The fourth season of The X-Files saw the series reaching the height of its popularity, and is one of the strongest of the series' run. While there are inevitably a few duff episodes and a few more that don't quite live up to their potential, there are some tremendously strong and memorable episodes in the season. Chris Carter and Howard Gordon continued in this season as executive producers and chief writers, with a number of changes in the rest of the writing cast, including the return of valuable writers from earlier seasons. There's a consistency of tone to this season that was sometimes missing in earlier years, with a serious, dark and often graphically violent style. This is partly due to the distinct lack of comedy episodes after the Darin Morgan-influenced second and third seasons, and while these are missed it feels like the writers and directors are mainly singing from the same sheet. The conspiracy mythology episodes are a considerable presence this season, but as always, it's the standalone stories that stand out the most, providing some considerable variety in subject and theme even while the season is less variable in overall style.
The "monster-of-the-week" standalone episodes include some of the most memorable of the series. Chief among them is "Home," only the second episode of the season. One of the small selection of episodes that technically feature no paranormal elements (although there is some out-there genetics), it nonetheless takes a real life horror to the absolute extreme. Involving investigation into an isolated family living on the outskirts of a rural town, the episode involves such unsettling themes as deformity, incest and infanticide, and sees the series reach a level of violence beyond anything it had previously shown. It's all the more unpleasant for its realism, enhanced by Kim Manners' intense direction. The first episode by Glen Morgan and James Wong since they left during the second season, it features a lead actor from their then-cancelled series Space: Above and Beyond. Tucker Smallwood, who would also go onto appear in other genre series such as Babylon 5, Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise, and The X-Files' own spin-off Millennium, gives a solid performance as Sheriff Taylor, and insisted on performing his own stunts. Even he was taken aback by the level of violence in the episode. Indeed, the episode was so controversial that it has been skipped on most of Fox's repeat runs (although allowed in syndication). Unflinching in its horror, it's one of the most powerful episodes of the series. Once seen, never forgotten.
Another episode written by the Morgan-Wong duo, 4.5, "The Field Where I Died," deals with a Heavens Gate-like suicide cult but brings the concept of past lives into the mix. Another actor from Space: Above & Beyond was provided with a character specifically written for them: Kristen Cloke, who would marry Morgan a year later. Cloke plays Melissa, one of the many wives of cult leader Ephesian (Malcolm Massee – The Crow), and who apparently displays multiple personality disorder. Mulder, though, feels an inexplicable link to her and the cult's base, an old house at a field that was the site of a Civil War battle. Mulder becomes convinced that Melissa is manifesting the personalities of her former lives, and puts himself through regressive hypnotherapy to explore his own past life. Cloke puts in a remarkable performance as Melissa and her various other selves, with Duchovny also impressing as Mulder is put through the emotional wringer. The episode is notable for suggesting that Mulder, his sister, Scully and even the Smoking Man have been repeatedly involved in each others past lives. It gets a bit too sentimental at times, but it remains a powerful episode and an emotive slice of Americana.
There's a theme of helplessness in the face of danger running through several of the episodes. 4.4, "Unruhe," combines a single powerful image with a terrifying fate. A severely disturbed man who believes he and his victims are being haunted by demonic "howlers" kidnaps, drugs and lobotomises women in order to "free" them of those demons. It's made stranger by a photograph of his first victim from moments before her abduction, which inexplicably shows her screaming and surrounded by phantoms. An interesting take on the alleged phenomenon of psychic photography or "thoughtography," it's fundamentally a straightforward thriller with chilling scenes of women held utterly helpless as they await their fates. Featuring an excellent performance by Pruitt Taylor Vince (Jacob's Ladder, Murder One, Agents of SHIELD) as the disturbed assailant, it's one of the best episodes of the season, although it loses marks for seeing Scully kidnapped yet again, which is becoming too common for her character.
This theme reaches another level in 4.6, "Sanguinarium," which sees a rash of seemingly accidental deaths at a plastic surgery hospital when various surgeons are influenced by a supernatural force. The only episode so far that I've had trouble making it through, "Sanguinarium," hinges on the terrifying reality of medical error. If surgery is your phobia then this episode is as frightening as the series gets. A rare unsolicited script submission by new writers Vivian and Valerie Mayhew in their only series credit, the story is fairly average and hinges on witchcraft as the source of the threat, which is already becoming old hat on the series. On the other hand, it puts a different slant on the idea by having both noble and evil witches as work, and having a man (Richard Beymer – Twin Peaks, West Side Story) as the villain who is arranging the deaths as a way of extending his life. It's also about as gory as the series has got by this point, which, for better or worse, takes attention away from the script's flaws.
4.3, "Teliko," features an inventive variation on the vampire genre, with a West African albino man (Willie Amakye) who drains the hormones and melanin of other black men through the pituitary gland, an organ he lacks. Again, the victims are rendered helpless as they are preyed upon, tranquilised by the villain as he carefully drains them. Mixing in traditional folk tales with a science fictional explanation, the episode can be seen as exploring the concepts of othering and xenophobia. However, with its stories of lost tribes, heavy reliance on African-styled music during horror moments and focus on blackness as a biological trait, it also comes across as quite racist and xenophobic itself. It's also unfortunate that it continues the superstitions around albinism that remain prevalent in some regions of Africa. However, it's saved by a dignified performance from Carl Lumbly (Cagney & Lacey, Alias, Supergirl) who injects some class into everything he appears in.
"Teliko" is the first of five episodes by outgoing executive producer Howard Gordon, who gave us a mixed bag of the average and the excellent in his final season. 4.15, "Kaddish," is a stilted but powerful episode that looks at Jewish culture alongside the horrifying levels of discrimination and hatred Jewish people still endure in many parts of the world. Himself from a Reform Jewish family in Queens, Gordon was inspired by his heritage to write an episode focusing on Jewish folklore and the experiences of Jewish people in modern America. In "Kaddish," Hasidic Jews living in Brooklyn are being targeted by a Neo-Nazi organisation. When one man is murdered, his soon-to-be-wife (Justine Micelli – NYPD Blue) resurrects him as a golem – a man-made servant from Jewish folklore that, inevitably, runs amok. The golem takes revenge for the original's death by killing his murderers, leading Mulder and Scully into an investigation into seemingly impossible deaths. A potent examination in the motivation of love and hate, its use of genuine anti-Semitic literature for its fictitious hate group is as chilling as any mythical battle against death.
This was immediately followed by "Unrequited," a flawed episode based on the interesting concept of a man who can make himself invisible to the human eye, thereby becoming the perfect assassin. Gordon uses this to look at the ongoing conspiracy theory that many soldiers reported lost in Viet Nam remain there as prisoners of war, abandoned by the military and the truth covered up. It's a new, separate element of conspiracy to the show, in a season where the military's culpability is focused on heavily, but the episode lacks an emotional hook to hang it from and it struggles because of this. An average performance by Peter LaCroix as killer Nathaniel Teager doesn't help, although a strong guest role for Scott Hylands (Night Heat, Centennial, Fargo) as General Bloch maintains interest. The episode also starts oddly, with a scene from later in the episode used as a teaser in old-fashioned Outer Limits style, that messes with the pace and structure of the story.
Far better is 4.19, "Synchrony" (written with David Greenwalt), a high concept story that went through heavy rewrites but came out in fine form. It sees a young scientist (Joseph Fuqua – Gettysburg) harassed by his own future self (Michael Fairman – Ryan's Hope), desperate to prevent the discovery of time travel, and willing to kill to prevent the future from which he comes. It features strong performances by Hiro Kanagwa (Caprica, The Man in the High Castle) and Susan Lee Hoffman (In the Line of Fire) as cryogenic scientists, and is a cracking sci-fi thriller. Gordon also co-wrote 4.21, the mythology episode "Zero Sum," before leaving at the end of the season to work on other projects, including his own series, the short-lived science thriller Strange World, before moving onto Angel, the latter seasons of 24, and in 2010 creating the highly-acclaimed series Homeland.
Towards the end of the season we have 4.20, "Small Potatoes," which begins with an inexplicable wave of babies born with tails in a small town, before developing into a farcical story about their father, a washed-up nobody who happens to be a shapeshifter. While it's sullied somewhat by a cavalier approach to rape – the villainous Eddie Van Blunt after all having impregnated several women under false pretences – it's nonetheless a great light-hearted episode that's sorely needed in this especially serious season. The part of Van Blunt was specifically written for Darin Morgan – writer earlier in the series and one-time Flukeman – and while he's great in the role, the episode really comes alive when the character takes Mulder's place. Duchovny finally gets a chance to really show off his comedy chops with a script that's happy to poke fun at the character. 4.22, "Elegy," involves the murder of young women being prefigured by their apparitions, visible to a severely autistic man named Harold Spuller. Steven M. Porter gives a strong and ultimately respectful performance as Harold, and while the episode, largely set in a mental institution, perpetuates ideas of autistic people as savants or not quite human, its exploration of the abuse that often goes on in such institutions shows that it's aiming for the right message. It's a bit of a messy episode, but hinges on a strong supernatural concept with simple but effective imagery.
Other episodes are more misses than hits. 4.13, "Never Again," was planned to be a tentpole episode directed by Quentin Tarantino, which fell through. As such, regular director Rob Bowman took the episode, and it desperately needs the shot in the arm that Tarantino would have injected. A Mulder-lite episode, it focuses on Scully suffering something of a mid-life crisis, resulting in some very out-of-character behaviour, including a romance with the murderous Ed Jerse. Jerse, played by Space: Above and Beyond alumnus Rodney Rowland (yes, it's a Morgan and Wong script), is a quietly terrifying misogynist convinced that his tattoo is talking to him. In a remarkable coup, they managed to get Jodie Foster to voice the tattoo. Not only a bone fide superstar, and the first time The X-Files managed to cast someone when they were famous rather than before, Foster's role as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs was of course hugely influential on the character of Scully. It's not enough to save the episode though, which just doesn't hold together, and Scully's behaviour is too out of character. Still, you can't argue with the chemistry between her and Rowland; indeed, the two were involved for some time after filming the episode.
4.23, "Demons," begins with Mulder waking up, covered in blood and unable to remember the last two days, before being linked to a double murder. While featuring a strong performance by Duchovny as the amnesiac and confused Mulder, it fails to hold together plot wise. The weakest episode of the season is undoubtedly 4.11, John Shiban's "El Mundo Gira," a bizarre and ineffectual story that explores el chupacrabra, also known as the goatsucker, then a popular and still new urban myth, mixing it in with the histrionics of Mexican soap opera and, um, killer fungus.
Onto the core mythos stories. The most interesting of the mythology-based episodes is the one that is actually the least important to the overarching plot. 4.7, "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man" focuses entirely on William B. Davis's character telling his alleged life story. Also featuring Chris Owens as the younger version of the Cancer Man, a role he would return to several times, it's a shaggy dog story that sees the character involved in virtually every major event in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. At least partly designed as a parody of Forrest Gump – right up to Davis giving a cynical version of the legendary "box of chocolates" monologue – it insists that the Smoking Man is responsible for the murders of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. It furthers the idea that he is shepherding Mulder for something, but clashes with some previously established facts, and it's clear throughout that the entire story is questionable. An unusual episode, this saw Morgan and Wong working together again but this time as writer and director respectively, and barely features the series' leads. Davis's charismatic but chilling performance makes it.
Another fine episode that just touches on the ongoing mythology is 4.10, "Paper Hearts." Written by Vince Gilligan to throw some of the assumptions of the series into question, it sees Mulder revisit a case from earlier in his career that may be linked to his sister Samantha's disappearance. Until now Mulder's belief had been that Samantha had been abducted by aliens, but here he begins to question this, wondering if she had been one of the victims of John Lee Roche, a serial killer who he put away years earlier. Roche was written for Tom Noonan (known as the antagonist of Manhunter), who is calmly and quietly chilling as the murderer, whose M.O. was cutting a heart our of each of his child victims' clothes. When these hearts are finally discovered, it suggests more murders than he confessed to.
"Paper Hearts," like "Unruhe," sees a straightforward thriller brought into The X-Files domain with a supernatural twist. Here, Mulder begins to have dreams pushing him in the direction of the truth. Really, though, it's a minor touch, and the meat of the episode is in the antagonism between Mulder and Roche. Mulder tries to deal with Roche and pressure him into releasing more information, while Roche takes glee in playing mind games with Mulder. It's an excellent episode hinging on two powerful central performances. However, it falls down slightly due to the fact that, by now, Samantha's fate has been so clearly entwined with the conspiracy and abduction mythology that it's hard to believe that she was the victim of anything so mundane as a simple murder. Brilliant in itself, "Paper Hearts" would have worked better a couple of years earlier.
One of the strongest episodes of the season is 4.12, "Leonard Betts," which was chosen as the lead-out programme by Fox following the 1997 Super Bowl. A troubled script which seemingly had everyone working on it at some point, this turned out as an absolutely archetypal monster-of-the-week story, yet is vitally important to the developing mythology. It stars Paul McCrane, soon to become well known as Dr. Robert Roman on ER, as the eponymous Betts, a human mutant composed entirely of self-replicating tumour cells – a literal Cancer Man. Betts, theorised by Mulder, with characteristic drama and speculation, as the next step in human evolution and nature's response to cancer, can regenerate any body part, starting an investigation when he walks out of the morgue following his own decapitation. Working as a paramedic, Betts is not only made from cancer cells, but subsists on them, reluctantly killing people to take their tumours and to hide his existence. An excellent performance by McCrane centres the episode, the first to give us a truly sympathetic human (or human-like) monster, something that will become more common as the series progresses. It says something about the confidence that Fox had with the series by now, that they'd choose something as bizarre as this to court new viewers in the coveted lead-out spot. Securing the best ratings of the series so far, "Leonard Betts" also quietly impacted the ongoing mythology by revealing that Scully had cancer as a result of her abduction experience, something that would have huge consequences this season and next.
By now, though, it's the deepening mythology that is beginning to hold the series back. Samantha's clones – as children this time round – once again become essential to events in the opening episode, "Herrenvolk." This also introduces yet another element to the conspiracy, a strain of killer bees, on top of the shapeshifting Bounty Hunter (Brian Thompson), the healing hands of Jeremiah Smith (Roy Thinnes), the influence of the Cancer Man on Mulder's life and everything else that's going on. While the episode packs a hell of a punch when it kills off X (Steven Williams), it's all becoming too convoluted and the impact of each new revelation is lessened. X's replacement as Mulder's informant is Laurie Holden (The Walking Dead, The Americans) as UN Special Representative Marita Covarrubias, but she lacks the presence of Williams or his chemistry with the leads. We're also informed that the smallpox vaccine was used to plant a marker on everyone who received it; I wonder how many antivaxxers that storyline spawned. Episodes eight and nine, "Tunguska" and "Terma," feature some remarkably impressive visuals, expanding the scope of the series by investigating Russia's own experimentation with alien material. Teaming Mulder up with Krycek – always more effective as an uneasy ally than an outright villain – it sees much of the action take place in a Russian gulag. It's action-packed and fast paced, but as nice as it all looks, it's a deeply unfocused story with some of the worst dialogue in the series, with Duchovny and Nicholas Lea having to put up with some horrendous macho lines.
The second half of the season devotes much of its focus to Scully's cancer, with mixed results. 4.14, "Memento Mori," involves two strong storylines: an action-oriented mission for Mulder, backed up by his pet nerds the Long Gunmen, and a moving piece where Scully confronts her illness and treatment. The threads are uncomfortably stuck together, though, leaving the episode ultimately less than the sum of its parts. The two-part "Tempus Fugit" and "Max," episodes 4.17 and 4.18, are far better, one of the strongest mythology-based stories of the series. Following up on repeated abductee Max Fenig (Scott Bellis) from the first season episode "Fallen Angel," it begins with the spectacular visual of an alien event occurring in the middle of a commercial flight. The crash of the plane and the deaths of those onboard leads Mulder and Scully into an investigation into the true cause, uncovering layers of military involvement and leading into a tense final stand-off between Mulder and a Man in Black (Greg Michaels) in the air. It also features a memorable guest role for Hill Street Blues and NCIS star Joe Spano as crash investigator Mike Millar. It's far more deftly plotted than Chris Carter's other two-part tentpole story earlier in the season, and the layers of truth and allegiance add to the plot rather than muddle it.
An extra layer is added to the conspiracy when it becomes clear that the Smoking Man may have the technology to cure Scully's condition, something which, along with his desire to protect Mulder, leads Skinner to make an uncomfortable alliance with the man. Having settled any debate over whose side Skinner was on, the series is able to muddy the waters again by having him forced to go against his moral code and making him once again into a character the agents aren't quite able to trust. Mitch Pileggi's strong, subtle performance sells it, but it's yet another layer of lies and deceit to wade through. 4.21, "Zero Sum" is the focus of this storyline, and holds together entirely on the strength of Pileggi and Duchovny's scenes together. The final episode of the season, "Gethsemane," struggles to hit home. Throughout the season the question hasn't been whether the truth is out there, but which truth it is, with seeds of doubt about the existence of extra-terrestrial life being sown. However, by now there has been simply too much evidence of it, what with all the shapeshifters and oil-possessed people, to believe that there isn't alien involvement. The episode tries to convince Mulder and the viewers that the entire idea of alien invasion is just a smokescreen to hide what the government is really up to. While the question of how much is down to human agencies and how much is down to the aliens is valid, it's impossible to believe at this stage that there are no aliens at all. It's one layer of obfuscation too many, leading up to a cliffhanger that doesn't convince.
The mythology storyline was always the focus of the series, with the standalone episodes there to bulk out each season, and by now it really feels like the monsters-of-the-week are carrying the central storyline on their back. However, the increasing popularity of the series by the fourth season spoke for itself, and the fourth season won three Primetime Emmys: Outstanding Art Direction and Outstanding Sound Editing for "Memento Mori" and "Tempus Fugit" respectively, while Anderson won the award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. The season also won the series its second Golden Globe for Best Television Series, while the series leads both won in the TV drama categories. Riding this success, the cast and crew would go directly from this season to filming the first X-Files feature film, before returning to television production for season five.
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 March 30th, 2021. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.