Part two of ‘The X-Files’’ return is an exceptionally stronger foot forward as James Wong taps into the series at its scariest
“Can’t anyone hear that?”
Now this is The X-Files that I want!
After developing severe reservations over the—in my opinion—rocky start that the momentous return of the series saw last night, I’m happy to say that “Founder’s Mutation” made all of the right moves by delivering a creepy, upsetting, provoking episode of the series that even manages to tie into the greater mythology of the series in a justified way. There feels like there’s little resemblance between “Founder’s Mutation” and “My Struggle”, with the former seeming like little more than the impetus for getting these guys back in the office. “Founder’s Mutation” even feels like it disregards everything that’s brought up in the premiere—which I’m more than okay with—with this feeling less like a second part to “My Struggle”, and more like a strong monster-of-the-week/mythology hybrid that could even act as a de facto reintroduction to the series.
No time is wasted here as the episode opens with a genuinely upsetting intro that feels like it could be the monster lovechild of “Folie a Deux” and “Drive.” We see a scientist, Dr. Sanjay, suffering from some real focus problems until the world gets a little too loud for him and he ends up punching his ticket a little early (while simultaneously guaranteeing that you’ll get the creeps the next dozen times you handle a letter opener). All of a sudden an effective mystery is underway, as well as the episode getting to show off the phenomenal sound design in this entry (seriously, it’s just cringe city through those opening moments).
James Wong is the one responsible for the writing and directing here, and it’s comforting to see him embracing the horror aspect of The X-Files that so many people loved it for. Wong is responsible for some of the scariest episodes in the series’ run, including classics like “Home” and “Tooms”, but even extending his love for the genre into film with the Final Destination horror franchise, and the remakes of Willard and Black Christmas. Of all the permutations that The X-Files would take on, this mindset is the one that Wong is most comfortable in, and watching him get to let loose in this playground is a lot of fun. The set piece that kicks everything off is creepy enough in its own right, but Wong cleverly juggles a mélange of uncomfortable imagery (infra-sounds, flocks of ravens, mutations) to help this madness coalesce together into something special.
Sanjay’s death is an effective introduction to this case of the week, but it’s not until Mulder eventually gets hit by the same sensory attack that all of this goes into overdrive. Mulder’s attack is an incredibly well done sequence, and probably some of Wong’s strongest work from the series. The way it’s filmed is so intense and unlike anything that Carter offers up in the premiere (and acts as another confirmation that he should really just be a story guy at this point). Wong really makes you feel Mulder’s pain here, and you struggle with him as the episode utilizes drastic close-ups, dynamic lighting, and harsh sound mixing to have you feel as defenseless as he is.
While Sanjay’s death is trying to be determined as a natural suicide or not, Mulder and Scully see themselves fighting with the department of defense over evidence, as bureaucracy’s thumb continues to loom over the work they’re doing. Even during these smaller moments the series wants to remind us that the government is getting in the way here, making Mulder and Scully’s job more difficult. It’s hardly a large thread of the episode, but I thought its inclusion here was a nice touch. There are also sly winks at the audience in the form of lines like, “I’m old school, Mulder. Pre-Google,” or Mulder going on about Edward Snowden, or wryly attacking Obamacare. Wong is clearly having fun with the time lapse since the show last aired. Although these might get a little too tongue-in-cheek at times, they are still laughing with us over the time differences that the show continues to highlight. Carter’s references to our current landscape drip with doom and gloom and are far too serious for their own good. I’d rather have Mulder quipping about the president than worrying about his security settings on his iPhone.
It’s not long until Mulder and Scully rightfully determine that Sanjay’s death was a little wonky, and after a classic Scully autopsy scene, the two of them see themselves pointed towards an Augutus Goldman, and the cryptic message, “Founder’s Mutation”, that was written on Sanjay’s palm. Digging deeper leads Mulder and Scully to Dr. Sanjay’s appropriately creepy, “Wall of Kids”, all of which are suffering from mutations on a Hiroshima-level scale. It’s a muted moment that Wong gets the right amount of horror out of before pumping the gas when Mulder and Scully arrive at the hospital. The scene essentially plays as the inverse as the previous one, with the horror very much being rubbed in your face this time. The X-Files has a tendency to be hit or miss when it comes to its monster work, but once more I find myself impressed with the makeup work the show has done on these subjects that have tried to be swept under the carpet of America. They seriously look like they’re out of the “Cronenberged” dimension in Rick and Morty, so kudos again to the team here. This feels like vintage X-Files and would be enough on its own, yet, Wong is determined to creep you out here by then shifting the focus to fetuses being carved out of pregnant women for alien harvesting. It’s not any of that playful fetus carving either. No, this is some L’Interieur level shit in the most gruesome sense. Just to keep things dynamic, a flashback shows one of these experiment subjects, Molly, gleefully breathing underwater. It’s an image that’s just as chilling as everything else that we’ve seen so far, but in a wholly different way. Not enough can be said for how much Wong nails the multi-facet horror of genetic mutation.
Alien DNA and the hybridization plan is the angle that Mulder unsurprisingly turns to with all of this, when it appears like Augustus Goldman is funding the experimentation on pregnant women being turned into incubators. This ends up taking this heavy scene to a fairly unexpected place, that of Mulder and Scully’s child. This William material is so satisfying and exactly what I was hoping for this season. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the series completely ignored the William topic, but the decision to open it up makes a lot more sense. I love so hard that Scully introduces the area in such a pained way—hesitant to do so, and scared of Mulder’s reaction. It’s deeply human and getting a little time to examine how the two of them have dealt with this event speaks volumes for the both of them. Anderson is bringing a subtle level of detachment and malaise to Scully in these episodes, and to see that as depression stemming from losing her child and wondering if she’s made the right decisions is completely believable. Adversely, Mulder’s approach of just repressing the William issue speaks much more to how he operates.
Not only do we get these two discussing their child, but we also get full on fantasy sequences depicting a grown-up William at that! Scully’s fantasy shifts into a nightmare rather quickly as a growing William begins to show his half-alien nature in a horrific fashion. Scully’s fear for her child appears to be ever-present. Interestingly enough, Mulder’s fantasy with William contains a number of adorable subversions on space as he bonds with his son. The two of them playfully watch 2001 together and launch bottle rockets (with the two paired together with a beautiful match cut between the monolith and the rocket, in an another testament to Wong’s directing here). However, it’s only a matter of time until Mulder’s fantasies see transformation, too, with reality seeping through and William’s alien nature commandeering the narrative. This even mixes together with his abduction memories of Samantha. It very much looks like there’s an unhealed wound that giving William up for adoption has left in both Mulder and Scully. Returning to William might have been the last thing I thought the show was interested in before, but after this nice detour on mutations and separation, I could easily see this family having a reunion by the end of the season.
We’re told here that “Every new species begins with a Founder’s Mutation,” and seeing this idea shift over to the series’ larger agenda of the hybridization project finally coming together and being ready to move to the next phase is a dot that makes sense to connect to. “Founder’s Mutation” tows the line between whether it wants to be a larger mythology story or not, but it’s at its best when it drops the larger tent poles that are holding up the series and you understand that this is really a much more personal monster-of-the-week story. There’s a lot of noise going on around all of this, but the episode boils down to Kyle, one of Sanjay’s mutations, just wanting to find his sister, Molly, who’s in the same situation. There’s even a nice parallel here between Kyle’s mission and what Mulder’s quest had been for so long.
The final set piece of the episode is a real gem and showcase of what this episode is capable of. Kyle and Molly combine their powers and end up going all “Carrie” on everyone. It’s a powerful sequence that doesn’t hold back with its bluntness acting as a nice take on where the show has gone in 13 years. The touching story of two experiments trying to find one another feels like it’s certainly seen exploration within The X-Files before in various shapes and forms. In spite of the simplicity of what this story is actually about, it’s the emotion and ferocity behind it that really hammers it home. The ending when Kyle and Molly reunite is such an angry scene, almost as if it’s lashing out at the world around it. Once again, this sort of flawed reunion story has been done before on The X-Files, but simply due to the time that’s passed, any retread of a story is given a new degree of poignancy. Genetic mutations and human experimentation packs a greater impact now than 13 years ago because of how far we’ve fallen. The angry outburst that the episode punctuates itself on might as well be the episode wagging its finger at us.
“Founder’s Mutation” ends on a whirlwind that might bring up more questions than answers, but what you’re left with is the strong inertia that has been powering this hour. In spite of any misgivings I might have had with last night’s premiere, this is a very good episode of The X-Files. It has the right instincts. It uses the right attitude. And it presents a twisted, unsettling story that feels tailor-made for this universe. With the necessary baggage now being out of the way, hopefully the series can just focus on making us scared, making us surprised, and making us excited.