The X Files Revisited: 5.18 The Pine Bluff Variant
The X Files ran for nine seasons and two movies, charting the efforts of Agents Mulder and Scully in their search for the unexplained. And then in 2016, it returned for six new episodes, a mix of mythology and case of the week stories that brought Mulder and Scully back the FBI. From the brilliant Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster to the frantic mythology cliff-hanger in My Struggle II, it was largely viewed as a success and there are hopes that season 10 is just the first of more. In the lead up to the revival, The Digital Fix reviewed the best and most significant episodes of the first 100 episodes in the season's run, from the pilot episode all the way through to the 100th episode Unusual Suspects. Now we're going to continue that run, picking key episodes from the second half of the show - and two movies – and next up is tense, shocking and very gruesome conspiracy thriller The Pine Bluff Variant...
One of the things that has surprised me on my rewatch of The X Files is that not each case relies on the supernatural. We've had chilling serial killers and conspiracy thrillers and The Pine Bluff Variant is a brilliant example of the latter; a taut, tense story centred around a government conspiracy as Mulder and Scully find themselves caught up in a power play between the CIA and the FBI.
The frantic pace is established from the opening scene. Mulder is part of a joint venture to capture a bioterrorist while Scully and Skinner watch on from the surveillance truck. After one suspect is infected with a bioweapon that burns through his skin the terrorist gets away; but that isn't the real twist. That is Mulder helping him evade capture, putting Scully on a dangerous path of paranoia as she tracks her partner through secret rendezvous and a web of lies. It's a dramatic start to the episode. The audience knows Mulder hasn't turned evil. Scully knows he hasn't turned evil. And yet all the clues point in that direction.
In fact, it isn't almost fifteen minutes into the episode that we get the truth; Mulder is worked on a secret mission for the CIA that only Skinner is privy to; it seems his anti-government comments from his very public panel appearance in Patient X have attracted the attention of a domestic terrorist group hellbent on causing as much harm as possible. In a particular shocking scene, one of the leaders of the terrorist cells infects a small town cinema; the two boys sneaking into the cinema and discovering the seats of skeletons with the bloody remnants from the flesh-eating bio weapon is one of the most gruesome moments in The X Files's history.
But the pace doesn't falter there. Mulder works his way into the inner circle and finds himself playing the part of a masked gunman in a bank robbery, where the terrorists infect a vault full of banknotes, stealing just enough to make it look like it is little more than a standard heist. Mulder being ordered to kill a wounded civilian, staring wide-eyed through his mask as the lives of everyone is put in danger makes for some tense, almost harrowing viewing, particularly when another terrorist offs the civilian when Mulder fails to carry put the order. And then in a final double cross, he finds himself caught between the rivalry of the two terrorist leaders out to kill each other. There is a real sense that he could be killed in the crossfire; this no supernatural menace just a very human threat as a result of some very dangerous people.
The final revelation - that it is all part of a CIA ploy to test out the bio weapon - is a brilliant final twist, delivered with real smarmy gusto by Sam Anderson's Leamus. He would go on to play a similarly powerful, evil and very underhanded character Holland Manners in Angel. This is the real 'bluff' in The Pine Bluff Variant (the name is taken from the 'abandoned bio weapon tests by the US government years earlier) and it is the perfect icing on a very strong episode.
The Pine Bluff Variant is a great conspiracy thriller as much as it is a great episode of The X Files. Some great twists, gruesome, shocking moments, and a great musical score from Mark Snow that plays like a constant ticking clock throughout the whole episode, it is a relentless 45 minutes and stands up on repeated viewing. Few stories kept the audience on their toes as much as this one.