The X-Files S1, E4: “Conduit”

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I’ve been delving into the popular sci-fi series The X-Files for a while now, making many attempts and failures to engage with its first season. Now it’s summer, and I’ve been weaving in and out through the series various episodes, trying to piece the gigantic enterprise together. It may seem strange for me to go back and recap an over two decades old television show, in some ways that type of thing is what the blog was built for. Join me this week as I uncover Poltergeist references, UFO hot spots, and the NSA… (Also: apology in advance for the photos. I had been taking screen grabs from Amazon but Amazon took X-Files away and Hulu and Netflix won’t let me take screen grabs. I’m really upset about this!)

...and so is a kid who can write in binary!

…and so is a kid who can write in binary!

I’m not sure if this week’s episode is a monster of the week or a mythology episode. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the overarching alien conspiracy plot directly, but it is so tied up in the abduction/disappearance of Samantha Mulder that maybe it does….? In a lot of ways, “Conduit” feels like a replay of the pilot; it’s another example of “alien” abduction that causes some soul searching in our hero.

For the cold open we get a standard depiction of an alien abduction, bright lights, roof burned off a trailer, kid screaming that his sister is gone. This catches the attention of Mulder, via a tabloid article, leading to Scully and the FBI’s obligatory questioning of the legitimately of his case. He wins Scully over by noting that the mother, Darlene Morris (Carrie Snodgress) observed a UFO as a child and that the campsite the girl was taken from is a hot spot for UFOs in general. So they head out to Sioux City, Iowa to investigate the mystery. The mother is all too happy to have them, and is relieved that someone will finally take her claims of extra-terrestrial goings-on seriously.

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Mulder also talks to the boy, Kevin (Joel Palmer), has a more significant connection to his sister’s disappearance besides just being there when it happened. He is the “conduit” of the episode’s title, transcribing the fuzzy television signal in his living room into binary, as kids in sci-fi/horror do. Poor Kevin is stuck in a Poltergeist reference (“they’re hereee!!!”), but his transcriptions seem mostly innocuous. It’s the type of stuff we send into space in a capsule to let aliens know we’re here, pieces of Bach’s Brandenberg concerto, the Vitruvian Man, stuff like that. Also defense satellite transmissions, which the NSA frowns upon in a big way.

If this episode has an upside, then it’s showing how this whole alien abduction thing, as well as Mulder and Scully’s pursuit of it, gets in the way of this family. First of all, their mother has never been taken seriously ever since she was a girl, though she seems mostly okay with it. Second of all, the daughter is kidnapped. Third of all, the NSA rains down on them because Kevin got a hold of a transmission somehow. Obviously, he doesn’t know what it means and isn’t planning to do anything nefarious with it. We get a devastating shot when Mulder and Scully show up to the house to see Darlene and Kevin pushed into separate cars by the NSA. Inside, the NSA are trashing the place, and Mulder puts one of Kevin’s toys or something pack on the table. It’s a sweet moment that shows Mulder actually trying to help people as opposed to going after The Truth without thinking of the humans who are affected by it. In the end, this NSA experience prevents Darlene (and the eventually returned Ruby) from making their story known. Mulder might suck sometimes (we haven’t really gotten to that yet, but trust me on this one) but at least he’s not the biggest enemy here.

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The other positive aspect of this episode is that we get to learn a bit more about Mulder’s commitment to finding his sister. When I reviewed the pilot I got so caught up in talking about the skeptic/believer dynamic that I skipped over Mulder’s backstory, which is presented really well in the pilot. I promised I would talk about it later, and now it is later. As this episode starts, everyone, mostly Scully, is very concerned that Mulder only wants to pursue this case because it brings him back to his sister’s abduction. When Mulder was 12, his sister was supposedly kidnapped by aliens from their house. Mulder was there, but it was only after undergoing hypnosis many years later he was able to remember the flash of light and his sister floating away towards it. In the pilot, Mulder gets super intense about it when talking to Scully, saying stuff like he doesn’t care about anything besides finding Samantha and that “nothing else matters to [him].” Right from the very first episode, you can see how Mulder at certain points cares more about this thing from his past than any future he might have, and it’s really very sad.

This episode goes back into that, but instead of crazy obsessed Mulder, by the episode’s end, we have sad and lonely Mulder. Scully and Mulder head back to DC after really failing to do anything with the case (Ruby is back, but they didn’t super do a lot to bring that about), Scully listens to the tape of Mulder’s hypnosis. This serves as voice over, as Mulder relays what happened while Scully concernedly looks at Samantha’s file and Mulder sits in a church (but isn’t religion Scully’s thing? Guess the show hadn’t figured that out yet) crying over Samantha’s photo. It sounds cheesy when I write it out like this, but the quality of the voice over and how it matches up with the visuals really packs an emotional punch that you don’t expect based on the rest of the episode that came before. It really is tragic, and makes Mulder feel like a real person who misses his sister, or at least some innocence he had in childhood, rather than simply a Truth-seeker for the sake of it.

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I singled out a bunch of good things in this episode, but honestly outside of those isolated moments and insights into Mulder’s character, I really wasn’t feeling it. It’s not like a bad episode, it’s just not a memorable one and definitely pales to last week’s “Squeeze.” It’s a very middle of the road episode of The X-Files, and outside of those character beats it really doesn’t tell us much. It also doesn’t give Scully a ton to do, though she does end up being the one that tells the NSA where Kevin is, which is interesting and sort of throws her in with the bad guys for a few minutes. Outside of that reaction shot she shares with Mulder when Darlene and Kevin are taken away they don’t really do much with this. Come to think of it, it’s surprising how little they play off the idea Scully was sent to spy on Mulder in the early running. I guess it was just obvious to everyone that Scully wouldn’t really betray Mulder in a significant way, but still, that could have been pretty interesting (am I forgetting something……?). Anyway, this episode is a perfectly decent way to spend an hour, but it definitely doesn’t go down in history as a classic episode, that’s for sure.

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“I want to believe.”

Long story short: 3/4 stars

Click here to read my review of next week’s episode: “The Jersey Devil”

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