Gender Bender comes in at #12 in my Season 1 episode rankings of Mulder’s impact and I’m always left bewildered at how strange it is. Nothing about the actual story or plot engages me, the pacing is hit or miss, and the characterization for Mulder (and Scully) is minimal. It seems like an episode that I’d rate down with the dregs of society like Space or Shapes but I find it to be a surprisingly compelling and aesthetically pleasing outing for Mulder. Its the first (and maybe only) Season 1 episode that taps into the adventure aspect of Mulder; that is he’s not just showing his investigative prowess but rather he’s displaying his action-hero chops. None of what happens here resonates down the line and in the big picture, its not a very representative example of Mulder as an action-hero. Still, Gender Bender ends up being kind of a spiritual precursor to episodes like Nisei and Herrenvolk for Mulder. Combine that with some great Mulderisms and strong acting from David Duchovny and #12 feels just right.
During Season 1, The X-Files was going through a lot of setup and wasn’t experimenting much with changing the episode dynamic. Most episodes had our agents together and performing some semblance of a routine investigation. Sure we had our bottle episodes (Ice, Darkness Falls) or episodes where Mulder and Scully pursue very different aspects of the same investigation (Tooms, The Erlenmeyer Flask) but they still had very traditional investigative aspects ingrained. Things like interviews, crime scenes and evidence. Gender Bender, however, eschews much of that and might be the Season 1 episode where Mulder seems least like a traditional FBI agent.
Other than some quick investigative work in the first act and a clunky final act murder, Mulder (and Scully) isn’t really dealing directly with the case. Yeah Mulder explains to Scully how he believes the murders are connected to the Kindred but essentially, the entire middle portion of this episode is our agents following a relatively baseless hunch on Mulder’s part. With their arrival on the Kindred farm, the episode becomes less about them investigating the case and more about them skulking around, avoiding detection. And even though the Kindred never feel very threatening, the stakes here feel heightened compared to a normal investigation in an episode like Born Again. There is a constant threat looming over Mulder and Scully in Gender Bender. Instead of conducting witness interviews, checking out crime scenes, or analyzing evidence, Mulder is getting lost in the woods, partaking in a tense and fatal dinner with the Kindred, and sneaking into a creepy barn/ritual site. It’s all so over the top and pulpy in a way that even an episode like Ice doesn’t reach; in that episode circumstances conspire to put them into a dire situation. In Gender Bender, Mulder and Scully just toss caution into the wind, say “screw standard FBI procedure” and sneak onto the Kindred farm. Its more in the vein of Indiana Jones than Law and Order.
And it’s surprisingly fun! Sure the plot meanders and there is an utterly asinine twist at the end that is given literally zero buildup. But its just really a fun watch, especially compared to a lot of the episodes from the middle of Season 1 that don’t push the boundaries enough (Miracle Man, Lazarus). I’ll take Mulder running around in the rainy woods any day over him pining over his tragic past with looters. Give me Mulder getting knocked out by a partying sex-changing Amish alien in a grimy motel and I’ll gladly watch that over an incredibly dull industrial espionage subplot. And honestly, that scene where Mulder is skulking through the Kindred’s cavern system to an iconic but underrated Mark Snow score stacks up against almost any scene in the entire season in terms of atmosphere. Adventure-Mulder becomes such a major component of the show that its kind of shocking how little it is explored in Season 1 which makes Gender Bender a very refreshing Season 1 episode for him.
And even though Gender Bender is not concerned with character development, we do get some interesting character beats from Mulder. I really enjoy Mulder and Scully’s banter in their office about aphrodisiacs and pheromones. David Duchovny is having a grand old time in that scene, uttering phrases like “radar love” and “ultimate sex magnet” with such delight. Mulder genuinely seems to enjoy the verbal rapport with Scully here and almost seems to be going out of his way to lob joke after joke. Probably just a matter of David Duchovny diving into dialogue that Mulder doesn’t get to traditionally have but I like to think that its Mulder trying to lighten the mood after the death of Scully’s father an episode earlier. (Yes that is fan-wanking but every one of these posts is just a giant fan-wank).
A less tenuous connection to Beyond the Sea occurs as a direct result of Scully’s encounter with Brother Andrew. During their escape from the house, Mulder’s concern and protectiveness are at the forefront, from the way he manhandles Brother Andrew to how he subtly shields Scully when they encounter the rest of the Kindred. But once they are in the car and have had a chance to process what has happened, Mulder’s concern is laced with condescension. When Scully says she’s “a little embarrassed”, Mulder’s words are supportive but his line delivery and subtle clearing of his throat screams volumes. And then once Mulder gets animated as he’s talking about what he found in the cellar, its like all his emotions come flying out of him as he tosses the unnecessary “wild thing” barb at Scully.
In my mind, this scene is a direct sequel to the argument he and Scully have in Beyond the Sea after she finds the warehouse that Boggs pointed them to. Both scenes have Mulder being disappointed in Scully and both scenes are a result of Scully investigating something dangerous on her own. And while Scully’s encounter with Brother Andrew is a by-product of bad writing (if I ever get to rank Scully, I will dive into how poorly I think Gender Bender handles her), I think Mulder’s reactions in these two episodes are remarkably similar. Mulder has a major savior complex and he tends to forget that Scully is a fully formed human being and doesn’t just fit into a box conveniently labeled “Dana Scully”. Despite Scully being completely capable of taking care of herself, Mulder can’t help but feel like he needs to protect her (probably a by-product of both being an older brother and having lost his sister). And Scully acting in a way that Mulder is unfamiliar with frustrates him because it makes it harder for him to “protect” her. And when this happens, Mulder becomes petulant. In Beyond the Sea, he responds to Scully doing something out of the norm (believing in the paranormal) by yelling at her and chastising her for putting herself in danger. In Gender Bender, he responds to Scully doing something out of the norm (ending up in bed with a suspect) by arrogantly acting like she should know better. Different responses but I think both are a result of his fear of losing Scully and Scully behaving in a manner that he’s not accustomed to.
What’s interesting about his protectiveness of Scully in these matters is that he doesn’t realize how hypocritical he is. He admonishes her for “not getting out” before Brother Andrew makes his move but Mulder himself just nearly got captured in the barn after haphazardly breaking in. He had no problem running back to the Kindred farm and bringing Scully into danger with him. And he sure as hell had no qualms leaving her alone to go explore the barn because Mulder’s gonna Mulder. But as soon as Scully goes off script a bit and does some solo sleuthing of her own, Mulder gets all self-righteous.
This all sounds kind of sexist and misogynistic and there are probably elements of that in play here. But I think its more complex than that. Mulder doesn’t think less of Scully because she’s a woman but his guilt over Samantha definitely results in him being less than respectful for Scully’s autonomy at times. And though it makes Mulder as a person more unlikeable, I think it enhances my love for the character. A major reason I adore him is his deep reservoir of character flaws combined with his emotional volatility. And what amazes me on this re-watch is that I’m able to find this kind of stuff even in an episode nearly bereft of character development like Gender Bender. It tells me that the creative team and actors had a great feel for these characters even when its not obvious to me (someone who’s seen this episode more than ten times), because these themes of Mulder’s protectiveness and condescension when Scully doesn’t “toe the line” are not limited to the more obvious episodes like Never Again.
So yeah, I found more character stuff here than I expected. And that adventure on the Kindred farm is pretty damn entertaining. Its just a shame that the investigation and banter are so front-loaded because it could have ended up higher on this list if the episode was balanced a bit better. As it is, Gender Bender comes in at #12 in my Mulder rankings.
And now for some Mulder tid-bits (which I’m changing up a bit because trying to count out all of these random instances is a pain).
1.) Jokey Mulder: Mulder is so on in their first scene in the basement, throwing out jokes and sexual innuendo left and right. And he has a pretty good “Don Juan” joke when talking about not-Alex Krycek. But one of the weaknesses of having so much atmospheric adventuring in the middle of the episode is we lose some of that charm that comes with Mulder’s dialogue.
2.) Self-Righteous Mulder: The entire scene in the car is Mulder acting self-righteous which is always amusing to watch but must be a complete nightmare to deal with for Dana Scully.
3.) Theorizing Mulder: He sort of has a theory for why he suspects the Kindred but it’s a bit flimsy for two professional FBI agents to hinge their entire illegal investigation on some clay under a victim’s fingernails. Unfortunately, another thing missing with all that skulking around the farm is any dialogue about the how and why any of this is happening from Mulder. “Maybe its the sex that kills” is not a theory; its a line made for a trailer.
4.) Leaping Mulder: I counted no real leaps. Sure some might consider it a leap when he claims the Kindred are aliens at the end. However I usually only consider it a leap when Mulder is proactively driving an investigation, not when he just happens on a small-house sized crop circle and just says the first words that come to mind.
5.) Investigative Mulder: Mulder’s got all of his investigative leg-work done prior to the episode. From setting up slideshows, analyzing the clay, and connecting things to the Kindred, Mulder shows up super ready so he can feel good about himself as he runs around aimlessly on a creepy farm, making no real progress in the case.
6.) Trademarked Sad “Duchovnyish-Whisper” Mulder: Nah that Mulder only comes out during emotionally resonant episodes.
7.) Endangered Mulder: This is the episode’s main strength: having Mulder (and Scully) in danger for the bulk of the episode keeps things compelling where other Season 1 episodes struggle. From the moment Mulder and Scully enter the woods in the second act, there is hardly a moment where they are completely out of the woods (very poor pun intended for some reason). Even the final chase scene at the run-down motel is heightened in terms of how dangerous it feels for our characters. Its one of the weirdest and overly gritty scenes I can recall in the show but the scene definitely delivers on making the danger feel more visceral.
8.) Fiery Mulder: What this episode has in terms of dangerous situations for Mulder, it lacks in terms of compelling character conflicts for Mulder. Thus we get none of those fiery conversations that David Duchovny plays so well.
9.) Annoying Mulder: I mean, he repeatedly intrudes onto the Kindred’s property so I imagine they are pissed at him (and Scully). But then they sort of just invite them for dinner so maybe they’re cool?