I’m continuing my reverse rankings of Fox Mulder in Season 1 of The X-Files and we’ve arrived at #22. Born Again is an absolute slog with dull side characters, poor direction, no warmth, and a paranormal plot that plagiarizes nearly all of Season 1. It’s not my least favorite episode of the season but its definitely my least watchable episode because it is completely devoid of passion. David Duchovny generally follows suit and delivers a mostly lifeless and joyless performance. Its hard to think of anything Mulder does here as being notable.
One way for an episode to tumble in my Mulder rankings is to botch the Mulder and Scully dynamic which Born Again seems to delight in. Mulder and Scully’s interactions are not enjoyable to watch. They seem perpetually angry and like they want nothing to do with each other, which just reinforces the laborious nature of the episode. There is no witty banter and very little chemistry. Instead, they are curt, exasperated, dismissive of one-another and all around unpleasant. Basically, Born Again feels like the neglected distant relative of Never Again, even down to the “Again” surname. Problem is that Born Again does it without any sort of understanding or complexity to the rift between Mulder and Scully.
And here’s the thing…I’m a huge sucker for angst and interpersonal drama. I love that stuff and will always pick a mopey episode over a funny episode because, dammit, I just love to feel like shit! But Born Again gets it all wrong because there seems to be no context for the friction between our duo. Scully is frustratingly resistant for the first half of Born Again (something that writers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa mishandled in Lazarus as well) and from Mulder’s point of view, you could maybe surmise that he’s grown weary of being second guessed all the time. But the problem is that Mulder is seemingly annoyed with her right from the start which doesn’t make sense in the context of the season. The last two episodes were Darkness Falls and Tooms, two episodes where Scully was very open-minded and in which their relationship evolved meaningfully. If anything Mulder should feel more comfortable launching into his theories because Scully has directly told Mulder that she trusts him implicitly.
Honestly, I suspect that their annoyance is just a symptom of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson (and the entire crew) being exhausted by this point in the season and running on fumes. Comparing the scenes where Mulder theorizes about psychokinesis in this episode with his similar theory in Shadows is like night and day. In Shadows, Mulder is excited and giddy. In Born Again, Mulder brings up psychokinesis in a condescendingly off-the-cuff and dismissive manner, almost like he’s bracing for Scully to reject him. And its not surprising that Scully gets defensive and stubborn at that point because that’s how people usually react to that kind of attitude.
What’s missing from Mulder is warmth and charisma. He delivers a whopping zero Mulderisms and exhibits none of his trademark wittiness. Space at least had the excuse for a lack of clever Mulder moments because Mulder and Scully stood around being bystanders all episode. But Born Again doesn’t have that excuse; he has plenty of scenes but he’s too busy being miserable! Just one or two light-hearted jokes would have helped thaw this episode out.
However, doing this re-watch and examining Mulder specifically, Born Again does manage to unexpectedly unearth some subtle character beats. These don’t completely explain away why he seems so grouchy and miserable and by no means makes this a good episode…but they do add a thin layer of enjoyment to the episode that keeps it from falling any lower in my Mulder rankings. I guess you could say that my feelings on Born Again have been “born again”. Get it? Get it?!
One of those character beats occurs during his scenes with Dr. Braun, Michelle’s therapist, whom Mulder does not seem to respect. But what’s interesting to me is how Mulder’s prickliness starts when they discuss regression hypnosis. She scoffs at the idea, essentially calling into doubt Mulder’s repressed memories of Samantha, but Mulder is used to people dismissing him and his theories. What really annoys him is that Dr. Braun states that she is all out of ideas for how to help Michelle Bishop and then dismisses regression hypnosis. To Mulder, its almost unconscionable that Dr. Braun would write off any alternative methods as a means to helping this little girl, just because of her own personal biases (especially since her solution is to just give Michelle Thorazine). Mulder doesn’t tolerate close-mindedness in situations like that and its a nice touch that he doesn’t beat around the bush after that exchange. He directly asks her if she’s experienced any paranormal phenomenon around Michelle and doesn’t bat an eye when she thinks he’s joking. Almost like he’s flaunting in her face what he thinks of her close-mindedness.
The other little bit of character is if I attribute Mulder’s attitude in Born Again to being a direct reaction to what occurred in Tooms. At the end of Tooms, Mulder feels that there is a change in store for them, based on Skinner and the Cigarette Smoking Man’s attempts to reel Scully away from Mulder. Mulder thinks they are out to get him and as we head into Born Again, he’s becoming a bit desperate to obtain hard evidence of paranormal phenomenon as a way to justify their work. And that sort of tracks with his bull-headed approach with the case here.
Now my interpretation doesn’t fully work because if they were so concerned with following up Tooms, then Mulder and Scully should be closer than ever to start this episode. I still think his attitude here is more a symptom of bad writing than any deep character motivations informing Duchovny’s performance (who according to Wikipedia, absolutely detested this episode). But my interpretation does make it more interesting. Take his reaction to the failed hypnosis scene. In Mulder’s eyes, this might have been a way to validate their work and save The X-Files and his sole focus is on pushing forward and getting the proof. Scully’s focus is on the trauma that Michelle Bishop is going through and Mulder lashes out at her in response. The only way Scully is able to get through to him at this point is by stating that proof alone will not get the job done, that they need something actionable for a grand jury (which harkens back to what Skinner implied to her in Tooms). And that’s the point in the episode where Mulder drops the self-righteousness and he and Scully stop butting heads. Its actually a brilliant small scene in an otherwise craptacular episode. And I do love that Mulder, who is usually very compassionate towards victims, sort of gets blinded towards what Michelle is going through in his zeal to find the truth. It feels very similar to him petulantly storming off in Conduit after Darlene Morris denies him from asking Ruby any questions about her abduction.
Another small thing that Born Again does that elevates Mulder over an episode like Lazarus on my list is it strikes a better balance between him and Scully as investigators. Don’t get me wrong; its still out of whack. Mulder is still coming up with a bit too many of the theories. Gordon and Gansa clumsily have Mulder investigate things separately from Scully so that there can be a “tadaaa” moment where he reveals something to Scully (such as the mutilation of the dolls matching Charlie Morris’ death). But after the hypnosis confrontation, Scully comes around and she and Mulder work well together in setting up the climax, with Scully deducing that Charlie Morris drowned in sea water and Mulder making the connection to the fish tank. That finishing flourish to their investigation is a nice jolt in an otherwise dreary episode.
But in the end, these positives don’t undo all the damage from Mulder being a curmudgeon and some awful direction. Take the climax for example. Mulder shows up in the living room as Michelle is about to lay waste to Tony Fiore. He boldly asserts that “this won’t make right what happened” and then proceeds to stand there listlessly with Scully for the rest of the scene. Like they don’t even try to move in to protect anyone which is–you know–their jobs. I get that knowing how to deal with a girl exerting her past-life-vengeance-based-telekinesis powers is probably not in the FBI field manual but Mulder and Scully act like the biggest third and fourth wheels in this scene.
Other notably terrible directorial scenes include when Michelle looks at Mulder out the window and Mulder does this bizarre slow head-turn which always makes me laugh. The scene plays out like Mulder is displaying this advanced preternatural investigative instinct, but the way Duchovny plays it makes it look like the most useless instinct ever. And then of course, we get the really bad voice-over at the end. While I think it connects nicely to Mulder’s frustration at the evidence eluding him again, it’s very poorly framed and Duchovny’s acting in the scene looks like they kept shooting after yelling “cut”. Weak direction from Jerrold Freedman does not enhance Mulder’s case here.
So #22 feels right for Born Again when looking at Mulder but I will admit, I was pleasantly surprised to find those small character moments in there. I still will never say to myself “hey I have a hankering to watch Born Again” but at the very least I can say that writing nearly 2000 words about Mulder in this episode wasn’t a complete waste of my time.
And now some useless Mulder tidbits.
1.) Number of sarcastic Mulder jokes: 0
Are you kidding? Mulder in Born Again is a human mope factory.
2.) Number of times Mulder becomes self-righteous or pretentious or delves into hyperbole: 3
Mulder may not be funny in this episode but at least there are isolated moments where our loveable scamp seems almost like himself. My favorite being when he declares that they are “one short step away from proving the pre-existence of the human soul.” Does Mulder have these lines memorized for specific paranormal cases? Like does he have a rolodex that when he flips to “reincarnation”, it has all of these hyperbolic options to use on Scully and this was one of them?
3.) Number of Mulder theories/leaps/or just good FBI work: 7
Similar to Lazarus, its a bit annoying how Mulder is making most of the connections throughout the episode. Origami detection, dolls mutilated in the classic Triad gangland style–those are under Mulder’s purview. Thankfully. the moment when he and Scully click and collaboratively solve what happened to Charlie Morris is pretty great.
4.) Number of times Mulder’s voice goes into that trademark sad “Duchovnyish-Whisper”: 0
That voice is too nuanced for Born Again.
5.) Number of times Mulder’s gun is drawn: 1
During the climax, he has it drawn and then proceeds to not use it because that would be against the FBI regulation of “stand there and do nothing”.
6.) Number of times Mulder is in danger: 1
I don’t know if that ending counts. He’s in the room when Michelle turns everything blue (wait what the hell? Why are the manifestations of Michelle’s powers so damn pretty??) and things get tossed around. But you never really feel like he or Scully are in danger. Though the window shutters almost close on his hand which would’ve probably hurt.
7.) Number of fiery Mulder interactions: 1
One great conversation does not a good Mulder make.
8.) Number of adorable Mulder/Scully moments: 0
Hahahahaha, these two hate each other in this episode!
9.) Number of times Mulder pisses someone off: 3
Mulder pisses Scully off throughout but that only counts as 1. He gets under Dr. Braun’s skin a couple of times.