MULDER: A growth?
SCULLY: A tumor. You're the only one I've called.
MULDER: …But it's treatable?
SCULLY: The truth is that the type and placement of the tumor makes it difficult—to the extreme.
MULDER: I refuse to believe that.
That's right—the guy who can believe in Bigfoot, black magic, and aliens point blank refuses to believe that Dana Scully won't beat cancer.
It's like the writers all sat down and decided that season four would focus on two things:
- Being as disgusting as possible.
- Crushing the fans' hearts and souls.
In the first camp, we have some of the bloodiest, most appalling monsters and crimes to ever appear on the show. And in the second, we have Scully's now-infamous cancer arc—which was the stuff of epic dinner table/lunchroom debates.
I can vividly remember comforting my friend Amanda, who was very invested in Scully and Mulder's relationship, as she recapped the previous night's episode to me through tears over our PB&J sandwiches. The X-Files was something that I largely had to experience vicariously when it originally aired, as it wasn't the sort of programming my parents deemed appropriate for a ten-year-old (rightly so, I'm sure; we were more of a Star Trek: The Next Generation household at the time).
But even then—before the horror bug had properly bitten me, before I had built up a tolerance for thrillers and could sit through a zombie flick with a plate of spaghetti—I was still intrigued.
Even then, I knew The X-Files was something that should be in my wheelhouse.
Mainly because it's a show about dichotomies: about the conflicts between good and evil, the sacred and the profane, the horrible and the beautiful, fervent belief versus solid science. It's this mixture of clashing opposites that makes it so compelling and layered, and Season 4 is a powerful turning point for both the leads and the series as a whole.
Here are the important episodes to check out—or avoid, as the case may be.
This was the one that almost broke the censors—it was the first episode to earn a TV-MA rating—and remains the only episode the network refused to re-air. Probably because it's just chock-full of unspeakable things: incest, dead babies, horrific mutations, and a black policeman being viciously bludgeoned to death. If you're at all squeamish, this episode is one to avoid at all costs.
(Though my boss at my day job does do a mean impression of the murderous clan's proud mama: “For the loooove! For the priiiiide!” *shudders*)
“THE FIELD WHERE I DIED” (4.05)
Reincarnation is a topic of much contention. It's a widely-held belief by certain religions as well as those frequently denounced by mainstream society as “crazy New Age hippies.” In true X-Files fashion, the subject is addressed when a member of a cult—a mentally-ill woman—claims that Mulder is her long-lost love…literally. Apparently, they were close in a past life. True or not, Mulder does feel a connection with her, and the race is on to save her from her dangerous cult-leader.
Whooooo boy, this one's another doozy—maybe not as repellent as “Home,” but gut-clenching nonetheless. Unless you want to have liposuction-based nightmares, steer clear of this one; a plastic surgeon uses murder and black magic rituals to prolong his life.
At one point, someone coughs up needles. It's that level of body horror.
“MUSINGS OF A CIGARETTE SMOKING MAN” (4.07)
I both love and hate this show for the way it humanizes everyone, even its villains. In case the title doesn't give it away, this episode shines a spotlight on everyone's least favorite nicotine-wreathed asshole, as his involvement in the JFK assassination and Roswell are revealed. I'll admit to feeling sympathy pangs for the shadowy weasel by the end credits, so a tip of the hat to the writers and William B. Davis’s performance is in order.
“TUNGUSKA” (4.08) / “TERMA” (4.09)
Yet another alien life-form is found, this time in a lump of rock, and the journey for answers leads Mulder to Russia and forces him to team up with the evil Krycek. This two-parter is quite honestly insane: our hero undergoes Soviet torture and narrowly escapes with both arms intact, while Nicholas Lea speaks Russian and wears some very tight jeans and t-shirts…
Oh yeah, the whole “trust no one” credo proves true once again, as further betrayal and government experimentation is revealed. At this point, I'll believe that the government only builds public playgrounds in order to install mind-control chips in preschoolers.
“PAPER HEARTS” (4.10)
You know, we haven't had the old Samantha-shaped knife dug into our sides in a while—oh, never mind! Mulder gets to relive the most painful night of his life again, when evidence arises suggesting a convicted serial killer may have added his sister to his tally of victims. If you're a fan of Mulder's self-flagellation over events beyond his control, this is the episode for you!
“LEONARD BETTS” (4.12)
I highly advise you to avoid eating anything before putting this one on: the titular character is literally a walking, talking tumor, and the way he regenerates his limbs—nay, entire body—is pretty damn disgusting. It is wild seeing Paul McCrane (Dr. Robert Romano of ER) play a very different sort of medical man, though.
“NEVER AGAIN” (4.13)
Jodie Foster is the voice of a killer tattoo named Betty. Yes, really.
“MEMENTO MORI” (4.14)
Mulder finds out about Scully's cancer, and the pair learns the women from the MUFON group are already dead. Mulder and the Lone Gunmen break into a fertility clinic in an effort to find a cure; Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) is willing to make a deal with the devil (aka the Cigarette Smoking Man) to save her; and Scully starts treatment while writing the most poetic journal ever—for Mulder.
For him to read after she's gone.
And Chris Carter had the gall to call them a purely platonic partnership??? When one half of your team is writing beautiful philosophy to comfort the other, and the other holds her while saying, “The truth will save you, Scully. I think it'll save us both,” you have a romance for the ages, dude.
The Jewish fable of the Golem may explain how a dead man could return to avenge himself following a vicious hate crime. The X-Files didn't always tread softly when it came to other cultures and religions, but this episode did a decent job of being respectful to the original mythos without falling into gross stereotypes. And extra kudos for openly addressing anti-Semitism, too.
“SMALL POTATOES” (4.20)
So, I'm mentioning “Small Potatoes” because everyone mentions “Small Potatoes,” and I understand why: it's a relatively funny episode, with the one exchange about Star Wars making it worth a watch. But, personally? I find this episode really disturbing. The shape-shifter at the heart of the story essentially rapes and impregnates a slew of women—the sex may have been consensual, but only because the ladies thought they were sleeping with their actual husbands. That's a whole new level of icky, and a whole new issue re: consent.
“ZERO SUM” (4.21)
Skinner's devil's deal with the Cigarette Smoking Man comes back to bite him when he's forced to clean up an unnatural bee-related death—and finds himself framed for murder. On the one hand, I seethe with anger over the whole situation; on the other, my heart grows three sizes bigger, Grinch-style, because Skinner has become the pseudo-dad of this dysfunctional family—willing to do anything to protect Sculls. It's really a beautiful thing.
Besides the whole, you know, disposing-of-bodies-and-covering-up-the-truth aspect.
I'm recommending this episode because the ghostly visuals and bowling alley setting are so atmospheric, and the idea of murder victims appearing as banshees to herald another death is a unique one.
There's something to be said about being able to marathon a show long after it's finished its initial run: if you had to wait six months after this terrible cliffhanger of a finale, I don't see how you could maintain your sanity.
All of the first run fans, I salute you.
The framework of the episode, starting at the (apparent) ending and flashing back to fill in the gaps, only heightens the frustration considering it opens with Mulder lying dead on the floor of his apartment.
Apparently he had rushed off to Canada, hot on the trail of yet another extraterrestrial body—will he ever learn?: the answer is a resounding “NO!”—only to discover that every UFO-related incident on the books has been a smokescreen for military testing. Unable to handle such total destruction to his framework of belief, he then allegedly shoots himself.
Of course, we all know better from our lofty vantage of hindsight. We know the show continued for another five seasons, and that Mulder got to run around screaming, “SCULLAAAY!” in many more warehouses and forests.
Still, “Gethsemane” remains one of the cruelest season finales ever, and we should all be thankful we have the DVDs and Netflix readily at hand.
And, since I'm sure you don't have to be up early for work tomorrow, why don't you just press play on the next episode…
Just one more episode…
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.