Ranking Mulder in The X-Files Season One (#19 – Roland)

I’m continuing my reverse rankings of Fox Mulder in Season 1 of The X-Files and we’ve arrived at #19. When I think about Roland, Mulder is not the first thing to come to mind. Other than an interesting dream he tells the titular Roland about, this is about as bog-standard as Mulder can get. And you know what? That’s just fine! Because after ranking five episodes where Mulder either was standing around, sidelined for a boring guest star, unnecessarily angry, incompetent, or poorly characterized, its nice to have an episode where Mulder simply feels like Mulder. He may not drive the plot but Roland checks most of the boxes in the “standard Mulder operating procedures” handbook.

Not sure where “easily lose witness/murderer so as to increase dramatic stakes” falls in that handbook.

Part of checking those boxes is ensuring that David Duchovny is engaged. When Duchovny doesn’t think much of a script or story, you can feel it emanating from the screen, either with unpleasant snarkiness in later seasons or with poor acting in earlier seasons. Thankfully, Roland’s script handles Mulder well enough to get Duchovny’s juices flowing. He’s in a groove from his first scene, brandishing that unique mix of intelligence, humor and charm as he rattles off background information to Scully. Many of my problems with episodes #20-24 in these rankings come down to Mulder not feeling like himself. That is not the case here and it feels so damn good to hear some prototypical Mulder dialogue.

“Roland come back! The truth is out there! Trust no one! You’re the key to everything in the X-Files!”

With that dialogue comes some of the usual quirks and moments we expect from Mulder. He’s back to being fairly sharp, detecting anomalous handwriting, cracking password encrypted computers, and stealing scrap paper from autistic individuals. And along with those solid investigative skills comes a handful of well executed Mulder and Scully scenes. These don’t stand out when looking at the show as a whole but their back and forth investigative debates in Roland are massive improvements from their interactions in the other episodes I’ve ranked.

One nice touch during the early portion of their investigation occurs when Mulder has his theory about the writing on the whiteboard. While technically he is correct, Mulder is momentarily flummoxed when the handwriting is determined not to be Roland’s. What I enjoy about this moment is that Duchovny chooses to play it with an understated mix of surprise and disappointment, rather than have Mulder become defensive or bitter. Mulder often has such tunnel vision in his theories and his grandstanding and self-righteousness can inflate that ego of his. But he doesn’t perceive being wrong during an investigation as an indictment on himself or his investigative abilities. It would have been easy for Duchovny to play him as an arrogant know-it-all but his Mulder has always been about the truth, not about being right or pettily trying to explain away why he was wrong.

“The test shows that it wasn’t his handwriting because we tested too many people’s handwriting. If we stopped doing so many tests, we’d be able to determine its Roland’s handwriting because there would be less evidence against it and also I am always right.”

One touch I don’t think is quite as nice is Mulder’s dream. Despite my appreciating the foreshadowing to his relationship with the Cigarette Smoking Man, I’ve always found that bit to be clunky and out of place. It sits in a scene where Mulder is showing great empathy towards Roland but feels briefly like an unrelated tangent that just feels thrown into the script. I get that its Mulder trying to show Roland that its ok to talk about his dreams but it feels artificial and manufactured to me.

But its not a big deal because the rest of Mulder’s interactions with Roland are a strong point for anyone who loves Mulder’s streak of empathy. From the beginning he suspects Roland is involved in the murders but he never treats him with anything less than compassion. Its the little things like asking Roland if he minds them asking some questions (rather than just interrogating him), helping Roland get dressed, or helping Roland to understand what is happening to him. It reminds me a bit of how Mulder treats Lucy Householder in Oubliette; even though all of the evidence is pointing at Lucy or Roland, Mulder treats them as victims, not criminals. It’s really touching and Duchovny plays compassion like no other male actor that I know of. His delivery of “your dreams are bad Roland, not you” is fantastic.

Mulder empathizing for Roland after draining the battery in his remote control UFO

So all these positives and only #19 out of 24? Well you may have noticed that for the most part, I’ve been praising Mulder for feeling like Mulder. Unfortunately, I need something more for it to really resonate. Roland’s big weakness when it comes to Mulder is simply that there are no defining Mulder moments. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the climax which is basically a repeat of the teaser, only with Mulder and Scully standing around and yelling. Yes Scully is the one who ends up getting through to Roland but overall, they feel like complete bystanders for the last ten minutes.

Further, there are little issues I have with how the script has Mulder behave. I commended the moment where his initial white board theory is wrong but it nags me during the middle of the episode that Mulder’s theory simply becomes that Arthur Grable faked his own death and is using Roland for his own nefarious purposes. While that is more likely than “decapitated head psychically controls autistic twin brother”, it seems off when Mulder isn’t pushing more outlandish theories. He’s the one who brought Scully the case and usually when he does that, he has an inkling of what paranormal phenomenon is occurring. But in Roland, he’s too quick to assume a more normal explanation. Eventually he remembers who he is and delivers some fine paranormal theories in the tail end of the episode but it really feels like the script just needed a way to stall the investigation. Unfortunately that leads to Mulder feeling out of character.

“See Scully, I told you. I don’t arbitrarily become a skeptic until Season 5.”

If that was the only stalling being done, it wouldn’t bother me too much. But we’ve also got Mulder being unable to restrain Roland from breaking free from the half-way house and wreaking havoc. He just sort of lets Roland out-muscle him and then casually jogs after him. You know…just casual enough to ensure that he can escape and deliver us another fifteen minutes of drama.

Even once Mulder (and Scully) have all of the pieces they need to solve the case, they just sort of peter out. They figure out that Arthur and Roland were born in the same city on the same day…but neither utters the word “twin” until a full three scenes later. It feels unnaturally deliberate and segmented. Then when Mulder finally does utter the words “I think they’re twins”, thankfully there is no fanfare or big dramatic reveal to signify the significance because the audience figured it out ten minutes earlier. But oh wait, THERE IS FANFARE AND A BIG DRAMATIC REVEAL because Mulder and Scully have to go through the rigorous process of modifying a picture of Arthur Grable to prove it to themselves! Why was this scene needed at all? All of this stalling just makes Mulder seem a little bit more daft than I’m accustomed to.

Finally, while I praised his empathy for Roland, it also feels a bit fragmented. During his scenes with Roland, Mulder is caring, compassionate, and empathetic. For any scene he doesn’t share with Roland however, both he and Scully seem fairly detached. It would have been nice to see either of them articulating just how tragic the situation is. But instead, they are investigating things like “business as usual” which feels at odds with Roland’s emotional plight. That dissonance in the script makes it unintentionally feel like Mulder is being manipulative with Roland during the interviews since he isn’t emotionally invested elsewhere.

So while there are a ton of positives to how Mulder is handled in Roland, the lack of any superlative moments and a smattering of awkward scripting keep this one tucked away at #19 in this list.

And now for some random bits of Mulder information.


1.) Number of Sarcastic Mulder Jokes: 2

He’s got a couple of his typical one-liners here which is another reason he feels back on his game in Roland. In particular I like the self-aware grin he has after his Beakman’s World joke. Its like he knows how dumb his jokes are and truly enjoys Scully’s unenthusiastic reactions.

2.) Number of Self-Righteous/Pretentious/Hyperbolic Mulder Moments: 0

At the end of the episode, Mulder is this close to telling Mrs. Stodiethat he believes Roland was being controlled by Arthur Grable’s head before Scully cuts him off. Mulder rarely takes into account how someone may react to his theories and once Mulder gets going and someone doesn’t believe him, you never know what self-righteous thing will pop out of his mouth.

What I really like about this scene though is the subtle character work involved. Mulder doesn’t care whether Mrs. Stodie thought he was crazy, its just too important to him that she knows the truth. Scully on the other hand, does care about this kind of thing, both for herself and for Mulder. She is nothing if not fiercely protective and she knows that there is no real benefit to Mulder telling Mrs. Stodie the facts of the case. So Scully steps in and saves Mulder from a bit of embarrassment that probably would have flown right over his head.

3.) Number of Mulder theories: 2

Maybe the theories themselves are not super interesting when compared to 200+ other episodes but listening to Mulder go off on Arthur Grable’s being in a state of consciousness that no human has ever returned from puts a smile on my face. Its the little victories when we are stuck in the lower ranked episodes!

4.) Number of Mulder leaps: 0.5

It’s not really a leap but wow, Mulder sure was quick at determining that a fourth person wrote on the whiteboard. Me, I have trouble deciphering my handwriting from someone else’s.

5.) Number of quality Mulder investigative moments: 5

He’s got quite a few in this one but they are frontloaded in the episode. Once it becomes clear to us what is going on in the plot, Mulder eases off the gas so as to keep the episode to its allotted screen time.

6.) Number of times Mulder’s voice goes into that trademark sad “Duchovnyish-Whisper”: 1

Hey we got one!!! His conversation with Roland is filled with a variant of that voice and is probably the best part of the episode.

7.) Number of times Mulder’s gun is drawn: 0

I don’t believe he has his gun drawn at all because…

8.) Number of times Mulder is in danger: 0

…while Mulder feels like Mulder in this one, there are no dramatic stakes for him or Scully in Roland.

9.) Number of fiery Mulder interactions: 0.5

He’s kind of fiery in the climax when he’s yelling at “Arthur” to turn off the wind tunnel. And this is a good time to mention that in moments of stress, Mulder loses that empathetic connection he had with Roland and becomes more of a blunt instrument, demanding that “Arthur” stop the machine. It’s only when Scully speaks directly to Roland that they are able to get through to him. That’s not to say that Mulder had ill intent, just that when he gets the paranormal into his head, he tends to forget about all other solutions.

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

He’s generally well-behaved in this one.

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