There was nowhere to go but up after “My Struggle,” and “Founder’s Mutation,” the second episode of the X-Files relaunch, indeed goes up. Not to the dizzying heights of the show in its best days, but no one is, or should be, expecting that from this limited engagement. All we want right now is to not be saddened by the spectacle of The X-Files being drudged up for the opportunity to disappoint us one more time. “Founder’s Mutation” does not do that. The best that can be said about it is that, barring a few stray story elements and some facial wrinkles on the leads, it’s an episode that could have fallen through a wormhole from 1995.
Mulder and Scully are officially back on their old beat, regardless of how little sense that might make. However, the nagging questions and lapsed logic at play can reasonably be excused in the name of both expediency (there are, after all, only six episodes) and the desire to see our heroes returned to their old element. There is an undeniable joy in seeing the two at a gruesome crime scene in their sharp suits, or having a tersely amicable sit-down in Skinner’s office, or even just hanging out in Mulder’s old office again (though, now more than ever, Scully’s name really should be on that door). The two fall back into their old grooves without missing a step (even if Anderson’s voice sounds oddly hoarse). This new case concerns the suicide death of one Dr. Sanjay, a biochemist who was driven mad during a staff meeting by a piercing sound that only he could hear, leading him to drive a letter opener deep into his ear. When our heroes show up, they are denied access to the files that Dr. Sanjay was accessing just before his death by the Department of Defense. Mulder, trumpeting his “old-school” skills, stealthily uses Sanjay’s phone to obtain a lead.
Gaining entry to Sanjay’s apartment, the agents find a wall filled with photos of children afflicted with various horrific birth defects before Mulder is temporarily felled by the same piercing sound that drove Sanjay to his death. Scully, using her connections from the hospital she worked at up until last week, learns that the children are under the care of a man named Augustus Goldman, who keeps his subjects locked behind glass. The agents also meet a young pregnant woman named Agnes, who is later killed in a hit-and-run, though not before her unborn baby was removed from her. The investigation eventually leads the agents to Goldman’s institutionalized ex-wife Jackie, who claims that her husband was conducting genetic experiments on children, including their own daughter Molly and Jackie’s then-unborn son, whom Jackie was forced to excise from herself after she, too, was struck mysteriously by a car. Now that son, Kyle, is grown and is seeking vengeance using his genetically engineered ability to emit fatal sonic blasts.
The story being told in “Founder’s Mutation” isn’t the most cohesive one. It lurches and occasionally feels very unfocused. However, it does indeed capture that old X-Files spirit. Watching Mulder and Scully run down leads as if those 14 years away never happened is pretty thrilling. The episode also ups the ante on the show’s gore factor, which is impressive given how gory the show often could be in its heyday. Sanjay’s death is grisly in its explicitness, and Scully’s later removal of the letter opener from his brain is equally queasy. And when Kyle unleashes the full force of his aural powers in the climax, the effect is giddily nasty. Also, when the agents observe the mutated children, their heartbreaking deformities are truly ghastly and bizarre to behold. This is the version of The X-Files that stands as a sight for sore eyes, even when it’s showing us sights that make the eyes a bit too sore.
Where the episode falls short, however, is with its desire to connect what should have been an isolated tale to the event-series’ larger arc as established in the premiere, since Mulder theorizes that Goldman’s experiments might be tied to the uber-conspiracy he feels he sniffed out in “My Struggle.” The X-Files was always at its best when there was a clear-cut division between the mythology and stand-alone episodes, and since “Founder’s Mutation” isn’t a bad episode, any allusions to the atrocious “My Struggle” are most unwelcome. There’s also a strange discontinuity between the two episodes, as the premiere suggested that Mulder had renounced his belief in anything to do with aliens, where here he seems to still be open to the concepts of alien DNA and alien colonization. Perhaps James Wong, who wrote “Founder’s Mutation” as well as several stone-cold classics from way back when, simply opted to ignore some of Carter’s bad ideas, even if he was forced to pay lip service to the existence a few of them.
Another area that “Founder’s Mutation” errs with is in a tangent where the case reminds Mulder and Scully of their son William, whom they were forced to give up for adoption in the final season to keep him safe (well, Scully was forced; Mulder was MIA because Duchovny was off trying to be a movie star). The agents have a glum conversation about how the boy would be 15 now and that they’ve missed out on his entire life. Then, later in the episode, we get a pair of fantasy sequences where each agent imagines what life might have been like as a parent to William, before the illusions are marred by the tragic intrusion of aliens. In these moments, we see Duchovny and Anderson play sides of Mulder and Scully that we have never seen before, offering an intriguingly warmer new look at a couple of characters who, while beloved, are often quite impassive. But that loses sight of the fact that the original introduction of William was a Hail Mary play from a show that had simply run out of ideas late into its declining years, and one that even in a disastrously misguided final season, the show saw fit to wave away, essentially righting a misstep it knew it had made. It’s much harder to forget about bad ideas when they keep being brought back up.
But “Founder’s Mutation” works just well enough overall to remove some of the blight brought on by the inaugural episode. It sets Mulder and Scully back up comfortably in their old dynamic and sets the stage for more paranormal adventures to come. So effective is the episode at recreating the old show that contemporary references to Obamacare and Edward Snowden (not to mention a moment where Mulder is propositioned by a man for restroom fellatio that would not have flown in the olden days) feel strangely anachronistic, even though they aren’t. If X-Files 2016 can keep evoking X-Files 1995 this well, then I want to believe that hauling the show out of mothballs wasn’t a bad idea after all.
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