With “Founder’s Mutation,” writer-director James Wong, an X-Files veteran who produced or co-wrote many of the show’s best episodes, doesn’t strain himself with too many overtly self-conscious Easter eggs, callbacks, justifications, or in-jokes. There’s an ease to Wong’s work here that starkly contrasts creator Chris Carter’s decidedly un-confident handling of last night’s premiere.
In “My Struggle,” F.B.I. agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) often occupied the screen as utterers of the already obvious resemblances that Carter wished to highlight between the American government of today and that of the 1990s, when The X-Files was a pop-cultural titan. Wong allows that resonance to live and breathe casually in his frames, imbuing “Founder’s Mutation” with a lush sense of noir-like menace. This craftsmanship is particularly pronounced in the opening sequence, which is set in a vast, quasi-privatized laboratory called Nugenics Technology that, we’re later told, specializes in genetic engineering that’s partially overseen by the Department of Defense. This is the kind of barely legal, cloak-and-dagger merging of corporate and government interests that Carter warned against in “My Struggle,” and which Wong suggests with fleeting glances and with the somewhat comic presence of the usual menacingly secretive spooks in the background of his images.
In “Founder’s Mutation,” Mulder and Scully investigate the apparent suicide of Dr. Sonny Sanjay (Christopher Logan), who worked at Nugenics Technology before losing his physical bearings at a meeting, clutching his head, screaming in pain, rushing to his laboratory, and plunging a letter opener deep into his ear canal, killing himself. The episode opens with Sanjay’s death, told from his point of view, and it appears that he was at the mercy of a piercing shrieking in his brain that brings to mind a dog whistle calibrated for human hearing. At the last corporate meeting of his life, Sanjay looks out the window of the conference room to see a flock of black birds that appear to be anticipating his death, perhaps waiting to escort him to whatever celestial (or purgatorial) dimension awaits.
Mulder tackles the mystery with characteristic anti-authoritarian aplomb, stealing Sanjay’s phone off his corpse, which Scully half-heartedly reminds him is a violation of search and seizure regulations. Her resigned amusement elegantly illustrates one of the pleasures of the show’s reboot so far: Scully’s newish timeworn affection for Mulder’s eccentricities and rebellions. Scully’s been with this man too long to waste time fighting the wrong interpersonal battles, and she’s seen so many awful things as to share Mulder’s cynicism, which both brush off with a flippant, insidiously charming wink. In other words, some of Scully’s famed earnestness has worn off.
Mulder and Scully’s disregard for protocol is one of the more interesting, partially inadvertent frictions of bringing The X-Files into the present: Vigilante tactics aren’t as celebrated as they used to be in fiction, particularly TV and films, considering the endless controversies over egregious police killing and bludgeoning. These tactics still abound in pop culture, of course, but they’re usually glossed over with superhero costumes or packaged with progressive-courting disapproval that allows audiences to have their moral cake and eat it too. Mulder and Scully’s less pretentious fashion of playing by their own rules resists such evasion, and many of their legal boundary lapses are staged as comedic bits, which only heightens the ambiguity of our reaction to them.
Wong also infuses Mulder’s hijinks with a sly element of self-parody that announces something along the lines of “We, the show-runners, need him to steal that phone in order to keep the plot going, just as we need him to randomly recognize a janitor’s outfit for little discernable reason later on so as to succinctly reach the climactic revelation.” The plot of “Founder’s Mutation” is a typical X-Files mixture of government secrets, buried controversies, and allusions to “The Syndicate” for the sake of paying lip service to the master arc, or “mythology,” that’s dictated by Mulder and Scully’s brush with a profound, perhaps illusory multi-national conspiracy to enslave the populace. The mystery that drives “Founder’s Mutation,” though, also has an emotional resonance that’s beautifully explored by Wong and his actors.
It’s eventually revealed that Sanjay was killed accidentally by the mutant child (Jonathan Whitesell) of the founder of Nugenics Technology, Augustus Goldman (Doug Savant), because he was looking for his lost sister. Augustus experimented on both of his children to further his research—a development that’s chillingly handled in a flashback in which Goldman’s estranged, institutionalized wife, Jackie (Rebecca Wisocky), recounts her discovery that her daughter could breathe underwater. Another flashback is more disturbing still: When Jackie remembers that her unborn son reached his hand out of her stomach when she attempted to self-administer a caesarian so as to relieve herself of her mutant baby’s already profound emotional agitation. The shrill aural force that drove Sanjay to suicide isn’t just a form of weaponized telepathy, but a symptom of anguish on the part of its wielder, which free-associatively symbolizes the pain also felt by all the afflicted children that Goldman treats in his facilities.
This physicalizing cuts to Mulder and Scully’s cores, piercing their studied callousness, reminding them of William, the potentially mutated son they gave up in the X-Files episode that’s named after him. In a moving fantasy, Scully pictures raising William, taking him to school in a series of reveries that are deliberately clichéd, as she’s stitching them together from pop-cultural osmosis. This scene is prepared for, in another heartbreaking gesture, when Scully asks Mulder if she was just another government experiment. His reply represents one of Duchovny’s most poignant readings in the series: “You’re never just anything to me, Scully.”
Yet the ultimate highlight of “Founder’s Mutation” is its conclusion, a Mulder fantasy to complement Scully’s, in which he raises William to be an enterprising young space nerd, only to lose him in an alien kidnapping that echoes his version of the particulars of his sister’s disappearance. Wong gracefully folds past and present incarnations of The X-Files together, weaving a tapestry of surprisingly visceral pain, digging underneath genre machinations to explore the regret and loneliness that fuel them.
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