“I’ve risked everything. I’ve given you information. My partner is seriously suspicious. If that’s not enough for you, that’s all I’ve got” — Fox Mulder
Scully gets concerned that Mulder has become a traitor to the FBI when he gets immersed in a deep undercover assignment involving a terrorist group with a biological weapon in its hands.
Radhika: Every once in a while The X-Files delves into not-so-paranormal territory, and “The Pine Bluff Variant” is one of them. Despite some nitpicky issues with the logic of the story here and there, I would say this is one of the most “realistic” episodes of The X-Files and one of those handful of episodes where we get to see Mulder and Scully deeply immersed in more “mainstream” FBI work.
Scully grows concerned when Mulder lets a suspect, Jacob Haley — part of an anti-government group — go during an undercover operation, which culminates in a man being found with his flesh eaten away. Turns out the guy’s flesh was eaten by a biological agent, which is at least more plausible than the likes of something like El Chupacabra (aka, why I find this episode “realistic”). After growing increasingly paranoid and worried, she eventually learns Mulder’s on an even more undercover mission.
While Mulder deals with the joys of said mission (getting a finger broken!), Scully investigates an Ohio movie theater where the biological weapon has been tested, killing 14 people.
Mulder gets dragged into a fake bank robbery, where the money is sprayed with the pathogen. And Scully realizes the weapon is a product of the US government, concluding that someone is sending Mulder on a suicide mission. And Mulder indeed does nearly face a close call, when the group’s leader August Bremer accuses him of being a mole, tells Haley to leave and then makes like he’s about to kill Mulder. But he ultimately shoots another guy instead and tells Mulder to run.
When Mulder rushes back to the bank, he finds out Scully has already had it quarantined. The agents confront the US attorney about everything being part of a covert government weapons test, who basically quips that sometimes it’s one’s job to protect people from knowing the ever-elusive truth. As the episode draws to an end, we see Haley in his getaway car, dead, with his skin being eaten away.
Isn’t that all very delightful? Honestly though, this is one episode where the tension isn’t so much about the struggle between believer and skeptic. And considering some things that have been in the news since this episode aired more than a decade ago, the plot of this episode feels even more “real” now.
The one thing I found a little weird was Scully’s concern that Mulder had turned against the FBI. I appreciate the desire to introduce that bit of tension, but this would perhaps at least feel more plausible in a multi-part episode or over the course of a season. (Granted, Mulder does have reason to mistrust the government a lot, but he’s not really the type to just straight up betray the FBI either).
A few episodes ago, Max mentioned that the show’s commitment to maintaining one-off episodes could be a detriment in some regards, and I think that does apply as far as this particular plot point is concerned. I’m actually a huge fan of the Monster of the Week episodes (and this still counts as one, despite not having an actual paranormal monster and despite its government conspiracy leanings). But I do think that as The X-Files wanted to tackle subjects like these, it could have found new ways to make certain threads more continuous.
But there are plenty of things that worked for me in the episode: The reveal of the flesh-eaten bodies in the movie theater (so chilling and gross), the overall tension that still causes me to cringe when Mulder’s about to get his finger broken (though so much more could have happened), and the bank heist with the masks, which just feels oh-so-cinematic. This is really a very straightforward episode of the series, but it’s also a very compelling hour of television.
Max: I agree with Radhika, the fake-out heel turn that Mulder takes early on in this episode was rushed (if only because the episode had so much more story it needed to tell in it’s hour time-slot), and didn’t have the same kind of nuance that Scully’s descent into paranoia in “Wetwired” had, for example. But this is a rather minor plot point to get hung up if the episode is as incredible as the impeccably constructed “The Pine Bluff Variant.” My partner also mentioned my concerns when it came to the overall structure of the show, but I do admit that on rewatch there are many more moments of continuity than I previously thought. The “Mulder is a skeptic” arc may have been a dud, but at least it gave us the connective tissue to this episode, being that Jacob Haley became impressed by Mulder and reached out to him primarily because of his anti-government rant in the opening scene of “Patient X.”
What unfolds in the episode, and why it is a personal favorite of mine, is a game of twisty unhinged paranoia born of secrets and the inability to know whose side anyone is on. Scully is our surrogate into this tableau of apparent anti-government skullduggery, but her excellent investigative work helps her to shine a light on the true nature of the events of the episode. Remind me never to cross Scully, because her indignance and justifiable rage at the US attorney (“You knew about this all along. You knew about this the whole time!”) is a incredible sight to see. Scully may not necessarily share Mulder’s viewpoints, but she shares his sense of justice and is quick to anger when that justice isn’t being served.
The shifting quicksand of what is really going on is for me quite reminiscent of the classic “E.B.E.” from the first season, when Deep Throat was forced to lead Mulder down the primrose path with promises of seeing an alien corpse. That fact that this is taking place in an episode that is absolutely grounded in a reality and has nothing to do with the paranormal just makes the revelations that much more chilling. The government abusing the trust of its citizens is nothing new, as is the government testing substances on them (hello MKULTRA).
What makes the episode deliciously complicated are the implications of the governments control of the entire situation. August Bremer, the Militia’s leader, we found out was some kind of government asset, and what this means for the Militia itself is intriguing. Yes it attracted true believers like Haley, but did Bremer infiltrate the Militia and eventually ascended to its highest rank? Or did Bremer create the Militia at the behest of the government in order to create a convenient organization for which the government can carry out false flag attacks? How far down does this rabbit hole actually go?
This episode was directed by longtime X-Files crew member Rob Bowman, and even though “The Pine Bluff Variant” was filmed after shooting for Fight The Future wrapped (which Bowman was tapped to direct based on his consistently excellent work going back to the first season), the episode feels like a staging ground or test for the feature film, as it is an incredibly cinematic endeavor. It has all the hallmarks of a good espionage thriller, and Mark Snow’s score is quite a propulsive addition to the proceedings. If Carter and company meant episodes like this to whet the appetites of viewers for the film that would be premiering in less than two months, then I believe they succeeded on all counts.
And speaking of movies, that must be one boring Ohio town if the movie theatre there was still playing Die Hard With A Vengeance three years after it was released. At least there was a Titanic poster that is a little more current.
YES, IT’S THOSE GUYS
Daniel von Bargen – Appearing here as Jacob Haley, von Bargen has had quite the storied film and television career, playing Mr. Kruger on Seinfeld and having roles in movies like Philadelphia and O Brother, Where Art Thou? Von Bargen’s filmography is pretty robust from the 1970s through part of the 2000s. In 2012, however, he narrowly survived a suicide attempt, while facing further complications from diabetes.
Sam Anderson – Appearing as Leamus in this episode, Anderson may be best known for roles on Perfect Strangers, Angel, Lost, ER and more. He’s also had a handful of film roles, including those in Forrest Gump and Water for Elephants.