Imagine a Stefon routine from Saturday Night Live adapted into an episode of The X-Files and you’ll get the hot mess of crazy that was “Founder’s Mutation.” This one had it all: Sci-fi ape men, JFK impressions, loathsome Catholic hospital administrators, a secret sex pad that can only be navigated in the dark with flashlights, a pair of gay Indian guys named after CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, the guy from Battlestar Galactica who just was on The Flash playing a time-stopper named The Turtle, the husband from Desperate Housewives who used to be the gay guy from Melrose Place playing the J.D. Salinger of post-Nazi eugenicists, a bunch of kids with grotesque genetic deformities locked up in hermetically sealed rooms, a lady in a mental hospital throwing an apple at a cat, a psychic fetus commanding his mother to cut him out her comb, two nightmares, and a guy with a beard. Oh, and Mulder almost receiving oral sex.
“Founder’s Mutation” was written and directed by James Wong, who has spent the past five years making gory allegory for Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story. Of course, Wong is a living reminder of just how much The X-Files has pollinated so much of today’s sci-fi/fantasy/creepshow TV, as he was also a key member of the original X-Files producing team. He and writing partner Glen Morgan cracked and perfected one of the show’s key narrative templates, what X-Files taxonomists call the “monster-of-the-week” episode. Among many gems, Wong and Morgan gave us that twisted two-fer of “Squeeze” and “Tooms,” the Satan-as-a-substitute-teacher/schoolmarm chiller “Die Hand Die Verletz,” and that masterful exercise in American Gothic quease, “Home.” (Morgan is writing and directing his own episode for the revival, reportedly entitled “Home Again.” It has nothing to do with “Home.” Damn.)
Wong’s contribution actually owed more to the original show’s light mythology weird science eps, most notably like “Conduit” (which dug into Mulder Prime’s motivation, searching for his abducted sister; the endings call to mirror each other in poignant ways), though it did possess the ick and impishness and provocative ideas of Wong’s best X-Files work. But “Founder’s Mutation” also had the thematic overload and sketchy narrative logic that makes American Horror Story so gonzo and so frustrating to watch. It was densely packed with the societal concerns that fuel most seasons of AHS — concern for the marginalized, anger toward oppressive cultural institutions, disdain for patriarchy, body horror up and out the wazoo — and it often seemed that the storytelling seemed was more interested in playing to the subtext than presenting the text coherently. Like the premiere, it suffered from trying to accomplish too much.
Those many missions included getting Mulder and Scully back in their FBI skins and the show back in procedural mode, ASAP. While I would say Sunday’s premiere did just enough to establish the relaunch of the X-Files unit and Mulder and Scully’s reinstatement as agents, it felt like we missed some intermediate steps, and maybe even a story or two. (At one point, I thought Morgan’s “Home Again” ep was supposed to air second. Did it get moved?) I’m imagining funny montages of Mulder shedding his hipster hobo look and shopping for suits or Scully boning up on her autopsy skills. At the very least, we missed a great moment: Mulder and Scully moving back into the old basement office. Oh, well.
Instead, we met them at the scene of a crime, the strange suicide of a man named Sanjay, a data analyst for Nugenics, a
marketer of testosterone boosters for middle-aged men secretive bioengineering firm doing hush-hush for the Department of Defense. He had come to work that day with bloodshot eyes and all-over-the-place hair that looked like a failed attempt to emulate The Weeknd. A colleague wondered if he’d been partying too hard, a little too much “I can’t feel my face when I’m with you.” But Sanjay wasn’t hungover. He was being bombarded by a high-pitched whine that only he and all the crows in Washington, D.C., could hear, a signal that spoke to him by manipulating the way his brain interpreted sounds. Was he being bullied by a pushy deity? Was he being dicked around by some VALIS-like extant intelligence? Was he a schizophrenic suffering auditory hallucinations? Was this a metaphor for emotionally triggering cultural noise? The storytelling cultivated all possibilities.
What Sanjay knew for sure was that he didn’t like it all that much. The signal found him again on the day of his death during a meeting in which he and his associates were being told that the mercurial genius that they served, a never-seen, never-around high father they referred to as The Founder, wasn’t pleased with their latest effort. As they took this pounding, Sanjay looked outside and the harbinger that always preceded the noise — a murder of crows, amassing on the grass. His head filled piercing static. It commanded him to leave the room and hack a company computer the way the signal was hacking him. Whatever he was trying to do, he couldn’t finish; the noise targeting him was too much. With no safe space for him to retreat, and with security aware of his subversion, Sanjay decided he’d had enough, and shoved a letter opener in his ear. And then there was quiet.
NEXT: Love in the time of Gupta