SCULLY: “This is a mass phenomenon!”
MULDER: “Which is why you and I are gonna jump on I-95 south this morning and get back to our bread & butter…”
Bread and butter indeed. There is a strong argument brewing that ‘Plus One’, the third episode of The X-Files’ eleventh season, is the purest example of a ‘classic’ X-File since the year 2000.
I’ve discussed previously how we need to start thinking of the first nine seasons of The X-Files the way we do 1960’s Star Trek, as the ‘classic’ series of the show. The revival seasons have proven The X-Files, in order to adapt to an evolving and changing television landscape, has found for better or worse (and fandom are strictly divided as to the answer) the need to reinvent itself, to some degree. Season 10 was filled with episodes which reconceived the series’ legendary ‘mytharc’, indulged in the nostalgia of the show’s comedy episodes, and fused both ‘monster of the week’ stories with character journeys for Mulder and Dana Scully, alongside a bizarre experimental piece from creator Chris Carter. Not one of those episodes, truly, felt like the ‘classic’ series.
‘Plus One’ is the first episode since the show returned to buck that trend. Season premiere ‘My Struggle III’ bravely took the mythology to controversial new places and ‘This’, Glen Morgan’s follow up, pitched Mulder & Scully in the middle of a breakneck Hitchcockian conspiracy thriller with shades of that same mytharc. ‘This’ had plenty of touches to please any ‘classic series’ fan but equally engaged in action stylistics and storytelling choices which kept it firmly in the realm of ‘revival series’. You can see why Carter would have wanted to write ‘Plus One’, because for the first time in years he has the space, breathing room and position to create a true ‘monster of the week’ tale, even if that term can sometimes be used too broadly. ‘Plus One’ doesn’t have a Tooms or a Pusher or even a Rob Roberts. Yet at the same time it’s the most standalone piece The X-Files has given us in a long time.
Consider how long it has been since Mulder & Scully truly went out to the middle of America investigating bizarre deaths. You could argue Season 10’s ‘Founders Mutation’ threw the agents back into such a case, but that episode was tinged with more than a dash of mythology, given mentions of the Syndicate and links to William. Darin Morgan’s comedy, given his episodes always feel like a pocket universe within The X-Files itself, doesn’t really count, and ‘Home Again’ had the sub-plot of Scully losing her mother. I Want to Believe was a movie where Mulder & Scully weren’t even in the Bureau, Season 9 had them apart, Season 8 had them apart and then no longer work colleagues, so we have to go back as far as Season 7. The last true Mulder & Scully standalone with no affectations is quite possibly ‘Theef’. How many people beyond die-hard fans remember *that* one?
This makes ‘Plus One’, therefore, a rare treat. It has all the visual and narrative pieces of iconography The X-Files is beloved for. From Mulder explaining the bizarre nature of the case to a doubtful Scully in the FBI office before they sail off, to a gallery of middle-American grotesques who the agents have to face down with a level of Louis Theroux detachment, weird murders (or suicides in this case) which pop up out of nowhere, and the relaxed comedy of Mulder & Scully sharing a remote motel room. Carter’s episode here felt like a throwback, indeed felt much like a Season 6 or Season 7 episode you could slip neatly into those seasons, if you can look past David Duchovny & Gillian Anderson’s increasing years. Carter plays on that, mind you, anchoring his script with requisite character depth as both our agents ponder their advancing years.
In scenes which resemble Season 7 finale ‘Requiem’ beyond all other, Carter cuts to the heart of Mulder & Scully’s relationship with a deft skill we haven’t seen in quite some time. Season 10 intentionally pulled them back from being a romantic couple, as they had become in Seasons 8 & 9, and were visibly in I Want to Believe, aware that in resetting the status quo of the original premise for the revival he needed to try and restore the platonic dynamic the show had started with. This was, honestly, a mixed success last season; given the weight of history between them (including a child), simply porting Mulder & Scully back to being friends didn’t feel like it truly honoured years of development. Season 10 occasionally toyed with their attachment, especially in ‘Babylon’, but it felt a little like the elephant in the room on more than one occasion.
‘Plus One’ reminds us the truth between them is not quite so simple. Where in ‘Requiem’ Scully felt the pull of being a mother and the conflict with continuing her work in having that life, here she laments the fact both that she never quite got to *have* that life and more than overtly hints she wishes she & Mulder had been able to (including more children) and that spending their dotage together could help ease that pain. It’s less of an angsty moment than in the Season 7 finale, but if anything it’s tinged with greater sadness at the lost opportunity.
While ‘shippers’ will find this scene to be ‘adorbs’ (yes I went there, sue me), truthfully the dynamic presented here feels the best fit for these characters. Lifelong friends perhaps with the occasional benefit, a couple who truly love each other but are aware they’ll never quite be two point four children. Perhaps this season will partly be about them both coming to terms with that, as their child and the terrible (potential) secret about his paternity become apparent.
This exploration of Mulder & Scully’s emotional place in terms of their relationship feels a natural step out of Scully’s anxieties concerning her middle-age, which are triggered by the spiteful side of Judy, one of the two central ‘monsters’ played by Karin Konoval, who gives a superb dual performance as psychiatric patient Judy/Little Judy and her mean-spirited brother Chucky. Konoval is best known to fans of The X-Files as Mrs Peacock, the inter-breeding harridan of a mother from Season 4’s still-controversial ‘Home’, and while that performance can never quite be topped, Konoval is outstanding in two very different roles; she moves from meek and childlike to venomous and weirdly seductive, through to gruffly masculine and sarcastic in a heartbeat. She is chameleonic in how she portrays both men and women, to the point many have been unaware she played both roles.
Her characters help sell the primary underpinning concept Carter’s script explores: mental illness. The X-Files again is tapping into issues of the day here, even in its ‘monster’ episodes, by touching inventively on a subject which is growing more powerful and discussed every day, and you absolutely suspect much as ‘Plus One’ could play as a ‘classic’ episode of the series, it would have been written very very differently in the 1990’s. Judy & Chucky do have a supernatural connection Carter never quite explains, given how they can create ‘evil’ murderous dopplegangers in the minds of their victims, but Carter is really trying to dig into the misjudgement of mental illness. Scully puts these maladies down to ‘hysteria’ but it leads to some important and key discussions about quite what mental illness is, and the diagnosis of who these people are.
Evil has been dealt with many times before on The X-Files. Aside from explorations of demonic possession such as ‘Grotesque’, or perhaps literal Devil figures in ‘Irresistible’, or even the idea of evil as a viral contagion in ‘Empedocles’, Carter fashioned an entire side show, Millennium, around the nature and portrayal of evil in monsters and men. ‘Plus One’ oddly enough taps into ‘Empedocles’ thematically if not directly by questioning both whether dopplegangers could be considered as ‘evil’ or the fact mental illness is described by a hospital nurse as “like a kind of outbreak”. The suggestion that Judy or Chucky’s psychic ability may well have ‘triggered’ mental illness inside the victims is invalidated by the presence of the dopplegangers, but it again speaks to Carter’s fascination with concepts of evil or the instigation of harm caused by a physical malady which removes control and will from the human psyche.
We also shouldn’t forget the social commentary of how Judy & Chucky’s victims were all criminals of some kind, or people who had brushes with the law. Mulder, perhaps with a little less tact than is becoming of him, describes first victim Arkie as a “loser” and while we never quite get an explanation as to why this brother-sister targeted Arkie or the previous victims, Carter could well be commenting on how people from criminal backgrounds or with records are more often statistically victims of mental illness, often due to their circumstances.
Perhaps Judy & Chucky killing them off is metaphorically in tune with a society which frequently removes people who committed a crime from society without the recourse to give them second chances, in the same way Mulder & Scully worry that Presidential administration pressure on the FBI might hasten their retirement and leave them on the scrap heap. ‘Plus One’’s anxiety concerns lost opportunity, or the loss of the very concept of having a future you can look forward or aspire to. For Judy & Chucky’s victims its reentering society even after fairly petty crimes. For our dynamic FBI duo, its losing their identity as they approach the first embers of old age.
Carter also uses the dopplegangers to tap into the ‘id’s’ of his central characters. His script very pointedly again positions Mulder as the willing believer and Scully as the skeptic, with frequent conversations in which Scully rationalises with science while Mulder goes out on a limb. When they face their ‘evil’ reflections, however, it’s telling that Mulder uses his newly-attributed Jason Bourne fighting skills to physically battle his darker id and Scully rationally attempts to talk herself out of the possibility she is even truly seeing what she’s seeing. And while Carter’s manner of wrapping up the threat to the agents is necessarily abrupt, the point hits home. Mulder is still fighting the darkness, and Scully is still refusing to believe in it.
In that respect, ‘Plus One’ is truly a ‘classic’ episode of The X-Files. Not classic necessarily in terms of quality, despite being almost certainly Chris Carter’s strongest script since Season 8, well directed by Kevin Hooks, and with some excellent performances. But this is truly, at its heart, an X-File. Strange, a tad unexplained, balancing gruesome death with black comedy, and with something to say underneath all the weirdness. Bread and butter, indeed.