I’m continuing my reverse rankings of Fox Mulder in Season 1 of The X-Files and we’ve arrived at #21. Shapes gets a bad rap from The X-Files fandom which I don’t think is entirely deserved. It’s a very moody and atmospheric episode which is one way of entertaining me through umpteen re-watches. However, where it falls apart is how it turns the incompetence meter for Mulder (and Scully to a lesser degree) up to a level rarely attained. Basically, Shapes’ central twist relies on Mulder completely failing as an investigator.
Shapes is an old-fashioned werewolf tale with a Native American twist. Mulder arrives on the case fully armed with knowledge and casefiles on this creature called the Manitou and a can-do attitude. This case should be right up his wheelhouse! So when Mulder never even begins to suspect Lyle Parker as the Manitou despite all signs pointing desperately at him, it screams bad writing. Mulder should have been on top of that RIGHT away! This is the same man who has casual knowledge on psychic photography, cattle mutilations via exsanguination, astral projection and has made a career of pulling theories and leaps out of his ass. But dear lord, he can’t connect the dots between Lyle’s wounds he received from the Manitou, Ish’s tale about how a Manitou goes through hideous transformations, and Lyle being found naked near where his father was murdered?! Has Mulder not watched a single piece of werewolf related pop-culture?
What’s frustrating is how blatantly out of character the script has to make Mulder for him to not make this connection. Mulder is always inquisitive and curious and quick with the right questions. Even here, Mulder still gives off the vibe of a functioning investigator. He’s the one finding the evidence of shed skin, tufts of fur, sharp canines, and he’s the one pushing Sheriff Tskany and Ish to corroborate his suspicions. He’s basically behaving like Mulder always does. But then the episode hinges completely on that final “twist” to have Scully unknowingly be in danger from Lyle. And the only way the script can figure out a way to make that “twist” “work” is to have Mulder just go eerily silent.
Seriously, just look at this exchange between Mulder and Scully as she walks a naked, disoriented, disheveled, and clearly Manitouish Lyle towards the car:
Scully: Mulder, I’m taking Lyle to the hospital.
Scully: He’s suffering from exposure.
Scully: When he’s been checked out, I’m going to question him.
Mulder: ….. (he actually nods here so he is in fact not dead)
That is just awful writing because if Mulder had opened his mouth just once, the case would have been solved. He would have asked something pertinent. Like “what happened to Lyle?” Or “hey, why is Lyle naked?” Or “isn’t that strange…why didn’t the creature kill Lyle too.” Or maybe “hmmm, this sure seems to match every werewolf cliche in history.” So the only way to keep the twist intact is for Mulder to be completely out of character and not utter a word.
Speaking of not talking, Mulder and Scully’s interactions in Shapes are pretty threadbare. It essentially amounts to a quick scene of Scully questioning Mulder why he is interested in a reservation homicide and a longer scene in the car where he infodumps everything about the case with her. Its not bad; Mulder pulls the classic dick move of dragging Scully across the country with no real explanation despite having a fully formed idea of what exactly happened. And there is one moment when Scully begins to ask the locals what happened to Joe Goodensnake and Mulder blatantly cuts her off with a more werewolf-related question. It’s one of those casually disrespectful things Mulder does when he gets very self-righteous about their work and inadvertently undermines Scully in the process. Not an admirable character trait but still a fun look at their investigative dynamic.
But that’s pretty much it…no great back and forth and no real substance to their relationship. In such a slow episode, some added Mulder and Scully banter may have added a much needed jolt.
Despite the lack of quality Mulder/Scully time, Mulder himself is granted a decent (if under-baked) character arc in Shapes which is one reason I have this above episodes like Born Again and Lazarus. He has an interesting dynamic with Sheriff Charlie Tskany throughout the episode. Tskany bristles at Mulder’s questions about Trego Indian folklore, thinking Mulder just wants to gawk at his culture. Mulder obviously wasn’t intending to be insensitive and realizes fairly quickly that Tskany is caught between his beliefs and his integrity as an officer. So Mulder takes a different approach and attempts to develop a camaraderie with Tskany. Tskany for his part realizes that Mulder’s intentions are aligned with his own and begins to trust him. And with that Tskany becomes an ally for the rest of the episode (even eliciting a rare post-case handshake from Mulder which seemed odd because if Tskany had been up front from the start, maybe they could have saved Jim Parker’s life).
Now this is by no means world-class character work; its all done very simplistically with Mulder’s “camaraderie” being half-hearted praise of Tskany’s ability to write a competent report. And it never really feels like Tskany ends up helping Mulder due to anything Mulder actually does. And holy shit, I can’t stand how Mulder calls Tskany “Charlie”. It’s something he never does with any other law-enforcement officer he works with and it comes off as disrespectful and pompous rather than congenial. But overall, his banter with Tskany are bright spots in an otherwise dull episode. This episode feels very by-the-numbers in so many ways so having Mulder have to work a bit to get Tskany’s loyalty makes Shapes more notable.
Mulder also develops a kind of kinship with Ish, the only local Trego who’s willing to actually engage with Mulder and Scully. Again, this feels kind of haphazardly implemented; Mulder drops one “I want to believe” and a deodorant joke and suddenly Ish is inviting him over for storytime and telling Tskany how much he prefers Mulder to him. Its not very well developed. Still I loved when Mulder shows some vulnerability and makes a crack about not being called “Spooky Fox”. Mulder usually reacts to people using his nickname or mocking him by either ignoring them or relishing the act of proving them wrong (see Squeeze). It never really feels like he lets the nickname get to him. But in the scene with Ish, Mulder is the one who brings it up in a self-deprecating manner. It’s almost like he’s truly appreciative of Ish for respecting his curiosity and open mind and lets his guard down a bit. And its very revealing because it shows that deep down, the nickname really does bother Mulder. Its a tiny, tiny, tiny moment but its these tiny character moments that keep Mulder afloat in this episode.
But in the end, he’s barely afloat. His inability to pass Werewolf 101 is a giant anchor weighing him down. And it doesn’t help that Mulder just doesn’t do much in Shapes. He and Scully show up on the scene and do some routine investigative work, but there isn’t much mystery to the case other than the aforementioned obvious twist. Mulder doesn’t really learn anything more than what was already in the casefiles that he pored through prior to the episode. Thus, he just ends up doing nothing and seems stuck in mud. There are no grand theories, there are no passionate debates with Scully, there are none of those leaps of logic that Mulder is so good at. If he’s not standing around idly with Scully at funerals, then he’s standing around idly with Sheriff Tskany at funerals. Or he’s nodding idly at Ish at funerals. So many meaningful glances…but none of them make Mulder very interesting in Shapes and that’s how it ends up at #21.
And now some useless Mulder tidbits.
1.) Number of Sarcastic Mulder Jokes: 2
Not much but his “strong enough for a man” line sounds like a classic Duchovny ad-lib. I also love how Scully doesn’t even bat an eye as Mulder drops these one-liners.
2.) Number of Self-Righteous/Pretentious/Hyperbolic Mulder Moments: 1/4
Other than interrupting Scully that one time, this is a very tame and boring version of Mulder. Though I feel like he should get points taken off here for not getting self-righteous when Scully claims a mountain lion attacked her and Lyle.
3.) Number of Mulder theories: 1/2
Is it really a theory when Mulder just reads to Scully from an old X-File?
4.) Number of Mulder leaps: -2
I had to give him a negative number of leaps because he basically kept leaping away from all the evidence pointing at Lyle Parker as the Manitou.
5.) Number of quality Mulder investigative moments:5
Five sounds like a lot but these are fairly generic. Like how much animal evidence does Mulder really need to find?
6.) Number of times Mulder’s voice goes into that trademark sad “Duchovnyish-Whisper”: 0
Sadly it seems that whisper is as much a legend as the Manitou.
7.) Number of times Mulder’s gun is drawn: 2
More examples of Mulder essentially not doing much…both times he has his gun out, the stakes feel very low. The first time, its when Gwen Goodensnake inexplicably tries to steal Ish’s car (because clearly what you do when you witness a monster maul a man to death and you are trying to skip town is wait around a day and then try to steal a random person’s car who just happens to be hosting the Sheriff at that moment). And the second time, its in that long-ass climax. It ends up turning into a bit of a slasher film there at the end and because the characters who are in danger are our main characters, there’s only so much tension that you can wring out. So the scene just goes…and goes….and goes. And of course, its Tskany who saves them anyway.
8.) Number of times Mulder is in danger: 1
He’s in danger…of losing all credibility in the realm of the paranormal with how he botched this case.
9.) Number of fiery Mulder interactions: 0
Duchovny is serviceable in this episode. That’s not a bad thing…he just doesn’t have very much to chew on in this one.
10.) Number of times Mulder pisses someone off: 4
Mulder pisses off Gwen Goodensnake but Gwen is not an engaging enough character for me to care. More interestingly, he manages to piss Tskany off several times. Probably called him “Charlie” one too many times.