Upon hearing of Mulder’s theory regarding the odd circumstances surrounding a eugenics scientist’s suicide—the scene, like so many other scenes in The X-Files, flanked by a ubiquitous G-man hanging around in the background, saying sinister things and generally advising the main players on what they can’t do—Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) passively states, “The bureaucracy in the FBI has become increasingly complex and inefficient. It might take days for your incident report in order to close the investigation to make it through the proper channels. Welcome back you two.” Oh real big surprise there, Skinner. Welcome back is right.
After the broad strokes of “My Struggle” grounded us within the new paradigm of The X-Files universe, it’s up to the so-called standalone episodes to fill in the details of 15 years worth of Mulder’s (David Duchovny) and Scully’s (Gillian Anderson) emotional lives. Leave it to series stalwart James Wong, who wrote and directed this episode, to skirt the line between a pulpier, self-contained story and something much more plangent. If anything, it’s a chance to see how far Duchovny and Anderson have come as actors.
“Founder’s Mutation” begins with a grotesque cold open that, while genuinely shocking in its willingness to push the boundaries of network TV (just as previous seasons did), feels old hat by now: We know that there is some nefarious psychic mumbo jumbo at play, and we knew, as soon as Dr. Sanjay (Christopher Logan) began hearing that piercing squeal no one else could hear, our fated victim would probably end up jamming something into his head to make it stop. There is, and he does, so the glut of the episode entails Mulder and Scully working their way to the supposed source of the psychic mishap, a research facility in which a curiously aloof Dr. Goldman (Doug Savant) gives the agents a tour through a who’s who of tragic genetic abnormalities suffered by sequestered children. To get to this point, Mulder and Scully suffer enough—Mulder, especially, who experiences a bout of the same squealy, piercing head trauma as Dr. Sanjay, as well as a near random blow job care of a mistaken online liaison. Really, c’mon, Mulder: You may have spent years locked away in your unibomber-y cabin, but you can’t be so disconnected that you don’t recognize when someone you meet clandestinely in a bar is eyeing you for some strange.
In any other series, the breakneck tonal shifts—from farcical punchlines to over-earnest melodrama and back again, punctuated by one more misplaced Mulder pun—wouldn’t work one bit, but The X-Files has built an empire on such chiaroscuro. So when Mulder’s cheap gag about Goldman’s eyes bleeding (which, to Scully and Skinner’s credit, is completely ignored—like, Skinner just automatically turns around and walks away, all, “NOPE”) transitions into a sepia-tinged “flashback” of Mulder musing over time lost with his estranged son, the show never shatters under such tension. Instead, as we would with any great characters with whom we’ve spent so much time, we accept these many sides of Mulder, and we cherish the attempt—whether it works or not—to help us understand what these two would-be parents have endured for the past 15 years.
Does it work? I’m not entirely convinced: The flashback scenes (which Scully also has, both hers and Mulder’s fantasies filled with joy and horror in equal measure) are sadly cliché, easily the most undercooked emotional beats of the mini-season so far, mostly because they feel like rudimentary Mom-and-Dad stuff fed through a parenting Mad Lib. When Scully yells at little William to “Be home for dinner!”, we’re about one commercial break away from Scully asking William and his friends if they want Sunny D or “the purple stuff.” Same with Mulder, who uses the monolith sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey to try to explain to his son that the universe and man’s place in it are strange things—but are you telling me that this 8-year-old kid (who pronounces it “mon-o-mith” for fuck’s sake) is now going to sit through a three-hour, near motionless art film?
Thing is, I want these scenes. I’m glad that the series is addressing the trauma Mulder and Scully still experience having no idea what happened to their son 15 years ago. And yet, the scenes feel so removed from the characters we know they practically come off as false. Instead of sympathy, I’m puzzled. So when Mulder and Scully—because, let’s just admit it, Scully is no longer the skeptic; she’s seen too much to stay Mulder’s foil—hypothesize that Goldman is in cahoots with the Department of Defense, who has sanctioned decades of genetic experimentation using alien DNA, experimentation which probably included Scully and their baby, we’re supposed to sense their ache, to understand that behind their rigorously professional, weathered exteriors, Mulder and Scully are, in 2016, two parents who lost their child, and who have never quite recovered from that loss. We’re supposed to feel that—but something is getting in the way.
Or many things. Like “My Struggle,” “Founder’s Mutation” attempts to pack in quite a bit, most of which is welcome, but all of which is sort of just dropped in the episode’s closing minutes. Mulder and Scully of course figure out who’s behind the weird psycho-kinetic killings, linked as they are to Goldman and his genetic experiments, but their confrontation with the killer is cut short. Smash cut to the aftermath, and Skinner is describing how the DoD has now taken over the hospital, classifying it as “top secret,” to which Mulder responds with his aforementioned quip, to which Skinner responds with his aforementioned total ignoring of everything coming out of Mulder’s mouth.
It doesn’t sit well, all this build-up only to shoe-horn in yet another resolution amounting to “Grrrr: Government!” Even Mulder and Scully seem pretty non-plussed by the whole thing. Which maybe explains Mulder’s bad joke. Otherwise, I’m still down. If the series seems literally brighter than before, let’s chock that up to the wonders of HD; if the dialogue seems heavy-handed, then it’s like you’ve never seen an episode of The X-Files. If anything, “Founder’s Mutation” illustrates both the challenge and the risk of bringing back such a plot-rich series for such a limited run: There’s just too much ground to cover. After all, this is exactly what you asked for. Welcome back, audience.
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. He’s been to at least one X-Files convention, no more than five. You can follow him on Twitter.