22 January 2018

The X-Files: Plus One (Spoiler Review)

It's Monday, and we continue with our series of reviews, where we talk about the latest season of The X-Files. This week, we're reviewing the third episode, titled "Plus One".

As always, there are SPOILERS!

"Plus One" is the third episode in the eleventh season of The X-Files. Written by Chris Carter, and directed by the show newcomer Kevin Hooks, the episode explores the duality of the human condition, and our self-destructiveness. Also, Mulder and Scully have sex.

In a little town in Virginia, people are being haunted by their doppelgängers, and shortly after that they kill themselves. The sole survivor of this mass phenomenon claims that it was his doppelgänger that tried to kill him. Mulder and Scully are called in to investigate.

What they find is a town that is paralyzed by fear, and a pair of fraternal twins who appear to have a mystical malevolent power over the people. Judy Poundstone is a mental patient, and her brother Chucky is a prison guard. Together they play a telepathic game of Hangman, using the names of the people they want gone. Both Judy and Chucky are played by actress Karin Konoval, better known as Mrs. Peacock in the season four episode "Home". 

The Poundstone twins appear to be at odds with each other, despite their psychic connection. In a twist that is a little too convenient for the plot, Judy develops a crush on Mulder, making her hostile towards Scully, while Chucky takes a liking to Scully making him, in turn hostile towards Mulder. 

As bodies keep dropping, and Mulder is trying to figure out just how the twins are responsible for these deaths, Scully seems to have figured out how people can protect themselves from their doppelgängers. The doppelgängers only attack when their victims give into their fears and start panicking. Thus, the way to survive your doppelgänger is to not let your fears take over and stay calm. 

Scully's own theory is then put to test, when Judy gets under her skin by telling her that she's too old to have children and is therefore worthless. That same night, Scully sees her doppelgänger for the first time. When Judy's words, and the paranoid atmosphere of the town finally get to Scully, she reaches out to Mulder, asking him to hold her, and crawls into his bed. They have a conversation that gets to the heart of the episode, and later that night, they sleep together.

Afterwards, Mulder sees his own doppelgänger, and realizes that the twins are now targeting him and Scully. Scully goes to the hospital to confront Judy, and Mulder heads over to Chucky's house, to arrest the psychic serial killer. Both Mulder and Scully are pursued by their doppelgängers. 

In a climax that is intense as it is confusing, we realize that Chucky is trying to kill Mulder because of his crush on Scully, while Judy, lusting for Mulder, is targeting his partner. The conflict escalates, and the twins turn against each other. Just when Mulder engages in a deadly fight with his double, the twins die at their hands of their own doppelgängers. Meanwhile, Scully has used her own approach, and rationalized her evil double out of existence.

In the final scene of the episode, Mulder suggests that he and Scully spend their last night at the motel together. Dismissive at first, Scully then opens Mulder's door only to find him already waiting for her. 

The episode uses the concept of doppelgängers as a metaphor for our fears, and self-destructiveness.  The "doppelgänger" as a mythical figure appears persistently in many ancient mythologies and folklore throughout the world. In a lot of cultures, the doppelgänger (German for "double walker") is a harbinger of bad luck, a bad omen, or an evil twin. In popular culture, my favourite use of this trope is perhaps "Doppelgängland", an episode in the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where Willow meets her doppelgänger who is a literal vampire from a dystopian alternate reality.

In "Plus One", Carter does something different. The doppelgängers here are not real characters, rather they're apparitions of their victims, brought into existence by the Poundstone twins’ deadly game. They never talk, and for the most part they just watch their living counterparts from a distance. They have no agency of their own. It's the victims themselves who give them agency by giving into their fears, and letting panic take over. As Scully put it, "It can't haunt you if you don't let it!". These doppelgängers are not our evil twins, but our mirror images. But they only reflect the worst parts of ourselves; the parts that we don't want to see in ourselves.

The people who were singled out by the twins were the perfect victims. They were antisocial deviants, who lived alone, and presumably had a lot of issues with their self-image, which made it easier for their evil mirror images to destroy them. As one commenter on YouTube pointed out: "When your defences are low, and something gets under your skin, it lets the darkness invade you to the point of self-destruction".

I know that some fans took offence with Scully being so easily triggered by Judy, when Judy tried to age shame her, but I find this moment realistic, and most importantly human. First of all, Judy has feelings for Mulder and sees Scully as a threat. Age shaming a woman you see as a romantic rival is the easiest and cheapest trick in the book.

"No, Ma'am, I haven't seen your inbred sons!" 

Also, Judy is a manipulative person. She and her brother have put an entire town in a state of fear, and there is little doubt as to who is the smarter one of the two siblings. Judy is smart, and intuitive, something that the people around her can't really see because all they see is a mental patient. That's why she's able to find Scully's buttons, and push them.

The fact that Scully later admits to her own insecurities says a lot about her character. Scully is by far the strongest person on the entire show, but she's still human (with or without the alien DNA). Being strong isn't the same as being invincible, and throughout the years we've got to see Scully's vulnerable side. She has weaknesses, and sore spots as any of us do. It's the acknowledgement of our fears and insecurities, and our ability to cope with them, and even rise above them is what makes us strong.

That moment when Scully goes to Mulder's bed seeking his comfort can at first be seen as a moment of weakness, but it's actually the exact opposite. The fact that she isn't afraid to let her vulnerability show, and actively seeks help is a testament to her strength, and self-assuredness.

The ensuing conversation works on multiple levels. Firstly, it’s Scully admitting to her insecurities and seeking reassurance in the one person that she can trust. Secondly, it's a quiet and intimate scene with two former lovers and life partners who are looking back on their lives and trying to figure out their future.

For most of their time together, "the future" for Mulder and Scully meant something to fight (a very bad pun intended). They're older now, and finally they start asking questions about the future in more traditional existential terms. After all, retirement is not that far away. If they no longer have the X-files, what do they have? Where do they stand on the relationship scale? Is there a future for the two of them?

So why did they sleep together? There may be as many interpretations as there are people who watch the show. What I see is two people who seek comfort in each other's arms. Scully feeling low, drops her guarded facade, and Mulder... well, not to oversimplify Mulder's character but my guess is that he's always willing to go there with Scully, broken up or not. It's anybody's guess what their two nights together meant for the characters, but I don't think it's a sure sign that they will be getting back together for good. After all, their whole conversation prior to the sex is about the two of them trying to figure out their future. I don't think that two nights in a motel room during an ongoing murder investigation will spur them to make any permanent decisions about their relationship.  

Carter seems to agree with me: "I wouldn't call them romantic now. In ("Plus One") there was a moment, a night, possibly a second night. Does that make them romantic or does that make them human? I think it just makes them human."

"Plus One" is the most character-driven episode in this season so far. It's also a Scully-centric episode, and Carter uses a case that is seemingly unrelated to Scully to further explore her character. 

In a way, this is a sister episode to "Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster". In that season ten gem, Mulder is having a crisis of faith. Coming back to the X-files, now a middle-aged man he wonders if his work - and by extension his life has had any meaning. In "Plus One", it is Scully who is having an identity crisis. Hers is more tied-in to her womanhood, and motherhood, but just like Mulder before her, she is forced to look back on her life choices and reconcile not only with her past but with her fears for the future.

It's also interesting to see how Scully's relationship to the paranormal has changed over the years. Still a woman of science, Scully doesn't flat out deny that the Poundstone twins have psychic abilities, but she applies reason to solve the case. If the doppelgängers feed on the victims' fears and anger, the only way to escape a certain death is not to give in to your fears. As Scully herself demonstrates when she meets her own doppelgänger in the backseat of her car, and she basically rationalizes the evil apparition out of her existence, thus saving her own life. 

Scully's way of defeating her doppelgänger is entirely different from Mulder's, highlighting their different ways of approaching a case. Where Scully applies reason first, and takes to unconventional methods when necessary, Mulder plunges head-first into a confrontation. Just like he does with his doppelgänger. If the Poundstone twins hadn't killed each other when they did, I wonder which Mulder would end up winning the fight: the real one, or his dark reflection.

Okay, so why did the twins fall for their own game? Why were they so afraid of their own doppelgängers? Despite their superpowers, they were no different from their victims. Bitter and antisocial, they had nobody but each other, and they pretty much hated one another. When left alone and vulnerable, and finally confronted with their dark reflections, they couldn't deal.

It's a stretch but you can draw parallels between the Poundstone twins, and the agents. Mulder and Scully aren't exactly the most social people either. All they have left now is each other. But where the twins use their powers to destroy other people, and in the end, destroy each other, Mulder and Scully use their “FBI powers” to save lives, and to save one another.

I watched this episode twice, and it was much better the second time. With "Plus One" I can finally forgive Carter for the abomination that was "Babylon". "Plus One" may not be perfect, but it's an X-File done right. The mystery is exciting enough to keep us interested in the plot, until we get to the heart of story; and in the heart of any good X-File, there's always complex characters dealing with problems that are grounded in reality. Mulder and Scully started their journey in 1993, and now in what might be their final season, Carter gives them an opportunity to look back on their lives, and perhaps even make peace with some of their choices. 

Hooks' directing also deserves credit. In an interview with Den of Geek, Hooks said that he watched some of the old episodes of The X-Files for inspiration. 

"That gave me a real sense of what the essence of the show was. And that was very, very helpful to me in sort of my research. "

Hooks creates this unsettling atmosphere, and some of the scenes are genuinely spooky. Just one shot of Scully's doppelgänger standing silently in the shadows as Scully and Mulder are about to engage in carnal pleasures is enough to send chills down my spine. “Plus One” also taps into the topics of mass hysteria, and paranoia much like “The War of the Coprophages” from season three. Both these episodes have something to say about mob mentality, but that’s a conversation for another time.  

Mulder and Scully: Masters of Spooning since the year 2000

Links and sources

The X-Files: 5 Questions About "Plus One" - Den of Geek

Why The X-Files Doesn't Play Up Mulder and Scully's Romance - Cinema Blend

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