“You’re in the basement because they’re afraid of you, of your relentlessness and because they know that they could drop you in the middle of the desert, and tell you the truth is out there, and you would ask them for a shovel!” – Dana Scully
Mulder and Scully end up unearthing more than downed World War II fighters when they head to a California naval yard to investigate the aftermath of a French recovery mission that lead to the crew being dosed with massive amounts of radiation.
Max: Behold, the black oil! In the iconography of the show’s mythology, there are two standout creations of the writing staff: the Alien Bounty Hunter that we were introduced to last season, and the black oil that we are introduced to in this episode. Most elements of the show are new spins on old science fiction tropes, but these two represent bold and chilling new steps forward, and serve to only heighten the sense of danger and paranoia, which are trademarks of the mythology episodes. Either the person you are talking to isn’t who they say they are, or they are being possessed by some kind of sebaceous menace.
As we mentioned above, our reconnection to the shadowy mythology comes when Mulder learns of a French salvage vessel called the Piper Maru whose entire crew (save for one diver, Gauthier) are suffering from deadly doses of radiation after a recovery dive went south. Heading to San Diego where the ship came into port, Mulder and Scully discover that the ship was looking for something in the same vicinity that (in the episode “Nisei“) the Talapus recovered, which Mulder believed to be a UFO. Videotape footage from the dive recorded the remnants of a WWII fighter jet that Scully recognizes.
Mulder heads to San Francisco
to meet up with the Tanner family to talk to the apparently unharmed diver, who went back to his home there. Possessed by this black oil, Gauthier finds a letter from a J Kallenchuk Salvage Brokers. His wife soon comes home, and noticing that he isn’t himself, attempts to flee. Unfortunately, Gauthier corners her, and soon she is the one infected by the oil. Mulder, who arrives too late on the scene, only finds a dazed and confused Gauthier on the floor, demanding to know how he got back home and where his wife was. Noticing the same envelope, Mulder goes to the salvage broker.
Upon his arrival at the broker’s office, he meets a woman doing her best Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction impression. She says (while cocking a gun hidden under her desk) that Kallenchuk is out of the country and any information on the French salvage operation is with them. Sensing a dodge, Mulder waits in his car near the office, and observes French intelligence officials moving in on the facility. The woman evades them, and makes her way to the airport, destination Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Gauthier’s now possessed wife is at the same airport, presumably doing the same thing.
What Scully learns comes from visiting an old friend of her father’s, one Commander Christopher Johansen. He tells her of a mission he was on to find a sunken nuclear bomber while detailed to the submarine Zeus Faber. When they reached the site (the same one the Piper Maru found), the crew began to suffer radiation burns. The commander of the ship (possessed by the black oil) wanted to keep the mission going, but Johansen became part of a mutiny that returned the submarine home at the cost of many of his crewmates.
Arriving in Hong Kong, Mulder tracks down the woman from the salvage broker, and susses out that she is actually Kallenchuk, and that she is there to talk to her source. Handcuffing her to him, Mulder drags Kallenchuk to her office, where lo and behold, our favorite turncoat Alex Krycek is waiting for her. Krycek escapes out a window, while Kallenchuck gets killed by the French intelligence officers she eluded in San Francisco. Fortunately, Mulder is able to unchain himself from her to pursue Krycek. Meanwhile, Gauthier’s wife appears at the office and with a sudden flash of light, dispatches the officers with the same kind of radiation the men of the Piper Maru succumbed to.
Finally catching up to Krycek at the airport, Mulder grabs Krycek’s gun and demands he come back to Washington with him, where Krycek says he has stashed the digital tape of the MJ12 documents that he’s been selling secrets from. Mulder unwittingly lets Krycek become the next victim of the black oil after letting him to go to the restroom to clean up, as Gauthier’s wife enters and does her thing to him. We leave the episode with a very scary looking Krycek, and Mulder in a danger in didn’t even know he was in.
Radhika: As you can see from Max’s outline, there is an intense amount of plot packed into about 45 minutes of show in “Piper Maru,” a title that comes from the name of Gillian Anderson’s daughter, born during season two. The mythology episodes, especially the two and three parter types, have a tendency to play out a bit like mini movies, and “Piper Maru” manages to take that to the next level.
Even though they’re split up and working on different threads of a case, this episode is the epitome of Mulder and Scully working together as a well-oiled machine. It’s a reminder that at the core of the show, these two absolutely do stand together, especially after preceding episodes like “Syzygy,” which comedically shows a divide between the two agents, and “Grotesque,” which does show how much the agents care about each other, but still emphasizes how much a difficult case can pull them apart and even have one doubt the other.
Here, you have Scully openly declaring her admiration of Mulder’s relentless pursuit of the truth, especially after she finds out the understandably upsetting news that the case looking into her sister’s murder is generally being considered inactive. Here, you have both Mulder and Scully playing detective with no hesitation, just a crackling desire — with hardly a believer versus skeptic argument — to figure out exactly what’s going on. These are the badasses agents that would go on to become such role model figures for a good chunk of the 1990s. This is Mulder and Scully at their best.
And this is the mythology at its best. We’re still at the point where the new information offered to us in the mythology is interesting and suspenseful, and we’re starting to see connections between previous mythology episodes, such as the moment where Skinner gets shot in this episode. That’s right: Krycek walking around with black oil shimmering in his eyes isn’t the only cliffhanger here. AD Skinner, who has been told to keep away from the case of Melissa Scully, is also shot by none other than Luis Cardinal — the guy who shot Melissa Scully. (Speaking of, Cardinal comes across as an even greater goon in this episode, which makes you wonder about the vetting process used by the Syndicate to choose their assassins: Is it really worth reusing a guy who mistakenly shot the wrong target?)
Anyway, there’s too much going on here for it to all be in one episode, so in the words of the episode itself? To be continued.