After the breakneck, slightly maddening quasi-pilot that was last week's My Struggle, Founder's Mutation finds us in far more familiar, freak-of-the-week territory. Dr Sanjay, a scientist working for the DOD, finds himself plagued with a high pitched noise and, after an episode during a board meeting, he commits suicide by jamming a letter opener into his ear, but not before writing "Founder's Mutation" on his hand. Now Mulder and Scully are back on the X Files, they're sent to investigate. It seems like a routine suicide, but as they dig deeper, it seems they have stumbled on to a secretive mutation experiment and Mulder begins to hear a very high pitched noise.
X-Files vet James Wong is back on writing and directional duties for the episode and the old school feeling starts almost immediately alongside the narrative. The cold open with Sanjay's death is wonderfully familiar, an enigma of a scene that sets up the episode's central mystery with an eery atmosphere and some nastily graphic ear-piercing. It also acts as a settler for the current season. Mulder's ongoing 'project' theory lurks behind much of the narrative, but the focus remains on the mystery at hand and its effects on the returning FBI agents.
In getting back to episodic basics, Founder's Mutation is a huge step up in maintaining the balance between moving the season forward and capturing the factors that made the series so popular in the first place. The central mystery is not without its bumps, but it's a considerable step-up from the info dump that served as the first episode. Now that dynamics have been established, the show feels a little more settled.
Like much of classic X-Files episodes, the horror resides very much in the real world as well as in the paranormal, playing on maternal fears, paranoid conspiracies and the horrible knowledge that a child has been born with a life-limiting mutation. Of course, it's not without some classic ickiness either. Exploding eyeballs, self-Caesarian sections and letter openers as suicide methods all make an appearance and there's a kind of glee in the goriness to it that sits nicely in the narrative.
However, where the episode really flies is in its examination of the characters at the heart of The X-Files. Much of their dynamic in the first episode was based on their sudden reunion, Scully reluctantly drawn back in and Mulder recklessly jumping back into doing what he does best. Here, it's much on the toll that their work has taken on them, particularly in denying them the kind of life with their child that other people enjoy. Thwarted parenthood was a wider theme in the episode, but the scenes with Mulder and Scully talking about their own lost child was
Their respective 'what if...' moments with their son, William, are the episode's best moments, a heartbreaking glimpse into what could have been. There's no one happy family unit still, but there are two parents getting to spend time with their child. It's interesting that the flashbacks still keep them separated, their different expectations of parenthood and their respective fears of how it could end are perfect for their characters. Anderson has always been fantastic at conveying Scully's loss with a simple flicker of emotion, but it's Duchovny who tugs at the heartstrings here, a man denied growing up with his sister and fearful of losing his son in the same way.
It may be a little rocky still, but there's no denying that everyone involved in The X-Files return still understand what is needed to make the show tick and that we're all a sucker from some tragic Mulder and Scully emoting.
You can read Becky's review of previous episode, My Struggle, here.
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