“Have you ever heard of HUAC, Agent Mulder–the House Un-American Activities Committee? No, no, no, it was before your time. You wouldn’t know. They hunted communists in America in the ’40s and ’50s. They found… practically nothing. Do you think they would have found nothing unless nothing… was what they wanted to find? Hmm?” – Arthur Dales
“Uh… I’m sorry, sir. I-I, uh… I don’t, I don’t see the connection.” – Fox Mulder
“Maybe you’re not supposed to.” – Arthur Dales
In 1990, a less than routine eviction brings Mulder to the door of former agent Arthur Dales, where he learns of an old X-File connected to his father.
Max: Season five has been structured almost like a referendum on the series as a whole, looking back on four seasons of paranormal activity and reexamining the tumultuous relationship of Mulder and Scully. From the rebooting antics of the opening episodes to the recent explosive conflicts to looking back to how Mulder met the Lone Gunmen, this season has done quite a bit of shaking the Etch-A-Sketch. Flashing back to 1990 (after the events of “Unusual Suspects“), and then to 1952, “Travelers” follows Mulder’s attempt to learn more about an elderly man named Edward Skur who died during an attempted eviction, but not before uttering the name of “Mulder.”
Edward Skur, you see, was a State Department employee who was suspected of having Communist ties, and squeaky-clean Agent Arthur Dales and his partner were sent to Skur’s residence to apprehend him, as part of their continued duties at the behest of HUAC and J. Edgar Hoover in “rounding up Reds” who have infiltrated the United States government. What Agent Dales doesn’t know (and will later find out) is that Skur, along with two other State Department employees were experimented on after World War II by a German doctor, who performed crude hybridization tests with an insectizoid that lay dormant in the esophagus when not feeding on the innards of unlucky victims. Skur’s arrest (and faked suicide) would set off a chain of events that would irrevocably alter Agent Dales’ worldview, much like Mulder’s interaction with the Lone Gunmen would decades later.
Chastised and threatened by both prominent federal prosecutor Roy Cohn and the man himself, FBI head honcho Hoover, Dales is pressured into amending his report claiming he encounter Skur after his “suicide” as well as not investigating the deaths of both the German doctor and his own partner at Skur’s own hand. The only individuals who would be of any assisstance are a Bureau secretary (who alert him to an odd assortment of unsolved cases designated X-Files) and a State Department staffer named Bill Mulder (who feeds him information on the secret government project). It’s fascinating to see a sequence like the one of Bill Mulder and Agent Dales in the bar, sitting at a secluded table, sitting in darkness with the exception of well-placed lamps bathing each of their faces in light. Bill here is playing the now-standard role of X-Files informant, something his friend Deep Throat would become for his son (and yes, Deep Throat and Fox also began their professional relationship in a bar).
The episode, by its very nature, has a lot of these kind of moments that would prove to have an impact on the mythology that we’ve become familiar with in one hundred plus episodes of the series. The kind of experiment that produced Edward Skur is the same as those Victor Klemper performed when the government brought him over the United States during Operation Paper Clip, and the doctor who worked on Skur probably worked with Klemper at some point. The anti-Communist fervor stirred up by HUAC as (what is alluded to in this episode) a cover-up for other dirty dealings has all the hallmarks of the way The X-Files uses the Cold War as a backdrop for the secret extraterrestrial arms race that would result in the vaccine that thus far has had no effect on poor Marita Covarrubias. And of course you have Agent Arthur Dales himself, whose awakening and steadfast devotion to justice and the truth would have him on the outs with his Bureau superiors much like a certain “Spooky” forebearer would.
The Arthur Dales that Mulder would question is a shadow of his former self, a shell of a man ruined by his inherent goodness in a system that perpetuated lies and secrets to maintain a stranglehold on power and the truth. Dales, in his 60s, retired and resigned, now lives in a dump of an apartment and is quite reluctant to help out this overeager agent, no matter how much coffee he brings with him. Things have come a long way from 1952, when he was lauded by locals and bartenders as a true patriot, making the world safe for democracy. The period details were impeccable by the way, as evocative of the 1950s as shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire are of their own bygone eras. There’s also a little humor thrown in, like when Dales is told it would take six to eight weeks to get back a toxicological exam on his dead partner, as well as having to use the bar telephone to get in contact with anyone (using the old Name And Number format too!).
The episode was also an homage to screenwriter Howard Dimsdale, a mentor of show producers Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban, unfairly blacklisted by HUAC and forced to write under the pseudonym of “Arthur Dales.” The appearance of Darren McGavin as the older Dales is due to his role on Kolchak: The Night Stalker, one of Carter’s primary influences on the conception of The X-Files.
Radhika: Max mentioned some of the parallels between Bill Mulder and informants like Deep Throat and X, and I have to say — that this is one of my favorite aspects of the episode. We’ve gone far enough into The X-Files to know that Bill Mulder was a deeply flawed man, who ultimately went on to make some painful choices for his family in the future. But we also know that those decisions didn’t always sit well with him — and we can see those tendencies in his characterization here. At the end of the episode, we see that Bill Mulder is the man who let Skur go back in the 1950s. Though no one actually knows who let Skur go, Arthur Dales poses the theory that the person who helped Skur may have hoped that letting the man live would someday expose may “expose the truth of the crimes committed [against Skur] and others.” And earlier in the episode, Bill Mulder also tells Dales, “Someone needs to know the truth.”
In some ways, seeing that Bill Mulder had enough of a conscience back in those days makes it somewhat tragic that he would go on to further embed himself in a conspiracy that has had startling repercussions on his family. He already expressed the weariness of Deep Throat, a far more mature informant by the time he came to Mulder, who was tired of the horrific deeds his colleagues — and himself — were taking part in. One has to wonder how much of his future actions and choices could have been avoided.
Meanwhile, it’s somewhat startling to see Mulder so innocent and unaware of how things work in X-Files land. He’s only just digging into the unsolved cases (it was fun to see the 1950s scene where Dales asks why the cases aren’t just filed under “u” for “unsolved”), and he knows very little about the web he’s about to dive into. “You keep digging through the X-Files and they’ll bury you too,” Dales warns, clearly to no avail. But seeing this step of Mulder’s journey from respectable g-man to obsessed “rogue” agent is pretty rewarding, especially considering the 1989 version of him we met earlier in the season during “Unusual Suspects.” This juxtaposition of Mulder’s journey against the early history of the X-Files makes “Travelers” quite a rich episode, which you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a Mulder-and-Scully-lite episode that was largely thanks to Fight the Future being wrapped up.
Sidenote: Yes, this is the episode where Duchovny wore his wedding ring (having just recently gotten married), which drove fans into a tizzy and had Chris Carter reportedly telling him any future flashback episodes would probably require making him married at the time. (Nothing really came from it though). And we also see Mulder smoking, which we never really see him do again. Brief reminder that he’s probably the biological child of our favorite smoking villain? Either way, it’s pretty hilarious that this was the big takeaway by fans back then, but that’s sci-fi fandom for you.
YES IT’S THOSE GUYS
Darren McGavin – Portraying the older Arthur Dales, McGavin’s legendary role in Kolchak: The Night Stalker stoked the mind of Chris Carter as he conceived of The X-Files, but he’s most famously known as the father in the perennial holiday classic A Christmas Story. The Man With The Golden Arm, Inherit The Wind, and The Natural are other film roles of his while on television guested on Magnum, P.I. and Murphy Brown as her father.
Fredric Lehne – The younger Arthur Dales has an extensive television resume, with roles in such diverse programs as Lost, China Beach, Firefly, Supernatural, Rubicon, Boardwalk Empire, American Horror Story, and the HBO miniseries From The Earth To The Moon. He’s also had bit parts on the big screen in The Dark Knight Rises and Zero Dark Thirty.
Garret Dillahunt – A prototypical “that guy,” Garret (who played the beset Edward Skur) has credits on screens big and small. On film, he can be seen in No Country For Old Men, Killing Them Softly, 12 Years A Slave, and Looper. Other than his guest turn in this episode, he can also be seen on Raising Hope, Damages, Deadwood, Burn Notice, John From Cincinnati, and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.