“Note the letter-opener sticking out of his head.”
‘Founder’s Mutation,’ a much stronger episode than last night’s The X-Files premiere, finds a balance between mythology and the human condition and then hums along in that sweet spot. If the story of an egotistical scientist conducting experiments on his own children is perhaps a little shopworn in the post-Fringe era, good execution still warrants recognition, and between James Wong’s tight, funny script and adventurous camera work, ‘Founder’s Mutation’ has that in spades. It’s an episode full of puns about grisly deaths (“note the letter opener”) and upsetting depictions of suffering that still manages to advance the show’s central threads while delivering a slew of memorable shots. What it is at its heart, though, is a look at the fear and anxiety inherent in parenting.
The mysterious Gupta’s misinformed tirade at Mulder is funny and a little heartwarming at first blush, but it turns out that a rant about living without self-imposed illusions from a man irritated over not getting to suck Mulder’s dick in a supply closet is actually something the recommissioned FBI agent needs to hear. He and Scully are both struggling to move on with their lives in the shadow of the loss of their son, William, given up for adoption for his own protection. Scully dedicates her days to caring for children through her surgical work while Mulder has returned to the only outlet ever to engage him: the search for the truth. “He lived two lives,” Gupta tells Mulder as they discuss the departed Sanjay, “in two separate places.” It’s a plain statement of fact, but it also scratches at the segregation between Mulder and Scully’s current lives and the one they used to share, painful memories and all.
Goldman himself doesn’t make much of an impression despite the effective work the episode’s first leg does in establishing his reclusive nature and pervasive reach, but Mulder and Scully’s procession past his menagerie of imprisoned and deformed children is an arresting sequence. The doctor represents a frightening endgame for total control over the life of one’s child, and his ties to the Catholic pro-life movement paint an ugly picture of powerful people using the unborn and those who carry them as both political bargaining chips and raw resources. The fantasies Mulder and Scully experience of raising their son into young adulthood evoke the same anxiety of which Goldman’s domineering and amoral practices can be seen as an unnatural extension. Both dream not just of workaday fears like jitters onthe first day of school but of the unique perils that beset their lives suddenly being visited on a defenseless child.
That neither’s fantasy explicitly includes the other delves deeper into the isolation they experience as individuals and as a unit. ‘Founder’s Mutation’ does a great job selling the show’s best conspiracy, the one between Mulder and Scully against a world that has moved on without them. They functioned together for years as two people in a unique position, privileged and burdened with knowledge the rest of the world wished to ignore. This brought them close to one another, and while time has eroded that connection, nothing has arisen to fill its vacant space. The ease with which the two agents work together, the lived-in quality of their iPhone-thieving, sample-palming shenanigans and the genuine tenderness with which they discuss their son and their feelings for each other, is the show at its human best.
“You’re never ‘just’ anything to me, Scully,” Mulder says near the episode’s midpoint, before things descend into psychic screaming, shattered glass, and exploding eyeballs. The two are granted a vision of a man who treated his children as things, as extensions of his life and work. The same potential exists in their indulgent visions of their child: sharing favorite films, enjoying daily life. To make a child’s existence a fundamentally selfish thing is to deny that child humanity, and the commodification of human life is dear to both the show’s long tradition of institutional distrust and its very real core of human empathy. The sibling reunion that closes out the episode is kinetic and grisly, a passing of the torch with an excess of ocular splatter (Mulder’s deadpan “You can’t un-see that” is a great line read) and enough psychokinetic thrills and chills to satisfy the show’s milder gorehound fans.
‘Founder’s Mutation’ brings isolation, abuse, and the melding of fear and intimacy that forms the core of the concept of family together in a pulpy whirlwind that’s equal parts fun and unsettling. If the same middling CGI that plagued the premiere’s shots of the alien spacecraft weakens the impact of the scenes in which crows act as harbingers of Kyle’s deadly powers, the episode’s images are still crisp and memorable and its depictions of sensory overload are some of the best and artsiest cinematography the show has seen. It’s a marked improvement over The X-Files premiere and a sign that perhaps the dynamic duo still have the legs to justify their return to the screen.