A case of suffering children hits Mulder and Scully where they hurt
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
You got the sense that Mulder had his eye on Nugenics for some time and that Sanjay’s peculiar death was a means to investigate The Founder, aka Dr. Augustus Goldman, a name royal with symbolism. Over the course of the episode, the reclusive Goldman would come to stand for a distant God, an aloof leader, a cruel husband, an abusive father, a corrupt hero chasing a dubious immortality project, more. Scully could tell Mulder had a hidden agenda or rather, was keeping something from her. But for the longest time, the story refused to let him spell it out, for no other reason than to nurture various themes, including the idea of being transparent (or not) when transparency is painful or dangerous, be it in public/civic life (“I’m familiar with Edward Snowden,” Mulder said at one point) or personal/private life (Sanjay was a closeted gay man living a double life).
What Mulder wasn’t eager to share with Scully was a theory — a fear, really — that he harbored about their somewhere-out-there son, William. (Scully gave him up for adoption not long after his birth to protect him from their dangerous work and the conspiracy hunting them.) Mulder’s conjecture wasn’t all that outrageous or new (we’ll get into it later), but I think he knew discussing it would be emotionally difficult, for both of them, and that it might expose tender parts of himself that he was reluctant to reveal. Stop hiding your feelings and lay down the tough guy detachment, Mulder! A nation of ‘shippers demands your vulnerability!
Anyway. Who killed Sanjay? What was Dr. Goldman doing at Nugencis? What, if anything, did his work have to do with William? The investigation led to a number of troubled folk and trying personalities. There was Sanjay’s lover, Gupta, a name that according to Scully, and apropos of nothing except more thematic nurturing, means “secret” in Marathi. Mulder met Gupta in a bar, and because the cagey agent hadn’t told Mr. Secret who he was or why he wanted to meet him in advance of their rendezvous (I found that hard to believe), Gupta assumed Mulder wanted to screw around. When Mulder asked him if they could go somewhere private, Gupta led him into a janitor’s closet, then got down on his knees and made a move for Mulder’s belt. Gupta was humiliated when Mulder waved him off. “You guys are all the same, you know? You say you want to walk on the wild side, but when it comes down to it you’re repressed — I finally let go of all of that self-loathing and judgment and I’m free. Stop tormenting yourself!” Pointing at Mulder’s heart, Gupta added: “The truth is in here.” The advice did apply to Mulder, if ironically. Come out of the emotional closet, Mulder. Let loose the feels.
Mulder and Scully searched Sanjay’s shadowy apartment — the place where he lived as his true self – and their blazing flashlights found a wall of photos depicting kids with severe physical deformities. Suddenly, Mulder was telepathically assaulted by our mystery mutant with psychic DM constructed from a cut-up chat between Scully and some cops: “HELP ME FIND HER.” But who was “her?” Believing Dr. Goldman had the answer, Scully worked a connection to get to him: Sister Mary, an administrator at the hospital where she worked, Our Lady of Sorrows. Here, the scope of themes expanded and deepened into realms of religion implied by the episode’s title: “Founder’s Mutation” doesn’t just evoke evolution, but the concept that humanity, corrupted by sin, represents a deviation God’s original design. It turned out that Dr. Goldman was one of Our Sorrows’ biggest donors; he was underwriting the maternity ward. In return, Our Lady fed him patients/test subjects for his work — specifically, children born with genetic abnormalities.* Sister Mary characterized the pregnant women in their care as “unfortunate or damaged” as a result of drugs, alcohol, or bad choices with bad men. “Desire is the devil’s pitchfork,” she said. And later: “But as long as there is an innocent child involved, we’ll provide for each and every one [of these women.]” In an episode in which several of the characters Mulder and Scully encountered were basically some coarse, corrupt, or cautionary tale analogs of themselves, Sister Mary represented a bad, backward formulation of Scully’s religious faith. The tone and content of her pitiless moralizing suggested a retrograde Christian belief system and a reminder that the church has contributed much to demonization of sexuality and women. (Put another way, using language given to us at the end of the episode: our cultural “monoliths” and “monomyths” haven’t always been agents of enlightenment.)
*Sunday’s premiere planted the flag for this development by doting on Scully’s work Our Sorrows helping kids with microtia. That’s one reason why “My Struggle” was a such a struggle: it was basically a field of flags, crowded with teases for the stories, arcs and themes of the episodes to come.
NEXT: Escape From Planet Goldman
While Mulder and Scully waited for Sister Mary to phone Dr. Goldman and set up a meeting, they (conveniently) met a pregnant teen at the hospital named Agnes who was rethinking her choice to surrender her “sick” unborn child to science. Perhaps she got cold feet while watching the film we saw playing in the background of her scenes: Escape From the Planet of the Apes, the third film in the original series from the sixties. Among the themes that might have worried her: human experimentation, duplicitous doctors, dead moms. Agnes herself would later wind up dead, killed in a hit-and-run car “accident.” The baby? Missing. Surgically removed from her womb, apparently. Exactly when and how that happened — after getting run over? In the street? — the episode did not say.
The working theory was that Dr. Goldman was conducting eugenics experiments using alien DNA provided by the Department of Defense. Mulder wondered if it was a new expression of an old project undertaken by The Syndicate — the name given to the conspiracy of military industrial elites who were collaborating with alien invaders back in the original series — to cultivate a population of alien-human hybrids. Mulder surmised that Dr. Goldman was trying to goose mankind’s evolution from human to super-human. All that the God-playing bioengineer needed was one perfectly realized next-gen specimen to catalyze this transition — a “founder’s mutation.”
The trip to Dr. Goldman reminded us that our culture routinely stigmatizes and ostracizes another class of people: the sick and afflicted. Dr. Goldman took Mulder and Scully on a tour of his secret HQ and showed them his patients, a visually disturbing parade of children with a variety of unsightly syndromes, each locked away in their own tightly sealed bedroom chamber, out of sight, out of mind of the world. There was a kid with Proteus Syndrome, her legs like lumpy tree trunks, drawing an elaborate maze on her wall; I wondered if she considered herself trapped in the Labyrinth of the proud artificer Daedalus. There was a kid with epidermal dysplasia trying to feed herself, her elongated face spilling off her skull and pooling on the table. There was a kid whose skin was barnacled with crusty gray-green tumors. One boy with the loaded name — Adam — had Crouzon syndrome. How long had he been in Dr. Goldman’s care? “Forever,” he said. Dr. Goldman claimed he was trying to cure them. We wondered if the unholy military science project he served was actually responsible for making them. When Dr. Goldman was asked if was playing with alien DNA, he deemed the question ridiculous and excused himself to attend to one of his patients with no visible genetic abnormalities, a young woman named Molly. Mulder and Scully didnt know it yet, but they had just found their “her.”
In truth, Dr. Goldman was an emotionally cut-off patriarch driven by obsession — Mulder to the mad-scientist max. He was also lousy with secrets, none bigger than his ex-wife, Jackie, whose story was a horrific fable of man’s inhumanity to women, from treating them like property to reducing them to mere “incubators.” Nearly 20 years earlier, Goldman had her adjudicated “criminally insane” and locked away in a mental hospital — another Catholic facility — for the rest of her life for allegedly aborting their unborn son in grisly fashion. Mulder and Scully visited her at St. Elizabeth’s to hear her side of the story. After throwing a metaphorical apple at a roaming cat, the allegedly mad mother told the tale of her fall, a tragic arc that resonated powerfully with Mulder and Scully. One day, while executing some good wife duties — prepping a party with other housewives, it looked like — Jackie noticed that her young daughter was missing. To her horror, she discovered Molly resting at the bottom of the backyard swimming pool. Jackie dove in to save her — and saw that Molly didn’t need saving. She could breathe in water like a fish. Jackie suspected that her scientist husband had meddled with Molly and decided that she, nine months pregnant with their second child, wasn’t going to let the wannabe Dr. Moreau do the same with their son.
Except he already had. Goldman had introduced some exotic genetic material into the gestating lad while in utero. She became hip to this sick truth after flipping her car during her getaway. After crawling to the shoulder of the highway, a voice spoke into her head: “LET ME OUT!” She complied, performing an emergency C-section by dragging a knife across her swollen belly. The baby did the rest. He squeezed through the jagged slit and … then what? Add them to the dots that the storytelling wasn’t interested in connecting. Did he ease on down the road and slither into the local adoption agency? Did he crawl into the wilderness and live with the wolves? The Forest Foraging of the Freaky Feral Fetus! I would watch that show.
NEXT: A rush to the finish; a powerful ending.
Mulder put together a couple other clues and leapt to the conclusion that Jackie’s boy, Kyle Gilliam, now in his late teens, worked for a janitorial company that serviced Nugenics. Correctamundo, Mulder! The agents went to his home on the outskirts of town. The mom who adopted him tried to scare them away, and when Mulder wouldn’t take no for an answer, the crows descended. Mulder’s head filled with screech, but then Scully found Kyle in the barn and pointed a gun at him and told him to stop, and he did, and this potentially gripping denouement ended abruptly.
Things were happening in a rush: there wasn’t much time left in the episode. Lots of stuff got dumped on us. Lots of questions went ignored. Lots of holes went unplugged. But here we go. We learned Kyle was on a quest Mulder knew well: he was searching for his sister, Molly. He didn’t mean to drive Sanjay to death or inflict Mulder with migraines; he was only trying to prod them into helping him, but he didn’t know how to control his powers. Oops! Sorry for hemorrhages, guys! Mulder and Scully took Kyle to his father, Dr. Goldman — to get him some help, to see what would happen, to manipulate resolutions for many bits of business. Did Dr. Goldman know Kyle was his son as he coldly drew the boy’s blood? Don’t know. When Kyle asked to see Molly, Dr. Goldman was like “How do you know Molly?” and brought him to a girl who wasn’t Molly. Kyle saw through the ruse and found the real Molly; they linked psychic minds and went full Carrie. They shattered glass and fried circuits, threw Mulder and Scully across the hall and screamed into their father’s brain with their psionic Banshee wail. Goldman began to bleed through multiple orifices. In footage not seen, his eyeballs popped out, and Goldman went toes up. The mutant siblings ran away following their rebellious patricide. To become X-Men, I presume. Teach them well, Professor Xavier.
Like Sveta’s mystery in the premiere, the horrors of this case hit Mulder and Scully where they hurt, specifically on the bruise named William. The thing Mulder was trying to keep from Scully was his worry that William was infected with alien DNA, and that he was now suffering the way Dr. Goldman’s collection of caged kids suffered. His fear became Scully’s fear after he finally shared it with her. We got a scene in which Scully allowed herself to picture this horror while gazing a baby photo of William. She imagined taking him to school. She imagined an accident. She imagined him morphing into something monstrously alien. She ended it there, chilled and sad all over again.
Mulder was given a similar scene, and it exposed a lie he told Scully earlier the episode, the one in which he presented a façade of strength and claimed he had put William behind him. In his imagination, William lived gloriously and geekily, and Mulder enjoyed a vibrant father-son relationship with them. He pictured them watching 2001: A Space Odyssey and discussing how to interpret the scene in which early man was interacting with the alien Monolith and receiving intelligence in the form of shrieking sound that would trigger an evolutionary leap — the motifs of this episode, presented in different form. (“What’s a ‘mon-o-myth?’ ” asked William, mispronouncing ‘monolith.’) He pictured them building and launching model rockets in the backyard while reciting President Kennedy’s call to space-faring adventure. (“All great and honorable actions are undertaken with great difficulty. We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”) And then Mulder pictured everything going to hell, with William getting abducted from his bedroom, the way his sister Samantha was abducted when he was a kid. The scene was a clever little jewel, tarnished only by some clunky writing for the kid: a romantic view of parenting and fatherhood; a comment on how world views and constructs of masculinity are passed down across generations; a subversion of male heroic fantasy and myth-making; an allegory about our changing views of future, how it’s evolved over the past 50 years from optimism to pessimism, utopian to dystopian; and more than anything, a poignant peek into Mulder’s heart, and the truth he keeps in there, locked up, out of sight, but always in mind. Here, Wong’s attaempt to service story, character and a wealth of themes was well realized.
We left Mulder in his lonely little house, sitting in the dark, looking at his own photo of William, grieving alone and separate from the woman he loves, and with that, the revival of The X-Files gave us its first great image and first truly powerful moment, and presaged its first truly wonderful episode, which arrives next week. See you then.