Up until this point in time, The X-Files had never attempted an episode that ended with the words “to be continued“. Whilst the first season ended with a cliffhanger that was clearly going to run into the season two premiere, they weren’t really a two-parter. In fact, one could even argue that The Erlenmeyer Flask could have functioned as a finale to the show if Fox had cancelled it there and then.
With Gillian Anderson pregnant, circumstances were dictating that Dana Scully disappear for several episodes, and thus the impetus and direction of season two so far has been heading in the direction that Duane Barry and Ascension are going to take us. The show has brilliantly been setting up the cataclysmic events that are about to befall our characters; the closing of the X-Files unit, the separation, professionally at least, of our heroes, the introduction of Krycek who, it turns out, is a spy sent in by the CSM, and the latter professing that a problem like Scully “has a solution”.
Duane Barry and Ascension presents that solution.
The first of the two episodes marks the directorial debut of Chris Carter and it has to be said, as television directorial debuts goes, it’s one of the best.
I’ve frequently defended Carter and believe him to be a better writer and director, albeit a flawed one, than he is given credit for these days, but all one has to do is watch Duane Barry and realise that the man is talented, or at that there was at time when he was genuinely firing on all cylinders. If one looks at his writing work from Darkness Falls to this point in the show, he has been writing some genuinely brilliant work, and Duane Barry is another humdinger from the creator himself.
The script is a star on its own, but the direction is on a whole other level. Essentially a “bottle episode” (the majority of Duane Barry takes place in a travel agency and uses the frequently cited excuse for a bottle episode by being about a hostage situation), Carter takes an old television standby like “the hostage episode” and turns it into a work of nearly flawless art. There is nothing about Duane Barry that shouts “we need to save the budget” this week. In fact the whole thing runs like a beautifully crafted and shot feature film, and features not only brilliant work from David Duchovny, but allows for show stealing support from Steve Railsback and CCH Pounder, the latter being someone who really ought to be cast in every television show and movie known to humankind because she’s that good.
Essentially turning into a two person play performed by Railsback and Duchovny, the scenes between Mulder and the titular guest character are amongst some of the most intense human drama The X-Files had attempted to this point in its lifespan. The dialogue sparkles, the set up is unbearably intense, and, best of all, the episode is punctuated by some of the most visually torturous flashback sequences in the history of television. The use of strobe lighting when Barry recounts and remembers his abduction experiences are some of the most unbearable to watch sequences of horror from a television show of its decade, not because they are necessarily disturbing (which they are) but because the use of strobe lighting is genuinely headache inducing, but its a visual manoeuvre that works because Carter brilliantly puts us into the mind of his character, and as such its dazzling and overbearing all at the same time.
Railsback’s performance is a brilliant knife-edge piece of acting if there ever was one. Coming across as hyper and deranged, he never fails to engage the audience’s sympathies despite the danger he poses. The flashbacks, one of which involving his teeth bring drilled that will etch itself into your nightmares forever, allow the audience to be on his side somewhat, even when Scully’s theory as to why he is insane seems frighteningly plausible.
The intense chemistry and interaction between Barry and Mulder goes from antagonistic to respectful and briefly back to antagonistic before the situation resolves itself, but it really says something about Carter’s staging that even when the two are respectful to each other, you find yourself on edge waiting for the other shoe to drop that will have it twist back again.
Ending with a cliffhanger that sees the show really go for the jugular and place one of its main characters in legitimate danger, Ascension picks up where he left off and brilliantly replays a key answering machine message that reminds audiences of what happened last week instead of going for a traditional “previously on” segment, something the show would rely on from Colony/Endgame onwards.
Opening the story up, literally in this case, if Duane Barry is internal and intense, then Ascension sees the story organically turn into more of a action-chase thriller as Mulder and a treacherous Krycek (unknown to Mulder, but known to the audience thus ratcheting up the tension more because we know he has to be discovered eventually) race against time to save Scully from Barry’s clutches. Although less interested in Barry this time around, Railsback is still sensational, but the second part of the story is more Mulder’s and once again allows Duchovny to show his full range as a Mulder pushed to the edge as he finds himself losing the only person in the world he can trust.
If Tooms and Little Green Men hinted at the more obsessive elements of Mulder’s drive and passion, then Ascension takes it even further, and in considerably darker directions, as it goes on. Ignoring sleep, a characteristic established in Tooms, and pushing himself even further than seen previously, this is without a doubt Duchovny’s best work on the show. Face permanently covered in stubble, heavy eyes, little humour (the jibe about sleep deprivation statistics is bitter and without joy) and pushed to the point of nearly strangling Duane in the middle of an interrogation, a moment of weakness he instantly regrets, this is a Mulder that has only been hinted at but never seen before and makes for incredibly powerful television.
Whilst it could be said to be typical to show a female character’s dire predicament through the eyes of the male character, The X-Files really has no choice here since Anderson is unavailable. Unknown to the audience at the time, the series was brilliantly sowing the seeds for a storyline that was going to give Gillian Anderson some of the best personal drama from a genre television show in the 90’s, but that’s a story for another day.
If Duane Barry was a two-person play performed by Duchovny and Railsback with interjections performed by Anderson and Pounder, then Ascension opens the cast list wide up to include Skinner, more of Krycek, the CSM and Margaret Scully. Amazingly everyone gets their moment to shine. William B Davis gets his biggest role to date (still credited as a co-star in the end credits, but that’s soon to change) and feels very much like the supervillain in waiting; he may do nothing in Skinner’s office but smoke cigarettes, but the fact you know he’s involved makes his lack of participation even more chilling.
Sheila Larken injects tremendous heart and soul throughout, the penultimate scene between herself and Duchovny has a heartbreaking moment of bittersweet silence between them that is gorgeously subtle, whilst Mitch Pillegi once again shows he was fast becoming the show’s secret weapon. Although harsh at times to Mulder, the facade slips, and we see the ally in waiting as he re-opens the X-Files unit in the episode’s closing moments. It’s a lovely irony that the show finally achieves one of Mulder’s biggest goals so far this season, but it comes when he and Scully are facing their darkest moments.
We see the extent of Krycek’s thuggery too, and special mention must be made to Nicholas Lea who has the brilliant ability to make you forget about him being treacherous until the episode reminds you. Thus far Krycek has merely been a spy, but this is the point where we see him turn in a big way, with one death on his hands for sure, possibly two if you count Barry. Not only are we presented with a treacherous spy, the type of which Mulder feared Scully was when she first showed up, but someone who will kill to stop Mulder from reaching his goals, and endanger our heroes too.
A late scene between Krycek and CSM is wonderful for Davis’ calm use of villainous rhetoric and the plausible repulsion of Krycek when he sees the lit cigarette. Although he has mysteriously vanished by the end of the episode, his treachery is beautifully revealed to Mulder by the reveal of the cigarette in his car ashtray, and whilst closing an avenue of character and story telling like this can be frustrating, rest assured, the show will make up for it further down the line.
Everything about Ascension sees the show on fire. There are so many wonderful elements for the series to play with in terms of plot, character and suspense, and whilst is may lack just a little bit of that tightness from the previous episode, the levels of action and subterfuge going on is worth it.
Best of all, the episode even throws in an action sequence worthy of a James Bond or Stallone movie as Mulder must perilously dangle from a stranded cable car on his quest to Skyland Mountain, an optimistic name if there ever was one, advertised with the Spielbergian slogan “ascending to the stars”.
The episode’s biggest set piece/stunt sequence involving a cable car is one of the most cinematic and suspenseful the show had pulled off until this point and would pave the way for the show to try even bigger stunts and action sequences in its future two parter stories, one of which is coming later in the season.
If Duane Barry and Ascension indicate anything, it’s how far The X-Files had come in such a short space of time. We’re only in the early stages of season two and, although it was somewhat dictated to by behind the scenes circumstances, the show has considerably expanded the scope of what it could be and that it didn’t necessarily have to be a monster of the week show that adhered to a strict formula. The series, of course, has a winning formula and utilises it brilliantly, but in the space of six episodes in only its second season, it has shown it can be mined for incredibly complex character drama with a rich, ongoing mythology. These two episodes have shown that Chris Carter’s creation could be a bedrock for incredibly intense and enthralling serialised drama.
It would be easily and possibly churlish for me to point out that pitfalls the series would fall into as a result in later seasons, but I’m not going to. Let’s enjoy the moment, shall we, let’s enjoy two episode of absolutely brilliant television that saw its creator go behind the camera and deliver one of the best directorial debuts on television and deliver a two-part story (three it you count One Breath, but there’s an episode in between) that allowed itself to look ever forward and realise that it could be so much more. So. Much. More.
Together they are almost better than any movie, with a year’s worth of backstory at its disposal and a writing team who are clearly relishing getting to write material like this, together Duane Barry and Ascension are a brilliant two hours of television and a frequent must (re)watch for any fan of the show.