An incredibly hated episode by the fandom and not highly regarded by its writers either, 3 is an episode where its understandable to expect something horrible and terrible, the Space or Teso Dos Bichos of The X-Files’ second season. In reality the episode is…okay. Not a misunderstood masterpiece, but not terrible either. It’s…okay.
First of all, the episode starts pretty well. At the time it premiered, it was the first episode of the show to feature one of its stars missing from the show, understandably as Gillian Anderson was having a baby and the show needed an episode where it would be justified to have Mulder go it alone. Initially written by Chris Ruppenthal, who scripted season one’s Roland, Morgan and Wong would re-write the episode to incorporate Scully’s absence and Mulder’s first case back on the X-Files.
After its teaser sequence, which is the raunchiest the show had been up to this point, mixing sex and death as if a network television equivalent of a Paul Verhoeven-directed erotic thriller, we see our first glimpse this season of Mulder and Scully’s basement office. Rather than being the victorious return “home”, the scene is very melancholy as the first case placed into X-Files cabinet upon Mulder’s return is related to Scully’s disappearance.
There is a deeply sad charge to Mulder placing her glasses and FBI badge amongst her newly opened file, and then placing a gap between her case and the rest of the files. Before we even get to take all of this in, and it is a great scene, the phone rings and we’re back on a case; vampires in Los Angeles, or more accurately, Vancouver as Los Angeles. I’ve always loved the fact that Vancouver had to double for the city it would lose the show to in its later years, a delicious irony if there ever was one.
The show does its best to convey the California setting, with opulent housing, stock footage of planes putting out mountain fires and orange filtered lighting. It doesn’t quite pull it off primarily because the Vancouver years were always set in the Pacific Northwest and did so more convincingly, but there’s an alien quality (for lack of a better term) to Mulder’s journey to the City of Angels that strangely works.
With no Scully, Mulder channels a semblance of scepticism into his investigation. He admits to a detective that he’s simply playing into his prime suspect’s delusions and suspects that John, aka, The Son, one-third of the unholy trinity committing the murders, doesn’t even believe his “delusions”, a Scully-esque observation that suggests that Mulder wants to have that element of scepticism that comes with wearing her cross, a lovely visual touch that the episode keeps reminding us off.
For twenty minutes the episode plays along as a pleasing, bizzare diversion from the norm, with only one lead character, a more sexually charged atmosphere, stylishly direction at times by Nutter and a gorgeous music score by Mark Snow, some of which was re-used from a television movie, Caroline at Midnight, that Snow had scored previously, with the use of a piano in 3 replacing saxophones from the previous score (you can hear the original version on The Snow Files album).
In the middle of it all is David Duchovny, once again excelling as a more tortured Mulder, with little humour, and a brooding intensity with an extreme lack of sleep. There is one funny line where he makes reference to “draw string pants”, but otherwise it’s a brilliant carry over from Ascension and its wonderful to see the show keeping up with its characterisation in such a serialised way.
It’s in the second half that 3 somewhat goes off the rails. One set piece involving a restaurateur being murdered builds up the suspense brilliantly, but the moment he is eventually murdered looks like he is being bear-hugged by a trio of lovable, love-biting Goths. John burning to death in his cell is wonderfully graphic and disturbing, but the final set piece at the end turns into a mess where it’s pretty hard to tell what the hell is going on. The action appears well staged and Snow’s music desperately tries to sell the suspense, but there is a confusing sense of geography to some of the editing, a surprise coming from a series that is as brilliantly edited as this, although this may be due to concerns about content from the FOX network, something James Wong has mentioned before in relation to the episode, and as such further cuts were made.
To top it all off, and it’s this element that continues to incense the anger of fans, we see Mulder becoming romantically entangled with his prime suspect, once again, a hallmark of many a sleazy erotic thriller, although network American television being what it is, it’s played more better and classier than any straight to video “bonkbuster”, but alas, it doesn’t work. Mulder becoming emotionally attached to someone, especially at a time like this in the show’s lifespan, is believable and plausible, and whilst the character of Kristen Kilar is played by Duchovny’s-then girlfriend, Perrey Reeves, there is a distinct lack of chemistry here that it’s hard to believe that the two could fall into each other’s arms the way that they do.
The shaving sequence is unsexy and unerotic, because let’s face it, shaving is NOT sexy (a water-filled sink with bits of stubble floating around in it is not a good place to start getting jiggy with it) and whilst Morgan and Wong attempt to inject some sexual charge with the dialogue, Double Indemnity it is not.
With conversations and themes touching on physical abuse and violence, 3 had the potential to be something unique and different, but most of all about something. It reaches high, but it never quite gets there. Morgan and Wong try to make Kilar a tragic figure, one with a deep emotional intensity, and whilst Reeves does her best, I don’t think the writing quite gets to where it wants to be. I love Morgan and Wong, they are great writers, but this doesn’t quite hit the highs that their previous work has done, especially compared to the next episode, which they also write, which will be the best episode of the show to date.
I’ve always been someone who has wanted to defend 3, to hail it as a misunderstood masterpiece, but as I’ve gotten older, it’s easier to see it more as a noble failure, a genuine attempt at taking a script that wasn’t going to get made and trying to fit it in and to do something that little bit different. At times reaching for brilliance, it stumbles, but not through lack of trying.
With its lead character in an emotional flux, and a guest character that could be richly interesting and tragic, it all feels half-hearted, despite admirable attempts to be unique amongst the fabric of the series. The show had never dealt with vampires up until this point, and it wouldn’t be until the fifth season that it would do so again, with arguably the show’s greatest masterpiece, and whilst I understand and appreciate that many hate the episode with a passion, I’m not in that camp. It’s an interesting and unique failure, and for all its problems, it’s those flaws that actually make it an intriguing part of The X-Files history.
Shaving will never be sexy, however.