Broadcast on BBC television in February of 1995 (yes, this was a time when UK television was very comfortable in being a full season behind with regards to a US television series what with the internet and spoilers not being a constant threat like today), my ten-year old self, soon to be eleven, did not know when he sat down to watch the British television premiere of The Erlenmeyer Flask that he was in fact sitting down to watch the season finale.
So, when the episode ended, and Mark Snow’s theme music started playing over the end credits, and the BBC continuity announcer proclaimed that “The X-Files will return in the Autumn” I sat there dumbfounded. I mean, I was going to have to wait for well over six months to find out what happened next. The Erlenmeyer Flask ended on such a downbeat cliffhanger that the wait to see the next episode seemed unbearable. Life was genuinely unfair.
Without a doubt one of the greatest season finales in the history of television, I know it has become customary to knock and criticise Chris Carter in light of his controversial scripting choices he made on the recent revival event series, but watching The Erlenmeyer Flask twenty-three years after its US television debut is indicative of how great a writer he can be. This is a challenging, darkly tinted and very complex thriller that not only shows how high The X-Files can reach, but shows genuine ambition for a show on a network that was as small as Fox at the time.
The moment Scully tells Mulder that the Erlenmeyer Flask labelled Purity Control they have recently discovered may be made up of bacteria that hasn’t been around since “our ancestors crawled out of the sea” could have been stupid or nonsensical, but it reaches higher and above than anything the series had done previously and is a truly brilliant moment, delivered fantastically by Anderson and impeccably scripted by Carter. It signals an ambition of the series that goes beyond being a mystery drama and opens floodgates and ideas for a mythology that the series is about to dive into headstrong with glee and a joyfully dark sense of discovery.
Watching it at a young age, I never quite grasped everything going on in it, in fact I probably sat there in a state of confusion at some of its plotting, but I knew I was watching something very special and brilliant and by the time we got to the set piece on the bridge at the end, a genuine game changer of a plot twist if there ever was one, it was hard not to shake the fact that my childhood was ending in a way that only pop culture can make you feel when something majorly dramatic or dark happens on a flickering screen via a work of fiction that captures your heart and imagination.
Kids of the late 70’s and early 80’s had the final act of The Empire Strikes Back, my younger self had the season one finale of The X-Files to tell me how harsh fighting the forces of villainy could be and that being a crusader of things like the truth and the morally correct can sometimes come at a horrific cost. Deep Throat was the closest the series had to a third regular character. His older age and sense of class and paternal respect for Mulder almost made him a father figure to the character. The fact that Mulder refers to his actions and behaviour at the start of the episode as “Obi-Wan Kenobi crap” should have set alarm bells ringing. Obi-Wan didn’t make it to the end of the story either.
His behaviour and attitude towards Mulder starts of mysterious in the early scenes of the episode, his refusal to tell Mulder about what is going on, instead hoping he finds the truth for himself, are brilliantly frustrating. He shares his first scenes with Scully in this hour, she’s the one he turns to when Mulder is abducted by Crew Cut Man in the final act of the episode and it is he who convinces Scully to let him make the exchange that will cost him his life. His dying words, an iconic saying that the series would use in this episode’s title sequence, the first time they exchanged the words “The Truth is Out There” for something else, a moment that came as legitimate jolt the first time I watched it, are both words of wisdom and a dire warning of the threats and danger to come.
The death of Deep Throat, the closing of the X-Files unit and the separation of Mulder and Scully seemed like such a daring left turn and showed that Carter and the writers weren’t willing to rest on their laurels and keep things relatively safe every week. If ending weekly episodes on unresolved notes seemed daring in itself at the time, ending your first season on such a brazen unresolved, bleak situation was even braver.
Famously, the story goes that Fox panicked when they saw the episode, telling Carter that they were worried that audiences would think that the show was either cancelled or finishing for good when they would watch it, prompting Carter to reply that it was the network’s job to remind them that it wasn’t.
On top of being a genuine game changer for the series, it also put into action the overarching mythology of the show. With Gillian Anderson becoming pregnant around halfway through filming the season, Carter and the rest of the writers needed to come up with a plan to explain her absence which would occur early into the second season. By Carter’s own admission an alien pregnancy was considered, but in the end the direction they would go in would stem from some of the events here.
With the X-Files unit closed by the end of the episode and our heroes assigned to other parts of the Bureau, the characters are set to spend the first few episodes of the second season separated, thus facilitating some lesser screen time for Gillian Anderson, although the show does still feature her quite prominently until events take a darker, more dramatic turn (I wouldn’t dare want to spoil it for anyone who has yet to watch it).
The Erlenmeyer Flask itself is a fantastic hour of television. Daringly complex, tightly written, very cleanly focused (compare this to the sixth season finale/season seven premiere episodes to see how some of the mythology episodes go from being tightly constructed, unbearably tense cinematic thrillers to terribly unwieldy pieces of nonsense), I may not have had a clear idea on what was going on as a ten-year old, but I knew I was watching something truly brilliant.
Opening with a ferocious car chase, backed up by pounding Mark Snow music and utilising one of the all time great car-chase-around-the-docks clichés (you know the one, it involves cleanly stacked cardboard boxes), the pace never lets up, the thrills are intelligent and through provoking, the science incredibly well detailed, the scenes between our heroes and Deep Throat sizzling with tension and suspense, even the set pieces are quietly dazzling, from the never-ending corridors of Fort Marlene (which I’m pretty sure would be kept on the series from season two onwards as the main FBI set on the show) to the eventual hostage exchange on the bridge, the episode never lets up for a minute. On top of that Star Wars reference there is even a funny joke about monkey pee.
The killing of Deep Throat in the episode’s dying moments is pretty much The X-Files equivalent of many of those downbeat endings that came with many a conspiracy thriller throughout the 70’s in Hollywood. Carter has frequently cited All The President’s Men as one of the primary influences in his creation of the show, it even features a portrayal of one of the most famous Deep Throat figures in US political history, but in that movie the heroes follow the money and find the proof they need to bring down Nixon, here a key ally of our heroes is dead by the end, their work has been shut down and they are ordered to seize working together, all of which is topped with a reprisal of the final moments from the Pilot episode, including the CSM hiding evidence, it all feels more like something from The China Syndrome or The Parallax View, and invokes the downbeat aura of the first two Godfather movies.
The final scene of the season that features our heroes is of the two of them on the telephone, separated by geography, nothing but a telephone line connecting them. Both David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are wonderful here. Anderson conveys Scully’s sense of shock perfectly, whilst Duchovny is quietly mesmerising. Mulder may claim he will never give up (foreshadowing a key line from 2008’s second X-Files feature film I Want to Believe), but the look on his face in undeniable and even though the show has hinted at the more serious, even obsessive qualities of Mulder in episodes like Tooms, this is the first time where we see a genuine look of defeat and resignation in his eyes. The season two premiere Little Green Men will follow this characterisation through to perfection.
While The X-Files has frequently shown UFO lore to be a touch darker and frightening than Spielberg movies like ET or Close Encounters, there has still been a sense of wonder, albeit of a darker variety, to go with it, as evidenced by Mulder’s encounter in as early an episode as Deep Throat, which ended up with Mulder being subjected to a violent medical procedure to purge his mind afterwards of the memory of his encounter. Here the show goes even further than that; Alien DNA which physically incapacitates Mulder, Deep Throat being murdered, our heroes losing big and finding their cause taken away from them, at least in the second episode they still had the means to fight back and gained their informant and ally to help with the fight, here it’s all been snatched from them and the last image of the show is the CSM once again hiding the evidence, buried away for all time.
The cut to Chris Carter’s executive producer credit and Mark Snow’s theme music has never felt so defeatist and emotionally horrifying.
At least now with the advent of streaming, DVD and Blu Ray, future generation of fans don’t have to experience the even worst emotional horror of hearing a posh voiced BBC announcer proudly proclaim that “The X-Files will be return in the Autumn”.