Re-Opening The X-Files: Duane Barry, Ascension


Krycek: If Mulder’s such a threat why not eliminate him?
CSM: That’s not policy.
Krycek: It’s not? After what you had me do?
CSM: Kill Mulder and you risk turning one man’s religion into a crusade.
Krycek: What about Scully?
CSM: We’ve taken care of that.
Krycek: How?
CSM: We tell you only what you need to know.
Krycek: I think I have a right to know.
CSM: You have no rights. Only orders to be carried out. You have a problem with that, we’ll make other arrangements.

Duane Barry/Ascension

When I was a regular comic book reader back in the mid-80’s, Spider-Man was dating the Black Cat with the two teaming up to fight crime.   I recall an issue where a villain analyzed the two heroes in battle and concluded that the Black Cat was the stronger of the two.   As a Spider-Man fan, I was, of course, annoyed by this.  But over the years, I’ve come back to it and reflected on it more and more.

In many ways, I feel like something similar has happened with the conspiracy at large and Scully.  Originally assigned to The X-Files to debunk the work being down by Mulder, Scully has slowly become his most staunch supporter and the only person that Mulder trusts.   Mulder even says as much in “Little Green Men” arguing that while he doesn’t have his work on the X-Files, he still has Scully.  And while the conspiracy and the people behind it are working to break Mulder in this run of episodes, shaking his faith because he can’t come up with any hard and fast evidence (despite his best efforts), he’s still got Scully to keep him going, to challenge him and to make him a better agent.  And given that Mulder is a public face for the crusade he’s on, it’s fairly obvious that the conspiracy can’t touch him or eliminate him.  But they can take away all of his support.   And that’s what we’ve seen over the course of these seven to ten episodes, starting with “Tooms.”

Mulder slowly loses everything.  He loses his position, he loses his advocate in Senator Matheson, he loses his source and father figure in Deep Throat, he begins to lose his faith and his edge.  But the most devastating loss is the one that comes from this two-parter (the first in the series’ run) when Mulder loses Scully.   It could be argued that this loss is just as pivotal and devastating to Mulder as losing his sister.

But just as Mulder has lost it all, he gets something back.  Skinner, who to this point has been played as a road block to Mulder’s work, though I’d argue in retrospect he’s trying to protect Mulder and Scully, gives Mulder back the thing that the conspiracy fears most — the X-Files.   I get the feeling that Skinner is finally realizing he’s being manipulated by the same forces working against Mulder and he’s doing what he can to fight back.  Skinner’s allegiances and loyalties will be an interesting question as we continue to move forward and one of the most intriguing storylines in the later season when I’d argue that Skinner has a crush on Scully.

But that’s a long time off yet.

What we have here in the X-Files’ first two-part story is a fantastic first part and a second part that is left to pick up the pieces and try to put them back together.   Written and directed by Chris Carter, “Duane Barry” is one hell of an episode, highlighted by some superb guest performances from Steve Railsback and CC Pounder as well as stellar work from, as usual from David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson.  It was “Duane Barry” that first got the show some Emmy love — it got a best series nod, a best guest actress nod for Pounder and some other nods for Carter’s writing and directing.   It was because of this that I decided to give the show a chance after its second season.  And while I didn’t see these two installments until they were commercially released on VHS, they still loomed large in the overall mythology of the show as we moved forward.

Railsback as Duane Barry is superb.   I am not certain why he didn’t get an Emmy nod that year, but it would have been a deserved.  Barry goes from raving lunatic to sympathetic figure (he only wants to stop being taken and tortured by the aliens) to in between, his performance turning on a dime.   Carter’s script gives him a lot to do and it’s interesting to hear that Barry was once a decorate agent who experienced a freak accident that turned him into this man who may or may not be telling the truth about his alien abduction.

The scenes of Mulder and Barry in the travel agency are so taut and full of dramatic tension.  It’s a breathless movement from Mulder talking to Barry on the phone to going in and trading himself.  Watching as Mulder desperately wants to believe that Barry is what he says he is and feeding into his paranoia is expertly done.  Both by Railsback and Duchovny.   We’ve watched Duchovny get more and more of the dramatic load to carry as we get toward Anderson’s maternity leave and he’s really run with it.   And while the show isn’t quite the same without the dynamic between these two actors, Duchonvy shows that he can do some heavy lifting acting wise.

And then, there’s the cliffhanger.  Now when I first saw these, they were split on the VHS releases and I had to wait a day to get back to the story.  I can’t imagine waiting a week between installments.   Carter makes such a great choice of having us hear Scully’s calls for helps after we see Duane at her window.   It lets us fill in the gaps with our imagination far more effectively than showing it on-screen ever could.  And the glimpses we do see of Scully’s abduction in “Ascension” are just enough to make our imaginations work even more overtime.

The big issue facing “Ascension” is that it comes right after a high point in the series.  No follow-up could live up to the expectations placed on it.  That’s not to say “Ascension” is a bad episode.  It just feels like a bit of step down after “Duane Barry.”  Part of that is that “Duane Barry” has such a focus to it, only expanding to the greater conspiracy and universe in the last act.   “Ascension” has the heavy lifting of getting Scully taken the by the aliens, taking away the last of Mulder’s support pieces, revealing Kyrchek as a traitor and bringing Duane Barry into custody.  That’s a lot to pack into an hour and the script does it fairly well.

The show even manages to make the scenes of riding up a mountain in a cable car suspenseful.

Honestly, I feel like the first half with the race against time to try and rescue Scully from Duane Barry work better than the second.  Yes, we get a lot of revelations in the second half, but it feels like we’ve reached such a dramatic high point with the scenes of Scully being worked on by whomever has taken here that it’s all downhill from there.

I can only imagine what being a fan of the show was like during this run of episodes.   I get excited to see them now, twenty years later when I can easily binge one episode after the other and see the story unfold in a manner of hours or days instead of weeks.

This is the show hitting a creative stride that it won’t necessarily see again.  And it’s absolutely fantastic.

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Filed under Re-Opening the X-Files, review, The X-Files, TV review

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