Warning: Yes, Spoilers.
After a rocky start, The X-Files miniseries finds its footing in its second outing “Founder’s Mutation.” The episode is a welcome return to the series’ formula, updated to accommodate for its 13 year absence from the air.
Written and directed by X-Files vet James Wong, the episode is one the series’ classic standalone investigation stories that isn’t particularly attached to the show’s myth arc. Airing the episode a day after “My Struggle” is a bold move, but probably for the best. The premiere is so polarizing that airing a second, stronger episode as soon as possible gives viewers both a piece of quality television and a reason not to give up the show after hearing Joel McHale intone in a crazy conspiracy theory absolutely straight-faced in “My Struggle.”
While watching “My Struggle” would be beneficial to understand why Mulder and Scully keep mentioning alien DNA, the recap at the top of the episode kind of skims through the premiere in a way where that really isn’t required.
“Founder’s Mutation” feels like an old school X-Files episode and all but makes up for the flaws with “My Struggle.” It’s not perfect, but it feels more like what this should like be in 2016. The basic beats are still roughly the same, but updated to take advantage of modern technology and positives of how genre shows have evolved since The X-Files went off the air – an evolution that the show can at least partially take claim for.
The episode finds Mulder and Scully on their first X-Files case after returning to both the division and the FBI, a process that is not shown on screen. The pair are investigating the suicide of Sanjay, a morose scientist at a genetics lab who in the cold opening is shown to have experienced severe auditory and visual hallucinations.
Even after 13 years out of the bureau (give or take those years that Mulder was abducted or in prison or whatever happened during those Robert Patrick seasons that I kind of tuned out during), Mulder and Scully are still fantastic at their jobs; Mulder immediately notices that the scientist was trying to access something before he died, and in lieu of being able to look at the drive, demands to talk to Dr. Goldman, the founder of the genetics facility. While performing an autopsy, Scully finds that Sanjay dug the letter opener he killed himself into his head as if he was “looking for something” that he had scrawled a cryptic message on his hand – “founder’s mutation” – “the founder” possibly being a reference to what Dr. Goldman insists he is called at the lab.
While at a second apartment that Sanjay owned, Mulder and Scully stumble across photographs of the “kids” that Sanjay’s lover said that he had feared leaving: grotesquely deformed children that are presented in some kind of clinical setting. These children are really the only loose connection to “My Struggle” – their deformities might be from experiments from alien DNA, perhaps even the children that were stolen from mothers like Sveta. Mulder experiences his own auditory episode while Scully is explaining their presence to the police focusing on two words: “find her.”
Although the Department of Defense takes the photographs from Mulder while the pair are given a “stern” talking to by Skinner, Skinner knows Mulder too well – he obviously made copies, and he unofficially endorses their continued investigation. After all, things like this are probably exactly why he brought them back to the FBI. Mulder reveals to Scully that he heard the sounds in Sanjay’s apartment while she reveals that Sanjay heard similar things before he died. The missing piece to their puzzle is an interview with Dr. Goldman about these children and these noises Scully uses her contact at Our Lady of Sorrows Hospital. (Hey it’s Christine Willes, of the much missed Dead Like Me!) Interestingly, the pair stumble across a ward for pregnant homeless woman paid for by Doctor Goldman, where they meet Agnes, troubled young woman (played by another Bryan Fuller alum in Hannibal’s Kacey Rohl) dies a few acts later – in the middle of the road; her baby is missing.
The discussion that Mulder and Scully have about their lost son outside the hospital is stilted but heartbreaking, but it’s followed by three weird imagine-spots about Scully taking William to school and him turning into an alien. This vignette is tonally jarring, overlong and distracts from the episode’s intriguing plot. She’s already expressed concern, right before this, that her son had been spliced with alien DNA. We don’t need to see it. There’s another one, later with Mulder and William watching 2001 together that is also kind of irrelevant, especially in the denouement of the episode.
When the plot actually resumes, Mulder and Scully finally meet Dr. Goldman (Doug Savant) a stoic scientist type who claims his genetics work is intended to “save” the children with severe abnormalities that they meet, who are locked in sealed rooms to provide “therapy unavailable anywhere else.” It’s honestly a little flimsy – Scully points out they’re only physically deformed, some with established conditions others with unknown ones, and aren’t contagious and queries if they were infused with alien DNA – he doesn’t answer her question.
The Dr. Goldman character comes off as a little shallow: it’s kind of obvious that he has nefarious motivations. We really get nothing out of his character other than him being ruthless in the pursuit of his goal. I wish they gave this character at least one more dimension to him than depicting him as simply a cold, ruthless mad scientist type.
After Scully investigates Agnes’ death, Mulder posits Goldman’s experiments have something to do with a 1970s program that perhaps never stopped. Scully fears this means that Goldman is trying to change the genetic makeup the human race. He then mulls the meaning of a “founder’s mutation” – every species starts with such a mutation – a child born in one of Goldman’s failed experiments could be the successful start of a new alien-human hybrid race.
Eventually they come across Goldman’s wife Jackie, who has been institutionalized after being convicted of murdering their unborn child whose body was never found. Scully is naturally skeptical of Jackie’s story, but feels compelled to believe her story of fleeing Dr. Goldman in fear while pregnant after discovering their daughter breathing underwater – a sign that Golden had even experimented on his own children to a more successful degree than the others. Mulder and Scully subsequently believe that the piercing sound is her now-adult son trying to “communicate” and stumble onto footage of a janitor who was directly above the room where Sanjay killed himself. They deduce that this man is Goldman’s now adult-son, who like his sister has been imbued with supernatural powers.
The episode’s climax is well executed and paced. While the denouement of “My Struggle” was a blurry mess, the ending of “Founder’s Mutation” moves quickly but not enough for it to disorient. It feels like a paced thriller instead of a mess of ideas thrown into a blender.
Mulder and Scully apprehend Kyle at his adoptive mother’s home, and he admits that he wasn’t intending to kill Sanjay. Apparently he was trying to ask him for help telepathically and accidentally drove him insane. He had heard Jackie’s story while working at the institution and begs the agents to help him find his sister. Believing that Dr. Goldman is the only person who can lead them to her, they simply take Kyle to him. After being led to a false lead, he intrinsically finds her in the facility, and they proceed to telepathically murder Dr. Goldman in revenge for ruining their lives in front of a helpless Mulder and Scully in a gory, brutal scene that has some unexpected Cronenberg tones.
In the episode’s final moments, the DOD have taken over the building. Skinner informs our heroes that there is no sign of Kyle and Molly. Mulder reveals that he still has a sample of Kyle’s blood that Goldman drew, intending to test it for alien DNA, but they cut to Mulder’s vignettes with William instead. It’s a bit of a let down, but not particularly something that takes away from the quality of the episode.
Despite its flaws, “Founder’s Mutation” is a superb episode of The X-Files and one that relieves concerns that this miniseries would turn out to be a disaster. The episode is well acted, carried by great sound design on the story-integral telekinesis bits and even has some impressive cinematography. If the rest of the episodes are at least this good, we should be in for a rewarding few weeks of television. Hopefully the remaining episodes aren’t as hung up on needless flashbacks or imagine spots.