Ranking Mulder in The X-Files Season One (#20 – Fire)

I’m continuing my reverse rankings of Fox Mulder in Season 1 of The X-Files and we’ve arrived at #20. Fire feels like an episode where the primary goal was to broaden Mulder’s characterization. We learn about his past relationships, phobias, and quirks and watch him overcome his fears. Beyond that, it’s Mulder’s former flame Phoebe Green who makes this episode stick out in Season 1. This episode really should be towards the top of this list. The problem is that nearly everything about Mulder in Fire lacks substance.

Some of this falls at the feet of one Chris Carter. Many of my favorite episodes are written by Carter but his strengths as a writer are in developing themes and ideas, not in natural character-work or plotting. As a result, his episodes (particularly in the first season) tend to paint Mulder in very broad strokes. Sometimes that works like in The Pilot where those broad strokes form a solid foundation for Mulder as a character. However, other episodes struggled with this as character traits and relationships get seemingly introduced solely to serve the plot of the individual episodes, only to never be seen again. Fire is a prime example of this. Rather than character traits for Mulder emerging naturally, the script resorts to having Mulder just spout little bits of exposition. Some of it is harmless, like Mulder casually dropping into conversation that he’s got a photographic memory. It would have been nice had this been mentioned ever again but hey, in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t harm the episode and its always nice to get a humble brag from Mulder.

“I’m cursed with a photographic memory and the ability to forget that I have a photographic memory.”

But the other character revelations for Mulder work less well. Mulder describes his fear of fire to Scully in a manner that can only be described as “character flaw that sounds blatantly made up”. He is so earnest in his description, sprinkling in details about burning houses, lying in rubble, and looters. But these are all just words; none of it feels authentic to Mulder. Instead, it sounds like a half-assed super-hero origin story and David Duchovny struggles to sell it. Mulder is worse in Shapes and Born Again but Duchovny’s performances in those episodes feel rooted in his understanding of Mulder as a character. But when he’s just pulling a fear of fire out of his ass because the script dictates that he does so, you can feel Duchovny not being completely invested.

And that’s the thing about the nonsensical fear of fire; its only there because this is an episode called Fire. It’s an example of on-the-nose writing that the show would do a good job of mostly eradicating by the second season but its in full force here. Everything relating to this fear is strained, from the aforementioned conversation to Mulder’s journey of overcoming his fear. The man is supposedly deathly afraid of fire…so of course the first thing he does when the fire alarm goes off at the hotel is rush upstairs towards the fire by himself. It just makes no sense whatsoever other than to be a creaky link in this cliched heroic journey of overcoming fear that Mulder goes through in Fire. And considering the show is built on Mulder and Scully being equals, the scene feels blatantly misogynistic when Mulder is the only one who appears to be taking action. At least the scene ends fairly realistically with Mulder completely falling apart as soon as he encounters the fire…

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 20201214135032795.png
…though considering how many random revelations there are in Fire, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mulder also has a previously unmentioned heart condition.

But things get even worse when the exact same series of events happens at the house in the climax. This time, Mulder is suddenly able to push back his fear and goes after the fire with some really bizarre gusto. Meanwhile Scully just decides to let him handle it because….well just because. Its an even more egregiously misogynistic scene than the hotel scene and is the most blatant example of the show forcing the issue with regards to Mulder dealing with his fears. A scene that is otherwise surprisingly strong (with some fabulous special effects) is completely undermined by Mulder awkwardly flailing about while everyone stands around.

“WHY IS NO ONE ELSE HELPING?!”

Slightly better than the fire shit is Mulder’s relationship with Phoebe. Phoebe is introduced as a former flame of Mulder’s and a potential foil and has such good potential. Mulder and Scully’s interactions throughout Fire mostly revolve around Phoebe and its in these moments where Mulder is most well realized. Scully doesn’t seem to be jealous throughout; she just seems deeply, deeply amused at how uncomfortable Mulder is. None of it is too deep or meaningful but it makes some of Mulder’s scenes more fun and is a prime example of how the Mulder/Scully dynamic improves each them individually.

And Mulder’s reactions to Phoebe also make sense up till the hotel fire. Upon her arrival, Mulder lets Scully know how much trouble Phoebe can be, and we get a sense of that with her car-bomb-joke. Mulder is clearly on guard with her and still harboring a major grudge from whatever happened between them back at Oxford. However, he eventually feels a bit bad for being dismissive and snarky and apologizes to her which all tracks for Mulder as a character. For all his paranoia and claims of distrust, Mulder is a very trusting individual and I can understand how being so guarded around this woman he apparently used to love could make him feel out of sorts. Mulder’s baseline state is “I want to trust people” so it makes sense to me that he’d soften a bit towards her. Mulder would want to believe that Phoebe has changed. And I can buy him being pretty giddy that they may sleep together because, hey, he’s a human being and most single men are not going to reject sex with a former lover when that former lover does all of the work of booking one hotel room for the two of them. So Mulder’s characterization up to this point works…

…though no amount of characterization really explains why Mulder is so awkward at a party.

However, where his relationship with Phoebe falters (other than the total lack of chemistry between David Duchovny and Amanda Pays) is in how Mulder’s arc is completely independent of anything Phoebe actually does. After the fire at the hotel, Mulder gives Phoebe the cold shoulder, symbolized by Mulder cinching up his robe. But what did Phoebe do wrong? Up to this point, her only actions have been to investigate the case, get a bit mopey because Mulder hasn’t forgiven her, and book a hotel room in an attempt to have sex with Mulder. Sure, she’s not taking the case seriously enough when she’s sneaking in some chemistry-less kisses at the hotel but you know who else is not taking the case seriously enough? FOX FUCKING MULDER. So I just don’t quite understand what changed for him between the dancing shenanigans and the fire. Does Mulder blame Phoebe for his near-death experience at the hotel?

Sure Mulder and Scully talked about how Phoebe is fire and will make Mulder walk through fire. But I just assumed that was because Mulder and Scully are really into puns and wordplay! I didn’t think he was literally concerned that Phoebe would put him in danger. Is he so delusional that he thinks this is Phoebe’s fault?! She didn’t ask that he run upstairs by himself to try to tackle his fire demons! He did that on his own. And the ass-pull of a reveal at the end that Phoebe is sleeping with Sir Marsden isn’t the reason Mulder turns on her because obviously that’s later in the episode (and is laughably bad).

Maybe Fire is trying to show what happens when Mulder is distracted or not being intellectually pushed. Mulder does not seem nearly as invested or interested in the case while working it with Phoebe, even though you would think a pyrokinetic would be something he’d be dying to investigate. He just goes through the motions and his interest is only piqued when Scully dumps everything in his lap at the hotel. I think the episode is trying to show that Mulder needs Scully, that it is her resistance, curiosity and skepticism that make him into a more complete investigator. But Carter isn’t capable of landing this message here (if it was his intention) because not enough time is devoted to Mulder’s arc to make it feel natural.

Mulder: But you saved me. As difficult and frustrating as its been at times, your goddamned strict rationalism and science have saved me a thousand times over. You’ve kept me honest. You’ve made me a whole person. I owe you everything. And Scully you owe me nothing. Scully: Dude we’ve known each other for like three months.

And that’s the other reason Fire is so low on my list: not enough time! For such a Mulder-centric episode, he’s not really in it much. Fire is the fourth least amount of screen-time for Mulder all season and all of his screen-time is focused on forced character development rather than just letting Mulder be Mulder. There are hardly any one-liners, he doesn’t show any of his normal investigative prowess, we don’t get any theories or interesting discussions about the phenomena of pyrokinesis. (Seriously he brings up pyrokinesis and nobody bats an eye.) Similar to Lazarus, so much of the episode is focused on a guest character, in this case Cecil L’ively. And while Cecil is a fun character, his portion of the episode feels completely separate from the rest of the episode. I think my feelings on Mulder in this episode (and for Fire as a whole) would be much more positive if it was treated like a standard investigation where Mulder and Scully legitimately investigate Cecil L’ively and interact with him. Instead we are treated to a bifurcated episode with a ton of stilted character development for Mulder that is all forgotten by the credits.

And now for some random bits of Mulder information.


1.) Number of Sarcastic Mulder Jokes: 2

We get off to a good start because Mulder has two dry Mulderisms in his very first scene. And then that Mulder is never seen again.

2.) Number of Self-Righteous/Pretentious/Hyperbolic Mulder Moments: 0.5

I guess saying “Phoebe is fire” counts as hyperbole when her defining characteristics seem to be “has a British accent” and “likes Sherlock Holmes”.

3.) Number of Mulder theories: 1

Mulder has one “theory” and that is bringing up that the case may involve a pyrokinetic. But considering neither Phoebe, Scully, nor the arson expert show any real reaction to this theory, maybe they were all inexplicably thinking the same thing?

4.) Number of Mulder leaps: 0

Mulder is too busy leaping to action without thinking anytime a fire starts to make any logical leaps.

5.) Number of quality Mulder investigative moments: 1

Mulder is the one who brings Phoebe to interview the witness after the ridiculous fire Cecil caused at the bar. Mulder claims he heard about the fire on the wire. Things would have been more interesting had he actually heard about it on HBO’s The Wire.

6.) Number of times Mulder’s voice goes into that trademark sad “Duchovnyish-Whisper”: 0

Duchovny only brings that voice out when he’s emotionally invested in the material. In Fire you can almost hear him rolling his eyes as he reads his lines.

7.) Number of times Mulder’s gun is drawn: 1

He’s got that gun drawn throughout the climax in the house. It would have been exciting if I wasn’t constantly thinking “why is he the only one trying to save these kids?”

8.) Number of times Mulder is in danger: 2

Mulder does get two scenes where he is in legitimate danger. But unfortunately, both are undermined by the transparent need to have Mulder solve his fire-phobia by episode’s end because there is no reason why he has to deal with the hotel fire and the house fire by his lonesome.

9.) Number of fiery Mulder interactions: 0

For an episode about a former flame of Mulder’s and a category that coincidentally includes the word “fiery”, there are sadly none of these to be found.

10.) Number of times Mulder pisses someone off: 0

I’m surprised Scully isn’t more pissed at him for not taking the case seriously. Maybe Cecil was doing Mulder a solid because when he saw Scully watching Mulder and Phoebe dancing, he knew immediately that Scully was gonna rip into Mulder for not doing his job, and so he helped a brother out by starting a fire which nearly killed Mulder, thereby eliciting the sympathy card from Scully? Shit, that character motivation that I wrote in 20 seconds is more natural than Mulder’s character development in Fire.

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