I’m continuing my reverse rankings of Fox Mulder in Season 1 of The X-Files and we’ve arrived at #16. When I think of Ghost in the Machine, I think of pure B-movie schlock. It’s got a hilariously retro synth score, painfully outdated technobabble (though the story is kinda prescient), and one of the cheesiest climaxes to grace television screens. But surprisingly, the first thirty minutes contain an interesting character arc for Mulder. It may have not won any awards but I’m gonna award it the 16th spot in these highly prestigious rankings.
So lets start with why this episode can’t be any higher; that hot mess of an ending. It sucks and it makes it a tad unpleasant to revisit this episode willingly. Yes, you could argue that this being a ranking of Mulder’s impact and not of the episode itself, that the ending is no reason to hold it back. Except Mulder is part of that late-episode suck. Rather than try to slink into the background, he’s out there apocalyptically declaring “its the machine”, dropping witty one-liners to security cameras for who-knows-what-reason and dramatically inserting and re-inserting a USB flash drive into a computer mainframe.
That ending puts a hard ceiling on how high this one could go for Mulder. And Mulder doesn’t really do much in terms of driving the plot during the rest of the episode. He’s perpetually five steps behind, dealing with rudimentary daily shenanigans like having his notes stolen rather than actually coming up with any sort of theory. He develops a criminal profile but doesn’t entertain the thought of paranormal happenstance until Jerry’s death. His and Scully’s finest moment of investigative prowess in Ghost in the Machine is when they match the speech patterns from a recording to Brad Wilczek’s, thereby gathering enough conclusive evidence to arrest the WRONG PERSON. The only reason Mulder begins to hone in on what happened is because Deep Throat tells him exactly what happened. So yeah, this is not the episode you put on to watch Mulder brilliantly solve a case.
Faring better is the dynamic of having Mulder deal with a reunion with former partner, Jerry Lamana. From a story-telling angle, this subplot is fairly lifeless; its just one of numerous season one episodes where a character from Mulder or Scully’s past is introduced only to never show up again. David Duchovny and Wayne Duvall have no chemistry so their interactions, drama, and the tragedy of Jerry’s death all end up feeling meaningless. But we still get some nice moments; Mulder solemnly watching the security footage of Jerry’s death is well done. And we are privy to an early version of Scully trying to provide Mulder with support during an emotional ordeal. Its always fun to see these early elements that become major character beats over the course of the show.
But is that actually enough to merit this episode being ranked this high for Mulder? Well Ghost in the Machine is redeemed by having an interesting subtext of Mulder being uncomfortable with a normal life. Now there are more overt examples of this through-out the show’s run. The last episode in these rankings was basically constructed on the premise that Mulder is pathologically opposed to a normal life. Episodes like Dreamland, Small Potatoes, and Chimera play up his antisocial quirks but those episodes often make Mulder the butt of a joke. Mythology episodes are more flattering about this as his determination and single-mindedness are viewed through a more heroic lens. But rarely do we get a sense of Mulder just being frustrated by every-day life which is what we get in Ghost in the Machine.
What I found most interesting on this re-watch was just how un-Mulderish Mulder seems. From the moment Jerry first appears, Mulder is uncomfortable. He’s disengaged when Jerry briefs our duo, he’s dismissive when Jerry brings up The X-Files, and he seems detached when explaining Jerry’s rough luck to Scully. Mulder’s just off his game which doesn’t make for very engaging television. However, digging deeper, I’m thinking this is Mulder indirectly dealing with some undesirable emotions that Jerry’s appearance dredged up. And with that in mind, what I’d always just assumed was a phoned in performance from David Duchovny now seems to me like a phoned in performance from David Duchovny that I’m insisting on reading too much into.
So what emotions are we talking about? I think a part of Mulder regrets not being respected. It’s human nature to crave acceptance and validation and I think Jerry’s mere presence reminds Mulder of when he worked Violent Crimes and was, in Jerry’s words, “dazzling them up there on the high wire”. While I don’t think Mulder spends too much time wistfully thinking back to when his peers respected him, I also think its unrealistic if it didn’t bother Mulder at all that he’s essentially a laughingstock now. We’ve seen elements of this in episodes like Squeeze and Young at Heart and while its not very explicit in this episode, I think a tiny bit of Mulder’s subdued behavior is due to this.
Second up, there’s annoyance mixed with apathy. While he might be a joke to his peers, I think Mulder absolutely loves the solitary existence he’s got going for him in the X-Files basement and Jerry’s reappearance is a reminder of just how much he hates all of that superfluous bullshit. The prime example is Jerry stealing Mulder’s notes and passing them off as his own during a meeting; that kind of nonsense just doesn’t compute for Mulder. Mulder tells Jerry “all you had to do was ask” and there’s no reason not to believe him when he says that he would have offered up his notes. Mulder can be possessive at times but that usually comes out when he’s dealing with people who refuse to be open-minded (for example, with the officer in Conduit) or when the X-Files are threatened. But when someone is legitimately trying to solve a case as we see with various law enforcement officers throughout eleven seasons, Mulder is generally helpful, non-judgmental, and cooperative. To Mulder, it’s all about solving the case, not about looking good while doing it. (This is why he’s so pissed at Detective Ryan’s “ambition” in Soft Light).
I think Jerry stealing his notes here reinforces for Mulder his decision to abandon a promising career and jump into the X-Files. Yes his work in the paranormal is fueled by personal loss and a global conspiracy that invaded his home life. But on some level, I think its also fueled by the fact that he doesn’t have to deal with this kind of crap. It’s a way to distance himself from all the people who are in it for themselves. And that’s where the third emotion comes to play: I think a part of Mulder is angry and ashamed at himself for having wasted time dealing with that crap. The show is called The X-Files but the X-Files themselves are a fairly new endeavor for Mulder in Season 1. Before he and Diana Fowley discovered them, he was spending his life working Violent Crimes with Jerry and Reggie Purdue. While that’s nothing to sniff at, we’ve seen how all-encompassing his quest for the truth can be. This is a man who drilled a hole in his head on a whim and jumped on a moving train in pursuit of his quest; can you imagine that guy sitting around a meeting while some half-assed colleague steals his work to suck up to a superior? I think Jerry is an unpleasant reminder to Mulder of what he wasn’t doing back in the day and that he resents that. Instead of running around searching for the truth, he was dealing with dull and pointless meetings, bureaucratic hurdles and self-serving ladder climbers. And I’m sure Mulder, a character who is defined by his passion and determination (see Scully’s description of Mulder in Piper Maru), has not forgotten those years where he wasn’t searching for his sister as actively as he could have.
So yeah, a lot of subtext and maybe most of it was not intentional. But it makes Mulder’s characterization in Ghost in the Machine more enjoyable. Because if we just look at what Mulder does explicitly in the episode, its pretty subpar. But reading into it a bit more, its enough to get this one ranked at #16.
And now for some Mulder tidbits.
1.) Number of Sarcastic Mulder Jokes: 5
Mulder’s got some nice self-deprecating jokes in his early conversation with Scully outside the Eurisko Building. Then he goes about 30 minutes showing none of that trademark wit. And then we get to the climax where he’s dropping weird one-liners like “Trick or treat” and “what are you looking at?” They feel unnatural and like cheesy 80’s action movie quips.
2.) Number of Self-Righteous/Pretentious/Hyperbolic Mulder Moments: 2
He has his moments with Brad Wilczek but my favorite of these moments is when Deep Throat chastises Mulder to respect the terms of their agreement. While Mulder doesn’t say anything, his non-verbal reaction is almost like he’s completely ignoring the inconvenience he’s causing to Deep Throat (who probably should have made it more clear to Mulder before this episode that an inconvenience for him could get him killed).
3.) Number of Mulder theories: 0
He doesn’t really have a theory, other than “I don’t think Wilczek did it”. That’s one of the weaknesses for Mulder in this one; he doesn’t drive the plot.
4.) Number of Mulder leaps: 0
5.) Number of quality Mulder investigative moments: 3
During the scene where they investigate Benjamin Drake’s death, he does some good sleuthing, asking about the COS, noticing the phone being off the hook, and asking if Claude Peters would be on the list of people who could have broken the access codes. Kind of undermined as he doesn’t use any of this information but, hey, he tried!
6.) Number of times Mulder’s voice goes into that trademark sad “Duchovnyish-Whisper”: 0
Jerry is too much of a nobody to elicit that kind of intimate voice from Mulder.
7.) Number of times Mulder’s gun is drawn: 0
You know, he might have been going up against a sentient robotic building manager so guns may have been useless…but could he not have drawn it at least once during the end?
8.) Number of times Mulder is in danger: 3
Its more this constant and dull danger that he is in during the climax but the three specific moments are nearly being impaled by the garage gate, nearly being electrocuted, and nearly being bored to death by Claude Peters’ betrayal.
9.) Number of fiery Mulder interactions: 0.5
You know, for an episode where Mulder is upset that a friend stole his work and where Mulder is held at gunpoint at the end, its bizarre that his most “intense” conversation is with Brad Wilczek about the concept of morality.
10.) Number of times Mulder pisses someone off: 1
Deep Throat does seem mighty pissed at him when they meet up.