Written by John Shiban
Directed by Rob Bowman
Technically speaking, this episode is barely as X-File at all, at least until it’s almost over. There’s no aliens, no mutants, no men in rooms plotting. Yet this episode plays into a far darker world of paranoia and suspense that, for the most part, the series has danced around, and plays much like a blueprint, not only for future series, but for haunting precursors to come.
At first, the episode plays in the tradition that has been going forth since Anasazi– every season around this time, there comes an episode where it appears that either Mulder or Scully can not trust the other. This seems particularly pertinent in Season 5, where are heroes have spent much of the year at loggerheads for their shifting beliefs. This time, however, the behavior isn’t due to brainwashing or drilling holes in your head; it’s about a conspiracy that cuts far closer to Mulder’s belief system than usual, and looks far more like treason than anything else. (It’s telling, though, even after all the disagreements this season, Scully’s first reaction is to protect her partner.)
Wisely, the episode reveals that Mulder’s out of character behavior is, for a change, being used by the government in a joint FBI-CIA operation. What makes the episode play much better than this is the fact that, for once, we are seeing the consequences of the shift in Mulder’s belief. The terrorist organization that tries to use Mulder as a double agent first gets in touch with him because of his anti-government rant that we witnessed in Patient X. Now we see that, for all Mulder’s general belief in government conspiracy, he believes more in justice than anything else. He may think that the government is conspiring with aliens to take over the world, but the idea of using the methods that organizations like the New Spartans try is anathema to him.
It’s also interesting that we are trying to figure out where, exactly, this show stands when it comes to this kind of activity. Half of the time Mulder and Scully are trying to trap criminals- albeit supernatural ones that test the limits of what law enforcement can do- for the federal government. And the other half, they are trying to bring to justice conspirators who use our government as a shadow to manipulate the people. Where exactly does this series draw the line?
It’s worth remembering, of course, that the majority of the series was filmed before 9-11, and the government approaches to threats was very different. The Pine Bluff Variant, by contrast, seems like a precursor for 24- a series that would borrow several members of its writing staff from Ten Thirteen. Admittedly, the threat is domestic rather than foreign, but the basic ideas are the same. The Consortium may do many things to destroy and undermine Mulder and Scully, but they never do anything as real as break one of his fingers in order to determine what side he’s on. And the idea of the ends justifying the means comes out very clearly on more than one occasion. One of the more suspenseful sequences in the series comes when Mulder, in order to maintain his cover at a bank robbery, is order to kill an innocent man. The out that the show gives him, by having another terrorist do it, doesn’t answer the question. The civilian is still dead, and Mulder could do nothing to save him.
The episode then comes a little more back into conspiracy territory when it is revealed that the bioweapon that the New Spartans have access too was in fact designed by the United States. Whether or not this is a complication brought on by the plot is never made clear, but it does a little more to put the episode in the grey area rather than the black and whites X-Files can occasionally traffic in. What makes the episode far more frightening is the revelation of CIA Director Leamus (played by Sam Anderson when he was still operating in his villainous phase) as having the same kind of ends justifying the means ideals that the New Spartans themselves have. This elements helps raise the episode above the usual conspiracy mish-mash and adds a level of grittiness than the show doesn’t demonstrate that often.
There may be far too many revelations in the episodes final act (just whose side was August Bremer on in the end) . But overall Pine Bluff Variant is one of the more involving episodes of the shows, and definitely a high water mark for John Shiban, not known for being one of the series best writers. It also has one of Duchovny’s better performances for the fifth season, especially given that in one of the episodes more intense scenes, his face is covered by a Halloween mask. One almost wonders if this episode served as a precursor for later stories that Jack Bauer would have to work through. But it demonstrates that you don’t always need a ticking clock or 21st century technology to deal with those kinds of issues—- in fact, the primitive setting reminds us that some themes are universal.
My score: 4.25 stars.