4×08: Tunguska

“What I’m worried about is you, Mulder and how far you’ll go. And how far I can follow you.” — Dana Scully

Mulder travels to Russia with everyone’s favorite turncoat, Alex Krycek, investigating the source of a black oil contamination. Meanwhile, Skinner and Scully must field an intimidating line of questioning about his whereabouts.

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

Radhika: We’ve talked about The X-Files’ cinematic moments before — spurts of artistic filming and blockbuster-esque sequences peppered the series throughout its early years, even while some scenes were shot with the artistic integrity of a low-budget health class video. (Come on, we can admit it.) Well, “Tunguska” takes on even more action movie-like qualities than previous mythology installments, so while it’s classically X-Files on many levels, it almost makes you forget you’re watching the same show you’ve been watching all along.

The episode’s events can be traced to an incident involving a courier from the Republic of Georgia, who gets searched by customs officers upon touching U.S. soil. A glass canister removed from the man’s briefcase shatters, exposing the men in to the black oil we first encountered back in “Piper Maru.” Elsewhere, Mulder and Scully encounter the traitorous Alex Krycek, who claims he can expose the Smoking Man, amongst others. Krycek leads the agents to another courier carrying a diplomatic pouch from Russia — the pouch contains a seemingly harmless rock.

However, a NASA scientist informs the agents the rock is a prehistoric meteorite fragment that could contain preserved alien bacteria. The hapless scientist later falls victim to the black oil, despite his HAZMAT suit, while trying to dissect the rock — and it puts him in a comatose state.

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

After a scuffle here and there, along with a little help from new quasi-informant Marita Covarrubias, Mulder heads to Russia with Krycek to investigate the rock’s origins. Where does this land them? In a gulag. And of course, Mulder is eventually injected by an unknown substance, only to wake up — restrained under chicken wire — and have black oil dumped all over him and coursing through his body.

That final shot is amongst those iconic black oil scenes that many folks remember from The X-Files. We don’t know how on earth Mulder can get out of this mess and on top of that, watching his skin ripple as a result of having black oil travel through his body, is quite chilling. I guess that’s the result of “trusting” Alex Krycek, not that Mulder does much to convey he trusts him — instead choosing to handcuff Krycek to Skinner’s balcony for a while earlier in the episode, and repeatedly abusing him both physically and verbally. (But of course it’s that dysfunctional hateful banter that fans of the show always loved to watch.)

At the end of the day, Mulder really has no choice but to go along with whatever he can in order to pursue his quest for the truth. He knows Krycek is bad news, but takes him along to Russia anyway when he learns the guy can speak Russian (poorly too, based on what I recall Philes saying back in the day). Marita Covarrubias makes it possible for Mulder to pursue his journey, claiming it’s because she believes in him, and that others do too, as he looks for the truth. But nice as all that sounds, it’s not hard to be suspicious of her either. There are indeed few real allies for Mulder in this episode, but we’ve come to a point where he’s really willing and ready to pursue whatever he can to come to the bottom of everything.

But meanwhile, stuck back in D.C., Scully does continue to prove her worth as Mulder’s partner, enduring some intense questioning from members of the U.S. Senate, who are very curious to know where Mulder is. Scully has stood up to authority before, but she’s also the type to play by the rules and play nice.

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

Here, we see her at what may be one of her most defiant moments, willing to push back as much as she can, to make sure her partner gets his work done. Of course, now, Scully does have a stake in everything, between her abduction and her sister’s death. But while she still plays the voice of reason at times during the episode, we are definitely getting the chance to watch an evolved Scully onscreen, which I would argue is pretty fantastic.

Max: This episode does indeed open with Scully being grilled by a panel of U.S. Senators, and the charge in the interrogations, along with Scully’s steadfast commitment to justice and the truth, is quite an electric moment to witness on screen. The senators, like Radhika mentioned, are demanding to know Mulder’s whereabouts, and lack the patience to listen to a statement Scully prepared about the impossibility of doing her job when the deck is stacked against her by powerful men who neither show their faces or consider themselves subject the very laws that they use as a metaphorical cudgel. In fact, Krycek mocks Scully’s devotion to the cause of justice, stating that “You can’t bring these men to justice. They’re protected. The laws of this country protect them in the name of national security. They know no law.” The Scully we see before the Senate panel is very different from the exceedingly deferential Scully of the “Pilot,” and her experiences have cultivated a powerful inner strength and resolve, so it is nice to see her (in her own way) smash the patriarchy of old white men.

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

However, this does not stop men like the Cigarette Smoking Man and the Well Manicured Man in preserving the secrecy of their machinations. Stopping by a horse farm owned by the WMM, the CSM informs him of an incident at Skinner’s apartment involving the death of the courier who abandoned the pouch with the rock. While this incident raises a brief moment of concern (and eventually the Senate subpoena for Skinner and our heroes), the WMM goes into one of his patented tirades against CSM’s incompetence when he learns that a man fitting Mulder’s description is en route to Krasnoyarsk, Russia, using UN credentials. It is somewhat amusing seeing the CSM’s power and competency being questioned here, when it was just last episode we discovered supposed information demonstrating that the CSM is a master of his craft.

Radhika also mentioned the cinematic qualities of the episode, and I wholeheartedly agree. Most everything in “Tunguska” is ratcheted up several notches, and the location work done outside the Russian gulag is some of the most impressively lensed material in the history of the program. The gulag, located close to the Tunguska River, ties into the show’s mythology one of the most mysterious and profound events in human history, an incredibly powerful explosion caused by either a comet or asteroid in that region in 1908. Like Mulder told Krycek, the force of that event was magnitudes greater than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Like Roswell and the Bermuda Triangle, the Tunguska event has become fodder for conspiracy theorists and pseudo-scientists, with everyone having their own pet theories as to what happened on that June night.

By incorporating real events into the proceedings, Carter and company continue to ground the paranormal and the fantastic in some level of reality, the effect being the story as a whole gains resonances that similar shows lack. The X-Files may focus on things that go bump in the night, but the nature of the program (FBI agents undertaking an investigation) demands that evidence be studied, analyzed, and taken into account.

The episode ends with Mulder under the sway of the black oil, and if this episode is any indication, the fright factor of this enigmatic substance just jumped tenfold. It is deeply, profoundly unsettling to see rivulets of the oil creeping just under the epidermis like the parasite that it is, infecting its host. Mulder’s quest for the truth has taken him to this incredibly dark place, where all one can do is scream in anticipation of the unfathomable.

AGENT PENDRELL WATCH

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

The Dana Scully admiration society returns again in “Tunguska,” dressed in a biohazard suit in order to join Scully as she attempts to figure out what happened to the hapless Dr. Sacks. This is one of the few times we don’t see Pendrell obviously sighing and mooning over his ladylove; in fact his unhappiness and “get me out of here” face are pretty obvious. As much as Pendrell is smitten by Scully, one thing’s for sure: He would do anything for love, but he will only reluctantly do that.

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5 thoughts on “4×08: Tunguska

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