In Honor of "X-Files" Day: A Discussion of Narrative Complexity in THE X-FILES

The X-Files is a beautifully crafted show that successfully blends “monster of the week” independent episodes with an immensely complex overarching narrative, involving the pasts and personal lives of Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. While other shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Law and Order: SVU have narrative structures that involve a similar mixture of episodic and long-term plot, The X-Files is exceptional in the complexity of its overarching narrative and the process through which information about that narrative is concealed from and revealed to the viewers, and to Mulder and Scully themselves. The show creates a vast web of unanswered questions and possibilities over the course of the series, alienating some viewers and enticing others with a convoluted narrative that forces constant reevaluation of information.  

There are also instances of multi-episodic plots that involve the overarching narrative while creating shorter arcs that are opened and resolved in the course of two or three episodes. This is perfectly illustrated by “Colony” and “End Games,” episodes sixteen and seventeen, respectively, of the second season. By this point in the show, it has been established that Agent Mulder’s interest in the X-Files project is deeply seated in the mystery surrounding his sister’s abduction when he was twelve. He suspects, but cannot prove, that aliens abducted his sister and have been keeping her for experimentation; Mulder’s constant search for the truth leads him and Scully deep into a world of conspiracies and secrets, and on multiple occasions results in their being abducted themselves and experimented on by seemingly alien life forms.

 “Colony” opens with a voice-over of Mulder and a dark screen; Mulder describes his past and reasons for joining the X-Files in detail, laying out not only his motivations, but also the very building blocks of the overarching narrative:

“I have lived with a fragile faith built on the ether of vague memories from an experience that I can neither prove nor explain. When I was twelve, my sister was taken from me, taken from our home by a force that I came to believe was extraterrestrial. (A light shines down from the mist.) This belief sustained me, fueling a quest for truths that were as elusive as the memory itself. To believe as passionately as I did was not without sacrifice, but I always accepted the risks... to my career, my reputation, my relationships... to life itself…”


As he speaks, a spotlight comes into frame, followed by the sounds of a helicopter, then the chopper itself, and a scene of frantic sirens and activity opens. Someone is being medevaced on a stretcher, rushed into an operating room. As the doctors describe the patient’s dire condition, a shot reveals the man is Mulder. Almost immediately, Scully rushes into the scene, attempting to force her way into the room; she is held back by guards, but continues to force her way in, saying, “there is no time, a man is dying.” The scene then cuts back to Mulder with a clearer shot on his frozen and bruised face, zooming out as his voice-over cuts back in:  

            “What happened to me out on the ice justified all of my beliefs...that there is intelligent life in the universe other than our own, that they are here among us, and that they have begun to colonize us.”


These two speeches are among the most significant of the entire series; Mulder not only details his past and his motivations, but also sets up the rest of the episode: the audience now knows deeply important information is going to be revealed about the presence of alien life on Earth, precisely what Mulder has been seeking to discover since the show’s start. The title sequence is then followed by an establishing shot of an arctic research vessel with the subtitle “two weeks earlier” at the bottom. This opening creates expectations and suspense in the viewer by utilizing what Mittell calls an “operational aesthetic”— now the viewer is engaged not only in what action unfolds in the episode, but also how it is presented, specifically, how it will lead to the episode’s opening scene: Scully trying, seemingly in vain, to save her dying partner by keeping him cold.

The first five minutes of the episode proper continue to set up the action in a remarkably concise manner. A doctor in a women’s care facility sees the news of the recovery of a man presumed to be a pilot, and leaves the room with a terrified expression on his face. He runs straight into the “pilot”, who appears out of nowhere and kills the doctor with a stab to the base of the neck. This is followed by a shot of the stab wound, which oozes fizzing green goo, indicating that the man is not a normal human. There is then a cut to Mulder and Scully’s office, where they are receiving information involving a set of identical men, all of whom were murdered, worked as doctors in abortion clinics, and are named Gregor.

 As Mulder and Scully attempt to figure out who these men are, another FBI agent, Weiss, goes to the house of another doctor, identical to those found murdered, who they suspect will be the next victim. When he gets there, the killer is already inside, and as Weiss enters the house, there is a shot, from Weiss’s POV, of a puddle of the sizzling goo where the doctor’s dead body should be. There is a cut to Weiss’s reaction; he shoots the killer but instead of killing him, the bullets make three holes that spout green goo. Weiss is shown grabbing his head in pain, and then there’s a cut to Mulder and Scully pulling up to the house. Weiss comes around from the side and tells them there’s no one inside, that it’s too late. He then goes to the trunk of his car where the real Agent Weiss lies dead—the man posing as Weiss is actually the killer, who the viewer now realizes can shape shift.

This introduction creates a situation that imbues the rest of the episode, and its continuation “End Games,” with a thrilling suspense: the killer, who it’s revealed is an alien bounty hunter come to kill all the “clones,” can change his form at will, meaning no character can be trusted because anyone could be the killer in disguise. Additionally, in the middle of this action, more crucial information is revealed. Mulder is called home for an urgent matter and finds his sister has come home. She tells him that she’s in danger, and that her adoptive father was one of the identical doctors, who she also reveals are aliens, as the viewer already knows.

While Mulder is learning all of this, the looming threat comes to a head as Scully reveals where she’ll be staying while on a call with Mulder, unaware the bounty hunter is only feet away from her, listening. This again impregnates the moment with suspense; the viewer knows Scully is being followed by a figure who can disguise himself from her. This acts as a primer for when Scully lets “Mulder” into her hotel room, only to answer the phone and find Mulder on the other end. Now, both the viewer and Scully know that the man in her room is the bounty hunter, and the episode cuts off on this intense cliffhanger.

“End Games” then opens with a scene in the submarine sent out to find the vessel that crashed in the arctic. By deferring our return to the scene of Scully and the bounty hunter, the show  prolongs and heightens the suspense generated at  the end scene of “Colony.” As the episode progresses, Mulder negotiates a trade of his sister for Scully, who has been taken by the bounty hunter, and believes his sister dies as a result. However, when her dead body is brought out of the freezing water and begins to thaw, it corrodes into green goo the exact way the alien doctor did.

This cues the viewer to know she was never actually Mulder’s sister, but another alien; Mulder himself then discovers this information when he goes to an address she had left him and he finds multiple alien clones of his “sister.” They inform him they knew he could be manipulated and needed his help, but that they do have information about his sister, thus inducing him to think the bounty hunter knows where his sister is as well. The bounty hunter arrives and knocks Mulder out; the scene clearly implies he then finds and kills the women clones.

An ellipse follows, and Scully learns from the autopsy of Weiss that the alien goo contains a retrovirus unknown in humans that dies at cold temperatures, explaining why the body of Mulder’s “sister” corroded after it was pulled from the river. This also causes the viewer to flash back to the beginning of “Colony” when Scully tells the doctors to stop heating up Mulder’s body. It is now clear Mulder is going to be infected by the virus, creating suspense as Carroll defines it: knowing Mulder is going to be infected and at serious risk of death, but not knowing how or what will lead up to that event; the suspense is intensified by the knowledge that he will be in critical condition by the time Scully finds him.

A meeting between Mulder and Deep Throat, a mysterious man who shows up only in episodes related to the overarching plot, follows Scully’s discovery in the lab. Deep Throat tells Mulder the only surviving alien is the bounty hunter, and that his ship was located by a submarine off the coast of Alaska—as shown in the opening scene of the episode. He also warns Mulder that “this is a battle you can’t win,” adding to the suspense by decreasing the likelihood that Mulder will achieve his goals, and hinting at what will lead Mulder to his frozen, near-death condition. As the episode continues, there is a series of confrontations between Scully, Deep Throat, and Mulder and Scully’s superior, Agent Skinner, about where Mulder went and why. There is then a cut to Mulder finding the vessel in the arctic; he is attacked by the bounty hunter, who then takes off in his ship, leaving Mulder on the ice to die.

There is then a cut to the first scene of “Colony,” but now the story time has caught up to the flash forward that opened the episode. The viewer knows what Scully knows: the cold is the only thing keeping Mulder alive. The tension caused by this knowledge and the doctors’ refusal to listen to Scully reinforces the suspense felt throughout the episode. The doctors eventually give into her demands, and the episode concludes with Mulder convalescing in a hospital bed with Scully by his side. When she asks if he found what he was looking for out on the ice he responds, “I found something I thought I’d lost: faith to keep looking.”

This ending ties up the two-episode arc in that the bounty hunter is clearly gone, but the storyline isn’t finished completely because of Mulder’s implication he’s going to keep looking for his sister whom he now thinks is still alive. This keeps the sister-search storyline open, while deferring resolution, yet again, allowing other storylines to be pursued in what, from the perspective of the arc, is an indefinitely extended interval. The viewer doesn’t know when Mulder’s search for his sister will be brought back into the show again, but it’s certain that eventually it will be. These episodes of The X-Files embody the unique narrative complexity of the show in a succinct and enthralling manner; acting as a short installment of the overarching narrative, while also creating plot arc within that narrative that is resolved with the end of “End Games”.