as cases of its descendant CJD in the UK were double that of the rest of the world, thanks to contaminated beef. It's far more unsettling when you learn that the episode is based on real events: the antagonist is revealed to have spent time among a ficticious Papuan tribe, but the real Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea were almost destroyed by the CJD-like disease kuru, because they used to eat each others brains as part of a funerary rite. Truth is often far more horrifying than fiction.

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The season ends on "Anasazi," a second story that heavily features Native American characters but this time in the service of the mythology arc. Mulder acquires a disc containing a wealth of data on the conspiracy, which has been encoded via the Navajo language (a technique used during WWII). Mulder's mental health begins to deteriorate – resulting in a wonderful scene where he, unprovoked, smacks Skinner right in the face – and while we might expect this to happen, it's down to his water being laced with a drug. The attempt to discredit him works, and he is implicated in the murder of his own father – revealed to be a one-time colleague of the Cigarette Smoking Man, who features heavily. The episode ends when Mulder uncovers a buried train car full of alien corpses – and he is shut inside when the Smoking Man orders it burnt.

It's quite a cliffhanger, but there's never any sense that Mulder will be killed. His mission is so much at the heart of the series that it's impossible it can continue without his involvement at all. Even in the latter years of the series when Duchovny leaves, Mulder's presence is felt throughout. Still, it's an excellent end to what's probably The X-Files' best season.

The X-Files is available to purchase of stream from Amazon

Review: Daniel Tessier

Dan describes himself as a geek. Skinny white guy. Older than he looks. Younger than he feels. Reads, watches, plays and writes. Has been compared to the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth Doctors, and the Dream Lord. Plus Dr. Smith from 'Lost in Space.' He has also had a short story published in Master Pieces: Misadventures in Space and Time a charity anthology about the renegade Time Lord. 

Dan's web page can be here: Immaterial

Published on January 15th, 2021. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.