We’re here at #11 in my Season 1 episode rankings of Mulder’s impact and Young at Heart somehow ended up here. I could make a joke about how this episode figured out how to reverse the crappiness process and thus is higher than several better episodes but no, that’s too much effort. Its this high solely based on the fact that Mulder is in it so much. Generally, the quality of Mulder’s scenes matter a great deal; if Mulder sucks in an episode, these rankings tend to reflect that. But sometimes an episode comes along that is so filled with Mulder-centric scenes that I have to rank his impact higher than I’d like, no matter how listlessly David Duchovny plays him. Young at Heart is that episode; it’s so focused on Mulder that it manages to bludgeon its way to #11 on this list.
If we are looking solely at Mulder’s screen-time in Season 1, no episode (other than Conduit and E.B.E.) has more Mulder than Young at Heart. We’ve got a truckload of Foxy scenes as he is only absent from three scenes the whole episode. Mulder is central to the plot and to the episode’s credit, that plot aims high. Its a very personal case for Mulder involving a vicious killer from his past re-emerging as a paranormal nemesis. The concept alone ensures that Mulder will partake in dramatic conversations, a ton of character development, some heightened stakes, and a healthy dose of angst. Basically, all qualities that keep this one from being a complete lost cause for Mulder.
And superficially, there are pivotal Mulder moments sprinkled throughout the episode. Things like Mulder taking time out of his busy day to drive to suburbia and catch a murdered FBI agent’s son’s football practice, or flashing back to himself on the witness stand at Barnett’s trial as Barnett does a second-rate Jack Nicholson impression, or having a grand old standoff at a cello recital with a salamander handed lanky doofus. And Mulder even has this weird flirty banter with a handwriting expert at the FBI! These things are memorable! And Mulder being memorable helps elevate this episode in these rankings (though please note that being memorable doesn’t preclude something from being bad).
Also Young at Heart contains a rare gem: a Season 1 guest character from Mulder’s past who is actually interesting. Reggie Perdue is not around long and his inevitable death is hindered by cliches galore. But Reggie also offers us something we hadn’t seen to this point: he’s the first character who appears to have seniority on Mulder within the FBI and doesn’t treat him disrespectfully. He may call him paranoid and get frustrated with him but unlike with a character like Tom Colton, its not vindictive. Instead you can feel that this is an old friendship with their easy-going back and forth and mutual respect, even if David Duchovny sleepwalks through these interactions. Reggie clearly is protective of Mulder and its nice to see someone trying to watch Mulder’s back. This is a character who has Mulder’s best interests at heart, which is far more interesting than the dull sidekick who stole his work or a pseudo femme fatale. Its just a shame that Carter fell into that trap of killing off a one-off character just to raise the stakes.
This also may be the first character other than Deep Throat who serves as something of a father figure for Mulder. And speaking of Deep Throat, he’s here too! And while its probably their least captivating interaction in the entire series, his mere presence brings this episode up for Mulder. Plus, we get to see them being nice and casual as they grab a beer at a bar which is great, if a bit careless on Deep Throat’s part.
But despite any positives, the actual episode kind of sucks which is why it can’t go any higher in these rankings. The writing and character development for Mulder lack nuance and comes off as very superficial and contrived. Rather than let the character development and plot intersect naturally , Chris Carter’s script just force feeds us stuff. I mean, why restrict yourself to just bringing a killer back from Mulder’s past when you can also clumsily imply that Mulder learned how to not play by the book from this guy? Or why work hard on finding an emotionally resonant reason for Mulder to be invested in the case when you can just toss in clichés about orphaned football players? And hey, who the hell actually thinks we need Mulder to be interested in the paranormal aspect of the case when we can have him cock his gun dramatically for the camera?! This guy is aging backwards and Mulder doesn’t care. He is too busy pretending he might go all Dirty Harry on Barnett. Its all so dumb and misses the mark on what makes Mulder Mulder.
But that isn’t enough; no the episode also feels very self-important. The X-Files has often been referred to as one of the first shows that was making a mini-movie every week but that had more to do with set design, cinematography, and the production values. Young at Heart tries to fit in about three hours worth of plot developments, character motivations, and set pieces into 45 minutes and everything ends up feeling lifeless. The courtroom flashback is one of the most ill-conceived moments in the show’s history, the “Fox can’t guard the chicken coop” notes don’t really go anywhere, and the phone calls between Mulder and Barnett are just flat out boring. These all feel like big moments that Chris Carter had in mind and threw into the script but then no one took the care to make them fit smoothly into an episode of The X-Files. Consequently, nothing feels natural and you better believe that David Duchovny will make sure you notice that in his performance. This is as bad as Duchovny gets; he has no energy, his delivery is wooden, particularly during emotional scenes, and the courtroom scene is the only time in the show that it feels like I’m watching him learn to act.
Essentially, Young at Heart (like Fire before it) feels like it tries to fill in a lot of Mulder’s backstory but ends up being forgettable because all of the developments are forced and contrived. Its a shame too because when the storyline veers away from John Barnett, Duchovny seems much more relaxed and polished. Even in fairly dull scenes like the scene where Mulder and Scully interview Joe Ridley in Scully’s apartment, Duchovny has much more energy and range in his performance despite barely speaking. It just reinforces my theory that Duchovny is an actor that physically CANNOT engage with material if it doesn’t feel natural.
So after tearing this episode apart and how it handles Mulder, I still award it #11 in these rankings. But its ONLY because he’s in it so much. In terms of quality, this is a bottom 5 Mulder episode.
And now for some Mulder tid-bits.
1.) Jokey Mulder: This episode’s self-importance rears its ugly head as there are no jokes from Mulder at all here. It’s one grim existential crisis after the other without any impact and it makes it no fun to watch him. Even his flirty interactions with Agent Henderson are weak, as his “light-hearted banter” feels very wooden. And where is the banter between Mulder and Scully? Outside of one adorable wink at the cello recital, he doesn’t seem the least bit concerned about using her as bait for Barnett.
2.) Self-Righteous Mulder: Its tough to not get self-righteous in court when your antagonist is LITERALLY steepling his fingers to get his photo in the the Evil 101 book.
3.) Theorizing Mulder: “Maybe John Barnett has found the prefect disguise. youth”. Its the rare moment where Mulder feels like himself in this episode.
4.) Leaping Mulder: I don’t know how much of a leap this is but Mulder claiming that John Barnett had a New England accent and then playing an irrelevant section of their taped conversation is pretty preposterous.
5.) Investigative Mulder: This episode is so focused on pushing this clunky character arc for Mulder that he doesn’t do much actual investigating. Yes he consults with Henderson and the facial recognition expert but that’s not Mulder driving the investigation. He’s just getting pulled along by the themes of the episode into ridiculous courtroom flashbacks but without his trademark investigative prowess. In fact Scully seems to be the one discovering new things about the case offscreen and bringing the leads to Mulder who is too busy moping on the bleachers, watching high school football practice. And when its not Scully, its Deep Throat dumping some exposition on him or Joe Ridley literally knocking on Scully’s door to deliver more exposition.
6.) Trademarked Sad “Duchovnyish-Whisper” Mulder: It kind of comes out in that courtroom scene but it feels less like a trademark and more like Duchovny learning how to act in real-time.
7.) Endangered Mulder: The final confrontation at the cello recital definitely has Mulder in a dangerous situation. I mean this is a “tense” standoff! But it ends up feeling lifeless; again Duchovny doesn’t seem to know how to tap into the emotions that the script are calling for here. What should have been a powerful moment (Mulders first on-screen kill) is left kind of flaccid.
8.) Fiery Mulder: Well he definitely gets fired up during the courtroom flashback but that scene is best left in the past and never mentioned again.
9.) Annoying Mulder: Reggie says that Mulder was a pain in his ass when they worked together but he thinks of those things with fondness. Mulder doesn’t really annoy anyone in this episode which I actually think speaks to how dull he is throughout.