“Kitchen sink episode” was allegedly how Darin Morgan described Anasazi to Chris Carter when the story for the season two finale of The X-Files was being developed. He was not wrong.
If season one ended with a slow building, but engrossing and brilliant thriller, then season two, as befits a season that had seen The X-Files open itself up ever outward, ends explosively and with a level of intensity that is indicative of how much the show had changed over the course of its second year.
It begins quietly enough, but then an earthquake makes its presence known and with it the discovery of a “secret the earth needs to tell”. It’s a ponderous line of dialogue (and there will be more of that in the season three opener and beyond when it comes to the mythology episodes), but what follows is the show firing on all cylinders. Now that so many cards are available for the show to play with in terms of supporting characters and ongoing story arcs, there is a real sense that the show has fully changed into a different, more epic beast than the one it was at the equivalent point in season one.
Even better, Anasazi functions not just as a great plot driven thriller, but a character one too and gives our two leads another chance to shine and show how far their performances have come. Once again David Duchovny has shown great range as Mulder, and the show is seemingly in a place where it’s not afraid to show a darkness within its charming lead character. Drugged out through most of the running time thanks to the conspiracy he’s been fighting against, and even indulging in a fight with Skinner in the FBI hallway, it follows through nicely on the sense of bitterness that has been enveloping our hero since F.Emasculata, and which was carried through in Soft Light, making last week’s Our Town a weird, albeit entertaining, diversion when the show was clearly going somewhere with our hero’s attitude towards his work.
Even though we have seen Mulder in darker emotional territory before, especially during the Duane Barry arc at the start of the season, this is altogether different, and angrier too. His reaction on receiving the Navajo-encrypted digital tape (how 90’s and I’m sure an object of much confusion to anyone under the age of 20 watching this show nowadays) is brilliant, and that it follows that up with Mulder getting his ass physically handed to him by Skinner (let’s face it, he does, as nobody should ever mess with The Skin Man) is even better.
Then there’s the plethora of incident. At forty-five minutes, Chris Carter’s teleplay, working from a story by himself and Duchovny, the latter’s second story contribution this season, packs in so much that it’s amazing that it’s not longer. The story will slow down a little for the slightly more muddled The Blessing Way, before picking up again for the amazing Paper Clip, but at this rate, Anasazi kick starts this three-part epic in fine style.
It’s also evidence on how the show’s fabric and ongoing threads have changed so much in the space of its second year. The Erlenmeyer Flask was for all intents and purposes a mythology episode, but it was really the Mulder, Scully and Deep Throat show with a small cameo from Cigarette Smoking-Man. Anasazi doesn’t just have Mulder and Scully to contend with, but also Skinner, the CSM, Bill Mulder, Krycek, Bill Mulder’s murder by Krycek, an increasingly unhinged Mulder and a box car full of what looks to be alien bodies (or are they?) which goes up in flames.
By the time the words “to be continued” appear at the end you’ll be needing to catch your breath, not least because of the implication that comes when a smallpox vaccination scar is discovered on one of the “alien” bodies at the end. It’s a thread that will run into Nisei and 731 in the first half of the third season, itself another great example of what the mythology could do when it was running so well, but that’s a story for then, and not now.
As it is, the series still has the feel of some sort of darker science fictional version of All The President’s Men, but now the scope has been made even wider, with the United Nations and key members, including Spain, Germany and Japan, now joining the ranks of the US in whatever it is the conspiracy is covering up. We’ll get a bigger taste of what that is, or at the very least the people running it, early into season three, but once again the audience is being presented with something even bigger than just every American citizen being lied to. It’s international and that’s the sound of the scope of the series being made even wider than thought possible.
Of course, none of this would work if we didn’t care about the characters and now that we’re at the end of the second season, our intrepid heroes are now more than just characters in a television show, they’re people we care for and none of it would matter if we hadn’t spent so much time coming to love our special agents. The death of Mulder’s father works so much because we’ve seen the awkwardness between them in Colony, the near hug that turns into a handshake, and we’re presented with the opposite here as it’s Mulder who goes for the handshake, only to be shocked when his father embraces him warmly, no doubt a sentiment brought on by his drunken state, but the moment carries a charge and the scene ends with Mulder hugging his father again, but only as he lies dying in his arms begging for forgiveness for something that will become more clearer come the start of the third season and which will make us rethink everything we’ve known or believed in relation to one of the series’ key plot points.
Even more powerfully is that it is Krycek who we’re led to believe is the one who pulled the trigger. It is certainly his reflection we see before we hear the gunshot. Even the fact that it is Krycek, returning after his mysterious disappearance at the end of Ascension, feels like glorious fan service, and another key component for Carter to play with, a new arch-villain for Mulder to go up against. Unlike the CSM, he’s Mulder’s age and could almost be the darker side of the character. The fact that Mulder is near ready for executing him, thus setting himself up for his own father’s murder, plays out beautifully because it means Scully has no choice to but to shoot her friend to stop him from implicating himself in his father’s murder.
Poor Scully too comes in for a rough time; she gets shot at and is at the receiving end of Mulder’s psychosis when he accuses her of being a spy. I especially love his “taking your little notes” line but I can never figure out what’s more powerful; Duchovny’s delivery of the line or Anderson’s beautifully understated and very hurt reaction. Scully knows he doesn’t mean it because of his state, but you can tell it pains her, given how worried or paranoid he might have been when they first met and how far they’ve come, and her face says what a thousand words can never do justice to. Once again, it’s brilliant work from Gillian Anderson.
Then, in the middle of it all, you have William B Davis, truly off the leash now, fully out of Skinner’s office, riding on helicopters like a bad-ass and ordering boxcars to be destroyed. Davis, a truly terrific actor, brings it his all, fully embracing the villain that his show has only hinted at. It’s the icing on a brilliantly constructed cake, and the fact that we learn that he knows Mulder’s father gives the character a previously unknown emotional connection to Mulder that was a massive shock at the time.
Anasazi brings a superb season of television to an end. The X-Files was forced to open up and mature in its second year, it couldn’t rest on its laurels or coast on stand alone tales and the season finale is a superb step forward yet again for Carter’s creation which is now about to hit a peak and ride that wave for the next few years, hitting home run after home run. The cliffhanger it ends on here will leave newcomers gasping to get to the season three box set or click on next episode (if it’s available on any streaming services anymore), whilst first generations fans like myself can rest easy and know that no matter how good this is (and it is VERY good), the best is still to come.