1×24: The Erlenmeyer Flask

“Don’t give up on this one. Trust me. You’ve never been closer.” – Deep Throat
“Closer to what?” – Fox Mulder

After we glimpse a car chase that would later be shown on World’s Wildest Police Videos with Sheriff John Bunnell, our heroes get entangled in their most dangerous case yet…

The Erlenmeyer Flask

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

Max: With a cold open of a high speed pursuit, you can feel that things are coming to a head in this episode. “The Erlenmeyer Flask,” our first season finale, does not disappoint and sets things in motion that will ripple throughout the entire series. I’ve spoken before of how the The X-Files‘ mythology starts out as a series of disparate puzzle pieces. In this episode, we don’t get to put any of those pieces together. But more importantly, we are provided the frame onto which we will be able to begin to attach these pieces.

The man on the run is one Dr. William Secare, who has a longtime friend and colleague named Dr. Terrance Berube. Prompted by Deep Throat to investigate the chase after it appears on the nightly news, Mulder and Scully find a hostile and terse Dr. Berube (a member of the then-new Human Genome Project, which just began in 1990 and completed in 2003). Berube is later confronted by a man in black with a crew cut, and killed, his demise made to look like a suicide. At the crime scene, Mulder finds a titular Erlenmeyer flask labeled “PURITY CONTROL” and asks Scully to have it analyzed. What she discovers with a Georgetown scientist is startling: a bacterium with an additional base pair found nowhere in nature, something wholly extraterrestrial.

Deep Throat eventually tells the agents about Dr. Berube’s research, which involved experimenting with extraterrestrial viruses in human hosts. This becomes the viewers’ introduction to the world of alien-human hybrids, and we learn that Dr. Secare happens to be one. Mulder eventually finds Secare, right before he’s killed by the aforementioned Crew Cut Man. Toxins from Secare’s now-green blood cause Mulder to pass out and get captured.

To save Mulder, Deep Throat has Scully access a high containment facility in Maryland, from where she will remove what will become her bargaining chip, an original alien fetus. The whole sequence of her passing through multiple security checkpoints, leading up to this reveal is momentous and well-executed. With the “PURITY CONTROL” sample and this fetus, we see her coming face to face with the first truly concrete evidence of what Mulder has been proclaiming ever since the pilot. These recent events are reshaping her world, like she says to Mulder: “And what I saw last night… for the first time in my life, I don’t know what to believe.”

Sadly, Mulder’s safe return comes at a great cost. After Deep Throat turns over the fetus to the Crew Cut Man, he is promptly shot, with Mulder thrown out the back of a van that speeds off. Before succumbing to his gunshot, Deep Throat’s final words to Scully are, “Trust… no one.” Thirteen days later, a recovered Mulder informs Scully that Skinner got the word from up high that the X-Files are to be closed, and that the agents will be reassigned to other sections. The episode then closes on a virtual shot-for-shot remake of the final scene of the pilot, with the Cigarette Smoking Man depositing the vial with the fetus within the Pentagon archives.

We get a whole bunch of information thrown at us in these very packed 45 minutes of episode, but as I said, this is where the mythology begins in earnest. We get our first mention of alien-human hybrids, alien viruses, toxic blood, purity, etc. All of these are buzzwords from which we will find out more about how they fit into the picture of extraterrestrial encounters with humankind. Perhaps more important than this information is the death of Deep Throat, our first informant into the shadow world of conspiracy. Jerry Hardin proves to be such an integral presence and commanding force to the first season, that it was and still is a shock to see him being shot during the exchange. To then have his death seemingly be for nothing as the X-Files is closed only puts salt into the wounds of our heroes who have worked so hard to bring things to light. Scully began as the audience’s “in” to this world of the strange and paranormal, a seeming outsider meant to debunk the work of “Spooky” Mulder. Now though, she is right alongside him, with him, and the repercussions have landed them in the doghouse.

Radhika: Earlier this season, Max and I both agreed that “E.B.E.” was the mythology episode that really exposed viewers to the bigger picture on The X-Files.  But while “E.B.E.” remains more of a personal favorite for a variety of reasons, I think it’s fair to say that “The Erlenmeyer Flask” is a true game changer episode for the mythology and the series as a whole.

As already pointed out: This is the episode that brings us a variety of buzzwords and themes that will become rather prominent later in the series. There are points later in the show where the mythology will eventually become convoluted, and it’s true that many fans were rather disenchanted by the series finale. But upon watching the series again, it’s almost a pleasant surprise to realize that the show runners actually found their footing fairly quickly by introducing concepts like alien-human hybrids so early in the series.

In addition, while this episode still has that sleepy classic cult show quality with its tone and visuals, it also has high-speed chases, game-changing deaths and a slightly slick — for season one — quality, that foreshadows the cinematic potential of the series. And while this is of course realized in the form of multiple films, the remaining seasons will have numerous episodes that follow a more exciting and sophisticated formula.

The episode ends on a rather morose note with the death of Deep Throat and the closing of the X-Files. But there is also something triumphant about it. At the end of the episode, a disheveled and broken-sounding Mulder informs Scully that they’re going to be reassigned. But he remains determined, saying he won’t give up as long as the truth is out there. Though Scully is reticent in this scene, her previous actions also show that she’s not giving up either — while still the skeptic, she’s just as determined to figure out what the so-called truth is. Knowing that the heroes are firmly entrenched in this “us against the world” view, the audience now officially has a stake in tuning in to find out more about the truth.

Traditionally, the credits end on a shot with the words “THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE.” However, in some instances new text emerges.

Trust No One

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

The first season finale comes with our first change in the tagline. “Trust No One” are Deep Throat’s dying words to Scully, as well as a thematic entree into the new status quo for the agents. With their work discredited and the X-Files shut down, Mulder and Scully can trust no one but themselves in the battle to bring truths to light.


6 thoughts on “1×24: The Erlenmeyer Flask

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