Season 6, Episode 2
Director: Rob Bowman
Writer: Vince Gilligan
Bearing strong resemblance to the 1994 action flick Speed, The X-Files‘s “Drive” is notable primarily because it is the first pairing of future Breaking Bad cohorts writer Vince Gilligan and actor Bryan Cranston. Here, Cranston in his pre-Malcolm in the Middle career is able to convincingly illustrate an unlikeable character in a sympathetic manner – something that would pay in spades later in Gilligan’s Breaking Bad. As a stand-alone episode of the series, “Drive” demonstrates the best characteristics of all involved and squarely fits within my ten favorite episodes of the entire series.
The episode opens with a network affiliate covering a high-speed chase in Nevada. As local law enforcement lay down spikes to stop the vehicle, Patrick Crump (Cranston) is pulled forcibly from the vehicle, the suspect of kidnapping a woman in the back seat. The woman is revealed to be his wife, and she is suffering from some sort of dramatic head trauma. Escorted to a nearby police vehicle for safety, she begins to bang her head rapidly against the window, and her head eventually explodes from within. Mulder and Scully, on an inane assignment to investigate a large quantity of fertilizer delivered to a farmer in Utah, see the event on television and decide to get involved. Meanwhile, Crump starts displaying symptoms similar to his wife’s and is put into an ambulance which he overpowers at gunpoint and eventually takes Mulder hostage, forcing him to drive at high speeds to alleviate his pain.
During an examination of Crump’s wife’s body, Scully is sprayed with blood resulting from another rupture, which may allude to a possible contamination. As Mulder and the anti-semitic, anti-government Crump rocket west, Scully visits the Crumps’ home and discovers a nearby U.S. Navy antenna. After investigating the connection, Scully hypothesizes that a recent surge in radio waves has caused an unnatural rise in pressure in the inner ear cavities of those close by. Scully and Mulder work together to devise a plan where Scully will meet Mulder at a rendezvous point and use a syringe to try and remove fluid from Crump’s inner ear. Sadly, when Mulder reaches the location, Crump’s ear has ruptured, and he is dead. Scully and Mulder are then called in front of their new assistant director, Alvin Kersh (James Pickens, Jr. of Grey’s Anatomy), who criticizes their motives and overspending. They are unlikely to be reassigned to the X-Files.
“Drive” is an excellent example of all creative aspects of The X-Files coming together beautifully to deliver a top-notch and intelligent entertainment. Writer Vince Gilligan and director Rob Bowman work well together here, collaborating to fashion an episode that has to run on high speed while simultaneously delivering the character development and sympathy required to make it great. They succeed on both fronts. “Drive” feels appropriately hyperkinetic as the audience becomes as breathless as the characters thanks to the expertly paced and clear direction. Gilligan then fills in the action set pieces with smartly chosen dialogue that rounds out the impacted characters, namely Cranston’s Crump who is challengingly drawn as an anti-semitic yokel with whom we need to sympathize by episode’s end. That dichotomy is not easily forged, but Gilligan appears to have a knack for it.
The actors are all in top form as well with Cranston giving the kind of dominating performance that gets actors noticed. Mulder and Scully are also well used and focused in their areas of specialty – Scully in her logical (if somewhat conveniently paced) study of the case and Mulder’s emotional reaction to the events. Nothing in the episode feels out of character for the two despite being completely out of their element – a.k.a. out of the X-Files. “Drive” is a classic example of how to build a better television episode, and it’s so well executed that it makes the creative team’s job appear seamless, which it is not. In the end, the tragedy of “Drive” is impact of the faceless government entity on the common man, something The X-Files and to an extent Gilligan have explored many times. It is a theme that resonates whether the offending agent takes the form of aliens or simple accidents, the latter being the most realistic heartbreaker of them all.