After last week’s airing of Rm9sbG93ZXJz (gesundheit), there have been quite a few reviews lauding the “flexibility” of X-Files — that we’ve got this series with enough credibility to stretch genre boundaries without sacrificing quality.
A lot of credit is given to the Monster of the Week / mytharc style of episode continuity, where bone-chilling developments in the shadowy government conspiracy world can be put on the back burner for a few minutes while our heroes chase hurricane worms and butt genies. There was a time when this feature of the series grated on me a little, especially in seasons where you were waiting for something really important to happen —
— and knew as soon as you saw a horde of creepy townspeople that this was not your week.
But that was then.
Now, as a dedicated viewer of season 11, I say praise Jesus Slug for these intelligent, entertaining entries in the MOTW category that create just a little more narrative space between me and any rendition of My Struggle. My Struggle wants me to engage in a world of space colonization and medical rape, where the world may or may not be about to end in a collapse of human immunity, and where Miller and Einstein exist. The great MOTW episodes this season — I’m thinking Rm9sbG93ZXJz, The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat, This — cuddle me in their arms and say, “I know the apocalypse is coming, but let’s watch Mulder and Scully go out for sushi.”
I’m hoarding all the feels and giddiness I get from these episodes and wrapping myself in it one week at a time like papier mache ahead of week 10, when my piñata self will be lowered into swinging range of the My Struggle bat. In the meanwhile, in honor of these delightful sandbags against the impending mytharc onslaught, let’s take a moment to recognize a special subset of the MOTW genre: the concept episode.
Is this a real term? No. This is a thing I’ve just made up and for which someone else has probably already established a label. Nonetheless, today we’ll define a concept episode as an MOTW that doesn’t look like an X-Files episode. Some of these are great, and some of these are forgettable crap. Let’s take a look at three of each just for the sake of symmetry.
Great Moments in Concept Episode History
As recently as two years ago, I thought this episode was hot garbage. Woe unto my ignorance. Even though the premise is gimmicky AF, they’ve somehow managed to port over an entire plotline onto a cheaply-made reality show precursor without losing the essence of what makes X-Files tick — Mulder & Scully, and a scary monster.
One good indicator of an episode’s quality is its quotability, and who can forget Mulder’s bleep-laden admonition for the man behind the door to cowboy up? Or his recommendation that Scully consider a new look in the form of bubble gum pink?
There is also that classic little bit of Scully backtracking on her abject dismissal of Mulder’s crazy theories, in order to save face for him in front of the cameras. Firstly, aww. Secondly, it’s a nice reminder for anyone who might think Scully comes across as a harping shrew that we act differently when we know someone else is watching.
Though if you have ever thought that Scully came across as a harping shrew — how dare you.
Mulder may or may not journey into the past in this episode, which gets several brownie points for its 1940s fashion and music, and several zillion brownie points for the kiss that we all know is the real reason this episode is on the list, despite whatever non-shipper rationalization I’m about to invent.
For those with a greater appreciation for cinematography than I have, one of the key features that differentiates this episode are the no-cut action sequences a la Hitchcock’s Rope. For me, it’s the usual swirl of circular logic and causality that you get with a time travel story, but with the added bonus of our favorite characters with accents. It’s also the conspiracy element, the tense 1998 race to get satellite data, the Lone Gunmen…
1. Post-Modern Prometheus
It’s in black and white. That’s how you know it’s a serious artistic endeavor.
But seriously — it’s a “monster of our own making” story with a twist of Cher. Even if you don’t buy that the episode really happened because of the comic book fadeaway at the end, you at least have to acknowledge that whoever wrote the comic actually had a close encounter with Mulder and Scully. And who among us has ever been able to look at pest fumigation tents the same way since?
I could break character and leave out my favorite part of the episode because I’m insecure about being typecast as overly distracted by shipper fluff, but I can’t — nay won’t — be held accountable for falling victim to what is certainly one of the sweeter SQUEEs in the series.
And lest we forget…
Forgettable Moments in Concept Episode History
3. First Person Shooter
As mentioned above, I love the Lone Gunmen. I also love seeing Scully be badass, and I have a passing interest in first-person shooter video games. That said, these elements come together in a salad of nonsense that completely drowns out the feminist themes… if indeed something can be said to drown in salad.
Why are the Lone Gunmen on board with suppressing a murder investigation to avoid jeopardizing their software investment? Doesn’t that sound like something they’d write an article about in their silly little rag if someone else made that choice?
Why is every man in the office crowded around the interrogation room as if women had just been invented?
Why does this advanced immersion game render every character off the same model?
So many unanswered questions. And much like the unanswered questions posed by any rendition of My Struggle, I am completely fine with never knowing the answers.
In many ways, the episodes of season 10 and 11 are immune to inclusion on this list because there aren’t a lot of established norms for special shortened seasons of a classic series that’s been off the air for 15 years. That said, Babylon was just heinous enough that it transcended that restriction, much like a mother’s love transcending a coma and extremism or something.
The episode is already questionable even before the jump, as we watch a Muslim man pray, get bullied by a racist Texan in a truck, and then blow up a building. Thanks for that, Chris Carter. It was a bold and innovative choice to have one of the first (if not the first?) Muslims shown praying on X-Files immediately roll up on a building in suicide bomber chic.
It’s also a stretch of good judgment to shoehorn a lengthy drug trip scene into one of the only 6 episodes that will ever exist of this revived series, as far as anyone knew way back then. And there’s the Lone Gunmen again; I sense a theme. Even less judgment was shown in revealing that the mushrooms were a placebo the whole time. The viewer’s payback for reserving judgment on the honky tonk badonka-donk is thus that none of it meant anything.
It was perplexing to have Mulder and Scully walking hand in hand and discussing the nature of unconditional love and trained hatred, only to be interrupted by the sound of the Angel Gabriel’s horn.
Worst of all.
If I thought it would take more than 10 words apiece to describe the entirety of Miller and Einstein’s character arcs, I would write a blog post about my burning dislike for these derivative, uninteresting inside jokes with arms and legs. They certainly did themselves no favors by splitting up Mulder and Scully for nearly the whole episode, and for apparently drawing them down to Texas to feed them fake drugs and talk to a man in a coma.
1. Sunshine Days
I feel I should start by saying that I do not dislike Sunshine Days as much as I do Babylon. If Babylon is an offensively convoluted ode to plot holes, Sunshine Days is more of a quirky nuisance.
Its biggest problem is that it’s just a little too wacky. There are people who make the same claim about lighter fare from every season — and there certainly was a lot of zaniness in season 7, for instance — but even after avoiding the episode for 10+ years, I could still see the scene where Benjamin Linus makes Skinner levitate and hear the goofy music accompanying it.
Stir in yet another Southern California setting to rub salt in the wound we all received when production left Vancouver, and you’ve got yourself a filler episode if there ever was one.
Where it runs afoul of viewers is in its placement in the season — Sunshine Days is the very last episode before the 2-hour series finale. There were only two stories left to tell at the end of 9 years of era-defining television, and one of them needed to be about the Brady Bunch.
As we find ourselves coming up on this very moment in history yet again, and with the specter of another middling series finale overwrought with late-era mytharc, I would like to give a warning to season 11, episode 9: I’ve got my eye on you. There had better not be even a single major chord of Mark Snow’s “zany” repertoire, or so help me Jesus Slug…